Where Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Parts Ways With Bernie Sanders

The two self-avowed democratic socialists share a lot in common—but disagree on immigration.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is interviewed at Rockefeller Center on June 27. The democratic socialist upset Representative Joe Crowley in New York's Democrat primary. (Mary Altaffer / AP)

Here are a few things I have noticed about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s exceptionally disciplined congressional campaign, which will surely make her a folk hero on the left. First, my impression is that she had strikingly little to say about Russian interference in the 2016 election, nor did she spend her time litigating the question of whether James Comey’s blundering interventions cost Hillary Clinton the presidency. In my experience, those are fixations of Democrats who are more partisan than ideological, and for whom Clinton’s defeat is a lingering wound. Ocasio-Cortez, meanwhile, is an avowed democratic socialist who organized for Bernie Sanders, a man who stubbornly continues to insist on identifying as an independent. It is not at all clear that loyalty to the Democratic Party per se is one of her chief motivations.

Further, you won’t find the third-generation Bronxite braying against Donald Trump’s supposed transgressions against the postwar liberal international order. This is perfectly in keeping with the fact that many on the hard left have their own objections to the status quo in U.S. foreign policy and don’t generally look to grey eminences from the Council on Foreign Relations or the Brookings Institute for guidance. In a similar vein, Ocasio-Cortez hasn’t warned that the GOP’s fiscal recklessness will endanger the federal government’s credit rating. To the contrary, in an exchange with In These Times, she poured scorn on centrist Democrats who believe “we’re going to austerity our way into prosperity,” attributing their aversion to deficits to an excessive deference to Wall Street con artists. And why wouldn’t she? Sanders and his devotees are enthralled by the heterodox economist Stephanie Kelton, who has risen to intellectual celebrity by arguing that the only real constraint on federal spending is inflation, and that alarm over deficits is, in short, nonsensical.

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.

It is telling that libertarian immigration advocates are deeply concerned about the rising popularity of the jobs guarantee and, relatedly, a universal basic income, on the left. They recognize that if welcoming low-skill immigrants becomes more expensive for incumbent citizens, the desire for low-skill immigration will likely decrease, which is why the Cato Institute has long campaigned for “building a wall around the welfare state.” Indeed, sophisticated immigration advocates often favor reforming fiscal entitlements. Just as one must first pay into the Social Security system for a period of time before becoming eligible for benefits, the idea is that all social programs ought to become more contributory. Of course, this logic is very much at odds with Ocasio-Cortez’s belief that, for example, housing is a human right. (As an aside, questions of redistribution are central to why some conservatives, myself included, favor limiting low-skill immigration: because we believe there is a trade-off between the number of poor newcomers and the generosity with which they are treated, and we favor an approach that is somewhat less open while being far more generous to those Americans choose to admit. Cosmopolitan libertarians, by and large, prefer moving in the opposite direction.)

By all accounts, Ocasio-Cortez sees things differently. While some on the center-left will allow for the possibility that “the Trump administration’s vision of allocating green cards based on likely labor market success rather than family connections has merit,” as Matthew Yglesias recently argued in Vox, Ocasio-Cortez is unlikely to champion a more selective approach to admissions, if for no other reason than that her congressional district is dominated by immigrant-headed households, most of them working class. To many on the left, the notion of a more “merit-based” immigration system, to use Trump’s favored locution, implies that the existing system with its heavy emphasis on family admissions rewards immigrants lacking in merit—an implication that many of the naturalized citizens residing in Ocasio-Cortez’s constituency would surely resent.

Notably, Bernie Sanders, who is by far the most influential democratic socialist on the national political scene, and whose presidential candidacy played a central role in Ocasio-Cortez’s rise, is more ambivalent about mass immigration. Back in 2007, Sanders denounced the McCain-Kennedy comprehensive immigration legislation, partly on the grounds that it would have expanded low-wage guest-worker programs. Through strongly in favor of a large-scale amnesty, he has expressed deep skepticism about the wisdom of (in his words) open borders, describing the idea as “a Koch brothers proposal” in an interview with Vox. Needless to say, Sanders did not mean this as a compliment. And while many of his disciples have rallied around the cause of abolishing ICE—something that could mean anything from renaming the agency and bringing it under the auspices of the Department of Justice, as its predecessor was, to dismantling all immigration enforcement outright, depending on who is doing the talking—he has, so far at least, conspicuously refused to do so, to the consternation of many on the left. If he does come around to the cause of abolishing ICE, which may yet happen, my suspicion is that he will wind up supporting modest reforms and, crucially, a name change.

What accounts for the distance separating Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez on immigration? Lest we forget, Sanders is 76 years old, and he has lived through previous waves of left-wing enthusiasm that have come and gone. If public opinion really is thermostatic, as I believe it is, young leftists could be overestimating the extent to which the backlash to Trump heralds deeper shifts in the beliefs of rank-and-file voters. Or it could be that Sanders is a relic of the past and that open-borders socialism will soon be as American as apple pie. The Democratic Party seems determined to find out.