The revolution has already been televised. Last month, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated 10-term incumbent and party power broker Joe Crowley in the Democratic primaries for New York’s 14th Congressional District, a political upset that has sent shockwaves throughout the country. As Chair of the House Democratic Caucus, many saw Crowley as a potential successor to Nancy Pelosi as the Democratic floor leader. His sudden defeat at the hands of a political parvenu has put both pundits and the national media in an uproar, with the Democratic establishment struggling to effectively cope with the loss of an established and powerful player.
A member of the Democratic Socialists of America (or DSA), Ocasio-Cortez’s radicalism is a far cry from Crowley’s more moderate tendencies. Upon assuming office this coming January, Ocasio-Cortez will be the first openly socialist member of the House since Victor Berger, an Eastern European immigrant who represented Wisconsin in the early 20th century. Largely shunned by the Democratic Party, the radical left has long relied on progressives for representation. However, this has merely been an alliance; despite the claims of right-wing talking heads and media outlets, politicians like Elizabeth Warren and Keith Ellison are not truly socialist or anti-capitalist. At most they could be classified as social democrats, proponents of highly regulated capitalism and a robust welfare state (think the Nordic model).
So then what is this “democratic socialism” Ocasio-Cortez is promoting? And what can her victory and subsequent media attention tell us about the future of the Democratic Party and the role of the left in American politics? Well, let’s unpack.
Democratic socialism aims for a radical redistribution of wealth and the democratic or collective ownership of the means of production, purporting that economic and political equality ought to go hand and hand. It is first and foremost democratic, emphasizing the importance of voting rights, the freedom of the press, and various other liberties we typically associate with Western-style liberal democracies. Like progressives, democratic socialists are also virulently anti-corruption, supporting greater governmental transparency and clean campaign finance laws. In short, they are nothing like the oppressive authoritarians those on the right conflate them with (for comparisons to Stalin and Mao are frequent).
However, what actual socialism would look like in the context of our American democracy is an entirely different matter. Seeing as how it’s pretty unlikely that socialists will gain control of Congress in the coming midterms, we should not expect the sudden nationalization of most industries. Since mainstream American politics resides so far to the right, elected socialists are going to be closely allied with their progressive peers. Universal healthcare, a federal jobs guarantee, housing as a human right, and universal access to higher education, all important aspects of Ocasio-Cortez’s platform, are emblematic of realistic socialist policies for the United States.
And while Ocasio-Cortez’s triumph may be noteworthy, it does not represent the future of the Democratic Party. As Politico’s Bill Scher pointed out, “planting a socialist flag in Queens and the Bronx is far from proof it can fly in suburban Omaha or Houston.” Democrats with constituencies of mixed or more moderate demographics will be unlikely to find success with a far-left platform anytime soon. However, Ocasio-Cortez has fully demonstrated that such platforms are electorally feasible and do have a place within the Democratic Party. The aftermath of her victory has revealed the possible paths forward, as well as the various hurdles, for other democratic socialists.
Like Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, Ocasio-Cortez’s stances again revealed many Americans’ deep-seated fear of anything that could be remotely perceived as left-wing, a sentiment reflected in surveys conducted by Pew Research Center. For much of the country, socialism is still a bad word; McCarthyism and memories of the Cold War have not yet died out and those on the right are more than willing to capitalize on this fact, using it to evoke fears of a commie takeover and smear their opponents. But this rhetoric should be ignored. Rather than engaging with mud-slingers, democratic socialists need to stress and double down on their policies and stances, tirelessly focusing on their message. Although democratic socialism will not dominate the Democratic Party anytime soon, it has the potential to become an influential force if its leaders institute the proper messaging.
Democratic socialism is flexible, much more so than the platforms of typical tax-and-spend liberals and corporate Democrats. By emphasizing specific issues and stances in accordance with the wants of constituencies, it is an ideology that can have an enormously broad appeal. With unwavering support for LGBT+ rights and racial justice and a willingness to speak out on issues like police brutality, democratic socialists have major appeal among blacks, Latinx, and those within the LGBT+ community. However, these are groups that have historically leaned to the left, and although energizing them through greater conviction on these issues is electorally useful, expanding the voter base requires a different approach. This is where most Democrats fail.
Decades ago, Democrats consistently snatched a sizable slice of the working class vote. But as the party began to focus more on social issues in the 60s and 70s, issues like workers’ rights and unions were gradually pushed to the side. The working class was cast adrift, and, preaching religiosity and traditional values, Republicans quickly swooped in to claim a significant chunk, a chunk that has sustained them ever since. Today, democratic socialists are perfectly poised to regain some of those votes.
To be clear, democratic socialists shouldn’t attempt to hide their stances on social issues; to do so would be disingenuous. Instead, they should incessantly campaign on the issues of growing economic inequality and the power of labor, Eugene Debs-style. Many members of the working class are not hardliners on abortion or immigration; they are Americans dissatisfied with the status quo. Rather than targeting the Trump voters afraid of losing their status, democratic socialists should focus on the disenfranchised and those who have lost faith in American politics: people with low political engagement. These Americans can be motivated, they just need likable candidates with platforms that address their concerns; after all, it has been done before. If Americans fervently believe a candidate is capable of markedly improving their lives, they will vote. With effective grassroots organizing and uniquely cogent and compassionate stances, democratic socialists can very well become those candidates.
This method is largely what propelled Ocasio-Cortez to victory: an unshakable fixation on her constituents and their concerns. And it’s an approach that can be easily replicated. As previously mentioned, democratic socialism is a flexible ideology; it has something for almost everyone. With the proper branding, democratic socialists can have significant appeal in a wide array of districts. So while these radicals may not be the future of the Democratic Party, they’re definitely capable of throwing their weight around.