Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) kicks off his 2020 presidential campaign March 3 in Chicago. (Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press)
Columnist

Democratic socialism is having something of a moment. It isn’t just Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; since President Trump was elected, the membership of the Democratic Socialists of America has grown nearly tenfold. Admittedly, that amounts to only 56,000 members, so it remains a fringe movement. But now it’s a full, luxuriant fringe, rather than threads fluttering at the political periphery.

And what exactly is democratic socialism? Democratic socialists are still arguing about that.

For Sanders, democratic socialism is Scandinavia. Not good enough, retorts the website Jacobin, which declared “Democratic Socialism Isn’t Social Democracy” in a headline last year. Around the same time, one of the website’s staff writers said in an article for Vox that social democracy’s ultimate goal is to “end capitalism.” Jacobin has pointed the way in various articles: nationalize vast swaths of the economy, abolish wage-slavery and turn every workplace into a miniature democracy.

It’s a radical vision not simply of redistributing the fruits of our labor, but fundamentally altering how that work is organized, to something less like the army and more like the prom committee. On the left, this seems to be gaining on Sanders’s “Norway, but bigger” model of democratic socialism.

But if democratic socialism is truly going to be democratic, we have to ask: Do people actually want more democracy in their lives? Not just a higher minimum wage and better workplace protections, but actual day-to-day worker control over operations?

True workplace democracy would replace the power of the boss with the power of your peers — a power that, as innumerable “small town” novels attest, can be at least as oppressive as the capitalist kind.

In small towns, the best counterweight to that tyranny is civic participation: Protect yourself from minority rule by yourself becoming a pillar of the churches, civic groups and clubs that shape the community.

America has a long tradition of such engagement; as far back as 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville remarked on our propensity for forming community groups. But as Timothy P. Carney shows in his new book, “Alienated America,” those community bonds have begun to fray. And you can’t simply blame capitalism, or a “neoliberal order” that suppresses labor unions. We’re not joining unions, yes, but we’re also not joining churches or bowling leagues or literary societies, things we did with abandon a century ago, when capitalism was much less fettered than it is now, and long working hours left much less time for groupishness.

Instead of an explosion of personal and community development once predicted for our comparatively newfound leisure, we’re mostly at home, staring at screens.

Those developments may not be unconnected. Until roughly 100 years ago, the only source of entertainment most people had was their neighbors. Today, ubiquitous cheap entertainment provides wittier dialogue and zippier plots than the Rotary Club, and higher performance quality than the church organist.

You can argue — as Carney and I both would — that we’d be better off going to a PTA meeting or, for that matter, the union hall, than passively entertaining ourselves. But engaging with people in real time means stretches of tedium and some interpersonal friction; the considerable rewards of long fellowship only materialize later. No wonder that at any given moment, the screen wins.

Yet democratic socialism somehow presumes a large body of workers eager to rush into the time-consuming and often tedious work of what social scientists call “thick civic engagement”: doing things not one-on-one, but as a group, with all the politicking, boring meetings and inconvenient obligations that implies. Unless most American workers are prepared to be active participants in their union local or work council, the radical new system would look a lot like the old one, except with the power resting in the hands of a government bureaucrat or union leader just as unaccountable and pettifogging as the hated “boss.”

Unfortunately, America seems to be running in the opposite direction, avoiding as much as possible any direct interaction with other people: ordering from an online site rather than going to the store, texting or emailing rather than making a phone call, organizing friendships around social-media sites instead of social events.

Which leaves democratic socialists with something of a dilemma: selling a system that can only work as promised in tandem with a culture of civic engagement we no longer have. Can democratic socialists persuade a majority of voters that they’ll really prefer a three-hour work council meeting to binge-watching Netflix? Or will democratic socialism require a democratically unpopular state action to curtail those alluring temptations — or, perhaps, simply an economy too hobbled to produce them?

Read more:

Greg Sargent: A centrist Democrat explains why it’s time to give the left a chance

Elizabeth Bruenig: It’s time to reclaim ‘socialism’ from the dirty-word category

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Trump’s war on socialism will fail