No Really—What’s the Difference Between a Democrat and a Socialist?

After DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz failed to answer a question on the difference between a Democrat and a socialist, we asked a political scientist.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz Calls For Veto On Florida Bill Restricting Abortions

FORT LAUDERDALE, FL - APRIL 27: Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) speaks to the media as she is joined by local lawmakers and womens health advocates to call for Florida Governor Rick Scotts veto of a recently passed measure that they feel severely restricts access to safe and legal abortions on April 27, 2015 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The Florida state legislators have passed a measure which requires a woman to wait 24 hours and make two separate trips before she is able to obtain an abortion.

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What’s the difference between a Democrat and a socialist? As self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders makes a play for the Democratic presidential nomination, party chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz says there are more pressing questions at hand.

During an interview on MSNBC’s Hardball Thursday, host Chris Matthews asked Wasserman Schultz if she wanted Sanders, a Vermont senator, to represent the party at the Democratic National Convention. Then he asked her what the difference is between a Democrat and a socialist.

“I used to think there was a big difference, what do you think it is?” Matthews asked.

Wasserman Schultz laughed, then dodged the question. “The difference—the more important question is, what’s the difference between a Democrat and a Republican?” she said. 

The right-leaning Washington Free Beacon published a clip of the interview, which was also picked up by conservative sites like Hot Air, NewsMax, the Washington Examiner, and The Daily Caller. The story caught on among conservatives because it fits into a narrative that liberal extremism (in this case, socialism) is becoming mainstream in the Democratic Party. As Hot Air wrote in response to Matthews’ question, “Answer: Not much at all, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz knows it.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JHpiMv3Sy8Q

The thing is, there is a difference. Specifically, there’s a difference between a democratic socialist (how Sanders identifies), a socialist (what Matthews and others in the media call him) and a Democrat, explains John Ahlquist, an associate professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California at San Diego who has focused on the politics of economic inequality. “The modern American Democratic Party has very little to do with anything resembling what we would consider to be socialism or social democracy,” Ahlquist said during a phone interview.

Democrats, he said, are a centrist coalition that includes some groups that are left of center. Traditional socialism, other hand, is a political-economic system that organizes the economy purely around the needs of the people.

“The basic idea is that production decisions and everything else are not organized around the desire to make a profit, they’re organized by a cooperative group to produce stuff that people think they need,” Ahlquist said. “There’s no public figure in the Democratic Party who is advocating for social ownership of the means of production, Bernie Sanders included.”

When people talk about Sanders and his ideology, they’re discussing social democracy, the idea that “the elected government has a responsibility to ensure that the functioning of a market economy adequately provides for basic needs for everybody,” Ahlquist said.

Social democracies have been popular in Europe, especially in the Scandinavian countries which Sanders often cites as examples of ideal policy. For example, here’s how Sanders described what it means to be a democratic socialists to Vox in an interview published this week:

What it means is that one takes a hard look at countries around the world who have successful records in fighting and implementing programs for the middle class and working families. When you do that, you automatically go to countries like Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and other countries that have had labor governments or social democratic governments, and what you find is that in virtually all of those countries, health care is a right of all people and their systems are far more cost-effective than ours, college education is virtually free in all of those countries, people retire with better benefits, wages that people receive are often higher, distribution of wealth and income is much fairer, their public education systems are generally stronger than ours.

European social democracies don’t eradicate capitalism, but put in place a strong regulatory system alongside it to ensures a minimum standard of living for all citizens, Ahlquist said. The “democracy” part of social democracy means that the regulations need to be put in place gradually, by legitimately elected officials.

That’s the long version. If Ahlquist had been asked the same question, his response would actually have been similar to Wasserman Schultz’s.

“I would laugh,” Ahlquist said. “No one is actually talking about or seriously proposing—at least among the mainstream American political parties—seriously, traditionally, socialist platforms.”

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