Thomas Reston on Emerging Power Struggles in the Democratic Party

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the newly elected representative from New York, is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib are the first two members of the group in Congress. She advocates for a progressive platform that includes Medicare For All, a federal jobs guarantee, guaranteed family leave, establishing a Green New Deal, abolishing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, free public college and trade school, infrastructure projects for renewable energy, and a 70 percent marginal tax rate for incomes above $10 million.

Simone Gao: Some newly elected democratic house representatives, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, believes in socialism. So do you think the Democratic Party is moving far left? Is this helping or hurting the Democrats?

Thomas Reston: I think it’s true that the Democratic Party in the last several years has slowly been moving further left than it had been for most of the last generation. I think that the Democratic Party, essentially since the 1950s, has been dominated by a centrist group of politicians who are very interested in the details of policies and the details of legislation. And they have exercised a very heavy dominance over my political party. In the last two or three years, there have arisen new centers in the Democratic Party to challenge the domination of this traditional group. And Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez is one of them on the left who has said, look, the national political debate in the United States for too long has remained stuck in a situation where the rich and powerful in this country have been getting most of the benefits out of the system, and large segments of the American people have been left behind. And we have to turn our attention now to trying to redress this balance. I think she is a very gifted politician. And I think she is changing the debate. There are other people, more conservative than the centrists, who are also rising in the Democratic Party now to say wait a minute, we’ve got very conservative instincts which we think also need to be served by the Democratic Party. So I think there’s a real debate that is now emerging inside the Democratic Party for the first time in a generation, and she is part of that debate. I don’t think that it is a foregone conclusion that my party is going to move farther to the left. What’s going to happen is we’re going to have an honest debate inside the party about who we are and what we should be saying about our country moving forward.

Simone Gao: Do you think the far-left elements of your party speaks to the soul of your party?

Thomas Reston: Yes, I do. I think that the essence of the mission of the Democratic Party in American history and today is the fight for the outsider. Be it an outsider of religion or an outsider because of economic status or an outsider because of geography or because of race or for whatever reason that many Democrats see our politics as a fight between insiders and outsiders. And I think what you’re seeing now is a renewal of determination inside the Democratic Party to once again serve the interests of all kinds of outsiders. And I think that’s a healthy debate for the party to have.

Simone Gao: And you welcome the far-left elements of your party?

Thomas Reston: I welcome the debate. I am not afraid of the debate at all. I think this is a great time to be a Democrat in this country because of these emerging power struggles. And I’m very interested to see how they’re going to turn out. And I think the party has been too long just kind of keeping on keeping on. And I think they need to address these fundamental issues of fairness in America.

Narration: On February 5, President Trump pledged in his State of the Union that America will never become a socialist country.

Donald Trump: Here in the United States, we are alarmed by the new calls to adopt socialism in our country. America was founded on liberty and independence, and not government coercion, domination, and control. We are born free and we will stay free.

Audience: USA! USA! USA!

Donald Trump: Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.

Audience: USA! USA! USA!

Simone Gao: The president said we would never become a socialist country. Do you agree with the president that we should never become a socialist country?

Thomas Reston: Yes. My understanding of what socialism is, is state control of the economy and state control of business. And I don’t—I reject that notion. I have always been for capitalism and free enterprise. I think 99.99 percent of people in this country would reject that premise as well. I regard the president’s raising it in his State of the Union address as a kind of a cheap political trick because there is no one in this country who wants to do away with the free enterprise system. But I do think that—these labels aside—I do think the country could use a good debate about fairness and the economy. I think there is a difference between fairness for all people in our economy in the United States versus this kind of crazy idea of doing away with the free enterprise system.

Simone Gao: So you do not think we are on track to become a socialist country.

Thomas Reston: No, I don’t. I think that’s ridiculous.

Simone Gao: Welfare state is not a warm-up for a socialist country?

Thomas Reston: No, I don’t think so. I think that’s also a very crude, simplistic description of what is going on. We’ve had a welfare—we’ve had welfare and state support of those who are in deep trouble in this country ever since the 1930s. That’s 75 years ago. It has—we’ve had that system in place, an even more robust system in the 1950s and ‘60s than we have now of state support for welfare, which coincided with the gray period of economic expansion for free enterprise in this country. I don’t think that because you take care of people who are out of work, because the community expresses its determination to not allow people to step off the last rung of the ladder and fall into an abyss where they can’t support themselves or can’t find enough to eat, I think that is a proper thing for the American community to do. And I think it has nothing to do with restricting people’s freedom to own their own businesses whatsoever.