Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez describes herself—rather proudly—as a socialist. She’s the Democratic nominee to represent New York’s 14th Congressional District, succeeding Representative Joe Crowley, whom Ocasio-Cortez defeated in a June primary election. The district is a safe seat for the Democrats in a crucial midterm election year, and yet Ocasio-Cortez’s bid has upset and excited various political factions. But among modern Democrats, Ocasio-Cortez isn’t the only American socialist reclaiming the label these days. As the first post-Trump midterm elections approach, socialism is, apparently, the wave.
It’s a tricky and scandalous term, “socialist”—a classic pejorative in the Beltway imagination, a cudgel that Republicans have used to disparage and demoralize a great range of liberal and left-wing politics. Nancy Pelosi seems wary of Ocasio-Cortez’s self-identification. So, too, is James Comey: “Democrats, please,” the disgruntled former registered Republican and director of the FBI tweets, “please don’t lose your minds and rush to the socialist left. This president and his Republican Party are counting on you to do exactly that. America’s great middle wants sensible, balanced, ethical leadership.” Comey’s tweet reads as a summary of the conventional wisdom about Ocasio-Cortez’s “socialist” branding. In fact, there’s a resounding consensus of centrist Democrats, such as Pelosi, and centrist Republicans, such as Comey, who agree that centrism is the ideal, righteous counterbalance to the reigning Trumpism. Ocasio-Cortez’s critics are alarmist to a fault; they frequently manage to recite her most benign, agreeable proposals as if they were totalitarian designs.
“We will not rest until every person in this country is paid a living wage,” Ocasio-Cortez told a campaign rally last week in Wichita, Kansas, where her fellow left-wing insurgent, James Thompson—not a socialist, but a “progressive” civil rights attorney—is running for Mike Pompeo’s old congressional seat. Under footage of Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks in Wichita, Fox Business ran a chyron: “DEMS IN DISARRAY?”
If anything, the socialists have proved more excited, coordinated, and immediately productive than any other Democratic coalition of the past decade. Together, Thompson, Ocasio-Cortez, and Bernie Sanders represent a broader network of socialist insurgents within mainstream Democratic politics. In the aftermath of Sanders’s presidential campaign, a new generation of socialists launched a left-wing revolt against—and within—a historically center-left party. From Sanders onward, the socialist wave has affected Democratic politics at every level—in Texas, the defense attorney Franklin Bynum, a socialist, won the Democratic nomination to serve as a criminal court judge in Houston. Bynum and Ocasio-Cortez are both Democrats who claim membership in the Democratic Socialists of America, a small, but influential group that works both within and apart from the Democratic Party, much as Sanders, an independent candidate for most of his political career, identified as a Democrat during the 2016 presidential election. The DSA doesn’t have the resources of a major political party, but the organization has asserted itself in a few key races. In Virginia, DSA supported Lee Carter’s successful 2017 campaign for a seat in the state house. In the Bronx, DSA boosted Ocasio-Cortez to victory against Crowley before her major hometown media, such as The New York Times, had even begun to cover her campaign. In Kansas, DSA backs Thompson in hopes of proving, once and for all, that left-wing politics aren’t some exclusively coastal, metropolitan phenomenon.
In 2016, Sanders suggested that the Senate’s lone socialist might indeed win the Democratic presidential nomination, and perhaps even the White House. It wasn’t to be. But two years later, Ocasio-Cortez suggests that truly left-wing candidates might indeed win a much greater share of influence within the Democratic Party at every level of government.
In media, there’s been more fear-mongering about the term than any real reckoning with its significance in contrast with liberal Democratic politics. In the prevailing context, “socialism” is more so recognizable as the Scandinavian sort of social democracy. It’s a framework in which large tax revenues support robust public services, welfare resources, and labor unions. For the past half-century, mainstream Democrats in the U.S. have sporadically embraced certain tenets of social democracy, such as socialized medicine and universal basic income. But they’ve also disavowed Scandinavian social democracy, much less socialism, as broadly “unrealistic” in the American context. In the U.S., the DSA and candidates like Ocasio-Cortez now lead an effort to destigmatize socialism, social democracy, and left-wing political critique once and for all. The candidates themselves seem to realize that they’re fighting a campaign that is broader than any one of their voting districts. Hence, the Bronx candidate’s recent trips to Kansas and Missouri.
Trumpism has scrambled the U.S. political imagination. It’s a new, strange century. The old stigmas of left-wing politics have disintegrated while U.S. right-wing politics have entered a new, disgraceful age. In the short term—which is to say, the midterms—the great excitement about left-wing politics will likely prove indispensable to the Democratic Party’s efforts to recapture the House, if not also the Senate, and to mount a more resilient bulwark against Trumpism in Congress. In the long term, socialism may recalibrate the Democratic Party and the U.S. political equilibrium altogether.
But it won’t be easy. Two weeks ago, Crowley seemed to renege on his post-defeat pledge to support Ocasio-Cortez in the general election. He turned down a request from Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign by suggesting that he might remain on the November ballot as a marginal, third-party candidate. Whither the conventional liberal: on the margins, on the decline.