NOT IN KANSAS ANYMORE
Democratic Socialists Gain Momentum, and Lose Their Way
DSA founder Michael Harrington might not recognize the socialism of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“Toto, we’re not in the Bronx anymore,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may have well said, as she and Bernie Sanders just finished their first rally in Kansas, where they spoke in support of the Wichita congressional candidate on the Democratic ticket, James Thompson. Ocasio-Cortez learned, she said, “that a girl from the Bronx is welcome everywhere.”
Her message was that the same issues that helped her win a heavily Latino and working-class district in the Bronx and Queens would equally go over in the Republican state of Kansas. “Working-class people,” she said, “share the same values as working-class people everywhere.” In an auditorium seating 5,000, about 3,000 supporters came, on a work day, to cheer on Thompson and to welcome Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders to Kansas, in the very district in which the Koch brothers—as the speakers reminded the audience a few times—choose to live in.
Ocasio-Cortez has not as yet mastered the technique of speaking before large rallies, and reading from a script, she presented what this viewer—watching it on TV—saw as a largely lackluster recital of the programs she favored: Medicare for all; a $15 minimum wage, which is almost double Kansas’ current $7.25 an hour; and the promise that she and Thompson and Sanders “would not stop until our students get free college” without tuition payments. To attain that goal, she urged the audience to go door to door to get Wichita’s citizens to hear the message and pull the lever for Thompson, a Marine veteran and family man who now is a lawyer.
After Thompson’s brief talk, he introduced the day’s star, Bernie Sanders, who gave a perfunctory admonition to vote and campaign for Thompson. But the heart of his fiery speech seemed to be the beginning of his own presidential campaign, rather than a pep talk for a local candidate.
Eschewing the claim that his ideas are radical, Sanders told the crowd that “what were once thought of as radical ideas are now those of the mainstream,” pointing to one poll that showed 65 percent of the American people favor “Medicare for all,” which he called “a single-payer system.” Agreeing with Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders said working people in Kansas and elsewhere needed a $15 minimum wage. Such programs, Sanders said, are as expensive as his critics charge. Rather than say they were not, he retorted that the programs are better than “tax breaks for the wealthy” that Donald Trump’s tax plan produces.
Turning to Donald Trump—whom Ocasio-Cortez and Thompson barely mentioned—Sanders blasted the president as a “pathological liar,” and proceeded to note that “Trump even lies about where his own father was born,” referring to Trump’s statement that his father was born in Germany, when in fact he was born in the United States. Trump’s pretending to claim that his immigration policy showed how tough he was, Sanders asked why he was not tough when facing Vladimir Putin, a man who was putting American democracy itself in danger. Unlike Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders’ focus was national rather than regional.
Their joint appearance is more evidence that, as many argue, socialism has made a huge comeback in America, as significant as the Socialist Party was in its heyday in the 1900s to the 1920s, when it had two members elected to Congress and many gained seats in state legislatures and local city governments as well.
As for Ocasio-Cortez, who will surely be the next representative of New York City’s 14th Congressional District, she is a proud member of Democratic Socialists of America, a group founded first as the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee in 1973 by Michael Harrington, and then as a political organization in 1982.
The group that started with 5,000 members has 45,000 members and 181 chapters since July, making it the largest socialist group in America.
The leftist historian Lawrence Wittner sees “a remarkable comeback in American life,” as 35 percent of Americans now have a favorable view of socialism, and 60 percent of Democratic primary voters think of it as “positive.” Seeing candidates like Ocasio-Cortez triumph in party primaries in solidly blue districts, some mainstream Democrats are joining her call to halt the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, institute free public college education for all, and expand Medicare into a single-payer system that would create government-run health care for the first time in the United States.
This is quite an achievement, given that the efforts of Harrington and his comrades to revive socialism had met with only minimal success in his lifetime.
The nature of the socialism they say they espouse, however, is quite different than what socialists traditionally stood for. When British Labour leader Harold Wilson was the U.K.’s prime minister (1964-1970), he immediately acted to nationalize its steel industry. Having the state take over “the commanding heights of the economy” was once the basis for what its advocates believed would be a socialist transformation.
Today’s self-proclaimed members have dropped this kind of program entirely. As one DSA member writes, “Yet when it comes to propounding a socialist—read anti-capitalist—program, those Reds among us who have ever worked in Democratic clubs or in independent electoral efforts rarely if ever push the kinds of demands that challenge the capitalist system at its root. We hesitate at our peril.” The group’s website simply talks in a general way about “reforms that will weaken the power of corporations and increase the power of working people.” To hard-line traditional socialists like this “red” member who complained about DSA’s lack of militancy, the group is not truly socialist. The truth is that DSA members have not really explained what socialism means to them, and simply use the term to let people know they want societal transformation. Calling for a “humane international social order” that seeks an “equitable distribution of resources” would not be recognized by the socialists of the past as the goal they fought for. Indeed, socialism was called by Irving Howe simply “the name of our desire,” but not a political program that would produce a full-fledged socialist order.
