by Keaton Weiss
From the moment I saw the first video ad of her long-shot primary challenge for New York’s 14th Congressional District in 2018, I knew that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was the real deal. She’s proven me right ever since.
Mere days after being elected, AOC made her dynamic anti-establishment presence felt on Capitol Hill by joining Sunrise Movement activists in their march on Nancy Pelosi’s office to demand urgent action on climate change. In the summer of 2019, she found herself at odds with party leadership over her direct and correct description of the border detention centers as concentration camps. In September, she turned up the heat on Pelosi once again by insisting that the Democrats’ refusal to impeach President Trump over his “lawbreaking behavior” was a bigger scandal than Trump’s actions themselves (I happen not to agree with that last one, but the point remains that she’s been willing to repeatedly throw down with the party bosses.)
In October of 2019, she not only endorsed Bernie Sanders, but, given the timing of her endorsement, with Bernie stalling in the polls and having just suffered a heart attack, she almost single-handedly resurrected his campaign. Bernie’s 2016 bid had inspired her to run for Congress in the first place as a populist left firebrand, and so, not surprisingly, she came through for Bernie’s movement when we needed her most. She’s since stumped for Bernie in multiple states, most critically having filled in for him in Iowa when Bernie himself was stuck in D.C. for the impeachment trial, and has also appeared on various television programs as a surrogate for the campaign.
Given progressives’ affinity for AOC, it’s no surprise that Monday morning’s Politico story entitled “AOC Breaks with Bernie on How to Lead the Left” sparked our concern. The thrust of the article is that Ocasio-Cortez has softened on the Democratic establishment in recent months, and has begun to favor a strategy of working within the system to achieve her policy goals over Bernie’s movement-based revolutionary approach. The piece cites AOC’s reluctance to endorse many of Justice Democrats’ slate of primary challengers to incumbent Democrats in 2020, replacing her “outspoken radical” staff members with more conventional political operatives, scrapping plans for creating a “corporate-free” caucus, and, as the article puts it, “chid[ing] Sanders supporters for online harassment.”
Many progressives, including Cenk Uygur and Graham Elwood, were quick to tweet out their negative reactions to the article. Krystal Ball expressed similar disappointment on her YouTube show. Also disconcerting is that AOC’s new tactics earned praise from repugnant hacks like Neera Tanden and James Carville, as outlined in the article itself, and, worst of all, a shoutout from the ghastly anonymous tweeter, the Hoarse Whisperer, who, to make matters worse, trashed fellow squad members Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib in the very same tweet which complimented AOC’s strategic shift.
I’m certainly not going to pretend any of this is encouraging. It isn’t. AOC should endorse Cori Bush, for example, who is attempting, for a second time, to oust incumbent Democrat Lacy Clay in Missouri’s 1st Congressional District. She endorsed her last time, when both of them started the cycle as underdog primary challengers, and she should do so again. Thus far she hasn’t. I’m not at all excited to learn that activists like Saikat Chakrabarti and Corbin Trent have been swapped out for Kamala Harris and John Hickenlooper alums like Ariel Eckblad and Lauren Hitt. I’m also more than a little bummed that she’s not going to start a corporate-free caucus. As understandably miffed as we might be to hear this news, progressives must keep things in perspective, lest we alienate a vital ally like AOC from our movement. And yes, she still is very much an ally.
Assessing AOC’s new, more conciliatory strategy, requires us to balance two ideas in our minds at once: that AOC can, and must, be a hugely important partner in the struggle for transformative change, but that she cannot and will not, at least in the short term, be its leader in the same way that Bernie was these past five years.
