Here's the difference between a 'socialist' and a 'democratic socialist'

Brian Snyder/ReutersSen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in Dover, New Hampshire, on September 1, 2019.
  • Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-declared democratic socialist, is a leading contender for the 2020 Democratic nomination.
  • Sanders’ has been decried as a radical and unelectable over his policy proposals as well as his association with socialism.
  • “Socialist” remains a dirty, and often misunderstood, term in the realm of US politics. Nearly 21% of Americans consider socialism to be a threat to the US, an Insider poll found last summer.
  • In general, socialists believe the government should provide a range of basic services to the public, such as health care and education, for free or at a significant discount.
  • Democratic socialism is related, but what politicians like Sanders are pushing for is not akin to the authoritarian-style socialism in places like Venezuela.

Sen. Bernie Sanders is rapidly creeping into frontrunner territory among 2020 Democrats, and this has raised alarm bells among the establishment wing of the Democratic party.

Sanders, who represents Vermont as an independent in the US Senate, is a self-declared democratic socialist. Some Democrats think this label makes Sanders a liability. This includes former Vice President Joe Biden, who is also running for the 2020 Democratic nomination.

“Well, you know, you know that – with regard to Sen. Sanders, the president wants very much to stick a label on every candidate,”Biden said during a presidential debate in New Hampshire this month. “We’re going to not only have to win this time, we have to bring along the US Senate. And Bernie’s labelled himself, not me, a democratic socialist. I think that’s the label that the president’s going to lay on everyone running with Bernie, if he’s a nominee.”

As part of his 2020 campaign strategy, Trump has repeatedly depicted Democrats as dangerous socialists. This is largely due to politicians like Sanders and Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who have inspired major shifts in the party in recent years.

After Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning upset against then-Rep. Joe Crowley in the New York Democratic congressional primary in June 2018, the word “socialist” was repeatedly used to describe her. Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest woman elected to Congress in US history in the 2018 midterms.

The Bronx native was sworn into Congress in January 2019 and has become a bit of an obsession for conservatives, including Trump. She’s a registered member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and, like Sanders, is a self-described socialist.


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“Socialist” remains a dirty, and often misunderstood, term in the realm of US politics. The Cold War, in which animosity and paranoia toward the Soviet Union was pervasive in the US, is largely to thank for that. Nearly 21% of Americans consider socialism to be a threat to the US, according to Insider polling from last summer.

During his 2020 State of the Union address, President Donald Trump tapped into these sentiments.

“Socialism destroys nations. But always remember: Freedom unifies the soul,” Trump said, as he accused Democrats of pushing a “socialist takeover of our health care system.”

But what does it mean to be a socialist versus a democratic socialist, and is there even a difference?

What is socialism? It depends on who you’re talking to.

A socialist, in the traditional sense, is an adherent of socialism.

Socialism can be defined as “a system of social organisation in which private property and the distribution of income are subject to social control.”

In other words, it’s a state-controlled economy in which the state controls the means of production (factories, offices, resources, and firms). There are also forms of socialism in which the means of production are controlled and owned by workers.

From an academic standpoint, there’s an ongoing debate about what socialism really is.

“The academic debates about socialism’s ‘meaning’ are huge and arcane and rife with disagreements, but what all definitions have in common is either the elimination of the market or its strict containment,” Frances Fox Piven, a political scientist at the City University of New York and a former DSA board member, told Vox.

What do socialists believe in?

In general, socialists believe the government should provide a range of basic services to the public, such as health care and education, for free or at a significant discount.

In the present day, “Democratic socialist” and “socialist” are often treated as interchangeable terms, which can be confusing given democratic socialists don’t necessarily think the government should immediately take control of all aspects of the economy.

They do, however, generally believe the government should help provide for people’s most basic needs and help all people have an equal chance at achieving success.

Sanders’ 2020 platform, for example, calls for Medicare for All (universal health care) and tuition-free college.

Democratic socialists are committed to democracy

Democratic socialists also believe strongly in democracy and democratic principles. They are by no means proponents of authoritarian government systems many Americans associate socialism with.

As the DSA’s website states: “At the root of our socialism is a profound commitment to democracy, as means and end. As we are unlikely to see an immediate end to capitalism tomorrow, DSA fights for reforms today that will weaken the power of corporations and increase the power of working people.”

To put it another way, they don’t feel socialism should be forced on people, but they are fundamentally anti-capitalist and believe the government should urge privately owned businesses toward granting workers as much control as possible.


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The DSA and democratic socialists like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez place a great deal of emphasis on social justice in conjunction with pushing for an economy that’s largely controlled by workers.

The DSA supports reforms that would decrease the influence of money in politics, empower ordinary people in workplaces and the economy, and restructure gender and cultural relationships to be more equitable, according to its website.

To put this into context, Sander’s platform calls for an end to the war on drugs, the abolishment of private or for-profit prisons, and for granting voting rights to people with felony records as well as people who are currently incarcerated.

Sanders: ‘I believe in a vigorous democracy’

Sanders has conceded he needs to do a better job explaining what he means by “socialism” and “democratic socialism” as his “right-wing colleagues” seek to portray his political philosophy as “authoritarianism and communism and Venezuela.” The Vermont senator has expanded on what democratic socialism means to him multiple times along the campaign trail.

During a CNN town hall in February 2019, roughly a week after he launched his 2020 campaign, Sanders said: “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,” Sanders said. “To me, when I talk about democratic socialism, what I talk about are human rights and economic rights.”

In the past, Sanders’ critics have often accused him of being too soft on socialist leaders in Latin America, and for going on a trip to Soviet Russia shortly after his wedding.

Sanders in April 2019 rejected the notion he condones “authoritarian communism” when asked to explain his views on democratic socialism during a CNN town hall event.

“Is it your assumption that I supported or believe in authoritarian communism that existed in the Soviet Union?”Sanders said to an attendee who asked about his views. “I don’t. I never have, and I opposed it. I believe in a vigorous democracy.”

“I believe that in a democratic, civilized society, health care is a human right. Government should make that happen,” Sanders said.

“What democratic socialism means to me is we expand Medicare, we provide educational opportunity to all Americans, we rebuild our crumbling infrastructure,” Sanders added. “In other words, government serves the needs of all people rather than just wealthy campaign contributors. That’s what it means to me.”

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