It seems that in the past few years people are increasingly comfortable calling themselves socialists. But the truth is, despite younger people being more progressive than older generations, there aren’t that many people advocating for a socialist society. While our generation is pretty critical of the system we live in now, people who call themselves socialists often advocate for social democratic policies, like those in Scandinavian countries. Why do we use terms like democratic socialism to describe policies that work within a framework of capitalism? Probably because it’s a mistake that politicians make too.
It isn’t surprising how popular Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are among college students. They appeal to people who see deep, systemic problems in our society and think that it necessitates some sort of radical action. This characterizes the political views of many college students pretty well. But I think we need to be careful not to make the same mistakes as Bernie Sanders. We want moderates and conservatives to actually see what progressive positions would mean for the country.
Bernie Sanders ran on a social democratic platform but called himself a democratic socialist. Popular progressives who endorsed him — like AOC and Ilhan Omar— advocate for social democratic policy as well. Free higher education, universal healthcare, and taxes to curb income inequality are part of this social democratic platform, while nationalizing most major industries is not. These are policies that modify capitalism, seek to increase people’s standards of living, and make our system fairer for all.
However, calling these progressive policies “socialist” is how Republicans have historically discredited greater government involvement in the economy, including action that could lift millions of Americans out of poverty. I believe that by sticking to the democratic socialist label, Bernie Sanders hurt his chances with older and more moderate voters that he needed to win over. We know that a lot of voters are not very concerned with actual policy, and this is why rhetoric and perception are so important.
Levying higher taxes on the wealthy, massively investing in both renewable energy and nuclear energy, creating a more robust welfare state (or introducing some form of universal basic income), lowering (and modernizing) defense spending, as well as ending mass incarceration and the war on drugs, are positions that are pushed by progressive leaders. They also have nothing to do with socialism.
So if most of us are social democrats, why not use the label that is most accurate? Why use a label that carries with it the baggage of dictatorship and oppressive regimes? A lot of right-wingers and right- leaning moderates have the worldview that they do, in part, because of the failings of socialism, but they struggle to argue against specific social democratic policy positions that can often garner large public support.
Of course, conservatives will call just about anything socialist. But there is a reason Democratic moderates were worried about Bernie Sanders, favored candidates that talked about unity and compromise, and were susceptible to rhetoric that compared him to leadership in Venezuela.
Calling social democratic policy “socialist” also creates a false perception that politicians like Joe Biden are farther from progressives than they really are. The more progressives that think Joe Biden is far away from them ideologically, the more younger voters and college students will be disillusioned with politics. In reality, the difference between a politician like Joe Biden and Donald Trump cannot be overstated, while the difference between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders often is. Joe Biden’s tax plan places 3/4ths of its tax increases on the top 1%. He supports a climate plan that is extraordinarily similar to the plan supported by Bernie Sanders and the Green New Deal. He is actively working with progressives to craft more progressive policy.
Even if you don’t believe that he will play a major role in pushing for it and recognize the limits of presidential power in the United States, then you must still realize the ridiculousness of supposing that he would use his veto power to stop some of the same progressive legislation that you can find on his website.
Don’t get confused because of rhetoric from the far left. This next election is more than important. Flipping the Senate is, too.
Using words like “socialist” and “socialism” is not just becoming more common among college students. In 2019, Pew Research Center found that 42% of Americans had a positive view of socialism, but it is unclear what countries or specific systems people thought of when they heard the term. In my view, the amount of people who thought of Sweden, Denmark or Norway, as examples of socialist countries, is probably pretty significant. These countries are capitalist. They just don’t have a broken healthcare system and have more robust welfare. This poll shows us that a lot of Americans are frustrated with how things are. The solution is not to adopt rhetoric that makes it harder to win elections, but instead to support specific, progressive and data driven social democratic policy.
It is much easier to criticize our current economic system than propose ideas for a better one. But, if we know that there are not yet implemented solutions to all of the major problems in our country, then that does not reflect poorly on capitalism as a whole. It reflects poorly on conservatives that have consistently impeded progress. Those who call themselves socialists are not a politically irrelevant minority. Actual socialists are.