Is democratic socialism the right path for America?

Story highlights

  • "Socialism" has turned into a buzzword, thanks to Bernie Sanders
  • CNN Opinion invited experts to weigh in on Americans' attitude toward different forms of socialism

(CNN)At the first Democratic debate, Sen. Bernie Sanders acquainted many Americans with the term he uses to describe his program: "democratic socialism," touching off debate about exactly what the term means and why many Americans have traditionally reacted poorly to the socialist label.

What is democratic socialism and how would it change America's capitalist economy? And is it the right path for the United States?
CNN Opinion invited political scientists, economists and other experts to weigh in. What do you think? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section and on Twitter and Facebook.

    Peter Dreier: What is democratic socialism, American-style?

    In the early 1900s, socialists led the movements for women's suffrage, child labor laws, consumer protection laws and the progressive income tax. In 1916, Victor Berger, a socialist congressman from Milwaukee, sponsored the first bill to create "old age pensions." The bill didn't get very far, but two decades later, in the midst of the Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt persuaded Congress to enact Social Security. Even then, some critics denounced it as un-American. But today, most Americans, even conservatives, believe that Social Security is a good idea. What had once seemed radical has become common sense.
    Peter Dreier
    Much of FDR's other New Deal legislation -- the minimum wage, workers' right to form unions and public works programs to create jobs for the unemployed -- was first espoused by American socialists.
    Socialists were in the forefront of the civil rights movement from the founding of the NAACP in 1909 through the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Socialists have long pushed for a universal health insurance plan, which helped create the momentum for stepping-stone measures such as Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s and Obamacare today.
    In the 1890s, a socialist Baptist minister, Francis Bellamy, wrote "The Pledge of Allegiance" and a socialist poet, Katherine Lee Bates, penned "America the Beautiful." Throughout our history, some of the nation's most influential activists and thinkers, such as Jane Addams, John Dewey, Helen Keller, W.E.B. DuBois, Albert Einstein, A. Philip Randolph, Walter Reuther, Martin Luther King, Eugene V. Debs, and Gloria Steinem, embraced democratic socialism.
    During the Cold War, many Americans confused democratic socialism with communism. In fact, democratic socialists opposed the totalitarian governments of the Soviet Union, China and their satellites. That's because democratic socialism is about democracy -- giving ordinary people a greater voice in both politics and the workplace.
    Although Sanders says that America needs a "grassroots political revolution," he is actually a reformer, not a revolutionary. His version of democratic socialism is akin to what most people around the world call "social democracy," which seeks to make capitalism more humane. Read full essay.
    Peter Dreier is professor of politics at Occidental College and author of "The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame" (Nation Books, 2012).

    Sally Kohn: Why Sanders asked us to look

    In the first Democratic debate, Sen. Bernie Sanders was asked to explain "democratic socialism." His response was, "I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway."
    So, when we look there what do we get? We see less economic inequality and more concern for the well-being of citizens. Let's look at some details.
    Sally Kohn
    Whereas in the United States, federal law allows people to take three months of unpaid parental leave, Swedish law gives new parents a combined 16 months of leave that they can use however they want during the first 8 years of their child's life. The law also entitles parents to receive 80% of their wages during leave.
    In average life expectancy, the U.S. is behind more than 30 countries. Spain, which boasts one of the best health care systems in the world, has a single-payer universal health care model. Switzerland, France, Norway, Sweden and Finland -- which have government-funded universal health care -- also rank higher than the U.S.
    In the U.S., the average CEO makes 354 times more money than the average worker. In Germany, one of the world's leading economies, CEOs make only 147 times more than workers -- which is still a lot, but less than double the rate in the U.S. Why is Germany less unequal? Because labor representatives and workers sit on corporate boards. That means when issues of pay come up, there are people in positions of power to speak up for workers' salaries and not just CEO and shareholder interests. It's no wonder that the average worker income in Germany is 16% greater than the average income in the U.S.
    When you learn the details, democratic socialism looks pretty good, doesn't it?
    Sally Kohn is an activist, columnist and television commentator.

    Andrei Markovits: How the word evolved

    People of very different political persuasions have called themselves socialists. French political theorists of the 19th century used the word to connote a system in which there was only communal property. Later, Karl Marx and collaborator Friedrich Engels appropriated the term and redefined it as a system in which there would be no private property, which to them was the source of all inequality, injustice and evil.
    Andrei Markovits
    Marx and Engels used the words "socialism" and "communism" interchangeably and believed such a system would create heaven on Earth. But they never really told us how one would transform capitalism and arrive at socialism. So people had to figure it out for themselves.
    In Western Europe, most notably in Germany, Austria, the Scandinavian countries, even Britain (and to a much lesser degree in the United States) there emerged a huge movement, which called itself social democracy.
    In essence, social democracy would provide a framework that was to transcend capitalism in a gradual manner, meaning with no revolution and with no violence, and through the legislative process install policies that would tame capitalism, improve the human condition and eventually move toward socialism. Those who thought this method was too soft included the Russian Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin.
    These two different paths to socialism led to people becoming bitter enemies. In the late 1960s, democratic socialism emerged and basically rejected the dictatorial and intolerant nature of communism, as well as the bureaucratic stalemate and boring institutionalism of conventional social democratic parties.
    Bernie Sanders hails from this world and calls himself a democratic socialist. Will Americans accept his ideas? We'll find out.
    Andrei S. Markovits is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and Karl W. Deutsch Collegiate Professor of Comparative Politics and German Studies at the University of Michigan.

    Van Jones: Sanders, paint your ideas as 'red, white and blue'

    A surprising 47% of Americans would vote for a socialist to be president. Bernie Sanders can become viable -- simply by winning over an additional 4%.
    Could he? Probably. But not by appealing to foreign models (e.g., Denmark). Americans are skeptical of foreign, European solutions.
    Fortunately for him, Sanders need not search overseas to see his values in action.