I know the technical answer to that question. I could even comment on varying historical and present-day expressions of it and different degrees of commitment to an interventionist, command-economy system, labor unions, the dialectic of a class war, and so on. However, that may not match well with what most supporters of socialism in the U.S. think it is today.
As Geoffrey Skelley wrote recently for FiveThirtyEight, “Unlike in the 1940s, Americans today are more likely to identify socialism with ‘equality’ than with ‘government ownership or control,’ according to polling by Gallup.”
Thus, while public opinion has softened toward socialism, the public’s perception of what socialism is has shifted. Socialism is no longer a specific economic system: It has been reduced to an aspiration for certain economic (and other) outcomes, at least for some.
While Sanders seems to be an old-school socialist himself, we can see this more aspirational socialism in the Green New Deal. It is more an ideological litmus test of commitment to certain economic and environmental outcomes than anything one could call a policy – not to mention concrete legislation – that would realistically achieve those outcomes.
Now, one could rightly point out that in order to achieve those outcomes, a socialist system may be necessary, even presumed. On the other hand, we can also see this aspirational socialism in popular admiration of the Nordic states, which, whatever one thinks of them, are not very socialist today – not in any technical sense anyway. The shift in focus is notable, and it leads to potential miscommunications. As Alejandro Chafuen put it in Forbes, “Advocates from both sides speak past each other.”
This terminological shift moves the discussion from the mechanics of economic policy to the moral motives used to justify them. Thus, for many to say that they support socialism may mean less that they want the U.S. to be the next Venezuela and more that they simply want more fairness and equality. They perceive our current market economy, to put it in Sanders’ terms, as “rigged” in favor of megacorporations, “millionaires and billionaires,” at the expense of small businesses, the poor, and the middle class.
The senator’s talk about our economy being “rigged” resonates with the more aspirational conception of socialism, and it is not without some truth, depending on the market. As I wrote in my book Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society, “Even in some of the freest economies there is inequality generated not through the creation of wealth [which I think is fine] but through restricting markets to favor parties with political connections.”