In the United States, newly elected New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has dominated political discussion – because Ocasio-Cortez proudly calls herself a socialist. Her election as a Democrat raises a crucial question for socialists: can parties like the Democrats be changed from within, or do we need to build a new party?
Ocasio-Cortez is a genuine activist – not a career politician. In 2016, she was part of the Standing Rock struggle against the building of a destructive oil pipeline. In the same year, she was an organizer for the Bernie Sanders campaign, working to make Sanders the presidential candidate for the Democratic Party in the 2016 elections.
Last June she ran in an election to decide the Democrat’s candidate for a seat in the US Congress. She defeated the corporate politician Joe Crowley in a stunning victory. Crowley had been in the seat for 19 years, but he could not survive a grassroots challenge from Ocasio-Cortez. This is despite the fact that Ocasio-Cortez was outspent by 10 to 1! Her campaign was funded with an average donation of $25 – it was powered by ordinary people, compared to the millions of dollars of corporate cash Crowley received.
She ran on the basis of fighting for universal healthcare, free higher education, removing corporate money from politics, and the abolition of private prisons and of ICE – the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which made headlines recently for their policy of imprisoning and breaking up families of alleged undocumented immigrants.
These policies have made her enormously popular. On Twitter she has more reach than any US politician except for Trump. Attempts by the right-wing to discredit her, for example by sharing a video of her dancing in college, have fallen flat, in some cases only adding to her popularity.
Ocasio-Cortez is only 29 and a former bartender, she is not part of the political establishment. She has already shown herself to be a completely different kind of politician to what we are used to. But even for someone coming from outside the establishment, the pressure to water down your politics is intense.
Parliaments are designed to manage capitalism, not to challenge it. They are committees for the management of the affairs of the capitalist class. Politicians are well paid, and invited into the social circles of the rich and powerful. There is a long history of radical politicians being co-opted by the establishment.
Even if you are able to resist this, being a radical voice in parliament is not enough on its own. Workers representatives should be backed up by movements of ordinary people, and kept accountable. This means staying on a worker’s wage, and being actively involved in a party that can act as a counterweight to the pressure to sell out. Even then, there are no guarantees.
Spokespeople for our struggles are important, but the only way to really achieve change is to base ourselves on the collective organisation of working class people. Change happens when people mobilise.
Ocasio-Cortez has already waivered under pressure. For example, supporting corporate politician Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House and joining in the praising of Senator John McCain after he died.
The best way to resist the establishment’s pressure is to be part of a party based on social movements and trade unions. A working class party that refuses corporate cash, and is democratically controlled by its members, is the best means through which to make radical public representatives really effective.
Given the two-party system in the US, transforming the Democrats can seem more ‘realistic’ to some people. Setting up something new seems daunting. But transforming the Democrats requires overturning the Democratic Party establishment, while bringing ordinary people into the party en masse. An uphill battle when the establishment has written the rules, and the party itself continually takes sides against ordinary people.
It would in fact be much easier to build a new party, especially if people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders broke with the Democrats and helped to launch a new party for working people.
Socialists reject the politics of establishment parties like the Democrats, and fight for a clear alternative to capitalism. We campaign to take the biggest corporations into public ownership, and build a democratically planned economy that can meet people’s needs. To finally change things, we need a party that sees this alternative as its goal.
By David Elliott