She is the youngest member of Congress, at 29, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (CAS’11) is also a magnet for criticism from conservatives, largely because she has self-identified as a “democratic socialist,” made some statements shown to be factually questionable, and been outspoken on social media. The word socialism came up again Monday night when she appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to eat ice cream, explain her proposal for a 70 percent tax rate on the superrich, and emphasize that there’s a big difference between “socialism” and “democratic socialism.”
But is AOC a socialist, a democratic socialist, or neither? What was Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, since he embraced the term before her? And what exactly does that word mean anyway? We asked Jonathan Zatlin, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of history, to educate us on why socialism became such a divisive, even dirty, word in politics.
Socialism’s roots are from the French Revolution. The socialist tradition is older and bigger than just Marxism. The ideals of equality and justice during the French Revolution radicalized some people. The first socialists were also influenced by their interpretation of early Christians. They wanted to improve human relationships through brotherly love and the kind of communal property ownership early Christians practiced. But by the time you get to 1871 and the Paris Commune, European governments start to worry about political subversion. Government officials start to get nervous about any threats, and other kinds of left-wing political protest, such as anarchists, get lumped in with socialists. And all these various political movements get labeled as unacceptable.
Once we get to the 20th century, it is socialism in power, and especially after 1945, that people have in mind. People looked to the Soviet Union as embodying certain ideals, especially when it comes to the economy—the planned economy. Those who called themselves democratic socialists—in opposition to the dictatorial methods of the communists—rejected the Soviet Union. They start to say, we don’t want a government that enforces communal property ownership. Most American socialists were democrats and modeled themselves on the social democrats in Europe, especially during the Cold War.
It’s unclear if the people in the United States who say they are democratic socialists want to reform or abolish capitalism. If I had a chance to speak to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez without the political fanfare, the first question I’d ask her is, what do you think about capitalism? The big dilemma for people on the left since 1989 [generally regarded as the year communism collapsed] is whether you think capitalism can be reformed or if markets by their nature always harm people without power. The big dividing line on the left is between those who say, “Look, the market is a good thing, trade generally benefits everyone,” and those who say, “Trade is a zero-sum game, someone always wins and someone always loses.” If Ocasio-Cortez thinks capitalism always hurts the poor, then she probably opposes capitalism. If so, then she only has a few options. She’s not a communist, so she’s not going to go the dictatorial route like the Soviets. But no one knows what democratic socialism would really look like.
So she can try to limit markets, maybe by using the government to interfere with them, and just wait for the day that something else comes along to replace capitalism.
Or she can say, the market is good, but it’s often unfair. I want to restrain it, use the state to ensure markets benefit everyone.
Except, that’s not socialism. That’s still capitalism. From what I can see, she’s a welfare statist, not a socialist. She wants to use the power of the state to redistribute wealth. What’s happened in the United States is that it’s increasingly difficult to redistribute that wealth. That’s a critique not of capitalism, but of how corporate America is organized—to return more profits to managers and owners and less to workers. Ocasio-Cortez is just saying tax the wealthy more. In fact, I would go so far as to say she and Mitch McConnell are pretty good friends—they just don’t know it. She wants to take income and redistribute it using a more progressive tax system. McConnell wants the wealthy to have a bigger piece of the pie than she does, but he also believes in progressive taxation.
Is she a socialist? This drives me nuts, when politicians say they’re socialists. When Bernie Sanders started saying it, I would get very annoyed. I like some of the things he says, but I could not figure out why he would call himself a socialist. He isn’t a socialist in any sense of that term. He is not looking to get rid of capitalism. His insistence on being a socialist is wrong historically. But it’s apparently right politically. Bernie was trying to galvanize new voters behind him, protest against the way that our economy disadvantages many people.
Capitalism, or the economy as we know it, produces its own criticism. That’s one way of defining socialism. People who consistently take up that criticism either want to address those criticisms from inside the system, or mount a challenge outside the system to do it. She is working inside the system. She is using Twitter to make fun of old white men. That’s as inside the system as you can get. I do respect her a great deal. I don’t want to criticize her just because she isn’t using socialism in a scholarly way.
When it comes to socialism, she is trying to play up to her base. And that’s really important as we’ve seen. She has to galvanize people and also try to not push people away—except for certain kinds of Republicans.
Socialism is a dirty word. It’s been a dirty word in America since maybe the  McKinley assassination or the Soviet takeover of 1917. I don’t think anyone had a kind word to say about it after 1945. It’s got this treasonous aspect to it. That’s why the right is so successful using it. It’s so easy for people to delegitimize socialism and socialists. That’s why it’s so interesting that Bernie started using it.
As a historian, I would tell her this: There are many policy options she could adopt if she’s critical of capitalism. Clarify your economic aims. Why a 70 percent tax bracket and not 50 percent or 90? Does she understand that wealthy people can use many loopholes to get around tax policies? Or is she just trying to shake up the policy discussion? Aiming for another office? Whatever the case, it gives people a chance to rethink these problems.
I do worry that her command of tax law is not that great. There is a big distinction between income and wealth. When it comes to income, CEOs in this country get paid horrendous amounts of money. But not in the way she is talking about. They get all kinds of stock deals, private cars or jets, privileges they don’t have to declare as income. So how would you approach that practically?
Is it a good thing we’re talking about socialism? I think it’s a good thing. I just wish Americans understood the kind of socialism that she’s talking about. I would put that at Bernie’s feet. He never explained what he really meant. I also think social media plays a part. Socialists want to give more ordinary people more power, and social media does that, it levels the playing field. Except that Twitter is a corporation, making money off tweets—socialist ones, too.