Anyone who thinks America’s populist moment has passed should think again. Donald Trump promised to make America great again. Half of the Democratic party now vows to make their country socialist for the first time. Much that is solid is melting into air. A few years ago, most Democrats were scared to call themselves liberal. Now they embrace socialism with abandon.
It may end in tears. A defeat to Mr Trump in 2020 would deliver an early grave to America’s socialist dawn. Until then, however, US voters are catching a glimpse of something rare — a genuine ideological debate. It would be rash to predict the outcome.
The chief exhibit is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal. By any measure, her bill is preposterously extravagant. On one estimate Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s proposed new entitlements and public works would cost $6.6tn a year, which is two-thirds larger again than America’s $4tn federal budget.
The fact that a 29-year-old former bartender has gone from zero to the ubiquitous abbreviation of AOC in a few months tells us something about America’s appetite for change
Nothing like it has been seen. Moreover, Ms Ocasio-Cortez seems to have little idea how she would pay for it. Some say the bill would be self-funding because it would stimulate the economy. Others are punting on cost-free debt. According to modern monetary theory, governments can simply create new money without causing inflation.
Few Democrats are yet concerned with such details. Having watched Mr Trump take office with his brand of magical thinking, they are following suit. It would be tempting to write it off as a lengthy suicide note. But that would underestimate America’s restlessness. Almost every Democratic presidential hopeful in the Senate — including Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand — supports Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s resolution. It has turned into a litmus test of a candidate’s credentials. There are three reasons to take it seriously.
The first is that the Green New Deal is already branded in the public’s mind. Just as Ms Ocasio-Cortez is known by her initials — AOC — her bill is already known by its shorthand, GND. Few politicians, or bills, make that distinction. Think of John F Kennedy (JFK) or Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). The fact that a 29-year-old former bartender has gone from zero to ubiquitous abbreviation in a few months tells us something about America’s appetite for change. She is now the most influential figure in US politics after Mr Trump.
Second, Ms Ocasio-Cortez’s resolution is a bold declaration of intent rather than a serious legislative proposal. Much as Mr Trump’s supporters were said to have taken him seriously but not literally, the same applies to the green deal. Those doing the accounting may be missing the point. Its aim is to shake up the US debate. By that measure it has already succeeded. The term “green” is no longer a lifestyle preference. It is a part of the economic calculus. Global warming and public investment are now linked in the popular mind.
Third, Americans seem to crave a choice. There was a time when US elections could be caricatured as Coca-Cola versus Pepsi — incrementalist Democrats versus free-market Republicans. For the time being, such timidity is over. Mr Trump’s example has bred imitation. The choice now looks more like vodka versus supergreen juice. When politics is framed this starkly, there are few places to hide.
Mr Trump sees green socialism as his chance of electoral salvation. Democrats want to take away your cars and your cows, he says. Moreover, they would force you to travel by train, which is the US equivalent of being sent to the gulags. If his instinct is right, Ms Ocasio-Cortez could become Mr Trump’s secret weapon. Forcing Democrats to vote on her bill is an opportunity Republicans will not pass up. A vote against it could damage a Democratic senator’s prospects with the party’s base. A vote in favour could make them unpalatable to a general electorate.
History suggests Republicans have the tactical advantage. But what went before is not necessarily a useful guide. The past told us Mr Trump had little chance of taking his party’s nomination. Experts made the error of taking him literally but not seriously. Today, a majority of American millennials describe themselves as socialist. In practice, they are thinking of Scandinavia rather than Venezuela. Persuading them to turn out in higher numbers is the holy grail of Democratic politics. If Ms Ocasio-Cortez does that, she will have changed the climate of US politics.
Follow Edward Luce on Twitter: @EdwardGLuce
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