The trouble with left-wing Democrats is that they lack a proper respect for right-wing demagoguery. Hence, at the moment, many of them extol socialism — which is to American politics what curling is to sports — and are calling for the abolition of ICE, generously giving President Trump yet another opportunity to demagogue on immigration. They will, if allowed, declaim their way to another defeat.
The recent primary election victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has brought in a gusher of media reports on the coming socialist resurgence. If she wins the general election — virtually a dead certainty in a district that has not voted Republican since, approximately, the Continental Congress — she will not, surprisingly, be New York’s first-ever socialist member of Congress. Meyer London preceded her and, when he died in 1926, his funeral procession was witnessed by a reported 500,000 people. Still, when he went into the grave, so did socialism.
In fact, the term “American exceptionalism,” while it has many meanings, once referred to the antipathy workers here had to an ideology that had wide appeal to their European counterparts. Following Germany’s surrender in 1945, for example, Britain unceremoniously gave the boot to Winston Churchill’s Conservative Party and voted in Clement Attlee’s Labour Party and its socialistic programs. Not much remains of that but universal health care. Elsewhere on the continent, socialist parties similarly dominated.
Partly, American socialism suffered by being unfairly associated with communism. Russia, after all, was officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. That bit of right-wing demagoguery worked, and socialism went the way of the temperance movement or, more tragically, the Brooklyn Dodgers. It has become associated with something foreign — not very American at all.
The socialism to which Ocasio-Cortez adheres lacks the militancy of old and is supposedly attractive to young voters who have no memory of any communist association. The trouble is that young voters often don’t vote and older voters do. To the latter, the socialist label is anathema and, as far as I’m concerned, unnecessary. This, after all, is the avuncular socialism of Bernie Sanders: universal Medicare and free higher education. It needs no label. Sign me up.
The socialist label, combined with the demand to obliterate the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, is the nitro and the glycerin of a bomb that Trump can throw at the Democrats. It combines the bugaboo of socialism with the irrational fear of immigrant hordes rampaging through the countryside.
The latter fear is not to be messed with. In Germany, it may yet bring down Angela Merkel’s government and has already made doughty Denmark mad with anti-immigrant regulations that reveal a nation demented by cultural paranoia. But the United States, too, has gone through such phases, deporting “aliens” of what a 1918 law called the “anarchistic and similar classes.” They were detained first on the very Ellis Island that had welcomed some of them — and then shipped back to Europe on a tub that made steerage seem ritzy by comparison.
The “aliens” of that era are the illegal immigrants of our own. Whatever threat they represented — and some of them, like anarchist Alexander Berkman, were convicted criminals — their menace was greatly overstated. So, too, today. Trump has exaggerated the depth, breadth and importance of the MS-13 gang and the alleged criminality of immigrants in general. Trump has, however, uttered the one word that sums up anti-immigrant sentiment: culture. “Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people who have so strongly and violently changed their culture,” he elegantly tweeted.
The culture that Trump so ardently wants to protect is white, male, working-class and Christian. It is on the way out, and that produces resentment and fury. Cultural changes are wrenching, which is why the recently referenced Denmark now requires so-called ghetto children — i.e., Muslims — to be instructed in “Danish values,” including an appreciation of Christmas and Easter. I’m sure, in an American version, Trump would add Fox News to that list.
ICE could certainly use some restraint. And some aspects of democratic socialism are welcome. But for the moment, these are peripheral issues. The overriding crisis facing our country is the presidency of Trump. He is wrecking the transatlantic alliance, endangering American democracy, encouraging a post-Merkel Germany and seemingly enlisting the United States in a worldwide authoritarian movement: Russia, China, Poland, Hungary and Turkey. Anything that provides him fodder should be off the table.
Speak no more of socialism. It may no longer suggest the red flag of revolution, but in political terms, it could be the white flag of surrender.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.
Ed Morales: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the intersectional remix of Latino roots and socialist politics