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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a Democratic Socialists of America member. Here’s what that means.

The progressive candidate is changing notions of what socialism means for voters across Queens, the Bronx, and America.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez celebrates her win against Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary for the 14th Congressional District.
Progressive challenger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez celebrates with supporters at a victory party in the Bronx.
Scott Heins/Getty Images

If you hadn’t heard of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez before last night, you’re sure to know the name now. Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old Bronx native, beat longtime establishment Democrat Joe Crowley in the primary for the 14th Congressional District in New York City. The district includes much of the Bronx and Queens. The upset was so unexpected (she won 57 percent of the vote), even Ocasio-Cortez was shocked.

What makes Crowley’s defeat so striking is not just that he lost to a young progressive. He also lost to a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). You’re likely to hear a lot about the DSA in coming days, some characterizations that get it right — and a lot that gets it wrong.

Jeff Stein wrote about the DSA in 2017 so Vox could clear up some misconceptions.

What does DSA believe in?

Like most socialist organizations, DSA believes in the abolition of capitalism in favor of an economy run either by “the workers” or the state — though the exact specifics of “abolishing capitalism” are fiercely debated by socialists.

Stein gave more specifics:

In practice, that means DSA [members advocate] ending private ownership of a wide range of industries whose products are viewed as “necessities,” which they say should not be left to those seeking to turn a profit. According to the DSA’s current mission statement, the government should ensure that all citizens receive adequate food, housing, health care, child care, and education. DSA also believes that the government should “democratize” private businesses — i.e., force owners to give workers control of them — to the greatest extent possible.

But DSA members also say that overthrowing capitalism must include the eradication of “hierarchical systems” that lie beyond the market as well. As a result, DSA supports the missions of Black Lives Matter, gay and lesbian rights, and environmentalism as integral parts of this broader “anti-capitalist” program.

“Socialism is about democratizing the family to get rid of patriarchal relations; democratizing the political sphere to get genuine participatory democracy; democratizing the schools by challenging the hierarchical relationship between the teachers of the school and the students of the school,” said Jared Abbott, a member of the DSA’s national steering committee. “Socialism is the democratization of all areas of life, including but not limited to the economy.”

But the DSA is not a formal political party. Rather, it claims to be “the largest socialist organization” in America and tries to work within the Democratic Party to weaken capitalism, not end it.

As Stein wrote:

DSA’s ancestor, the Socialist Party of America, really was a political party that ran candidates like [Eugene] Debs and controlled the mayoralty of Milwaukee for years. But the idea that it’s a political party today is perhaps the biggest misconception about the DSA.

Unlike the Green Party or the Libertarian Party or even the new “Moderate Whig Party,” the DSA is not registered with the Federal Election Commission as a political party.

Instead, DSA is a 501(c)4 nonprofit. That frees it up to avoid cumbersome paperwork required of those organizations, and focus on what it calls its No. 1 objective — building a broad-based “anti-capitalist” movement for democratic socialism.

The question still remains — are the Democrats and Democratic Socialists for America all that different? Yes and no.

Stein explained:

Some of the economic policies favored by left-wing Democrats are also supported by DSA, and that can make the two occasionally difficult to disentangle.

[But] many DSA members would go further than any of these New Deal Democrats. One useful distinction is that while progressive Democrats and DSA both believe in welfare state programs as a way to improve capitalism, DSA sees them as just one step toward completely severing the link between human needs and market scarcity.

And Stein offered some helpful examples:

While both DSA and some left-wing Democrats agree that the government should provide universal health insurance, DSA ultimately wants to nationalize hospitals, providers, and the rest of the health care system as well. While both will work toward higher taxes on Wall Street, DSA ultimately wants to nationalize the entire financial sector. While left-wing Democrats believe in criminal justice reform, some DSA members are calling for the outright abolition of the police and prison systems. While both DSA and left-wing Democrats support reforms to get money out of politics, some in DSA see capitalism as fundamentally incompatible with genuinely free and fair elections. In practice, however, the two wind up ultimately taking the same positions.

Socialists often get a bad rap in the press. Some US citizens who lived through the Cold War era succumbed to fears that socialism was “the close cousin of Soviet communism” and that a single-payer health care system was “a first step to the gulags,” according to the Guardian’s Chris McGreal. Some in the media (mostly Fox News) used socialism as an epithet against President Barack Obama, thereby giving voters a reason to fear him.

Ocasio-Cortez is changing those notions. Vox’s Dylan Scott has noted that Ocasio-Cortez supports Medicare-for-all and a single-payer health care system, tuition-free college for all, banning private prisons, and most notable, abolishing the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Scott also observed that although her platform is certainly leftist, it in no way is unpopular.

For whatever the reason — her grassroots campaign, identity as a Bronx native with Puerto Rican heritage, lefty platform, or work for Sen. Bernie Sanders and the DSA — voters wanted Ocasio-Cortez. In this heavily Democratic district, that means she’s all but officially bound for Congress.

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