Is There a Problem With Democratic Socialism?

I was listening to a podcast the other day about a divide in the Democratic Party. I’m sick of rehashing over and over a divide that’s more stylistic than substantial, but the hosts brought up an interesting point (not a new point, but an interesting one).

The divide in the Democratic Party has a lot to do with the actual word “socialism.” Many progressive Democrats only reluctantly accept the party label, even as they embrace enthusiastically the notion of “democratic socialism.” Age is the one particular line that tends to predict the wing of the party into which its members fall. Younger liberals are increasingly more comfortable with the word “socialism.” Older liberals who remember the Cold War are much less so. Younger liberals differentiate the modern mixed economies of Canada and the Nordic countries from the rigid authoritarianism of East Germany and the USSR. They differentiate the democratic radicalism of Ta-Nehisi Coates or the Bernie Sanders left from the fanaticism of the long nineteenth century and post-colonial revolutions. They should, as should everyone.

But many critics are unwilling to differentiate “democratic socialism” from a version that is explicitly undemocratic. The radical Marxist-Leninists of the twentieth century advocated transparently for a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Their socialism was intentionally authoritarian, their revolution impossible without violence. The progressive left advocates a socialism unrecognizable to those ideologues. That’s a good thing, but we often refuse to acknowledge that difference. Of course, some of it is probably conditioning from years of Cold War news broadcasts.

I wonder if there might be something else to it.

Perhaps the problem is not with the “socialism” but rather the “democracy.” Those comfortable in the hierarchy have a hard time imagining that there need not be one. The only alternative to the status quo that they can imagine is a reversal. Perhaps deep in our collective American consciousness, we fear that our democracy is inadequate to the challenge of centralization or higher taxes. If so, we might well be right.

The Soviet Union was fifty years old when we finally ended a violent system of racial hierarchy. Its effects linger into the present. The latitude we offer police who search, seize, beat, and detain is shocking in a country that fancies itself a beacon of freedom. We shrug off gross gerrymandering and voter suppression and often walk rule of law right up to the brink with our eyes closed.

Democratic Socialists would do well to remember our history of selective democracy, mob rule, racial caste, and police violence and remember those who bear its brunt. Every step toward universal health care or a stronger social safety net should come with a parallel step toward free and open voting, transparency, police and prison reform, and anti-discrimination.

Critics think that the problem with “democratic socialism” is the socialism. But numerous democracies remain stable even as their economies are far more centralized than American progressives propose. Those countries are racially and ethnically homogenous. The Nordic states are homogenous and egalitarian with high taxes and centralized economies. The liberal states of Western Europe are diverse but with somewhat lower taxes and less centralization. Division and violence flare where immigration collides with generous social safety nets, with ample help from populist demagogues. The United States has a long history of state-imposed racial caste, extraordinary wealth inequality. Advocating higher taxes, let alone a centralized economy is political suicide. The depth of racial and ethnic divisions collides invariably with the willingness of a country to build a strong safety net.

The problem is not with socialism, but with the strength of our democracy. Right-wing opponents of progressive reforms argue in bad faith, but centrists don't. It’s worth asking them why they feel that mild democratic socialism is impossible here. Their answer will either be political or based on a blinkered view of the question. Reforms have to be possible (they’re a reality in a dozen wealthy European countries). They’re possible here as well, or the problem is not the policies but the “here.” If America wants to move toward economic justice, we need to focus on the democracy part of the equation. We can’t make politically difficult reforms until we confront the fragility of our democracy and the deep social divisions at its root. We have to confront the tendency for an increase in state authority to deepen those divisions or progress will give way to reaction.

Centrist critics of idealistic progressives, for their part, should consider whether a compassionate democratic form of socialism is really impossible, or whether they’re hedging their bets in a country that has a dubious record of democracy itself. Perhaps, in the company they keep, capitalism in its warped and twisted form is more important than democracy.