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Who’s Afraid of Ocasio-Cortez?

The old Democratic Party refuses to see that we live in a time of emergency

It’s become clear that we live in hell, damned to act out the eternal return of re-litigating the 2016 Democratic primary. It is as reliable as the tides, as confounding as the enduring popularity of IPAs. Every shift in the Democratic Party’s fortunes rekindles the same questions. They appear as shorthand, sparkling with a few familiar proper nouns: Bernie, Comey, Russia, WikiLeaks, the New York Times, Stein, and perhaps, on an especially clear night of outrage, Sarandon. Each is guilty, and guilt absolves us, briefly freeing us from the accusatory cycle without finding any resolution.

In this constellation of blame, you can choose where to direct your ire, which surely makes it all the more appealing to the embattled liberal. But since the torments of November 2016, I’ve found it especially strange to heap blame on actor and semi-pro activist Susan Sarandon or Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein. I attended the Green Party convention, writing about it for The Baffler. At the time, I was operating under the same disastrous assumptions shared by many across the political spectrum: that Hillary Clinton would win, inaugurating a third and possibly fourth Obama-like term of inclusive corporatism at home and sotto voce militarism abroad. (Instead, that description may summarize the administration of Emmanuel Macron, another Obama endorsee.)

It’s perverse that a liberal political elite with so much self-regard would throw a shit-fit every time someone decides to run on a third-party ticket.

In this context, the Green Party convention—an exceedingly low-budget affair that barely occupied a whole floor of a University of Houston student center—was more a gathering of a few hundred ideologically homeless lefties than any concerted push for political power. While there were the trappings of a presidential nominating convention, the event was mostly a way to trot out ideas rarely discussed in Democratic circles—prison abolition, a Green New Deal, unilateral disarmament, ranked-choice voting, the then-mostly ignored concern of universal health care. It was also an opportunity for small-time politicos to scope around the margins of a political system that, though it celebrates itself as the height of democratic participation, offers no possibilities for anyone whose views don’t fit neatly into either silo of our two-party politics.

The stakes, in other words, were low. Yet somehow this bare-bones political operation has grown into the object of every Clintonite’s eternal scorn. It’s perverse that a liberal political elite with so much self-regard would throw a shit-fit every time someone decides to run on a third-party ticket. How can the margin for victory be so thin? It seems a great indictment of our system that so much must go right to elect a Democrat president; if a few thousand votes here and there can cause a fringe party to be press-ganged into the role of spoiler, then perhaps our democracy isn’t so sturdy after all. But the Democratic leadership would rather blame this tiny voting minority, just as they would rather fecklessly tack to the center, chasing mythical Republican swing votes, than work to expand an electorate already beleaguered by voter ID laws and the neglect of their representatives. Instead of asking why some people are so disillusioned that they would throw away their vote for a Massachusetts doctor who has never achieved political office—an act of political despair that reflects our nation’s dire socio-economic condition—they would rather resent the voters themselves.

This is why the buoyant victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who recently prevailed over Joseph Crowley in a primary election for New York’s 14th congressional district, represents an inflection point in Democratic politics. Ocasio-Cortez ran on a clearly articulated platform of leftist-derived policies like universal health care and the abolition of ICE, and she sought out populations—immigrants, Spanish speakers, the poor—who had been neglected for years by most politicians. (As Ocasio-Cortez pointed out in a campaign video, her opponent lived practically full-time in Virginia.) She seemingly incorporated every lesson in recent leftist politics—earning the support of grassroots organizations like DSA, adopting unabashedly left-wing positions that are both just and popular—while simultaneously defying the Democratic machine.

Depending on your perspective, Ocasio-Cortez is either an inspiring augur of the Democratic Party’s future or a dangerous tilt leftward. What’s dispiriting is how many people from the latter category seem to hold influential perches in the party itself and in the country’s op-ed pages. If the victory of a twenty-eight-year-old woman of color with a well-defined left-wing platform, no institutional support, and a deep appeal to her community over a senior Democratic politician makes you fret about the party’s future, then you have no idea what the Democratic Party needs to do to secure power.

If the victory of a twenty-eight-year-old woman of color with a left-wing platform over a senior Democratic politician makes you fret about the party’s future, then you have no idea what the Democratic Party needs to do to secure power.

Unfortunately the markers, in both policy and optics, of the incompetent old Democratic Party are everywhere to see. They include Democrats voting against financial reform, Nancy Pelosi proclaiming Dems the party of unreconstructed capitalists, Joe Biden counseling us to let Trumpists dine in peace, and every Beltway hack who praised Trump’s Syrian bombing campaigns as presidential. It can be heard in each call for a Mike Bloomberg-type centrist (or, god forbid, Bloomberg himself) to save us in 2020 and in the daily refusal to match Republican ruthlessness with anything rougher than pursed-lipped civility. It is Democratic leadership in the Senate promising a fair hearing for Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee.

The old Democratic Party is, in short, the refusal to see that we live in a time of emergency. It is the insistence on business as usual, trusting a leadership of octogenarian millionaires to mind the store. It is Obama’s faith that our institutions will endure, that this too shall pass, and that we can afford to wait that long. It means fearing the left more than the right—or more accurately, fearing the perception of being seen as too far left, in the foolish hope of fostering an era of bipartisanship that will never come. It is, after every setback and failure, looking for a cartoon villain on the fringe left, like Jill Stein, rather than blaming the bungled campaign of Hillary Clinton, much less the millions of mostly white Americans—our friends, family, and neighbors—who chose to vote, whether out of pique or enthusiasm, for Trump.

In the mind-numbing recent debate over civility and its place in democratic politics, too many have drawn equivalencies between Republicans’ bare-knuckle tactics—blocking Merrick Garland’s appointment to the Supreme Court, offering rhetorical cover for the jailing of migrant children—and leftists’ own use of protest, public shaming, and civil disobedience. The notion is that we don’t want to be like them, even if the two sides are nothing alike in their political goals. But some Democratic leaders, like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, do show a disturbing comity with their Republican counterparts. In their corrupt naivete, they proclaim that if both sides can just get along, compromises will flower across the political landscape—a dangerous proposition in an era where, rather than compromise, we need full-throated opposition. In pursuit of this grand bargain, they are willing to reject anyone who stands to their left or who violates some hazy set of norms. The Republicans, who now wield political power almost unmatched by any party over the last few decades, show no such tendency. There is much to despise about today’s GOP, but in their Machiavellian drive toward control of all three branches of government, they have heeded at least one useful lesson. They refuse to eat their own.