A number of Democratic lawmakers appear to be ganging up on Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, accusing her of undermining unity in her own party. But underneath their lectures about being a team player lies a deeper concern: that she might have the power to remold the party in her own image.
In a much-talked-about Politico article published on Friday, close to a dozen Democratic members of Congress and staffers criticized the Bronx-born freshman for her brash political style. It was a remarkable report—Ocasio-Cortez has barely been in Congress two weeks, and several of her colleagues were willing to express blunt rebukes of her, many of them on the record. “She needs to decide: Does she want to be an effective legislator or just continue being a Twitter star?” said one Democratic lawmaker.
Outwardly, the common theme of the criticisms was that Ocasio-Cortez is too adversarial toward people who her are on her own side and that “the real enemy” is the GOP. It’s a point that liberals often make: The Democratic caucus needs to be disciplined and tightly coordinated to combat Donald Trump and the Republicans.
But when considered more closely, unity isn’t exactly what they were after.
Ocasio-Cortez isn’t a normal freshman. She toppled a Wall Street-backed ten-term incumbent who was the fourth-most powerful Democrat in House leadership, and did it with virtually no money or political experience. A democratic socialist, she quickly revealed a preternatural ability to discuss left-wing ideas as if they were mere common sense, earning praise from scholars as Reaganesque in her ability to communicate. Telegenic and media savvy, she goes viral without a hint of effort, and is pioneering novel forms of political engagement like the Instagram town hall. And as a young Puerto Rican woman, she has become the iconic face of a rapidly diversifying Democratic caucus that’s beginning to look more like the constituencies it represents.
While Ocasio-Cortez’s critics say she only represents one district and nothing more, her ability to bend the news cycle to her will day after day, to generate weird, obsessive criticism from right-wing media, and to electrify the left nationwide suggests that her message is resonating far more widely.
This is all to say that party unity doesn’t simply mean that Ocasio-Cortez must work with the Democratic Party establishment—it also means that the party establishment must also find a way to work with her. She seemed aware of this power dynamic when she tweeted in response to the Politico article: “To quote Alan Moore: 'None of you understand. I’m not locked up in here with YOU. You’re locked up in here with ME.’”
After Bernie Sanders’s surprisingly successful run in the 2016 Democratic primaries, the Democratic Party incorporated many of his policy positions into its official platform and he was assigned a Senate Democratic leadership position, despite the fact that he’s technically an independent. Ocasio-Cortez is not yet deserving of such treatment, but the point is that the establishment was aware that it had a responsibility to acknowledge new political currents and a role to play in bridging divides.
The Politico article, though, revealed a party uneasy with the socialist wunderkind and uninterested in carving out a space for her. Quote after quote demanded that she fall in line with business as usual. Taken together, they don’t amount to a bid to incorporate a new star player into the team—instead, her colleagues are telling her to sit on the bench. In other words, this is more about defending the party’s institutional and ideological status quo than it is about unity.
But a move to sideline Ocasio-Cortez is a mistake—she has shown that she picks her battles carefully. So far she’s been a team player when it has mattered, and her dissent from the caucus is pushing the party in a direction that’s badly needed.
By far the most important test of party unity so far has been support for Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House. In the run-up to official vote, it was largely centrist rebels, not Ocasio-Cortez and her fellow left-wing freshmen, who made a (failed) effort to defeat Pelosi. When Ocasio-Cortez joined a green activist sit-in at Pelosi’s office in November, Ocasio-Cortez struck a cordial tone and played the role of friendly gadfly: “We need to tell her that we’ve got her back in showing and pursuing the most progressive energy agenda that this country has ever seen,” she told the activists. She also has said that she’s no longer interested in backing challengers to incumbent Democrats (at least for the time being).
Ocasio-Cortez’s defections and provocations have been sensible. She’s pushed aggressively for a select committee on climate change with full investigative powers and criticized leadership for watering it down. The campaign is part of a broader push to popularize a Green New Deal, a policy that not only may be necessary to save the planet but also has strong bipartisan support in some polls of voters.
She also defected from a Democratic vote on new House rules including PAYGO restrictions, which require that Democrats offset any spending that increases the deficit with a equal amount of cuts. That was also a reasonable move: PAYGO is shoddy economics and it’s self-sabotaging strategy for the Democrats, who both need more freedom to propose ambitious spending programs and look foolish holding themselves to standards that Republicans won’t.
Finally, Ocasio-Cortez has been willing to mainstream ideas that most Democrats are afraid to touch out of fear of looking radical but actually have widespread public support. When she proposed a 70 percent marginal tax rate, the media class gasped. But by historical standards it’s actually a moderate proposal that garners support from voters across the political spectrum.
Ocasio-Cortez is not a reckless bomb-thrower. Instead, she’s choosing to fight strategically and champion proposals that the Democrats have long been too timid to back despite their virtue and their political plausibility.
The catastrophe of the 2016 election showed that the Democratic Party needed to evolve. They should be celebrating the fact that change seems to be emerging in the shape of someone so compelling.
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