LettersThe Left

Two Hearty Cheers for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

The congressional primary win is a bright spot for democrats amongst the slew of recent political losses

This morning as I drank my coffee I watched Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on TV, listened to her speak, and read with pleasure the numerous reports of her primary victory over incumbent and party boss Joe Crowley in New York City’s 14th Congressional District. I was exultant. And I am exultant still.

So much that has happened politically recently has been awful, outrageous, and depressing.

Ocasio-Cortez’s victory offers great hope. She is extraordinary: her intelligence, her youthfulness, her energy, her bearing. Her principled courage, as a young woman of color and an ordinary working person, to run her insurgent campaign, to mobilize her supporters, and to win. Everyone ought to read Kate Aronoff’s terrific recent interview with her in In These Times. Ocasio-Cortez is 28 years old! I defy anyone to show me a single Congressperson of any age who speaks with such intelligence, political savvy, and passion.

I applaud Ocasio-Cortez’s victory for two reasons.

The first is that it is a victory for democracy, by invigorating the Democratic party, which needs invigoration if it is to compete effectively for office and to be a party that does some good in addressing the manifold problems we face; and by demonstrating the importance of energetic, savvy grass-roots campaigning more generally. Ocasio-Cortez ran a vigorous grass roots campaign, with the support of community organizations and local DSA chapters. She made effective use of social media, producing a brilliant campaign video entitled “The Courage to Change” that circulated widely on YouTube. She challenged a complacent incumbent with courage and integrity. And she won. As MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki described on air, her victory is nothing less than a “seismic upset.”

The New York Times said it well in its just-published editorial:

“Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory is also a reminder of the importance of boosting healthy competition in Democratic primaries, where voters are too often taken for granted, especially in solidly blue states like New York, leading to lethargic turnout and weaker candidates. And many newly motivated women and other activists around the country are challenging Republican incumbents whom others thought were unbeatable. What remains to be seen, though, is whether Democratic leaders can embrace these newcomers or will see them as a threat. That may determine whether they are able to take back the House of Representatives in November.Many voters are ready for something different. Politicians across the country should take note.”

The second reason I applaud the Ocasio-Cortez victory is that it is a victory for the democratic left. As the Times reports:

“She ran as a woman, as a young person, as a working-class champion, as an unabashed liberal and as a person of color. She piled up endorsements from national progressive groups in recent weeks . . . “What I see is that the Democratic Party takes working class communities for granted, they take people of color for granted and they just assume that we’re going to turn out no matter how bland or half-stepping these proposals are,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said in a recent interview about why she was running. A member of the Democratic Socialists of America, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez gathered endorsements from liberal groups like MoveOn, Democracy for America and People for Bernie. The news site The Intercept had urged her on, publishing a drumbeat of negative stories about Mr. Crowley, and glowing stories about her, in the campaign’s closing weeks.”

And as Rolling Stone puts it, “Ocasio-Cortez represents in many ways the new face of progressive politics growing in strength on the left flank of the Democratic Party. She is a young woman of color whose campaign platform included Medicare for All, abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a universal jobs guarantee, protection for Dreamers and a ‘clean campaign finance’ system. You couldn’t have written a more liberal platform if Bernie Sanders – for whom Ocasio-Cortez worked as an organizer in 2016 – had written it himself. Late Tuesday night, Sanders said in a statement: ‘She took on the entire local Democratic establishment in her district and won a very strong victory. She demonstrated once again what progressive grassroots politics can do.’”

Over two years ago, in February 2016, I published two pieces in support of the Bernie Sanders campaign, one providing an explanatory defense of Sanders’ self-identified “democratic socialism,” and a second offering skeptical support for his “political revolution.” I stand by these pieces, and I have published nothing in the past two years that contradicts them. Ever since the election of Donald Trump, I have focused my attention on the danger that Trumpism poses to liberal democracy (my Public Seminar book, #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One, is available for free download here), and I have argued for the importance of “Putting Liberal Democracy First,” the title of my recent Dissent essay. In this essay I explicitly criticize friends and colleagues to my left, such as Joseph Schwartz and Bhaskar Sunkara, who have argued that “Social Democracy Is Good. But Not Good Enough,” and that only a more robust democratic socialism is worthy of support. But the criticism is sympathetic, and it centers more on questions of pragmatics than on the value of many of the policies that Schwartz and Sunkara support. This is why when my friends the editors of Dissent proposed that I entitled my piece “Why I am No Longer a Socialist,” I refused (for some strange reason, those words still appear as the subtitle of the piece in the URL link; I wish it were otherwise, but apparently the link is already established). Because that was not my point. I surely am not any longer the kind of socialist that I was 20 or 30 years ago. But my point was not to distance myself from Schwartz (a friend) and Sunkara (who I don’t know), but to enact the kind of serious dialogue on the democratic left that I consider imperative. This was also the point of my recent Democracy Journal piece, “Truce Time,” and my recent Public Seminar column “There Can Be No Democratic Left Without an Energetic Left: Thoughts on Disagreement”: that it is petty, counterproductive, and wrong for liberals and left liberals to disparage those to their left whose intellectual and political efforts represent important contributions to the broader effort, on the broad “democratic left,” to oppose Trumpism and to advance the projects of democratic equality and social justice.

