The meanings of words and phrases change. Dictionaries are updated to add new ones and also to reflect the current usage of old ones—but even with a dictionary, it’s easy to get lost.
Take “socialist.” And take “democratic socialist.” Also, please, take “gig economy.”
When Bernie Sanders called himself a democratic socialist during Tuesday’s debate, searches for the word “socialism” flooded Merriam-Webster.com even though Sanders has been talking about this for decades.
“I mean, to me, it means democracy, frankly,” Sanders (I-VT) said in a 2006 interview with Democracy Now!. “That’s all it means.”
Online dictionary or not, what a candidate such as Sanders means to an Uber driver, for a gig-economy example, is this: The business should be regulated and provide benefits.
“Democratic socialism is a way to govern where the emphasis is on human needs and not private profit,” says Peter Dreier, who teaches politics at Occidental College. “Both Uber and Airbnb are examples of the market basically operating without any rules—with few rules—and with no sense of social responsibility, in the case of Uber, towards their employees. There’s no social contract.”
Lawsuits against many companies in the gig economy likely signal that changes will be made, whether or not the White House is home to a democratic socialist.
And as crazy as it might sound to some that there’s even a possibility that a democratic socialist could live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, what Sanders means when he calls himself a democratic socialist has nothing to do with Cold War propaganda or communism, and more people seem to be embracing that.
But opponents of Sanders hope that the aftertaste of McCarthyism evokes Joseph Stalin whenever someone says “socialism.”
“I actually don’t think it’s that useful to focus on this,” Dreier says of defining Sanders’s brand of socialism, adding that many people responding to polls are looking past labels. He says they’re asking what Sanders stands for, and what he plans to do to fix inequalities in America.
But the labels persist—as do the questions about them and the attempts to answer.
“These are very complex things and can’t be reduced to three-word slogans. These are really difficult issues,” says Andrei Markovits, professor of political science at the University of Michigan. “Bernie’s essential credo is what I would call ‘capitalism with a human face.’” Markovits adds that this is his inversion and reapplication of Alexander Dubcek’s wish for “socialism with a human face.”
In the context of the gig economy (and maybe any other type of economy), the issues Sanders raises in regards to socialism would affect whether or not cleaning for Handy or running errands for Alfred makes a person an employee, and what benefits that entitles a person to. Further, they have to do with what is a right and what is a privilege, as well as how everyone shares in a prosperous business.
Most importantly of all, for some voters on either side of the issues, is: Who’s going to pay for all these rights? And Sanders advocates for a lot of rights as fundamental to our existence in this society, such as health care, education, child care, unions, pensions, medical and family paid leave, and a living wage.
Are these radical ideas? Measured against some polls, not really. Dreier, in an article for The American Prospect, examined just how in sync Sanders is with mainstream numbers.
“I don’t believe it is a terribly radical idea to say that someone who works 40 hours a week should not be living in poverty,” Sanders was quoted as saying in the Washington Post.
And when Sanders was given the opportunity to define his terms during Tuesday’s debate, he said: “What democratic socialism is about is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1% in this country own almost 90%—almost—as much wealth as the bottom 90%. That it is wrong, today, in a rigged economy, that 57% of all new income is going to the top 1%.”
So, even though Sanders has felt comfortable enough to simply define himself as a socialist rather than a democratic socialist on occasion, what he is not advocating for as a candidate is the abolition of private business—and neither is the current president, who has also been tagged a socialist by some.
The changes to health care under President Obama aren’t anything like socialism, Dreier says, adding that the Department of Veterans Affairs is better example of socialism than the Affordable Care Act.
Sanders is very different from Obama, Markovits says, and the accusation that Obama is a socialist is “a complete paint job. Calling him a socialist is absurd. It’s vilification.
“But with Bernie Sanders, it’s not. He calls himself this. It’s not a form of defaming him, which is why it’s much more important to understand all the differentiation. It’s nuanced. And it has nothing to do with the nefariousness of Stalinism. Nothing.”
Markovits says democratic socialists believe in the moral superiority of socialism over capitalism but hate anything dictatorial or violent, “the way almost all communist parties were. So a democratic socialist is a much more open, much more pluralistic approach to the transformation of capitalism.
“So, yes, (Sanders) is a socialist, but in a very ethereal or abstract way, fully understanding that socialism isn’t going to happen in his lifetime, your lifetime, my lifetime, our babies’ lifetimes.”
Or billionaire Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s lifetime.
“I believe in a society where all people do well,” Sanders said during the debate. “Not just a handful of billionaires.”