If you have tried to put a Socialist Party congressional candidate on the ballot, as I have, the victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the Democratic Party primary in New York’s 14th CD (Bronx, Queens) brings out at least warm nostalgic feelings. Unfortunately, it has also produced, in some quarters, quite poor political analysis, has added to the considerable confusion about the meaning of democratic socialism and has apparently unduly terrified certain Democratic centrists, an already mauled bunch. If we believe some commentators, the workers and peasants (in New York’s middle class borough) are marching up Queens Boulevard, bellowing The Internationale, flying red banners, on their way to storm the Winter Palace…well, Queens Borough Hall, anyway. Where is Eisenstein when we need him?
Let’s take a deep breath and try to put Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’ deserved victory in some context.
The most glaring comparison is between a tired, aging pol with a creaking political machine and an energetic, idealistic, attractive candidate who wanted the job and was willing to work to get it (Martha Coakley, please note). Mr. Crowley, who combines the positions of Queens Democratic Leader and member of Congress, literally “mailed in” his campaign by using TV ads and direct mail. He seems to have expected that just telling the serfs back on the home plantation that he wanted to stay in Congress would be enough. Instead of acting like an absentee landlord, his opponent went door to door and asked people for their votes. She questioned Crowley’s attachment to the district by noting that his children go to school in Virginia. She also had a fine social democratic platform that spoke to the needs of people in the district (I would also guess that the Democratic Socialists of America concentrated its relatively few activists on the district, an ancient tactic of the New York left). She had respect for the voters, and she deserved to win.
As it happens, there weren’t a whole lot of voters. A total of 27,658 votes were cast in the Democratic primary. There are 214,570 enrolled Democrats in the 14th CD. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez received 15,897 votes, that is, the support of about 7.5% of the Democrats in the district. Lesson to be learned: in a summer primary election, with probable poor turnout and an incumbent who is lazy, a candidate who is willing to work has a shot at winning.
The national story was quite different. It focused on Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’ membership in Democratic Socialists of America, which I would speculate was one of the most insignificant factors in her success. Breathless reporters projected from one result in one district with unique circumstances that “Democratic Socialists” were about to take over the Democratic Party, that a vast Red Tide was sweeping moderates aside. This caused predictable heart fluttering among neoliberal Third Way Democrats, who met in solemn conclave and produced what was truly the most boring political platform in recent memory.
Again, a couple of reality checks.
If “democratic socialism” means anything, it has the meaning that it had when I was a democratic socialist and that it has had since the social democratic- socialist split: the public ownership and control, using various forms, of the means of production. Love ’em or hate ’em, democratic socialists believe in the end of the market economy, and if they don’t, they aren’t democratic socialists (forgive me, Bernie). Certainly democratic socialists believe in such goals as quality health care for all, living wages, full employment, free education, etc. but those are not the differentiating points of their ideology.
Perhaps it escaped me but I have not seen a particle of evidence that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez campaigned on ending the market economy or that she got a significant number of votes on the basis of her democratic socialist convictions. If she didn’t have a DSA membership card, there would be nothing to distinguish her from other left-Democrats, that is, members the Party’s historic social democratic base. So let’s calm down and get on with taking our country back.