A conversation with Democratic Socialist of America director & Portland native Maria Svart

Maria Svart is a Portland native and national director of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Maria Svart is the national director of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and she says democratic socialism is American as apple pie. Most of America would probably disagree with her about that.

Before the 2016 presidential campaign, you couldn't find anyone calling themselves a democratic socialist within a million miles of the presidency. Now, a candidate who embraces that moniker wholeheartedly is in a two-person battle for the Democratic nomination. And he's doing well.

The enthusiasm surrounding Bernie Sanders and the momentum of his presidential campaign -- so far -- is remarkable. Sanders continues to draw huge crowds on the campaign trail and he has been for months. He has made massive gains on Hillary Clinton in the polls, and he delivered the first blowout primary victory on the Democratic side in New Hampshire. Hillary Clinton's win in Nevada is fueling some speculation that Sanders' momentum is now stunted, but that does not diminish any of Sanders' many successes thus far.

The majority of people know enough about socialism to know whether they're for or against it, but I'd wager most people are learning about democratic socialism for the first time this election cycle. I spoke on the phone with Maria Svart to learn more about what democratic socialism is and is not, and how views of democratic socialists may or may not fit in with principles and beliefs that many Americans hold about society, government, and capitalism.

Svart is a Portland native, a graduate of Lincoln High School, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. The following is a excerpt from our conversation.

For people who mistrust socialism in any way shape or form, what do say to them?

Well I think, ultimately, there are some people that will never believe a word that I'm saying, because talk radio is in their ear claiming the democratic socialism is communism. The reality is, in a lot of the authoritarian communist countries, democratic socialists were actually the first people that were put in prison, so if you bother to look at history you'll see that we profoundly believe in democracy. And we rail against corporate power as much as the next person, including a lot of people that are dissatisfied with the status quo, and I really think that the real critical thing is for people to follow the money, because always any time something goes wrong, the first question you have to ask is who benefits and if you do that then you'll have a much clearer sense of what's going on politically in our country.

Government is often seen as inefficient, wasteful, and weighed down by layer after layer of bureaucracy, and the worst tool to use to solve society's big problems.

I guess my biggest problem with that idea is, I don't know about you, but when I try to get a problem solved with a corporation, I'll call the number and I'll be on hold for hours and hours. So I thinks it's a bit of a red herring to say that government bureaucracy is always bad. And certainly, also, I've been to the post office where the line is very long, or the DMV, and I know it's not always perfect. But on the other hand, these are public services that have been systematically defunded by the right wing, often, unfortunately, with the complicity and votes of more moderate Democrats. But we have to recognize that a lot of the current inefficiencies in government -- and certainly not all of them, it's not perfect -- but many of them are because of a deliberate attack, you know, the idea is that if you can shrink government down to the point where you drown it in a bathtub then you can get rid of it all together.

And that's why many working people today are unhappy with many government services, and they feel like they pay too much taxes for very little benefits. And that's because the right wing has cut the share of taxes paid for by the wealthy, then public services have to be cut, and then we feel the squeeze because we're paying a higher share of taxes and the services are of lower quality. So you really have to take a holistic picture to be able to actually compare apples to apples, and I don't think the present system is the best way to think about it.

Democratic socialism advocates for an economy with elements of socialism and capitalism mixed. How can socialist principals and capitalist principals co-exist?

So democratic socialism, I think one thing that people misinterpret is that it's about economic democracy. I've had people ask me, "Aren't you advocating taking from some and giving to others?" And I point out, that's what's happening in capitalism. Working people are in a system that's rigged at the international level, the national level, and at the level of the workplace. And in a democratic socialist society we would have strong unions, or better yet we would have worker cooperatives, where workers would actually own their workplaces. So instead of working for a boss who tries to make as much money as possible by paying them the least possible for the work that they do, they would actually control the fruits of their labor. And then at the level of society, society would truly, democratically decide how to invest taxes.

So instead of what we have now, where Wall Street basically influences what happens with the economy and people don't really have any voice in the political process because politicians have been bought by wealthy corporations and wealthy individuals, people would be able to democratically decide that, "Well, we think that everyone should have universal health care, we think that child care and parental leave for both parents are all very important, and we think that they should be somewhat decentralized and there should be some degree of community control." And that would allow people to prosper in a way that you can't now, because people would have the freedom to actually engage in things that they're interested in, to explore creativity, and to not be constantly struggling and having to go work for an employer that pays them very little and could bring in a robot in the next years to replace them and they'd be thrown in the street with no sort of public program and safety net to support them.

In your opinion, what's good about the free market?

If you look at the transition from feudalism to capitalism, it unlocked the individual potential of a lot of people and it did promote some degree of freedom. The problem is that we actually don't have a free market today, what we have is a system where we are told that there's a free market. But really what there is, is government doing what the wealthiest want them to do to help them get wealthier, to basically rig the system. And what we're told, the story that we're taught in school and through the mainstream media, is that this is freedom and this is a free market. But really it's our military, it's our police, and it's our tax law and everything that emanates out of government that's designed to benefit some people, at the expense of everyone else.

