Is Democratic Socialism the wave of the future – and is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez its prophet?

Is Democratic Socialism the wave of the future – and is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez its prophet?
New York Democratic candidate for United States Congress Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (R) embraces an attendee following a protest rally against the confirmation vote of Judge Brett Kavanaugh in Boston, Massachusetts, USA 01 October 2018. EPA-EFE/CJ GUNTHER

Does the unexpected success of Aleandria Ocasio-Cortez, the young, energetic democratic socialist, to become a 29-year-old congresswoman from New York City herald a major shift in American politics or just a modest ripple? And what are her views – and where did she come from?

Contrary to the rhetoric one often hears from around the globe by those imbued with true revolutionary ardour, there have long been socialist, or thoroughly socialist-influenced radical, traditions in America. Thus, the latest re-emergence of this strand of political thinking in the person, among others, of newly elected congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez should not be all that surprising. And it may – repeat, just may – have ideal consequences for the broader canvas of American politics.

Let’s start with the congresswoman herself. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez soundly beat a high-ranking stalwart of the mainstream traditions of the Democratic Party, Joe Crowley, in his district’s primary election in the American spring. Then she completely lapped her Republican challenger in the November election. That district has been soundly Democratic for decades, and so gaining a primary win becomes virtually tantamount to a victory lap, come November and the midterm or general election.

As an insurgent, neophyte candidate, Ocacio-Coertez made a virtue of necessity and literally walked through her shoes, campaigning door to door, her best chance given her primary opponent’s massive advantage in campaign funds and longtime name recognition. But, as a fresh face and with apparently boundless energy, she pulled ahead, arguing that their constituents deserved more vigorous representation and stronger advocacy in Congress.

She is now the youngest-ever female member of Congress to take the oath of office – as she is still only 29 years old. (Damn. This writer actually has a couple of suits older than that.) Ocasio-Cortez claims membership in the Democratic Socialists of America. More on that group, and where it fits, in a few moments.

The new congresswoman was born in the Bronx (half of her district is in that borough of New York City, with the other half in the adjoining borough of Queens). As a child, with her father working as a young architect, her family eventually moved to the more upscale neighbourhood of Yorktown Heights, a suburb of Westchester County.

She was a strong student academically, gaining prizes in local high school science fairs and then scoring a second prize in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair with a research project on microbiology, gaining the honour of having a small asteroid named after her by the International Astronomical Union: “23238 Ocasio-Cortez”. (Do you know anyone else with an asteroid christened with their name?) Ocasio-Cortez then went on to Boston University, earning a BA cum laude in economics and international relations. During that time, she interned in the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s Boston office.

Describing her background as working class, Ocasio-Cortez has spoken about the searing experience – and the resulting influence on her political attitudes – of settling her father’s estate after he had died intestate; saying it showed her “first-hand how attorneys appointed by the court to administer an estate can enrich themselves at the expense of the families struggling to make sense of the bureaucracy”. Further influences on her evolving political and economic attitudes came, according to various of her interviews, from seeing the treatment of her cousin by law enforcement agencies, her Catholic faith, and her growing desire to overhaul mass incarceration in the criminal justice system.

Following graduation, she moved back to the Bronx where she worked as a bartender and a waitress, an experience well-known to generations of other young graduates. Following her father’s death, her mother worked as a domestic housekeeper and school bus driver as the family tried to stave off loan foreclosure on their family home. Along the way, Ocasio-Cortez founded a small publishing company producing children’s books that portrayed the Bronx in a positive light. Thereafter, she began working in the NGO universe with groups dealing with education and Latino identity and advocacy.

By then, the formal politics bug had bitten her and she joined the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign during the 2016 primaries. After Sanders was bested by Hillary Clinton, Ocasio-Cortez set out on a kind of self-education, domestic study tour, visiting Flint, Michigan, then in the throes of municipal dysfunction and a poisonous water system, as well as the Standing Rock Native American reservation – the site of a bitter stand-off over an oil pipeline scheduled to cross that landscape.

