Why the Democratic Party chairperson muddled through this question is perplexing to me, as the answer is very apparent. However, I do concede that, within American politics and public policy, it certainly can be confusing. One long-standing problem in American political discourse is that few seem to know what particular political terms mean. For example, use of terms like "socialist" and "communist" are almost interchangeable, with speakers failing to see that if they mean the same, there would not be distinct words for each. Further still, two "big tent" parties politically dominate the United States, the aforementioned Democratic Party, along with the Republican Party. Because each have been around throughout the modern history of the nation, and each covers a broad range of thought, it can prove challenging to clearly draw a line between the two.
Which is to say, if a Democrat is a socialist, so too is a Republican. This is too simple, of course, so I will expand on this point later.
For a great many years, and throughout the world, we find use of the political term "socialist". As years pass, what one "socialist" aims for or does in one nation may diverge from that of another. This, over time, can confound and create contradiction. This makes defining a socialist a debatable point, as there can be many opinions on the matter. Depending on how you choose to define the term, will better answer the question of Democrats as socialists, and with them, Republicans.
A look at Communism
Communism is perhaps the most common root of confusion. Communism and socialism are not synonymous, but humans often see them as such because of the application of socialism from Marxist-Leninism. It may be important to note something about communism: no nation in human history is or was communist. That may come off as a ridiculous assertion, yet it is true. Communism is a utopia. Nations considered communist are those that have that utopia as its political goal. Given none succeeded, none achieving the utopia, none was communist. Having a national government with the stated goal of achieving communism is all one really needs to earn the communist label, rather than having achieved it. According to the German philosopher Karl Marx, to achieve communism, a nation must be a first world industrial power. Whatever political, social, or economic principals or philosophies employed between setting out to achieve communism and successfully achieving it are irrelevant to communism. A nation could employ free markets and capitalism. It could be a totalitarian state. It could be anything, and that anything could change over time. The only consistent thing that matters is the end goal of achieving communism. This end goal opens a critical point: in the communist utopia, there is no government. None. Zilch. Nada. Interestingly, this is also what you find with the libertarian utopia: there is no government. A principal difference in the two is what you think of humanity: is it inherently selfless and good, communally willing to work together in peace, without needing institutions to enforce it? Alternatively, is it inherently selfish and bad, where one must seize what they can, protecting themselves and their goods from others, while distrusting an institutional hand in otherwise private affairs?
The problem for communists is that the first nation to adopt the utopian objective was a developing, backward, agrarian nation, ruined in the Great War and subsequent revolution: the Soviet Union. At its start, it employed what they called "War Communism" which was total state control over economic and other matters. However, after the fighting, it was changed via a "New Economic Policy" (AKA State Capitalism) that allowed for private ownership and free trade. Then came Joseph Stalin, who initiated "Marxist-Leninism". The goal was to force the nation from agrarian to first world industrial power. To do so, in his view, was to implement an extreme form of socialism and central economic planning. With a goal of moving from farms to industrial strength, this effort proved successful. Following the Second World War, a Cold War emerged between the Marxist-Leninist Soviet Union and the capitalist Western economies.
From this Cold War, the Soviet Union exported its model to nations adopting the utopian goal. That means they adopted Stalin's extreme form of socialism. Those nations coming on board were, as Russia was, developing economies, such as China and various nations in Africa. What was always missing was the first world industrial power, as Marx envisioned. The only reason an extreme form of socialism is associated with communism is because Marxist-Leninism employed it, and that philosophy found itself as the principal philosophy exported to all those developing nations that came along seeking utopia. Because of the Cold War, to the West, anything the Soviets did was "bad". Therefore, "socialism" became a bad word, often used interchangeably with "communism". It should be noted that, today, China is in no way a Maoist state, or a Stalinist state, nor even a Marxist-Leninist state, for it has freer markets, private ownership, billionaires, international trade, and so on. Yet it is no less communist today than it was in 1949. Again whatever happens between setting the goal of achieving the communist utopia and actually getting there is irrelevant.
Regardless, all of this history, rooted in the Cold War and communism, has made the political term "socialist" anathema for many Americans. Typically, use of the term is in the form of an attack. This is why Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL) ignited so much from her fumbling. She opened a door to validation from years of asserting Democrats are socialists (AKA something generically bad).
Communism is not Socialism. Got it. What is Socialism?
