As a long-time political science professor, I was dismayed to see that Jim Hoffman’s recent letter on “democratic socialism” included numerous errors and confusions. I want to disentangle these, not to defend socialism, but simply to make sure that your readers are not misled about the facts.
First, Mr. Hoffman claims that, “under democratic socialism the first thing the government wants to do is establish one-party rule.” Here, he is mixing up old Soviet-style communist party rule—indeed a nightmare both politically and economically—with social democracy as understood and practiced over the last 100 years in Western Europe. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 in Russia, all socialist parties on the European continent split in two, with a communist party dominated by Moscow and committed to state ownership of most means of production pitted against a social democratic party pledged to free and fair elections, fundamental human rights, and freedom of opinion. Social democratic (“socialist”) parties have governed, sometimes in coalition with other parties, for much of the post-WW II era in countries like Germany, France, Sweden, Norway and Spain. If Mr. Hoffman had not confused communist regimes in Cuba or Russia with social democratic governments in Western Europe, he would have realized this truth and noticed that the latter adhere to the democratic “rules of the game” when in power.
Mr. Hoffman then asks: “How is Social Security doing? How about socialized medicine?” Judging by opinion polls, most Americans are strongly in favor of Social Security and Medicare (“socialized medicine” he would say). True, those programs have been squeezed by a declining ratio of active workers to retirees, but such problems are easily remedied by small adjustments in the retirement age, tax rates, etc.
So what is social democracy all about today? Socialists once championed the public ownership of things like railroads, banks and heavy industry, but today most people understand that a market economy generally works better than the alternative. Hence, the focus of social democracy has shifted. The goal now is to supplement traditional political and civic rights like press and religious freedom with “social rights” such as those to medical care, pensions, unemployment compensation, maternity leave, and much else. Employees in social-democratically influenced countries in Europe enjoy all those rights. We in the USA have them only to a very limited extent. The goal of democratic socialism in this country is to change that.