Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., embodies and supports many of the positions causing Republicans to decry socialism. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Nearly every day the 116th Congress is in session, on average, a Republican member takes to the House or Senate floor and says Democrats are veering toward socialism, warning that their progressive colleagues would lead America down some disastrous path akin to Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela.
The Democrats’ “Green New Deal” approach to climate change, the “Medicare-for-All” retort to Republicans undercutting Obama’s 2010 health care law, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and the most visible new member of the House, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, have all been painted as examples of a naive and dangerous socialist onslaught that must be repelled.
The first 42 days the 116th Congress was in session, there were 35 references to “socialism” or “socialist” on the House floor. Extrapolated over a full year, that would be well over 100 references — the highest total since 2010, when Democrats pushed through their monumental health care and banking regulation bills.
The first year of the study, 1995, featured more than 200 references to “socialism” or “socialist,” as members of the new Republican majorities in both chambers regularly took to the floor to challenge the presidency of Bill Clinton.
The highest number of these references came in 2009, as Barack Obama swept into office with big majorities in both chambers and Democrats pushed health care, climate and financial regulation bills that Republicans argued were massive government overreach. There were 274 socialism references that year.
In 2019, Republicans are again arguing that America must be protected against socialism and seem confident the label still has the power to erode public support for the people and positions they oppose.
How powerful the label remains is unclear. Despite all their warnings in 2009 and 2010, Democrats were successful in their efforts to pass three of the four pieces of major legislation. Republicans, however, can point to their landslide midterm victories in 2010 as evidence that people do indeed still show up to reject socialism.
Since that time, however, avowed socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont mounted an impressive primary challenge to Hillary Clinton and had the support of young Democrats. He now polls near the top of a large field of Democrats running for president in 2020, and many planks of his platform have become almost required for his fellow candidates to adopt. Ocasio-Cortez, a self-described democratic socialist who had volunteered for Sanders’ 2016 run for president, was successful in her primary challenge two years later — unseating a member of the House Democratic leadership, Joe Crowley. In just her first few months in office, Ocasio-Cortez has become the most influential (and besieged) 29-year-old House freshman in history.
The willingness of some to embrace the label of socialism, and of more to adopt some of their language and ideas, likely derives from more Americans on both sides feeling that the system is “rigged,” and a generational divide on allegiance to capitalism or socialism.