Why Young Democrats Are So Open to Socialism

A closer look at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s win and the energy on the left.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez celebrates with supporters at a victory party on Tuesday.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez celebrates with supporters at a victory party on Tuesday in the Bronx, New York, after winning in an upset against incumbent Joe Crowley. Scott Heins/Getty Images

On Tuesday night, 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated the incumbent Democrat, Joe Crowley, in the primary race for New York’s 14th Congressional District. Ocasio-Cortez, whose election to the House in November is essentially a sure thing, was once an organizer for Bernie Sanders and has worked with the Democratic Socialists of America. Dave Weigel, a Washington Post national political correspondent, had been covering her campaign; he has also been reporting on and writing about the left’s political organizing and energy.

I spoke by phone with Weigel, who in addition to once covering politics for Slate is the author of The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed what is motivating the left’s activists, why Obama was able to appeal to the left and the center at once, and the dangers of reading too much into specific races.

Isaac Chotiner: Do you think that the race we saw last night is a one-off or that it tells us something about the future of the Democratic Party?

Dave Weigel: It’s a one-off only in that there are not many primaries left through the rest of the year where this is possible. I saw some chatter about how every Democrat is vulnerable, but literally while this was happening, Steny Hoyer—who is now probably 10 or 20 percent more likely to replace Nancy Pelosi—won his primary by like 70 points.

If you look at Ocasio-Cortez’s messaging, it often led with “there aren’t a lot of people who look like me who are in Congress.” And that’s telling. But you are asking what it means around the country, and the reason I was surprised by this—I thought Crowley was in a fight but wasn’t sure he would lose—was that Crowley represented a party that was already adjusting to the left by moving further to the left. He had endorsed Medicare for All before his challenger got in the race, and he called ICE a fascist organization, which is actually pretty radical for someone who voted to create ICE by voting to create the Department of Homeland Security. And most of the party has moved the same way.

OK, but does that then mean that the grass roots are going to move more under their feet, a la the Tea Party?

If I can hover 10,000 feet off the ground, or whatever the cliché is, the way I look at politics is very much: the base up. That came from covering conservative politics for a very long time.

I think that the defeat of Hillary Clinton proved to a pretty critical mass of primary voters that those people driving the party were beatable, because Bernie almost won, and were wrong about what it took to win. You could argue how true that was, because Hillary was probably on track to win until the Comey letter. But the effect of this inside the Democratic Party has been to question whether people who run the campaigns and donate know anything, and the result is more ambition and demands from the base of the party. There were people making demands on Obama, but not in the same, sustained way.

How do you understand the energy on the left? Is this a reaction to Trump, or is it an overhang from the financial crisis and larger issues, which I suppose also helped pave the way to Trump?

It’s really striking to do what I do, because I am very lucky to get to travel and see these different races. In the space of a month, I was in Laguna Beach, where Democrats see Trump as uncouth and have extremely expensive houses overlooking the Pacific Ocean. And I was in the Bronx, where the Democratic base is much more interested in keeping housing costs down and health care cheap. So, it changes from place to place. For Democrats who lead with impeachment or the 25th Amendment, I generally found that those people are in places where things got a bit bad in 2008, but they have bounced back and are probably doing fine now. They just have their beliefs challenged every day by the president. You see a different list of demands in more working-class areas, and I mean every racial group of working class. I don’t mean the same guy with trucker hat who is profiled in the cable news focus group every week. There is a more left-wing politics coming from there because they never truly recovered from 2008.*

When you talk to DSA members, are cultural or economic issues more resonant, or is it impossible to distinguish because they seem them as part of one cohesive critique of American society?

It’s the economic issues. There is a class critique that undergirds everything. DSA remains whiter than the Democratic Party’s base is right now. But there has been a real effort to create an intersectional left starting with this agreement that the working class is under siege and that capitalism has failed us. That’s universal. They have found all these people down the ballot to carry that message who are not the clichéd old, socialist white guys. The debate on identity politics happens more on social media than in real life.

So combining Ocasio-Cortez’s message with what you are saying, it seems like these younger activists want to make sure people’s identities are represented, but that the policy critique is more about economics?