To the first point, it’s absurd to suggest that AOC has sold out, or abandoned the grassroots, or turned her back on progressives, or given in to the corrupt Democratic machine. Her endorsement revitalized Bernie’s campaign just at the moment when the party’s establishment goons were breathing a collective sigh of relief that it was all but over. She has aggressively and effectively advocated for a broad set of policy positions that are anathema to party leadership. She’s outwardly stated, as recently as January of this year, that she and Joe Biden don’t really belong in the same political party. Hell, she was such a thorn in the Democrats’ side that she feared they would use the 2020 Census and the consequent redistricting as an opportunity to eliminate her Congressional District altogether! (She also did not, as the article claims, “chide” Bernie’s online supporters. That claim was in reference to her appearance on The View in which she responded to the “Bernie Bro” smear as sheepishly as the Bernie campaign itself. So you can’t really fault her for that.)
But to the second point, we must understand that AOC and Bernie are very different political figures. AOC is a young woman at the beginning of her career who entered politics as an insurgent candidate within the Democratic Party. Bernie Sanders, by contrast, is 78 years old, nearing the end of his tenure after having spent a lifetime in politics as a true outsider – as an independent. As such, Bernie was never burdened by the imperative to get along with the other members of his club, because Bernie was never in a club. Bernie was never part of any progressive “wing” of a political party, because Bernie never joined a party. Hillary Clinton wasn’t all wrong when she said that “nobody likes” Bernie, and that “nobody wants to work with him.” In the context of Washington, D.C., she’s probably more or less right. This isn’t to say he hasn’t accomplished things, but Bernie himself even said in his Queens rally when AOC officially endorsed him, “I have cast some lonely votes, fought some lonely fights, [and] mounted some lonely campaigns.” His career as a disliked, unwelcome, lone warrior for justice is precisely what made him uniquely well-positioned to lead this populist progressive movement as far as he has. When the time came to challenge the country’s most powerful political machine in 2016 for the Democratic nomination, Bernie was the only one to step up, because he was the only one with nothing to lose. He didn’t have to fear retaliation from the Democratic Party brass, because he’s, as we’ve all heard a million times by now, not a Democrat.
AOC is in a fundamentally different position. Whereas Bernie spent the entirety of his long career circumventing the Democratic Party apparatus, AOC, at 28 years old, has infiltrated it. And so now that she’s got her foot in the door, from her position, it makes sense to try and do as much good as she can from where she is, which is, for better or worse, in the belly of the beast. And while I certainly plan to support her efforts over the years to do as much good as possible from the inside, I also know that the progressive movement must look outside the Democratic Party for leadership in this moment.
The Politico piece mentions that many Bernie supporters are upset with AOC now, but are afraid to say so publicly since they see her as the “likely heir to his movement.” This is misguided, because there is no heir to Bernie’s movement. There can’t be, since there’s no one person poised to carry the torch at this time. We, collectively, as an independent grassroots movement with no responsibilities or obligations to the Democratic Party machine, must be our own leaders for now. And in time, if we can build a viable and robust progressive power structure that’s serious enough to the point where representatives like AOC feel they can join us and retain their influence, perhaps they will. Until then, it would be unreasonable to expect progressive Democrats to declare total war on their party, because we haven’t yet done the work of assuring them they’ll have a place to go when the war is over, should they be forced out. Remember, Democrats were considering erasing AOC’s seat entirely. Given that possibility, can we blame her for playing ball with them a little bit?
Until we build our own power from the grassroots on up, no we can’t. And so that’s our task. The good news is there are wonderful people and organizations at work right now doing just that. The Movement for a People’s Party is preparing their first convention for Milwaukee this July. Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant is a high profile third party success story who seems eager to expand the project. The aforementioned Sunrise Movement is working to primary two powerful incumbent Democrats, Richard Neal and Eliot Engel. Local Berniecrats has hundreds of excellent progressive primary challengers on the ballot this year. These are our leaders now. They’re independent activists and organizations, just like us. If we all take the reins together, there’s a good chance that the more sincere progressive Democrats will follow our lead. But it’s up to us to make that happen. AOC is no sellout, but she’s no savior either. Only the grassroots can lead the progressive movement from here.