What You Need to Know About Democratic Socialism

What It Is, and How It Differs from What We've Got

Bernie Sanders, contender for the Democratic nomination, is running on a platform of democratic socialism.
Senator Bernie Sanders speaks to a crowd on August 24, 2015. Michael Vadon

Democratic socialism beaome a political buzz phrase in the 2016 presidential race. Senator Bernie Sanders, a contender for the Democratic nomination, uses this phrase to describe his political ideals, vision, and his proposed policies. But what does it actually mean?

Simply put, democratic socialism is the combination of a democratic political system with a socialist economic system. It is premised on the belief that both politics and economics should be democratically managed because this is the best way to ensure that both are serving the needs of the population.

How The Current System Works

In theory, the U.S. already has a democratic political system, but many social scientists point out that ours is corrupted by moneyed interests, which gives certain people and entities (like large corporations) much more power to determine political outcomes than has the average citizen. This means that the U.S. is not truly a democracy, and democratic socialists argue--as do many scholars--that democracy cannot actually exist when it is paired with a capitalist economy, due to the unequal distribution of wealth, resources, and power that capitalism is premised on, and that it reproduces. (See this series of illuminating charts on social stratification in the U.S. for the big picture of inequality fostered by capitalism.)

In contrast with a capitalist economy, a socialist economy is designed to meet the needs of the public, and it does this by managing production with cooperation and shared ownership. Democratic socialists do not believe that the government should be an overarching entity that manages all production and services in a dictatorial fashion, but rather that the people should manage them collectively in localized, de-centralized ways.

Democratic Socialists in America

As Democratic Socialists of America puts it on their website, "Social ownership could take many forms, such as worker-owned cooperatives or publicly owned enterprises managed by workers and consumer representatives. Democratic socialists favor as much decentralization as possible. While the large concentrations of capital in industries such as energy and steel may necessitate some form of state ownership, many consumer-goods industries might be best run as cooperatives."

When resources and production are shared and democratically controlled, hoarding of resources and wealth, which lead to an unjust hoarding of power, cannot exist. By this view, a socialist economy in which decisions about resources are democratically made is a necessary component of a political democracy.

In the bigger view, by fostering equality within politics and the economy, democratic socialism is designed to foster equality in general. While capitalism pits people against each other in competition in a labor market (an increasingly limited one, given the development of neoliberal global capitalism over the last few decades), a socialist economy gives people equal footing and opportunities. This decreases competition and animosity and fosters solidarity.

And as it turns out, democratic socialism is not a new idea in the United States. As Senator Sanders pointed out in a speech on November 19, 2015, his commitment to democratic socialism, his work as a legislator, and his campaign platform are contemporary expressions of historical examples, like the New Deal of President F.D. Roosevelt, the principles of President Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society," and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s vision of a just and equal society.

But really, what Senator Sanders is pitching with his campaign is a form of social democracy--a regulated capitalist economy paired with a robust system of social programs and services--which would begin the process of reforming the U.S. into a democratic socialist state.