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The Democratic socialists' campaign playbook

A map of the United States with images of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in blue
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

America is not a socialist nation, and the Democratic Party is not a socialist party. But after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s shocker win in New York, a growing number of Democrats are pushing a formula to try to nudge both the nation and the party in Bernie Sanders' direction. 

The bottom line: This isn't going to end — Ocasio-Cortez was just in California spreading the Democratic socialist message.

The template:

  1. Find candidates who fit the rising Democratic coalitions: young, female, minority — ideally all three. 
  2. Go big or go home with policy fights: Medicare for all, a much higher minimum wage, down-with-corporations regulations.
  3. Bet that the Trump phenomenon is transferable: that political parties are open to swifter change than commonly believed as long as you are loud and authentic.
  4. Bring in Bernie. He remains a rock star with the far left, and a sure bet to juice crowds and attention.

We saw this in vivid display this past weekend in Michigan, when we went to see Ocasio-Cortez campaigning with Abdul el-Sayed, a progressive Democrat running for governor.

It was clear that people are craving this brand of politics in 2018. The energy at the rallies was undeniable. But just because a movement can get a thousand people out to a local university doesn't prove it can win elections in Michigan, or across the country.

  • “This movement is like a wave — that energy can‘t be contained," Ocasio-Cortez said at the Detroit rally.
  • El-Sayed clearly was helped by her presence. The last rally El-Sayed held in Grand Rapids had about 400 people. Last weekend's event had 1,200 people who lined up around the building hours in advance.

El-Sayed is a progressive Democrat, not a socialist — but he does voice some of the same frustrations with the party establishment.

  • “We’ve got a choice in 2018 between a system that is bought and sold, or a system that is empowered from the ground up," El-Sayed said. "If we don’t want to lose again, let’s stop playing by the same old script."
  • The problem with the Democratic Party, he told me, is that "they shut out certain kinds of candidates" and it's "unwilling to embrace its future." He thinks corporate donors keep the party on a leash.

Why it matters: Ocasio-Cortez and the candidates she has endorsed are trying to blow up the Democratic Party. Yes they're angry about Trump, but they're more fed up with "establishment" Democrats who they say aren't working hard enough for the people.

The big question: Is this movement real, and can it extend from the Bronx to places like Wichita, Kansas, and Flint, Michigan?

  • What they're saying: "Maybe the label has to come to the forefront in an acceptable way, but the policy is already there" and appeals to Michigan voters, said 27-year-old Ljubica Berger, who attended the Grand Rapids rally.

Reality check: El-Sayed has been polling in third place, but activists hope Ocasio-Cortez’s visit, plus an endorsement from Bernie Sanders, could give him the boost he needs to pull off an upset victory.

  • Democratic strategists liken this to the Tea Party takeover of the GOP in 2010. But many privately speculate that El-Sayed has no chance of winning the primary on Aug. 7, arguing that Ocasio-Cortez and Democratic socialism is just "the flavor of the month."
  • Some Michiganders had never even heard of El-Sayed. And countless others we talked to around Detroit didn't know who Ocasio-Cortez was.