As Democrats prepare to pitch themselves to midterm voters—in a potentially historic election that may determine whether Donald Trump can be checked and balanced—they appear poised to heed the wisdom of Yogi Berra: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
But that advice might actually work, because if the latest poll showing a 12-point Democratic lead in congressional battleground districts is prophetic, there may well be several simultaneous paths out of the wilderness.
In the meantime, however, Democrats are suffering their periodic identity crisis—should they tilt leftward and work the populist grassroots, or should they cautiously hew to the center? That internal debate, which split the party during the 2016 primary, has been stoked anew by the June victory of the self-identified Democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who ousted the House insider Joe Crowley in a New York primary. But midterm elections are traditionally a referendum on the incumbent president, and the backlash against Trump, particularly in swing suburban districts, might be strong enough to tamp down Democratic divisiveness and propel the party to a share of power.
Ocasio-Cortez has a compelling personal story, and a bold vision (Medicare for all, free higher education, a federal jobs guarantee) that makes the Nancy Pelosi–Chuck Schumer establishment look bland. And her telegenicity landed her in Stephen Colbert’s guest chair. Most of the mainstream media, which ignored—or missed entirely—her digital-age spadework, seems now to be overcompensating, to the point of virtually anointing her as the new face of the party. But some skeptical Democrats point out that her heavily Hispanic district is demographically atypical, and the turnout in her primary was only 14 percent, albeit dominated by the voters she galvanized.
Terry Gillen, a veteran Democratic activist in Philadelphia and a former mayoral hopeful, told me: “She was a terrific candidate and ran a great campaign … But every race is different, and her message won’t work for every candidate. Some Democrats need to shift to the middle, as Conor Lamb did. It’s not one-size-fits-all.” Indeed, Lamb, the surprise Democratic winner of a special House election in conservative southwestern Pennsylvania, rejected government-funded health care for all. And mirroring his district, he supported coal and fracking.
That slice of Pennsylvania is basically part of the Midwest—and, as Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois recently told CNN, “I don’t think you can go too far to the left and still win the Midwest. Coming from a Midwestern state, I think you need to be able to talk to the industrial Midwest.” What she didn’t say, but what many in the party fear privately, is that Republicans will successfully leverage the “socialist” label to paint all Democrats as extreme.
The national GOP spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany, for one, is already working that angle, in tweets and on TV. She told Fox Business in late June: “The Democratic Party’s hidden agenda has always been socialism … [With Ocasio-Cortez’s victory] it became the central rallying cry. It’s amazing that they’re so transparent in their motives to become Europe and to become a socialist country.”
Republicans have worked this turf before, because socialism has long been a pejorative word in mainstream politics. The tactic famously clicked for Richard Nixon, who won his 1950 California Senate race after linking his Democratic opponent, Helen Gahagan Douglas, to Vito Marcantonio, an openly socialist congressman in East Harlem. According to Nixon’s pamphlets, “During five years in Congress, Helen Douglas has voted 353 times exactly as has Vito Marcantonio … She has so deservedly earned the title of ‘the pink lady.’” Nixon basically took the advice of his strategist, Murray Chotiner, who liked to tell his Republican clients in the ’50s: “Associate your opponent with an unpopular idea or organization, with just a suggestion of treason … Above all, attack, attack, attack, never defend.”
Today, Nancy Pelosi is already in defend mode; she recently said, “I don’t accept any characterization of our party presented by the Republicans.” But many young activists on the Democratic left insist that there’s nothing to defend, that the socialism label has lost its sting. Alex Braden, a Philadelphia-based member of the Democratic Socialists of America, the organization that helped propel Ocasio-Cortez to victory, says that Democrats shouldn’t cower in a fetal position and “waste precious time and energy trying to keep Republicans from vilifying them.”
The solution, he says, is to be bold and unapologetic: “Incumbency, corporate cash, and political machines can be vanquished by a powerful, simple message disseminated widely and directly. [Ocasio-Cortez] and her army of canvassers didn’t hit prospective voters over the head with Volume 3 of Das Kapital.” Instead, they offered a specific agenda “that speaks directly to the basic material conditions of working people’s lives,” Braden said. They then sold that agenda to voters who didn’t care about ideological labels, voters who had no interest in status-quo Democrats.
And she’s not the only Democrat to win as a democratic socialist. Last November, in an underreported Virginia legislative race, a 30-year-old Marine veteran named Lee Carter —with no help from the state Democratic Party—knocked off the deep-pocketed GOP incumbent, who also happened to be the state House’s majority whip. Jackson Miller, the Republican, had circulated mailers linking Carter to Stalin and Mao. Carter won by nine points, and later told the Richmond press, “If you’re to the left of Barry Goldwater, Republicans are going to call you a socialist anyway, so you may as well just own the label.”
Carter’s campaign was run by a young member of the DSA, and his solid victory was buoyed by a robust youthful turnout. That’s precisely what Democrats need in the midterms, because young people typically skip the elections that bracket the presidential contests. Gillen told me that she “want[s] to see a poll showing that the word socialism helps with Millennials,” but there appears to be some evidence it could. According to a 2016 poll by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, 16 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 identify as socialists and 33 percent say they support socialism. As citizens of the post-Cold War era, the word seems to have little or no negative connotation to them, and an issue like free college tuition, which to an older generation might seem radical, resonates with young people burdened with crushing college debt.
Perhaps the Democratic identity crisis—which has simmered and flared for decades—will be papered over in November. In the current climate, particularly with college-educated women seemingly poised to vote their disdain for Trump in swing suburbia (starting with the 24 GOP House districts that voted for Hillary Clinton), what unites most Democratic candidates may prove more important than what divides them. Kitchen-table staples such as health care and education could play well in most winnable districts, and fear of an unchecked Trump may be so endemic that it need not even be mentioned on the stump.
Indeed, Yogi Berra did not misspeak when he told friends to take the fork in the road. He reportedly said it while giving directions to his house in Montclair, New Jersey. The road was a circle; whether friends went left or right, they’d still arrive successfully. Democrats can only hope their journey will be so easy.