On Wednesday, the New York Times published a story on Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, profiling the freshman representative and ostensibly reviewing her evolution after nine months in office. According to the headline, she's "learned to play by Washington's rules." But this isn't really about Ocasio-Cortez at all: it's a story about how the Democratic Party disciplines insurgent candidates. By focusing so narrowly on the New York congresswoman as an individual, the other factors that will shape how her time in office shakes out are obscured.
The tale the Times wants to tell is this: Ocasio-Cortez, who once embraced a "combative" and "divisive" style of politics in her dealings with the Democratic Party, has come to see the light of pragmatism and practicality. Following disputes with more senior politicians, like her rumored threat to support a primary challenge against fellow New Yorker and establishment darling Hakeem Jeffries or her repeated clashes with Nancy Pelosi over funding for border enforcement or support for the Green New Deal, the rookie congresswoman has been chastened.
"With her eyes now wide open to the downsides of her revolutionary reputation and social media fame," Congressional reporter Catie Edmondson writes, "Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has tempered her brash, institution-be-damned style with something different: a careful political calculus that adheres more closely to the unwritten rules of Washington she once disdained."
The piece seems designed to confirm every reader's prior assumptions and beliefs about how a politician like Ocasio-Cortez should behave. Moderates will celebrate her for learning how things are supposed to work—how to "get things done" and "play by the rules," as the discourse has it—while leftists will be exasperated (if not exactly surprised) that she’s "selling out." A smaller contingent might perceive her as playing a longer game, shoring up her position as a young leader and waiting for the political winds to shift in her favor.
It’s hard to know what’s in Ocasio-Cortez's heart of hearts—does she think maintaining a hard line against funding for border security was a mistake? Does she really want to reconcile with Speaker Pelosi?—but to a certain extent it doesn't matter. What the Times frames as "careful political calculus" and "protocol" is really code for being nicer to people who serve the interests of the wealthy and powerful; at bottom, this is story that shows precisely how an outsider candidate would succumb to the structural pressures of the party.
But the establishment isn't the only force exerting pressure in the Democratic Party, even if it is the strongest. The same progressives who helped Ocasio-Cortez defeat a powerful incumbent Democrat have begun targeting right-wing or moderate Democrats in primaries, and leftists have been working to elect officials at the state and local levels.
There is clearly a base for the kind of social democratic policies Ocasio-Cortez and politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Ilhan Omar, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib support. Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Tlaib, and Rep. Ayanna Pressley—the so-called "Squad"—are all strongest when they act together, uncowed by demands to be "pragmatic" and instead sticking to the principles that got them elected, even when that means being reprimanded by party leadership and corporate media pundits.
In fact, what Ocasio-Cortez is supposed to have lacked the ability to accomplish in the first place is unclear. As the Times has it: "The approach that she and her cohorts champion—pulling the institution to the left in part by threatening the careers of any Democrat who fail to embrace their ideas—quickly alienated many of her colleagues, and has made it difficult for her to get anything done."
Especially in dealing with left-wing and progressive dissidents, moderate Democrats frequently invoke the need to "get things done," using it as a cudgel to bring politicians like Ocasio-Cortez in line without ever explaining what those "things" might be. Lamenting that Ocasio-Cortez has not been able to "get anything done" presumes a shared, unspoken understanding of what she should have been doing instead of being brash and combative.
But freshmen congress members who belong to a party that does not control the White House have little chance to "get anything done" in any case, so what is really being alluded to here? Is it bipartisan votes for military and border security budgets? Is it war with Iran? We never find out, because to interrogate the notion that "getting things done" is a good in itself, irrespective of what those things are, would reveal that the Democratic Party is an institution that exists to suppress left-wing opposition and working-class politics—in other words, the kind of politics that Ocasio-Cortez's supporters elected her to pursue.
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Brendan O'Connor is a freelance journalist working on a book about immigration and the far right for Haymarket.