Just over one year ago, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) sent shockwaves through the mainstream political establishment by ousting ten-term incumbent Democrat Joe Crowley in New York. Running as an open democratic socialist on a platform of redistributive economics, universal health care, bold climate action, and abolishing ICE, she lit a spark under a moribund Democratic Party, becoming an immediate media sensation and capturing the imagination of progressives and young people across the country.
In the face of the incredible response to Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise victory, House leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) threw cold water on all the excitement. “They made a choice in one district,” she said. “So let’s not get yourself carried away as an expert on demographics and the rest of that.”
Flash forward to today, and Pelosi’s dismissal of Ocasio-Cortez and her role in the party is again making headlines. This time, the controversy stems from comments Pelosi made to the New York Times’s Maureen Dowd about AOC and her “squad” of fellow freshmen reps Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI): “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world. But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”
Those comments elicited a response from Ocasio-Cortez and her chief of staff Saikat Chakrabarti in which they defended the reputation of the four new progressives, calling Pelosi’s characterization “outright disrespectful.”
The ensuing back-and-forth has seen longtime incumbent Democrats pile on criticisms of the squad, with some members accusing Ocasio-Cortez of using “the race card” for suggesting that leadership was “singling out” the newly elected women of color. Even the operatives behind the official House Democrats Twitter account got in on the action, sending out a tweet disparaging Chakrabarti for daring to criticize moderate Democrats over their votes.
Mainstream outlets have characterized the conflict as driven by generational tensions, or (on Pelosi’s side) simply a desire to protect Democratic incumbents from criticism. But the feud in fact speaks to something much deeper: Ocasio-Cortez and her allies are pushing for bold, transformational policies that would upend the current economic and political system. That campaign is coming into open conflict with a Democratic establishment that would prefer to just keep things as they are.
Breaking Ranks With the Establishment
Consider the political backdrop to the current war of words. Pelosi’s “four votes” comment was in reference to a border funding package that Ocasio-Cortez and the squad all voted against, arguing it would provide financing for immigration enforcement more than it would address the humanitarian needs of migrants. The final version of the bill passed by Pelosi included even less aid for migrants than the previous House version, with the few measly concessions secured by the Speaker including a promise from Vice President Mike Pence “that members would be notified within 24 hours of the death of a child in U.S. custody.”
Contrast that dystopian compromise with the stated policy goals of Ocasio-Cortez when it comes to immigration: Repealing laws that criminalize entering the United States without proper documentation, massively increasing US aid to Central America, abolishing ICE — the brutal arm of the US deportation regime that she says “systematically and repeatedly violates human rights” — and even dissolving the Department of Homeland Security, an agency that has been sacrosanct to both the Republican and Democratic parties since its creation after September 11.
This approach to immigration flies in the face of decades of mainstream Democratic Party messaging around the issue, which has consistently centered militarizing the border, criminalizing those who would dare cross it, and deporting immigrants in order to claim the mantle of “toughness.” But the Democratic approach to immigration isn’t just about rhetorical positioning. It also stems from the fact that many Democrats rely on funding from the very same private prison industry that undergirds the horrendous system of migrant detention camps in the United States.
Take Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX), who, according to OpenSecrets, has taken $88,990 from GEO Group and CoreCivic America since 2012. Cuellar, one of the most conservative Democrats in the House, is currently being targeted in his primary by Jessica Cisneros, a left challenger and former immigration lawyer backed by Justice Democrats — the same group that helped propel Ocasio-Cortez into power and was cofounded by Chakrabarti.
Cisneros has sworn off the types of corporate donations on which Cuellar has long relied, and her platform includes ending family separation and opposing the border wall. If elected, she would help cut off the valve of private prison money flowing into the Democratic Party and push forward a more unapologetically progressive approach to immigration — just the type of confrontational, anti-corporate politics embodied by Ocasio-Cortez and her squad.
It’s this prospect that causes hand-wringing in the mahogany-adorned offices of centrist Democrats the country over. They understand that Ocasio-Cortez and her supporters in the Justice Democrats don’t just want to knock off a few incumbents here and there; they want to create a political environment in which Democrats who put corporate-friendly policies over the demands of working-class Americans are seen as toxic — and they’re willing to take risks to achieve this goal.
A Noticeable Difference
The recent record shows that the efforts of Ocasio-Cortez and the Left are having an impact. Since Ocasio-Cortez’s victory last year, Democrats up and down the ballot are swearing off corporate-PAC money. After Ocasio-Cortez lifted up the call to abolish ICE in 2018, mainstream Democrats such as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) came on board. In January, Ocasio-Cortez floated the idea of implementing a 70 percent marginal tax rate on the richest Americans. While the idea is far outside the bounds of what the Democratic Party has advocated for decades, polls show that more than half of Americans support the policy, and in the months since, presidential candidates Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) have put forward their own far-reaching plans for soaking the rich.
Then there’s the Green New Deal. One of Ocasio-Cortez’s first acts after winning her general election was to participate in a sit-in at Pelosi’s offices, joining the Sunrise Movement to demand immediate, bold action from Congress to combat climate change. Within weeks, talk of the Green New Deal was seemingly everywhere, from mainstream media outlets to the halls of power. Rather than discussing carbon taxes and meager credits for renewable energy, as had long been the Democratic status quo, policymakers were now debating a wholesale transformation of America’s energy system that would impact nearly every sphere of the economy.
While Pelosi scornfully referred to the plan as “the green dream or whatever,” there’s no question that Ocasio-Cortez’s leadership on the issue helped to reorient the debate around climate change in the Democratic Party. It expanded the realm of political possibility and underlined the urgency of responding to the crisis. Indeed, on issue after issue, Ocasio-Cortez’s effective use of social media and her platform in Congress have helped to popularize left-wing priorities — from Medicare for All to free college to a Marshall Plan for Puerto Rico — while calling out the moderate wing of the party that remains in thrall to corporate interests.
The fact that a freshman representative who came to power by challenging a powerful incumbent has made such an impact was bound to draw the ire of Democratic establishment figures. But the backlash from Democratic centrists is more than just resentment or jealousy. They really fear a policy program that threatens to shake the neoliberal political consensus that has dominated both parties for the past forty years.
Days before House Democrats took aim at Chakrabarti, a profile in the Washington Post quoted him as saying, “The interesting thing about the Green New Deal is it wasn’t originally a climate thing at all. . . . [W]e really think of it as a how-do-you-change-the-entire-economy thing.” With its promise of a federal jobs guarantee, universal health care, and massive subsidies for public transportation and new renewable energy industries, the Green New Deal does promise to change the entire economy, making it more fair, sustainable, and democratic.
This is not the vision of progress put forward by the likes of past Democratic Party luminaries like Rahm Emanuel, who Maureen Dowd quotes as referring to Chakrabarti as “a snot-nosed punk.” But it is the growing viewpoint of the party’s left flank, which is providing both energy and on-the-ground organizing. Policies such as Medicare for All, a jobs guarantee, free college, and a Green New Deal all now command majority support, not just among Democrats but among Americans on the whole.
These expansive redistributive policies represent the demands of broad swaths of the population — politicians such as Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, Omar, and Pressley are simply giving them voice and a platform. At a time when these leaders are under fire from President Trump, who targeted them with racist attacks on Sunday, it’s a sad state of affairs that Democratic leaders are similarly hurling invective at the new generation of progressives in the House.
Yet it’s no shock that Ocasio-Cortez and her cohort are being treated as a threat to a party establishment that has cozied up to corporate power and helped maintain the deeply unequal economic and political order in this country. It’s because they are one.