The rise of the radical left in America's Democratic Party - Macleans.ca

The rise of the radical left in America’s Democratic Party

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has put a brash, fresh face on unapologetic socialism in the United States. Can Americans—or even Democrats—get behind her?

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the Bronx, June 30, 2018. (Damon Winter/The New York Times/Redux)

The most loved and loathed 28-year-old in America—with the possible exception of Taylor Swift—is introduced to a shrieking crowd of 3,000 liberals, leftists and loyalists in a concert hall in Wichita, Kansas, which may be all the liberals that there are in Wichita, Kansas. It is 39° C outside; inside, emotionally, even hotter.

“CHANGE IS ON THE HORIZON” is the headline on a poster in the hall with the young heroine’s confident face at its centre, rays of sunlight streaming outward from her vigilant gaze. Someone in the audience (already!) has crafted a campaign poster touting her for the vice-presidency in 2020, but even then she still will be five years too young to constitutionally serve.

“She’s not just another gorgeous Latina!” cries the emceeing local activist from the stage as the sudden Evita of American politics waits in the wings in a powder-blue sleeveless dress.

La leona de Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Rikers Island!” he calls her, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the new lioness of Gotham’s gritty outer boroughs and their struggling descamisados, emerges to speak to a whooping madness on a weekday afternoon in the dry, flat Emerald City of the Merry Old Land of Trump, in Mike Pompeo’s old congressional district, in the hometown of the right-thinking billionaire Koch brothers, in the middlest middle of the republic: impassioned supporters who, just a few weeks earlier, had never heard of her.

“They said what we did in the Bronx, no one would care about in Kansas!” she begins, and the avid throng hoots hotly: boooooo.

“They told me I would not be welcome,” she reports, without identifying who “they” might be. “But you’ve showed me that girls from the Bronx are welcome anywhere!”

“You are carrying the candle of hope for this country!” Ocasio-Cortez proclaims, swept to Oz by a cyclone of Hispanic sisterhood and 12 per cent turnout.

“You are too!” screams someone from the rafters.

“Hope is not something that is found, it is something that is made,” she tells the ardent crowd. And she explains that she has always had a soft spot for the Sunflower State because her fifth-grade teacher, a Ms. Whipple, hailed from these same fertile flatlands. The crowd finds this tale charming.

For Ocasio-Cortez, who was born a month before the fall of the Berlin Wall—and two months before Taylor Alison Swift—it is the first venture west of the Hudson River since she obliterated 10-term Congressman Joe Crowley, an Irish cop’s son from Queens, in June in the Democratic primary in a district that is 50 per cent Hispanic. The riding enfolds LaGuardia Airport and Citi Field, but not Yankee Stadium or the boyhood home of Donald J. Trump.

Crowley, 56, is the Queens County Democratic Party chairman, mahatma and rainmaker—or at least he used to be. Facing a Puerto Rican waitress, he barely bothered to campaign. Crowley has promised to endorse the woman who, in her words, “smoked” him out of power, but when you love like that, blood runs cold.

READ MORE: Why Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won’t change the Democratic party

Back in New York City, some primary voters may have been swayed by the untruthful lament on Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign website that she spent a toilsome childhood commuting from the Bronx to a whiter school district in tony Westchester County. In fact, the family moved out of tenement city and up to the ’burbs when little Alex was five. (Not that they were Trumps; her mother scrubbed toilets to carry them through after her father died without a will.)

But now, in a coliseum on a levee of the Arkansas River, acclaimed as the new visage of a resurgent American Left, such untidiness is behind her. The former barkeep, Ted Kennedy intern, educational strategist and card-carrying democratic socialist has come to the wheaten prairie in company with the old face, which is white-rimmed, livid and pink.

In other words: Bernie Sanders.

“We made ideas that were once considered a radical part of the mainstream conversation,” the junior senator from Vermont hoarsely (and correctly) caws at full volume, as contumacious and unkempt as ever, when it is his turn to speak to the delirious Jayhawks.

In her own speech at the Wichita amphitheatre, Ocasio-Cortez enumerates the planks that won her a place in the House of Representatives as the youngest female congresswoman in the chamber’s 230 years. (Caveat: before taking her seat at the far-left flank of the Democratic caucus, she still must contest a pro-forma general election in November against a Greek-American Republican professor of economics, and the hobbled Crowley may or may not be trotted out as a third-party dark horse.)

