Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez isn’t the first self-described socialist elected to the House.

tags: Congress, political history, socialism

Mr. Greenberg is a professor of history at Rutgers University and the author, most recently, of “Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.”

‘Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?” asked the German sociologist Werner Sombart in a famous 1906 essay. He wanted to figure out why European countries had developed influential left-wing political movements but the U.S. hadn’t. His answer: The relative affluence of American workers blunted revolutionary impulses. “On the shoals of roast beef and apple pie,” he wrote, “socialist utopias are sent to their doom.”

But Werner Sombart never met Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib. These incoming Democratic members of Congress also claim membership in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), an organization founded in 1982. “It’s a part of what I am,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said about her socialism on “Meet the Press.” Indeed, since Senator Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential bid, many Democrats have been embracing ideas that, though not explicitly socialist, are decidedly left-wing—like free public college for all and single-payer health care.

Because the socialist label has been fairly toxic in American politics, left-wing politicians have usually shunned it—but not always. In fact, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and Ms. Tlaib aren’t the first socialists to make it to Congress. A handful of predecessors got there in the last century, and their performance suggests that while socialists on Capitol Hill never proved to be the vanguard of a new politics, they did manage to serve as a prod to reform.

The first socialist elected to Congress, in 1911, was Victor L. Berger of Wisconsin, a German-born Jew who had founded the Socialist Party of America along with the labor leader and perennial presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs. Berger was a reformist who believed in “step at a time” socialism, which to some radicals made him a sellout. A few measures he advocated were classically socialist, like the nationalization of the radio airwaves; other radical ideas included abolishing the presidential veto and the Senate. But none of these proposals got very far. On the other hand, he touted some causes that were eventually adopted and became popular—notably, old-age pensions, which in 1935 became law with the passage of Franklin Roosevelt’s Social Security Act.

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