The Rise and Meaning of Democratic Socialism

 /  Oct. 27, 2018, 3 p.m.


Kerri Evelyn Harris and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

With the pressure of the upcoming midterm election, many Americans are asking themselves what candidates, policies, and ideologies they want to actively support and vote for moving forward. These decisions are happening with a sense of urgency and gravity that feels unique to this political moment. With this identity crisis occurring at both the individual and national levels, new or previously unpopular political perspectives appear to have come out of the woodwork, one of which is the particularly contentious notion of democratic socialism.

Various political candidates have run and even won in races at all levels of government with platforms that are openly borrowed from democratic socialism. During the 2016 election, Bernie Sanders was perhaps the most well-known political figure associated with the movement, despite his platform not fully aligning with that of the official Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

In large part due to the popularity of the Sanders platform, the recent congressional primaries brought more democratic socialists into the public eye, the most notable example being Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. A twenty-eight-year-old Bronx native and, unlike Sanders, an official member of DSA, Ocasio-Cortez defeated establishment Democrat Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th District primary in June, on a platform that was unapologetically democratic socialist.

But what does that mean, exactly? In theory, democratic socialists believe that capitalism is bound to fail, as its fundamentally unstable nature cannot be altered through reforms. Hence, as Jeff Stein wrote in his 2017 Vox article, “DSA believes in the abolition of capitalism in favor of an economy run either by ‘the workers or the state,” by ending social hierarchies and private ownership of various industries. In a practical sense, these beliefs translate into support for policies such as single-payer healthcare, tuition-free college for all, banning private prisons, and abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), as well as for movements like Black Lives Matter and environmentalism. Democratic socialist candidates are often the subject of media attention and inquiry, likely due to the radicalness of their platforms.

Ocasio-Cortez’s victory raised questions and concerns from Republicans and Democrats alike about its significance, or perhaps lack thereof. In his article for The New York Times, Bret Stephens argues against those viewing Ocasio-Cortez’s victory as a symbol for the growing influence of democratic socialism, stating, “Not every political contest is a battle of ideas. Sometimes it’s just a matter of showing up.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) herself stated that a win in one district “is not to be viewed as something that stands for everything else.”

Hence, despite its recent abundance of media exposure, democratic socialism is still an ideology that inspires repudiation from all sides of the political spectrum in the United States. A common concern, especially on the part of Republicans and fiscal conservatives, is the struggles the movement has faced in the past, particularly in other countries. Some conservatives argue that it is conducive to corruption and tyranny, a prominent example being Hugo Chávez, the democratic socialist president of Venezuela from 1999 to 2013 largely credited with the country’s downfall.

Others believe that the movement’s reluctance to compromise on certain issues and hence to form coalitions with non-socialist groups or parties can prove to be detrimental. In his article, Stephens writes that “a chief danger to democracy is a politics in which the center bends toward the fringe instead of the fringe bending toward the center.” He cites Trump as proof of this phenomenon, but another example can be the Italian Socialist Party, whose leadership expelled parliamentarians who voted to support non-socialist forces in fighting fascism in 1922, likely facilitating the rise of Mussolini later that same year.

A very common concern that Democrats have regarding democratic socialism is the possibility of repelling centrist voters. When asked about the potential of the movement, Sen. Tammy Duckworth opined that adopting such an agenda could only be beneficial in deeply blue areas, adding, “I don’t think that you can go too far to the left and still win the Midwest.” Although her comment neglected the region’s rich history of left-wing populism, her apprehension towards campaigning on a far-left platform in every district is both well-founded and shared by many establishment Democrats. Indeed, the most successful Democratic candidates in red congressional districts have been moderate centrists.

Despite the popularity and historical backing of the doubts surrounding democratic socialism, however, the Democratic Party actually has a long history of adopting socialist ideas and policies. After the first Red Scare of 1919 and 1920, socialism was associated with Russian Bolshevism and anarchy, and depicted as fundamentally at odds with democracy. Some years later, the passage of the New Deal introduced and solidified a new vision of government, as a body responsible for providing some level of social welfare to the public. From there, the Democratic Party began its still-standing tradition of borrowing from socialism, while dismissing Republican accusations of integrating the movement into the mainstream.

However, this dynamic between the Democratic Party and the democratic socialist movement has been challenged recently. Many believe that Sanders, by running in the presidential primary as a self-proclaimed democratic socialist and gaining substantial support among Democrats, may have pulled the party and parts of the electorate towards becoming more accepting of far-left candidates and policies. The simple fact that Ocasio-Cortez won against an establishment moderate Democrat can be taken as a representation of the rising popularity of the movement she supports.

Hence, even though the Democratic Party on the whole may seem reluctant to support far-left candidates and look to democratic socialism for solutions, there is evidence that voters are more open to alternatives. A 2016 Harvard University study found that 51 percent of Americans aged eighteen to twenty-nine no longer support capitalism, while 61 percent of Democrats between eighteen and thirty-four view socialism positively.

Moderates of all ages are also more likely to support more left-leaning candidates than one might assume, with the hope of either revitalizing the Democratic party or, in the case of centrist Republicans, moving away from what the current administration believes in. Strenuous economic conditions, like stagnant wages, as well as pressing social justice issues and other policy dilemmas, have also pushed individuals towards voting for candidates that present new, sometimes radical solutions rather than voting for those who believe in and uphold the status quo.

Despite the debate that surrounds it, several lessons can be learned from the recent rise of democratic socialism. A grassroots movement at its core, democratic socialism has thrived by connecting with individuals in often forgotten communities, mobilizing volunteers on the ground, and fostering a sense of community among its members. Much of the campaigns the DSA has organized, like Stump Out Slumlords, invest their resources, time, and effort mainly into the grit of political organizing. Volunteers act as providers of tools and information, an approach that has enabled them to avoid the tensions of race and class differences that the Democratic party has often struggled with.

Regardless of what one thinks about democratic socialism, it is clear that the movement has gained significant traction these past few years, while the Democratic Party has struggled to market itself and connect to voters, as demonstrated by the results of the 2016 election. With midterm elections approaching and the popularity and appeal of democratic socialist candidates continuing to rise, the Democratic Party should remember: “If you can’t beat them, join them,” or at least learn why you can’t beat them.

The image featured in this article is used under the Creative Commons 2.0 License. The original was taken by Corey Torpie and can be found here.


Mariana Paez

Mariana Paez is a second-year Economics and Political Science double-major, interested in journalism, economic reform, social issues, and international development. This past summer, she worked at Voto Latino, a D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for voter education and registration, immigrant rights, and social justice. In her free time, she enjoys exploring the city with friends, seeing movies at Doc Films, and going to cafes.


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