What does Sanders mean by ‘democratic socialism’?

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What is a “democratic socialist”? Is it a politician who believes media, business and utility conglomerates should be nationalized, or is it a leader who takes the approach of sharing wealth in a manner which allows citizens to enjoy the rewards of a civilized and developed nation?

These are interesting questions that need to be answered with this historical presidential election fully underway. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSenate passes Puerto Rico debt relief bill The Trail 2016: When a pivot isn’t always a pivot Overnight Healthcare: Sanders, Clinton ally jockey for health gavel MORE (I), the U.S. senator from Vermont, has billed himself as a democratic socialist while seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. His opponents, however, have labeled him a communist and even a Soviet sympathizer, while others claim he isn’t a socialist at all.

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Professor Frances Fox Piven, the honorary chairperson of the official Democratic Socialists of America coalition, says Sanders does not quite meet the definition of the term, preferring to call him a New Deal Democrat – a reference to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ambitious set of social programs after the Great Depression and during the Second World War. Piven did admit, however, that “people mean a lot of different things by (democratic socialism).” Famed activist and linguist Noam Chomsky also has said Sanders is not a socialist of any sort, calling him “a decent, honest New Dealer.”

Splitting hairs over terminology might seem like an academic exercise with little or no value, and it largely is, but since Sanders calls himself a democratic socialist and many Americans do not fully understand what he means by that statement, it is worth investigating the term — and more importantly, figuring out what he means by it.

In 2006, Sanders himself defined what he meant by the term. He stated: “… I think it means the government has got to play a very important role in making sure that as a right of citizenship, all of our people have health care; that as a right, all of our kids, regardless of income, have quality child care, are able to go to college without going deeply into debt; that it means we do not allow large corporations and moneyed interests to destroy our environment; that we create a government in which it is not dominated by big money interest. I mean, to me, it means democracy, frankly.’’

All of that is pretty tame stuff compared to what many Americans might imagine when they hear the word socialism.

It is sometimes just as useful to define a thing by what it isn’t as by what it is. The Sanders brand of democratic socialism is not Latin American-style socialism where businesses and utilities are seized and nationalized. It is also not Chinese or Soviet-style communism where much of the economy is centrally controlled and the rights of individuals are trampled under the heavy boot of government. To see the difference between communism and social democracy, we need look no further than one of the major theorists and architects of the Russian revolution, Leon Trotsky, who was such a vehement opponent of social democrats in Western Europe that he blamed them for saving capitalism and preventing communist revolutions in places like Germany and France.

To equate democratic socialism or social democracy with revolutionary communism is therefore both definitionally and historically inaccurate. The closest models are ones Sanders regularly cites — countries such as Canada, Denmark, England, and Germany.

Whether political scholars and activists think Sanders is a democratic socialist or a social democrat or a New Deal Democrat is ultimately immaterial. What matters is that we understand his policy record and positions, since no one country he names is a perfect model for what his vision for America is, and no single definition of any of the terms that might correctly apply to him sum up the entirety of his political views.

While it is certainly incumbent upon us as citizens to educate ourselves about a candidate’s views, Sanders is going to have to explain his views and what he means by the somewhat nebulous term democratic socialism.

The term socialism is no longer as hated a word as it once was, but it still scares many Americans. According to a recent Gallup poll, only 47 percent of Americans say they would vote for a socialist (the category of democratic socialist was not used in the poll, so it is hard to say if that would have registered more support). That said, another recent Gallup poll showed that 63 percent of Americans think that the distribution of wealth is unfair, 52 percent want to see the rich pay more in taxes, 79 percent believe education is not affordable for everyone, and 71 percent believe global warming is occurring (with 52 percent certain it is a human-made problem).

In effect, these numbers show that a majority of Americans agree with much of Sanders’ version of democratic socialism. The question is: can he convince them to look past the label to his policies?

Elliott, an assistant professor of English at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa., recently published the book, “Bernie Sanders: The Essential Guide.’’

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