She later recalled that her stop at Standing Rock had become a kind of personal Damascene moment, when she realised just how much her thinking about politics had changed in the wake of the Sanders campaign. Seeing others “putting their whole lives and everything that they had on the line for the protection of their community” inspired her to embark on her own political activism.

Looking back at her campaign to replace Crowley, she noted that the funding disadvantage shaped her strategy.

You can’t really beat big money with more money,” she said. “You have to beat them with a totally different game.”

Crowley outspent her by a hefty order of magnitude, but her youth, shoe leather, a variety of ethnic organisational endorsements, and some taut organising all seem to have made the difference.

Post-election, the new congresswoman has observed of her victory,:

I knew that if we were going to win, the way that progressives win on an unapologetic message is by expanding the electorate. That’s the only way that we can win strategically. It’s not by rushing to the centre. It’s not by trying to win spending all of our energy winning over those who have other opinions. It’s by expanding the electorate, speaking to those that feel disenchanted, dejected, cynical about our politics, and letting them know that we’re fighting for them.”

As my kids might say about this, “There you have it.”

Not surprisingly, the more right-wing and, naturally enough, the lunatic right social media have already made her into a poster child for the avalanche of unimaginable horrors to come, once Democrats (and socialists) gained a House of Representatives majority. Remember, this is before she has cast a single vote in the House chamber or in committee – and even before she has finally hired her staff, got a permanent office space allocation, or even gained committee assignments.

Also not surprisingly, Ocasio-Cortez’s espoused political positions follow from her description of herself as a democratic socialist. She supports proposals for single payer healthcare, “Medicare for all”; a federal jobs guarantee for the unemployed; tuition-free public college education; cessation of the privatisation of prisons, and enaction of gun control policies. For example, she campaigned on the belief that “for the cost of the GOP’s tax bill, we could forgive ALL the student loan debt in the United States”.

On environmental and climate change issues, she has called climate change the “single biggest national security threat” facing the United States and has advocated a shift to a national electrical grid that runs on 100% renewable-energy production, and an end to fossil fuels. Further, she wants to push for a Green New Deal in which the federal government would invest in large-scale green-infrastructure projects and a national “smart” electrical grid and “mass energy-efficient building upgrades”.

On healthcare, Ocasio-Cortez wants the country to move to a single-payer healthcare system, calling healthcare a basic human right, with a single federal insurer ensuring the entire nation has insurance, while achieving cost reductions. On her campaign website, her message was, “Almost every other developed nation in the world has universal healthcare. It’s time the United States catch up to the rest of the world in ensuring all people have real healthcare coverage that doesn’t break the bank.”

Not surprisingly, she supports a “path to citizenship” for immigrants who have entered the United States legally and illegally, abolishing the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, calling it “a product of the Bush-era Patriot Act suite of legislation” and “an enforcement agency that takes on more of a paramilitary tone every single day”, although she has later clarified her positions, saying she does not believe in abolishing deportations. Nevertheless, she has labelled US immigration detention centres run by the Department of Homeland Security as “black sites”, an allusion to much darker government facilities.

Ocasio-Cortez also supports federal legalisation of marijuana, the banning of private prisons and detention centres, releasing all nonviolent drug offenders, ending cash bail, and insisting on automatic, independent investigations whenever someone is killed by a police officer.

She has also called for the public financing of elections and a constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United v. FEC (the Supreme Court ruling that opened the spigot for corporate money to pour into electoral campaigns), and replacing the Electoral College with a “National Popular Vote”. She is already on record supporting impeachment of the president for his violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution – the section that makes foreign payments to an incumbent president a crime (something already the subject of cases working through the federal court system).

