Socialism and Polarization
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez this week became the Democratic nominee and presumptive winner in the NY14 congressional race. She is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America—a left-wing organization whose membership has skyrocketed since 2016—and her campaign calls for things like universal healthcare, free college education, and the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the law enforcement agency created under George W. Bush that has become a symbol of the Trump presidency. These positions are hardly “socialist” in and of themselves, but Ocasio-Cortez’s candidacy has nonetheless apparently gotten the leadership of the Democratic Party worried. If she could defeat Joe Crowley, once seen as a successor to Nancy Pelosi for the party’s leadership in the house, are any Democratic stalwarts safe?
One might think that a charismatic candidate with a mobilized base might be appealing for a party whose most recent presidential candidate was famously not that. A party committed to diversity might also want to celebrate the success of a young Puerto Rican woman. And her positions are by all accounts popular ones. So for the Democratic Party establishment, or for liberals and progressives more generally, what’s not to like?
I can think of two reasons for the hostility against Ocasio-Cortez or Bernie Sanders’s style of politics on the left of center. The first is ideological. One does not have to go as far as Thomas Frank and others who have argued that the Democratic Party is essentially a party of the elite professional class to observe that many Democrats oppose the egalitarian agenda of the self-proclaimed “democratic socialists” in principle. The ideal for many Obama-era liberals was and remains a combination of diversity and meritocracy: fighting all forms of discrimination based on race, gender and the like where it exists, and ensuring that anyone can rise to the top through education regardless of background. A platform of robust economic redistribution and the free provision of things like healthcare and education as public goods are in many ways at odds with this vision—Ocasio-Cortez and her supporters know it, and this is likely a major reason they are brandishing the word “socialism” to describe themselves. Their platform is explicitly not about creating greater “equality of opportunity” for people to rise to the top, but rather about improving the conditions of life for those well below the top.
But ultimately I suspect this meritocratic ideal is not characteristic of the typical Democratic voter, or even the typical left-leaning commentator or intellectual. There are only so many Sheryl Sandbergs out there, and once again, things like universal healthcare and free education are increasingly popular ideas. Still, even people who agree in principle with much of what Ocasio-Cortez is advocating have expressed concerns over the strategic impact of her message. Sure, it can win in New York City, but will it play in Peoria (or rather, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan)? Another version of this concern is to speculate that having outspoken socialists in the Democratic Party in Congress gives fodder to the right-wing propaganda machine, allowing Republicans to tar more moderate Democrats in closer races as left-wing extremists.
I think this strategic objection is actually more indicative of the divide on the American left than the ideological one mentioned above, because it seems to indicate two rather distinct understandings of what American democracy is today. Democrats for quite some time have been the party of compromise and bipartisanship. Even as Republicans since Newt Gingrich have become increasingly combative and unwilling to engage in serious dialogue, the Democrats have prioritized a rhetoric of unity and conciliation. As Michelle Obama put it, “When they go low, we go high.” This is, of course, how democracy is supposed to work, and how many people have assumed American politics works par excellence: parties compete for voters, and the real contest is for independent voters somewhere in the ideological center. This way of thinking about politics suggests that the main strategic task for Democrats is to craft a message that appeals directly to the swing voters lost to Trump in key states in 2016.
The socialists behind Ocasio-Cortez and others do not seem to think this way. Democracy as a civil, respectful contest for open-minded independent voters does not square with their experience of American politics. It is no accident that many supporters of democratic socialism are young enough that post-Gingrich, post-Fox News polarization is all they’ve known. A common thread running from the Occupy Wall Street movement through the Bernie Sanders campaign through candidates like Ocasio-Cortez is a frustration with a desire to compromise that has not brought the country in the direction liberals, progressives, and leftists want. They are therefore less concerned about trying to anticipate and cater to the desires of Joe the Plumber than about advocating their own desires. If they are confident that this may work outside of urban enclaves, their example is none other than the candidacy of Barack Obama himself. Though Obama was in a sense the high priest of bipartisan reconciliation (“There is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America—there’s the United States of America”), he was also a candidate who built a movement of largely young, progressive voters that also proved capable of getting enough of the fabled independents to jump on the bandwagon.
This is of course a major ambiguity of Obama’s legacy, and there’s enough of this ambiguity that this question on the American left is unlikely to be resolved soon. Much of these reflections were inspired by recent conversations with Art and others on Facebook, and we’ll be hearing more about this later in the summer with our exchange on Mark Lilla’s book on liberalism—which, as is no surprise, is skeptical of many of the “socialist” positions I have articulated here.