Is democratic socialism now in the “ascendant” in the Democratic Party? That was the question posed by a reporter to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi last week, in the wake of democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s shock primary victory in New York’s 14th Congressional District.
And Pelosi’s response? “No.”
Elaborating a bit, she qualified that “it’s ascendant in that district perhaps. But I don’t accept any characterization of our party presented by the Republicans. So let me reject that right now.”
Who is she kidding? Ocasio-Cortez, a “Democratic giant slayer” (New York Times) who “rocked the political world” (CBS News), is now a household name. From the pages of Vogue to the studios of ABC’s “The View” and CBS’s “Late Show,” the Democrats’ newest star has been eloquently explaining — and detoxifying — democratic socialism to millions of apolitical Americans. “No person should be too poor to live,” she told Stephen Colbert, to cheers and applause, when asked to define her ideology.
Then there’s Bernie Sanders. Who’d have imagined that a self-proclaimed democratic socialist from the state of Vermont, who was pilloried for going on “honeymoon” to the Soviet Union, would become the most popular politician in the United States?
Not Pelosi, that’s for sure. Democratic leaders of her generation are accustomed to seeing political messaging from a defensive posture only. So it wasn’t surprising that Pelosi would reject democratic socialism as a “characterization of our party presented by the Republicans,” when the characterization is being presented, in reality, by Democrats themselves.
So here’s a question for the House minority leader: If socialism isn’t “ascendant” in her party, why did 16 Democratic senators join with Sanders in September 2017 to introduce his Medicare For All Act, a bill “enthusiastically” endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America? Lest we forget, only four years earlier, Sanders introduced a similar bill in the Senate that had zero Democratic co-sponsors.
Here are a couple of other questions for Pelosi to consider: If socialism isn’t “ascendent” in her party, why did nearly six in 10 Democratic primary voters in 2016 say it has a “positive impact on society” and four in 10 Democratic caucus-goers in Iowa describe themselves as socialists? Why did the New York Times publish a piece in April that was headlined, “‘Yes, I’m Running as a Socialist.’ Why Candidates Are Embracing the Label in 2018”?
Of course, this isn’t socialism of the totalitarian or even Marxist variety. Even by European standards, it’s pretty tame: Neither Sanders nor Ocasio-Cortez is echoing British Labour Party leader and proud socialist Jeremy Corbyn’s call for the nationalization of public utilities. “Many socialist candidates sound less like revolutionaries and more like traditional Democrats,” acknowledged the New York Times. “They want single-payer health care, a higher minimum wage, and greater protections for unions.” (Although Ocasio-Cortez did pay homage to Corbyn in her viral campaign ad, intoning that “a New York for the many is possible,” a phrase Corbyn himself borrowed from Percy Shelley.)
Nevertheless, leading Democrats have, for many decades now, run a mile from the socialist label. “We’re capitalists, and that’s just the way it is,” Pelosi told a CNN town hall audience last year, when confronted by a student who asked her if the Democrats “could move farther left to a more populist message.” An anxious Barack Obama once called a reporter who had asked him whether he was a socialist to say it was “hard … to believe that you were entirely serious about that socialist question.” Hillary Clinton recently complained that her embrace of the label “capitalist” during the campaign “probably” hurt her in the 2016 campaign among Democrats.
Yet the modern, liberal, progressive America that is so cherished by Obama, Pelosi, and the rest of the Democratic Party elites might not exist today — were it not for socialists!
The modern, liberal, progressive America that is so cherished by Democratic Party elites might not exist today — were it not for socialists!
Take the New Deal. “FDR’s borrowing of ideas about Social Security, unemployment compensation, jobs programs and agricultural assistance from the Socialists was sufficient to pull voters who had rejected the Democrats in 1932 into the New Deal Coalition that would sweep the congressional elections of 1934 and reelect the president with … the largest Electoral College win in the history of two-party politics,” writes John Nichols in his book “The S Word: A Short History of an American Tradition…Socialism.” Elsewhere, Nichols cites a 1954 New York Times profile of Norman Thomas, six-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America, which described him as having made “a great contribution in pioneering ideas that have now won the support of both major parties,” including “Social Security, public housing, public power developments, legal protection for collective bargaining and other attributes of the welfare state.”
How about the war on poverty?
In 1962, socialist intellectual Michael Harrington — who would later go on to found the Democratic Socialists of America — published “The Other America: Poverty in the United States” and it became an instant classic. “Among the book’s readers, reputedly, was John F. Kennedy, who in the fall of 1963 began thinking about proposing antipoverty legislation,” wrote Harrington’s biographer Maurice Isserman. “After Kennedy’s assassination, Lyndon Johnson took up the issue, calling in his 1964 State of the Union address for an ‘unconditional war on poverty.’ Sargent Shriver headed the task force charged with drawing up the legislation, and invited Harrington to Washington as a consultant.”
Then there is the civil rights struggle.
The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, was organized by proud democratic socialists Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph. King himself would later remark that “something is wrong … with capitalism” and “there must be a better distribution of wealth.” “Maybe,” he suggested, “America must move toward a democratic socialism.”
Go beyond politics, too.
“It’s kind of ironic,” Nate Silver once remarked, “American sports are socialist.” Consider the NFL, which operates a strict salary cap for players, while also ensuring that each NFL team receives an equal share of the league’s revenue from TV deals. To quote Art Modell, the late owner of the Cleveland Browns, the league is run by “a bunch of fat-cat Republicans who vote socialist on football.”
To recap: The most popular politician in the United States today is a socialist; the most admired American of the 20th century had a soft spot for socialism; and the most popular sport in the country is basically a “government-sanctioned socialist utopia.” So much for socialism, then, being somehow un-American or some sort of foreign import.
It is also worth noting that while the “s-word” may still bother a majority of Americans, especially older Americans, socialist policies are pretty popular across the board — including with plenty of Republicans. Writing for New York magazine’s Daily Intelligencer, and citing a poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, Eric Levitz points out that “a majority of voters in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania would all support a socialist takeover of the health-insurance industry (so long as you didn’t put the idea to them in those terms).” He also observes that the “most radical economic policy on Ocasio-Cortez’s platform — a federal job guarantee — meanwhile, actually polls quite well in ‘flyover country.’”
So, what is Pelosi so afraid of? The way in which Republicans have turned “socialist” into a smear and a slur? Who cares? They’ve done the same to “liberal” — yet that hasn’t stopped Pelosi from identifying herself as one.
At the very minimum, even if the House minority leader doesn’t agree with the chair of the Democratic National Committee that democratic socialist Ocasio-Cortez represents “the future of our party,” she should stop being so defensive. Perhaps Pelosi could learn a lesson from President Harry Truman. The conservative Democrat and proud Cold Warrior was dubbed — yes, you guessed it — a “socialist” by his GOP opponents in 1950. “Out of the great progress of this country, out of our great advances in achieving a better life for all, out of our rise to world leadership, the Republican leaders have learned nothing,” responded a defiant Truman. “Confronted by the great record of this country, and the tremendous promise of its future, all they do is croak, ‘socialism.’”