Democratic Socialism, Social Democracy, and Bernie’s Big Mistake


In 2016 Bernie Sanders declared himself a Democratic Socialist, and in doing so assured he’d never be president. The issue, then as now, was the “S-word.” Why would you label yourself a Socialist if you want to run for office in America?

Especially – and this part is key – if you aren’t one?

There are two terms to understand here: Democratic Socialism and Social Democracy. They use the same root terms and they do, in fact, have much in common. But they aren’t the same thing. In brief, Social Democracy (SD) is “a political, social and economic philosophy that supports economic and social interventions to promote social justice within the framework of a liberal democratic polity and a capitalist-oriented mixed economy.” Democratic Socialism (DS), on the other hand, is “a political philosophy supporting political democracy within a socially owned economy, with a particular emphasis on workers’ self-management and democratic control of economic institutions within a market socialist economy or some form of a decentralised planned socialist economy.”

That is, both believe in Democracy. But SD believes in Capitalism and DS does not. In our present context, we might view SD as reformist and DS as revolutionary.

If you’re scratching your head, don’t feel bad. Even the Democratic Socialists of America seem confused. (For more on Social Democracy, I highly recommend Sheri Berman’s analysis at

So, which is Bernie? From where I sit he’s pretty obviously a Social Democrat (unless he called for nationalizing the oil industry and I somehow missed it). If he’d been running in 1972 he’s have been regarded as your basic, garden-variety Democrat. He’s very much in the political tradition of FDR, whose New Deal was more or less archetypal Social Democracy. I’d call him an SD, then.

Annalisa Merelli, writing at Quartz, agrees.

While it might not sound as dramatic, what Sanders is isn’t a socialist—democratic or otherwise—it’s a social democrat. Social democracy is a reformist approach that doesn’t do away with capitalism in its entirety (as, instead, socialism eventually suggests) but instead regulates it, providing public services and substantial welfare within the frame of an essentially market-led economy. Other leftist politicians such as Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also fall into this camp.

The platform Sanders is running on is reformist, and what he is proposing is a US that looks much more like Canada, or Europe—which certainly are not socialist nations. Whether he believes that the end goal is beyond what Europe has achieved (and the history of his political beliefs suggests so), he still isn’t proposing an actual revolution (not within his lifetime, at least) and should just label himself accordingly.

There was certainly nothing unreasonable about his message. His Facebook feed gave us a steady dose of basic humanity:

It’s not radical to suggest that in the richest country on Earth our doctors and nurses shouldn’t be forced to wear bandanas, scarves and trash bags because they don’t have enough masks, gloves and gowns.

Now, more than ever we must ensure that every single American receives the health care they need, regardless of their income of the color of their skin.

Millions of Americans are going to continue to lose their jobs and their health care through no fault of their own. The gross deficiencies in our employer-based private health care system are more obvious in this crisis than ever.

Thank you to the sanitation workers who continue to work everyday during this crisis to provide essential public services. Our job is to fight to ensure that they receive the hazard pay, child care, health care and safe working conditions that they deserve.

We must ensure we are getting food to the most vulnerable in our communities and guarantee no person goes hungry during this crisis.

Walmart, McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Marriott are all multibillion-dollar corporations that make obscene profits every single year. They can damn well afford to guarantee all of their workers paid sick leave.

Who can say what he was thinking as he tattooed the S-word on his forehead? Maybe, as Merelli suggests, he wanted to shock us – and we’re certainly a nation that could do with a little shocking. And given the practical concerns of reforming the American system it mattered not whether he called himself a Social Democrat, a Democratic Socialist or an ambisexual Martian. But from the perspective of winning, though…

In c. 2016 it would have been challenging enough to win by drawing a line to your candidacy from the New Deal, but it would have been considerably easier than dealing with the line your opponents were going to draw from Stalin. This is ‘Merica and labels matter a lot more than realities, more than policies, more than voting records, and Sanders had to know this.

For the love of Roosevelt, man, just call yourself a Social Democrat!

I was baffled in 2016 and still am, and despite my support for his candidacies I have to admit to a healthy dose of frustration. Sanders is a smart guy, so why would he do something so patently self-defeating? Is he playing eight-dimensional chess and I just don’t get it? Did he want to reframe the agenda and saw a Quixotean run at the White House as the best way of doing it? To be sure, much, if not most of what defined this cycle’s Democratic campaign revolved around issues he put on the table.

But … did he ever really want to be president?

I don’t have answers, but I suspect he did more damage to his bids than his opponents did.

I very much hope the younger cohort of SDs, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have been paying attention and learning. It’s time to rebrand.


  • My suspicion is that he didn’t plan on winning. Either he didn’t think he could win or didn’t want to win. So, he purposely created a self-defeating campaign. Even when attacked, he would not attack back in kind or even defend himself. He simply placed himself on he altar as sacrifice to the DNC gods.

    Maybe he figured he never had a chance and that no matter what he said he was going to be attacked as a socialist. So, he decided to embrace it as rhetoric to push the Overton Window back to the left. To be fair, if not for his last campaign, there would be now far less political and public debate about many of the issues and policies he ran on.

    If that was his only purpose, he succeeded on some basic level. But succeeded to what end? In a political situation where ideological rhetoric is already fairly meaningless, he further added to the confusion of labels. I’m not sure how that was a net gain for society, particularly for the political left.

  • Pingback: Why did a Social Democrat make himself a target by calling himself a Democratic Socialist? | Marmalade

  • Perfect summary, and the rebranding is the only way out of this ridiculous quagmire. All the fear-mongering by Republicans would get a lot harder, if there was a different name. Different to the too close “Social Democrats”. It’s necessary that DSA and politicians start rejecting the socialist label, unless they are actually socialist, to raise awareness of the differences.

    Fairism and fairist, fairistic?

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