Don't Underestimate the Socialist Surge on the Left
A Democratic “blue wave” may or may not be able to overcome the Republicans’ majority and structural advantages in the 2018 midterm elections. But the bigger story that’s brewing is the dramatic and nationwide leftward shift of the Democratic Party. The socialist surge has potential to reshape not just the party but American politics for generations to come.
Democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory over 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley in a New York primary was the most significant political upset since Tea Party Republican Dave Brat defeated then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014. Her victory wasn’t an isolated incident. Democratic-socialist candidates also scored wins in Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives and, in 2017, in Virginia’s House of Delegates.
Meanwhile, in California, the Democratic state party executive committee decided to endorse progressive stalwart Kevin de Leon over Dianne Feinstein. (Feinstein won the open primary, but in California the top two finishers, even if members of the same party, run against each other in the general election.) Feinstein has major advantages in the November face-off (name ID and fundraising) and will likely prevail. But when Dianne Feinstein is deemed too conservative for the Democratic Party a major shift is underway.
The Democratic socialists hoped to start a new chapter in their crusade with a rally last week in the heart of America: The event took place in Wichita, Kansas. For Kansas’s conservatives, the rally was the political equivalent of “Red Dawn.” The Bernie Sanders liberation army, under the leadership of General Ocasio-Cortez, parachuted into the heart of Koch country (Wichita is the headquarters of Koch Industries) to pick a fight and make a point. Ocasio-Cortez said they chose the location to prove that “an honest, grassroots, lobbyist-free movement for working-class Americans can work anywhere.”
Kansas Republicans, who understand their state’s history as a proxy battleground for populist movements, are taking this threat seriously. In the 3rd Congressional District, which includes the Kansas City suburbs and more moderate Johnson and Wyandotte counties, socialist Brent Welder claims he is beating Republican Kevin Yoder in a head-to-head matchup. The Welder campaign reportedly received $50,000 in small donor contributions after Ocasio-Cortez’s victory. Perhaps not coincidentally, Vice President Mike Pence made a stop in Kansas to support Yoder on July 11.
In the 4th Congressional District, Republican Ron Estes, who represents Wichita, called the rally a “declaration of war” against the American free enterprise system. Estes confronted the socialists’ populist message head on. “Socialists don’t trust you,” he said. “They only trust themselves to use your money for their utopian agenda. It’s not about working people. It’s about power.”
In the 2nd District, Republican Caryn Tyson, a leading candidate to replace retiring Republican Lynn Jenkins, asked: “Where’s Paul Davis?” Davis, the likely Democratic nominee, is trying to thread a needle by not alienating moderate voters or his progressive base, as he needs both to be competitive in a general election.
In Kansas, only the 1st District, represented by Republican Roger Marshall seems immune from the socialist surge. An R+24 district, according the Cook Political Report’s Partisan Voting Index, KS-1 sits near the top of the Republicans’ big hill.
Conservatives nationally should follow the lead of Sunflower State Republicans and take serious steps to counter the socialist surge. Demagoguing socialists as “extreme” or “scary” won’t be enough.
Three national trends could conspire to give socialists widespread electoral and policy success:
1. We live in an age of movements, not parties. National Democrats are terrified of the rise of Ocasio-Cortez, and for good reason. They may not have any more influence over the socialist surge than Republicans had over Donald Trump’s rise in 2016. Trump broke through Republican “establishment” opposition as if it didn’t exist — because it didn’t. Today’s national parties are event planners for movements. Parties belong to movements more than movements belong to parties. Movements like the Tea Party, and now Democratic socialism, have supplanted party structures as organizers of ideas and debate.
As a longtime aide to U.S. Rep. and then-Sen. Tom Coburn, I can testify to the fact that confronting entrenched power was not mere theory. In fight after fight — especially our successful campaign to eliminate congressional earmarks — we experienced the overwhelming strength of grassroots movements and weakness of national party structures.
Joe Lieberman, the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2000, is right to warn that Ocasio-Cortez’s policies could bankrupt America, but today’s Democratic Party left Lieberman long ago. Today’s Democrats lack the credibility and political power to stop the socialist surge.
2. America’s anti-incumbent mood is less ideological than Republicans realize. Rick Santelli’s “rant” is often described as the start of the Tea Party. But that moment was only one chapter in a quarter-century-long anti-incumbent movement that remains ongoing. In fact, the movement that became the Tea Party wasn’t started by conservatives but rather by a Democratic outsider named Virgil Cooper.
In 1994, the 71-year-old retired middle-school principal with no political experience and virtually no money defeated eight-term incumbent Mike Synar in Oklahoma’s 2nd Congressional District Democratic primary. Though Coburn went on to win the general election, it was Cooper who started the Gingrich Revolution that became the Tea Party and then the Trump movement.
Coburn never forgot that a Democrat cleared his path to victory. He understood the “rumble” felt in the electorate was a not a doctrinaire conservative movement but a more ideologically diffused anti-incumbent uprising. Bernie Sanders watched conservatives harness this movement and has spent the last 25 years dreaming about how to direct its course toward Democratic socialism.
3. Millennials like socialism. Millennials are now the largest sector of the labor market and the largest voter-eligible generation in America. They are also the victims of generational theft and may well choose generational retaliation rather than reform along the lines of what reformers proposed through the Simpson-Bowles Commission, for instance.
Polls consistently show millennials like socialism — but there’s a catch.
The only path forward for conservatives is to appeal to millennials who are undecided about economic theory. For instance, a Gallup poll from 2016 showed a majority (55 percent) of Americans between the ages of 18-29 had a positive view of socialism. Yet, the same poll revealed that millennials view small business, entrepreneurs, the free enterprise system and capitalism more favorably than socialism. Free enterprise was viewed favorably by 78 percent of younger Americans while capitalism was viewed favorably by 57 percent. Gallup also found that millennials have a higher opinion of small business and free enterprise than Americans over 65.
Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez understand these trends and have a plan to respond to them. They view this struggle as a long-term generational and worldview conflict that transcends mere politics. So should conservatives. Movements rise to prominence not necessarily by offering the right answers but by asking the right questions. In the 18th century, abolitionist Josiah Wedgwood changed the world by asking the right question: “Am I not a man and a brother?”
The heart of the Sanders/Ocasio-Cortez Democratic-socialist movement is a question more than a set of policies: Is it right and moral that in a modern and wealthy country some people are too poor to live? That is the right question. Conservatives have the best response and should welcome this struggle. They should also share their answers with passion and moral clarity, rather than dismissing the socialists as a fringe movement. If they don’t, the socialist surge may become unstoppable.