Ocasio-Cortez’s platform includes the Bernie! Bernie! Bernie! standards of Medicare for all and free university education, plus the abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) apparatus and a guaranteed well-paying job for every able body. (Also, her agenda includes a call to “tax Wall Street, end the war on drugs, demilitarize our police and invest in 100 per cent renewable green energy,” but she doesn’t mention these in Wichita.)

“Change takes courage,” she says. “Change takes guts.”

READ MORE: The Democrats risk becoming the party of plutocrats

Among all the pies in Ocasio-Cortez’s red sky, the Universal Jobs Guarantee has drawn the most puzzled reaction at a time when there are more job openings in the United States than there are adults who are out of work. Unemployment is at a record low, she has said, only “because everyone has two jobs.” Evaluated by the non-partisan project PolitiFact, this claim earned la leona the distinction of liar, liar, pants en fuego. But then what is the upside of telling the truth in Trump’s America?

Whatever. Americans who affirm her democratic, socialistic ends, she says, are “doing the work of hope”; they are “steadfast and earnest and committed to reclaim the soul of this nation.”

CHANGE on a poster. Hope from the podium. Sound familiar?

“Her aspiration is to be the president,” the mother of the lioness has said.

A supporter holds a sign depicting Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as she speaks at a campaign event for James Thompson, a Kansas House candidate, in Wichita on Friday, July 20, 2018. Less than four weeks after scoring a stunning upset in a Democratic House primary in New York, Ocasio-Cortez stepped out onto the national campaign stage for the first time to take her message to the heartland. (Hilary Swift/The New York Times)

The monthly caucus of the Baltimore chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America convenes on a Sunday afternoon in a neighbourhood vexed by abandoned row houses and some of the most intractable drug and gang violence in the United States. Since Friday night, 13 people have been gunned down around here; it’s summer in Charm City.

The meeting hall on a boulevard of body shops doubles as a library of left-wing treatises and such periodicals as Anarchist Studies and Review of Radical Political Economics. The bookshelves sag under 28 volumes of the collected works of Marx and Engels, and there is even a children’s section with titles that include A Is for Activist:

N is for No

No! No! No!

Yes to what we want

No to what must go!

No! No! No!

Yes, the membership is voting in its congress in the meeting room—yes to endorsing progressive candidates for public office. Yes to joining with tenants-rights groups to protest at properties owned by oppressor-in-law Jared Kushner. Yes, says a woman at the head table, to “saving the world from destruction by capitalism.”

And yes to a noble goal: that “the steering wheel of democracy moves closer to the people.”

The DSA is the organization whose happy harpies hooted Republican kingpin Mitch McConnell out of a café in Louisville, Ky., and heckled Homeland Security’s Kirstjen Nielsen at a fancy taquería in D.C. Now, Ocasio-Cortez’s victory has given the fringe group a place at the table—namely, Trump’s table of incivility, insult and incitement.

In Baltimore, about 70 of “the people” are in attendance, and most of them are about la leona’s age. “Big things are going on in this country,” one anonymous older participant says. (Asked for a quote and a name, almost everyone a reporter meets at the confab answers, “No! No! No!”) “When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was elected, the DSA got 4,000 new members in 24 hours. We now have 45,000 members, the most since the Second World War.”

Donald Trump has 53.2 million followers on Twitter.

“I think that capitalism is a dead system,” says one young man who is willing to be identified: he is Ian Schlakman, chair of the chapter’s electoral committee and the Green Party candidate for governor of Maryland in the 2018 election. “It is clear that capitalism fails at such things as health care and housing, and it is clear that it is time to ditch this antiquated system. I think we will see this in our lifetime. At this point, the United States is going to move more leftward.”

Schlakman is not only a democratic socialist, he’s a socialist, period. The D-word, he says, is necessary to show a fearful nation that “we’re not talking about a strongman style of socialism. We’re not talking about old-style Soviet socialism. Some of us do advocate the overthrow of the capitalist system, but we’re talking about overthrowing the economic system, not the political system. The difference is right in the title—the difference is democracy.”

“All forms of the state have democracy for their truth, and they are untrue to the extent that they are not democracy,” wrote Karl Marx in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.

