Skip to content

What Joan Didion Foretold About Campaign Socialism and Popularity

This is suspiciously like the argument often used by radical progressives after staking their claims in the moral high ground.

· 7 min read
What Joan Didion Foretold About Campaign Socialism and Popularity
“In the understandably general yearning for “change” in the governing of this country, we might pause to reflect on just what is being changed, and by whom, and for whom.”

-Joan Didion, Eye on the Prize, September, 1992

I read Joan Didion when I’m feeling less like a writer and more like a sloganeer, lobbing ill-conceived aphorisms at passing ideas like soft tomatoes. I’ve wondered what I’d say if I met her, though I’ve never sought opportunities to do so, which speaks more to my laziness than my desire to engage such a wonderful writer. I wouldn’t make much of a stalker; all that lurking about in bushes seems rather an itchy hobby, but I’d still like to buy her a cup of tea.

In a 2007 Jezebel article about Ms. Didion, Jessica Grose wrote, “She’s not messy or weepy or maternal or particularly sympathetic—which is to say, she is not stereotypically “feminine”— and so men can read her without feeling like pussies.” I read that article several years after becoming a fan of Didion’s work and wondered at the time if it might be true. I decided it just might be as I was then steeped in Cormac Mccarthy and Larry McMurtry, Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard.

Ms. Didion has never been touted as a soothsayer, but in reading some of her essays, it struck me that her thoughts on morality, feminism, and the inherent fragility of popular ideas, have an evergreen quality about them that are easily set against the mores of the newly sworn Beltway socialists.

Some are drawn to socialism as branded for campaigns, not solely because of the promise of a bigger share of public coffers but to be part of a movement, any movement, so long as it’s conspicuous. It doesn’t matter if the trend is wearing pink labi-attire at marches or pretending to enjoy a celery-juice enema, so long as the cool kids are on it. The notion; socialism as currently framed must be good because it flaps its butterfly wings across every news cycle.

The most prominent advocates of it, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Bernie Sanders, are so branded as Trump antagonists that the mainstream media will scuttle all reminders of history to flaunt this trifecta before the proletariat, creating a specter of popularity in a set of bad ideas that has begun to take form.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or “AOC,” is the media’s Palpatine to the franchise they loathe. I have no reason to think AOC is anything but a lovely person, but she is perceived to have more popularity than she actually has which leads to a bandwagon effect. The website of the Democratic Socialists of America¹ (DSA), has not been updated since the last election, but they claim only 24,000 members as of July, 2017. More have certainly joined in the interim, given AOC’s victory. I’ve seen estimates closer to the 50,0000 mark but that hardly warrants the level of enthusiasm proffered by the corporate media—no irony there.

Green New Deal Governance

Means of production is a threshold term in the U.S., one used in polite political discourse to shoo away the idea that someone may be a socialist—still a bad word in America—because the politico under discussion had not yet crossed said threshold by flatly stating the government should control the means of production and therefore, he or she is not yet to be accused of having Marxist aspirations. But the Green New Deal does in fact require that the government control the means in almost every case, including the segment that claims all buildings will be retrofitted in ten years.

This could not plausibly occur without the oversight of a massive, expensive government agency, taking years to staff and organize into its requisite bureaucracy. Were this project to be undertaken by the private sector, irrespective of funding sources, the bidding, pricing, contractual and planning processes would take years at a minimum to be compliant with the regulations of some other federal agency yet ordained. To accomplish just one goal, the GND government would necessarily control the means of the planning, procuring, hiring and execution of this piece of a puzzle that grows more peculiar with each new explanation of what was really meant in the original draft.

Left behind in the rhetoric of green deals and robber barons are the inconvenient truths of state power, the disappearance of dissidents, the gulags, the re-education camps, the low-wage toil, forced relocations, sterilizations, ostracized families, compelled compliance and most lovely—famine, all in the name of the greater good.

‘Socialism’: Why the Word Matters
Sanders has also popularized the notion of socialism within the American zeitgeist. ‘Socialism’ used to be a bad word, but it isn’t anymore.

