what is democratic socialism

What is Democratic Socialism?

What is Democratic Socialism? Lipstick on a Pig

A new mania has gripped the American left: Democratic socialism.  The ideology embraced and popularized by Bernie Sanders has seen rapid growth, predominately among young political actors who hope to fundamentally overhaul the American economic system, but recognize that the traditional “socialist” label only polarizes.  So, to dress the dead ideology, they’ve conveniently stuck a loved word — “democratic” — in front of it and have taken their anger to the internet to commence a “political revolution” (whatever that means) one meme at a time.  With that said, what is democratic socialism, really?

Even democratic socialists struggle to answer that question.  The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) lauds “our socialism” as a means to “a humane social order based on popular control of resources and production, economic planning, equitable distribution” of goods, presumably, and “non-oppressive relationships.”

That sounds wonderful until you realize it’s the meaningless collection of buzzwords that drive masters of the English language insane.


What is democratic socialism’s goal and how is it implemented?

What does this mean?  How does a government implement the popular control of resources and production?

Herein lies the rub.  Democratic socialism organizes around a core belief that the people should control resources and production through democracy.  But, at best, this is impossible, and, at worst, it’s a sure road to oppression and tyranny.

Democratic ownership and allocation of resources and production immediately cannot naturally happen because, in a nation of any size, considerable disagreement about the control of resources will arise, making any sort of popular, or democratic, agreement impossible.  But that assumes democratic socialists want all individuals to equally participate in incredibly complex decisions, naturally a terrible idea and an impossible feat of coordination.

So perhaps democratic socialists don’t mean an active democratic control but rather democratic control through free and fair elections in which various candidates submit proposals for how state-owned/centralized resources and capital should be distributed among the population.  Except this would also fall to pieces immediately.

Minimal-winning coalitions explain why.  The theory, introduced by William Riker, contends that any political party or faction would expand to a size just big enough to win an election or ensure passage of a desired bill.  Doing so enables the coalitions members to compromise as little as possible.

democratic socialism what is it

Take a simplistic example in which a five-member legislature debates a stimulus bill that needs majority support.  The legislators have ideal points (the amount of spending they believe to be most effective for the economy) as follows: A) $100 billion, B) $75 billion, C) $60 billion, D) $40 billion, E) $25 billion.  Lawmaker A introducers her $100 billion spending bill, but no one signs on.  So she proposes an admit to lower spending to $75 billion and lawmaker B then supports the measure.  They still need one more to guarantee passage and so offer another amendment bringing the number down to to $60 billion and achieve the minimal winning coalition.  If the coalition tried to attract more support, they could only do so by lowing the stimulus and moving the successful package further away from their ideal points.  In short, a minimal winning coalition (versus an expansive supermajority) ensures legislation that maximizes ideal points for its members.

Of course, that problem can be alleviated by mandating supermajority support for bill passage, but that moves away from the proclaimed goal of popular control.

This logic extends to any number of issues a polity faces.  Coalitions seek maximum benefit even though it my displease others.  Consider, too, that across a broad range of issues, some coalition members might care little and simply support the proposals offered by concerned members.  Such logrolling (to be a bit unfair) helps establish “long coalitions,” or parties (see “The Party Decides” for an in-depth explanation) that exist to win elections and deliver ideological goals to its constituency without necessarily turning outside of itself for the support needed to pass legislation (action that would necessarily require compromise and thus a deviation from ideal points).

A democratic socialist society in which each election became a referendum on the distribution of society’s resources and goods would naturally incite many arguments about optimization and result in displeasure for some, perhaps many.  Any given coalition could become malicious, recognizing that by establishing a minimal winning distributional coalition it could monopolize government resources and simply ignore the needs of its opposition.  Democracy and democratic control could actually exacerbate the very inequality against which democratic socialists rail.

So if direct and indirect democratic control won’t work, perhaps DSA members would prefer the traditional socialist central planning in which the state controls the means of production and unelected technocrats distribute goods based either on contribution or need, both of which are purportedly democratic.

Except that’s not democratic and it invites corruption and kleptocracy.

Those are the best case scenarios: It simply doesn’t work and the system collapses or enacts market-based reforms to salvage itself (some argue that democratic socialism embraces the market so long as all needs among the citizenry are met.  If we classify those needs as solvable by welfare benefits, we’ve described social democracy, not democratic socialism.  Scandinavian countries, heralded as democratic socialist utopias are actually market-based social democracies).

democratic socialism

At its worst, the democratic ownership of the resources and production simply invites tyranny.  Democracies already invite corrupt actors who seek, largely through democratic means, to assume and consolidate power for their own vanity or profit.  Add to that natural incentive borne from the inherent corruption of humankind the spoils of state-owned resources, and demagogues have every incentive to gain power no matter the cost because its payoffs are so high.

Controlling the means of production means controlling society.  The leader and her political party can reward loyalty while punishing opponents into poverty.  They can skim from the state and, by starving opposition of economic life, nip their ability to meaningfully compete in elections.

Democratic socialism’s implementation by any of the means outlined above simply enables and invites tyranny through centralized economic control.

So, what is democratic socialism?