On foreign policy issues, she has been harshly critical of the current Israeli government’s use of deadly force against Gazan protesters, but she has added that she supports a two-state solution. After her surprise primary win, J Street (the Jewish liberal advocacy group positioned in opposition to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s policies) President Jeremy Ben-Ami said he supported “a new generation of candidates who are more outspoken about their opposition to the policies of Netanyahu’s far-right coalition and are eager to see the US play a more constructive role in making life better for both Israelis and Palestinians”. Like Ocasio-Cortez.

Given her ethnic heritage, her statements on Puerto Rico have expressed solidarity with the self-governing island commonwealth and she has advocated for greater efforts to secure additional outside investment, securing its inhabitants full voting rights in US national elections, and greater disaster relief for the island.

On other issues, Ocasio-Cortez has expressed vocal support on LGBT concerns and has appeared at Black Lives Matter rallies. On local constituency issues, she is opposed to the selection of Long Island City in Queens as one of the two locations for the new Amazon HQ2, given that Amazon will benefit from large tax breaks even as transport and other infrastructure needs will go unfunded. A fear is also that the new Amazon offices will drive up local housing costs to the detriment of current residents.

Interestingly, despite the fact that some of these positions lie beyond mainstream views, even for many Democrats, and even before she actually began her term of office, she had already found a way back to a more comfortable relationship with the party’s longtime leadership. After it was first understood she supported a candidate for the House of Representatives speakership to challenge Nancy Pelosi, Ocasio-Cortez eased over onto support for veteran former speaker, California congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, to regain that same position, now that Democrats had crushed the GOP in the midterm election.

But Ocasio-Cortez is just one part of a new crop of Democrats – a more diverse one along almost every axis – and they may need to confront conflicting choices about what they want and what may be achievable.

As the Washington Post commented on Tuesday, 28 November:

On the Way to a Woke Washington: You’ve been put on notice, old guard — the iPhone fisting, Instagram live-streaming, #squad hash-tagging class of 2018 is coming to a Congress near you. The winners of this year’s elections for the House – at least 60 new Democrats and 31 Republicans – represent a historic swath of experience, colour and diversity. Including Muslims, women of colour, veterans, millennials and even the first Native American — the new freshman could shake up This Town. Granted most of the diversity is on the Democratic side, but some new Republican lawmakers want changes, too.

But will the new blood spark an actual culture shift in Washington? Democratic activists, many of whom worked to elect the new House majority, think so.”

Or, will this new blood heed that vintage advice from Sam Rayburn, a longtime Speaker of the House from an earlier era, on how to make progress and assemble influence as a legislator: “If you want to get along, go along?”

This Democratic Socialist label, the one Ocasio-Cortez self-identifies with, may sound new for some in America and beyond, but it actually fits into a long history and lineage. The democratic socialist movement says of itself:”

The DSA has its roots in the Socialist Party of America (SPA), whose most prominent leaders included Eugene V. Debs, Norman Thomas and Michael Harrington. In 1973, Harrington, the leader of a minority faction that had opposed the SPA’s rightward shift and transformation into the Social Democrats, USA (SDUSA) during the party’s 1972 national convention, formed the Democratic Socialist Organising Committee (DSOC).

(The other faction that split following that convention was the Socialist Party USA (SPUSA), which remains an independent democratic socialist political party.)

The DSOC, in Harrington’s words “the remnant of a remnant”, soon became the largest democratic socialist group in the United States. In 1982, it merged with the New American Movement (NAM), a coalition of intellectuals with roots in the New Left movements of the 1960s and former members of Socialist and Communist parties of the Old Left, to form the DSA.”

The prospect of democratic socialism in the United States might seem radical to some, but it is important to remember that it is not a new one. The Nation, a legendary left-wing periodical, has argued:

American socialists once governed great cities, helped to define the politics of states across the country, and played a critical role in setting the national agenda. The Socialist Party of Eugene Victor Debs and Norman Thomas influenced presidents and Congresses, and was covered on the front pages of newspapers on a daily basis. That party had many bases of strength, and indeed exists to this day, along with DSA, Socialist Alternative, and an array of other socialist organisations, some old and some new.

