The primary election of 28 year old Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) to represent the Bronx and Queens in congress has been a lightning rod for the passions and fears of so many Americans. Partly because AOC represents so many segments of the population which have so little voice and her win as an underdog was so dramatic, she was instantly catapulted to the national stage. There aren’t many leaders on the left who are young, female, Latina, boldly progressive and telegenic like her. She has gained over 800k Twitter followers in just a matter of months. For the 58 million Latinos in the US and the millions of urban youth, they don’t have many heroes on the national stage, so she has became the symbol to channel their energy.
Because she was so pretty and passionate and her story of overthrowing the man angling to be the next Speaker of the House was so compelling, AOC got a ton of media coverage both on television and in social media in the weeks following her primary win. Her use of the taboo phrase “democratic socialist” to describe herself and her call to abolish ICE made her the newest object of fascination in the public eye.
AOC carries the energy and passion of the grassroots left, but she also excites the lizard brain of conservatives, that seems to dwell in perpetual fear of the other. They love to attack her, characterizing her as both an airheaded dunce of the radical left and a dastardly mastermind who plots to turn the US into a Venezuelan failed state.
Anyone who listens to AOC talk knows she is hardly stupid, and most of the things that conservative pundits pounce on to demonstrate her lack of knowledge actually demonstrate their own stupidity. For example, when they criticized her for saying that Israel is “occupying” Palestine, they showed their own misunderstanding of the true situation on the ground in the Middle East by repeating the propaganda of the Israeli government. AOC paused when questioned and naively admitted, “I am not the expert on geopolitics on this issue,” but what she said demonstrated far more knowledge than the right-wing pundits who have criticized her for her response.
The 1948 war ended with Israel occupying 78% of historic Palestine and expelling 750,000 Palestinians from their homes. The 1967 war resulted in Israel taking over the remaining 22% and expelling 300,000 Palestinians. Today, 600,000 Israelis live in illegal settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and Israel has a policy of stealing more Palestinian land which it calls “facts on the ground” in its campaign to reclaim the historic Israel. Today, Israel controls 63% of the land in the West Bank and has joint control over another 22%, so Palestinians only control 18% and their movement within that 18% is restricted by walls, roads and checkpoints.
As a political novice suddenly thrust into the national spotlight, I suspect that AOC was trying to find a way to frame her response in a way that would not offend Jewish voters and she didn’t have enough experience to know that she should never admit not being an expert or being unsure how to respond. An experienced politician like Bernie Sanders who has been handling these sorts of gotcha questions for decades would have anticipated the question and prepared response or would have known how to insist on the basic point that an injustice is occurring in Palestine, without getting tripped up by the details.
AOC hasn’t always figured out the best way to frame her issues and how to avoid saying things that allow the right-wing attack machine to sharpen its knives, but it is precisely the fact that she doesn’t artfully avoid the issue of Palestine and she speaks so passionately about the injustice of the current Capitalist system that makes her so refreshing. AOC reacted with the natural outrage an ordinary person watching the home demolitions in Palestine and the evictions of working-class people by banks and land developers in the Bronx. What makes her so attractive is that she didn’t poll test her message before she called for the abolishment of ICE when she sees immigrants being deported and children being separated from their parents.
Fortunately, AOC now has a safe congressional seat, where she doesn’t have to worry about being driven from office for giving voice to an ordinary person’s natural empathy and moral outrage in the face of injustice. In time, I expect that she will get better at anticipating the gotchas and have formulated her responses beforehand, but it will deeply sadden me if she becomes another poll-tested, anodyne slogan machine who becomes so gun shy from the political fray that she is beaten into conformity with the status quo.
The right-wing talking heads have made AOC their newest public boogey to excite the fear of the right and rally the base. Just watch what Liz Wheeler says about her:
Liz Wheeler seems to be incapable of reading Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s platform. Nowhere does AOC talk about the government taking over the means of production. Medicare for All means that the hospitals are still privately run, but the government provides insurance. When Bernie Sanders and AOC say “democratic socialism,” they are talking about policies from European social democracies, not from Stalin, Mao, Kim, Castro, Chavez or Maduro.
