An Electoral Upset
The stunning upset victory of 28 year old DSA member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has made national headlines as a Democratic Socialist replaces one of the highest ranking Democrats. She out-campaigned and out-voted Crowley's rotten Party machine. The victory has resonated far beyond her district which covers parts of the Bronx and Queens. She has been an invited guest on the Tonight Show, CNN, MSNBC, has recieved national media coverage and has right-wing media figures attempting to drum up a red scare around her candidacy. Having won the primary in an overwhelming Democratic district it is almost certain that she will be elected in the general election and become potentially the most left-wing member of Congress.
Who is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?
The welcome Ocasio has received across interviews in the national media has been overwhelmingly positive especially considering that she now stands at the far left of the Democratic Party. A great deal of this is owed to her undeniable character as an intelligent, articulate and charismatic political organizer who put in a tremendous amount of work to achieve victory.
Ocasio is a congressional newcomer but has a long history of involvement in the Democratic Party. Although she emphasizes the importance of the Sanders campaign to her political formation, it was not her first introduction to Democratic Party Politics. She previously worked in the office of Ted Kennedy in 2008-09.
The organization which asked Ocasio to run was Brand New Congress. It was launched in 2016 by a number of activists inspired by Sanders campaign with the goal of promoting more progressive candidates in primary elections. Their policy section brings together a series of popular demands in line with what Sanders campaigned around, free university, universal healthcare, a higher minimum wage, criminal justice reform and soft critique of US foreign policy (against the "military adventurism" since 9/11).
The main standout is that their candidates must refuse corporate and PAC donations, in line with their critique of the influence of corporate money in the US political system. Overwhelming their strategy hinges around the transformation of the Democratic Party into a more authentically progressive organization and while they have progressive politics, there is no critique of capitalism behind their politics or strategy.
What She Will Fight For:
On Foreign Policy she is opposed to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as US intervention and drone strikes across the region. Her opposition however does come with a caveat. In an extensive interview with Jeremy Scahill for the Intercept she mentions that she was not necessarily against Obama's surge in Iraq as a temporarily stabilizing measure, arguing that:
"I think what he was trying to do was deal with this mess of going into Afghanistan in the first place. In a sense, there are some tough spots that you’re in where when you have boots on the ground, and you have those soldiers that are there, pulling out immediately sometimes isn’t the most stabilizing course of action. So I think there, maybe."
This represents an important weakness in her anti-war platform and it is all the more significant that it wasn't a concession made under pressure in national media, but rather something which she chose to highlight in an interview with a publication which is consistently critical of US foreign policy and intervention. Fervent opposition to drone strikes and further "military adventures" is certainly an advance given the record of most democrats, yet this concession to the "stability" of occupation leaves open a wide door for future concessions. Her own focus on the post 9/11 record of the United States also leaves questions about the disastrous campaigns waged in the name of humanitarian intervention such as Clinton's campaign in the former Yugoslavia.
Economic issues have been front and center throughout her campaign and in her public appearances in the aftermath of the campaign. Her summary of her economic policies and of what Democratic Socialism means to her is that in a "modern, moral, wealthy society, no-one should be too poor to live." Concretely this comes down to universal healthcare, free university or trade school, expanded low income housing and a federal job guarantee at a $15 minimum wage. The latter is the most significant proposal and one which clearly goes beyond the limits of what would be tolerable for a capitalist system. Full Employment was featured in every Democratic Party platform up until 1992, the implementation of which would indeed have required a federal jobs guarantee but in practice this was one more party demand that was simply left unelaborated and ignored.
How this will be Achieved
As to how these kind of changes would be implemented, in her recent interview with MSNBC she cited the the New Deal as the example of how to carry forth these policies. Her own participation and reliance upon social movements means that she certainly sees mass movements as playing a vital role, yet the role is one of influencing, participating in and transforming the existing democratic party into one which fights for and implements these radical policies.
In an interview with VICE, after doubling down on her Democratic Party credentials she mentioned that "this can be a process of evolution, it doesnt have to be a process of bitter confontation... with my perspective we can get things done." In her public appearances on CNN she has gone even further, mentioning in a recent interview that she felt "very welcomed by many of the Democratic incumbents" and that she was "embraced by many of these individuals".
