What Is Democratic Socialism?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

In the wake of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s big win over incumbent Democrat Joe Crowley in the primary for New York’s 14th congressional district, her membership in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has brought renewed attention to the organization that started making waves during the presidential primary campaign of Bernie Sanders, who calls himself a democratic socialist.

The first thing to know is that the DSA is not a political party. Ocasio-Cortez ran in the Democratic primary and will run in the 2018 midterm as a Democrat.

The DSA describes itself as a membership organization that seeks to influence politics and empower working people. Although there’s no specific platform, the organization’s goal is to restructure society through democracy—getting rid of capitalism is a long-term goal, but the current campaigns are all focused on achieving a “humane social order”:

Medicare for All is number one. While the idea of expanding Medicare into a universal insurance program for all Americans was recently considered completely pie-in-the-sky, it’s now garnered mainstream support among Democrats, with at least 16 senators cosponsoring Sanders’s legislation last fall. After a bruising fight to save the Affordable Care Act (which Republicans and the Trump administration continue to try to chip away at), Americans across the political spectrum realized how stupid it is that we can’t have what other developed democracies have. The DSA doesn’t own this issue anymore, but it’s still pushing hard from the left.

(This morning, as I was trying to figure out whether my individual health insurance marketplace plan would cover a non-emergency visit to a doctor in a different state, I thought—as I do every time I have to interact with any part of the medical establishment—how is there anyone in this country who wouldn’t rather have universal coverage?)

Strong Unions. Socialism’s standard-bearer in the early 20th century, Eugene Debs, was a labor leader, and the movement has always been oriented toward helping workers take power back from corporations. Although unions in the United States have been shrinking and losing leverage overall during the past several decades (and months—most notably with the June Supreme Court decision ruling that unions can’t require dues from government workers who choose not to join), the DSA has supported the teacher strikes that led to improved wages and conditions for educators in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and other states.

Electoral Power. Although the DSA isn’t a political party (Bernie Sanders is officially an Independent in the Senate), it’s been using its pull to endorse and support candidates who embrace its ideas—particularly Ocasio-Cortez and other young progressives.

All of these ideas have mainstream appeal among people with hearts who want to fight the baby-stealing, inequality-promoting, corporate-financing-dependent regime that’s currently in power. There’s no reason for capital-D Democrats to be afraid of the socialists—some savvy progressives like Cynthia Nixon are getting on board:

“Yes. Some more establishment, corporate Democrats get very scared by this term,” Nixon said in the statement this week. “But if democratic socialism means that you believe health care, housing, education and the things we need to thrive should be a basic right not a privilege then count me in.”