Matthews Presses Clinton On The Distinction Between a “Progressive Democrat” and a “Socialist”

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?

72 thoughts on “Matthews Presses Clinton On The Distinction Between a “Progressive Democrat” and a “Socialist””

  1. Karen. The Brothers Grimm wrote much better scare-stories than you do.

    1. Dieter – the 209 stories were collected by the brothers, not written by them.

  2. A little boy decides he wants to earn some money by setting up a lemonade stand. He spends a hot summer afternoon picking lemons from the tree in the backyard. He uses his birthday money to buy sugar, a pitcher, and paper cups. That night, he and his dad hammer together a little stand to set out by the road. Then he paints an adorable sign. He gets up in the morning, squeezes the lemons, and makes lemonade.

    He then sits out in the hot summer sun, selling lemonade, while some boys play in the street and make fun of him for working. He sells out of his lemonade the first day. His mother tells him that he should share some of his money with the little boy down the street, who is handicapped. He agrees with her. The next day he sells out again. The boys from the street whine about how it’s unfair that he makes so much money and they don’t, while playing video games. His mother tells him that he should divide his money equally with the handicapped boy down the street, as well as the boys who played and teased him. He thinks that is unfair. The next day, he’s so busy that he lets another kid come help out for the day, and pays him per hour. His mother decides that this new kid is an equal owner in the lemonade business. This kid has invested zero, and did not help with anything, except he showed up to help sell the lemonade, for which the owner is very grateful. And for which he was paid. His mother declares that his contribution is just as important as the owner’s, and he must split his income equally yet again. When the two kids can’t decide on where to put the lemonade stand the next day, his mother declared that they each have an equal opinion, and no one has more say.

    The kid decides this whole affair is stupid and not worth the effort. He quits the lemonade stand. His mother takes it over, and the kid gets the same amount of money as he did before when he owned it, except he’s not working. The mother doesn’t really put too much effort into the stand, because she’s busy with other things, and there’s no point expanding or innovating because you make exactly the same. So now everyone starts receiving less money than before.

    Socialism. Or how Mother Government Takes Better Care of You Than You Can.

  3. After the verdict I gave the enema bag over to the lawyer on the other side. I did this in front of the jury as they were filing out. Two jurors gave the upward fist and yelled Right On!

  4. Back in my prior life as a human I was a lawyer representing a woman who had been sued by a private medical hospital over some billings. They want a huge amount and said that all was fair and not over charged. So I got them to agree in front of the jury that if one or two items were over charged at some retail rate then the entire billing could be reduced by that percentage. That was their last witness. My first witness was a clerk from Walmart who said that an enema bag cost Five dollars. The hospital had charged this guy forty for the enema bag which they went him home with. I asked the jury to then give the hospital an enema and reduce the bill to $340.00 total. Then I rested my case. The jury came back with a judgment for my client and no money owed. That was in Mizzoura, a long time ago.

    A Democrat or socialist should examine the medical care ripoffs and champion socialized medical care for all. All except Congress members. Take away their free medical care right now and make them wait for the new socialized medical system to take hold. They can buy insurance with their huge salaries.

  5. Hillary should’ve just answered that a Socialist can be differentiated from a Progressive Democrat by the latter’s disheveled hair, that has yet to see a brush, not to mention the amount of spittle, which appears in the corner of the mouth, accompanied by the persistent raving about banks being too big to fail and the need for a revolution. A Progressive Democrat, on the other hand, can be spotted sporting an oversized Mao pantsuit and feigning ignorance about servers and emails. Really not that complicated.

  6. If these new ‘socialists’ are simply vying for employee control (ownership, partnership), isn’t that capitalism?

    Why don’t these employees start or own their own businesses? Why are they ‘forced’ to become employed at a business someone else started? Is there maybe too much red tape, legislation, and tax code making it difficult to start a business?

    If the new ‘socialists’ simply want to empower the worker, embrace capitalism.

    Jamestown was socialist/communist in their first year. Each worked to their ability and received according to their need. Turned out, a lot of people were unable to work, and there was a shortage of food for the winter. Next year, they revised the rules: You can keep what you can produce! The result was folks who had survived worked their butts off, and lo and behold, a surplus occurred.

  7. With regards to Sanders and Clinton, the main difference is Sanders does not hide who he is.

    The question is the wrong question to be asking any candidate. Instead ask them how their ideology fits within a constitutional republic? Ask them if they will honor the oath of office? Will they subordinate the office to the rule of law? Will they respect the separation of powers?

  8. Socialism is a political ideology and movement[1] which has proposed a set of social and economic measures, policies[2] and systems characterised by social ownership and democratic control of the means of production.[3][4][5][6][7][8] Social ownership may refer to public ownership, cooperative ownership, citizen ownership of equity, or any combination of these.[9] Although there are many varieties of socialism and there is no single definition encapsulating all of them,[10] social ownership is the common element shared by its various forms

    I’ve seen the erroneous claim socialism requires employee control several times recently. Proponents push this definition because it has never existed uniformly across an economic system. This fact allows them to make irrefutable claims about their system since counterfactuals cannot be entirely proven or disproven. But you can see by the wiki summary above the definitional argument is not true, nor are we prevented from predicting the likely failures based on the failures of similar systems.

    1. Rick writes, “I’ve seen the erroneous claim socialism requires employee control several times recently. Proponents push this definition because it has never existed uniformly across an economic system. This fact allows them to make irrefutable claims about their system since counterfactuals cannot be entirely proven or disproven. But you can see by the wiki summary above the definitional argument is not true, nor are we prevented from predicting the likely failures based on the failures of similar systems.”

      State ownership in a socialistic system stems from political or violent takeover of the government after which a failure to transition to socialism occurs.

