Recent reports suggest that Trump and his team are preparing to fight his 2020 Democratic challengers by painting them all as “socialists.” It’s a term that’s been thrown around a lot in recent years, especially with the rise of Bernie Sanders, an open democratic socialist, and more recently with the success of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who also calls herself a democratic socialist. But it seems that many of the people allying themselves with these terms or reporting on these terms don’t appreciate their actual meaning.
By definition, socialism demands all means of an nation’s production (all businesses) be owned by the state. And a true democratic socialist wants state ownership of production to occur within the framework of a democratic government. By contrast, a “social democracy” is a democracy where capitalism is highly regulated and certain key industries are owned or managed by the state–a form of government that many of the northern European countries (Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland) embrace. These countries are not democratic socialist, they are social democracies.
Confusing as these terms may be, the aforementioned definitions have been accepted for decades, yet today’s democratic socialists say that they don’t want all of the means of production to be owned by the state. Ocasio-Cortez told Chuck Todd on MSNBC that her version of democratic socialism has room for some capitalism. So they call themselves democratic socialists even though their policies seem more closely aligned with social democracy. In light of this, there was never a poorer choice of a label than “democratic socialist.” Any description of democratic socialist that allows for capitalism is a recent mutation whose parts are, by definition, incompatible.
Let’s be historically clear. The largest real-world experiment in socialism was a spectacular failure. The Soviet Union might have started as a true communist enterprise (direct collective ownership of means of production by citizens and workers) but it ended as a pure socialist system, where a large bureaucratic state ran and administered everything. It deteriorated into a stagnant morass of dysfunction and malaise. There were no incentives for workers to be productive and no incentives for anyone to invest their savings into anything speculative. The Soviet Union then became mired in corruption, slowly contracting into a humiliating financial collapse that broke the union apart and fortunately liberated most of the countries unnaturally bound to Russia.
Pure capitalism has also been a failure. History has consistently demonstrated that pure capitalism, unchecked, leads to a grotesque and unacceptable concentration of wealth and power. In the United States it lead to robber barons and poor, abused laborers. Republican President Theodore Roosevelt took some of the first steps to check and reduce the power of the robber barons. Then, in the aftermath of the Great Depression, FDR enacted the New Deal which created a social safety net and put greater restrictions on corporations, raising the top tax rate and setting the stage for three decades of post-war prosperity and lower economic inequality.
I’m a Democrat. But I’m not a socialist. And the vast majority of Democrats I know are not socialists either. They don’t believe that the state should own everything. They are mostly neo-capitalists, whether they know it or not. A neo-capitalist is not much different than a social democrat. A neo-capitalist believes that private ownership of capital and means of production is the best system in most cases, but the system must be well-regulated by a robust government elected by an informed democracy, including strong organized labor, all balanced in service of the basic needs and health of the citizens. Neo-capitalism is essentially what we had after the New Deal. But the greed of corporate America began to chip away at neo-capitalism during the Reagan years, and has done a great job since then of degrading our social safety net, destroying organized labor, creating an unfair tax code, putting greedy corporations in charge of our politicians, and massively widening the gap between the rich and everybody else. Major victories in this nefarious effort included the dissolution of the voting rights act, the lowering of upper income tax rates, the ridiculous Citizens United court decision, and most recently the Trump tax scam.
I reject trickle-down economics because history has proven that it doesn’t work. And I reject pure socialism and pure capitalism for the same reason. But leaders like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez also seem to reject pure socialism and leave room for capitalism in their vision for our future. I can’t understand why they chose and continue to cling to a label that includes the word socialism, which doesn’t serve them politically and doesn’t even seem to reflect their core view. They don’t appear to believe that the state should take over all businesses in America–a belief shared by most Americans. It’s not a stretch to say that capitalism has been at the heart of the American experiment from the very beginning, dovetailing with our values of individual liberty and self determination. But capitalism must always be constrained by our values of justice, fairness and equal opportunity, which can only be enforced by a strong government. I will continue to encourage people in any way I can to use terms that are more accurate, less polarizing, and less misleading. Social democrat seems to fit the views of many Americans but the term itself tells us little about what it means, which is why I prefer neo-capitalist. Most Democrats, like most Americans, are not socialists in any accurate sense of that word, so I will continue to encourage an end to its (mis)use.