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What is Democratic Socialism? The Activist Organization Is Making Waves In Politics

The movement made popular by Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential election is getting national attention again — but for people who have been organizing with Democratic Socialists for years, the media blitz is old news. For those curious enough, dozens of the rumors you might have heard about Democratic Socialists are debunked on the group's national website. So, what is Democratic Socialism? The activist organization is making waves in politics.

First things first, Democratic Socialism isn't a political party. Yes, Sanders identified with the platform, but don't forget, he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. There is a lot of overlap between the missions of Democrats and Democratic Socialists, but the organization is primarily focused on grassroots activism — as it has done for decades before Bernie Sanders was a household name. Per the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) website, the group is organized around its founding beliefs, which overlap with many different left wing schools of thought.

"Like our friends and allies in the feminist, labor, civil rights, religious, and community organizing movements, many of us have been active in the Democratic Party," the website states. "We work with those movements to strengthen the party’s left wing, represented by the Congressional Progressive Caucus."

MSNBC aired a segment on June 28, in which journalist Stephanie Ruhle tackled most of the pressing misconceptions about Democratic Socialism. First on the list of things to debunk: If it's not socialism, then what the h*ll is it?

"Most people use communism and socialism interchangeably, even Karl Marx," Ruhle said. "But communism is a political ideology, while socialism centers more on economics. They're related but none of this has to do with Democratic Socialists. What they do call for is the enactment of certain socialist ideas through the Democratic process. Meaning, everyone has a vote on whether they are a good idea or not."

Those socialist-leaning ideas, are mainly ways of making essential services — e.g. health care, education — affordable. Per the DSA website,

Today, corporate executives who answer only to themselves and a few wealthy stockholders make basic economic decisions affecting millions of people. Resources are used to make money for capitalists rather than to meet human needs. We believe that the workers and consumers who are affected by economic institutions should own and control them.

So, that sounds nice. What does it look like in practice? Democratic Socialists favor de-concentration of power, so spreading control more evenly to accommodate the needs of consumers and workers — the people who are most directly affected by the nation's economic decisions — takes precedence. No nations have fully embraced Democratic Socialism, but the group likes to draw comparisons to Sweden's welfare system, Canada’s national health care system, and France’s nationwide childcare program. Democratic Socialists argue that, although people view the organization as an amalgam of radical ideas, declaring that humans all have a right to healthcare and general welfare isn't so radical to these other nations.

Naturally, given the prominence of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's stunning upset on June 24, in which she defeated Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley in a local primary, interest in the DSA has surged (Ocasio-Cortez identifies with the DSA's platform). She explained what the ideology means to her on June 29, during her appearance on Stephen Colbert's Late Show, saying

I believe that in a modern, moral, and wealthy society, no person in America should be too poor to live. What that means to me is health care as a human right, it means that every child no matter where you are born should have access to a college or trade-school education if they so choose it. I think that no person should be homeless if we have public structures or public policy to allow for people to have homes and food and lead a dignified life in the United States.

The distinction between Democrats and Democratic Socialists (although, again, they are not opposing factions necessarily) appears to be the socialist part of the title. Senate Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi famously said at a January 2017 town hall, "We're capitalists, that's just the way it is," when she was asked about the same kind of groundswell movement that rocketed Ocasio-Cortez to victory last week. Pelosi also dismissed Ocasio-Cortez's victory (and Crowley's loss) as being indicative of the Democrats needing to swing further left. Per The Daily Beast, Pelosi told reporters on June 27, “Each of our members is elected to be the independent representative of their district, so nobody’s district is representative of somebody’s else’s district.”

Democratic Socialists beg to differ, though.

"Although capitalism will be with us for a long time, reforms we win now — raising the minimum wage, securing a national health plan, and demanding passage of right-to-strike legislation — can bring us closer to socialism," the website's credo reads. It will be fascinating to track this movement as Americans head into the mid-term elections in November. It's possible — maybe even likely — you'll be hearing even more from Democratic Socialist candidates in the coming months.