The Democratic love of socialism was for many years the love that dared not speak its name. No more. Now the party is figuratively jumping on Oprah’s couch shouting its love of socialism. You’d have to plug your ears not to hear it.
Socialist Bernie Sanders is unquestionably the spiritual leader of the Democratic party, which is radicalizing itself in his image, and on the strength of her blowout Democratic-primary win over liberal incumbent Joe Crowley in the party-ruled NY-14 congressional district, soon-to-be-congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is now one of the most prominent faces in the Democratic party. A poll last fall put support for socialism at 44 percent among Millennials, and even more disturbingly, 23 percent of this group agreed that Joseph Stalin is a “hero.” Socialized medicine, i.e., Medicare for all, is the hottest issue on the Left (unless you count hating Trump as an “issue”).
In short, Democrats are who we thought they were. They’re just losing their inhibitions about it. As the woke-youth site Vox puts it, “Maybe Democrats should stop being afraid of the left” because “Ocasio-Cortez’s victory is a big sign that Democrats can run on socialist ideas and win.” Talk of revolution flows naturally. After Justice Kennedy announced his retirement, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews said, “I tell you, the Democratic base is wired now for a revolt.”
It’s become a cliché to compare Washington politics to Wag the Dog (1997) or Idiocracy (2006), perhaps the two most-cited political movies of this era. A forgotten political film from the 1990s, though, deserves more attention for its prescience: Warren Beatty’s Bulworth, which appeared in theaters 20 years ago this spring. (Spoilers follow. The movie is streaming on the Starz pay-TV service.)
After a full term of President Clinton’s triangulating leadership, Beatty was fed up with the state of the Democratic party. The California senator he portrayed, Jay Bulworth, was a typical cautious, house-trained, corporate-owned Democrat of the era who decided to abandon all restraint and not only say what he thought, but say so in rap. Yes, in case you were wondering, this is the movie in which Warren Beatty puts on shades and a beanie and goes full Eminem, to roars of approbation. It’s meant to be a comedy.
The premise of the story seemed ludicrous at the time: Clinton’s ventures to the left in 1993–94 had proved a debacle that turned control of Congress over to the Republican party for the first time since the 1952 elections. Chastened, he not only abandoned pushing for progressivism but began talking like a moderate Republican. The notion that the cure for what ailed the Democrats was to go hard left seemed suicidal. Indeed, for Bulworth, it was suicidal; in the movie, having lost all hope, he hires a hitman (who turns out to be Halle Berry) to assassinate him so that his daughter can collect the insurance payoff. But when he speaks his mind he is surprised by the strength of the response he gets from voters.
When he changes his mind about wanting to die, he gets murdered anyway, not by his designated assassin but by the health-insurance goon squad. (Beatty’s martyr complex is the through-line of his career: His character is also mowed down by malign forces at the end of Bonnie and Clyde, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Parallax View, Heaven Can Wait, Reds, and Bugsy.) In the meantime, while expecting to get killed at any moment, he is liberated to speak the truth as he sees it. And his truth is that blacks are suffering unimaginably, that institutions such as public education are broken, that health insurers and corporations are corrupt, and that America needs a single-payer health system.
Facing a period of reflection following humiliating rejection by the voters, the Democrats’ reaction is: We lost because we were too much like our opponents.
This week proves that Beatty had something dead right about the soul of the Democratic party after Clinton. Facing a period of reflection following humiliating rejection by the voters, their reaction is: We lost because we were too much like our opponents. We must fight the urge to be moderate, temperate, and civil. We must stop mincing words and go full Bulworth. At a peak moment in the movie, Bulworth raps the words, “Socialism! Socialism!”
After the 2016 wipeout that put the Republican party in the best position it has enjoyed since the period following the election of 1928, the Democrats have made no effort to moderate their stances to appeal to swing voters. Instead the party derides the voters who rejected it and turns more and more to its base; it speaks only to and for the engaged and fired-up primary voter it thinks represents a typical American. But that base not only thinks Bill Clinton was too moderate, it thinks Barack Obama blew it by being accommodating instead of angry with Republicans.
Obama himself wanted to “go Bulworth” and referred to the movie when, according to David Axelrod, he told staffers, “Maybe I should go out there and just let it rip.” When he did so, it manifested in his ceasing to pretend he was against gay marriage, according to Axelrod, and in being openly hostile to Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu.
Bernie Sanders’s wacky candidacy essentially meant going full Bulworth. And now the Democrats who seek to lead the party want to be like him. Socialism! Socialism! We’ll be hearing that cry more and more.