In 2016, Saturday Night Live attempted its own explication of the “D” in DSA. The enthusiastic Larry David portrays an immigrant whose ship to America is sinking. He insists that the wealthiest male passengers—not the huddled masses of indigent women and children—should be given seats in the lifeboats.

Enter the real Bernie Sanders from the poop deck.

“I am so sick of the one per cent getting this preferential treatment,” Sanders snarls. “Enough is enough! We need to unite and work together if we’re all going to get through this.”

“Sounds like socialism to me,” observes David.

“DEMOCRATIC socialism,” Sanders corrects him.

“Ah, what’s the difference?”

“Yuge difference,” says Sanders. “Yuge.”

“The movement is growing,” affirms Schlakman. “Bernie is an entry point. Now Alexandria is another.”

A poll taken last fall by the anti-communist Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation found that 44 per cent of American millennials would prefer to live under a socialist system, compared to 42 per cent who chose capitalism. Fascism and communism garnered seven per cent each. (Nihilists didn’t vote at all.)

“It’s very exciting,” Schlakman says. “But what I personally worry about is the Democratic Party eating socialists alive and changing their views.”

Yet he worries not about Ocasio-Cortez and her appeals to the better Engels of our nature.

“Put her toe-to-toe with anyone in Congress,” the socialist says, “and she’ll do just fine.”

The eating-alive has already begun.

“Meteors fizz out,” sneered a member of Congress named Alcee Hastings. “What she will learn in this institution is that it’s glacial to begin with, and therefore no matter how far you rise, that’s just how far you will ultimately get your comeuppance.”

“Democrats, please, please don’t lose your minds and rush to the socialist left,” tweeted “Big Jim” Comey, the fired director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “This president and his Republican Party are counting on you to do exactly that. America’s great middle wants sensible, balanced, ethical leadership.”

“Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is a proud member of the Democratic Socialists of America, whose platform, like hers, is more socialist than democratic,” wrote Joe Lieberman, the retired senator and former vice-presidential candidate from Connecticut. “Her dreams of new federal spending would bankrupt the country.”

“We’ve got to abandon a politics of anxiety that is characterized by wild-eyed proposals and instead deliver ideas and practical solutions,” said Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware.

And those guys are all Democrats!

“Unfortunately, this highly disturbed woman will be elected to higher office,” predicted the New York Post in a column headlined “Red Alert! Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez vows to take socialist revolution all the way to the White House,” adding: “and the degenerate zombies of the millennial generation will celebrate her as the epitome of progressivism.”

“Democratic socialists are either proletarians who are not yet sufficiently clear about the conditions of the liberation of their class, or they are representatives of the petty bourgeoisie,” sneered Marx in 1848.

Parkchester is a 75-year-old housing development in the Bronx that has nearly as many residents as there are members of the Democratic Socialists of America, nationwide. Tens of thousands of people—nearly all of them Asian, African-American or Hispanic-American—live in 171 identical red-brick high-rises that used to be whites-only. The whole city-within-a-city was built by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. There is nothing like it in Canada.

Trump owns a golf course—designed by Jack Nicklaus and sculpted from landfill—at the east end of Parkchester, under the big bridge to Queens, though neither the Donald nor the Golden Bear resides in the 14th Congressional District. But Parkchester is where Ocasio-Cortez lives, giving her the right, as she did in a highly effective campaign video, to accuse Crowley of being a Democrat who “doesn’t live here, doesn’t send his kids to our schools, doesn’t drink our water or breathe our air [and] cannot possibly represent us.”

“I went to hear her,” Sarah Alleyne is saying in a booth at the Parkchester Applebee’s. “She was on fire. From waitress all the way up to Congress—can you imagine that? All the way to sitting with Nancy Pelosi? She was born here. She is one of us. She might have fallen from the sky, but she came home to the grassroots people.”

Alleyne, a retired official of a hospital workers’ union and the founder of the New Parkchester Democratic Club, moved to the area 50 years ago as the only African-American tenant in a 13-storey building. Now there is a not a single white person left in her tower, she reports. This demographic fact, as much as anything Ocasio-Cortez and her team may have done—the reported 170,000 phone calls, the knocking on 120,000 doors—did poor Crowley in.

