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  • Published in Analysis
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, June 2018. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, June 2018. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Trump nightmare has fired up left organisation in the US to electorally challenging the establishment, writes Sean Ledwith

When Trump was elected President two years ago, many on the left could have been forgiven for thinking US politics had hit an all-time low and that socialists would need a generation at least to recover from the psychological impact of witnessing such an appalling figure enter the White House. Fortunately, any such pessimistic response has been short-lived and instead the sheer depth and scale of Trump’s agenda of hate has fired up the American left and led hundreds of thousands to take to the streets on a range of issues including women’s rights, gun control and anti-racism.

From the showdown with the alt-right in Charlottesville last year to picketing Trump’s reactionary Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh this year, the US left has reconnected with the tradition of mass mobilisation that briefly flowered at the beginning of the decade through the Occupy movement.

Bernie Sanders’ remarkable bid for the Democrat nomination in 2016 became the electoral lightning-rod that provided a voice for the anti-capitalist movement. Now a new generation of American leftists are following in Sanders’ path and aspiring to articulate the rising popularity of socialist ideas, particularly among young people. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York has achieved the most spectacular of these breakthroughs. We should welcome these indicators of a revival of the US left but also recognise the pitfalls that might lay ahead.

The rise of AOC

Before June 26th of this year, Ocasio-Cortez was a 28-year-old Latina working in a bar in New York. Like many young, working-class Americans, she was inspired by Sanders’ insurgent bid for the Democrat nomination in 2016 and volunteered to be a community organiser for his campaign. She is also a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, a pressure group that has existed on the margins of mainstream politics since the 1970s but which has been given renewed vigour by the recent revival of the radical left.

In June, Ocasio-Cortez’ sensationally defeated 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley in the primary election for the 14th congressional district. Crowley personified the Democrat party machine that crashed and burned during Hillary Clinton’s disastrous presidential campaign against Trump, and yet which refuses to release its grip on the party.

He was a stalwart of the Clinton-Obama centrist wing of the Democrats and was widely tipped to take over as Speaker of the House next year (constitutionally, the third most powerful person in the US system). The 14th district (consisting of the Bronx and Queens) is a predominantly working-class, immigrant area in which Republicans do not normally field a candidate so Crowley arrogantly felt it was not even necessary for him to live there. Like most US politicians, he also assumed large quantities of money would be sufficient to ensure the vote and duly spent $1.5 million on the primary campaign. Ocasio-Cortez, in contrast, could only afford just over $500K and yet still trounced him by 57% to 42%. Coverage of the winner’s stunned reaction to the result became an internet sensation and perfectly encapsulated the seismic nature of the election.

Apoplexy on Wall Street

Ocasio-Cortez’s platform was explicitly left wing in American terms with a commitment to a single-payer healthcare system (surrendered by Obama after intense lobbying by the pharmaceutical industry), cancelling student debt and abolishing tuition fees, a federalised basic income and the abolition of privatised prisons. She also highlighted the militarisation of the police and called climate change the biggest threat to US society.

The other notable feature of her campaign was a willingness to take politics beyond the conventional treadmill of knocking on doors and television appearances, and to confront the institutions of US power face-to-face.

Amid the furore over Trump’s atrocious detention of children on the southern border, Ocasio-Cortez made a celebrated appearance at the fence of one detention camp in Texas, hurling well-aimed abuse at the guards and demanding the abolition of ICE, the infamous Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. She also launched an outspoken attack on Israel’s massacre of Palestinians during the summer, adopting a critical position towards the Zionist state that is rare among American politicians.

Ocasio-Cortez is near certain to win the congressional election in November, allowing her to become the youngest woman ever elected to the House of Representatives. Her campaign rhetoric has unashamedly drawn on the radical heartbeat at the centre of the Occupy and Sanders movements, using a vocabulary guaranteed to cause apoplexy on Wall Street and in the studios of Fox News and the like:

I do think we are in a crisis of late-stage capitalism, where people are working sixty, eighty hours a week and they can’t feed their families. There is a lot that is economically dystopic in this country. So that’s why people are open to change.

In the wealthiest nation in the world, working families shouldn’t have to struggle. It’s time for a New York that’s good for the many. I am an educator, organizer, Democratic Socialist, and born-and-raised New Yorker running to champion working families in Congress.

Trailblazers

Ocasio-Cortez is far from alone in seeking to raise the profile of socialist politics in the mainstream US political system. Another twenty-something, female New Yorker and member of the Democratic Socialists, Julia Salazar, ran on a platform for the State Senate that echoes the concerns expressed by her victorious colleague. Like Ocasio-Cortez, Salazar unseated an establishment Democrat, Martin Dilan in a primary in the Albany district. She is also comfortable using the language of the left in an explicit manner:

Socialists recognize that under capitalism, rich people are able - through private control of industry and of what should be public goods - to accumulate wealth by exploiting the working class and the underclass. Functionally, this perpetuates and exacerbates inequality.

Cynthia Nixon, former star of Sex and the City, didn't run on a socialist ticket for Governor of New York State, but her policy positions on immigration, racial profiling and women’s rights were noticeably further to the left than incumbent Andrew Cuomo who had the backing of the Democrat establishment. Jabari Brosport is another voice of the insurgent left in the city. Although defeated in a municipal election last November, Brosport explained what was remarkable about his campaign in language that parallels the experience of his female counterparts:

We just did something the political establishment never would have thought possible. Our campaign got over 8000 votes, nearly 30 percent. One thousand of those voted specifically on the Socialist ballot line! We should all feel proud. We have just sent City Hall a clear message – socialism is rising in New York City.

These four recent cases are all raising the profile of left politics, albeit in a city that has a long tradition of being more receptive to radicalism than the rest of the country.

Beyond the Big Apple

The phenomenon of an electoral left revival in the US is not limited to that city however. Last year, another member of the DSA, Lee Carter was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. Like his fellow socialists in New York, Carter was inspired to go into politics by the Sanders campaign of 2016 and has made the promotion of a single-payer healthcare a central part of his platform. Carter’s explanation for getting into left wing politics is one that many people around the Western world can identify with:

The story really starts in 2008. We had the global financial crisis, where we saw neoliberal global capitalism collapse in on itself. A lot of people underestimate the damage that was done, but we were days and weeks away from the milk not getting delivered. It was that kind of an economic failure.

Like many American socialists, Carter had to endure intense redbaiting from Republicans during his 2017 campaign with opponents making ridiculous comparisons with Stalin and Mao.

In Jackson, Mississippi, ‘Our Revolution’, the pro-Sanders pressure group within the Democrats that is trying to steer the party in a leftward direction, backs the newly elected mayor, Chokwe Lumumba. On his election last November, Lumumba statee he wanted the city to become ‘the most radical city on the planet’. He is a former attorney whose clients include Tupac Shakur and members of the Black Panthers. Lumumba openly draws inspiration from the Catalan cooperative movement in Mondragon. He also has no illusions in the previous generation of black politicians represented by Trump’s predecessor in the White House:

When people ask me, ‘How do you feel about Donald Trump being president?’ I tell them, ‘On the Wednesday after the election, I woke up in Mississippi.’ No matter whether Donald Trump is the president or Barack Obama was the president, we’ve always been at the bottom.

The war comes home

In West Virginia, Elliot Pritt is also running for the House of Delegates under a label of unapologetic socialism. Pritt is a military veteran who has served in some of America’s imperialist adventures of the 21st century and symbolises how many of the those sent overseas to enforce Washington’s will have been politically transformed by the experience in a radical direction:

I believe America's War on Terrorism is a complete and total failure. I feel that it is time for America to reduce the size of its military - substantially. It is time to bring our men and women in uniform HOME to STAY. Our Department of Defense should be used accordingly - for defense only! I also strongly reject the use of military drones for domestic surveillance and offensive military operations.

Pritt’s campaign is not only an interesting case of how malign American foreign policy can have unexpected domestic consequences, but also of how industrial and electoral politics are converging on the US left. Pritt has explicitly stated how his bid for office has also been inspired by the wildcat strike action of West Virginian teachers last spring.

The ongoing impact of that strike wave which spread across the South-West before the summer break is apparent in a similar outbreak of school-based resistance taking place in Washington State. In Seattle, teachers wearing the iconic red-shirts pioneered by their colleagues in Chicago in 2013, have staged walkouts affecting 50,000 pupils in a dispute over pay and contracts.

Radical symbiosis

The possibility for a dynamic symbiosis of industrial and electoral politics in the US - triggered by widespread loathing of the monstrosity in the White House - is clearly something that should excite everyone on the left. Even more so, bearing in mind that socialists in both spheres who are not afraid to declare their political allegiances are spearheading it.

The danger, however, is that, as the midterms in November get closer, pressure will be exerted by the Democrat establishment to rein in the radical rhetoric and focus on getting the vote out. The Democratic Socialists have made great strides in mobilising and popularising the radical left (tripling their membership since 2016 for example), but they will need to confront the reality that many similar groupings on the left of the party in the past have been absorbed and then evaporated.

Ocasio-Cortez may take her place on Capitol Hill next January but she will discover there are plenty of Clintonites waiting to stall her radical agenda. The focus for the US radical left must be the struggle on the streets and in the workplaces beyond November.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History and Politics at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary. Sean has also written for Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, Historical MaterialismPolitical Studies Review and Reviews in History 

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