The phrase “Democratic Socialism” continues to find its way into current national and political discourse of the United States. Vermont Senator and Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders embraces the term, while his opponents, both from within his own party as well as on the Republican aisle, using its label as a bit of an albatross. Mr. Sanders’ own description of the philosophical, theoretical, and pragmatic applications of Democratic Socialism have yet to lay the weaponizing of this concept to rest. In his emphasis on the universality of rights, be they environmental, economic, health-related, educative, or concerning human dignity, he leaves out the primary distinction of Democratic Socialism. If properly conveyed, he could directly appeal to even its most vehement opponents at present.
Indeed, classic Democratic Socialism, at its essential core and manner of societal organization is riveted upon this basic premise: local people exert control over their own affairs without the central level of government making determinations on the pathways, priorities, and planning of communities and sub-national jurisdictions. The Democratic Socialist notion, therefore, is not all that distinct from the basis of the United States’ Federalist system and the birth and fundamental identity of the Republican Party.
Let us take a case and point. In a recent Town Hall, Senator Sanders was asked what specifically he would do in order to combat the effects of climate change visiting upon marginalized communities along Maryland’s seaboard. A Democratic Socialist response to such a question – one which a significant swath of Republican Party members may also appreciate hearing – would adjudicate that to effectively combat climate change and take measures in a specific area, residents of the impacted community with relevant local government officials, business owners, and members of civil society come together to protect that location against the hardship they are experiencing. Democratic Socialism would advocate pivoting some of the responsibility of the national level away from being the focal point of decisive action and instead also shift to a supporting role for local decision-makers.
Yet, in his answer, Senator Sanders entirely emphasized national strategies, including battling fossil fuel companies and heralding a new era of renewable energy, along with other certainly necessary measures. It is responses like as these, however, that can be taken as fodder for those who wield the term Democratic Socialism to scare their listeners. The public and likely many in the Republican Party would feel a greater sense of control over and certainly less threatened by Democratic Socialism if it was expressed more closely to its true meaning; that is, a high level skepticism toward central planning and an unbridled emphasis on local community decision-making on matters of greatest communal importance.
Let us take another matter: the restoration of and investment in infrastructure. Both major political parties in the United States have conceived substantial infrastructural bills to include massive investments in large-scale projects, such as water, energy, and transport modernization. These certainly have their critical place in the betterment and political discourse of our society. Nonetheless, a Democratic Socialist perspective on infrastructural investments would contend that governmental expenditures ought to spotlight a far greater number of projects at the local level with smaller sized budgets, rather than fewer projects requiring much greater amounts of capital. Upon hearing this alternative portrayal of an infrastructural program, those who may traditionally fear the Democratic Socialist agenda will come to see that its translation into reality is in fact under their own determination and management, resulting in a decrease of their anxiety and fear.
And, even in regard to large-scale big-budget infrastructural initiatives, a Democratic Socialist would emphasize that identification of such considerably sized projects would heavily come from federations of local associations that support one another, unite, and still maintain their own autonomy. Federations tier upward in order to gain a greater scope of shared local priorities. This is to say that large scale projects are also able to be reflective of the will of local communities through the federation of their own associations into broadly representative groups of increasing numbers of people. Efforts like these put forth a more precise description of what actually constitutes bottom-up change and movements, although these processes are rarely applied effectively, even by those who espouse them.
When explaining Democratic Socialism to the American people, particularly those who are highly skeptical proponents of this political philosophy, one ought to emphasize what it most truly is, a commensurate of an American ideal. This epitome of the American character asserts that the people, when faced with matters of concern and affect, must rely on the fundamental assumption that it is they, through their direct participation, who are in the best position to make decisions for the future of their jurisdictions.