Yes, there is a Difference Between a Democrat and a Socialist

by Benjamin Studebaker

In right-wing circles, this interview with DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz has been doing the rounds:

Interviewer Chris Matthews asks Schultz to explain the difference between a democrat and a socialist and Schultz fires blanks. This has many on the right crowing that there really is no difference, that Barack Obama was the socialist they thought he was all along. This isn’t true–most democrats are not socialists, and there are clear distinctions that political scientists routinely draw among these groups. Unfortunately, these distinctions are not widely understood by the general public because they are often complex and nuanced. So I’ve come up with a way to explain the differences that I hope will be helpful to both those on the left and those on the right.

Most ordinary Americans make a reductive distinction between “liberalism” and “conservatism” but don’t really go far beyond that. On the popular definition:

  1. A “conservative” is someone who wants to reduce the role of the government.
  2. A “liberal” is someone who wants to expand the role of the government.

On this understanding, a “socialist” is some kind of super liberal who really wants to expand the role of the government. These popular definitions are not very useful because they define “liberal” and “conservative” in terms of which direction they want to pull rather than where they want to things to end up. If you placed most American liberals in the Soviet Union, they would probably want to reduce the role of the Soviet government. Correspondingly, if you put most American conservatives in an anarcho-capitalist society, they would probably want to increase the role of the government. This is because liberalism and conservatism are not about dogmatically increasing or reducing the size of the government–they have a specific vision of what government should look like.

Once you recognize that these terms refer to destinations, it becomes possible to realize that there are a whole lot of different possible places one might choose to end up. Imagine that it’s 1845 and you’re on the Oregon Trail. Do you want to go to Oregon? California? Utah? Kansas? Would you rather stay home in Missouri? Do you want to go East to Pennsylvania or New York instead? If I ask you where you want to go, “West” and “East” would not give me enough information to really know what you wanted to do. In the same way “more government” and “less government” tell us very little about what a politician really believes.

I should also briefly point out that when we get away from economic issues, the directional definitions aren’t even true–many liberals want to reduce the role of government in regulating things like drugs, abortion, homosexuality, and so on, while many conservatives want to maintain or expand the government’s regulatory role in these areas. This is because politics doesn’t just take place on the traditional left/right economic axis. It’s very possible to want to radically expand the role of government in one area of life while radically reducing it in some other area. For these reasons, “liberals” and “conservatives” often strongly disagree with each other. Indeed, if the Democratic or Republican Party were to disappear tomorrow, the remaining party would certainly break up into two or more smaller parties with more distinctive political visions for what sort of government they’d like to have.

So what are some of the popular political destinations that people often choose? There are an immense number of possibilities, but here’s a flow chart that will sort you through some of the most popular answers to the economic questions in contemporary western societies:

Socialism and Liberalism

One thing you’ll notice right away is that conservatives are liberals–neoliberals, that is. Historically, liberalism was the ideology of market capitalists. In the 1700’s and early 1800’s, its primary opponent in most western countries was not socialism but a mix of mercantilism, feudalism, slavery and the other historical values and practices of the old land-owning aristocrats who dominated agricultural economies. As socialism, communism, and fascism supplanted the aristocrats as liberalism’s chief rivals, liberalism splintered. Social liberals and liberal democrats advocated Keynesian economic policies to create a shared prosperity that would include the workers, so they would have little incentive to become anti-capitalist. These liberals dominated both the left and the right during the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. In the 1980’s the neoliberals revived some of the right wing positions held by the old classical liberals from the 1800’s and early 1900’s, and the libertarians revived the rest of the platform. Because the neoliberal and libertarian platforms have distinct features that we can identify with the way things were before the depression and World War II, we call these platforms “conservative”. Many ordinary people no longer recognize that these conservatives are still part of the same broad intellectual tradition as those we still call “liberal”–both contemporary liberals and conservatives are pro-market and pro-capitalism.

The Republican Party is primarily a neoliberal party with a libertarian wing. The Democratic Party is primarily a social liberal/liberal democratic party. There are some neoliberals who vote for democrats because they agree with democrats on social issues and/or foreign policy. Social democrats, democratic socialists, socialist anarchists, and communists also often support democrats because they recognize that they are closer to being democrats than they are republicans and there are not nearly enough of them in the US to make a difference as a third party.