As noted, socialism comes in many forms. From the extreme, where the state owns everything and operates virtually everything, to the more common forms most people take for granted, such as public roads and public education. Socialism, basically, is anything "the people" do together. It is social (public) control over something, such as those schools and roads. It is the opposite of private control. Decisions made by a public school are subject to a public vote; those made by private schools are not. When people start throwing the "socialist" label around, it is generally on things they feel there should be no public role. A few years ago in the United States, their president proposed an overhaul of the nations' health insurance market. This found derision as "socialism" in spite of the private health insurance market retaining ownership, and no move to replace it with a government insurance program, similar to MediCare (a very popular program for those over the age of 65; a program that is pure socialism by any definition).
The typical, contemporary Democratic public official generally chooses the private market over public options - as in government options - in most cases, most of the time. The health insurance overhaul is a classic example; Democratic leaders could have chosen to replace private, for profit health insurance with a socialist program. This could have simply been a single amendment to existing law containing a single line of text: "this amendment hereby strikes 'over 65' from the MediCare law". Rather, they chose very complex law ensuring the public purchases their health insurance from private, for profit health insurance companies. They also offered tax credits to those making these purchases, and expanded MediCaid, a public health insurance program for those in poverty. Both of those additions are socialism: tax credits and MediCaid.
However, many popular Democratic goals are fundamentally socialist. The problem, when throwing around the socialist label, is that this is also the case for Republicans. The key areas of difference are priorities and specific issues, while enjoying political screen from all the various bits of socialist public policy the typical American voter takes for granted. Both parties defend the poplar MediCare program. Both parties, but largely the Republicans, support huge jobs programs in the private defense industry (which is, if you think about it, top down, state planning of the economy - picking winners and losers, as it is said). There are many examples.
The Farm Bill
One example I feel does a fine job illustrating both party’s endorsement of socialism, but the divergence of their priorities, is the Farm Bill. Most Democrats support providing food aid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as Food Stamps, to those in poverty. For many years, this enjoyed bi-partisan support, chief among them, 1996 GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole (R-KS). Similarly, Republicans support providing redistributive cash aid to farmers, typically to cover losses and help them stay in the game. This was originally a Democratic idea and policy, yet enjoying bipartisan support for a generation. Food Stamps help farmers because it means more consumers are buying their produce than otherwise could. The direct cash aid help farmers in the event they lose their crop in a storm or frost, or other factors, including failure to compete in a global market. Both farm aid and Food Stamps are in the same legislation, not only because they are related (both result in revenues for farmers), but also to ensure representatives of those from rural areas and those from urban areas can support diverging priorities in a single piece of legislation.
Democratic support of Food Stamps is support of socialism. They are supporting redistributing money collected from the public to those in poverty, permitting them to purchase food. Republican support of cash aid to farmers is support of socialism. They are supporting redistributing money collected from the public to those in the business of farming, permitting them to stay in business.
However, Republicans tend to attack Food Stamps as socialism and the redistribution of wealth, while remaining silent on farm aid, despite being the same thing. This is just politics. It perhaps may be effective because a common public image of the farmer is that of a hard working white male in the heartland, and the Food Stamp recipient as a lazy woman of color in the big city. She is the infamous "Welfare Queen" popularized by President Reagan. Makers versus takers in the parlance of the campaign of Republican Mitt Romney for president in 2012. In spite of both sides being socialism, much of the public sees the farmer as deserving, while some see the poor as not. Because socialism is "bad", it seems the label sticks more effectively on the "bad" programs for "takers" while getting a pass for the good programs for the makers. This is a guess, of course. Who knows for sure why it is this happens, what is not in doubt is that is does happen. Regardless, both parties are supporting socialism.
Is a Democrat a Socialist?
That depends on how much of a hardline you take on what socialism means. If you see socialist as Marxist-Leninist, then obviously no, the typical Democrats is not a socialist. Are they akin to the European Socialist? I would say no, they having proved it when given the chance to inaugurate a health insurance system similar to those found in Europe. As we saw, they chose to retain a private, for profit insurance market. If you take the absolute view of socialism, that of anything public being socialist, then yes, they are socialists. Nevertheless, if taking that view, so too are Republicans. So too, frankly, are just about every single American.
Are you a Socialist?
