Debbie Wasserman Schultz was recently mocked for flubbing a question on Chris Matthews. Asked the difference between Democrats and socialists, Wasserman Schultz tries to talk about the difference between Democrats and Republicans.
The exchange doesn’t reflect well on Wasserman Schultz, who plows through her talking points as if the question had never been asked. But it has a pretty easy answer. Historically, the essential feature of socialism is the demand for public ownership or direct government control of major sectors of the economy. A bit more abstractly, socialists have aimed to eliminate considerations of profit from as many areas of life as possible. They used to the describe this goal as “revolution”, which didn’t necessarily mean violence.
The modern Democratic Party isn’t about revolution. Since FDR, Democrats have consistently supported regulated competition and redistributive policies that direct private profits toward the relative losers in market exchange. These strategies are better understood as “welfarism” than socialism. A concrete example? Compare Britain’s NHS before Thatcher’s reforms to Medicare…or Obamacare, for that matter.
There’s something of a spectrum between these positions. Even so, you don’t meet many socialists in mainstream politics these days. Most “Socialist” parties in Europe abandoned their revolutionary dreams a long time ago. And the self-declared socialist Bernie Sanders offers a welfarist agenda that’s barely updated from the ’50s.
So no, Democrats aren’t socialists. We might be able to have a less stupid discussion of their actual positions if welfarists, and their critics, knew the difference.
Samuel Goldman is assistant professor of political science at The George Washington University.