Democratic Socialism vs the Democratic Party

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As the sun set on New York City on the night of Tuesday, June 26th, 2018, so too did the lights dim on the career of 10-term Congressman Joe Crowley as the once likely successor to Nancy Pelosi lost the State's 14th District primary by 14 percentage points to 28 year old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a former Sanders organizer looking to become the young new face of the Democratic Party. While she deserves credit for running an incredibly energetic campaign against a well-funded opponent, her victory is most notable as the product of an influx in support for socialist candidates by America's idealistic young adults. However, there is significantly less optimism outside of the halls of the far-left as the potential of a socialist wave that would cripple the effectiveness of Democratic leadership while thinning the ranks of collaborative moderates looms darkly upon the District of Columbia.

 

During the early 1960s, the conservative postwar America best characterized by Dwight Eisenhower and the aggressive containment of communism began to give way to progressive icons like Jack Kennedy and the hippie counterculture highlighted by the works of the Grateful Dead and Beat Generation writers. 2000 miles from the liberal movement’s epicenter in Haight-Ashbury, a political science major at the University of Chicago named Bernard Sanders led protests against school segregation as a member of the Young People's Socialist League at the beginning of what would be an otherwise unremarkable early career in social activism. In the years afterward, he would find employment as a Head Start teacher, psychiatric aide and carpenter in New York until relocating to Vermont due to being “captivated by rural life”, where he would work as a liberal filmmaker, writer and fringe candidate until his improbable election to the Mayorship of Burlington in 1980. Although socialism remained unpopular in America, Sanders, now in his 40s and well entrenched in the Marxist philosophy, maintained a very favorable reputation over his time in office where he balanced the city budget and led a number of downtown revitalization projects that earned national acclaim. In 1990, he became the first independent candidate elected to Congress in 40 years and soon founded the Congressional Progressive Caucus while attacking both major parties for maintaining close ties to large corporations and wealthy individuals. Slowly but surely, he would develop an enthusiastic following as he ascended to a Senate seat and national prominence, culminating in a Presidential run in 2016.

 

Despite his resounding defeat, Senator Sanders has had an objectively impressive impact on the American political arena thus far - most notably his mobilization of thousands of young men and women to get involved in promoting leftist values at the local level. Most prominent among them is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an educational strategist turned Sanders campaign organizer aiming to represent the Bronx in Congress. Having been outspent by an 18 to 1 ratio in her primary, she was extremely active on the ground and interacted directly with voters with a sense of enthusiasm not seen since the dawn of televised advertisements, ultimately resulting in an upset reminiscent of Dave Brat's defeat of Eric Cantor just four years ago. Employing a strategy similar to that of Mr. Sanders during his run against Hillary Clinton, Ocasio-Cortez was able to use Crowley's status as a party boss and DC insider as well as his network of donors in New York City's finance and real estate industries against him. This anti-establishment rhetoric has been devastatingly effective at times as of late, including for former Marine Captain Conor Lamb, the 34 year old Democrat who explicitly voiced his displeasure with current Party leadership en route to his special election victory in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District which encompasses a region President Trump won by nearly 20 percentage points in 2016. However, a similar stance has thus far proven unsuccessful for Kevin de Leon of California, the far-left challenger to Senator Dianne Feinstein who shares Ocasio-Cortez’s goal of abolishing Immigration & Customs Enforcement. This serves as a reminder that it’s still quite rare for enthusiasm and populist rhetoric to outduel name recognition and a massive war chest. Looking ahead, it’s incredibly difficult to make any predictions about Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s political future as well as where American Democratic Socialism will wander over the next few decades. While her status as the Democratic nominee in a 50% Hispanic metropolitan district all but locks up victory in November, her socialist views will likely isolate her in Congress and severely limit her productivity as a Legislator. This will make her re-election bid difficult as she may be attacked for unsuccessfully representing the marginalized members of her community that she pledged to fight for and therefore will be more vulnerable to a moderate challenger. Beyond Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s district, the hopes of the Democratic Socialist movement as a whole will surely lie with the economic direction of millenials over the next few years. Its ranks will continue to swell if promising young graduates continue to pursue low-paying jobs in social work or the service industry while drowning in student loans and yearning for a sense of belonging that can most easily be found in the arms of a countercultural movement. Roughly half of a century ago, many members a previous generation felt a similar sense of aimlessness drive them into the words of Jack Kerouac and the soothing voice of Jerry Garcia. Today, most have grown up and become productive members of society with some even occupying positions as legislators and political commentators on either side of the aisle. This at least leaves some hope for a return to normalcy but also provides a firm reminder that more must be done to guide and support the country’s most vulnerable residents even if doing so conflicts with the iconic conservative ideal of rugged individualism.

