Until the Janus decision ended mandatory public sector union dues and Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement, Wednesday was looking like a pretty good day for the progressive left. One of their champions, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, defeated the fourth most powerful House Democrat in an upset primary victory—another clear sign that the energy and enthusiasm is with the Bernie Sanders wing of the party.
Democratic socialism, the ideology with which Ocasio-Cortez identifies, appears to be having a political moment. To which I say, as a libertarian who has been through the whole an-idea-whose-time-has-finally-come experience: good luck with that, comrades. The signs are easy to misread.
Yes, Ocasio-Cortez is aligned with the Democratic Socialists of America—she even has the red rose of socialism in her Twitter profile—and ran on a democratic socialist's platform: Medicare for all, free college tuition, a federal jobs guarantee. (She also wants to abolish ICE, but that's not really a socialist-specific idea: We libertarians want to abolish ICE, too, whereas Sanders, who can't quite bring himself to support the elimination of a government program, does not.)
"So-called socialist ideas might be more popular than you think," wrote Vox's Dylan Scott, in a wildly optimistic piece that hailed Ocasio-Cortez as "the future" of the Democratic Party. Splinter—the new go-to site for Gawker-style uncompromising leftism—celebrated the fact that the Ocasio-Cortez could help normalize "the s word."
The most starstruck members of this ideological group probably envision their ideas making headway within the Democratic Party. Who could be against socialism, as defined by Ocasio-Cortez as "democratic participation in our economic dignity" and "the basic elements that are required for an economic and socially dignified life in the United States"? (MSNBC's Chris Hayes, to his credit, was mildly incredulous about the future Congresswoman's "agnostic" definition of the term.)
And yet it's easy to imagine, when things are going your way in the elections department, it's because you're right and people are waking up to that fact. Ocasio-Cortez's defeat of Rep Joe Crowley (D–N.Y.) is already being compared to upstart Dave Brat's defeat of Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2011. I recall that many in the media saw Brat's victory as a sign that the Tea Party was winning—that the crony-corporatist, big-government-loving wing of the Republican Party was losing out to a libertarian insurgency. In the period of time between 2009 and 2015, a group of Republicans that appeared like they wanted to shrink government stole some power from the old guard, TIME magazine dubbed Sen. Rand Paul the most interesting man in national politics, and libertarianism was finally enjoying its political moment. Even The New York Times thought so.
We now know that this analysis was, at the very least, incomplete. While it's true that more and more people desire cultural freedom—specifically the kind of customization, choice, and control over their own lives that a libertarian worldview provides—political libertarianism had much less support than it seemed. Voters didn't send the Tea Party to Washington to constrain government, and they ended up caring far less about crony capitalism than they did about illegal immigration. As the libertarian-leaning Republican Rep. Thomas Massie told The Washington Examiner, he thought people that backed Ron and Rand Paul were voting for libertarian ideas; once these same voters turned to Trump, he realized they were not. "I realized when they voted for Rand and Ron and me in these primaries, they weren't voting for libertarian ideas—they were voting for the craziest son of a bitch in the race," said Massie. "And Donald Trump won best in class, as we had up until he came along."
Ocasio-Cortez doesn't appear crazy: she's an eloquent, if naïve and unspecific, defender of far-left ideas. But be cautious about attributing her success to the rising salience of democratic socialism. It could be a mere anti-incumbent insurgency, or it could be no insurgency at all, given that it's currently a one-off. During this time of heightened concern regarding the Trump administration's treatment of immigrant children, perhaps this majority minority district just really wanted to send a young woman of color to Congress instead of an aging white man. As FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver put it:
Most of these articles drawing lessons and takeaways from NY-14 are bad. If you're generalizing from it, you also have to explain the 99% of the time that the incumbent *doesn't* lose. Bonus points if you can also distinguish near-misses (e.g. NY-11) from the didn't-come-closes.
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) June 27, 2018
There's no doubt socialism—as defined in incredibly loose terms as a vast social welfare system—is gaining popularity among young Democrats. But libertarians have learned the hard way that it's all-too easy to draw unwarranted conclusions and misdiagnose the moment. Especially when The New York Times fawns over you.