Politics & Policy

A Socialist Predecessor of Ocasio-Cortez in Congress

Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.) participates in a House Oversight Committee hearing, July 15, 2019. (Erin Scott/Reuters)
Before Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, there was Vito Marcantonio. What can America’s last socialist congressman teach us about its new ones?

She’s been in office for less than a year, but the career path of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — elected to Congress from New York City, self-identified as a socialist, rapid rise in the political scene, shifts debate leftward, polarizes voters and politicians either for or against — could also be a thumbnail sketch of the career of Vito Marcantonio, a socialist who represented East Harlem in Congress for seven terms from 1935 to 1937 and 1939 to 1951.

Like Ocasio-Cortez, Marcantonio divided members of Congress, leading a small coterie of far-leftists while personifying the enemy to conservatives and moderates. The path of his career can help us understand what may come for Ocasio-Cortez, and for those who oppose her.

Marcantonio was a socialist. He was not a member of the Socialist Party of America, but his affiliation with the ideology of the far left was never a secret. Initially, Marcantonio was a progressive Republican and the protégé of another left-leaning member of the GOP, Fiorello LaGuardia. The two were both sons of Italian immigrants and were both concerned with the needs of New York’s large and diverse population of immigrants and first-generation Americans, particularly those in East Harlem, where they lived.

In the mid-1920s, LaGuardia, then a member of the House of Representatives, and Marcantonio, recently graduated from NYU Law School, both split from the GOP to follow Wisconsin senator Robert LaFollette into a new organization, the Progressive party. This was the second party with that name, and separate from Theodore Roosevelt’s splinter group a dozen years earlier, but its aims were similar: advancing positions that the major parties found too radical, including nationalization of railways and utilities.

Elected to Congress as a Republican in a three-way race in 1922, LaGuardia was reelected on the Socialist-party line in 1924, though he still claimed to be a Progressive. Marcantonio was his campaign manager. (Much of the party-label confusion in this article is explained by New York’s ballot-access laws, which allow candidates to run on multiple party lines.) By 1926, LaGuardia and Marcantonio were back in the Republican fold after the Progressive party had collapsed, but the new label did not mean a change in their principles.

LaGuardia lost his seat to a Democrat, James Lanzetta, who rode Franklin Roosevelt’s coattails to victory in 1932. But this was just a temporary setback. LaGuardia was elected mayor of New York the following year, and in 1934 Marcantonio ran as a Republican for the East Harlem seat. He was elected, owing in part to the votes he received from the City Fusion party, a group of independents dedicated to political reforms, including proportional representation for municipal elections — another old idea that has found new currency on the left in the 21st century. His 655 votes from the Fusionist line were barely enough to give Marcantonio a 255-vote majority over the Democrat. They also symbolized his independence from the whims of any one party — again, a stance that Ocasio-Cortez would recognize.

Marcantonio’s Republican affiliation probably cost him reelection in 1936, despite winning the endorsement of the All People’s Party, a new socialist group in the city. By the next election, in 1938, he was no longer a Republican and had joined the new American Labor Party. Like several that had come before it, the ALP sought to establish a viable third party made up of union laborers from across the country, similar to Britain’s Labour Party.

The new group attracted the votes of other left-wing parties, though it was nominally anti-Communist. They knew they would seldom have a majority on their own and instead mainly sought to endorse labor-friendly candidates from other parties. Marcantonio was the exception. As a member of the ALP, he ran for election to his old seat and won, thanks to the endorsement of the Republican party — the major party in this case backing the minor-party candidate in hopes of weakening the Democrats.

Marcantonio antagonized conservatives right away. In those days historic loyalties mattered more than ideology in determining party membership, so the divides within parties were far greater. Socialists such as Marcantonio might work together with Republicans and Democrats from neighboring districts in New York while fighting the political efforts of both parties’ members from other regions.

But even progressive Democrats of Franklin Roosevelt’s party came under attack from Marcantonio. In 1935 he criticized the Social Security Act as inadequate, calling instead for a social-welfare benefit that would be government-funded but administered by labor unions. In Ocasio-Cortez and her “Squad” we can see echoes of this intransigence. While many Democrats today have goals that Marcantonio would appreciate, they tend to take a more prudent approach, gradually ratcheting up state control so most people scarcely notice it.

Ocasio-Cortez, like Marcantonio, has no time for half-measures and is, at least, honest about her plans to remake society. Yet in calling for more immediate radical changes, she and the Squad end up alienating their colleagues and shifting all the legislative power to the incrementalists. LaGuardia understood this: He remained progressive, but not to the extent that his voters were repelled by his views. Here is where, if she were so inclined, Ocasio-Cortez could learn from the past and refine her tactic. (She won’t.)

