This article is one of a series of summaries of progressive federal policy ideas written by Think policy fellows. Think does not have a position on any of the proposals mentioned in this summary as we are focused on state-level policy, rather we offer these descriptions as helpful tools for candidates and elected officials who may be interested or face questions on these topics. 

What is Democratic Socialism?

There is a great deal of ambiguity regarding the term “democratic socialism.”  In the context of the 2020 presidential campaign, democratic socialism focuses on establishing large New Deal-style federal social welfare programs that would redistribute wealth and reduce income inequality.  Examples of such programs include Medicaid for All, universal free college tuition, and the job and housing guarantees in the Green New Deal.  These and similar social welfare programs would be paid for largely by increasing taxes on big corporations and the wealthy. 

Democratic socialists support a more expansive“welfare state” along with policies that would reduce large class and income disparities, but all within a generally capitalist and democratic society. Their desired changes would necessitate a bigger, more expensive federal government and a greater role for the federal government in assuring the desired social outcomes are met; however, they claim not to support massive centralized planning and control by the federal government. They want these changes to be achieved within our nation’s democratic process, through peaceful social movements and electoral participation.  (Hence use of the term “Democratic.”) 

Democratic socialists also support redistribution of political power away from the wealthy and big corporations toward workers, consumers, and historically under-represented social, demographic, and economic classes. They seek to use government regulations, tax law, and organized labor (unions) to make private businesses more accountable to the public interest.

During the 2020 election cycle, the public rhetoric of most candidates who regard themselves as democratic socialists seems to have focused much more on the creation of the aforementioned social welfare programs than on broader social and political goals articulated on the democratic socialists of America (DSA) website, which is the official website of the DSA’s political committee. The following is an excerpt from the DSA website:

Democratic socialists do not want to create an all-powerful government bureaucracy. But we do not want big corporate bureaucracies to control our society either. Rather, we believe that social and economic decisions should be made by those whom they most affect. 

Today, corporate executives who answer only to themselves and a few wealthy stockholders make basic economic decisions affecting millions of people. Resources are used to make money for capitalists rather than to meet human needs. We believe that the workers and consumers who are affected by economic institutions should own and control them.

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.

Democratic socialists have long rejected the belief that the whole economy should be centrally planned. While we believe that democratic planning can shape major social investments like mass transit, housing, and energy, market mechanisms are needed to determine the demand for many consumer goods.

Prominent democratic socialists include: Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rep. Rashida Harbi Tlaib. You can learn more about the democratic socialists of America from their website. 

Now, I Understand Democratic Socialism, but How Does it Compare to Plain ol’ Socialism?

The term “socialism” may be even vaguer than the term “democratic socialism” because it is applied to an array of systems with many variations.

“Socialism” has generally been used to describe any political or economic system in which the community, rather than individuals, own and manage both property and natural resources. In a socialist system, businesses are publicly owned through government or, in an idealized socialistic system, collectively owned by worker cooperatives rather than by private shareholders, entrepreneurs, and investors. Therefore, the term generally refers to a system in which workers and government authorities have more control over the means of production and distribution of goods and services than is the case in more capitalistic societies in which free markets and the profit motive drive business decisions. Indeed, the above excerpt from the DSA website says: “We believe that the workers and consumers who are affected by economic institutions should own and control them.” Many Americans believe anything socialist is inherently anti-capitalist, and the reality is that there is significant justification for this perspective historically and theoretically.[1] 

Historically, socialism has been closely associated with autocratic, highly centralized, non-democratic political systems, such as the former Soviet Union and communist China. Of course, democratic socialists are not calling for less democracy or the adoption of a tyrannical political system.  In fact, they laud the fall of authoritarian states and the transformation of the former Soviet bloc. Instead, they seek to achieve their objectives within the context of a basically capitalistic system and through a democratic process. Calling for something more along the lines of a democratically-grounded “mixed economic system” that is generally regarded to exist in some European and Scandanavian countries. Nonetheless, to many Americans, especially older generations, the term socialism suggests the former rather than the latter.

