There was a curious moment recently in an interview with Hillary Clinton that might interest our political science and philosophy majors. Chris Matthews asked Clinton on MSNBC what a socialist is and the difference between a socialist and a Democrat. Clinton appeared unable or unwilling to answer that question. Given the fact that the Clinton campaign has referred regularly to Bernie Sanders being a socialist and distinguishing Clinton as a “progressive Democrat,” it would seem a fair question. It is not like asking for the difference between a “raven and a writing desk”, but it received the same unclear response.
Matthews gave Clinton a fairly friendly interview and asked this reasonable question for a distinction between the two main rivals for the Democratic nomination. Clinton responded by saying that he should ask Sanders which is a bit odd since she is obviously half of the comparative question. When Matthews refused to backdown and asked “You see, I’m asking you,” Clinton simply replied, “I’m not one.” That makes the issue more confused. When Matthews pressed again, Clinton responded:
“I can tell you what I am, I am a progressive Democrat … who likes to get things done,” Clinton said. “And who believes that we’re better off in this country when we’re trying to solve problems together. Getting people to work together. There will always be strong feelings and I respect that, from, you know, the far right, the far left, libertarians, whoever it might be, we need to get people working together.”
Clearly, saying that you “believe that we’re better off in this country when we’re trying to solve problems together” is hardly a distinction with socialists. Indeed, socialists view themselves as the ultimate example of “working together.”
Notably, the Clinton campaign could have anticipated this question since last July Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz struggled with the same question:
So what is the difference? This blog has a high number of folks from the political science and philosophy areas. Is there an easy distinction?
On one side of the spectrum of socialists, you can have those who want to control the means of production, as in old school Democratic Socialists. Sanders has indicated that he is not one of those advocating such controls. Moreover, there are Libertarian Socialists who prefer less government and more empowerment of workers. Modern Democratic socialists often define themselves in terms that might not easily distinguish themselves from other mainstream political parties. They generally support regulation of the capitalist economy and mitigating the harsh elements of capitalism through welfare programs. Both Clinton and Sanders have spoken of greater regulation of Wall Street and better social programs to help the lower and middle classes. Yet, one calls herself a “progressive democrat” and another calls himself a “socialist.”
For his part, Sanders seems quite comfortable in addressing such definitional issues and appears to follow the more modern usage of socialism in the political system. Roughly a year ago, he stated on MSNBC:
“Let me define for you, simply and straightforwardly, what democratic socialism means to me,. It builds on what Franklin Delano Roosevelt said when he fought for guaranteed economic rights for all Americans. And it builds on what Martin Luther King, Jr. said in 1968 when he stated that, ‘This country has socialism for the rich, and rugged individualism for the poor.’ It builds on the success of many other countries around the world that have done a far better job than we have in protecting the needs of their working families, the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor.”
He added “The next time you hear me attacked as a socialist – like tomorrow – remember this: I don’t believe that government should take over the grocery store down the street, or control the means of production. But I believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal.”
Here is one of his definitional moments:
Without unleashing a partisan pile on, is there a good definition of socialist today in the political system? It is clearly not the old school, control of the means of production approach. Sanders seems to define it in a way that comes close to the view of progressive Democrats in their own self-definition. What do you think?