Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory in June took the Democratic Party and media establishment by surprise. Running in New York’s fourteenth congressional district, she handily defeated one of the party’s most entrenched politicians and quickly became a national figure.
But the question suddenly became, “What now?”
There’s every reason to believe that Ocasio-Cortez’s success in NY-14 can be replicated. Previously powerful Democratic machines are sputtering. Voters are staying at home instead of turning out for Democratic National Committee–favored candidates. And as Ocasio Cortez’s race shows, a small group of committed activists with a popular message can win in elections even if they’re massively outspent.
Consider the role of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), whose members helped canvass, phone bank, and fundraise for Ocasio-Cortez. DSA now has over fifty thousand members — forty-five thousand more than it did a few years ago. Buoyed by the rise of Bernie Sanders, youth disillusionment with the Democratic center, and outrage at Trump’s election, DSA has garnered widespread attention and its share of local victories.
Of course, fifty thousand members in a country of 330 million people isn’t much. But with the mobilization capacities of political parties, trade unions, and civic organizations hollowed out, organizations like DSA can help fill the void. Tens of thousands of people, if organized in common campaigns, if trained to speak and connect with people and assist them in their struggles, can have a national impact. Many fewer than that can swing local races and bring new ideas and demands into the popular consciousness.
Today, the electoral sphere seems to be the most promising place for advancing left politics, at least in the short term. But for every independent socialist run, there’s a broader progressive effort to elect someone like Ocasio-Cortez through the Democratic primaries. Justice Democrats, for instance, was central to Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, pushing her candidacy as part of a wider strategy of transforming the Democratic Party into a real vehicle of progressive politics. Though I’m skeptical about the prospects for turning the Democratic Party into something that can force durable concessions from business interests, using the Democratic ballot line often makes a lot more sense than third-party efforts.
This type of strategy can get dozens of national candidates elected in the near future. Yet the real challenge is not just getting candidates into office, but figuring out how to hold them to progressive positions. While the Left is lucky enough to have a handful of officeholders who have shown a willingness to challenge business interests, we need to build an entire structure around democratic socialist candidates to make sure newly elected figures don’t end up eventually looking like corporate Democrats.
The political playing field isn’t level — it’s tilted fundamentally against working people. After all, political influence requires resources, and the wealthy have more resources. We need to create institutions in civil society that can help even the odds.
Now, imagine it’s 2023 and we have democratic socialist caucuses in Congress and state legislatures, where like-minded electeds are organized. They agree to a broad set of principles, associate themselves with a network of activist organizations and labor unions, and only take money from working-class organizations and individual small donors. Within individual legislatures they maintain a degree of coherence — free votes on many items, but bloc voting on key programmatic issues like opposing wars or budget cuts.
While they relate constructively to some liberal formations like the Congressional Progressive Caucus, they retain a distinct profile. And unlike most politicians — who are indifferent to or try to clamp down on mass organizing — our officeholders encourage a wider class struggle, seeing it as the source of their power as they pursue policies in the interests of ordinary people.
Today, most politicians are drawn from the elite, they’re funded by corporations, and they pick up policy ideas from business interest lobbyists. In the near future, we can elect working-class politicians, cohere them together, find an alternative base to fund them, set up research institutes to help them craft policy, and build the power in civil society to actually make change. Eventually, it will be necessary to form an independent party — rooted in workplaces and in the streets — able to threaten capital more fundamentally.
This might all seem like a far-fetched dream. But it’s the only way that we can take socialism’s revival in America from a surprising media event into a force that can end the suffering and hopelessness that so many face today.