Explaining Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

For Nueva Sociedad, I wrote about the victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Since it was for an international audience, I tried to place her in the context of broader social movements in the United States. Obviously it’s in Spanish at the link, but I’ll post the English original here.

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In 2014, an obscure economist named David Brat defeated Eric Cantor in a Republican primary, when Cantor was the Republican Majority Leader in the U.S. House of Representatives. The political upset of one of the Republican Party’s most powerful figures was a signal of the depth of popular anger and mobilization on the far right of U.S. politics. On June 26, 2018, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, running openly as a socialist, defeated high-ranking Democrat Joseph Crowley. Party leadership has been dismissive; the highest-ranking Democrat in the House, Nancy Pelosi, said that the victory “is not to be viewed as something that stands for anything else.” Others have attributed the upset to Ocasio-Cortez’s youth (she is 28, Crowley is 56), or “demographics” (the district in question is part of New York City, and is 18% white and almost 50% Latinx). But Ocasio-Cortez’s victory is not a demographic accident: it is significant because of what it says about the evolving relationship of social movements in the United States to electoral politics. Brat’s victory reflected mobilization on the right; Ocasio-Cortez is a sign of the mobilization of an avowed socialist left in the United States, organizing not only against the Trump presidency and the Republican party that supports him but also determined to transform the Democratic party in the process.

The last decade has been a fertile one for social movements in the United States. Perhaps the most successful of all came from the right: the so-called “Tea Party,” which directed its anger against the Obama administration beginning in the weeks after it took office in 2009. In the middle of the plummeting economy at the beginning of the financial crisis, which had begun a few months before Obama was elected, the “Tea Party” ostensibly objected to the substantial government spending that it was going to take to respond to the crisis. It called this normal Keynesian stimulus “socialism,” and drew on the libertarian language of Ayn Rand to separate people into deserving, hard-working “winners” and undeserving, dependent “losers.” Angry “Tea Partiers” descended on town hall meetings, demanding more extreme positions from their elected officials. But their economic conservatism, calling for lower taxes and small government, intersected with traditional white, Christian American identity politics. Racist signs proliferated at anti-Obama rallies; surveys of Tea Partiers found that they rated blacks and Latinos as less intelligent and hardworking than whites. They were fearful of Muslims, distrusted the mainstream media, and favored drastic solutions to curtail immigration from Mexico and Central America. All of these themes were picked up by Donald Trump as he ran for president in 2016. In the years before Trump, the Tea Party had succeeded in moving the Republican party even further to the right, encouraging a policy of near-total non-cooperation with the Obama administration, and pushing U.S. democratic institutions to the brink of failure. Brat’s victory over Cantor in 2014 changed little in the legislature; it was significant because it showed that the far right held the whip hand in the Republican party.

It seemed odd to many observers in the early years of the financial crisis that the major social movement response to a significant crisis of capitalism emerged in the U.S. on the right. But Obama’s electoral campaign had had aspects of a social movement: people volunteered massively for it across the country, making phone calls, knocking on doors, and making sophisticated use of the internet to identify and mobilize potential voters. The campaign built up a huge list of donors and volunteers, but almost immediately demobilized them after Obama’s election. The volunteers that worked to support his candidacy and set a new course after the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush numbered in the millions, but Obama, inheriting an enormous crisis, seemed to have few plans to use them effectively in office.

In the next years of the Obama presidency, social movements on the left did emerge outside of the Democratic party, shaping public discourse and debate. Occupy Wall Street grew out of anarchist sectors; its encampments started in 2011 and spread throughout the world. Even as Occupy camps were cleared away, their protests helped move income and wealth inequality to the center of public debate; they were major issues during the 2012 presidential election, which saw Obama re-elected. In 2013, Black Lives Matter grew in response to police killings of African Americans: it placed ongoing structural racism, and the highest-in-the-world levels of mass incarceration that exist in the United States, in the public view. Elsewhere, some municipalities, facing skyrocketing costs of housing, faced popular pressure to pass living wage ordinances. In combination, these movements, working from the bottom-up, give the left a robust, orienting agenda.

