A long time ago, I was a music journalist. As such, I struggled with a rhetorical problem many music journalists face: what name, or label, to give new music.
Try to appreciate the stakes. Call it rock, and you alienate one kind of listener. Call it pop, and you alienate another. Call it anything, and you risk pinning an artist to the successes or failures of the past while reducing her present accomplishment.
I can’t say I solved the problem. I was writing about music—I had to use words! But I fudged it. I tried to avoid talking about genres or categories. I simplified my language, minimized abstraction, maximized concreteness. But mostly, I had to learn to trust that my readers trusted me to speak truthfully about what I liked, and why.
I think the political press struggles with a similar problem. Some reporters are aware of it. Most are not. We can see it clearly in coverage of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Ocasio-Cortez is a self-declared “democratic socialist” in the mold of US Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Her primary victory over the No. 3 House Democrat naturally got attention. But the focus has been mostly on her label, not on what policies that label can deliver. It’s as if Washington would rather talk about the word “apple,” but not the fact that “apple” represents a thing that people can eat.
I was reminded of this while watching her interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo. Take a look for yourself and tell me if there’s anything here requiring debate of her affinity for democratic socialism, especially whether it’s a risk to the Democratic Party. I’m guessing, for the most part, the label doesn’t matter. Her points are plainly sensible.Like music journalism, political journalism can be done without concern for the role reporters play in the citizenry’s understanding of politics. That lack of awareness together with a vernacular necessary to functioning as journalists can and does result in headlines like this one: “The left wing lost steam in Tuesday’s primaries.”
That’s … not what happened.
What happened was this: Candidates endorsed by Bernie Sanders did terribly, as they have been since Sanders launched Our Revolution, an organizing group. To say leftists lost steam Tuesday makes sense only if you align leftism with Sanders to the exclusion of something necessary to understanding the Democratic Party as it is today.
It’s been moving left for years.
This explains why plain-jane candidates are embracing what is essentially European-style democratic socialism in the form of Medicare for All. This explains the full-throated defense of progressive values among so-called “mainstream candidates.” This is not Bill Clinton’s party. This is not even Barack Obama’s party. Not anymore.
This is a party reaching back to its reformist roots.
Another thing. While the Democratic Party likes, or is at least willing to tolerate, some species of democratic socialism, it really does not like Bernie Sanders*. This is why today’s “mainstream candidates” are defeating Sanders-endorsed candidates despite being far more leftist than mainstream candidates of the past. In other words, they are finding voters who liked Sanders’ message in 2016, but hated the messenger.
I’m willing to bet that after the midterms so-called moderates in the Democratic Party are not going run when critics accuse them of being in bed with socialists. I don’t think they’ll defend socialism but they aren’t going to get hung up on labels either.
They are going to pay attention to what labels can deliver.
Go ahead. Call Medicare for All a socialist plot.
Fact is, it’s popular.
*Why? Easy. He wounded Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
*Democrats of color were suspicious of Sanders from the start, due to his efforts to appeal to Trump voters. Others, like me, are wary of Sanders due to the fact that he did not release his tax returns. Sanders also benefited from Russian propaganda, but has not, to my knowledge, admitted to being helped.
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