Yes. That is what I have seen. Let’s just return to New York, which is a very personalized example of why the primary in 2016 was so bitter, especially on the left. While, like Hillary, Bernie cast some votes he regretted and endorsed some crime legislation he regretted, he came out with a criminal justice agenda that was similar to the Black Lives Matter agenda. And in the South and a bunch of diverse urban areas, he didn’t do very well. His campaign is looking over why he didn’t, and the basic answer they agree on is that he didn’t have time to do it, he didn’t get a chance to introduce himself or replace the decades of ideas and loyalty voters felt to Hillary Clinton. And what has been happening since then is [people] saying that his message and agenda were correct—Hillary adopted it too, and mayors and district attorneys and governors agree with it. The secret is getting into races where you don’t have someone with 99 percent name ID with Democrats. Hillary won the district Crowley lost by 18 points, but it turned out that wasn’t the right basis for seeing how many progressive votes were in it.

Also, a lot of Democratic voters wanted to elect a woman. Bernie Sanders is an old white guy.

I remember talking to Tom Hayden, who has since passed away, during the 2016 primary in California about why he endorsed Hillary and that was his argument: I am a guy from the new left from the ’60s and I wanted to see a woman president before I die.

You wrote in an older piece, “The panic over ‘socialism’ in 2009 had another legacy — it cheapened the ‘s-word,’ allowing actual socialists the space to advance their ideas at the end of Obama’s presidency. In 2015 and 2016, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) ran for president as a ‘democratic socialist,’ the label he’d given himself for decades. He won millions of votes, and his success coincided with — and probably steered — a surge of younger Americans saying they favored socialism.”

Can you explain this a little more?

For a very long time, going back to Ronald Reagan making his argument in the ’60s, or the New Deal, the argument against leftwing politics has been: This is Bolshevism, or collectivization. What I found covering Sanders were people who had been told for eight years that their support for Barack Obama and his health care plan—which was to prop up the insurance industry and make everyone buy their own coverage—was socialism, or National Socialism. People on the left paying a lot of attention to Obama were flabbergasted, because they saw him as too moderate and too compromising and not willing to fight on winnable issues. For a younger person who came up through politics—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was born in 1990—you are hearing he is a socialist your whole active political life. And then Bernie comes along and says, “As a socialist, here is what I want to do.” Why would you be alienated by that? Why would you recoil?

So it’s both that people became inured and people think the critique of Obama was so absurd, so why not have the real thing?

I think it’s honestly that simple. People at the DSA will say that people would hear Bernie talk and Google “socialist” and the DSA would come up. They had this giant opening, and no one realized how big it was.

Obama was able to generate tremendous support on the left without substantively moving that far to the left. Could something like that happen again, and is that still the dream scenario for Democrats electorally?

I heard a progressive saying in 2007 that Obama speaks like a moderate but his record says he is a progressive, whereas everyone thinks Hillary is a flaming left-winger but her record is more centrist. For a long time, a lot of the excitement about Obama was that they had reasons to believe he would be more liberal than he was. And who knows, if he had taken office not in the context of a recession, I don’t know what he would have done.

We are looking a lot at the Bronx and Queens. I think the more telling primaries around the country have been the suburbs of Northern Virginia, suburbs of New Jersey, places that are not reliably Democratic but have moved against Trump. Candidates are able to excite the activists while not appearing too threatening to moderate Republicans.

You covered the rise of the Tea Party. How did you find the media coverage of that phenomenon, and how would you compare it to what you are seeing now?

In terms of the way the press covers it, it’s always about swing voters and the most votes, and “this could alienate people.” Sometimes it does, and every candidate who alienates people, like Todd Akin, their names are tattooed on our eyelids. But the conceptual fallacy is that politics is about getting to a place of agreement. The people who have an energetic base and are making demands and know what they stand for are doing pretty good. That was true in 2009–2010 and it is true now.

There is a lot of focus on politics being disagreeable, and living in D.C. as I have for 12 years, because you are friendly with people of all political persuasions, and you see people bash each other on television and then be friends, you see it is possible to debate at the theoretical level. But you need to go and cover the concerns of voters and how deeply they feel that they want to take power to keep the other side from hurting them, or maybe hurt the other side. The reason I think Democrats were doing best in the polls during [the Obamacare repeal debate] was that these activists did not care about couthness or looking bad on video.

Thanks Dave. I’m glad we didn’t talk about prog rock because I know nothing about it.

It’s great. All you need to know is that it’s the best music. It’s awesome.

The little I do know, that’s not it.

Correction, June 28, 2018: This article originally misquoted Dave Weigel as saying one of the reasons working-class Democrats are leaning more left is because they never fully recovered from the recession of 2018. What he actually said was the recession of 2008.