What is ‘Democratic socialism’? Bernie Sanders' political ideology explained

Once largely considered “taboo” and a “dirty word,” socialism — particularly, Democratic socialism — has seemingly started to trickle into the political mainstream in recent years, thanks, in part, to self-proclaimed Democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

An August 2018 Gallup poll found Democrats had a “more positive image” of socialism than of capitalism, with 57 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents saying they had a positive view of socialism compared to 47 percent who had a positive view of capitalism.

Sanders will join Fox News Channel for a town hall co-anchored by Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum on Monday, April 15, at 6:30 p.m. ET in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

“Views of socialism among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are particularly important in the current political environment because many observers have claimed the Democratic Party is turning in more of a socialist direction,” Gallup noted at the time.


Socialism — a term that first hatched in the early 19th century, per The Washington Post — has “meant different things to different people in different times and places, while maintaining a stable core of themes and objectives: social (as opposed to private) control of the means of production, and of all the societal, humanitarian and political-economic changes that entails, especially where the freedom and autonomy of working people are concerned,” Opinion columnist Elizabeth Bruenig wrote in August 2018.

But what exactly does it mean to be a Democratic socialist? And how have Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders and other politicians who align with the political philosophy describe its meaning to them?

Read on for a brief look Democratic socialism.

First, what is Democratic socialism?

Democratic socialism pulls from both Democracy and socialism, per the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) website. Political theorist and activist Michael Harrington helped form the DSA in 1982.

“Democratic socialists believe that both the economy and society should be run democratically — to meet public needs, not to make profits for a few,” the group states, noting to achieve a more “just society” many “structures of our government and economy must be radically transformed through greater economic and social democracy so that ordinary Americans can participate in the many decisions that affect our lives.”

Democratic socialists favor decentralization; they don’t necessarily want to create “an all-powerful government bureaucracy” but are not in favor of “big corporate bureaucracies to control our society either,” reads the website.

Those who align with the political ideology typically support pro-union politics, tuition-free public universities, universal healthcare and using tax money from the wealthy to fund social welfare programs, among other ideas, reported TIME in October 2018.

“[What they want] is not a violent overthrow of capitalism, but working within the system through legal and peaceful means [such as] electoral and social movements,” Maurice Isserman, a professor of History at Hamilton College, told the magazine at the time.

What issues are Democratic socialists focused on right now?

"Medicare for All," strong unions and electoral power are three of the DSA’s current campaigns.

What has Sanders said about being a Democratic socialist?

Sanders, a Democratic presidential candidate in 2016 and now one of the many vying for the Democratic presidential nomination for the 2020 election, explained what the political ideology means to him during a CNN town hall in February.

“These are not radical ideas,” said Sanders, 77.

“What democratic socialism means to me is having, in a civilized society, the understanding that we can make sure that all of our people live in security and in dignity,” he said. “All people should have health care. You can’t get ahead in this country, in this world, unless you have a decent education.”

"We have got to, as a right, end the kinds of discrimination — the racism, the sexism, and the homophobia — that exists. To me, when I talk about democratic socialism, what I talk about are human rights and economic rights,” he continued, before going on to list his policies — such as tuition-free public universities, raising the minimum wage and universal health care — he would enact if elected president.

What about other Democratic socialists like Ocasio-Cortez, Julia Salazar and Rashida Tlaib?

New York Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, 29, echoed Sanders when speaking to Business Insider in March.

"So when millennials talk about concepts like Democratic socialism, we're not talking about these kinds of 'Red Scare' boogeyman," she said. "We're talking about countries and systems that already exist that have already been proven to be successful in the modern world."

"We're talking about single-payer health care that has already been successful in many different models, from Finland to Canada to the UK," she added, before going on to say Democratic socialism enforces “basic levels of dignity so that no person in America is too poor to live.”

Julia Salazar, who represents New York’s 18th State Senate District, is also a self-proclaimed Democratic socialist, telling October, a beer-centric magazine, she has been a DSA member for two years and is “committed to trying to build Democratic socialism.”

On a personal level, Salazar, 28, said being a Democratic socialist “means fighting to make sure that every person is empowered to be able to determine their own destiny.”

“That all of us have access to not only basic needs, but to what we need to thrive in society. Housing is a human right, not something that should be at the mercy of the market. Health care is a human right, similarly, that shouldn’t be accessible only by income or status,” she added.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who represents Michigan’s 13th congressional district, has also spoken on the political ideology — telling In These Times in August of 2018 “it means a strong partner.”

“When I talk about equitable, just fairness, I lean on a whole group of people who understand just how much the structures in place are set up against the people, people of color, and the working class. It helps me have an organization and people to lean on. It’s important to have that kind of partnership,” Tlaib, 42, said.

Democratic socialism and American politics

Isserman told NPR in July 2018 “this is the most important moment in DSA history.”

The group has garnered an increasing amount of visibility in recent years, increasing from roughly 7,000 members to 50,00 since President Trump’s election in 2016, according to a 2018 Axios report.

The growing membership, combined with big wins for Democratic socialists are solid examples of the group’s “growing movement,” the publication added.


Are there any models of Democratic socialism in the world today?

No country to-date has fully instituted Democratic socialism, per the DSA’s website, which noted some countries — Canada, Sweden and France, among others — have pulled from the political ideology in terms of health care, childcare and beyond.

Republicans, specifically, often refer to countries where socialism has arguably gone array — such as Zimbabwe and Venezuela, among others — to discredit some of the group’s ideologies.

“Critics say the U.S. would be a poorer, less efficient society,” Michael Kazin, a professor of history at Georgetown University, also told TIME.