From 1910 to 1960, the ‘hotbed of socialism’ in America was Milwaukee, Wisconsin. At the time it was one of the largest and most prosperous cities in America – and it was run by Socialists. The first member of the Socialist Party to govern a major American city, Emil Seidel, took charge of Milwaukee in 1910, with the poet Carl Sandburg as his aide. Two years later, he ran for the vice presidency on a Socialist ticket headed by Debs. The Debs-Seidel ticket pulled close to 1 million votes nationally – 6 percent of the total cast in an election year that saw Democrat Woodrow Wilson, “Bull Moose” Progressive Teddy Roosevelt, and even Republican William Howard Taft borrow ideas from the Socialists. By the end of 1912, the Socialist Party had elected mayors, city councillors, school-board members, and other officials in 169 cities from Butte, Montana, to New York City. In several states, it was so successful that it was no longer seen as a ‘third’ or ‘minor’ party.

In Wisconsin, for instance, Republicans held the majority of state legislative seats during the 1910s and 1920s, while Socialists usually formed the major opposition caucus. Democrats were an afterthought. When those legislatures ushered in many of the reforms that would define Wisconsin as America’s ‘laboratory of democracy’, progressive Republicans associated with Robert M. La Follette worked with the Milwaukee Socialists to advance the agenda.

The Milwaukee Socialists did not just influence Madison, Wisconsin, but Washington, DC, as well. The first Socialist elected to the US Congress, Milwaukeean Victor Berger, took his seat in 1911 and held it, on and off, until 1929. Far from being marginalised, Berger worked closely with the ‘insurgent’ Republican caucus that included La Follette, New York Congressman Fiorello La Guardia, and the great progressive leaders of the era. When La Follette mounted an independent progressive campaign for the presidency in 1924, the Socialist Party endorsed his candidacy and Debs hailed his calls for supporting public ownership of utilities, strengthening labour unions, protecting the rights of women and minorities, defending civil liberties, and preventing wars and war profiteering.

La Follette carried Wisconsin, finished second in 11 Western states, and won more than 5 million votes nationwide (17 percent of the total). When some comrades questioned endorsing a lifelong Republican, the Socialist mayor of Milwaukee, Daniel Hoan, said of La Follette: ‘He says the supreme issue is whether the wealth of the nation shall remain in the hands of the privileged few.… Is not that the thing we have been ding-donging for 40 years?’ The Socialist Party faded as a national force after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal stole [their choice of words] many of its ideas and much of its thunder. But democratic socialism never disappeared from the American landscape.” More recently, writer-campaigners like Michael Harrington, the spiritual father of the “war on poverty” programmes of the 1960s via his best selling, influential book, The Other America, had led an assault on the ideas and policies of the mainstream of the Democratic Party.

Democratic socialism-style approaches also had competitors with populist ideals entering the larger political system. The Populist Party’s rise among the farms of the Midwest and Great Plains states and the “Free Silver” movement were early efforts.

The American labour movement largely eschewed direct political participation as a distinct party, although the International Workers of the World, active in the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountain states just after World War I, tried, and the Communist Party-aligned longshoremen’s union on the West Coast came close to such efforts. Largely, however, American unions followed founder of the American Federation of Labour Samuel Gompers’ famous credo about what workers really wanted: “More!”, he said. Since 1932, unions have generally thrown their support to Democrats, once Franklin Delano Roosevelt had refashioned the party’s base in the midst of the Great Depression and adopted New Deal policies.

Going forward, it will be fascinating to see if the new congressmen and women like Ocasio-Cortez and others in her cohort, and aligned with her views, pursue serious efforts to bring into effect the identity politics-textured version of today’s democratic socialists. Or, will they largely change their party at the edges, once the hard realities of attempting to roll back some Trumpian policies, guard the remaining victories of the Obama and Clinton eras, and attempt to enact some of the ideals people like Ocasio-Cortez rode to electoral victory become their legacy. DM


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