Bernie Sanders is a democratic socialist, but only just barely. Most of the policies he emphasizes are policies that most Canadian or European social liberals and liberal democrats agree with, such as single payer healthcare, free university education, a tighter financial reforms. Democratic socialists are generally interested in nationalizing additional kinds of business, like banking, utilities, railroads, or airlines. Sanders might in principle agree with some nationalization of that kind, but he’s not campaigning on those issues. Most democrats do not campaign on a particularly robust social liberal/liberal democratic platform because the American voting population has a distinctly neoliberal bent. You’ll also recall that the Democratic Party has a significant number of neoliberal supporters who stick with the party for social or foreign policy reasons, and the democrats cannot push social liberalism/liberal democracy too far without potentially alienating these supporters.

Here’s another way to visualize these concepts–here I’ve placed a number of American politicians, past and present, in the groups. Ignore the vertical positioning (this was merely to give me enough room to fit people’s names on the chart):

Socialism and Liberalism in th USYou can see how things have changed in recent decades–in the 60’s and 70’s, the two parties were much closer together, representing different strands within social liberalism/liberal democracy. On economic issues, the difference between FDR and Nixon is smaller than the difference between Nixon and Clinton, Reagan, or Bush. Under Reagan, the Republican Party began to become distinctively neoliberal, and since Reagan it has moved steadily further away from where it was under Nixon. The voting public has moved in a neoliberal direction as well, and this has dragged the democrats from the border between liberal democracy and democratic socialist to the border between liberal democracy and neoliberalism. Carter is distinctively closer to neoliberalism than FDR, and Obama and Clinton occupy spaces that would have been comfortably held by mainstream republicans in 1980. Sanders would have been an ordinary left-leaning democrat in the 1960’s, but today he’s considered outside the mainstream. In the meantime, libertarians like Ron and Rand Paul, who were once considered to be living in looney toon land, are increasingly becoming part of the mainstream Republican Party. How does this distribution compare to a European country’s? Let’s take a look at BritainSocialism and Liberalism in the UKBritain has seen something similar happen, as its Conservative Party has steadily grown more neoliberal. Like Reagan, Thatcher is often thought of as a quintessential neoliberal figure, but this is really only due to the fact that mainstream US and UK politics had a more social liberal/liberal democratic bent prior to 1980. Today’s republicans and conservatives pull considerably further right, and formerly madcap figures like Paul and Farage are increasingly accepted into the mainstream. The British Labour Party has responded very differently from the Democratic Party. Some of its members, like former Prime Minister Tony Blair, have increasingly pulled toward neoliberalism to try to capture the voters who have been lost to the Conservatives and UKIP. Others have continued to demand that Labour continue to stay true to its socialist roots, like current Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn (who genuinely and explicitly would like to nationalize some industries, likely starting wit the railroads).  As Labour has dragged itself toward neoliberalism, many voters who would have been able to support Labour in the 1970’s have now defected to the Green Party or the Scottish National Party. In the US, the two party system would prevent these defections, but the UK’s increasingly multiparty system combined with Labour’s more distinctly socialist membership is causing Labour to buckle under the strain of having to satisfy too many people who want too many distinctly different things. In its efforts to satisfy all members, Labour has come to stand for nothing in particular, and this has contributed to its defeats in the two most recent elections.

Democrats are managing their tension better, but they definitely feel it–for that reason, Schultz has to walk a tight rope between alienating the genuine socialists who do vote for democrats and alienating the neoliberals who vote for democrats on social or foreign policy grounds. In this particular case, she just could not find a way to answer the question that would pull this off.

To close, I’ll give you a couple countries, current or historical, which fit pretty closely to these different economic conceptions of the state:

Libertarianism: The United States before FDR (1932)

Neoliberalism: The United States after 1980, Britain under the dry Conservatives (1979-1997, 2010-?)

Social Liberalism/Liberal Democracy: The United States between FDR and Carter (1932-1980), Britain under New Labour (1997-2010), Britain under the wet Conservatives (1935-1945, 1951-1964, 1970-1974)

Social Democracy/Democratic Socialism: Britain under Old Labour (1945-1951, 1964-1970, 1974-1979), Contemporary Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark

Socialist Anarchism: The Paris Commune, Spanish Revolution of 1936

Communism: The Soviet Union, Maoist China