Have you ever earnestly asked yourself this question? You might be certain you are no Marxist-Leninist. Few are. Perhaps you are sure you are not a European socialist. Harder to say. However, are you completely opposed to everything public? Unlikely, and if the answer is no, you are socialist. In most cases, it is all just a matter of degree.
A public library or museum is socialism. Even the judicial system! I feel in most cases humans would not immediately think public courts are socialism - I note it because there are libertarians who envision a world of privately run, for profit courts. What humanity has learned over the years is that sometimes, there are things that are better done, or at least ethically superior, if the public comes together to do and govern it, having a say in what it does. Where an individual draws that line between private and public differs from one person to the next. As an example, once, prisons were owned and operated by the people. There has been an increasing movement toward privatizing prisons. If you agree that prisons should be private, you are not socialist on that particular issue.
Another point regarding socialism: when the public does it, the people can take pride in it. Every Russian, Brit, American, Canadian, Aussie, and others can take tremendous pride in the defeat of Nazi Germany. Everyone can because everyone participated. The Americans can take great pride in landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth, one of the most historic achievements in human history. Everyone can take pride because it was a public effort. Americans can gaze upon the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and tell their kids "we built that." Whereas, Google made Google. The only people who can take pride in it are those who work at Google. Socialism is, frankly, more common than most seem to think, and it certainly is not always a bad thing. Ask any sports fan how much they love their team, and how willing they are to pool their community resources to ensure the team has a fine venue with which to compete. Because the fan has a role in keeping the local team in town, they can take pride in that team.
A simple way to help determine if you are Socialist:
Do you support President Thomas Jefferson's (D-R) idea of public education? In an effort to help ensure a natural aristocracy, all could enjoy the privilege of education, and "rake the rubbish" to find the diamonds in the population. This is socialism.
Do you support President Teddy Roosevelt's (R) idea of public parks? Americans collectively own and maintain state and federal parks and reserves throughout the nation. Americans do this in part to ensure the wonder of nature for their enjoyment and that of their posterity. This is socialism.
Do you support President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's (D) idea of ensuring some bit of economic security in old age? This, of course, is Social Security. The idea is that once you retire, you will receive some money for the rest of your life. It is guaranteed, stable, something you can count on, and not subject to the random fluctuations of markets. If you happen to live longer than however much you had put into it, you are getting redistributed wealth. This is socialism.
We can play this game all day. If you are like most Americans, you likely support some, if not all, of that, regardless of how you identify politically. All you need to do is ask: is Policy X managed or operated by the public. If so, it is very likely socialist. Moreover, therefore, if you use the term "socialist" as an attack on Democrats while you yourself support socialist policy, then it may be a good time for self-reflection.
Okay, darn it, so is a Democrat a Socialist?
Most Americans, because of the legacy of the Cold War, think of socialism as Marxist-Leninism, whether familiar with the term or not. A state-run economy, no free markets, no private ownership of anything. The party chairperson, as a politician, if asked again, can answer the question with that popularly held framework in mind.
Owing to Republicans also supporting socialist policy and principals, they too may take this answer and make it their own, if ever asked the question.
In spite of all of this, one can be tripped up by the presence of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Though he is seeking the nomination of the Democratic Party, he is not, nor has he ever been, a member of their party. He is a self-described socialist, and has caucused with the party throughout his career. Why? Likely because the Democratic Party agrees with him more often than the Republican Party. At least there is closer agreement on issues he most identifies with and cares about. As I opened with, both parties are "big tent" parties, with myriad of views and ideologies finding a place to carve out within each. One could see that his views regarding firearms align far better with the Republican Party than that of the Democrats. But his hopes of universal healthcare, which is of far greater importance to him than firearms, finds more allies within the Democratic Party than the Republican Party. Issues such as these are likely what lead him toward the Big Tent Democrats than the Big Tent Republicans. Additionally, because of how the American political system works, and the rules of the Senate, any independent who chooses not to caucus with any party will have no role whatsoever in governing, beyond voting on bills reaching the floor. By choosing a caucus, he can get committee assignments, ensuring a greater role in influencing pubic policy. Seeking the Democratic nomination also ensures all the institutional power of the party will be with him for a general election, if he were to win that nomination. As an independent, he would have to compete nationally, on his own, without the party infrastructure, personnel, talent, and other resources. Though a socialist, and though independent, it just makes more sense to pick one of the two Big Tents and work within the American political system.