While centrist Democrats fret that the Trump administration’s tariffs will plunge the U.S. and global economies into the abyss, Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t seem especially interested in protecting the cross-border supply chains of U.S. multinationals. Here I am reminded of the work of J.W. Mason, another leading light among left-wing economists, who argues that socialists have good reason to be wary of globalization, at least until the distant time when democratic decision-making is no longer bounded by the nation-state.
And if Ocasio-Cortez has expressed alarm over the extent to which the president and his allies are violating norms of civility, I have missed it. Like many on the left, she seems more drawn to the view that there is no place for civility when doing battle with fascists.
What does Ocasio-Cortez’s success imply about the future of the Democratic Party? For one, the party’s democratic socialists are now a force to be reckoned with, especially in densely populated urban constituencies like hers that are home to large numbers of working-class people of color and college-educated professionals. This is the “rainbow coalition” the left has envisioned since the Nixon era, and the victory of a 28-year-old professional leftist of Puerto Rican origin over a 56-year-old Irish-American Catholic, who had been racing leftward to erase the stain of his centrist past, certainly looks like its fruition.
However, the national Democratic Party’s embrace of what we might call rainbow socialism as its guiding ideology is far from assured. The political fortunes of Ocasio-Cortez and other socialist outsiders are closely tied to the omnipresence of Donald Trump and the galvanizing effect he has had on the left. When Washington is dominated by the right, the public shifts to the left. And when the left is in the driver’s seat, it tilts rightward. So goes the “thermostatic” model of public opinion devised by the political scientist Christopher Wlezien, which suggests that if and when Trump fades from the political scene, Democratic centrists will once again gain the upper hand. Moreover, as Matthew Bennet, senior vice president of Third Way, a center-left think tank, recently observed in an interview with Axios, “if Democrats do regain control of the House … it will be largely because of moderates winning in tough red and purple districts.” These moderates, some of whom are themselves people of color, will not cede the Democratic Party without a fight.
Then there is a deeper problem, namely that Ocasio-Cortez’s agenda is riven with contradictions. The most obvious is that in calling for the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency that has become a bogeyman on the left for its role in implementing the Trump administration’s polarizing deportation strategy, she is sending a clear signal that she favors more permissive immigration policies. At the same time, she favors a suite of other policies, such as Medicare for all, a universal guarantee of jobs paying a living wage, and tuition-free higher education, that would have the cumulative effect of sharply increasing redistribution from the native-born nonpoor to low-income immigrant-headed households. For immigrants, working in the United States offers them a “place premium”—that is, doing the same exact job in the outer boroughs of New York City will yield a far higher hourly wage than in Port-au-Prince, and this arbitrage opportunity draws immigrants from all over the world. This is true even before we take into account, for example, the earned-income tax credit, food stamps, and other policies designed to raise the effective incomes of households that command low (by American standards) market wages. If a federal jobs program were to offer $15 an hour to anyone willing and able to claim it, including the many newcomers who’d journey to the U.S. under more permissive policies, the implications are head-spinning. And that’s not to mention medical care and higher education that are free at the point of use, very valuable benefits that many people would go to great lengths to secure.