American Democrats: Not capitalists, not socialists

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Most Democratic politicians will tell you that they support capitalism.  Left-wing Democrats like Senator Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will tell you they are socialists and that capitalism is their target.

The reality is that most Democrats do not support capitalism and Senator Sanders and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez are not socialists, at least if we use these terms in meaningful ways.

The Democrats do not have a monopoly on misusing language, but language, as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said in a different context, has gone “on holiday” for American Democrats.

{mosads}Capitalism in its pure sense supports a free market economy and no government intervention in the private sector.  In the twentieth century capitalism in the United States (and Europe) was reformed – during the Progressive Era, the New Deal Era, and the Great Society Era. 


What emerged as a result of these periods of transformation was a political-economic system that was a mixture of capitalist and socialist elements:  this mixture has often been called the ‘mixed economy.’  A pure capitalist economy, the “laissez-faire economy,” has no conceptual room for a social safety net or regulations of private industry or rights for workers.  A mixed economy, on the other hand, does.

It is frequently said that FDR in politics and John Maynard Keynes in economics “saved capitalism.”  In a sense this is true, but the new system they, and others put in its place, was not capitalism in any very interesting sense of the term.  The term capitalism can only be stretched so far.  Why else was the term “mixed economy” created other than to point to the inadequacy of using the term capitalism to describe this hybrid system?

So when liberals and centrists in the Democratic Party say they are capitalists, what they really should be saying is that they support the mixed economy.  They support a political-economic system which values markets but which calls for major forms of redistribution and regulation.

Left-wing critics of mainstream Democratic Party platforms, and certainly all forms of Republican Party politics, which call themselves socialists, are also misusing the English language.  Although there is no one accepted definition of socialism, most theories of socialism involve serious forms of government control of industry.

Indeed, the real fork in the road between socialist models of democracy and capitalist models of democracy is that the former have a central place for the nationalization of industry and the latter do not.  Mixed economies that stand in between capitalism and socialism constrain and channel markets so that wealth, income, and power are more evenly distributed, but they do not involve the nationalization of industry.

The socialists of the Democratic Party today, although they do represent a left-wing of the party that has not been represented for decades, are social democrats along the lines of a range of European countries over the past 50 years, especially in Scandinavia — in Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Norway. 

They are not socialists even though they say that they are.

Countries which have single-payer health insurance, free college tuition, paid family leave, and robust Social Security programs sit between pure capitalism and pure socialism.  Social Democrats like mixed economy theorists are not pure versions of anything. 

The battle within the Democratic Party today in terms of the economy is a battle in between the two pure poles of capitalism and socialism.  The labels that candidates for office and their consultants use to define themselves and their opponents are misleading and confusing.

The socialist label is certainly motivating for many young voters, but it is equally repellant to many older Democrats and certainly for a large sector of Independents.  It is obviously a total non-starter for Republicans.

Incumbent Democrats who praise free markets align themselves with corporate America and fuel their campaigns, but they lose that broad swath of voters who are gravitating to the socialist Democrats and many working-class Americans who want major changes in the economic system.

There are real policy differences between liberal, centrist and socialist Democrats, but the labels make it harder for individual candidates to advance their candidacies effectively.  Now the Democratic Party does not need to seek one unified message as diversity can be used constructively; moreover, Congressional races and gubernatorial races have their own identity.  Yet the Party does not need to promote simplistic language and labels that steer people away from real policies and real issues.

It is time for liberals and centrists to stop saying they are capitalists and for left-wing Democrats to stop saying they are socialists. 

If both terms were dropped by Democrats, then they could focus more on the concrete policies they support, and the specific approaches they have constructed to change people’s attitudes and build bipartisan solutions to difficult economic, social, and political problems.

Dave Anderson is the editor of “Leveraging: A Political, Economic, and Societal Framework” (Springer, 2014). He is also the author of “Youth04: Young Voters, the Internet, and Political Power” (W.W. Norton & Company, 2004) and co-editor of “The Civic Web: Online Politics and Democratic Values” (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003). He has taught at George Washington University, the University of Cincinnati, and Johns Hopkins University. He was a candidate in the 2016 Democratic Primary in Maryland’s 8th Congressional District. Contact him at


Tags Bernie Sanders Capitalism Economic ideologies Mixed economy Social democracy Socialism

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