THE BIGGEST SOCIALIST SPLASH came in the heat of the summer, as Ocasio-Cortez ousted U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley in a New York City Democratic primary. She is expected to defeat her Republican opponent in the Democratic-leaning district in November.
Just nine months before, Ocasio-Cortez was waiting tables at a restaurant. The last time Crowley had a primary challenger for his seat (in 2004), Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t old enough to vote. But she gained traction through a savvy social media campaign, by touting her membership in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and by pushing its ideas.
DSA isn’t a political party—it’s an organization for members paying dues, but it also endorses candidates. In recent years, membership has skyrocketed. Between 1982 and 2016, the group maintained about 6,000 members. Since the 2016 elections, membership has swelled to nearly 50,000.
The growth comes as a Gallup poll reported in August that Democrats have a more favorable view of socialism than capitalism. (Fifty-seven percent said they viewed socialism positively, while only 47 percent viewed capitalism positively.) The strongest support for socialism came from younger voters.
What does DSA believe? Some DSA leaders have called for abolishing capitalism, abolishing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), and even abolishing the U.S. Senate. Members debate how to implement such sweeping proposals.
But Jared Abbott, a member of the group’s national steering committee, has also written about an even deeper infiltration into culture and family: “Socialism is about democratizing the family to get rid of patriarchal relations … [and] democratizing the schools by challenging the hierarchical relationship between the teachers of the school and the students of the school.”
That’s not what Ocasio-Cortez usually pushes in public appearances.
Instead, when interviewers ask her to summarize socialism, she’s answered, “No person in America should be too poor to live in this country.” That’s actually an idea voters across the political spectrum likely would agree on, but Ocasio-Cortez has struggled to explain how socialism would fix such problems or how the government could afford to pay for such vast entitlements.
Still, she’s gone on a national speaking tour and has appeared with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the 2016 presidential candidate who championed democratic socialism and made a formidable bid against eventual Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Sanders’ coattails still seem popular, even if they aren’t as long on the federal level as some socialists wish: Several candidates identifying with the DSA fizzled out in the primaries, though Ocasio-Cortez is set to have another democratic socialist colleague in Congress:
Rashida Tlaib, a former Democratic member of the Michigan House of Representatives, won the Democratic primary in Michigan’s 13th Congressional District and will run unopposed this fall. She’s a member of the DSA. (Tlaib would also be the first Muslim woman elected to Congress.)
Some Democratic leaders have distanced themselves from Ocasio-Cortez and other democratic socialists, perhaps sensing the socialist label goes too far for some voters. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said her win wasn’t part of a bigger trend.
Others have tried to ride the Ocasio-Cortez wave. Cynthia Nixon, an actress and former star of the show Sex and the City, was trailing badly in her bid for the Democratic nomination for New York governor when she posed for pictures with Ocasio-Cortez at a convention in August and proclaimed, “Republicans are going to call us socialists no matter what we do, so we might as well give them the real thing.”
BUT WHAT IS THE REAL THING?
Jay Richards, a fellow at the Discovery Institute and an expert on economics and free markets, says that what the current crop of democratic socialists describe isn’t socialism in its historic form.
Richards says historically the idea of socialism has in view the abolition of private property, or government ownership of productive property: “That’s what socialism actually meant in the 20th century.” But he notes few democratic socialists advocate that idea today: “More often than not what they have in mind is just some pleasing idea that they usually associate with Scandinavian nations.”
In fact, some democratic socialists point to Nordic-style welfare policies as the ideal for the United States. But as The Economist has pointed out, “Those countries are not socialist. They are free-market economies with high rates of taxation that finance generous public services. Indeed, the ‘socialist’ part of those countries that Mr. [Bernie] Sanders’ fans like would be unaffordable without the dynamic capitalist part they dislike.”
Democrats aren’t alone in supporting at least some vast social programs. A Reuters/Ipsos poll published in August found 85 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans support Medicare-for-all, showing that some of the seeds of these ideas cross party lines.
If Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib do take seats in Washington, D.C., after fall elections as expected, they won’t be the first socialists in Congress. (Though Sanders touts democratic socialism, he isn’t a member of the DSA.)
In the early 20th century, voters elected two Socialist Party members to Congress. In 1912, socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs won nearly a million votes—6 percent of the popular vote—in the presidential election.
But the party’s two decades of popularity came before many more decades of socialist and communist horror by authoritarian rulers in places like the Soviet Union and Cambodia. By the end of the Cold War, socialism nearly disappeared from American life as a desirable political force.
Other countries were still experimenting, though, and Venezuela stands out as a current and tragic example of the dangers of socialism. Many democratic socialists disavow comparisons to places like Venezuela, saying they want to bring change through voters democratically. But Venezuelans freely elected former President Hugo Chávez based on his promises of vast social aid that turned into vast government control and left the country in a tailspin.
Here in the United States, where a younger generation has no memory of the Cold War years and the atrocities they brought, Richards says he’s seen young Christians attracted to socialist ideas as well. He says the appeal seems to be a valid, moral concern for the intrinsic dignity of every person: “But if you attach a very strong moral passion to a very faulty view of how economic reality works, you can end up doing a lot of damage.”
Though many democratic socialists don’t push socialism in its purest form, Richards says it’s worrisome that socialism’s renewed popularity puts at least some voters and candidates on a trajectory toward that end.
“That’s essentially what I think democratic socialism is. It’s a movement in which a population gets more and more accustomed to this dependency. … Rather than focusing on how we create value and wealth for ourselves and others, we focus on how we confiscate the wealth of other people,” Richards says.
“The more the population is in that confiscatory mode, the more dangerous it gets.”