Far from warning of the dangers from "corporate" Democrats she went out of her way to talk up the existing Democratic Party Leadership and even the corrupt machine politician she is replacing. She mentioned her "profound amount of respect for the service he[Crowley] has had for our community". On her political plans she is "absolutely willing to work with our incumbents and administration" and "what we do is build consensus, that is what governance is all about."
Some of Ocasio's supporters among organizations like DSA will undoubtedly defend these statements as just being a necessary step so that she is better positioned if "corporate" democrats counter-attack. It is important however that right now she has a platform across national media which few socialists could dream of and she has won a victory which was explicitly against the party machine. Her statements of "profound respect" and "consensus building" for the corporate institutions she campaigned against undermine precisely that amplified critique of the system which the election of a socialist should make possible.
The New Deal was made possible by a very particular historical and economic conjuncture, one in which the existence of the USSR and of mass communist parties was a significant part of the calculus. Overthrowing capitalism in a major country and building mass parties around the world certainly would create the environment for impressive reforms to be considered; without this existential threat to capitalism our rulers are unlikely to be so generous. An internal progressive takeover or a primary-by-primary replacement were not among the historical forces which forced the creation of social security and public works programs.
The ability of the socialist movement to pose an existential threat to capitalism is the pre-requisite for both any deeply meaningful reform and of any lasting revolutionary transformation. As we seek to reconstruct our movement in the United States winning political office and using it as a platform for our movement can have a substantial impact. It can amplify the voice of working people and introduce broad layers of people to socialist politics.
What is holding back socialist representation and even fairly mild reforms is the fundamentally undemocratic nature of US representative government itself. The two party system is imposed by an antiquated structure which was designed from the ground-up "to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority".
In another interview with Ocasio-Cortez, this time for Vogue she declares that "Our democracy is designed to speak truth to power. Our democracy is designed for elections to be these kinds of conversations and referendums on our leadership."
Alongside her approach to the Democratic Party, her support for Democrats like Obama, her conciliatory moves towards the "corporate" wing, fundamentally there is a clear faith in the institutions of US government. A faith which she is using her political victory to reinforce.
One of the most important, central tasks of any socialist intervention which can be achieved within the United States is precisely to criticize and work to break down the labyrinth of safeguards put in place to limit our political representation. With a future working class party, a future socialist party, even if one were to accept the argument that these must somehow initially pass through the Democratic Party, it is impossible to accept a strategy or political leadership which works to reinforce the very structures which keep us marginalized.
Those institutions don't just keep us out, but actively make it impossible for candidates like Ocasio-Cortez to be held to account in the event that they do compromise their principals or move to the right. In an excellent piece, Bruce Dixon at Black Agenda Report points out that:
"While there are no institutions under US law and custom that can hold leftist candidates and officeholders accountable to left constituencies or organizations, it's a fact that there are a galaxy of institutional levers and pressures operating inside the Democratic party aimed at flipping progressive elected officials rightward."
A not insubstantial portion of the New Left, including the New Communist movement, from the 60's and 70's attempted to elect progressive politicians and experienced precisely this frustration and betrayal as elected officials moved right into the orbit of party institutions.
Thousands of people in New York were deeply excited about her campaign and the message of Democratic Socialism. Many more across the country have been captivated by the message of a Democrat that offers an exciting alternative to the stale politics of the Democratic center. There is proof in both her election and the reaction to her election that socialist ideas carry weight and can be popular.
Yet what remains is the election of a new, progressive Democrat. We have an individual who may or may not remain faithful to many of her socialist ideas, who will be co-opted to a greater or lesser extent by a Democratic leadership to whom one vote in Congress will not represent a threat. We don't have a socialist political strategy which creates an opening for independent socialist politics.
The organization on the left which played the biggest role in Ocasio's election and which will be most impacted by the victory is the DSA. They have already reported an influx of a few thousands members in the aftermath of the election and almost every national media discussion of Ocasio has involved a brief mention of the DSA. The visibility of the organization is increasing tremendously and having a (soon to be) elected congresswomen as a member will increase this.
However there is a dual threat which some of this success presents. On the one hand they may have more traditional political sectors which will start to approach and curry support with DSA to gain volunteer support while they themselves have no accountability to DSA and continue with normal machine politics.
This will be amplified by the other danger which is the impact that this success will have on the political course of the DSA itself. So far it has been a heterogeneous organization in which both members who believe in working within the Democratic Party and outside it have been able to unite and work together. An influx of progressive democrats will undermine that balance and may marginalize more active, grassroots focused members from political leadership.