In short, a disaster waiting to happen.  The ideology relies on lofty dreams that ignore human reality, as evidenced by the entirety of our history.  It assumes a level of beneficence amongst all people that simply does not exist and dreams of utopia without outlining the steps needed to get there.  Like any fairytale, it arouses the imagination, but could never be implemented.

What is democratic socialism?  A resuscitation of a failed ideology that either could never exist or, if brought into existence, would quickly devolve into tyranny.

5 thoughts on “What is Democratic Socialism?

  1. Oh! Bad word. Socialism. NO!
    We are not looking to become a socialist country at all.
    Socialism is a form of government where the people own all the means of production via their government.
    Again, we want to promote a fair and competitive market place and a democratic republic
    with some socialism just as it is in our United States Constitution.

    Using their technology, the founders set an example for the future.
    They saw the wisdom in making one business socialist, i.e. owned by the people through our representative government. That business?
    The United State Postal Service is a socialist business established IN OUR CONSTITUTION!

    We think the mix of democracy, republicanism, and socialism established in our Constitution sets the example we should follow. The founders didn’t know that science and technology would reduce the role of the Postal Service in disseminating information and build postal route roads used to travel across the country.

    It made sense to eliminate the profit motive for the movement of information via the post office and postal roads to bring the new country together and serve this basic need of the people to grow our democracy. our education, and communication to share ideas, protect our nation, and more.

    Kind of sounds like a good idea for Education, Healthcare & Medicines, Roads, Police, and Prisons. Don’t you think?Do we really want a system where the police & prisons make more money by arresting and imprisoning more people? Where we watch others, and we ourselves could die for the lack of funds while a single payer system would lower the cost to EVERYONE!?
    We already have more people in prison than any country on the planet,
    some of the worst death rates for newborns, a lower life expectancy than most civilized countries,
    and at more than DOUBLE THE COST of the best of them!

    The solution to much of the current overpopulation of prisons is fueled by crimes committed by desperate people in a time when millions struggle to survive. Instead of our raising minimum wage to a living wage or helping to promote a fair and competitive marketplace with anti-trust laws which are enforced, and the other things that would improve the quality of our democracy and the lives of our people at the same time we reduce our national debt, and the goodness of our society the billionaire fascist oligarchs who now control our country are taking us in the other direction.

  2. Dn an article that criticizes democratic socialism, the only actually problems you found lie in democracy, and the fact that sometimes people disagree, manipulate the vote, and don’t go for 100% consensus. Not exactly groundbreaking, or a criticism of the actual term, just a criticism of populism, rather than democratic socialism. Bad article. I don’t even disagree with the premise but step your game up or you’ll continue to look like a moron. If you’re going to get paid to be mad at things, start a gaming youtube channel.

    1. I’m not really sure what so angers you? The premise of democratic socialism is some utopian vision with the popular, or democratic, control of goods and resources. The article demonstrates the impossibility of that because as long as you have factions, you will never have an agreed upon just distribution/ownership of said goods. So the ideology’s entire premise could never happen. But the article also argues that, even if somehow a society could entirely agree on the just distribution of goods, centralizing the means of production invites a tyrannical leader who would use that centralized control to benefit himself and his cronies. All of this is mentioned in the article and is clearly a criticism of democratic socialism, not populism (for which there are other articles). I don’t see the basis for your dislike and finding the author “a moron.”

      1. It’s irritating because it’s just wrong. “factions = inherent ability to not agree” is simply a false statement that denies concepts like coalition building and compromises and internal bureaucratic politics.

        If it’s just one group making all the choices it’s not a democracy. A vote is an agreement. Votes about how to distribute resources and what falls into the commons will result in an agreement unless it results in a tie between a group that says “yes and here’s how” and a group that says “no not at all”. Unless it’s that exact situation then there can be no compromise and there is no vote in the first place. Maybe if you’re so used to that being the case in America that would make sense as a normal assumption, but in any other case there is a conversation to be had.

        Does that sound majoritarian “well why does the group that says yes get to run the whole show” because the assumption is that that’s what the majority of the population wants and that’s how the vote goes. That’s how a democracy works.

        In the scenario that a large section of the population does not want resources considered part of the commons, yes, it’s not possible to do that, but that’s a) not the case always everywhere forever b) a drastic oversimplification and an ideology as complex as democratic socialism (or even just democracy), whether or not you think it’s possible or good, is too big for a few paragraphs of broad strokes.

        1. Obviously coalitions bring together factions for purpose of public policy – and a long-majority faction can simply make all of its choices while remaining a democracy. It’s almost inconceivable to imagine a lasting faction, a government, in the parliamentary understanding, that could agree on the “just and equitable distribution of resources” across all available resources. As it is, parties scramble to put together a simple majority for one policy piece, be it ACA repeal, immigration, trade, etc. They wouldn’t be able to do so on every element of the economy. Or perhaps to cobble a lasting majority the factions decide among themselves to split the spoils and ignore those who wouldn’t play ball. How is that the goal of (democratic) socialism?

          It’s impossibility to coordinate around any agreed upon just distribution of resources seems obvious and the most natural remedy given how factions organize and tribalize would be to create a majority that ignores the minority. To some, that may be the idealized vision of (democratic) socialism, but to many that’s simply tyranny by another name (assuming, of course, this hypothetical government truly embraces democratic rule and rather ignores the virtues of republicanism).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *