When President Donald Trump invoked “alarm” in his State of the Union address over what he described as “new calls to adopt socialism in our country,” television quickly cut to Sen. Bernie Sanders. The independent, self-described “democratic socialist” from Vermont reacted with a tight-lipped glare as if he had just bitten into a dill pickle.
But TV might just as well have swung over to Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. She’s another self-proclaimed “democratic socialist,” whose rising, camera-ready star power has picked up where Sanders’ failed bid for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination left off in fueling the “alarm” on the right.
Indeed, recent polls have shown that socialism has long been viewed more favorably by a narrow majority of Democrats. The party has edged slightly more to the left in recent years, while Republicans have stayed firmly on the right.
Although I would question assertions that socialism is somehow sweeping the country, I have little doubt that the right’s attempts to intimidate or silence the left by casting liberal ideas as “class warfare” or “socialism” have lost a lot of their sting.
For that, “AOC,” as she is increasingly known, can take a lot of the credit or, depending on your point of view, blame. As Republicans and other conservatives reflexively respond with “Venezuela” whenever progressive ideas arise such as “Medicare for all,” free college tuition or a tax-the-rich revenue overhaul, she has piped up with more pleasant-sounding socialist models, such as Denmark.
Against that backdrop, all eyes on Capitol Hill turned Thursday to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for her reaction to a news conference by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, co-sponsors of a “Green New Deal.”
Their nonbinding resolution has zoomed to the top of the party’s progressive wing agenda with a sweeping list of ways to prioritize climate change, “economic justice” and massive federal investment in green infrastructure. Although the progressives call the resolution a “conversation starter,” support for a Green New Deal of some sort has become a rallying cry and litmus test for Democrats in the 2020 presidential race.
Where does Pelosi stand? With the guarded optimism she showed in outmaneuvering President Trump to end the recent partial government shutdown, Speaker Pelosi offered measured praise for the Green New Deal, without committing herself even to getting its label right.
“It will be one of several or maybe many suggestions that we receive,” she told Politico before Green New Deal sponsors held their news conference. “The green dream or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?”
She was being properly cagey. Democrats have been divided since the 1960s between their moderate and left-progressive wings. Speaker Pelosi’s task is to keep that energy going on her party’s left without alienating the party’s pragmatic establishment or the persuadable swing voters the party will need to win the general election.
But AOC’s aggressive push for a “Green New Deal” now is well-timed to start conversations and help set the tone of coming primaries.
What must be particularly unsettling for President Trump is how much AOC’s rise mirrors his own: Her lack of experience and impatience with details frees her to appeal to voters on a gut level, highlighting what needs to be done in a media-savvy way without being encumbered by the mechanics of how to do it.
As for the right’s anti-socialist propaganda, Republicans and other conservatives may well have worn out that attack line through overuse, particularly among younger voters.
President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, provides a powerful example. Battered by the right, its approval ratings nevertheless have climbed since its passage and especially after Trump and the Republican Congress tried to repeal it without a replacement.
In the midterms, defense of the ACA’s coverage of pre-existing conditions proved so popular that many Republican House candidates promised to protect it, even though they had voted, unsuccessfully, to repeal it with the rest of the ACA.
No wonder the left feels encouraged. An honest debate about socialism would reveal how much we already have it in the form of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, just to name three popular programs. They face funding challenges, which can be resolved whenever Congress overcomes its current legislative gridlock. We’re not Denmark, but we are not anywhere close to being another Venezuela either.
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