“Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said in her campaign video. But on Tuesday, the 28-year-old Bronx native defeated Joe Crowley, an incumbent who has held a seat in Congress since Ocasio-Cortez was 9 years old. “We beat a machine with a movement,” she told a local TV reporter. But according to the top-ranking operator of the Democratic Party machine, no such movement exists.
The victory of Ocasio-Cortez “is not to be viewed as something that stands for anything else," said Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who by all accounts would have expected to face Crowley as a challenger for Speaker of the House in November. Off the record, other Democrats were not so confident. “Everyone is shocked,” a Democratic lawmaker told Politico. “No one is safe,” a strategist told ABC News.
But Pelosi may indeed be in denial, rather than just saving face. Ocasio-Cortez is a new kind of candidate, whose politics are rooted not in the Democratic Party, but in the Democratic Socialists of America, of which she is also a member. Her success is hard for someone like Pelosi to comprehend, with capitalism so entrenched in contemporary American liberalism that it is hardly even acknowledged by today’s Democratic establishment, much less challenged.
When Ocasio-Cortez defeats Republican candidate Anthony Pappas in November — almost an inevitability in her overwhelmingly blue district — she will be the first DSA member in Congress. She’s not the first to win an election: Out of the 32 candidates to run for local office last November who belonged to or were endorsed by the DSA, 21 won their races — a success rate that would be the envy of any campaign consulting group. But the word “socialism” still tends to register as outside the normal spectrum of US political discourse. That’s just as true for Democrats as it is for right-wing tabloids like the New York Post, whose front page on Wednesday screamed “RED ALERT!”
Whether you’re a Murdoch mouthpiece or a Democratic congressional leader, it’s getting harder to push a red scare message in 2018. Socialists like Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders are the public face of widely popular policies like universal health care, publicly funded education, and affordable housing. “To me, what socialism means is to guarantee a basic level of dignity,” Ocasio-Cortez told Vogue’s Bridget Read, in an interview that amounted to the most substantive mainstream media coverage she received preceding the election.
While outsiders like Ocasio-Cortez are capturing the energy of the left, party bureaucrats like Pelosi have proved unable to see which way the wind blows. Their failure to reach an increasingly disaffected constituency has been reaching a breaking point since the disruptive primaries of 2016. At a town hall meeting in January 2017, Pelosi found herself forced to address the issue for what seemed like the first time in her political career.
That night, New York University student Trevor Hill ditched a preapproved question about the TV show Veep and asked instead about the fundamental goals of the party. “According to a Harvard University poll last May,” he said, “51% of young voters between the ages of 18 and 29 no longer support capitalism.” He asked if the party would move left to reflect the shifting tide of its constituency.
Pelosi was flummoxed. “We’re capitalists, and that’s just the way it is,” she said, before admitting that the nation’s economic condition is disastrous. Her stance was one inherited not from the history of the American left — a tradition that, from the labor movement to the civil rights movement, has always included a critique of capitalism. Pelosi’s was a stance best summarized by Margaret Thatcher’s famous slogan in defense of capitalism: “There is no alternative.” Thatcher’s position, like that of Reagan’s in the United States, was a direct extension of neoliberalism, the perspective of arch-conservative thinkers like Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman, both of whom were feted at both Downing Street and the White House.
Ocasio-Cortez has refused to follow the rightward drift of the Democratic Party toward middle-of-the-road platforms that conventional wisdom says wins elections. That type of politics was precisely what cost Crowley his seat, the DSA’s National Electoral Committee cochair Christian Bowe told me.
“We brought out thousands and thousands of new voters who were ready for radical change,” he said. “While Crowley appealed more and more to the ruling and business class, we ran a working-class candidate who mobilized the working class and gave them agency in this district for the first time in decades.”
While Sanders supporters, the DSA, and the American left in general have seen themselves stereotyped as white male “Bernie Bros” by the Democratic establishment, Ocasio-Cortez presents a stark challenge to this perception — not just because she is a Latinx woman, but because of the substance of her political program.
The liberal center has emphasized an opposition between racial and economic justice, succinctly expressed by Hillary Clinton: “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow, would that end racism?” For Ocasio-Cortez, this is a “false choice.” As she told Vogue, she sees socialism as a means of addressing all kinds of inequality. “Even if you wanted to separate those two things, you can’t separate the two, they are intrinsically and inextricably tied,” she said. “There is no other force, there is no other party, there is no other real ideology out there right now that is asserting the minimum elements necessary to lead a dignified American life.”
Bernie Sanders’ surprise performance in the 2016 Democratic primary and Jeremy Corbyn’s comparable ascendance in the UK Labour Party shocked the media and political establishments. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez should be the last time they’re caught unaware.
"I think what we've seen is that working-class Americans want a clear champion," she said Tuesday night, "and there is nothing radical about moral clarity in 2018." If her program is too radical for the Democratic Party, they may have to resort to Bertolt Brecht’s ironic proposal: “Would it not be easier in that case for the government to dissolve the people and elect another?”
This election showed that people want an alternative. If the Democratic Party really intends to represent them, it will have to provide one.