It’s also worth noting that in a pure socialist economy the government owns and controls the means of production. Personal property is only allowed only in the form of consumer goods. This aspect of socialism is of great concern in a nation founded on the notions of freedom and personal property.

What’s the Difference Between Communism and Socialism?

Communism can be thought of as a subset, or branch, of socialism. Like other forms of socialism, communism focuses on collective rather than private ownership of the means of production and distribution. But, communist nations are more totalitarian / less democratic than other socialist nations — generally not allowing competing political parties and suppressing most political dissent. So the chief differentiator today between Communist and other Socialist countries is in their respective political systems rather than their economic systems. However, historically, communism has also been viewed economically as kind of a hardcore version of socialism; that is, it has been viewed as an economic system that makes fewer concessions to capitalism and free markets than other socialist systems do. 

What do Capitalists Say About Democratic Socialism?

While traditional socialism and democratic socialism have important distinctions -- most notably in regard to the political process -- they do share some important values and objectives. Additionally, most people in the United States are not, and never will be, familiar with the distinctions between socialism and democratic socialism. They likely have greater familiarity with, and long-standing attitudes about, socialism, and those attitudes will inevitably color how they think about democratic socialism. These attitudes may include the following:

Socialism and democratic socialism are inherently communism and will destroy both the economy and democracy.

  • Socialism and democratic socialism give more power to the government, which socialist dictators have used to take away civil and political freedoms, leading to economic stagnation and starvation.[2]

Socialism and democratic socialism will take away your property and raise taxes. 

  • Socialism and democratic socialism will force people to give up their personal property in exchange for ‘free’ healthcare and education (Heritage Foundation). It’s important to note that democratic socialism does not inherently take away property. Though, it does rely on high tax rates to fund the generous welfare programs in European models of (democratic) socialism.

Socialism and democratic socialism are too expensive.

  • Critics of a government-funded health care plan that would cover every citizen at low or no cost, free college tuition, and other major federal initiatives say such massive programs would be too expensive. It should be noted that many centrist candidates have sought to soften their opposition to democratic socialism by saying that the objectives of the democratic socialists are good but that we can’t afford to take such costly endeavors on all in one step; instead, a more incremental approach is needed. However, it is important to recognize that the objectives of democratic socialists include far more than merely their support for big New Deal-style federal social welfare programs. These programs have been the aspect of democratic socialism emphasized in this election cycle. But, as noted earlier, also included among the objectives of the DSA are, for example, fundamental changes in who owns and controls the means of production.

 Socialism and democratic socialism stifle innovation.

  • The theory goes: Socialism does not incentivize individuals to produce, so innovation and efficiency are reduced. Capitalists argue that the lack of monetary rewards in socialism demotivates the worker, leading to a lethargic economy.

Socialism and democratic socialism are anti-American.

  • Critics of socialism argue that America was founded on those willing to take risks and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Hard work, industriousness, and enterprise built the American dream -- and socialism wants to destroy those aspects of the American spirit, replacing it with a hand-out state that doesn’t value what makes America great.

Public Opinion

At the same time, positive attitudes toward socialism have increased over the past 70 years. In 1949, only 15% of Americans wanted to see “the country … go more in the direction of socialism;” in 2019, 43% of Americans said socialism would be a “good thing” for the country. Support for socialism splits heavily down party lines, with Democrats slightly favoring socialism over capitalism and Republicans decisively favoring capitalism.

However, the same Gallup poll shows that more American adults view capitalism more positively than socialism (56% compared to 37%). When asked if they’d vote for a socialist, most said no. This is largely driven by Republican animosity. A recent Pew poll revealed that 84% of Republicans have a negative view of socialism. Those above age 50, and especially those over 65,strongly prefer capitalism. 

[1] There are also certainly many examples of mixed systems including arguably the United States. Other examples include France due in part to its national childcare system and Canada due to its single-payer healthcare system. Fundamentally, what democratic socialists want is for the United States to be more of a mixed system than it currently is. 

[2] This line of thought is supported by right-leaning think tanks like The Hoover Institute, Heritage, and Cato.