Then came Bernie Sanders. Sanders, the independent socialist Senator from the small northern state of Vermont, announced that he would challenge Hillary Clinton for the nomination of the Democratic party in 2015. His announcement was made on a nearly empty lawn, and most judged it a purely quixotic undertaking. Clinton was such an inevitable nominee that no one expected him to have a chance. But he captured and mobilized an extraordinary level of support, ending with more than 13 million votes in the primary, and finishing as the best-liked politician in the country. He put attention on inequality and supported the universal provision of public goods like health care and education. He called himself a “democrat socialist,” helping to destigmatize the term in the United States. Many of his younger supporters have grown up in a post-Cold War environment, and associate socialism more with the Scandinavia than the former Soviet Union. “The American People will take Socialism,” wrote Upton Sinclair in 1951, “but they won’t take the label.” That may no longer be the case: multiple surveys have shown that young “millennials” in the U.S. view socialism positively, while older generations view it with hostility (even though, through public pensions like Social Security, older Americans enjoy far more state support for their standard of living).

When the unthinkable occurred and Trump defeated Clinton in the general election (despite receiving three million fewer votes) it heightened a pervasive sense of democratic crisis. Republicans, though the minority party in numerical terms, had leveraged electoral rules dating back to slavery and various mechanisms to suppress voting and normal government functioning to control all branches of government. The establishment wing of the Democratic party was supposed to be at least good enough to defeat someone as obviously unfit as Donald Trump, and that they did not set off an extraordinary chain of recriminations. Many Americans surveying the post-2016 election landscape decided that they had a responsibility to deepen their political involvement. The day after Trump’s inauguration the Women’s March brought millions into the streets, in the largest single-day protest in U.S. history. Anti-Trump groups sprung up almost immediately; “Indivisible” was created by former Democratic congressional staff and focused on peaceful resistance to the Trump. Sanders veterans formed “Our Revolution,” which has local chapters all around the country that work to support Sanders-like progressive candidates.

Numerically much smaller than these two, but representing a more explicitly socialist posture, are the Democratic Socialists of America. DSA is a moderate socialist organization; it was formed in the 1970s via the union of a “New Left” group with anti-Communist social democrats. Until his death in 1989, the principal spokesman for DSA was Michael Harrington, who preached the virtues of a “left wing of the possible,” working both inside and outside of the Democratic Party. It was not sectarian, but its membership remained small. DSA had 6500 members in 2014, and very little appreciable political power. In the months after Trump’s victory, its membership surged to over 25,000; as of July 2018, it stands at more than 43,000, with more than 220 local chapters in all 50 states. Subscriptions to magazines with explicitly socialist projects have experienced similar increases. Though dues-paying members of DSA remain small in a country of more than 300 million, the increases show that more and more people are engaging in politics in the United States via an explicitly socialist identity.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is among those. She traces her decision to run for Congress not just to Trump’s victory, but to her time spent at Standing Rock, South Dakota, where, in 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe tried to block construction of an oil pipeline through their land. She had a compelling personal story: her mother is from Puerto Rico, she grew up in a modest home in the Bronx. She attended Boston university, where she interned in the immigration office of Senator Ted Kennedy, the youngest brother of the assassinated president.  Her father, an architect, died in 2008, leaving her and her mother struggling to keep the family home. When she decided to enter politics, she was working as a waitress, and she has written eloquentlyabout the role her Catholic faith has in grounding her demands for social justice.

Her platform echoes Sanders in many respects, and takes on board the issues demanded by other left social movements. She called for universal public healthcare (which had been DSA’s main advocacy issue since the 1990s) as well as tuition-free public universities. She also defends a federal jobs guarantee, criminal justice reform, and supports the left’s demand to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which Trump has turned into a deportation force. She speaks about the urgency of action to combat climate change: her grandfather, in Puerto Rico, was killed by Hurricane Maria in 2017.

