In North American political discourse, the working class has not existed in decades.
Justin Trudeau came to power vowing fairness to the middle class. But he never mentions the working class; the closest he’s come is “lower-income Canadians.” Even critics like former NDP leader Ed Broadbent talk about “the poor,” not the workers.
Sometime during the Thatcher-Reagan era, workers began to fade away, along with their unions. With the demise of the Soviet Union, workers seemed gone for good, along with decent pay and working conditions; triumphant free-market capitalism was now the only game in town.
At about the same time, the New Democratic Party gave up all mention of socialism. The Regina Manifesto had become an embarrassment. “Social democracy” is now about as far as the NDP will ever go. Even that seems to discomfort the professionals and academics who now dominate a once working-class party.
The U.S. has seen its discourse move even farther right; words like “centrist” and “moderate” apply to views well to the right of Canada’s Red Tories, and “conservative” has rhymed with “fascist” for over a decade.
Even in the 2016 U.S. election, Bernie Sanders’s “socialism” was seen as the quaint quirkiness of a grandpa somehow living in the past. He was too eccentric to be taken seriously, even if a lot of Americans seemed to like what he offered. Hillary Clinton would be elected and the Thatcher-Reagan era would continue.
Until she wasn’t, and Trump in power made Thatcher and Reagan look like left-wing paragons.
Especially in the mouth of Donald Trump, political discourse has become a garbled mess of lies, and a lot of Americans and Canadians seem to like it that way. But at the same time, long-discredited terms like “socialism” and “working class” have returned with startling energy.
The ultimate upset
Most notably, they have been energized by the Democratic primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who last week defeated a 10-term incumbent to become the party’s candidate for congress in New York’s 14th District. Starting from nowhere, the former Sanders organizer knocked her opponent cold — by promoting herself explicitly as working-class socialist.
The U.S. media were as stunned as Ocasio-Cortez’s ousted opponent, but they recognized a David-and-Goliath story when they saw it: Hispanic Millennial newcomer whips old white guy in a suit.
And whoa, she’s a Democratic Socialist who says “The Bronx and Queens deserve a working class leader.”
It sure didn’t hurt that she was running an insanely cool campaign with great design, a brilliantly viral video, and a mastery of social media like Obama’s in 2008. In the week after she won the Democratic primary, Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitter followers jumped from 89,000 to over 600,000 and rising.
‘Running from the bottom’
Among her other tweets, one stated: “I’m not running from the ‘left.’ I’m running from the bottom. I’m running in fierce advocacy of working class Americans.” When Paul Krugman published a mostly laudatory blog post, calling her a “radical Democrat,” she replied: “The fact that my platform is called ‘radical’ is more a reflection of our current political moment & how far we’ve strayed from our bold, visionary past. Luckily, we can correct course. Besides, smart compassionate radicals have made this nation better.”
So rather than ducking labels like “socialist” and “radical,” Ocasio-Cortez flaunts them. Admittedly, she espouses a pretty vague kind of socialism: “I think what it really means is just democratic participation in our economic dignity…” It’s implicitly a negative: not conservatism, and not what’s passed for liberalism since 1980 or so.
Understandably alarmed, liberal Democrats have distanced her from the rest of the party. Senator Tammy Duckworth tried to dismiss her as an anthropological curiosity, reflecting an exotic corner of New York City but doomed in regions like the Middle West. (Ocasio-Cortez pointed out in a tweet that Bernie Sanders had won six of those states in the 2016 Democratic race; Trump, not Hilary Clinton, had taken them in the election.)
It’s true that socialism still has a bad connotation among older Americans, and a 2015 YouGov poll reported that just 21 per cent of Midwesterners had a very favourable or somewhat favourable opinion of it. But a quarter weren’t sure.
Moreover, 36 per cent of Midwest Millennials reported pro-socialist opinions. Too young to remember the endless Cold War propaganda associating socialism with the Soviet Union, such voters seem willing to consider its ideas on their merits — and to run on them. Ocasio-Cortez’s platform, with such planks as medicare for all, gun control, women’s rights and support for seniors, would be considered dull in Canada and mostly achieved in western Europe. Her program may not shock voters in Dubuque and Peoria either.
Moreover, many who voted for Trump were really voting against a system they felt had failed them. After two years of Trumpist politics, they could well be ready to protest again. The Rust Belt towns, after all, haven’t seen jobs come back.
Ocasio-Cortez herself has turned out to be a great marketer. As Jacobin magazine observed a week after she won the Democratic primary, “Four thousand people have joined DSA [Democratic Socialists of America] since last Tuesday — a 10 per cent jump in one week — and millions of people are learning about socialism, in a positive light, for the first time in their lives… a clarion message of class politics is more powerful than anyone thought — even socialists.”
Thinking the unthinkable again
More importantly than her skills in retail politics, TV interviews, and social-media one-liners, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has opened up the range of U.S. political discourse for the first time in a century. That discourse began to narrow immediately after the Bolsheviks took power in 1917. It narrowed still more in the Cold War, and with the advent of Reagan, and yet again after 9/11. Ideas outside that narrow range were not just “bad” — they were unthinkable, except in the strange brains of kooks and troublemakers.
Socialism, whether the old-fashioned kind or Ocasio-Cortez’s trendy kind, may not offer the best answers to the problems facing us. But those answers can now at least be examined, tested, and argued on the basis of evidence.
It’s an encouraging sign for Canada as well. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals may now sometimes let the expression “working class” pass their lips, and Jagmeet Singh’s New Democrats may even brag about their socialist heritage.
Even the Conservatives should welcome the return of their old bogey, though they may have to offer evidence-based policy to counteract its influence.
Then again, they may have to offer semi-socialist ideas themselves, just to stay in the running.
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