On June 26 2018, a young woman called Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won a Democratic primary for New York’s 14th seat in the House of Representatives. She beat the well-established incumbent Joe Crowley, running on a platform of radical wealth redistribution, relaxation of America’s immigration laws and enforcement, and strong policies to deal with climate change. In this working-class and ultra-diverse seat, her radicalism resonated widely. She also had the benefit of a well-run campaign, including some of the best designed posters ever seen for a House primary. To a large extent, she benefited from the organisational infrastructure of the Sanders campaign in 2016, having campaigned for Sanders herself.
Ocasio-Cortez’s victory is not an isolated event, but is part of a broader trend for the Democrats to embrace more openly socialist candidates, particularly young women. There are several reasons for this. The increase in income inequality and the fact that wage growth increasingly lags behind corporate profit growth has made Democrats believe the regulated capitalism advocated by the Democratic establishment no longer best serves the interests of the people. The Republican Party seems completely unconcerned with inequality, preferring to cut taxes on the wealthiest than invest in the working poor; Democrats want a stronger contrast with Republican free-market orthodoxy. President Trump epitomises and personifies the greed and recklessness that most Democrats believe has come to define American capitalism. As far as electability is concerned, Democratic socialists believe socialism may be key to winning back the white working class voters who switched from backing Obama in 2012 to backing Trump in 2016.
There is much to admire about Ocasio-Cortez, as well as the American left more broadly. She is a woman with a great deal of energy and passion. She cares deeply about her constituents. Her lack of ambiguity is honest and refreshing- you know where you stand with her, however much you may disagree. More importantly, American socialists have been well ahead of the curve in identifying problems that are only now being talked about by the mainstream media. Inequality is discussed far more, because people now realise just because the economy as a whole is growing, doesn’t mean that everyone in the economy is getting richer. Socialists have been vocal in their critique of the brutality of the American immigration system, which often treats asylum seekers as common criminals. Perhaps most impressive is Ocasio-Cortez’s environmental policies, which recognise the magnitude of the threat climate change poses to the planet.
But I have a number of concerns, not only about Ocasio-Cortez and her proposals, but of the increasingly leftward drift of the Democrats. The first is electability. It is easy to assume that Americans will become so disgusted with Trump and the Republican Party’s embrace of him, they will elect any Democrat regardless of what they stand for. 2016 should have taught Democrats otherwise. The Democratic Socialists of America, of which Ocasio-Cortez is a member, believes that in an ideal world capitalism would be abolished. It only accepts the existence of private businesses because to get of them would be impractical. They are also calling for the abolition of ICE, America’s immigration enforcement agency. Without ICE, it is unclear how an immigration system would work- the implication is that the DSA doesn’t believe in borders at all. Moreover, American socialists have a reflexive aversion to foreign intervention, which may be problematic if a key American ally was under attack. While Trump by no means commands the support of most Americans, the policies of the DSA would be at least as controversial.
Overall, in an age of increasing polarisation, it isn’t surprising that the Democrats are embracing socialism. Since the Republicans have moved so far to the right, they cannot blame anyone but themselves when the Democrats move to the left. I suspect the GOP’s prioritisation of tax cuts above infrastructure investment and social insurance will provoke a strong backlash very soon. But the Democrats still need to understand why many Americans distrust them so highly. Embracing more government spending as the solution to every problem, particularly when the deficit is already so high, is a recipe for disaster in a nation generally sceptical of the state. In the aftermath of the Iraq War, strident military non-interventionism may not be a liability now, but Americans do not share the DSA’s view of American influence as a neo-imperial phenomenon. Perhaps most significant is American socialism’s complete refusal to set limits on immigration, both legal and illegal. In a nation which just voted for Trump, literally calling for open borders would all but guarantee Republican victories in states like Indiana, Ohio and Florida. While the boldness of socialists should be welcomed, there must also be a reconciliation with American public opinion as it currently stands. Ocasio-Cortez and her allies show no sign of doing so.