Why does Wheeler think that Medicare for All and free tuition at public universities will turn the US into a Stalinist state? Every developed country in the world except the US has universal health care and it hasn’t led to authoritarian dictatorship. The US used to have free tuition at many of its public universities in the 1950s, and it didn’t lead to Communism. My parents attended the University of Texas in the 1960s, where tuition was basically free, and they didn’t think that it led to the destruction of American values. By every measure (GDP per capita, life expectancy, surveys of happiness, education levels, etc.), Scandinavian countries have a higher standard of living that the US, plus they have lower levels of corruption (as measured by Transparency International) and are more democratic.
As for Wheeler’s argument about the cost of AOC’s proposed policies, Medicare for All will save the US between $300 billion and $1.7 billion per year (depending on the study). Free tuition at public universities will cost about $70 billion per year. Even when you add in free tuition at trade schools, it will be less than $100 billion per year. The US congress just approved a $100 billion increase to the military budget, taking it to $716 billion in 2019 and the new tax cuts will cause a $1.9 trillion deficit over the next 10 years, so the US could easily afford it. I haven’t seen a cost estimate of AOC’s federal jobs guarantee, but I doubt that it will be over $150 billion per year currently or $400 billion per year during times of economic depression. The US government employed 13 million people during the Great Depression and the massive investment in infrastructure in the 1930s helped the US grow economically over the long run.
The Trump tax cuts gave 83% of the cuts to the top 1%, while raising taxes on 72% of taxpayers over a 10 year period. Most rational people would say that America should have been spent that money on health care, education and infrastructure, rather than helping the wealthiest and most powerful Americans grow even more wealthy and powerful.
Three Americans (Gates, Bezos and Buffet) now own as much wealth as the bottom 56% of Americans. The best way to change the current situation where the rich get richer and everyone else gets poorer is to implement the kind of policies being proposed by AOC. Many countries have tried it, including the US in the past, and it hasn’t created the kind of dystopia that Wheeler imagines. People like Wheeler seem to be incapable of rationally analyzing AOC’s proposals and can only engage in fear-mongering and smearing because they don’t have a rational response.
The ludicrous response from the right is almost expected at this point, given how many on the right called Obama a secret Muslim Socialist born in Kenya. AOC ticks all the boxes to ignite their fears. She is a socialist, a Puerto Rican, a feminist, a millennial and a product of the immoral inner-city–all categories that the right loves to denigrate and castigate as destroying America.
What is more interesting has been the conflict within the Democratic Party around AOC. The Democratic leadership has offered her a mixed response in public ranging from Nancy Pelosi dismissing her as a irrelevant sideshow in an unusual district and a cautious attempt to jump on her popular bandwagon by Tom Perez. However, behind the scenes, there are rumors that they are taking steps to marginalize her. It is unclear at this point how many Democrats will support Joe Crowley’s attempt to dislodge her by running on the Working Families ticket against her in the general election, but is is clear that a number of the traditional party operatives would prefer to keep interlopers like AOC out of power.
AOC has become a lightning rod for much of the grassroots energy in the party that is pushing for real, progressive change, rather than the timid half-steps that have characterized the Party since the election of Bill Clinton in 1992. Although Bernie Sanders and AOC and most of the others who call themselves “democratic socialists” aren’t real socialists according to the definition taught in economics class. When AOC calls for a federal jobs guarantee, you might call that socialism, since the state will be hiring millions of people, but when you balance that with AOC’s calls to reduce military spending, the net effect might be that the state controls less of the national economy.
In an interview with Vogue, AOC said that socialism to her means “democratic participation in our economic dignity, and our economic, social and racial dignity.” She continued: “To me, what socialism means is to guarantee a basic level of dignity. It’s asserting the value of saying that the America we want and America we are proud of is one in which all children can access a dignified education. It’s one in which no person is too poor to have the medicines they need to live.”