I cheer for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez because her victorious primary campaign embodies the best of democratic politics and the best of the democratic left.

When I first learned of her victory, last night, I immediately posted this comment on Facebook:

“This is excellent.

No incumbent owns their seat.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is impressive, and she stands for good things, and even if there were 50 others like her in the House, they would still be outnumbered and overpowered by the Republican right. We need real representation of the democratic left.

IF the Democratic party is to flip the House and really reinvigorate itself, then its leadership must welcome this kind of political competition and embrace its results.

In other states, other kinds of Democrats will be on the ballot. If more mainstream Democrats want Our Revolution activists to support them and their candidates when they win primaries, then they need to do the same in those places where Our Revolution or DSA candidates win primaries.

THIS KIND OF AGONISTIC AND RESPECTFUL CONTENTION AMONG DEMOCRATS IS ESSENTIAL IF THE DEMOCRATS ARE TO BE ABLE TO WORK TOGETHER TO DEFEAT TRUMPISM AND MOVE FORWARD A NEW POLITICS.”

An hour later I noted that MSNBC reported that Joe Crowley congratulated Ocasio-Cortez on her victory and strongly endorsed her. And indeed, he did this, and indeed dedicated a rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” to her.

In response, a dear friend (and true intellectual interlocutor) posted this: “Love the outcome; not at all interested in Crowley’s game, since he’s been holding back progress for years, but glad he’s politically competent enough to proffer the requisite endorsement at the right time.” Now, this is a perfectly reasonable, legitimate, and fair reaction from someone on the left who strongly identifies with the kind of insurgent campaign that Ocasio-Cortez ran and that strongly opposes the kind of establishment centrism with which Crowley has long been associated. The idea that Crowley has “been holding back progress for years” was indeed central to Ocasio-Cortez’s entire campaign, and her victory is a sign that this message resonated with a majority of the voters of her district (and surely resonates with millions of people who voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primaries). There is nothing “wrong” with this response. It is intelligent, it is honest, and it is indeed rather civil (I say this without jumping on the recent “civility” bandwagon, which I find foolish and worse).

At the same time, I think it is mistaken, at least a bit, and I am writing now in the hope that I can persuade some of those inclined to respond in this way to think again, and perhaps adopt a slightly less derisive stance.

Here’s why: because “Crowley’s game” is the game of Democratic electoral politics, and while he has played this game very differently than Ocasio-Cortez, and while his way of playing has now led him to political defeat, his game is the same game as hers. She is terrific, inspiring, charismatic. But she is no angel (and we can be certain that once in office she will at least sometimes disappoint). He is none of these things. But he is no demon or maggot. (I deliberately draw here on Adam Michnik’s classic “Maggots and Angels,” from his Letters from Prison and Other Essays, which is nicely discussed here by Joshua Cherniss.) Indeed, Crowley has been an important voice for centrist liberalism in the Democratic party and in the House of Representatives. He has also been a strong critic of Trump and of Trumpism. He was a conservative voice within the Democratic party establishment — which is not conservative relative to the Republican party establishment! He had corporate ties, took corporate cash — things that are true of a great many Democrats — he was an arrogant campaigner, and so he lost. Good. But he also represents important tendencies within the Democratic party, the party that Ocasio-Cortez intends to work in, and he also represents what many voters, even in his NYC district, like.

There is much real excitement about Ocasio-Cortez, and I share it. But some perspective is in order. She won the primary by a substantial margin — 57.48% to 42.52%. But she won this margin with 15,897 votes out of a mere 27,658 votes cast. Crowley won 11,761 votes. Those four thousand votes matter, a lot. At the same time, they are only four thousand votes. In one Congressional District. In New York City. In a primary. Ocasio-Cortez will almost certainly win the general election in November. I hope she does, and I intend to donate to her campaign. But while her primary victory is truly heartening, and while it might signify broader openings for a revived left, her victory is merely one victory in one primary in the most liberal city in the U.S. It is important for everyone, and especially those on the democratic left — liberals, left liberals, self-described democratic socialists—to avoid excessive enthusiasm.

For the political situation remains bleak.

Yesterday the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the right of “crisis pregnancy centers” to deny clients information about the possibility of exercising their reproductive freedom by seeking a safe abortion. More ominously, it ruled in favor of Trump’s Muslim ban, giving a big boost to his Presidency. Today the Court ruled against public sector unions, and the union movement more generally, in the Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Case, which the Huffington Post described, rightly, as a “devastating ruling against labor unions.” The Court is proving itself to much more strongly conservative with the addition of Trump-appointee Neil Gorsuch. More generally, Trump is making great headway in his effort, loudly promoted during his campaign, to remake the federal judiciary along far-right lines.

