Hey Democrats: Take a Hint from Labour and Ocasio-Cortez and Try Moving Left

Democrats can’t win by mimicking left rhetoric—it’s going to take an actual left platform.

Tobi Thomas July 26, 2018

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn greets supporters during a rally on May 18, 2017 in Southall, England. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

On July 18, House Democ­rats unveiled their new cam­paign slo­gan ahead of the 2018 midterm elec­tions: For The Peo­ple. At first glance, the mes­sage may appear sim­i­lar to For The Many, Not The Few,” the title of the man­i­festo put for­ward in 2017 by the UK’s Labour Par­ty, led by Jere­my Cor­byn. And while both slo­gans place the pub­lic as the cen­ter of polit­i­cal action, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty still has much fur­ther to go in com­par­i­son to Labour, which embraced a bold, redis­trib­u­tive agen­da as a means to grow its power. 

The Labour man­i­festo called for such poli­cies as nation­al­iz­ing rail and elec­tric util­i­ties, get­ting rid of tuition for pub­lic col­leges, ban­ning frack­ing, invest­ing in clean ener­gy, con­trol­ling rent increas­es and mas­sive­ly tax­ing the rich and cor­po­ra­tions. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty estab­lish­ment, mean­while, has so far steered clear of adopt­ing such unabashed­ly left proposals. 

Yet the recent pri­ma­ry vic­to­ries of demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist can­di­dates such as Sum­mer Lee and Sara Innamora­to in Pitts­burgh and Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez in New York against pow­er­ful incum­bents with­in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic machine sig­nal that the ener­gy and enthu­si­asm with­in the par­ty lies on its left flank. These can­di­dates, along with many oth­er demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ists across the coun­try, have run on plat­forms that are large­ly in line with Labour’s manifesto. 

In response to the vic­to­ries by can­di­dates such as Oca­sio-Cortez, many U.S. pun­dits and polit­i­cal insid­ers have either writ­ten off the rise of demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism as mar­gin­al or warned against the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty embrac­ing extrem­ism.”

Such a reac­tion is famil­iar. Soon after UK Prime Min­is­ter There­sa May called for a sur­prise gen­er­al elec­tion to take place in June 2017, pun­dits across the polit­i­cal spec­trum repeat­ed a nar­ra­tive reduc­ing Cor­byn to a scruffy, une­lec­table old-school social­ist who would return Labour to the elec­toral obscu­ri­ty of the 1980s rather than a viable alter­na­tive to the Con­ser­v­a­tive sta­tus quo. 

The acci­den­tal leak­ing of the Labour Party’s man­i­festo dur­ing the 2017 gen­er­al elec­tion seemed to give Corbyn’s crit­ics anoth­er chance to accuse him of dis­or­ga­ni­za­tion and incom­pe­tence. How­ev­er, the leak end­ed up work­ing in Labour’s favor, as the elec­torate was able to under­stand Corbyn’s vision of a pro­gres­sive Labour-led Britain at face val­ue and with­out spin. The man­i­festo proved pop­u­lar: Labour’s poll rat­ings instant­ly rose, with 7 in 10 vot­ers wel­com­ing its pledges. 

The appeal of Labour’s man­i­festo lay in its bold vision that deci­sive­ly addressed the public’s mate­r­i­al cir­cum­stances and needs. It was as much an implic­it account­ing of the vio­lence of aus­ter­i­ty as it was an explic­it pol­i­cy plat­form for read­dress­ing it. Cor­byn end­ed up receiv­ing 40 per­cent of the pop­u­lar vote, a swing of 10 per­cent from the pre­vi­ous elec­tion which equaled the largest increase in the vote-share by a Labour leader since 1945. Cor­byn won the hearts and minds of much of the British pub­lic despite fac­ing immense hos­til­i­ty from even his own MPs, lay­ing bare the dis­so­nance between the pol­i­tics of the polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment and that of the gen­er­al population. 