I suspect that AOC calls herself a “democratic socialist” because she was inspired working on the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders and met people who shared her passion for social justice in the Democratic Socialists of America. Democratic Socialism for people like AOC means less about how to organize economic production and more about how people participate in the political system and how ordinary people live their lives. In this understanding of her political label, AOC is not a disciple of 20th century socialists like Britain’s Clement Attlee who wanted the state to run the health care system and nationalize the railroads, mines and utilities. Instead, she is a follower of Bernie Sanders, in the way she talks about grassroots organizing to build a popular mass movement for change, and the state guaranteeing basic necessities for all people. The word “democratic” is fundamental to that understanding since it is based on popular movements rising up from below to achieve a non-violent revolution of the political process. The “socialism” part means working for a more just society where working class people aren’t marginalized and the government takes care of people in need.
Political scientists will throw up their hands in disgust at the way that AOC and Bernie Sanders use the word “socialism,” but most people who call themselves socialists today in Europe aren’t that different from social democrats in their policy agenda. Even in a country like Bolivia, where the Movement toward Socialism (MAS) has controlled the country for over a decade, socialism ended up meaning more taxation, rather than the government taking over the natural gas fields that provide half of the country’s exports.
Maybe you can call Bernie Sanders a socialist in his advocacy of worker-owned co-ops, but that was a minor plank in his platform that was hardly mentioned in his standard stump speeches on the campaign trail. Italy has had a policy of helping to support worker-owned co-ops for decades and nobody calls the country socialist. If Sanders is a socialist, he is one who hearkens back to the 19th century when Robert Owens was setting up factories run by workers and Karl Marx was theorizing about how workers would run the workplace in order to no longer be alienated from the product of their labor. In some ways, however, Sanders is more up-to-date than his critics in his understanding of the word “socialism.” The economist, Richard Wolff, who is arguably the most famous Marxist in America today, is a passionate advocate of worker-owned co-ops. Wolff repeatedly points out in his lectures that socialism today doesn’t mean what it meant in the 1950s.
At the end of the day, the label “democratic socialist” is less about a formal socio-economic definition, and more about signaling a radical change in values and the style of political organizing. People are sick of listening to smooth-talking, poll-tested politicians who do the bidding of wealthy donors and don’t seem to care about the welfare of ordinary people. Perhaps it is the rise of Youtube, Twitter, Facebook and social media in general which allows ordinary people to talk more directly to each other in the political sphere, but people expect more unvarnished bluntness. Working longer hours at lower wages and struggling to pay the rent, the student loans and the health care bills have made ordinary people angry and frustrated with the status quo.
When a politician like Bernie Sanders publicly states, “I’m a democratic socialist,” it tells ordinary people that he is just at mad at the status quo as they are and he can’t be bought off or dissuaded from trying to change the system. For the youth in the audience who didn’t grow up with the propaganda of the Cold War, socialism is what they heard the right say about Obama for years, so it has lost its capacity to scare them. The label has more negative connotations for older generations who were inculcated with decades of anti-Communism, but it does not necessarily mean that they negatively view a politician who willingly adopts the label. Some portion of the audience will shut down and dismiss everything a democratic socialist says as the words of a deluded lunatic. Another portion of the audience, however, will conclude that the politician is honest, since nobody calls herself a socialist if she is trying to manipulate or appease people just to get elected. Millions of Democrats walked from hearing a Sanders’ speech in the 2016 presidential primary, thinking to themselves that he was sincere and unbought, which is far more important than ideology in today’s context. People know that they can trust Sanders to fight like hell for their health care and a higher minimum wage, and all the money and backroom deals in the world won’t be able to deter him from fighting on their behalf.
After years of hearing politicians say pretty things in public, the blunt honesty of politicians who call themselves “democratic socialists” is a breath of fresh air for many voters who are fed up with the current system. The majority of voters don’t need convincing since what Sanders and AOC are saying on economic issues is what they already believe, according to the public opinion polls. It is mostly a matter of closing the trust gap, which they do very effectively by using a politically-incorrect label like socialism and by refusing to take donations from corporations and employ SuperPACs.
Socialism in America has given expression to the leftist desire for meaningful change, but it is hardly the kind of revolution that its critics imagine. The right wing is using it as a means to fear-monger about the left and rally its base. Establishment Democrats rightly see is as a challenge to their way of doing politics, which is based on middle of the road centrism and milking money from wealthy donors. The leadership of the Democratic Party is waking up to the unpleasant reality that Bernie Sander’s surprising popularity in his 2016 presidential campaign was hardly a fluke. He has inspired a whole new generation of similar politicians who are challenging them to either take bold stances on the issues or face grueling primary challenges.