These Court victories buoy the Trump Presidency. Meanwhile the mass immigrant detentions, and the mass neo-fascist rallies promoting and drawing fuel from them, and the trade wars and the attacks on the press continue. A supine Republican party still controls both houses of Congress. Trump can well win reelection in 2020.

It is possible that there will be a “Blue Wave” in November. But this is much more likely to happen if we all work very hard to make it happen. And this is why it is important both that Ocasio-Crowley won and that Crowley so quickly and so graciously endorsed her. Because if the Democratic party is to flip the House and really reinvigorate itself, then its leadership must welcome this kind of political competition and embrace its results. This means strongly supporting Ocasio-Cortez in New York’s 14thCongressional District. But in other states, with very different demographics, other kinds of Democrats will be on the ballot. If more mainstream Democrats want Our Revolution activists to support them and their candidates when they win primaries, then they need to do the same in those places where Our Revolution or DSA candidates win primaries. But the reverse is also true: if Our Revolution activists and DSA militants want the mainstream Democratic party to support their candidates, then they must be willing to work to support, and to vote for, more mainstream Democrats in those places where the primary victor is more likely to be a Doug Jones or a Conor Lamb than an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

This kind of agonistic respect among Democrats is essential if the Democrats are to be able to work together to defeat Trumpism and to move forward a new politics.

In the days before the primary, Raina Lipschitz, in a fine piece in the Nation, wrote: “Though they nominally belong to the same party, Ocasio-Cortez represents an ascendant enthusiasm for economic justice that has helped make Senator Bernie Sanders the most popular politician in America. Crowley represents a status quo that seems to believe America’s already pretty great, except for that one guy, Donald Trump. The primary will double as a referendum on the Democratic Party’s future: Will voters, and the party, stand for fighting Trump or fixing America?” Again, I get it. And I too embrace the Ocasio-Cortez insurgency. But Lipschitz is wrong. The choice between fighting Trump or fixing America is a false choice. For it is necessary to do both. Only by fighting Trump — a clear and present danger to liberal democracy and to the hard-won gains of social citizenship — can we begin to fix America. It is imperative to fight Trump and Trumpism, on moral and civic and economic grounds. But it is of course not sufficient to fight Trump, because Trump is not all that is wrong with U.S. politics, but also because a fixation on Trump can only aid Trump.

I believe that Ocasio-Cortez understands this. She ran a grass-roots campaign focusing on what she called “economic, racial, and civic dignity.” She did not focus on Trump. But neither did she ignore the danger posed by Trump and the importance of effectively opposing and defeating him. And this is why her visit to the border, days before the primary, is as exemplary as is her vigorous campaigning for economic justice for her constituents. In a terrific recent Vogue interview, she commented on the resistance to Trumpism:

“One of the biggest dangers of this administration is the erosion of norms, which is pretty typical for authoritarian regimes. This is one of the problems when it comes to immigration. My opponent has literally called ICE “fascist”, yet he refuses to take the stance of abolishing it, which, to me, is morally incomprehensible. Words mean something, and the moment you have identified something as fascist, that with it carries a moral responsibility to abolish it. That’s what I’m talking about when we say that norms have been eroded: that we literally have elected officials arguing to basically retain fascist agencies. And that’s on the left. When I talk about the abolishment of ICE, it is not a fringe position. [ICE] was established in 2003 in a suite of legislation that almost everybody recognizes as a mistake. People recognize the Patriot Act as a mistake. They regret voting for the AUMF [Authorization to Use Military Force], they regret the Iraq War, and DHS [the Department of Homeland Security], and ICE were right in there with all of that legislation. Our campaign has been really effective in refining and providing a very clear moral and economic voice for what must and should be done. And it’s very unapologetic.”

I personally regard her position on ICE to be compelling (see here and here and especially here). Others on the democratic left, especially among more mainstream Democrats, are likely to be more skeptical about “abolition.” The best way to end the abuses and injustices of ICE and of the broader system of immigration enforcement and detention can be debated—though it will never be debated so long as the Republicans control Congress. At the same time, what should not be debated is this: Trumpism is a danger to human rights democratic citizenship, and right now the most serious injustices of Trumpism are occurring on the country’s southern border. It is important to identify and to criticize the authoritarian and neo-fascist character of Trumpism. And it is important not simply to talk the talk but to walk it. Words mean something, and the moment you have identified something as neo-fascist or aspirationally fascist or even merely (merely?) authoritarian, you assume an ethical responsibility to oppose it.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is wise beyond her years. It is a good thing that her political star is rising, and it will be better still when she is elected, along with a wide range of other Democrats running to retake the House. It is important that we work to make this happen, not as an end, but as a means of continuing to advance the values of democratic equality and social justice.

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Jeffrey C. Isaac

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