“I know Joseph Crowley,” says Alleyne, who once ran for the New York State Assembly but lost in a primary. “I helped to put him into office 20 years ago. But he just disappeared off the face of the earth. Joe changed. We didn’t see him. But when I wanted to talk to Alexandria, she met me at the Burger King.”

If all politics truly is local—and if your locality encompasses the Mexican tiendas of Elmhurst, Queens, and the Bangla Bazar in Parkchester, and a dozen other islands of New York’s frantic archipelago of striving and success—then a waitress stands a better chance than a baroness. But it is what comes next that will really matter to the people of the 14th.

“Did you know that Alexandria wants the federal government to guarantee everyone a job?” Alleyne is asked.

“Man, that’s heavy,” the New Parkchester Democrat replies. “You mean, if people come to this country, just give them a job? I’m a United States citizen. I was born here. I worked for thirty-three and a half years. Nobody gave me anything. And they just show up and get everything?” (Emphasis hers.)

A copy of Democratic Left, the official publication of the Democratic Socialists of America, is passed around the table, where Alleyne has been joined by some of her membership.

“It takes socialist cash to fight capitalist trash,” one appeal for contributions reads.

“Did you know that socialists like Alexandria want to overthrow the capitalist system?” the ladies are asked.

“She does?” gasps the head of the New Parkchester Democrats. “I’ll speak to her about that.”

Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign event for James Thompson, a Kansas House candidate, in Wichita, July 20, 2018. (Hilary Swift/The New York Times/Redux)

From the Bronx to Wichita, a spectre may come back to haunt Ocasio-Cortez and her comrades—the danger of being too liberal for their own country, even in this time of Trump.

“I think that guaranteeing a job to everyone is a bad idea,” a faithful Kansan Democrat and retired schoolteacher named Vernette Chance is saying at the Wichita auditorium, where she has come to audit Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders and to sign up new voters for the fall. “I come from a whole line of people who earned their living with their hands. I don’t believe in just giving everyone a job.”

Like millions of other Americans, Chance has seen her own family dashed to splinters by the ferocity of the political winds. She “doesn’t feel comfortable” talking to a favourite niece after the young woman voiced her support for the Donald. Another branch of the family is ardently pro-Trump—“it’s all because they have money,” she says.

Still, Chance sees the socialists’ point: “If you don’t help people who need help, then you end up with an Ayn Rand society where they can just go die in a corner”—and she says that she has broken off with friends who derided Sanders as a “Jewish Santa Claus.”

“That’s bullshit,” the white-haired woman snarls.

READ MORE: Donald Trump’s divisiveness could drive Dixie Democrats

“No, I’m not a democratic socialist,” a local man named James Thompson states in concord. “I don’t like the name ‘socialist’ because of the negative connotations that go with it. I’m just a common-sense guy from Kansas. A socialist is someone who wants the U.S. government to control the means of production. I guess I’m an FDR Democrat.”

Thompson, who says that his family was once so poor that he had to bathe in a Florida canal, is a human-rights lawyer in the largest metropolis in the Sunflower State and the Democratic candidate for Congress in a district that Republicans have held for 72 of the past 100 years. (Donald Trump landslided this riding, 60 per cent to Hillary Clinton’s 33.) It will take a very blue wave indeed to crest Thompson to the Capitol, hence his invitation to Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez to campaign on his behalf, even as he runs (slightly) to the right of the furthest left.

“If a centrist message would have won here,” Thompson tells the audience, “Hillary Clinton would have won here.”

The rally comes on the 100th anniversary of the murders of Czar Nicholas II and his family in a Siberian basement, hence, perhaps, the latent fear in the American republic of manifestos and raised red fists. 

In November, voters from Harlem to Hollywood and all the Wichitas in between will get to decide. Meanwhile, Vernette Chance’s left-leaning son and daughter-in-law have hightailed it to liberal Oregon, where a socialist can breathe easy.

“They got so sick of being asked about Dorothy and the ruby slippers,” the schoolteacher says.

On stage now in the great middle, America’s brand-new, bubble-wrapped good witch of the Left is preaching about hope. When she finishes speaking, and after she and Sanders and Thompson stand together and are smothered by roars of love, a woman comes out and ends the event with a song. In Wichita, in Kansas, as the socialist gale gains torque, she is singing Over the Rainbow.