When Bernie Sanders was beginning his presidential run, I asked the nation’s most prominent democratic socialist how he thought the word “socialism” would play on the campaign trail.
“Do they think I’m afraid of the word?” he replied. “I’m not afraid of the word.”
That was a transformational answer, as it signaled a break with the politics of caution and compromise that for decades had stifled debate within the Democratic Party where Sanders was mounting his bid. It also marked a renewal of the historic premise that, in order to progress, America’s political leaders must be open to a broad range of ideas. This premise fostered the great economic, social, and political advances that tamed the excesses of the Gilded Age and its aftermath. It cleared the way for a bolder and more expansive politics—influenced by democratic-socialist, progressive, and populist ideas—that created space for the rise of national leaders such as Wisconsin Senator Robert M. La Follette, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Democratic socialism has deep roots in American history. Socialists have been campaigning for major offices and winning major elections for more than a century in the United States. Voters have elected socialist senators, congressmen, legislators, and mayors. Alliances of socialists, populists, and progressives once shaped the politics of Midwestern states such as Wisconsin. And this is not just a historical footnote. As an unapologetic democratic socialist, Sanders won 23 primary and caucus contests in his 2016 Democratic presidential bid—securing over 60 percent of the vote in almost a dozen of them, carrying urban and rural regions and sweeping the youth vote. A proud democratic socialist, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, just won a primary victory over one of the top Democrats in the US House of Representatives — and members of Democratic Socialists of America have been on a winning streak in legislative and local races nationwide.
So it should not come as a surprise that Cynthia Nixon, who is mounting an insurgent challenge to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in September’s Democratic primary, took to Twitter on Tuesday to offer this perspective on the ideological debates of the moment: “Why don’t pundits who are so obsessed with @Ocasio2018 supporting democratic socialism ask corporate-backed politicians why they are so supportive of unfettered capitalism?”
That’s a very good question. A necessary question. And Nixon expanded upon her remarks with a statement that declared her campaign is aligned with democratic-socialist principles.
“Some more establishment, corporate Democrats get very scared by this term but if being a democratic socialist means that you believe health care, housing, education and the things we need to thrive should be a basic right, not a privilege, then count me in,” wrote Nixon. “As Martin Luther King [Jr.] put it, call it democracy or call it democratic socialism but we have to have a better distribution of wealth in this country.”
The candidate explained to Politico that “I have long stood in support of a millionaires’ tax, Medicare for all, fully funding our public schools, housing for all and rejecting all corporation donations—all of which align with democratic socialist principles.”
Nixon, an actor and outspoken advocate for public education, appeared this week on the podcast The Dig and referred to Ocasio-Cortez’s primary win as “an enormous red-letter day for us all—not just in New York State but I think across this country [for] people who care about progressive politics.”
Reminded that House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi had played down the significance of Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, and rejected the notion that democratic socialism has been gaining traction in the party, Nixon said, “I think Nancy Pelosi is dead wrong, I think that is exactly what’s happening.”
Cuomo’s challenger argued that voters want Democrats to get much more serious about addressing economic and social injustice.
“I think that, of course, wealthy people and big corporations have always had an outsized influence on American politics and on world politics,” explained Nixon. “But at this moment, when you look at what the agendas of corporations are and you look at governmental policies, there is almost no daylight between them. We’re at a time when we as progressives, and we as Democrats, have to start speaking about things that are the main headlines for most of our people—but [that] our elected leaders keep sidestepping. We have to talk about economic inequality and racial inequality and gender inequality, and we have to put forth plans to combat this inequality because this inequality is destroying our country and it’s swallowing our democracy whole.”
That gets to the heart of things. No matter what political and media elites may think about democratic socialism, they have to recognize that the economic and social and political landscape is changing dramatically in the United States. Globalization is changing everything that we understand about the world and our place in it, the digital revolution is changing everything about how we communicate and interact, the automation revolution is changing everything about how we work—and how we will (or will not) work. It is impossible to address the modern equivalent of multiple industrial revolutions without a much broader ideological perspective. That does not mean that every Democrat is going to embrace democratic-socialist solutions, but it does mean that Democrats are going to have to accept the usefulness—and the credibility—of those ideas when they engage in broader debates about inequality, about the next economy, and about the next America.
Cynthia Nixon’s attention to this fact of 21st-century politics marks her as a serious and savvy candidate. Democrats, even those who do not support her candidacy, need to understand that she is not merely talking about her race in New York. She is talking about a future that is coming at us far more quickly than most politicians, and most pundits, recognize.