In searching for an explanation for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s remarkable victory, liberal pundits seem to have settled on the argument that Ocasio-Cortez won because there is a generational and demographic shift occurring in the Democratic Party.
Yet, this argument obscures the role of class politics. It is a deliberate way for Democrats to embrace the success of her campaign and how she and similar candidates are energizing voters while maintaining a distance from the democratic socialist positions on issues that enabled her to prevail.
Ocasio-Cortez, who is a 28-year-old Latina working class activist from the Bronx, defeated 10-term congressman, Representative Joe Crowley, in the primary on June 26. She is also a Democratic Socialists of America member and organizer for Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.
On MSNBC, Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez reacted to her victory. “At the end of 2018, when you see remarkable results for Democrats across the country, the role of women leading the charge is going to be a big part of the story of 2018.”
Dana Milbank, a columnist for the Washington Post, suggested Ocasio-Cortez did Democrats a favor. “The ouster of Crowley, who, fairly or not, had the aura of an old-time party boss and a conventional pol, gives the Democrats a vital chance to own the emerging electorate of young, female, nonwhite, and progressive voters.”
Bakari Sellers, a former surrogate for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, wrote a column for CNN, where he argued this was a result of Democratic primary voters wanting representation that looks like them.
“Ocasio-Cortez was able to paint Crowley as out of step, ideologically, and also demographically out of touch with the average voter in her district. Crowley’s failure to debate her made clear his disconnect,” Sellers contended.
A New York Times editorial board column with the headline, “Make Way For Young Democratic Leaders,” celebrated Ocasio-Cortez’s win. It chastised House minority leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, as well as party whip, Rep. Steny Hoyer, and Rep. Jim Clyburn, assistant leader, for clinging to power “at the expense of future leaders.” It added, “At this point, the [Democratic] caucus leadership has gone from stale to downright ossified.”
But much of the commentary from liberal pundits took great pains to convince people that Ocasio-Cortez does not represent a left-wing or ideological shift among the base of the party.
Milbank asserted, “My colleagues in the media are shoehorning Crowley’s defeat into the narrative that Bernie Sanders-like insurgents are toppling a Democratic establishment. It isn’t so, because the argument that there is a Democratic establishment resisting the progressive tide is a straw man.”
He maintained Crowley lost not because he was too moderate, since he supported Medicare for All. Rather, the changing demographics in his district contributed to his defeat. “Non-ideological” issues used against him, such as “moving his family to Washington and taking special-interest money,” had an impact.
“The Center for Responsive Politics tells me that in 85 percent of Democratic House primaries this year, 252 of 296, the winner was the candidate who raised the most money; of the 44 exceptions, 31 were women — suggesting the reason is gender, not ideology,” Milbank added.
Sellers offered a similar argument. “Ocasio-Cortez is a Democratic socialist, but her victory does not signal a move among Democrats toward that ideology. It does, however, send a clear message that there is a generational, demographic, and tonal shift underway among the primary electorate.”
Referring to Democrats who scolded Representative Maxine Waters for encouraging Democratic voters to protest Trump officials if they see them in public, Sellers added, “At a time when Democrats are marching for our lives and fighting family separations at the border, our party leadership appears to be more concerned about chiding young voters on their table manners.”
Sellers is correct that “chiding” voters is tone deaf, but in taking Democrats to task, Sellers and Milbank do so in a way that allows them to avoid reckoning with their opposition to Sanders and the rise of democratic socialist candidates.
Back in August, Milbank wrote, “Here come the Bernie Bros and sisters to the Republicans’ rescue: They’re sowing division in the Democratic Party and attempting to enact a purge of the ideologically impure — just the sort of thing that made the Republican Party the ungovernable mess it is today.”
Sellers loathed the fact that Sanders said, “The business model, if you like, of the Democratic Party for the last 15 years or so has been a failure,” which he treated as a cheap attack on the first black president of the United States without engaging with the substance of the statement.
Both pundits are invested in the idea that Sanders and his supporters are not the future of the Democratic Party. They deny the extent to which there is a deep division among Democratic voters over taking stronger positions on issues that impact poor and working class Americans. They try to paper over this divide by appealing to the fetishization of identity among Democrats. To them, Ocasio-Cortez is a sign of the “growing prominence of women, minorities, and young voters,” not a sign that socialist politics holds greater influence among the base.
This is how Pelosi handled the defeat of Crowley. She told reporters the party was “particularly excited that so many women are running across the country,” while insisting it was unique to the “progressive district” in New York where she won. “It is not to be viewed as something that stands for anything else.”
Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union” and said Ocasio-Cortez did not represent the future of the Democratic Party. “You can’t win the White House without the Midwest, and I don’t think you can go too far to the left and still win the Midwest.”
Ocasio-Cortez responded, “With respect to the Senator, strong, clear advocacy for working class Americans isn’t just for the Bronx.” Sanders won Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, Wisconsin. Clinton lost several of these states. “What’s the plan to prevent a repeat?”
She also pushed back against what Pelosi said. “There are a lot of really exciting races with extremely similar dynamics as mine. It’s not just one district.”
Some of the candidates Ocasio-Cortez has promoted include two black women: Cori Bush, who is running for Congress in Missouri’s 1st District, and Ayanna Pressley, who is running for Congress in Massachusetts’ 7th District.
Pressley is running against incumbent Rep. Mike Capuano, who is a 66 year-old white man, and yet, former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and the Congressional Black Caucus endorsed Capuano over her. Rep. Maxine Waters and Rep. John Lewis support Capuano.
These are black Democrats, who are part of the establishment which chose Clinton and party loyalty, over Sanders and his grassroots uprising. Once again, they do not want to take a chance on Pressley, who has made raising the minimum wage to $15, ensuring corporations pay their fair share in taxes, enacting Medicare For All, and abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) a key part of her campaign.
Bush is a Justice Democrat, who embraces various policy ideas that are promoted by democratic socialists. She is running against black incumbent Rep. William Lacy Clay. Establishment Democrats are not going to abandon him for Bush because of her activist politics.
Candidates like Bush, Ocasio-Cortez, and Pressley also challenge the game. They resent the manner in which corporate interests corrupt representatives in Congress.
“When corporations are your main donors and have been for many years, you have a particular loyalty because of that. You may not even realize that’s what’s happened. But you lose the voices of the people who are actually voting you in,” Bush declared.
During the 2016 presidential election, when Sanders made Clinton’s Goldman Sachs speeches an issue of corruption, Clinton and her supporters acted as if this was misogyny, like these same critics would not have protested Obama’s coziness with big banks. However, the fact is there is a movement of activists running for office who don’t accept things the way they are, who are willing to go where the party establishment tells them not to go, and who see disruption of business as usual as what is necessary to defeat Trump.
These candidates are not driven by ideology as much as they are driven by issues and goals, and yet, these issues and goals tell voters as much about them as the party establishment’s aversion and opposition does. It signals the Democratic Party would rather maintain the status quo that voters increasingly detest and avoid a politics that embraces social, economic, and racial justice, making their wealthy donors uneasy. They are not ready to be a true opposition party, even if that jeopardizes winning the Senate and/or House of Representatives in November.
If insurgent candidates prevail against incumbents, they will do gymnastics to convince voters this does not show voters want Democrats to do more to support working people and address the excesses of capitalism. They will take refuge in a bankrupt identity politics that can co-opt the energy voters and deny the success of a growing movement to challenge the power of corporations and the top one percent in Washington, D.C.