Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a young graduate of 28 years, came to the limelight by defeating a senior Democratic Congressman in a primary in New York in July. She is now crisscrossing the country campaigning for the progressive Democratic candidates for the Congress in the upcoming election in November. She has inspired talk about a revival of democratic socialism in the United States. Ocasio-Cortez has been demanding universal health care, in other words, expansion of Medicare for all, higher tax for the wealthy and affordable higher education for the youth. Ocasio-Cortez's rise is interpreted as a repudiation of the existing leadership in the Democratic Party led by Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.
Bernie Sanders, a long-time Senator, who unsuccessfully sought Democratic Party nomination in the last presidential election, for the first time in recent years, called for universal health care for all, tuition-free education at universities, higher taxes for the wealthy, enhancement of minimum wage and some sort of regulations against outsourcing jobs abroad. Sanders was accused by his political opponents as an activist working for implementing socialism in the country. Sanders forcefully argued that unregulated economy has over the years generated multiplication of wealth by the owners of financial institutions, while the middle class which had painstakingly contributed to the economy has been marginalised. He pointed out that 90 per cent of the resources of the country are being owned by 10 per cent of the population and 57 per cent of all new income flows into top 1 per cent. Sanders demanded equitable distribution of wealth in society.
Sanders's plea for redistribution of wealth and social justice during the last presidential campaign was exuberantly welcomed by the youth and progressive section of the population. Over seven million people joined Sanders's campaign and donated at an average of $27 to his campaign fund. Though at the end, Sanders was denied of the nomination, his adversary, Hillary Clinton was obliged to incorporate many of his demands in her election manifesto in order to promote social justice in society.
The profound dissatisfaction generated by the status quo stimulated the resurgence of socialistic views. Young leaders of this campiagn like Ocasio-Cortez, New York State Senate candidate Julia Salazar and Michigan governor candidate Abdul Sayed maintain "there is no question we have to expand and comprehensively fund the social safety net, but if we do that without altering the basic structures that disempower people and keep them in wage slavery, we are never going to see long-term social change."
Critics of democratic socialism remonstrate that the stalwarts of the movement have never explained what the goals are and how are these going to be achieved. But the critics have lost sight of the current definition of democratic socialism. It means nothing more than social justice involving redistribution of wealth. It can also be pointed out that during 2017, through the Affordable Health Care which is now under threat of extinction, $1.0 billion was transferred to low income earners. The other instruments would be raising minimum wage, expansion of health care, overhauling of taxation system compelling the rich and wealthy to pay more taxes while granting tax breaks to middle and low-income earners. In other words, the advocates of democratic socialism have embraced the compressed definition of socialism as social justice and vowed to achieve these through myriad mechanism including overhauling tax structure, enhancing employment benefits and expansion of Medicare.
Multiple mechanisms are in existence since mid-1960s to reach out to the poor. Families having lower income are being provided housing subsidies enabling them to have decent accommodation. Unemployed individuals and families earning lesser income are entitled to get food subsidies in the name of "Food Stamps" which allows them to procure essential food items from any retail shops. Obamacare was an excellent attempt to extend health care facilities to low-income population. Till end 2016, about 20 million people hitherto having no access to health coverage, received health insurance through Obamacare.
These mechanisms need to be streamlined to transfer resources to the middle and low-income population. The principal obstruction would be posed by the Trump administration. It has defunded many integral subsidiaries of the Obamacare and threatened to slash funding of housing and food subsidies thus shutting down the opportunities to transfer resources from the rich to the poor.
It is reassuring that the youth and progressive members of the Democratic Party have come forward to revitalise the party with a progressive agenda. They have a daunting task ahead because the status quo has been orchestrated by billionaires and millionaires. They have lavishly invested in the campaigns of the Senators and members of the House of Representatives who are committed to oppose any challenge to the status quo. But history is replete with examples which show that, when the youth comes out with an ideology, a nation's trajectory is altered. This cannot be different in the case of the United States.
Abdur Rahman Chowdhury is a former official of the United Nations.
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