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Welcome Their Hatred

Democratic leaders are outraged at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s actions in Congress and are trying to reel her in. It’s a clear sign she’s antagonizing all the right forces in the party.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks at a progressive fundraiser on August 2, 2018 in Los Angeles. Mario Tama / Getty

If Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez weren’t provoking outrage from her Democratic colleagues within her first days in Congress, she wouldn’t be doing it right.

Politico ran a very revealing story this morning about the socialist congresswoman, summed up in its headline: “Exasperated Democrats try to rein in Ocasio-Cortez.” House Dems’ grievances include high crimes like encouraging primary challenges to centrist, pro-corporate Democrats and pushing for (gasp!) a committee appointment they don’t think she deserves.

And how could she publicly call out the Democratic leadership’s commitment to “PAY-GO,” the Grover Norquist-esque rule that, by requiring new spending to include offsets that prevent a federal budget deficit increase, could block policies like Medicare for All or a Green New Deal from reaching a House vote?

Even more elected Democrats would speak up against AOC, but they are petrified by the awesome power of her Twitter account: “So far, most [House Democrats] have kept their criticism of Ocasio-Cortez private, fearful she’ll sic her massive following on them by firing off a tweet.”

As unbecoming as this whining by some of the world’s most powerful elected officials is, the party’s disciplinary power is on full display in the piece. Elected leaders warn she will be isolated in the House if she doesn’t tone it down and back off what Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) calls “sniping [with]in our Democratic Caucus.”

“The chances that the Democratic caucus will stand by and watch its chair [Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D–NY)] get attack[ed] and people piling on him — by Democrats! — is so obscene that I think you’ll find one of the strongest reactions that could possibly be anticipated,” Rep. Cleaver said. (Politico previously reported Ocasio-Cortez supports primarying Jeffries; in today’s story, she denies it.)

Many of the quoted officials seems to be channeling the Rock, demanding that AOC know her role and shut her mouth, or else.

The article paints a portrait of a fairly pathetic party, led by officials who style themselves as #Resistance leaders but shit their pants when a twenty-nine-year-old with a Twitter following joins them and actually takes pro-working class, stop-the-world-from-burning-to-a-crisp policies seriously. “People are afraid of her,” one jittery, anonymous Democratic aide says, perhaps while wearing a fake mustache and trench coat, calling from a payphone on the outskirts of the capital.

But the fact that Ocasio-Cortez has drawn this kind of ire so quickly means she — and the broader movement she is a part of — is antagonizing all the right forces within the Democratic Party.

Her rhetoric thus far has zeroed in on the contradictions between the kinds of social-democratic policies growing numbers of Americans want — Medicare for All, free college, a Green New Deal, taxing the rich — and the complete unwillingness of the party’s leadership to do anything to achieve those policies. The Politico article focuses on issues of congressional decorum, but fundamentally, the Democratic gnashing of teeth comes down to their opposition to those policies.

No one should be shocked that party leaders are reacting to AOC this way. The Democrats are hopelessly pro-corporate, America’s “second-most-enthusiastic capitalist party” and all that. This is who they are. But just in the past few weeks, by helping make issues like a Green New Deal or a 70 percent tax on all income over $10 million part of the mainstream discussion, Ocasio-Cortez shows that it is possible to open up new, leftist political possibilities while operating within that party — and, whether she means to or not, highlight the reality that progressive forces will have to break with the Democrats at some point if they really want to achieve their goals.

The Democratic leadership isn’t afraid of AOC herself. They’re afraid of the movement that is coalescing around her and Bernie Sanders, and groups like the Democratic Socialists of America and Justice Democrats; they’re terrified of multiple Ocasio-Cortezes running in elections around the country, backed by more socialists and climate change activists and angry rank-and-file workers demanding much more from the party and taking to the streets to do so.

So, the pressure on Ocasio-Cortez from Democratic power brokers isn’t going to let up. If she sticks to her agenda and rhetoric, Democrats will only cook up more ways to fight her. The threats from House members that she will end up isolated on the Hill aren’t empty. Whatever the quoted representatives say about primarying “fellow Democrats,” in four years, donors and party leaders would surely be happy to go all in on a challenger who’s willing to stick to the party’s script.

And the story itself suggests some waffling from Ocasio-Cortez in the face of party pushback:

But there are signs that she’s getting the message, at least when it comes to backing primary challenges against her colleagues.

In a brief exchange off the House floor recently, she said she wasn’t interested in backing progressive candidates against incumbent Democrats — contradicting her own words after the midterms. …

“I’m focused on my job,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

Her spokesman, Corbin Trent, added: “There has been a change in focus — though not a change in ideology.”

AOC and her staff shouldn’t kid themselves about the value of an unchanged ideology on its own — it means little if her actions no longer reflect that ideology or water it down. Buying into the idea that she should focus on “getting things done,” maintaining a narrow focus on her role as legislator representing the Bronx and Queens rather than transforming the political narrative of the entire country, would be a major defeat and a path AOC shouldn’t go down.

Ocasio-Cortez surely knew these attacks would come, though maybe she didn’t anticipate them so soon. As they escalate, she should stick to her guns. The House leaders scolding her aren’t her friends or friends of working people. They don’t hold the same values, they don’t back the same kinds of policies, and they want to see her fail.

Ocasio-Cortez won’t win these Democratic leaders over. She should welcome their hatred.