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What Is “Democratic Socialism”?

July 2, 2016

Thanks to C L for prompting me to include this page. Embarrassing, not to have thought to do so, the moment Bernie declared. I’ll just share a few homely thoughts and examples.

You can start (and maybe finish) with Democratic Socialists of America; but I want to start my thinking out loud with some of B’s own words, as quoted by The Hill in its article, “What does Sanders mean by ‘democratic socialism’?”:

In 2006, Sanders himself defined what he meant by the term. He stated: “… I think it means the government has got to play a very important role in making sure that as a right of citizenship, all of our people have health care; that as a right, all of our kids, regardless of income, have quality child care, are able to go to college without going deeply into debt; that it means we do not allow large corporations and moneyed interests to destroy our environment; that we create a government in which it is not dominated by big money interest. I mean, to me, it means democracy, frankly.’’

He was defining at it pragmatically, with an eye, as usual with him, to lives of ordinary people.

I’ll start with his last point: we’re talking democracy (with at least two, competing parties), in which citizens vote to elect the persons who will govern them. They vote for the persons who they think will represent their best interests, toward having a good life.

He talked about good governance. That means government that is not corrupted by the powerful influence of wealthy individuals and monopolistic corporations.

Ten years ago he was saying that the best interests of citizens include: their rights, health care, child care, education and freedom from imposition of debt, a healthy environment, and a well-functioning democracy itself.

During his campaign he has added national defense and needs of veterans; our justice system; financial security in old age; employment, adequate income, and the general distribution of wealth; adequate housing; immigration; nondiscrimination; wellbeing of indigenous peoples; financial industry reform; foreign policy (especially war and peace); international trade; taxation.

So we’re talking about a useful role that government plays, within our organization of society. Humans naturally live in groups. They organize their groups so that necessary and good things get done. That organization includes governance. We use our governance as a means for getting good things done for ourselves.

In Bernie’s take on “democratic socialism,” all citizens (and to some extent all humans within our borders) actually have “rights” to certain necessities and goods—rights even in the sense of the “right to life, liberty, and happiness,” rights that come with the territory and that cannot be arbitrarily taken away; indeed we use our government to defend these rights, and to facilitate their fulfillment to the extent possible (indeed we make it the responsibility of government to do so).

Would one say, for instance, a citizen of a given society that provides water has a right to insist that she not be allowed to die of thirst, and furthermore that the water not be toxic? How about a right to breathe nontoxic air? Sunbathe without fear of strontium 90 (I remember when that was a genuine fear, and millions of people pressured their governments, which were conducting above-ground atomic testing, to put an end to such poisoning. What “right” did they have to do that?

How about the right to organize to petition our government for redress of grievances? Where did we find that right? To organize to petition our employer for redress of grievances? To organize to empower ourselves to balance the employer/owner’s power over our lives? A billionaire’s power? A multi-billionaire?

Not every conceivable good practice in the areas of citizen interest listed in B’s campaign is a matter of such rights, I should think. Some are “simply” important services and practices that we arrange for, and charge government to help us with. We decide, democratically and pragmatically, the degree and kind of role government will play, and we decide the same for the roles of private enterprise and nonprofit organizations. It’s all about our civil society. Within democratic socialism, government, private enterprise, and nonprofits work mutually to strengthen each other’s ability to serve the community. And note, in Bernie’s view, groups of people live together as communities.

In the case of clean water, or roadways, or policing and fire-fighting, every citizen has a shared interest in outcomes. The need is common, and we organize a common agency to fill that need, because a single, public agency, run democratically, works best in this case. We share the costs. We decide if it works best for all of us to mutually own the agency, as with roads, or if it works best if the agency is owned privately, as with grocery stores.

We can reason that out, inform ourselves, share competing ideas, and vote on it. As part of our good governance of ourselves, we can decide not to own, but to regulate. We can hold fellow citizens accountable for doing a good job of living in our group, and we can determine their just rewards.

So Bernie suggests that (1) we can reasonably, mutually, reason out what we humans have a right to, simply because other humans have birthed us into this world. It isn’t morally right for other humans to cancel the air, for instance.

And (2) we can reason which rights we, as a group, are going to legally afford to each other because we live together as a cooperative group, and having such rights makes for a healthy life. We draw up a contract.

Some rights, we’re born with, and others we mutually assign to ourselves. A democratic socialist government makes them stick, democratically.

This is not rocket science. Millions of people can understand how to drive a car, and how to govern themselves democratically and socially.

Here are two personal illustrations:

Daughter H lived in Canada for several years, during which she gave birth to her two children. Her husband was in school, so they had very little money. They had the usual sicknesses of a young family, plus two real crises. Life or death. She says she can’t speak highly enough of the health care that they received. The citizens of Canada paid for that care, through their mutual investment in their national health system.

When I was in Quito, Ecuador, I got intensely sick, including a high fever. A friend took me to the neighborhood health clinic, at one in the morning. It was an excellent facility, and the doctor and nurses were very caring and friendly. Then, next door at the all-night pharmacy, a very professional pharmacist explained the meds. The citizens of Ecuador paid for my care, through their mutual investment in their national health service.

I’ll just mention, too, that my public schooling (1944-57) was very good; and my state university enrollment was sufficiently inexpensive that I could pay for half of it by working summers, and my working-class (single-job) parents could cover the other half. The good citizens of the United States paid for much of my education, through their mutual investment in their schools.

I then put in 42 years of service as a teacher, and now I narrate a novel. You can mutually decide if your investment paid off.

Hey, take care—of each other.

And don’t let the Republicans talk you out of good government. Don’t do that to each other.

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