The election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez into the U.S. House of Representatives was a part of the major wave of victories Democrats had in this year’s midterm elections. To some political analysts and pundits, her victory marked the start of a new generation of politicians breaking into the Democratic party. However, Ocasio-Cortez’s win also brought more attention to another, less known, political organization that is slowly garnering more influence among young voters: the Democratic Socialists of America.
A registered member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Ocasio-Cortez ran under the Democratic party’s label, but openly spoke about her ties with the DSA throughout her congressional campaign. Prior to running for office, Ocasio-Cortez actively participated her in local DSA chapter in New York, and it shows in her personal approach to politics.
Ocasio-Cortez’s vision for America includes the implementation of universal healthcare, the abolition of for-profit prisons, the abolition of ICE and the cancellation of student debt, among other policies. Although she may agree with the average Democrat on some issues, Ocasio-Cortez is clearly more critical of the government and is expecting the party to offer support for the working class and marginalized of society.
At its core, the DSA combines the promising aspects of socialism without sacrificing the need for democratic participation. Since the Cold War, terms like “socialism” and “communism” continue to strike Americans as inherently dangerous to democracy, especially older Americans. However, the unique character of democratic socialism allows millennial and Generation-Z voters to appreciate some of the transformative processes of socialism — while also not having to withdraw from democratic politics. Essentially, the DSA emphasizes how invaluable democracy is in the 21st century but also notes that unrestrained capitalism and wealth inequality can weaken democracy. On its website, the DSA states:
“Democratic socialists do not want to create an all-powerful government bureaucracy. But we do not want big corporate bureaucracies to control our society either. Rather, we believe that social and economic decisions should be made by those whom they most affect.”
Millennials have begun embracing the elements of democratic socialism present in Ocasio-Cortez’s platform for a variety of reasons. Being the youngest woman elected to Congress, the sheer fact that she shares similar experiences as other American youth makes her resonate more with them. Moreover, her policy ideas explicitly address the issues that older, corporate-backed politicians are mostly indifferent to.
As a politician, her platform is genuinely responsive to the anxieties that haunt the millennial generation — and even Generation Z voters — who are already beginning to collect student loan debt as they enter college. Ocasio-Cortez represents an opportunity for government to begin building a new system centered on the issues looming in the minds of new voters. Ocasio-Cortez’s fresh take on politics could mark the beginning of politicians attempting to reconnect with American youth in a way that perhaps older politicians are simply unable to due to generational differences.
The responsiveness of Ocasio-Cortez’s political platform is largely due to the influence of democratic socialism. Although the Democratic party has long been characterized as the most progressive organization — at least in comparison to Republicans and perhaps Libertarians — Ocasio-Cortez’s vision exposes how limited its progressivism truly is. For instance, although this summer Democrats were open to the prospect of abolishing ICE, many have retracted their support for the end of the agency during the days preceding November’s midterm elections. In addition, not all Democrats are willing to shift further left to the political spectrum, for fear of distancing themselves from less progressive voters or losing corporate funding during their re-election campaigns.
Even before having officially taken office, Ocasio-Cortez is already bringing the Democratic party a healthy challenge. At the moment, the party is divided between creating a radical overhaul of environmental policies or working to convince Republicans to approve carbon taxes. Following the midterm elections, Ocasio-Cortez joined the environmentalist group, Sunrise Movement, in a protest outside of Nancy Pelosi’s office. Like the Sunrise Movement, young voters within grassroots movements are calling for a stronger fight against climate change beyond just carbon taxes. While older Democratic officials are in favor of slow reforms, Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives recognize that the opportunity to prevent a climate disaster is quickly expiring.
As she stood outside the Democratic leader’s office this month, Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement were pressing Pelosi to support a “Green New Deal,” a series of policies to promote green jobs and decrease fossil fuels. Although it earned her criticism from some political commentators, her bold move demonstrated that she intends to bring energy to the House of Representatives. With her public image, Ocasio-Cortez helped amplify the demands of activists and concerned citizens to their representative — which is ultimately what democracy is in its essence. Even if it means joining a protest outside a colleague’s office, Ocasio-Cortez is showing Americans that she is willing to hold the leaders of her own party accountable to their promises.
In the age of Trump and radical conservative politics, finding a way to cooperate with Republicans has been the Democrats’ key strategy. However, Ocasio-Cortez’s new voice in Washington, D.C., is showing that Americans want a forward-thinking politician who will advocate for the people’s demands, rather than to meet the Republican party’s demands. Democratic socialism is ultimately what is allowing Ocasio-Cortez to achieve the gains she has had among progressive youth in America. At its core, the DSA defines its vision as building “a society in which people have a real voice in the choices and relationships that affect the entirety of our lives.” So far, Ocasio-Cortez’s daring statements and challenges to the party’s stagnant policies are a reflection of this vision coming to life.
Despite some early friction she’s had with her party, Ocasio-Cortez and other democratic socialists are demonstrating the potential that the Democratic party has to transform itself and to project the voices of younger Americans in its policies. Although the party continues to have internal divisions on how to address issues, Ocasio-Cortez appears before them as a small party in in a larger wave of progressivism.
Since Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory in June of 2018, the DSA has been growing by the thousands and will likely continue to grow in the future years. While Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is just one individual, the thousands of other young Americans that share her vision for the country can bring the Democratic party to expand its platform to bring the people back to American democracy.