      This business about socialism being a sociopolitical system (is like arguing capitalism is a sociopolitical system) or about autocracy or about state ownership, however, are hogwash. It’s an economic system, like capitalism, no matter what Wikipedia decides it is.

      I can’t argue against employee control having “never existed uniformly across an economic system.” The reason is that in every circumstance in which communist/socialist proponents have attained control of government, they’ve been stopped there, i.e., power remained in the government rather than being transitioned to a socialist economy.

      Marxism’s essence is as much as anything about worker control of the means of production to rid the economy of the caste system of exploitation. And there’s no reason to deny the fact that employee shareholders in a private economy could – theoretically – produce for profit or necessity under a socialist economy, but it would be the employees’ decision, not the board’s.

  9. The simple answer is that Bernie Sanders is not a socialist, he just likes to call himself one. He’s actually a moderate right-winger.

  10. Could it be that Bernie Sanders in running for president to make Hillary look like a middle of the road politician? The Republican party of today is farther to the left than the John F. Kennedy administration was in 1960 and a lot farther left than the Truman administration was. By the way wasn’t it the Clinton administration that said no nukes in North Korea?

  11. LOL! I was given a great gift a few years ago. A Dunder Mifflin notepad From the Desk of Michael Scott. I always thought they should have also had one From the Desk of Dwight Schrute.

  12. Michael Scott,

    The socialists may be rowing in different directions, but at least everyone in the boat will be rowing.

    How’s Dunder Mifflin?

    Best regards.

  13. It’s a useless question. You can drop twelve “socialists” in a boat, and they still can’t row in the same direction. Pushed to the wall, the only real issue is the extent the citizen has private property protected by law, and the extent the government controls one’s use of that property and interferes with personal liberty.

  14. If some candidate were to offer and in depth solution that was better than anything else yet offered or used, they, along with their solution, would be taken by the opposition and first distorted, then twisted, then subsequently smeared until what they said, regardless of any merit whatsoever, would stand in the voters’ minds as just not American. The voters would remember the buffoonery and not the content. So, perhaps it’s better to pay your dime, buy your ticket, and take your chances. Straight answers are simply too dangerous.

  15. It’s not about “government solving all our problems”. It’s about firstly choosing which problems should be solved by government and then designing our government to solve them. This works quite well in the more advanced nations where the people have learned not to reduce issues to the one or the other solution, only.

  16. Well, there’s really not much difference, hence why they struggle. Both believe in nationalizing industries, such as healthcare, and growing unions. Both believe in increasing taxes and the costs of doing business to the point that the incentive to improve is removed. Both believe you should have a middle class lifestyle, without having to work, even if you’re able bodied, and they oppose the welfare work requirement which had to be forced on Bill.

    Both believe the government is here to take care of you from cradle to grave, firmly support union excesses, and they let infrastructure languish to meet those goals. For instance, uber liberal California is going to pay in excess of $65 billion for a vacation train to San Francisco, which is a gift to unions. Meanwhile, our roads are some of the most potholed in the developed world, and gridlock freezes our freeways all day. No one believes that the gridlock is due to people committing all the way from Los Angeles to San Francisco, so clearly the train will have nothing to do with that. When they do build more freeways, they make them toll roads, so the taxpayers who paid for them have to pay to use them. They sit open like bowling alleys while people spend vast tracts of time stuck on the freeway. When they build a new lane, they make it a carpool only lane, so the taxpayers who built it cannot use it. The business owners on the road all day just sit there in gridlock. The moms who can’t carpool with adults to work because they have to be able to leave to pick up their kids just sit there.

    I suppose the only real difference is the degree of nationalization of industry. Socialists are more antagonistic to Wall Street, but they would replace that power broker with bloated government bureaucracy with rich coffers, while the people are equally poor.

    My friend used to live in Maldova. Capitalism was illegal. The family had a black market business so they could eat better food and dress warmly. They lived in fear that they would be found out by their neighbors and turned in. (How pathetic that they had to break the law to stay warmer.) The socialist health care system was awful. Her mother died of cancer on it over there, and she was shocked at the poor quality of care, having lived in the US for many ears. If everyone is equal, then everyone is equally poor. We’ve repeated this experiment many, many times but “government solving all our problems and we’ll all be well off with no effort” still gets a lot of people voted into office.

    1. Karen, socialism is about PRIVATE ownership of industry, not state ownership or state control.

      Stalinism, and the Soviet model throughout its satellite countries, North Korea, Cuba, et al., is not socialism.


  17. What Anne Furman wrote!

    Today’s view of socialism seems to range from some degree of regulated capitalism to outright Stalinist totalitarianism. We can thank despicable human beings like Ayn Rand, among others, and the military-industrial complex’s witch hunt of the ’50s for that evil over the past 75 years.

    Socialism is not about social welfare programs like FDR’s, or state ownership or control of anything. Both of are more a means to convert to a socialist economy rather than being the economy itself. In a word, socialism is about employees of the private entity owning all shares of that private entity equally. That’s it.

    It would still be plagued by the inherent problems of corruption and influence as is capitalism, which therefore requires regulation, and it maintains greater profit to one entity than another in the same arena, but it is a more egalitarian, democratic system than one in which the suit-and-cigar corporate board dictates how much labor it will hire and how much it will earn each hour while they’re unfurling their golden parachutes. And maximizing profit may or may not be the primary motivator based upon a vote of the employee shareholders.

    As for Bernie being a socialist, he’s made no mention of an economic plan of socialism. He may have stated he wants to provide a safety net for the losers in capitalist competition, as does Hillary, though she’s more reserved in saying it, but that’s not socialism no matter what anyone has been brainwashed to believe.

    This is very good topic, which needs to be discussed. Thanks for it.

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