Since her election, there has been much discussion of the meaning of socialism. It became the most searched term in online dictionaries the day after her victory. (DSA, meanwhile, whose web page ranks high in searches for the term, signed up another thousand members.) Some liberals, and some Marxists, insist that her program is merely some form of liberalism, given that it doesn’t advocate for government ownership of the means of production. But whatever one calls it, this cluster of ideas has become defined as “democratic socialism” in contemporary American politics. And it is no longer a simply an ethical position to be defended by essayists; it is now a genuine political identity. “I believe that every American should have stable, dignified housing; health care; education – that the most very basic needs to sustain modern life should be guaranteed in a moral society,” Ocasio-Cortez said in an interview before her primary victory. “When I knock on a door and tell people that’s the world that I’m fighting for, it’s a no-brainer…I was expecting it to be a bigger deal than it was, and people don’t even bat an eye.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in the November election is basically assured; only 20% of her district’s residents voted for Trump in 2016. That will make her the youngest representative ever in the House of Representatives, as well as the first DSA member. [UPDATE: it has been pointed out to me that Ron Dellums was also a member of Congress and a member of DSA, so that last sentence is incorrect. Apologies for the error!] (DSA is a political organization, not a party, so Ocasio-Cortez is both a Democrat and a member of DSA.) She is a gifted communicator, with strong political skills, and should have a long career as an advocate for democratic socialist ideas and values. She handles media appearances with ease and grace, and will have a greater role in public conversation than her one vote in Congress would suggest.

Like Brat’s victory in 2014, Ocasio-Cortez’s success is significant because it shows that power is shifting within a party, and that anyone is potentially vulnerable. Congressional Democrats, feeling pressure from below, are increasingly supporting parts of the left’s agenda, as are candidates positioning themselves for presidential runs in 2020. They are doing so not only because they are won over by force of argument. Politicians seek to be elected; in the U.S. system, which has no public financing for elections, that usually means donations from the wealthy and corporations to pay staffers and for advertising. The alternative is to offer an attractive program for substantial changes to the country, generating small donations via the Internet and enthusiastic support from volunteers. That was the Sanders model, and it was the Ocasio-Cortez model. Her campaign was outspent by Crowley by a factor of 10. Ocasio-Cortez won through hard work; after her victory, she tweeted a picture of her walking shoes, the soles worn through from going door-to-door. But it wasn’t just her work: it was also the work of canvassers associated with DSA, Our Revolution, and other socialist and socialist-adjacent organizations. This model works especially well in primaries, where turnout is small and enthusiasm is central to victory. This mobilization has the potential to pull the Democratic party away from its wealthy donors and towards its volunteers, making a new kind of politics possible within it.

Ocasio-Cortez is not the only example: DSA does not always endorse candidates, but those it has supported have won a majority of their races. And victories such as this one will force even establishment Democrats to adopt more progressive positions, to try to capture popular enthusiasm and defuse threats from the left. Establishment Democrats will have to explain why Ocasio-Cortez has a plan to combat climate change, for example, when they do not. Centrist Democrats will no longer be the left pole of public debate. Hillary Clinton, and the Democratic party in general, could not assemble a governing majority with a campaign message that focused on the awfulness of Trump rather than on a positive vision for the future. The left has stepped into that void, and is now in the process of trying to force the Democrats, by fear and shame, to offer an alternative. The Democrats were left shattered by Trump’s victory; the left has not been. They offer a long-term vision for making the United States a more just, more equal, and more responsible country. While multiple groups proliferate with somewhat different strategies and priorities (even within DSA, which imposes no ideological tests and contains multiple currents), there is broad agreement for the time being to work constructively on common goals. And the left’s potential strength now lies in that it is not channeled on behalf of a particular candidate or party, but on a set of goals and values. What this will all mean for politics and policy, of course, remains to be seen. The Democrats still contain more centrist voters than ones who identify with the left. But for now, while each day seems to bring a fresh horror from the Trump administration, my local DSA in Madison, Wisconsin ended its largest-ever meeting by singing out the name of Ocasio-Cortez to the tune of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” Then the work began again. Someone has to know how to fight.

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