Following in the footsteps of Sen. Bernie Sanders, some Democrats have embraced a self-definition as “democratic socialists.” When pressed to define their version of socialism they generally point to Scandinavia, where, they seem to believe, thriving socialist economies and political parties are the norm.
The problem with this view is that it does not correspond to reality. In fact, only a handful of small political parties in Scandinavia endorse socialism. In Norway there is the Socialist Left Party, which garnered 6 percent of the vote in 2017 elections. Denmark has a Socialist Peoples’ Party, which achieved 7.7 percent in June of this year. In Sweden the Left Party, which endorses socialism got 8 percent in 2018, and in April, 2019 parliamentary elections the Finnish Left Alliance achieved 7 percent.
There are, of course, in each of these countries, social democratic parties which have a larger base of popular support, generally between a quarter and a third of the electorate. However these parties do not define themselves as socialist, but as promoting social justice within the framework of a liberal democratic system and a capitalist mixed economy. Their need to seek centrist support in order to form governing coalitions further anchors them within this framework.
The Scandinavian parties are also well aware of the travails of socialist parties in the rest of Europe. For example, the Italian Socialist Party (PSI), in an election last year, failed to reach 1 percent, even though it had formed a tactical alliance with a green and a “progressive” party. As recently as the 1990s, the PSI had led a governing national coalition. The French Socialist Party is not in much better shape in the wake of the desertion of much of its base to other parties. In the 2017 presidential election it received only 6.4 percent of the vote.
These national and regional results were confirmed convincingly in the European Parliament elections in May of this year. The parliamentary group calling itself “Democratic Socialists and Communists” suffered the largest percentage loss of seats of any of the groups. From a lead of 16 seats over the group of “Right Wing Populists and Nationalists” (essentially European admirers of Donald Trump) it fell to a deficit of 35 seats. The Social Democratic group suffered a smaller percentage loss than the Socialists and holds an 80-seat advantage over the populist/nationalist coalition. Faring even better than these groups were those defining themselves as liberal or green which, in combination had a 28-seat advantage over the social democrats and a 108-seat advantage over the populists.
Turning to the United States, there is recent evidence pointing in the same direction. A recent Gallup poll asking Americans if they were willing to vote for a presidential candidate from certain groups found that being a socialist carried a greater disadvantage than membership in any of the other groups, which included gays, Muslims and atheists. Socialists were the only group which did not get the support of the majority of those polled and also the only group which did not improve its standing in the four years since the question was last asked by Gallup.
In light of these facts, one hopes that Democrats who are running for office at the national, state or local level will approach the label “democratic socialist” with great caution. It may not have the resonance they believe it to have. They should especially avoid claiming foreign models that exist mainly in their own imaginations. Perhaps they should consider calling themselves social democrats, or even liberals, as less risky and, one hopes, more accurate alternatives.
Bob Rackmales, a Belfast resident, served for 32 years as a political officer in the US Foreign Service.