Many people are criticizing Bernie Sanders for being a “democratic socialist” without having the slightest idea what that term means.
cartoon by Matt Weurker
Let’s try to simplify things.
There are two sets of terms to know: economic and political. A government has both.
Capitalism. This is where the market decides and government stays out of it. No minimum wage, no health inspections, no laws against discrimination, no regulations on business at all. This doesn’t work, because you end up with the powerful running everything, destroying the economy, and keeping people in poverty.
Communism. This is where the government runs business. The idea is that we should all live together in peace and harmony and share everything, and the President earns the same amount as the guy who sweeps the street. This also doesn’t work, because it completely destroys initiative and any reason to try to improve yourself.
Socialism. This is where most countries are, somewhere between the two extremes. Here, the government regulates business to prevent the abuses capitalism can bring, and provides many services (libraries, hospitals, parks, fire departments, social security, unemployment, etc.) that pure capitalism would have private businesses provide (if they felt like it; pure capitalism would never require a business to provide something it doesn’t want).
This is the tough balance to meet. You don’t want to go too far in either direction, and most of the debate in the US is over how far to go — but honestly, even the most conservative politician agrees with some socialism (they’ll never admit that, though).
Democracy. This is where the people decide, usually through representative democracy or republicanism.
Totalitarianism. This is a dictatorship, whether individually controlled (North Korea) or committee controlled (China). Once more, there are degrees here as well as various types (monarchy, fascism, oligarchy). But the key thing they all have in common is that the decision-making power is not with the people.
What usually happens is that people confuse the economic with the political. The Soviet Union was a communist country but was also a totalitarian country, and people started associating the two. This is wrong. You could have a democratic communist country. And despite what the Soviet Union would have had you believe with their propaganda, Karl Marx supported democracy.
It’s even more confusing when countries lie about themselves. Just because you call yourself “the Democratic Republic of Vietnam” doesn’t mean you are a democratic republic, any more than China is the “people’s republic.” The Soviet Union was indeed a communist country, but it was a corrupt one because you know perfectly well that not everyone shared equally in that society.
So when Bernie Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist” he is making it clear that politically, he agrees with democracy (the people decide) and economically, he agrees with socialism (government works for the people).
Disclaimer: This is a really quick and simple explanation and is meant to be a guideline and a start for conversation. And it’s also mostly from an old post I did about two years ago, so if you have a long memory, it may be familiar.