Ms. Didion said in her review of “The Sound of Music,” that it was, “More embarrassing than most, if only because of its suggestion that history need not happen to people like Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. Just whistle a happy tune, and leave the Anschluss behind.” So too the quicksilver socialists leave the Cheka behind as they whistle collective-farm tunes in the Congressional sub-basements.

The first leader of the Cheka, Felix Dzerzhinsky, said in July 1918, “We stand for organized terror—this should be frankly admitted. Terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution. Our aim is to fight against the enemies of the Soviet Government and of the new order of life. We judge quickly.”² So does the Twitterati.

Two of the groups the Cheka was responsible for in its mission to squash enemies of the revolution were, those under suspicion of not supporting the Soviet government and anyone whose private property was valued at more than 10,000 rubles. This is suspiciously like the argument often used by radical progressives after staking their claims in the moral high ground. “If you don’t support us and our beliefs, you must not care about poor people or displaced refugees or the rest of haunted humanity.”

In time, your willful lack of support for their agenda becomes a subversive act. You become an enemy of the state. “You’re a caviar-eating Romanov and you shall turn over your private property to the righteous ladies in white. We, the enlightened ones, the “it girls” of state-run media, will decide how to spend our mone— oops, the people’s funds.”

The white outfits at the State of the Union address, which looked more like a 25th reunion of communicants than the vestigial tribute to suffragism it purported to be, symbolize the statist cabal of the political left, glorious in the ideal but difficult to wear year-round and a bitch to clean once the grit of reality works into the fibers.

These comers of statism are masters of the turn-away. They turn away from history’s revulsive truths, questions about anti-Semitism in their ranks or felonious sexual assaults from other democrats. They ignore sincere curiosity about their understanding of the drain their instruments will have on public troughs, about their plans for how when accepting their why should be good enough.

Mythos Awry

I know AOC because I was AOC. My father died at 41 and my widowed mother raised four young kids on a civil-service salary. We weren’t well off. I too bristled at the wealth of others or enjoyed the schadenfreude of watching an expensive car being dragged onto a flatbed. But as I came to understand the ingenious and careful ways wealth can be created, I outgrew my envy. AOC’s anger at billionaires is learned behavior. I can imagine her position on taxes softening as she enjoys the wealth and privilege universally bestowed upon our national representatives.

Marxism in this country has ever been an eccentric and quixotic passion. One oppressed class after another had seemed finally to miss the point. The have‐nots, it turned out, aspired mainly to having.

-Joan Didion, The Women’s Movement, New York Times, 1972

The same media elites who created candidate Trump with limitless free air time, in hopes he’d be the nominee Clinton would beat, are now giving tacit approval to socialist ideas by creating a popular political figure in the lithe anti-Trump form of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and her anti-individualist camarilla. The cognoscenti don’t seem to care that they are elevating bad ideas because they recognize what an abrasive figure Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is to the deplorable set. It’s a ship they’ll list now and hope to right later, assuming a wave doesn’t sink it.

The mythos of Bernie-Bro socialism is a story bereft of truth. Dropping the word gulag into the mix doesn’t begin to detail the recipe for human misery that state-run life is, if you could call it life at all. Marx said socialism is born of revolution, that there must be abundance first in order to have something to redistribute and he conceded that only a powerful state could keep suppressed those who might wish to entertain the idea of seeking their own (selfish) abundance. But as Solzhenitsyn reminded, “Talent is always conscious of its own abundance, and does not object to sharing.”

Joan Didion’s closing passage from her 1965 essay, On Morality, is apropos for the glitter of AOC’s preposterous plans and their dreamy popularity. Ms. Didion presaged this sluicing of socialist backwater on the parched landscape of democratic ideas:

Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble. And I suspect we are already there.


¹ DSA membership

² The Communist Secret Police: Cheka, Spartacus Educational

Latest Podcast

Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.


On Instagram @quillette