There are other ways that Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez and other democratic-socialists have parted ways with Harrington. An ex-member of the organization who joined when it was first founded, Michael S. Bernick, wrote in a recent op-ed that the group he was active in for over a decade was made up of members who were both idealistic and committed to democracy, and never looked down on the “silent majority” with scorn and disdain. Rather than respect the result of democratic elections, he argues that the current organization endorses the tactics of “resistance” and personal harassment, the chosen tools of the anti-democratic far left, and not those of its founding generation.
Indeed, I recall the DSA meeting with Harrington after Ronald Reagan’s victory, and although it had worked hard against him, members made it clear that the American people had chosen Reagan, and that as a democratically elected president he had to be respected while being challenged politically. Harrington and Irving Howe, the group’s intellectual leader, both opposed the Vietnam War but urged that anti-war members not take part in marches and rallies organized by far leftists who were anti-American and waved Viet Cong flags, and who were calling for victory of Ho Chi Minh’s National Liberation Front.
There is another area that shows how different Harrington’s strategy was from that of DSA members today. Harrington would never have gone to Kansas, as Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez have done, to campaign for the most left-wing candidate in districts defined by virtually everyone as center-right. Yet there the socialists were on Friday, campaigning in an evening rally for self-proclaimed “Justice Democrat” Brent Welder, whom Ocasio-Cortez acknowledges is running the same campaign she did, under the idea, as Washington Post reporter David Weigel drily explained, that “what’s good for the Bronx and Queens would be even better for Kansas.”
Harrington would, I think, have backed a victory in that six-candidate Democratic primary for the Democrat most likely to capture the center in a race against the existing congressman, Republican Kevin Yoder, who seems happy watching Democrats fight among themselves.
“This is a center-right district,” he told Weigel, “and people from time to time will cross over to vote for a Democrat. When they worry that the Democratic Party is being taken over by folks who describe themselves as ‘democratic socialists,’ they’re not going to take that risk.” As New York Times reporter Sydney Ember pointed out, after covering the rally, “many establishment Democrats have bristled at the suggestion that the far-left ideas espoused by her and Mr. Sanders represent the party’s position.” Moreover, these Democrats fear that the socialist message in “districts vastly different than hers will turn off, rather than invigorate, voters.”
Harrington might have personally wanted Medicare for all, but he wouldn’t have risked electing a Republican, in a state that voted for Trump, by campaigning for Welder. At a time when the only way to stop the Trump administration’s policies is a Democratic takeover of the House, Harrington would not jeopardize that goal when it might mean moderates and centrists might choose to either not vote or vote for Yoder. He would apply that same logic when it came to endorsing Thompson. At the rally, Thompson said others urged he be more centrist, a course he rejected as being nothing less than being “Republican light.”
Where today’s DSA calls for a full-fledged government-run health-care system, free college, and more, they have only boilerplate explanations about how these things would be funded, with many arguing that it can be done by simply taxing the rich and large corporations.
Harrington knew enough to avoid such chimerical schemes. He advocated calling for only “the left wing of the possible,” while offering support for mainstream liberal policy proposals. He supported policies he thought the majority of the country would support. Thus Harrington favored moderate reforms such as Sen.Hubert Humphrey’s and Rep. Augustus Hawkins’ Full Employment Act—based on the Keynesian economic measure of “priming the pump” by creating some new government jobs in periods of great unemployment and holding out the goal of a full employment economy in the future. Private, and not public enterprise, the authors believed, would be the mechanism and institution that would achieve its stated goals. When President Jimmy Carter signed it into law in October 1978, Harrington viewed it as a political victory. The “left wing of the possible” did not apply to the demands favored today by Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders, which so many people in the country oppose.
Internationally, Harrington opposed the existing dictatorships of the totalitarian left, and supported the West in the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Unlike the members of today’s DSA, Harrington made his organization an affiliate of the Socialist International, whose members were largely moderate leaders of European social-democratic parties. To contrast his group with the pro-Soviet “Eurocommunists” and anti-democratic third-world leftists, he sponsored a meeting in 1980 called “Euro-Socialism in America,” which featured leading European social-democrats, including Willy Brandt of Germany, Olaf Palme of Sweden, Francois Mitterrand of France, and other European socialists. Harrington hoped that within a year, every European government would have a socialist as president or prime minister, and he sought to help differentiate this Euro-socialist group, as he called it, from the Soviet Union’s alliance in the Warsaw Pact and the Cominform of totalitarian communist states. Today’s DSA withdrew from the SI at its most recent convention
DSA still heralds the memory of Michael Harrington, but it has strayed far from the actual politics he practiced. Were he alive, he might even think twice about remaining a member.