by Abbie Cawser, November 29, 2021
In recent years, America has seen the emergence of “radically left” politicians, who introduce ideas such as universal healthcare and green climate policies. Politicians such as Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (also known by her initials as AOC) and Senator Bernie Sanders have been described as “socialist superstars”1 and “Stalin sympathisers,”2 and have been criticised by both moderate Democrats and the Republican Party as being too radical.
Reflecting back on history, it is easy to see why this divide has emerged. America is one of the few countries that was founded on and rooted within capitalism, an economic system that is inherently much more closely aligned with right-wing ideology than with left-wing ideology. Additionally, the Cold War bred the “Red Scare” mentality (an Anti-Communist movement that targeted more liberal figures in the 1950s due to fears of connection between the Soviet Union), and therefore the impact of USSR Chairman Joseph Stalin is long-lasting. Due to this, America has always aligned itself more with the right side of politics than the left, symbolizing a continuing and everlasting form of the Red Scare even today. Therefore, when candidates such as Sanders, who promote left-wing values, start to come into mainstream politics, the outlook and public opinion is that they are too leftist, as history has told modern day Americans to fear left-wing figures.
The irony of these criticisms is that in the grand, world-wide scheme of politics, Sanders and AOC are far from radical. Progressive candidates in the US push for reforms that strongly resemble the norm within many other countries, and it is only within the US-centric view of politics that they appear radical. While this is a perfectly understandable reason to critique or analyse them within American politics, applying terms such as “radical socialists” is far from correct. Candidates such as Jeremy Corbyn, the former Labour leader in the UK, and Marie-Noëlle Lienemann, a French MEP for the Party of European Socialists, are much more characteristic of more extreme left-wing candidates. Corbyn championed nationalisation for a wide range of industries, a huge tax increase for the wealthiest in order to pay for welfare services, and even more of an investment in the scope of the National Health Service. In much the same way, Lienemann fought for Socialist ideals such as freezing the private sector and raising the minimum wages across the public sector. It would be inconceivable for a candidate to run with the outright name of socialist (as Corbyn and Lienemann did) in the US due to the everlasting Red Scare, and even Sanders faced criticism for being a self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist, an ideology much less extreme and palatable than actual Socialism. Whilst Corbyn’s views are pertinent to similar issues as Sanders’ views, they’re taken to much more extreme measures, whereas Sanders and AOC have to operate within a much more restrictive system.
One way to illustrate the US’s restriction on leftist ideology expression is through the policies that Sanders and AOC vote for. Sanders lists the following on his website as his key ideas: a move to renewable energy, national health insurance, and more humane and greater tolerance for immigration.3 On AOC’s website, she calls for greener climate reforms, criminal justice reform, and tackling income inequality.4 All of these issues are seen as radically left in the US, but are consistent with almost every major left-wing party outside of the US, and even in many centrist or right-wing parties. For example, the Conservative Party in the UK generally reaches a consensus that their National Health Service is important, highlighting an agreement between the far-left of America and the right-wing of the UK. With this point, it is clear that the ideas of Sanders and AOC are so often dismissed in the US for being too radically left, but they are the consensus between major parties outside of America. Another example is criminal justice reform policies, which aim to grant prisoners the right to vote – a concept that is the norm in many European countries, or at the very least, an issue at the forefront of the attention of major parties. Overall, America’s major left-wing party is more indicative of a centrist party elsewhere, which means that actually traditional left-wing politics are seen as radical-socialism, resembling the political beliefs of Stalin.
A reason for why this disillusion has occurred is because of the general right-wing bias that the US operates under. The consensus of the Democratic Party is one of moderate, even centre-right politics, in the grand scheme and yet is branded as a left-wing party. Democratic Presidential candidates such as Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden would undoubtedly be part of the centrist or right-wing parties in other countries. Their policies, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, are similar to those argued for by the UK Conservative party. Biden, along with other Senate Democrats, wouldn’t commit to the Green New Deal, a progressive and expansive Climate aid program, which the European Parliament, a currently centrist/right-leaning body, supported. Additionally, one such argument often made in favour of calling Biden a left-wing politician on a global stage is his opposition to Brexit, Britain’s exit from the EU, a typically left-wing policy. However, this is also an issue supported by two Conservative former Prime Ministers: in short, Biden’s more left-leaning ideas are also those supported by right-wing parties elsewhere. Even within Canada, the election of 2020 was seen as an opportunity to decide between “Republican and Democrat: The choice between two right-wing parties.”5 While the Democrats are the left-wing party of the US, it is important to realise that almost all of American politics operates on a right-shifted spectrum, and when translated into global terms, it is very much a case of centrist/right versus far-right, with the “radical” voices merely representing actual left-wing policies.
What is important to recognise, however, is that the goal of pointing this out is not to suggest that Sanders and AOC are not hugely influential, or to criticise their politics. They are politicians who are actually left-wing, and this is hard to come across within the US political platform. Their emergence in Congress, and the effect they are having on political debates are a positive thing. The US is an inherently right-wing country, so any movement to the left, no matter how minimal on the global stage, is progress for the left-wing voters. By shifting some of the debate to left-wing issues and by challenging those in the centre to take a stance on issues they have previously stayed silent on, the nature of American politics is revealed, and it is evident that elected officials have limited scope. If enough support is gathered for the progressive branches of the Democratic party, such as Sanders and AOC, perhaps a clear left-wing alliance may arise, and the consensus will shift to one many other countries have: an “actual” left-wing, and an “actual” right-wing, instead of continuing with one party having the label of left, and the other having the label of right, but continuing to vote on centrist and far-right policies respectively.
- Don McIntosh, “Talking Socialism: Catching up with AOC,” March 19, 2021, https://www.dsausa.org/democratic-left/aoc/.
- David Brooks, “No, Not Sanders, Not Ever,” The New York Times, February 27, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/27/opinion/bernie-sanders.html.
- “Issues,” Bernie Sanders Official Website, accessed November 1, 2021, https://berniesanders.com/issues/.
- “Issues,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Official Campaign Website, accessed November 1, 2021, https://www.ocasiocortez.com/issues.
- Donald Cuccioletta, “Republican and Democrat: The choice between two right-wing parties,” Canadian Dimension, October 31, 2020, https://canadiandimension.com/articles/view/republican-and-democrat-the-choice-between-two-right-wing-parties.
Brooks, David. “No, Not Sanders, Not Ever.” The New York Times. February 27, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/27/opinion/bernie-sanders.html.
Cuccioletta, Donald. “Republican and Democrat: The choice between two right-wing parties.” Canadian Dimension. October 31, 2020. https://canadiandimension.com/articles/view/republican-and-democrat-the-choice-between-two-right-wing-parties.
“Issues.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Official Campaign Website. Accessed November 1, 2021. https://www.ocasiocortez.com/issues.
McIntosh, Don. “Talking Socialism: Catching up with AOC.” Last modified March 19, 2021. https://www.dsausa.org/democratic-left/aoc/.