New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon is a democratic socialist. Nixon, who is challenging incumbent Gov. Andrew Cuomo, wrote in an email to Politico that some “more establishment, corporate Democrats get very scared by this term but if being a democratic socialist means that you believe health care, housing, education and the things we need to thrive should be a basic right not a privilege then count me in.”
This move comes just weeks after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — a self-described democratic socialist and dues-paying member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) — won an upset primary against Rep. Joe Crowley, until that point considered one of the most powerful Democrats in the House. In the wake of Bernie Sanders’ presidential primary, these developments have sparked a conversation about what the term ‘democratic socialism’ actually means.
The Right spent much of Obama’s presidency, confusingly, for socialists, calling policies like the Affordable Care Act — a market-based exchange dominated by private healthcare insurers — socialism. Now that candidates like Nixon and Ocasio-Cortez are actively choosing to identify with the label publicly, the Right doesn’t have much ammunition to draw on, comparing demands for common-sense things like affordable housing to Stalinist five-year plans.
In real-time, candidates and, critically, groups like DSA and the social movements and community organizing outfits they work with, are helping map out what a 21st century American democratic socialism might look like. Nixon and Ocasio-Cortez have defined it mainly as a natural extension of the measures outlined in their policy platforms, which include support for policies like Medicare for All, free public college, taxing the rich and upending backward voter suppression laws.
As Ocasio-Cortez straightforwardly put it when asked to define democratic socialism: “In a modern, moral and wealthy society, no person in America should be too poor to live. … What that means to me is health care as a human right. It means that every child, no matter where you are born, should have access to a college or trade-school education, if they so choose it. And I think that no person should be homeless, if we can have public structures and public policy to allow for people to have homes and food and lead a dignified life in the United States.”
It wasn’t diatribes about ownership over the means of production that won Ocasio-Cortez her election, and it won’t be singing the Internationale that wins Nixon hers. What has seemed to resonate with New York voters — and with those of fellow democratic socialists Lee Carter, in the Virginia legislature, and Carlos Ramirez Rosa, a Chicago Alderman — is a tangible vision of a more humane society, backed up by a genuine commitment to listening to and fighting for the concerns of their constituencies.
Older and existing models of socialism and social democracy offer lessons, but not exactly roadmaps. Sweden’s universal healthcare system is both successful and popular, while the country is one of the world’s whitest. Norway’s massive social wealth fund has given the country a robust public sphere, but was also built on oil wealth. And even America’s own history of democratic socialism in power — like much of American history writ large — was at times riddled with racism, as when socialist Milwaukee Congressman Victor Berger defended segregation. The writings of Marx and Lenin offer plenty of valuable insights into capitalism and political strategy, although may not be of much help in crafting a plan to effectively abolish ICE (which both Ocasio-Cortez and Nixon call for).
Building any sustainable democratic socialism in 21st century America — the unique challenge that socialists in the United States find themselves saddled with — is grappling with the fact that the country was built on a brutal foundation of genocide and slavery which fundamentally defines our society, and that the threat of climate change demands that we decarbonize our economy by 2050 at the absolute latest or face civilizational annihilation.
After being stripped violently from America’s political consciousness through decades of red-baiting and state-sanctioned murder, socialism is, for the first time many can remember, emerging here as something other than either a countercultural aesthetic preference or the preoccupation of a handful of academics. It’s now firmly enmeshed in our politics, and as such has to grapple with questions that are harder to parse out in real life than online or in theoretical texts: How do socialists govern? How do we run subway systems or fire departments, or the Environmental Protection Agency? What does it actually look like to bring things previously left to the market under public ownership?
The strength of American democratic socialism will fail or fly in the long-run based on what it’s actually able to deliver. In the short-run, it has to win over voters who’ve probably never heard of it. Here’s hoping Nixon and other democratic socialist candidates can make the case successfully this year.
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Kate Aronoff is a staff writer at The New Republic and author of Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet — And How We Fight Back. She is co-author of A Planet To Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal and co-editor of We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style. Follow her on Twitter @katearonoff.