According to Gallup, 57% of Democrats now have a positive view of socialism, which is down one point from 2016, but up 4 points since 2012, so the Democratic base hasn’t substantially changed its views, but they now have a whole new class of political leaders to give voice to their sense of frustration with the existing Capitalist system. Democratic leaders who criticize “democratic socialism” need to understand what it represents and why it appeals to American voters who are hardly socialist in the traditional sense, but are embracing its promise to confront the status quo and improve their lives.
Most establishment Democrats aren’t as out of touch with their base as Joseph Crowley, so they will probably be savvy enough to not offend their base and survive primary challenges from democratic socialists. The progressive candidates endorsed by Our Revolution, Justice Democrats, Brand New Congress and the Democratic Socialists of America have won roughly half of their races so far in the primary season, but they generally don’t win against entrenched Democratic incumbents, especially on a state-wide level. Alison Hartson lost to Dianne Feinstein and Kevin de Leon in California, Paula Jean Swearengin lost to Joe Manchin in West Virginia, Kaniela Ing lost to Ed Case in Hawaii, and Cori Bush lost to Lacy Clay in Missouri. Where the races were close, as in Abdul El-Sayed’s loss in Michigan’s gubernatorial primary and Brent Welder’s loss to Sharice Davids in Kansas, they weren’t running against Democratic incumbents, so wins like AOC’s are likely to be rare. AOC won in part because it depended on which candidate had the most loyal base which would show up to vote, since it was a primary designed to limit the turnout to the party faithful. Ordinarily this kind of limited primary helps the incumbent, but the number of institutional loyalists tied to Crowley weren’t that many, whereas AOC managed to build a base of supporters outside the traditional party structure that overwhelmed the institutional voters.
Nonetheless, the very fact that entrenched politicians like Feinstein and Manchin are facing credible challenges from the left will inevitably change the dynamic in the party. Just like the way that Republicans were forced to cater to the demands of the Tea Party activists, establishment Democrats will stop being so dismissive of the demands of their grassroots activists, knowing that they could be knocked out by that same base in the next election.
Democratic socialism will be less of a threat to America than its critics imagine, since in many ways it represents a return to the politics of FDR and the party of the 1930s-60s which responds to the demands of its chief voting blocks. Today, voters are no longer as organized into institutions like unions and voting leagues, but social media, alternative media, progressive organizations and intersectional movement building are gaining the ability to bring voters to the polls in similar ways. Most of the political pundits and the leadership of the party continues to delude themselves about the power and potency of the movement.
It is unlikely that democratic socialism will present much a challenge to the Democratic establishment in the 2018 primaries, despite all the attention that AOC’s win has garnered. The real challenge to the establishment will come when Bernie Sanders runs for president again in 2020. Almost all the presidential contenders except Joe Biden on the Democratic side have already embracing Sander’s policy agenda to some degree by publicly supporting Medicare for All and vowing to take no corporate donations. In an effort to co-opt Sanders and win over his voters, Gillibrand, Warren, Harris and Booker are likely to start sounding very similar to Sanders on the campaign trail.
It is hard to predict the future, but it is likely that Bernie Sanders will be the front-runner in a crowded field if he runs in 2020 and his brand of democratic socialism has a good chance of winning, since it best answers the aspirations of the Democratic rank-and-file. No other candidate will have the kind of passionate and committed supporters like Bernie Sanders. Nobody in the party dislikes Biden, but the base of the party isn’t willing to go to bat for him like it will for Sanders.
Even if Sanders doesn’t run, it is clear that anyone who hopes to represent the base has to run on his agenda in 2020. Whether his brand of “democratic socialism” becomes the message of the party or not, his agenda if not his style of politics will inevitably come to the fore. The leadership of the Democratic Party had better make its peace with what democratic socialism represents, whether they call choose to adopt its label or not, because it is the future of American politics.