The election of Larry Krasner to District Attorny in Philadelphia is one warning of what is to come, in which a "progressive" candidate supported by DSA has gone on to play an institutional role which has included persecuting an activist for burning an american flag, and refusing to prosecute a cop who murdered the unarmed Richard Ferretti. Seeing the capacity of the DSA to turn out volunteers and supporters, far more politicians without any socialist commitment will likely consider seeking out the DSA for support and the DSA will have no way to hold those candidates accountable. In addition the political balance within the organization is likely to shift increasingly in favor of working with Democratic candidates as those who are being inspired to join by Ocasio's victory are precisely those who support that inside strategy.
The Marxist Left
The election has reverberated beyond the DSA and has also raised eyebrows among the organized, marxist left. Unsurprisingly the most positive coverage comes from the two groups who have oriented themselves strategically towards the DSA - the ISO and Socialist Alternative.
A recent article by Socialist Worker discussed the election with an uncharacteristic level of open endedness for an organization which has to its credit very firmly maintained its opposition to the Democratic Party over decades.
In their concluding sentence they state that "the left must, at the same time, examine whether Sanders’ promise of transforming the Democratic Party is a way forward — and if not, how we can build an independent force inspired by the kind of socialist ideals that Ocasio-Cortez expressed. " The ISO clearly believes that the answer to that question is no, but hesitates to actually say so in their analysis. It is an effort to not alienate the DSA members who they work alongside and hope to win over to a politically independent approach.
The problem is that if we don't clearly and openly argue for the position we want to win people to, you can hardly expect them to change their mind. A similar though less pronounced pattern was clear in Obama's initial election where the ISO went out of their way to express their sympathy for his supporters and their motivations, holding back hard critiques which were core to Marxist politics.
Socialist Alternative by contrast has since Bernie Sanders campaign effectively adopted a tacit support for working within and supporting candidates from the Democratic Party. They published an article on Ocasio much earlier, on June 11th and declared that:
"Socialist Alternative wholeheartedly agrees with the need to build a political force that really represents working people, but we believe this will require going outside the framework of the corporate dominated Democrats. But, as with the Sanders campaign two years ago, if people are fighting for change within that framework we will not stand on the sidelines but rather engage in the fight while discussing and debating the way forward."
The article goes on to state that "Socialist Alternative is working with Ocasio’s supporters to win the best result in the primary on June 26."
What in the previous election was a soft-endorsement of Bernie Sanders has at this point evolved into a strategic decision to contest and participate in Democratic Primaries. The declared objective is the creation of a new working class party (or a "Party of the 99%"), however while Socialist Alternative itself has not run candidates within a Democratic Party their position on Ocasio represents a clear deepening of their comitment to support "anti-establishment" candidates within Democratic Primaries. According to their own posts on official social media, openly endorsing her in the general election is under consideration.
They pursue this strategy with the avowed goal of having a section of the Democratic Party break off into the formation of a new socialist party, but there is ample evidence that those they have supported like Bernie Sanders and Ocasio have absolutely no intention of building a new party. These candidates they endorse move in explicitly with the goal of renovating the Democratic Party, not waging a fierce political struggle that could result in a split.
Socialist Alternative knows this, and their political opportunism around this issue is simply an effort to appeal to and hope to win over supporters of politicians like Sanders and Ocasio who may become dissillusioned with a future right turn. Yet this is inherently dishonest from an intellectual and political standpoint, it is a refusal to advocate for the actual politics and actual representation that would be needed to win an independent socialist party.
Smaller organizations like Socialist Action as well as independent media like Black Agenda Report have taken a much more critical view on Ocasio's election and this perspective is a welcome antidote. Socialism's rising popularity means that our approach towards socialist candidates is going to become ever more important. We can expect a future rise in both DSA Democrats and even independent reformist candidates and we must understand this as a product of a shifting political geography which opens up tremendous opportunities for the socialist movement.
Yet taking advantage of these opportunities, building lasting organizations, amplifying the power of workers and constructing real power which is capable of threatening not just one politician but the entire structure of American Capitalism requires more. It requires independent political representation and candidates who will above all build their campaigns around critiques of the underlying structures rather than calls to renovate them.