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