OP-ED: Capitalist? Socialist? Democrats need a terminology intervention

Dave Anderson
The Baltimore Sun
In this April 1, 2019, file photo, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during the We the People Membership Summit in Washington.

College professors spend a lot of time distinguishing different theories and points of view within disciplines, choosing their language very carefully to distinguish the different camps, defending some and criticizing others.

Politics, interestingly, is very similar. Candidates and political parties invest enormous amounts of resources and time defining which candidates and positions they support and which they oppose. They go out of their way to tar the other side with labels and concepts they find negative and to define themselves through ideas they think beneficial.

The use of the terms “capitalism” and “socialism” among Democratic candidates for president is in need of an intervention by some political philosophers and political scientists. For the way the Democrats are defining themselves is leading to confusion among voters — and giving President Donald Trump and the Republican Party ample opposition material.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, for example, has repeatedly said that she is “a capitalist,” and Sen. Bernie Sanders has repeatedly claimed to be a “democratic socialist.” These two candidates for the Democratic nomination are as similar as any two candidates running, yet they characterize themselves as economic opponents.

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Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders both blast the existing economic order — calling for many similar changes: major new taxes on the rich, Medicare-for-all, free college-tuition, new regulations on business and more.

The truth is that Ms. Warren is not a capitalist in any interesting sense of the term, and Mr. Sanders is not a democratic socialist in any interesting sense of the term. Both are strong proponents of the “mixed economy” or “social democracy” — terms often used interchangeably by political philosophers, political scientists and economists to refer to those political-economic systems that are a blend of capitalism and socialism.

The New Deal and The Great Society, and the Progressive Era for that matter, transported the United States from laissez-faire capitalism toward the mixed economy. We stopped short of the kinds of social democracies associated with the Nordic countries (Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway).

But our mixed economy and the social democracies were never socialist. The defining feature of socialism has always been “the means of production are publicly owned.” After World War II, the UK and France, for example, shifted toward democratic socialism in many ways because major industries (like utilities) were nationalized.

But our mixed economy still sits in between traditional laissez faire capitalism and the social democracies.

Senator Warren should stop saying that she is a capitalist because this is extremely misleading. She is either a mixed economy theorist or a social democrat. Senator Sanders, who admittedly has called himself a democratic socialist for years, is nevertheless not one. He is a social democrat.

As things stand now, Donald Trump and the Republicans are calling all Democrats “socialists,” and this is not in the best interests of any of the Democrats running for president — certainly not Joe Biden, Kamala Harris or Cory Booker.

How you define yourself and how others define you is of fundamental importance in academics and in politics. The Democratic Party would do well to put more academics into their politics, and study up on the past. Some Political Philosophy 101 might help them take back the White House.

— Dave Anderson taught ethics and politics at George Washington University for 12 years and is the editor of “Leveraging” (Springer, 2014).