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The Banality of Insurgency

AOC and Ilhan Omar’s inspiring victories and brave advocacy helped create a narrative about “fresh-faced insurgents.” But beware: young neoliberals will use the same rhetoric to oust veteran progressives and call them the “establishment.”

US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) hug each other as other congressional Democrats look on during a news conference on the Green New Deal February 7, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez burst into Congress, a twenty-nine-year-old bartender and socialist defeating a fifty-seven-year-old white male, beneficiary of longtime voter quiescence, a narrative was born: insurgency!

And she wasn’t the only one that year. That same year, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar also joined Congress. In New York State and around the country, young challengers (many of them socialists or serious progressives) enjoyed similar success in state and local elections, beating long-entrenched, mostly mediocre-to-awful incumbents. Insurgency has been a great PR coup for the Left. It’s also invited some inspiring optimism about the political process; perhaps it need not be as closed off, as resistant to change, as many of us have assumed.

But sadly, there’s nothing inherently radical about insurgency. Centrists, once bitten in the ass by the rhetoric of newness and change, are warming to it. Now they’re getting revenge by borrowing the narrative in service of their own banal candidates. It turns out throwing the bums out isn’t an ideology, nor is it even a left or progressive goal in itself. Some of these new centrist youngbloods are significantly more conservative than the old white guys they’re challenging.

Joe Crowley, the washed-up white machine politician AOC ejected from office last year, is hosting an October 15 fundraiser for Representative Joe Kennedy III, thirty-nine, who’s challenging Senator Ed Markey, seventy-three, the liberal cosponsoring the Green New Deal — the only serious US proposal for averting human extinction — with AOC. Crowley is now a lobbyist at the DC lobbying firm Squire Patton Boggs, where Trent Lott is a colleague. Almost certainly, he’s motivated by personal revenge against AOC, but Crowley is also doing his new job: fossil-fuel companies and their interest groups are major clients for Squire Patton Boggs, and they’d love to take down Markey.

When Kennedy announced his challenge to Markey last month, he called for “structural reform” and “fighting back.” He implied that his opponent was part of “a broken system, a calcified structure.” (Speaking of calcified structures, he’s been endorsed by locals of the Teamsters and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, two unions whose leaderships have shown themselves to be more comfortable making backroom deals than mobilizing workers to fight the boss.) I’m sure his friends at Squire Patton Boggs and his relatives in America’s longest-running political dynasty will be more than happy to help finance this shake-up.

Kennedy’s not alone in this cynical gambit. Upper West Side congressman Jerry Nadler, who, until the recent progressive “insurgency,” was easily one of the House’s most liberal members (on domestic issues; he’s terrible on Israel) is also now fielding a challenge from a centrist younger person. His opponent, Lindsey Boylan, thirty-five, told Politico this summer, “We need many more people to challenge incumbency in the Democratic Party to make the change we really need.” A breathless profile — disappointing to read in the reputedly left-wing Teen Vogue — quoted Boylan describing how “inspired” she was by AOC and other victorious insurgents of last year, “these women who got out and said, ‘I’m not going to wait my turn.’”

Boylan admits she is no AOC: “I give her a tremendous amount of credit, but I am a different person. I have had a different experience.” That’s plainly true. Boylan supported Amazon’s bid to build a second headquarters in Queens, which AOC helped defeat. Boylan worked as deputy secretary on economic development for Andrew Cuomo. Her husband works for an investment firm, and she has given her own campaign more than $80k. Many of her campaign donations are from the finance industry. Donors also include Emma Bloomberg, the billionaire’s daughter.

Though the Left can and does defeat centrists through organizing and ideas, pinning our hopes on “narrative” is never smart for us, because our opponents have more money to spend on PR. So when we have a sweet, hopey-changey story — like that of “insurgency” — we have to realize that it’s as vulnerable to theft as an unlocked bike.

Then again, the “insurgency” story may not work for these centrists. Their problem is that neoliberalism itself feels washed up, while socialism (like Bernie Sanders after his brief health scare) is full of life. AOC, and the many other socialists and progressives who took office last year, have real politics, and so do the movements that elected them.

Cheeringly, Joe Kennedy isn’t being embraced by his fellow insurgents, the Hill reports. Rashida Tlaib and some of Kennedy’s other fellow freshman congresspeople have said they’re staying out of it. And Markey has real friends among the left-leaning youth. Ro Khanna has endorsed him, and so has AOC, who said of his willingness to join her in sponsoring the Green New Deal, “Ed Markey was one of the few people that had the courage to stand up and take a chance. And take a chance on a freshman congresswoman. And take a chance on this plan.”

AOC has even met with Kennedy to urge him to abandon his plan to run against Markey. And this week, AOC sent an email to her supporters about Crowley’s fundraiser for Kennedy, urging them to contribute to Markey’s campaign in order to support the Green New Deal.

Socialism — or any progressive project — needs young people in order to succeed. And a lot of incumbents do need to go if we are to get the serious change our world needs. But let’s not let our own feel-good stories elect more neoliberals — or throw out the old white men we might need.