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Democratic Socialism: Breaking It Down and What It Means for Millennials


Photo Credit: Phil Roeder, via Flickr Creative Commons

Millennials — 18 to 29 year olds — the so-called “gloom-and-doom generation” according to John Wagner — inheritors of a shallow recession era, ultra-neoliberal world — love them some Bernie Sanders. And it’s no secret why.


Sure, they’ll name drop a checklist of other reasons having to do with passion, idealism, consistency, authenticity, vision, or just sheer aversion to Hillary Clinton.

But, let’s be real. All of these are but so many stand-ins for one word — socialism. Or, what they believe to be socialism.

Millennials take the lead on embracing the possibility of building an alternative social and economic system, to replace capitalist production.

And changing attitudes toward socialism among this particular group helps explain the appeal of Sen. Sanders. Less appealing has been the attempt to break down what precisely Sanders and his young acolytes mean by socialism, or how they understand it.

Millennial age voters expect to gain from a “socialist” administration. They expect to benefit from his policies in ways that will not only qualitatively improve their lives, but the life of this country as well.

Given the philosophical rigidity of the two-party system, and while it’s undoubtedly true that POTUS Sanders would be a gazillion times better for their lives than any other candidate, when asked about socialism, voters within this generation bloc still harbor questions about just what is means to identify as socialist.

Or democratic socialist.

Or … whatever.

If you just so happen to be one of those stuck in the confused camp, no worries. I got you.

Democratic Socialism is not socialism.

That Sanders, in public statements, seems to seamlessly interchange “democratic socialist” and “socialist”, does not help matters. At all.

Many in mass media, too, have been complicit on this score, doubling down on confusion.

So, lets be clear. Democratic socialism is NOT socialism.

Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Danish prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen.

I give credit where credit is due. So, shout out to the Sanders campaign for providing a national space to engage with folks on a subject which for far too long, was considered taboo: ending capitalism and building an alternative economic structure.

But that structure ain’t democratic socialism. Later, when we hash out one major assumption orbiting the term socialism, you’ll see why.

What is Democratic Socialism?

Sanders peers at the social conditions of Nordic countries — Denmark, Finland, Norway, Iceland, Sweden — to flesh out his socialism.

Pressed since announcing his candidacy to empiricize democratic socialism, as a political platform distinct from two main American parties, a typical Sanders reply goes something like:

“When you look around the world, you see every other major country providing health care to all people as a right, except the United States … You see every other major country saying to moms that, when you have a baby, we’re not gonna separate you from your newborn baby, because we are going to have — we are gonna have medical and family paid leave, like every other country on Earth.

“Those are some of the principles that I believe in, and I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.”


… the government has got to play a very important role in making sure that as a right of citizenship all of our people have healthcare; that as a right, all of our kids, regardless of income, have quality childcare, are able to go to college without going deeply into debt; that it means we do not allow large corporations and moneyed interests to destroy our environment; that we create a government in which it is not dominated by big money interest. I mean, to me, it means democracy, frankly. That’s all it means”

Denmark and Sweden. Government versus moneyed interests. What does all this mean? Lets dig.

What social framework do we find in these countries? Public policies based on something called social democratic principles. What are the key features of these principles? Free markets, mass unionization, collective bargaining, and a wide social safety net to boot.

Moreover, historically speaking, social democracy (“democratic socialism”) is not a social phenomenon peculiar to the Nordic countries. There’s a precedent for it right here in the U. S. of A. We know it as The New Deal.

Another descriptor for The New Deal is welfare state. Another term for welfare state — regulated capitalism.

(It should also be noted that the Nordic model of government, or Nordic democracy, is also referred to, interchangeably, as Nordic capitalism)

Democratic socialism, or, as one writer put it, Sanderism, is welfare state capitalism. Private enterprise — capitalist employer on one side, worker on the other — within the umbrella of an activist government.

Sooooo, what do we mean by socialism?

Good question. Given the above conclusion, one thing is for certain. It sure as hell ain’t just government intervention, as writers at The Hill are wont to obsess over.

If you come across Eddie Zipperera misinformed, fear-mongerer, peddling the illusion that there are “socialist countries in Europe” because social democracy, laugh. Or John Feehery, who preempts his big government takeover thesis with a rather dry description of Sanders as “socialism with a smile.” Laugh harder, before dragging your mouse cursor to top right, to X out.

