Democratic Socialism, Deconstructed

Feb 16, 2016

Socialism, as a philosophy and political model, is nearly a dirty word in many corners of American politics. 

While the Democratic Socialists of today have little interest in taking over the Ohio Statehouse, one of note would like to take the White House. WOSU's Marilyn Smith looks at the little understood political movement that's propelled Senator Bernie Sanders into the forefront of the 2016 presidential race.

Having soundly won the Democratic New Hampshire presidential primary, self-described Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders may have throngs of supporters, but he has detractors as well.

"If I had said to my father, 'Dad, you know, would you support a Socialist?' He would probably kick me out of the house."

That's Republican presidential candidate and Ohio governor John Kasich making an obvious dig at Sanders in a campaign speech earlier this month.

Ohio State University political science professor Eric MacGilvray says, historically, Socialistic political regimes were a far cry from the capitalist model used in the United States.

"Socialism traditionally has meant state ownership of key parts of the economy. So for example, transportation, or heavy industry or utilities and so on," he explained.

But, MacGilvray says, it appears Sanders espouses the so-called Nordic model of socialism.

"Where you have a very generous welfare state which focuses on things like 'cradle-to-grave' free education, free health care, free job training programs, generous unemployment benefits and so on," he said.

MacGilvray says under this Nordic model of socialism, benefits are combined with a highly competitive and deregulated economic sector. 

"So you have flexible labor markets, you have free trade. And then the idea is you have high union membership so that labor and business and government are working kind of co-operatively in partnership rather than as competitors and antagonists," he said.

Lacking strong labor unions working in tandem with business and taxes as high as some European countries, OSU political scientist Paul Beck says Sanders wants a different source of revenue to pay for the benefits he's promising.

"His recipe or his proposal is that it come from the very rich. And that's something that plays well in the United States these days on both the left and the right," Beck said.

Connie Hammond likes Bernie Sanders economic recipe and his message. She's a member of the Democratic Socialists of Central Ohio. The group, Hammond says, has about ninety members 

"It's not a political party. We don't run candidates and we don't endorse candidates," Hammond explained.

While it won't endorse Senator Sanders' presidential run, Hammond says the group does support his policies.

"Especially more fairness for workers and employees. We support a living wage. We support government support for college students. So, basically everything that Senator Sanders supports," she said.

Despite the informal backing of Hammond's group and thousands of supporters who attend Sander's campaign events, Political Scientist Paul Beck says the Senator from Vermont lacks the support of mainstream Democrats who don't care for his brand of socialism.

"His proposals are too utopian, too expensive at a time when Americans don't want to be taxed more. And the rich certainly don't want to be taxed more," Beck said.

No matter the outcome in November, Democratic Socialist Connie Hammond says Sanders' candidacy has shone a light on her organization.

"Because I think when people understand that the things that we value are just basic American values that a lot of people hold very dear, people will realize that we're not quite so far out as maybe they would have thought," Hammond said.