When Hardball’s Chris Matthews recently asked DNC chairperson Debbie Wasserman about the difference between a “socialist” and a “democrat,” Wasserman appeared to be avoiding the question – or perhaps she didn’t know. The other possibility is that Matthews, whose own political views lean to the right, had already made up his mind and didn’t want to hear the answer.

Current polls put Bernie Sanders ahead of the three leading Republican Presidential candidates. At the moment, he’s still trailing Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, but his stock with voters is rising while Clinton’s is falling.  This is making the Democratic Establishment apprehensive – but it’s sending the mainstream corporate media into an all-out panic.

In the segment on which Wasserman appears, Matthews asks Wasserman if she wants Sanders to speak at the  primaries: “Do you want [Sanders] up there as a socialist representing the Democratic Party?”

Wasserman’s response: “Of course he should speak.” However, when asked if Sanders should speak during prime time when most viewers would be watching, Wasserman seemed to want to dodge the question. Nonetheless, she acknowledges that Sanders has “appeal across the board…the Progressive, populist message that he has…resonates deeply and widely with the American People, not just Democrats.” For Wasserman, the important issue at the moment is the difference between the two major parties. She attempts to explain this to Matthews:  “The difference between us and the Republicans is that we are a big tent party.”

In other words, while the GOP is highly regimented and confined to a very narrow, authoritarian, corporatist philosophy, the Democratic Party allows for a wide range of views on an equally wide range of issues. It is both the Democrats’ greatest strength and greatest weakness – something our friend Thom Hartmann points out regularly.

This said, let us attempt to answer Matthews’ question (even if he didn’t really want or expect an answer).

First of all, comparing socialists and Democrats is like comparing an apple with “tree fruit.” Socialism is a word describing an economic system and philosophy. The Democratic Party is just that – a political organization that includes Socialists, Liberals, Left Libertarians, Capitalists and Corporatists. It also includes Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, secular humanists, atheists and agnostics.

Even socialism is not a unified economic theory. There are many types of socialism. On one end of the spectrum is the old, totalitarian Soviet system in which the State controlled the means of production as well as distribution. On the other end is libertarian socialism, which calls for decentralization of power as well as worker ownership, control and self-management of the workplace.

Bernie Sanders identifies himself as a Democratic Socialist. Democratic Socialism in the U.S. arose in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries in opposition to growing corporate power and increasing militarism. One of the movement’s early founders and champions was Eugene V. Debs – a historical figure for whom Sanders has great admiration.  Sander’s Democratic Socialist views are not incompatible with free enterprise, nor even capitalism. Sanders simply believes, as do a growing number of Americans, that capitalism should play by the rules and be subject to the same laws and regulations as everyone else. Sanders, like those who support him, understands that private corporations that grow “too big to fail” threaten democracy while exercising the kind of tyranny that is endangering the very existence of life on Earth. Sanders also understands that, while free enterprise does many things well, there are institutions and resources that belong to all of us together and none of us alone – and therefore, should never be subject to a system focused on profits. These are the Commons: water, infrastructure such as roads, bridges and utilities, health care, education, public transportation, the right to basic housing, energy resources and communications. The last thirty years have demonstrated how badly private corporations have administered the Commons, using them almost exclusively for their own benefit to the detriment of society and the environment.

When it comes to products that make life more convenient, more interesting and even enjoyable, free enterprise does a fine job. It produces private automobiles (cars made in old Soviet factories were usually bad copies of American and European vehicles – and their mechanical reliability left much to be desired). Free enterprise creates computing devices that are constantly shrinking in price and size while offering ever-greater capabilities. It provides entertainment (the quality of which may be debatable – but is still better than much of what would come out of government-controlled studios and theaters). Free enterprise drives all sorts of amazing innovations that have the potential to make the world a more comfortable and enjoyable place.

But unlike shelter, clean water, safe food and health care, our lives and well-being do not depend on these things. Even education is necessary for a person to realize his/her own full potential and become a contributing member of society. It should never be subject to the profit motive, and students should never be forced into a lifetime of debt slavery simply to receive that education.

These are the issues for which Bernie Sanders stands. These are the issues that are resonating with the American People. This is Democratic Socialism.

Mr. Matthews, we at the Ring of Fire hope we have answered your question satisfactorily.

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues.