the left

The ‘AOC Left’ Has Achieved Plenty

Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has proven, once and for all, that the left will gain nothing by engaging with the Democratic Party. Or so Freddie deBoer argued in a column for Intelligencer this week. I think deBoer’s view is so mistaken as to betray a fundamental misunderstanding about both the substance of contemporary Democratic policymaking, and the obstacles to socialism in the United States.

DeBoer has many complaints with AOC, one of which seems reasonable. He notes that it is difficult to discern a coherent logic to when Ocasio-Cortez chooses to cast an ineffectual protest vote and when she chooses to pragmatically support imperfect legislation. Despite her criticisms of Israel’s subjugation of the Palestinians, she declined to vote against U.S. funding for the Israeli military in 2021. Yet she was willing to cast the sole Democratic vote against Joe Biden’s budget last year, on the grounds that it provided expanded funding to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. DeBoer is puzzled by this: If AOC sees value in symbolic protest votes, why didn’t she cast one to protest Israeli apartheid? It’s not like she’s ever going to win over New York’s most ardently pro-Israel voters, anyway.

This is a fair question. But it doesn’t strike me as an important one. That AOC voted “present” instead of “no” during the House’s landslide vote in favor of funding Israel’s Iron Dome was of literally no consequence.

DeBoer’s more pertinent charge is that AOC has failed to win substantial ideological concessions from the Democratic Party, and that this is indicative of the left’s more general failure to achieve anything through engagement with Democratic politics — a failure that was foreordained by the Democratic Party’s basic nature.

The left has won a lot more than “nothing” from engaging with the Democratic Party.

This incredibly strong claim — that despite Bernie Sanders, AOC, and myriad other progressives’ agitation, the Democratic Party has offered the left nothing — is fundamental to deBoer’s perspective. It is why he finds it offensive that AOC would endorse Biden’s reelection, even as the president faces no leftist challenger save Cornel West’s Green Party campaign. DeBoer insists that Biden’s contempt for progressive goals has been so total as to leave leftists with little reason to support his reelection:

Establishment Democrats and their liberal media mouthpieces expect total electoral loyalty from leftists while offering us little in return. As the Pod Save America crew demonstrated, the party Establishment barely attempts to hide its contempt for its leftmost flank. But as the constancy of third-party voting in presidential elections shows, the tactic of shaming voters has limited effectiveness. I don’t think Ralph Nader or Jill Stein cost the Democrats presidential elections; I think Al Gore and Hillary Clinton were terrible candidates who ran incompetent campaigns. But if you do think lefties voting third party determine the outcomes of national elections, perhaps at some point you might consider actually giving those lefties something to vote for?

DeBoer goes on to suggest that the left’s attempt to make change through engagement with the Democratic Party (rather than through third-party politics or non-electoral organizing) has been an abject failure:

The increased visibility of a few socialist politicians has not made far-left Democratic power any more achievable or scalable. The radical wing of the party can still fit our representation in Congress in a three-row SUV. And perhaps we’ve waited long enough to recognize that there’s no reason to expect better in the near future… We might, finally, have to admit that the too-pure-to-live lefties who insisted that nothing would ever come from all of this noise were right and that the Democratic Party is simply structurally resistant to socialist change. There is no more fruit to pick here.

There are a few problems with deBoer’s reasoning here. One small point is that “Al Gore would have won if he hadn’t been an unusually bad candidate” and “Al Gore would have won if Ralph Nader hadn’t run for president” are not mutually exclusive claims. In a close election, there are generally many different truthful ways of filling in the statement, “but for X, the outcome would have been different.” In 2016, Jill Stein didn’t win enough votes to have had a decisive impact on the race’s outcome. In 2000, Nader probably did.

In any case, deBoer’s more important claims are that (1) the Democratic Party does not give “lefties” anything to vote for, (2) socialists have no reason to engage in Democratic politics, since all their efforts have been for nought, and (3) the Democratic Party is “structurally resistant to socialist change.”

For a moment, let’s put aside that last bit. Is it the case that Democrats give leftists no reason to vote for them, or that leftists have won no concessions from the party leadership since Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign? To my mind, these premises are so obviously false that it is hard to understand how anyone familiar with the past few years of Democratic policymaking could actually believe them.

Consider the Democrats’ response to the COVID recession. One of the left’s principal indictments of the Obama administration was that it mismanaged the post-2008 recovery. Instead of fully replacing all of the economic demand lost to the financial crisis, Democrats sought to keep their stimulus bill from exceeding the arbitrary threshold of $1 trillion. In doing so, they prioritized an essentially superstitious fear of large numbers over minimizing joblessness. As a result, four years into Obama’s presidency, the U.S. unemployment rate remained above 8 percent.

Between 2009 and 2020, many left-wing Democrats agitated for their party to embrace a “full employment” macroeconomic policy. AOC was among them. Then, when the COVID crisis hit, Democrats did as these progressives advised.

In 2020, congressional Democrats insisted on increasing unemployment benefits to a level that left many laid-off workers with more income than they’d previously earned at their jobs. Under Biden, meanwhile, Democrats enacted a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill on a party-line vote. The party’s decision to pursue stimulus on this scale — after Congress had already appropriated trillions of dollars in relief spending — was explicitly motivated by the left’s critique of Obama. As New York Times reported in 2021:

Party leaders from President Biden on down are citing Mr. Obama’s strategy on his most urgent policy initiative — an $800 billion financial rescue plan in 2009 in the midst of a crippling recession — as too cautious and too deferential to Republicans, mistakes they were determined not to repeat.

Notably, in putting such a high premium on full employment relative to price stability, the Biden administration sided with the left over erstwhile members of the party’s economic Establishment, Obama White House alums Larry Summers and Jason Furman.

Taken together, the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan enabled poverty to fall during the COVID recession and triggered one of the fastest labor-market recoveries in history. Biden’s economic management yielded tight labor markets that have increased the bargaining power of low-wage workers and abetted union organizing. As a result, lower-income workers have recovered roughly 25 percent of the increase in wage inequality that accrued between Ronald Reagan’s election and Biden’s. The employment rate among disabled Americans is at a record high, while the overall unemployment rate is near record lows.

Of course, Biden’s macroeconomic policy did also contribute to inflation. But again, it was the left that implored Democrats to take that risk for the sake of minimizing joblessness.

Since Occupy Wall Street, the American left has made student debt forgiveness one of its core policy demands. The Biden administration has taken extraordinary measures to answer that call. The president has successfully canceled a record $116.6 billion in forgiveness for 3.4 million borrowers. He has also attempted to unilaterally cancel at least $10,000 of student debt for virtually every U.S. borrower. The Supreme Court blocked that plan, but every justice appointed by a Democratic president upheld its constitutionality. I don’t think there is much cogency in the argument, “Judges who would not be on the Supreme Court if Republicans hadn’t won presidential elections blocked student-debt forgiveness, therefore supporters of debt relief have no reason to favor Democratic presidential candidates over GOP ones.”

In any case, the administration is still attempting to find a legal means of achieving mass cancellation. In the meantime, it has enacted changes to the government’s income-driven repayment program that will likely do more to reduce student-loan burdens in the long run than any one-off cancellation could.

Leftists are much more concerned about climate change than the typical American voter. And since 2016, they have advocated for an approach to decarbonization centered on public investment rather than carbon taxes. Biden chose to make climate action his top legislative priority. And although the Inflation Reduction Act is a pale facsimile of the Green New Deal, it nevertheless invests hundreds of billions of dollars in the green transition (and since its tax credits are uncapped, the true scale of its investment in decarbonization may actually exceed $1 trillion). The law also included a “direct pay” provision that enables public utilities and nonprofits with no tax liability to access direct federal funding for the construction of renewable energy and other qualifying infrastructure. This has given leftists at the state level a potent tool for expanding state provision of electricity (more on this in a moment).

One of the left’s chief complaints with Obama’s foreign policy was his profligate use of drone strikes, which often entailed civilian casualties. Under Biden, U.S. drone strikes have fallen to their lowest level since the onset of the War on Terror:

(The total for 2022 was even lower than 2021, establishing a post-9/11 record.) Graphic: Airwars

The left had long critiqued America’s “forever war” in Afghanistan. Despite rabid opposition from the mainstream media and defense Establishment, Biden withdrew U.S. troops from that country.

DeBoer’s faction of the left is highly critical of Biden’s handling of the war in Ukraine. And there are reasonable critiques one can make about the details of U.S. policy. But transferring of weapons to a nation fending off an invasion and launching regime-change wars abroad are not analogous endeavors. In my view, to call the former “imperialism” is to rob that pejorative of its force. Regardless, there are plenty of leftists who do support aiding Ukraine, so Biden’s policy cannot be described as a rebuke to “the left” as a whole.

Where Democrats have more power, the left wins more policy gains.

There is no doubt that Biden’s legislative record leaves much to be desired. But in most cases, these inadequacies testify to the importance of electing more Democrats, not the pointlessness of electing any.

In his litany of AOC’s betrayals, deBoer cites the congresswoman’s decision to vote for the American Rescue Plan, even after Senate Democrats stripped out its provision raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. By citing this as an instance in which AOC betrayed the left, deBoer seems to affirm that raising the minimum wage to $15 is a goal of socialists, and that securing such a reform would qualify as “more than nothing.”

So, is the reason why Democrats failed to enact such a minimum wage in 2021 because the party is structurally incapable of supporting that policy? Or is the reason that (1) Democrats possessed a single-vote Senate majority that year, which was reliant on a representative from a state Donald Trump won by 40 points, and (2) raising the minimum wage on a party-line vote would have required abolishing the legislative filibuster, a procedural change opposed by that representative, along with a handful of others?

Fortunately, we don’t need to rely on speculation to settle this question. We can simply observe that, in states and cities where Democrats possess large legislative majorities, they have routinely raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

DeBoer’s elision of this reality reflects a broader inattention to state-level policy. In AOC’s New York, leftists have won election to the state legislature and used their offices to enact eviction protections for tenants, provide driver’s licenses to the undocumented, and pass some of the most ambitious climate legislation in the country. Most recently, New York Democrats passed the Build Public Renewables Act. That law requires the state’s public utility to generate 100 percent of its electricity from clean sources by 2030, while also empowering it to build and own renewable power plants (a reform enabled by the IRA’s direct-pay provision). It is hard to see how expanding public ownership and provision of energy is such a worthless reform as to qualify as “nothing” from a socialist perspective (unless one holds that all at all attempts at reform in bourgeois democracy are worthless, but in that case, one would have had no expectations for AOC to disappoint).

In Minnesota this year, meanwhile, Democrats have established paid family and medical leave, invested $1 billion into affordable housing, provided a refundable tax credit (i.e., cash aid) to low-income households with children, prohibited non-compete clauses in labor contracts, barred employers from holding compulsory anti-union meetings, strengthened workplace protections for meatpacking and Amazon workers, empowered teachers’ unions to bargain over educator-to-student ratios, empaneled a statewide board to set minimum labor standards for nursing-home workers, directed $2.58 billion into improved infrastructure, made school breakfast and lunch free from all Minnesota K-12 students, and increased taxes on corporations and high earners, among other things.

The Democratic Party is structurally resistant to socialism. So is the United States in 2023.

All of this said, I think deBoer might be right that the Democratic Party is “structurally resistant to socialist change,” if we define “socialist change” as the abolition of capitalism. But the notion that the Democrats’ attachment to the mixed economy reflects the party’s peculiar internal dynamics (or Machiavellian, crypto-reactionary leadership) rather than the American political economy’s structural realities seems odd.

The United States is one of the wealthiest societies to have ever existed. The median U.S. household earns more than $70,000 a year and owns their own home. Only 6 percent of private-sector workers are unionized. Over 70 percent of U.S. voters identify as moderate or conservative. More than three-quarters of Americans say they are satisfied with their “standard of living.” The three most trusted institutions in the United States — by far — are the military, Amazon, and the police. In April, 60 percent of U.S. voters told Gallup that their federal tax bill was “too high,” this despite the fact that contemporary federal tax rates are low by modern standards.

In their electoral behavior, Americans routinely evince a bias toward the status quo, and a tendency to punish parties that pursue radical policy change. Thus, when Democrats in deep-blue Vermont tried to enact state-level single-payer health care, Vermont voters responded by electing a Republican governor. (When the GOP imposed its own radical fiscal visions on Kansas, that deep-red state responded by putting a Democrat in charge.)

This is not a favorable political landscape for those who wish to abolish private property, and concentrate economic authority in a democratic state. Of course, public opinion does not emerge ex nihilo from the will of the people. But it is implausible that the American public’s suspicion of radical change derives primarily from the Democratic Party’s refusal to boldly advocate for socialism, rather than the facts that (1) the median U.S. voter is prosperous by both global and historical standards, (2) human beings in general evince a status-quo bias, (3) America’s racial divisions have historically inhibited class solidarity and consciousness, and (4) capitalists enjoy considerable influence over American culture and common sense.

In reality, America’s party system has relatively little to do with the socialist left’s limited influence. In Europe’s parliamentary democracies, the radical left generally cannot exercise power without entering into coalition with a larger center-left party, and then making a long list of compromises and concessions. In the U.S., this coalition formation happens before Election Day instead of after, within the institution of the Democratic Party. There are distinctions between these two systems, and reasons to prefer the European model. But the imperative for radicals to compromise with the center-left in order to govern tends to be present in both cases, due to the limited popular and institutional support for the anti-capitalist left in all advanced industrial nations.

There are likely hard limits on what leftists can win through engagement with the Democratic Party, at least for the foreseeable future. The party’s growing reliance on affluent voters has not constrained progressives’ gains as much as many feared (and at least on social issues, the Democrats’ shifting class composition has likely abetted the left). Still, Biden has felt compelled to forswear tax increases on all households earning less than $400,000 a year in order to placate the party’s upscale wing. There is simply no way to sustainably fund a Nordic-style social-welfare state without raising taxes on households in the top 2 percent of the income distribution.

Nevertheless, the Democratic coalition’s resistance to broad-based tax increases does not derive from the machinations of the DNC. Rather, it is a product of widespread distrust in the public sector’s competence, Americans’ cultural aversion to taxation, and a pattern of “class dealignment” that has been witnessed in virtually every advanced democracy. To no small extent, the party’s inadequacies reflect structural conditions that the left cannot escape by storming out of the Democratic tent.

This is not to say that Democratic leaders are mere puppets of structural forces. They do have some agency. And at some critical junctures in U.S. history, they have exercised that agency to ill effect. In recent years, however, the party leadership has often used its discretion to the left’s benefit, jeopardizing its grip on power to prioritize full employment over price stability, and student debt relief over averting allegations of executive overreach.

DeBoer writes as though Democrats give leftists exceptionally few concessions, given the amount of votes and donations they deliver. But this seems like the opposite of the truth. Democratic congressional staffers and policy hands tend to be personally sympathetic to the left, since college graduates who chose to work in Democratic politics — rather than more lucrative fields — tend to have strong ideological convictions. And the millennial generation of Democratic professionals is especially left wing. Such operative also tend to be immersed in social (and social-media) networks where leftist perspectives are unusually prominent. As a result, the left probably punches above its weight in the coalition, exerting more influence than its sheer capacity to deliver votes would require.

Consider the fact that a significant portion of nonwhite Democratic voters are socially right-of-center. There are almost certainly more Democratic voters with moderately conservative views on social issues than there are ones who self-identify as socialists. Yet the party’s position on most such issues is closer to that of a leftist than a right-leaning church lady. Leftists are not alone in being asked to make ideological sacrifices for the sake of maintaining a majority coalition against the authoritarian right.

None of this means that leftists should be content with the state of things in the United States. Our country is suffering from many grievous social and economic problems. Its remarkable prosperity only serves to underscore the obscenity of its failure to end child poverty, guarantee workers the same benefits and protections that are standard in Western Europe, and provide truly universal health care. Rectifying these and other injustices will require socialists to criticize the Democratic Party and advocate for it to adopt different policy commitments. And it may also demand that leftists engage in non-electoral political activity such as union organizing.

But it is hard to see how pretending that the Democratic left has achieved “nothing,” and that Biden has given socialists no reason to support his reelection, will make America more egalitarian. Decrying AOC as a sellout — and declaring full employment, declining income inequality, green industrial policy, record levels of student-debt forgiveness, a pro-labor NLRB, paid sick leave for rail workers, prescription-drug benefits for seniors, and myriad small-bore social democratic policies in blue states to be worthless — might be a sound way of performing one’s fearless iconoclasm. But it’s a poor approach to keeping one’s readers well-informed, or making the world a better place.

The ‘AOC Left’ Has Achieved Plenty