A few years ago my colleagues and I were giving a conference presentation about a possible paradigm shift in our field. The question on the floor that day was whether the shift would take hold and, if so, would it persist.
A very tall man sitting at the back of the room raised his hand. He rose slowly and declared with a hearty voice: “There is no ‘it’ and there is no ‘there, there’!” (Time proved him right.)
Today, that man could very well be talking about the Democratic Party. I can’t get my arms around what the Dems stand for—other than they stand against Donald Trump. When it comes to policy specifics, it feels like I’m squeezing Jell-O.
I was thinking about that the other day as I read one author after another gushing over the Dems’ national prospects after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won the Dem primary in New York’s 14th Congressional District. The words Progressive insurgents, Progressive Populism, and Democratic Socialism seemed everywhere.
Wondering whether hyperbole had outdistanced reality, I did a bit of research about who lives in NY’s 14th Congressional District. I found that it’s a highly diverse district—roughly 50% Hispanic and with African- and Asian-Americans constituting another 30% of the population. Fewer than 1 in 5 residents is Caucasian. In a district with high home purchase values (median, $500k) and high rent costs (nearly $1500 on average per month), the median household income is $54k and 12% are without health insurance.
My conclusion: how Joe Crowley got elected in the 14th struck me as a more compelling question than how Ocasio-Cortez beat him this time. (Note: In 2012 Crowley moved from the 7th to the 14thas a result of redistricting.)
I question why the Dems are celebrating her victory in NY’s 14th as theirs. Yes, Ocasio-Cortez ran as a Democrat but, to her core, she’s a Democratic Socialist. It’s best not to conflate the two.
I don’t mean to undersell Ocasio-Cortez’s win or to divert attention from the growing number of Americans who embrace significantly left-of-center politics. What I do question is why the Dems are celebrating her victory in NY’s 14th as theirs. Yes, Ocasio-Cortez ran as a Democrat but, to her core, she’s a Democratic Socialist. It’s best not to conflate the two.
Nancy Pelosi certainly doesn’t. When asked whether she thought Democratic Socialism is becoming the Party’s preferred stance, Pelosi said “No!” “Our party is a big tent,” she replied. “Our districts are very different one from the other. It’s a sign of vitality in our party.”
Pelosi’s answer includes three claims—two valid and one worth investigating. “Districts are different from the other” (true). “Our party is a big tent” (true). At issue is whether big-tent diversity a sign of party vitality.
To get a handle on whether it is, I needed perspective—and got it—from political scientists Matt Grossman (Michigan State University) and David Hopkins (Boston College), who co-authored a commentary that appeared recently in The New York Times. In it, the co-authors offer research-based affirmation that big-tent Democrats have won in the past without party unity.
They write: “Democrats repeatedly won presidential and congressional elections by landslide margins in the decades between the 1930s and 1960s— even as the national party was deeply split between Northern and Southern wings that disagreed on issues ranging from civil rights to the Vietnam War—much more fundamental rifts than any current divide within the party.”
But is it “a sign of party vitality”? That question is more difficult to answer. Why? It’s easy to fall into the trap of circular thinking (that is, a big and diverse tent is a sign of vitality, ipso facto).
Grossman and Hopkins avoid that trap this way: “Party unity … becomes quite valuable once (italics added) the time to govern has arrived.” Then “Democratic leaders need to broker agreements among party factions over policy priorities as well as policy details.”
I think Grossman and Hopkins are probably right. But their assessment offers me—as a voter—little solace. Why? How much compromise am I willing to make to align my political views/preferences with Democratic Party proclivities? (Answer: not much.)
What bothers me is the squishiness of not leading with specifics. It reminds me of what Trump told CBS News last weekend regarding the upcoming Summit with Putin. “What are your goals?” Jeff Glor asked. "I'll let you know after the meeting," Trump said. I didn’t take that answer as “I can’t tell you because I don’t want Putin to know beforehand.” I took it as “I’ll see what emerges at the meeting.”
I prefer having an ‘it’ and a “there, there.’ Democratic Socialism gives me both and—for the record—that’s exactly what Ocasio-Cortez gave voters in NY’s 14th. Her platform includes Medicare for all, a universal job guarantee, fully funded public schools and universities, paid family and sick leave, housing as a human right, immigration reform, and a host of other initiatives that are full bore Democratic Socialism.
No Jell-O in that. It’s declarative, specific, and—most importantly—it’s all about serving the public good.
But what is candidate Ocasio-Cortez to do? Her only viable option was to run as a Democrat. Does that really make her a Democrat? And should Dems celebrate her victory as theirs?
It strikes me odd that TV networks in our country have evolved from only three—ABC, CBS, and NBC—to so many options that it makes your head spin. Yet, politically, we’re back in mid-20th century—two major parties with an Independent option for those who check ‘neither.’
What would that tall man say?