What is Democratic Socialism?


Liam Al-Hindi

Illustration by Mars Nevada/the Gateway

We live in an age of buzzwords and given the lineup of democratic candidates this election season, one popular buzzword that seems to be circulating is “democratic socialism.” But, what does it mean? Is it a political or an economic stance? Is it just a way to avoid saying “communism?”

UNO political science professor Joel Hebrink clarified this dense and complicated term:

“[A country with] democratic socialism has some government ownership of the utilities or the healthcare system, transportation, the infrastructure and there’s a democratic process where people can elect their leaders. And, there’s also the allowance for private property. There is private property, there is an opportunity to become wealthy. The idea is the government takes care of aspects that are important to human life, [like] healthcare, energy production, housing. The big difference between democratic socialism and what many people typically think of as socialism is that…people are able to own companies and profit personally like that…that’s really not an option with socialism or even communism.”

But the lines between these socio-economic policies are blurry at best.

“We have socialist aspects in the U.S. Social security…not everybody pays the same share for the infrastructure that we have, or energy production. Companies…at least to some extent, are funded or subsidized by the government,” Hebrink said. “So, in a way, that’s sort of corporate socialism. Welfare, Medicaid, Medicare…food stamps…sometimes housing, there is money available for those people. Technically that is an aspect of socialism.”

Make no mistake, however, what the U.S currently has is not socialism or democratic socialism.

“The frame is that we are a capitalist economy,” Hebrink said. “Generally, we’re thought of as capitalists … but there’s not a clear definitive line between democratic socialism and what the U.S. has. I would make the argument that it’s not pure capitalism either.”

We have healthcare, but not for everyone. We have affordable housing, but not for everyone.

Democratic socialist countries do exist in the “developed” world—Hebrink cited Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, and the Scandinavian states as the countries closest to “pure” democratic socialism.

“They have…a lot of the aspects of the economy…and there are still elections,” Hebrink said.

This is the age of buzzwords, and it seems like everyone has something to say on democratic socialism—not always in favor of that framework.

“Socialism has been used as a political pejorative … there are democrats and republicans that are against it. There are politicians using their rhetoric to convince people socialism is a bad thing,” Hebrink said. “And it’s used quite broadly – I’m assuming you’ve heard politicians saying that the U.S will never be a socialist economy, where in fact we do have socialist programs.”

Of the current candidates supporting democratic socialism, Hebrink said Bernie Sanders wears socialism “almost as a badge of honor,” and that Sanders is “probably the most democratic socialist out of all of the candidates.”

It is impossible to talk about democratic socialism without talking about capitalism, so after Hebrink explained democratic socialism, he explained why people believe they “need it” and who “loses under capitalism.”

Hebrink said: “The people that aren’t able to engage in business, for one reason or another, they perhaps are the people that lose in capitalism. There are people that just cannot work. In more poverty-stricken areas of Omaha, they don’t have a good mass transit system … so they lose out, not because of capitalism, but because of the infrastructure, or the commercial development is lacking, so it just doesn’t create the opportunities for [building wealth]…it creates a cycle that’s very difficult to break out of … and then they run into health issues, education issues.”

Democratic socialism is complex topic that cannot be summarized in a single news article. So, given the many sides of the argument, where can students learn more and who can they trust?

“[Students] doing reading on their own … some of their own research—I don’t know that I have good advice for that … just maybe be skeptical of everything you hear … engage in a little bit of critical thinking,” Hebrink said. “I don’t know that there are any easy answers, none of this is easy anymore. I wouldn’t say that the … polarization of the left and right … is by design, but it’s sort of been built into our culture, and it’s been around for centuries.”