Indeed, as Cor­byn stat­ed in his keynote speech at the 2017 Labour par­ty con­fer­ence, the polit­i­cal cen­ter of grav­i­ty isn’t fixed or unmov­able, nor is it where the estab­lish­ment pun­dits like to think it is,” before adding: we are now the polit­i­cal main­stream.” Today, sup­port for poli­cies such as rena­tion­al­iza­tion, tax increas­es on both cor­po­ra­tions and high­er earn­ers, and the strength­en­ing of work­ers’ rights rank high among the pub­lic regard­less of divides among gen­er­a­tions or polit­i­cal par­ties. Corbyn’s poli­cies are pop­u­lar even among those who are old­er and iden­ti­fy as con­ser­v­a­tives, prov­ing that pro­gres­sive val­ues can tran­scend the trib­al nature of par­ty politics. 

As has been proven among Labour in the UK, signs show that the Demo­c­ra­t­ic base in the Unit­ed States is mov­ing much fur­ther left than the par­ty estab­lish­ment antic­i­pat­ed, and the base has shown a yearn­ing for can­di­dates who actu­al­ly speak to their mate­r­i­al interests. 

Oca­sio-Cortez did just that, run­ning as a demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist on a plat­form includ­ing Medicare for All, tuition-free col­lege and a fed­er­al jobs guar­an­tee. She defeat­ed Rep. Joe Crow­ley, a 10-term incum­bent, with 57 per­cent of the vote. Oth­er demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ists have won elec­tions in states such as Vir­ginia, Mon­tana, Illi­nois and Ten­nessee. The poli­cies Oca­sio-Cortez embraced mir­ror that of oth­er demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ists across the Unites States — and they are pop­u­lar among the Amer­i­can pub­lic: 59 per­cent sup­port Medicare for All, 52 per­cent sup­port a fed­er­al jobs guar­an­tee and 63 per­cent sup­port free college. 

This desire for a dif­fer­ent kind of pol­i­tics is also mea­sur­able in the strength of orga­niz­ing across the Unit­ed States. The mem­ber­ship of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA) has increased expo­nen­tial­ly in recent years, grow­ing from 6,500 dues-pay­ing mem­bers in 2014 to over 47,000 today. In the UK, Momen­tum — a demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist grass­roots move­ment estab­lished to sup­port Cor­byn after his elec­tion to Labour lead­er­ship — now boasts over 40,000 active mem­bers. Today, Labour remains steadi­ly ahead of the Con­ser­v­a­tives in opin­ion polls and is poised to make sig­nif­i­cant gains in the next gen­er­al election. 

While the Demo­c­ra­t­ic estab­lish­ment remains far more ossi­fied and entrenched than Labour, espe­cial­ly when it comes to the pow­er of cor­po­rate inter­ests, the suc­cess of Cor­byn in the UK and can­di­dates such as Oca­sio-Cortez illus­trates that poli­cies asso­ci­at­ed with demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism will not alien­ate the major­i­ty of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic base. 

Ahead of the midterms, the Democ­rats need to go much fur­ther than sim­ply reveal­ing a new slo­gan. Labour’s suc­cess is root­ed in the party’s man­i­festo, which clear­ly and coher­ent­ly out­lines how soci­etal trans­for­ma­tion is pos­si­ble. If the Democ­rats wants to win, they need to insti­tu­tion­al­ize the cam­paign poli­cies and ideas that have already elect­ed grass­roots demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist can­di­dates over mon­eyed incum­bents with­in the par­ty machine. 

The polit­i­cal dynam­ics in the UK are dif­fer­ent from those in the Unit­ed States. How­ev­er, elec­torates in both coun­tries find them­selves fac­ing many of the same con­di­tions as a result of years of crush­ing aus­ter­i­ty. As a result, the pol­i­cy plat­forms of both Corbyn’s Labour Par­ty and U.S. demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ists have been able to to achieve wide appeal. 

The rise of the party’s left wing has been key to Labour’s suc­cess and growth. The same can be true for Democ­rats, if they choose to learn the les­son — and seize the moment. 

Tobi Thomas is an edi­to­r­i­al intern at In These Times.
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