The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold’s warning about expanding government control and “federal bureaucracy” is of the same theoretical species.

Conveniently absent, of course, from their discussion is any mention of “corporate bureaucracies.” But never mind analytical holes that expose neoliberal apologists.

Here’s the crux of it: neither government intervention by itself — nationalization of industries — or federal bureaucracy, are socialism. The reason is simple.

A welfare state — admittedly preferable over the neoliberal politics, austerity, and pure capitalism we’re ensnared in — does nothing to address the social dynamic taking place within the workplace itself. Welfare state capitalism does not fundamentally alter or overturn that crucial relationship between capital and labor at a 9-5.

Then, Bernie Sanders is NOT a socialist?

Nope. Some mainstream media writers almost get it right.

Like … Jordan Weissman (The Slate), who quipped “Bernie Sanders isn’t much of a socialist.” In the body of the article, she writes:

Yes, the man is certainly on the left edge of mainstream American politics. He would like to raise taxes significantly on the wealthy, to spend more on infrastructure, to break up large Wall Street banks. He’d like to make public colleges tuition-free, but he isn’t pushing to eliminate private universities. Fundamentally, the man isn’t really running on an anti-capitalist platform of nationalizing private industry. The one exception, you could argue, would be his stance in favor of single-payer health care—that would amount to a government takeover of health insurance. But that would also basically bring the U.S. in league with decidedly capitalist nations such as Canada and Great Britain.”

Weissman, like Fahrenthold, still operates within the limited conception of socialism as “nationalizing private industries.” But, at least he recognizes that Sanderism is America playing catch-up, that social democratic countries are not hostile toward capitalism. Unlike our good folks at The Hill, she doesn’t relent to the temptation to cast democratic socialism as socialism proper.  

Nor does Thor Benson (The New Republic) who, in an article back in April, implored his readers to “stop calling Bernie Sanders a socialist.” Though I would contest the analysis of an article Benson hyperlinked, by a Mr. Liu titled “Social Democracy vs. Democratic Socialism” which pivots around a quirky claim called “mixed economy.” But, anyway.

By far, the best is Josh Barro, over at The Times, whose clunky titled (well, actually, he took his title from a quote by sociologist Lane Kentworthy. But, you get it.), “Bernie Sanders, Democratic Socialist Capitalist”, is about as on the nose as you can get, and cleverly captures the essence of the falsity behind the belief that democratic socialism is anti-capitalism.

Having said all that, let me note that no. 3 in Sander’s 12 point program, a passing mention of the need for worker cooperatives, or co-ops, leaves open the small possibility that, if pushed, Sanders would or could willingly fight for policies and initiatives that take us beyond the structural limitations of democratic socialism. That is, if he manages to overcome that shitshow called Congress, who, in all probability, will fight him tooth-and-nail on everything.

I’m guessing that’s what this whole grassroots political revolution thing is all about.

But, millennials will benefit, right?

Oh, hell yeah! No doubt.

I mean, free college-tuition, a hefty youth jobs program, single-payer health insurance, targeted racial justice policies (thanks to Black Lives Matter). All of it paid for by raising taxes on “millionaires and billionaires.”

And, feminist millennials? (Yes, men too) Sanderism got promises for y’all too. Well, at least until the actual processes of governance begins.

Stuff like pay equity, $15 minimum wage, protection of reproductive rights, affordable quality childcare, 12 weeks paid family leave, to name a few. (See more here)

The flip-side to all this goodness is that, if by some miracle they’re all achieved in the shitshow mentioned above (again, we know Congressional gridlock is coming), it incentivizes those “millionaires and billionaires” to go to work systematically undoing every single one of those social reforms.

Not throwing shade. Just giving y’all a heads up.

Just, be aware. What we’re getting is a new New Deal, not socialism.


Antwan is an educator, cultural critic, actor, and writer for Wear Your Voice Mag (WYV), where he focuses on the dynamics of class, race, gender, politics, and pop culture. Prior to joining the team at WYV, he was an adjunct professor in the African American Studies Department at Valdosta State University in southern Georgia, where he taught African American Literature. He has traveled the U.S. and U.K. showcasing a fifty-five minute, one-person play titled Whitewash, which focuses on the state of black men in the post-civil rights era. Antwan received his B.A. in English and Literature from California State University, Dominguez Hills, and M.A. in African American Studies from University of California, Los Angeles. He is a Ronald E. McNair Scholar and NAACP theater nominee.

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