 

In the wake of Ms. Ocasio Cortez' recent unprecedented success, her call for drastic immigration reform has been adopted by 2020 Presidential hopefuls such as Senators Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand and Bernie Sanders as they slowly but surely make their way further left before primary season. This is not the first mark socialists have left upon the Democratic Party, however, as universal healthcare, broad social safety nets and the jobs guarantee act have all become rallying cries and magnets for young voters as of late. This marks a relatively stark contrast with the past two Democratic Administrations, both of whom enjoyed dominance in their combined four elections. Although universal healthcare has been a Democratic interest for over 20 years, both Presidents Clinton and Obama understood that legislative progress is made through chipping away at a goal inch-by-inch rather than through proposing sweeping reform packages as each of the aforementioned legislators intends to do. Moreso, as the deficit becomes an even bigger concern in the wake of President Trump’s tax cuts and inexplicable increase in defense spending, social security expansion and the Federal Jobs Guarantee Act will be major deterrents to fiscally conscious voters who would surely prefer that the country does not default on its debt. This is not to say that the socialists’ goals are entirely infeasible, but that thinking one could pass such legislature in the near future is unreasonable barring the emergence of a progressive leader in the mold of Lyndon Johnson.

 

Idealism aside, socialism has been objectively poor at creating the wealth equality and societal harmony that are central to its promotion and popularity. The core belief of the Democratic Socialists of America is that economies should be defined by state-owned enterprises and worker-owned cooperatives. Not only have experiments like this led to crises in Israel, India and Sweden, they are a recipe for corruption as excessive power is placed in the hands of under-qualified employees and laborers. It would also add an additional lair of politics to the mix, stymieing innovation by limiting opportunities for professional advancement and greater compensation - the two greatest motivators for most professionals. Additionally, one should realize that democratic socialism falls apart on the contradiction between advocating for nearly unlimited government largess and nearly unlimited immigration. In order to preserve the welfare state, the United States would need to increase border security to prevent low-income laborers from creating further imbalance in the system. On the other hand, lowering the minimum wage and abolition of the closed shop would be required to reasonably take in more unskilled immigrants and present them with a decent chance of employment. Unlike the late 19th and early 20th centuries when optimistic foreigners arrived on Ellis Island or the shores of San Francisco en route to factories across the North, low-skilled jobs are now on the decline and additional laborers are of little use to the modern American economy.

 

There is also a crucial moral argument to be made against socialism and much of it can be derived from Sir John Dahlberg-Acton's claim that "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." From Lenin to Chavez, socialism has nearly always led to dictatorship and sickening abuses of human rights ranging from Stalin's engineering of a Ukrainian famine to the continued elimination of opposition voices in China. Many of its proponents make the argument that socialism has yet to be implemented correctly but fail to realize that this economic system can only be successful amongst small groups of willing participants and not on a massive scale. While Democratic Socialists claim that its anti-authoritarianism or "socialism from below" will provide a remedy, it neglects the idea that giving power to the unsophisticated masses would reduce economic growth and technological progress as marginalized groups focus on saving their own careers rather than moving forward. Surprisingly, this attitude is best exemplified as a product of today’s Executive Branch where the Trump Administration has taken a firm stance against renewable energy in favor or coal and oil, both of which have very bleak outlooks for future job growth, out of loyalty to its many working class supporters who are unwilling to retrain or relocate for more sustainable careers. If this were to continue long-term while expanding to other industries, economic stagnation will begin to take hold and the United States could quickly find itself relegated from competing for global influence with China to battling for IMF loans with Pakistan.

 

In conclusion, it is apparent that it is not only in the best interest of Democratic leadership, but also of the country, for the party to aim to shift back to the moderate policies of the Clinton era rather than maintain the leftward march of the post-Obama years. Socialism, despite being a fascinating idea with admirable goals, is entirely infeasible as a platform and should continue to be reserved for academia while greater efforts must be made to reel in young voters via exciting yet reasonable candidates like Claire McCaskill or even Tulsi Gabbard. Until then, the American political arena as a whole will continue to bleed out as it cracks under the pressure of its fragmenting Parties and the increasing hostility of the populists that make up the far left and right.