The Not So Curious Case of Ocasio-Cortez
Go, go women!
Until you threaten the democratic establishment that is.
When Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) was asked about the astounding drubbing that 28 year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez handed to a 30-plus year veteran of New York democratic politics (Joseph Crowley), her response was not entirely without a condescending note of dismissive self-defense.
Duckworth was offered the opportunity to laud Ocasio-Cortez’ accomplishment on CNN, and even to speculate on the young Bronx native’s newly wide-open future. A democratic power player like Duckworth should have taken that softball and knocked it out of the park. After all, Ocasio-Cortez could still benefit from some national DNC support ahead of the midterms. And Duckworth could still market her blue collar credentials as she saw fit. Instead, however, she chose to isolate Ocasio-Cortez’ victory within the confines of New York’s 14th congressional district, insisting that the young primary winner could not replicate her results outside of “the Bronx, where she is.”
“I think that 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,” she added.
Well, surely Nancy Pelosi, who was about to be succeeded in her leadership role by an old white dude, would have some kinder words for New York’s newest hero.
“They made a choice in one district,” Pelosi said. “So let’s not get yourself carried away as an expert on demographics.” And later: “It is not to be viewed as something that stands for anything else.” Pelosi also chose to trap the up-and-comer within the boundaries of the eastern Bronx and parts of Queens.
Damn. #NastyWoman? #Resist?
I’m beginning to suspect these may just be useful corporate-esque slogans. While they sound great at rallies, I wonder if Pelosi calls herself a “nasty woman” in her fundraising phone calls to top donors, including Amazon, AFLAC, and Salesforce.com.
An entirely fair rebuttal to such “not-so-useful-for-the-average-worker” donations is that the candidate with the greatest amount of money indeed wins most often. And in a post-Citizens United society, the biggest bucks come from Delta Airlines, Inc., — not those of us who fly coach. Sure, a Bernie Sanders or some other iconic figure can come along and soar fairly near the sun with small-scale donations from actual people, but emulating that model for every race across the country? That’s no easy feat.
Congratulations to Pelosi for her fundraising smarts.
I’m being entirely serious.
And why call out Pelosi, but not Chuck Schumer or even America’s most admired man 10 years running — President Barack Obama? Fantastic questions. I absolutely agree with them. Ask away! Hold power accountable, regardless of gender! Plutocracy is plutocracy regardless of chromosomes.
My problem is that Pelosi and Duckworth should have had Ocasio-Cortez’ back. And not just because she’s a woman.
But because she’s clearly on to something.
Fortunately the popular Bronx native is more of a fighter than nearly anyone in the democratic party these days.
First, the passionate primary winner responded to Duckworth, tweeting, “with respect to the Senator, strong, clear advocacy for working class Americans isn’t just for the Bronx.”
Next, she pointed out that Bernie Sanders (whose campaign she worked for in 2016, and whose platform she largely replicates) performed exceptionally well in Duckworth’s midwest, as well as the rustbelt, scoring wins in Michigan, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Indiana in the primaries. Hillary Clinton would ultimately lose some of those states in the general election.
She also refused to accept Pelosi’s “carried away” claim, telling CNN that she thinks “we’re in the middle of a movement in this country” and adding that “there are a lot of really exciting races with extremely similar dynamics as mine” across the country.
She’s not wrong. Multiple polls revealed that Trump tapped into a raging populist desire for anti-establishment change. However, the morally and literally bankrupt businessman did so by pointing the fingers of blame at minorities, and by scapegoating any disenfranchised folks who weren’t white. It’s also clear he conned and duped the most economically vulnerable, something many New Yorkers know he has been doing for decades. (Check out Trump: An American Dream on Netflix. Trump and some in his closest circle will tell you just as much in their own words!)
Bernie Sanders himself set grassroots fundraising records on an authentic populist message. He never pretended to be his own spokesman as Trump repeatedly did, and he did indeed regularly fly coach. Trump hijacked Sanders’ message and glossed it in fool’s gold, before highlighting it in ugly shades of misogyny and racism.
But Ocasio-Cortez recognized two other important points that some of her elder DNC sisters missed: Young people are increasingly cognizant of the diminishing returns on their labor and education, and they refuse to buy into a democratic party that supposedly exists on a spectrum from centrist to leftist.
To be fair, it’s not that Pelosi or Duckworth or Schumer or Clinton don’t notice the skyrocketing costs of living and dwindling job prospects for millennials. It’s that their 40-plus year experiment of neoliberalism is a primary part of the problem — and that they don’t personally feel the dire squeeze.
Millennials and those a few years younger have grown up during the largest wealth gap in American history. They have had a front-row seat to stagnant wages and soaring college costs since they were donning Ninja Turtle and CareBear PJs. And if the costs of tuition seem expensive, young people are outright baffled by how they will buy homes, raise children, and free themselves from massive, interest-drenched debt.
Pelosi has dubbed calls for her to share the leadership reins “ageist,” and has all but stamped her feet and held her body firmly against the door of incoming ideas and leaders. Clearly every generation will always have a role to play in a democracy, and no one is calling for the minority leader to become a political recluse. But it is time she share or even somewhat cede the stage with the people who are truly hurting.
People who feel a loss of control over both their present and future.
People who grew up during the failed era of corporate compromises and neoliberalism.
Inequality rises regardless of the party in power. Obama and Bill Clinton both presided over economic recovery, but they also presided over the same upward transfer of wealth to the top 1% that republican presidents presided over. (On this matter, I highly recommend Inequality for All, a documentary by former President Bill Clinton’s own labor secretary, Robert Reich.)
Ocasio-Cortez and others like her realize this and refuse to acknowledge the practicality of a liberal spectrum that runs from Blue Dog to Bleeding-Heart.
Instead, they embrace a New Deal approach, one that the democratic party championed for more than three decades after the Great Depression. New Deal-style economics are fundamentally at odds with neoliberalism, as the latter will always be fettered by the interests of privatization. To insist that Ocasio-Cortez and others are merely leftist democrats ignores the fact that these two types of democrats are inherently contradictory. One navigates a lobbying labyrinth of everything from pharmaceuticals to prisons (depending on the particular politician), while the other sees such lobbying and its resulting privatization of necessary public services as corrosive — even destructive — to a healthy democracy.
No one should be surprised by the overwhelming support for the “girl from the Bronx.” She is the living, breathing embodiment of every young person who balanced low-wage jobs and high-tuition college. She looked at the dismal economic realities surrounding her and those around her and opted to gain control over the narrative — even if she must “humbly” begin only between the lines of New York’s 14th.
The surprise isn’t that Ocasio-Cortez is on her way to an expected seat in the U.S. House.
The surprise is that it took this long.