Do you think it's good to have an economic system where people can get insanely wealthy?

I think within limits, yes, but I don't think anybody should be insanely wealthy when people are dying of hunger on the streets and there's homelessness and we don't have health care and mental health care and all these things. And as democratic socialists, we certainly don't think there should be no markets at all, we just think that important things like water should not be only available to people that can pay for it. We think that many, many things that we need to survive -- housing, food, clean water -- should not be bought and sold on the marketplace.

In your view, when does a private business become problematic? Is it when a business becomes too big?

I do think monopolies are a problem, and it gets back to what I talked about earlier where democratic socialism actually increases individual freedom, because it's a similar principle. Mom and pop places, it's not like we're trying to say that we can only have the government run everything, the problem is when a mom and pop place under capitalism can't function. Most small businesses fail when they try to form, because major corporations buy them out, squeeze them out, don't allow them to develop, and then as consumers we're stuck with just a few options that don't really care about their customers even, they just care about making profit for their board or their shareholders. It is, to some degree, a problem of scale in my mind. There are other countries that are social democratic, that have these kinds of small businesses really flourish, specifically because people actually are able to start them up and develop them, because they're the social safety net, so they're not essentially risking everything to create a small business that is most likely to fail, which is what happens in the United States.

Do you think there are some industries that should be excluded from the free market, that shouldn't have a profit motive driving them?

Here's an example - the fossil fuel industry. I mean, that is something that is essentially going to drive us off a climate cliff, so I don't think that it should be left up to the profit to decide how we develop that industry. Right now we provide tons of subsidies to dirty fossil fuels, which is creating an incentive for our own destruction. I do think there are certainly things that, like I said earlier about public services, there are some public services and there are some things that are strategic, where it just doesn't make sense to allow the profit motive - which takes on a life of its own in the current system -- to dictate what happens.

What about health care?

I support Bernie's single payer/ Medicare-for-all proposal for health care for similar reasons. Just as people shouldn't have to drink poison lead-filled water, or buy bottled water, I feel the same way about health care. People shouldn't have to get no health care and suffer and die from it, or be able to pay for health care, and it's not only more humane and moral like we talked about before, but it is more practical because when everybody is in the health care system, you can be rational about the use of health care, because in the United States our health care costs are catastrophic and the quality of care is not as good as in many other countries that have more socialized systems, so it's more practical, it costs less money to provide a higher level of care and everybody is covered, in a system that everybody is in and nobody is out of, verses with what we have now which is really isn't good for anyone.

Do you think the lingering effects of the 2008 crash, the Great Recession, and persistent economic anxiety are benefiting democratic socialism right now?

I talked before about how millennials grew up in a period where we've seen all these terrible economic things happen, and those were all enacted by government. Like what I talked about the very beginning of the interview, about how we don't actually have a free market, we actually have a government bought and paid for by the one percent, which helps the one percent [and] actively intervene in the markets to do so. And so you have young people who are growing up in this period -- the Cold War is over, now they saw the market crash and they've seen various things like Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Wall Street was in response to that, and Bernie Sanders popularity was built on Occupy Wall Street. Same thing with Black Lives Matter, we're in a period where it's increasing social unrest, and that's because people's lived realities have changed.

One of the reasons that millennials love Bernie, it's like he's pointing out what's actually happening and everyone else wants to pretend it's not happening. Which is that, there is a massive downward mobility and this generation is suffering more than the prior generation, and the next generation will suffer more than this generation.

Do you think the Democratic Party is going to get pulled more to the left and closer to your way of thinking, no matter who ends up the nominee or who becomes president?

I definitely think Bernie will have a huge influence and I think that a lot of grassroots people will choose to run as a really aggressive Democrats at the local level, and I think that's a really great development. I think that it's likely that there will be more people inspired to run as independents at the local level as well, and I think that trying to do something as a third party is most effective when it's done at the local level. As for actually influencing the full Democratic Party, I think that will be very difficult. There are multiple strains within the Democratic Party, but the strain that has the most control institutionally is the one that's in bed with Wall Street. So, I don't see you know a realignment as a real possibility. What I do think is that there will be a chasm that gets larger and larger, and the contradictions within the party -- which claims to be for ordinary people but in the end, frequently at the national level, is not -- will make more and more people question the system and question the party and I think that's only healthy.

How do you respond to people who say Bernie Sanders is promising people the moon, delivering on those promises is effectively impossible, and that his supporters will end up disappointed if he's elected president?

I think that Bernie's supporters recognize -- and these are partly lessons learned from the Obama administration -- that you can't just get one person that you like elected and expect them to do everything single-handedly. I mean, those of us on the left knew that Obama was better than the alternative, but we knew that we'd have to pressure him and that he would also face these barriers. But with Bernie fans, I think they also recognize the very real structural barriers that he faces. And that's especially why we in DSA are trying to develop an infrastructure where people can be part of the democratic socialist organization where we're actually going to try to help people think really strategically about how the political system works, the political realities, and how to be effective in them.


The next Democratic primary is in South Carolina this weekend. Hillary Clinton has been consistently ahead in the polls, although her lead seems to have narrowed slightly.