Marcantonio remained popular in his East Harlem district. In 1942, he ran in the primaries for the nominations of the Republican, Democratic, and American Labor parties, and he won all three. Cross-nomination was nothing new, but it was a departure for a candidate opposed by so many in the major parties’ hierarchies to force those parties to nominate him. He repeated the feat two years later, but in 1947 the state legislature passed a law barring candidates from running in the primaries of parties of which they were not members unless they received permission from that party directly. They called it the Wilson-Pakula Act, but it was generally known as the “Anti-Marcantonio Law.”

He won anyway in 1948, running only on the ALP line. In 1950, however, with socialists rapidly falling into disfavor, the other parties beat Marcantonio at his own game. The Democrats, the Republicans, and the new Liberal party all agreed to endorse the same candidate, James Donovan, who took 57 percent of the vote. Marcantonio never held office again, and he died in 1954 at the age of 51. No candidate affiliated with a socialist or labor party has been elected to Congress since, though Bernie Sanders has managed the feat as an independent multiple times since 1991.

Popular as Marcantonio was with his own constituents, many Americans outside of Harlem were disturbed by a socialist in Congress. That became useful to conservative challengers of left-leaning House members. Saying that a progressive was in league with Stalin is hard to prove and may come off as unhinged, but when a member voted for bills that Marcantonio supported, he created a factual database of far-left decision-making that was tailor-made for campaign ads. What better way to show that your opponents were out of touch with mainstream America than to show that they voted with America’s most extreme congressman on a regular basis?

Richard Nixon made perhaps the best use of this tactic in his 1950 Senate race. Nixon, then a representative from Southern California’s 12th district, ran against his Democratic House colleague, Helen Gahagan Douglas. Douglas was fairly left-leaning, and the point was easy for Nixon to drive home when his campaign simply noted all the times she voted with Marcantonio. The “Pink Sheet” they distributed (you can read the whole thing here) highlighted all the radical actions in what they called the “Douglas-Marcantonio Voting Record.”

There was nothing dishonest in that, any more than there is in modern campaign ads that tell us a certain candidate voted some percent of the time with another less popular figure. In fact, Nixon’s tactic was more accurate, since it ignored procedural votes and focused on substantive issues before Congress. They were many, as the Pink Sheet tells us: aid to Greece and Turkey to fight Soviet influence, the retention of the Selective Service Act after World War II, and most of all, Nixon’s own bill requiring the registration of Communist organizations. These were popular measures in California. Nixon showed how Douglas, in voting against them, had aligned herself with Marcantonio and against mainstream California voters.

The Pink Sheet worked, and it does not take too much imagination to see that a “Green Sheet” of Ocasio-Cortez–aligned votes would do the same today in many a marginal state or district. There have always been outliers on each side of the aisle — perhaps even more so when the parties have been united more by tribalism than ideology. But there are outliers and there are outliers. Marcantonio consistently (and often futilely) worked for the far-left causes that were dear to him, but it was conservatives who most loudly proclaimed his actions in their campaigns. Ocasio-Cortez’s massive and unrestrained social-media presence takes this a step further and does the Republicans’ work for them.

What is the lesson in all this? First, that socialism has always failed in America. Bolshevism flares up from time to time like wildfires in the West, but like those conflagrations, it burns itself out. These outbursts are a force of nature, the collective fervor of ardent young people who cannot or will not learn from the past. If Marcantonio and the ALP failed at the high tide of American socialism, what hope can Ocasio-Cortez have in this thoroughly capitalist age? America is a showcase of capitalism’s success; socialists rage in vain against it.

With that in mind, the second lesson is that there is a limit to a Congress member’s bully pulpit. Social media and the Internet are great levelers, and Ocasio-Cortez has a much easier time communicating directly with the people than Marcantonio did. But once she does so, the message works against her. Ideas within the mainstream — or even close to the mainstream — can resonate with the masses, but the strident radicalism of the Squad and their Green New Deal turns more people away than it attracts. That’s fine if Ocasio-Cortez wants only to raise her personal profile, but if she wants to maintain a big-tent Democratic majority, it is counterproductive.

Where, then, does she go from here? People have spoken of her as a candidate for higher office in a few years, running for Senate or even president. But, again, Marcantonio’s life can be read as a cautionary tale for Ocasio-Cortez. Flush with victory in 1948, Marcantonio ran for mayor of New York in 1949 on the ALP’s ballot line. He polled a dismal 13 percent of the vote. There was no appetite for a socialist mayor. Ocasio-Cortez faces a similar uphill climb once she realizes that the politics of the rest of New York state are not the same as those of the Bronx.

When dealing with a worn-out ideology such as socialism, both adherents and opponents have a lot to learn from history. Fortunately for defenders of liberal democracy, history shows us that fervent efforts from the far left to sound reasonable don’t make their platform any more acceptable to the average American.

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