Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is right. She, Bernie Sanders, and the millions of working-class people ready to fight for a “political revolution” don’t belong in the same political party as Joe Biden. The fact that they nevertheless are all “Democrats” is one of the most frustrating facts of American politics.
In a recent interview with New York magazine, AOC seemed to indicate that the thought of a Joe Biden presidency does not inspire her — to put it politely. AOC groaned, according to the article, and then confessed: “Oh God. In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America, we are.”
Unsurprisingly, Ocasio-Cortez’s comments are making the rounds. Ben McAdams, the Democratic representative for Utah’s 4th congressional district, pounced on AOC for supposedly forgetting that as Democrats “we’re all on the same team.” Fred Guttenberg, a prominent gun safety advocate, called her points “disturbing and wrong.” And many random liberal Twitter users expressed some version of “Why don’t you join another party then?”
But are we really on the same team?
The political distance between AOC and Bernie Sanders on the one hand, and Joe Biden on the other, is stunning. They’re not on the same team when it comes to their vision for America — and thank God for that.
On Medicare for All? AOC and Sanders believe that health care is a right, and that it should be guaranteed to everyone from birth to death via a single-payer plan. Biden disagrees, and he supports preserving the for-profit health insurance system that bankrupts millions but lines the pockets of billionaires.
On the environment? AOC and Sanders back a multitrillion-dollar Green New Deal that will transform our economy, pushing us rapidly toward one-hundred-percent renewable energy to avert the worst effects of climate change. On the other hand, as the Sunrise Movement details extensively in their candidate scorecard, Biden’s plan fails in almost every regard to measure up to the moment. The kind of tepid transition to renewable energy — the kind that Biden argues for — is so insufficient that it is, in AOC’s words, “a form of denialism.”
On mass incarceration? AOC and Sanders want to end it. Biden built his early career pushing Ronald Reagan from the right to create it.
On abortion rights? AOC and Sanders are categorically in favor. Biden has consistently equivocated.
On war? AOC and Sanders vigorously oppose US military action abroad. Biden voted for the Iraq War and has been a reliable hawk in Washington, DC, for decades.
These are not candidates running on the same agenda or cut from the same cloth. AOC, Sanders, and other democratic socialists run their campaigns exclusively through the support of working-class volunteers and contributors. Meanwhile, Biden (and Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, and almost every other Democrat) run campaigns bankrolled by Wall Street and other big-money donors and managed by mercenary consultants.
Our Dysfunctional Party Coalitions
In any reasonable political system, voters would be presented with a choice between the vision advanced by democratic socialists like AOC and Sanders and the vision — if it can be called that — of career politicians like Joe Biden.
Such a system does not exist in the United States. At least not yet.
That’s in large part due to the unique institutional setup of American politics. Winner-take-all elections are a big part of the problem (a system of proportional representation would be infinitely preferable). But so is the outsize influence of the US presidency, which leads to exceedingly long national campaigns in which third-party candidates always threaten to act as “spoilers” — as well as highly restrictive ballot access laws in most states.
Absent a competitive multiparty system, dissident candidates have in recent years made the most progress by running on the ballot lines of the major parties. The “tents” covering acceptable political ideas in both parties have expanded dramatically as a result.
Few in Congress seem to be very happy with this new arrangement. As AOC notes, “Democrats can be too big of a tent.” From a very different perspective, former Republican speaker of the House Paul Ryan made a similar point to Politico — and got closer to the nub of the problem — in 2018: “Ryan [said] last fall that the fractures in the Republican Party threatened to make governing impossible. ‘We basically run a coalition government,’ he complained, ‘without the efficiency of a parliamentary system.’”
Paul Ryan’s politics may be despicable, but his point here is a good one. In any other country, the diehard far-right Trump team, the self-proclaimed “respectable” but austerity-crazed Republicans like Paul Ryan, the Biden-Buttigieg-Clinton-Obama sphere of big-business-friendly social liberals, and democratic socialists like AOC and Sanders would sort themselves into four different parties.
These four parties would then run competitively in general elections, presenting four different visions for the country’s future to voters. In the seventy or so congressional races on average, for example, that are won by less than a ten-percentage-point margin, the main fight might come down to a race between Ryans and Bidens. In the remaining 365 seats, elections in today’s solidly red districts might come down to fights between the Ryans and Trumps, while in today’s solidly blue districts, Bidens would face off against AOCs.
The end result might be similar to the makeup of Congress today, with no party having a clear majority. Coalitions could then be entertained, via formal negotiations with clear pacts arranged between parties.
But the critical advantage in this arrangement would be that general elections would test the popularity of four very different political programs before a critical mass of voters.
Instead, in the United States today these vital battles between very different visions happen in low-turnout primaries in which few voters weigh in. Worse still, the political loyalties of candidates are usually unclear, and kept purposefully so by many candidates afraid of alienating voters. As a result, most people in the ballot booth have an understandably difficult time sussing out which political faction within the existing parties a candidate might belong to.
This is precisely the problem that formal parties were designed to resolve. It’s no surprise that parties have therefore emerged in almost every functioning democracy. Identifying the tens of thousands of candidates that run every election cycle with a political party is a means to make complicated decisions more transparent. It ought to allow a voter to easily choose the candidates most closely aligned with that voter’s politics.
The broken party system in the United States frustrates that basic but essential function. US parties today subsist as chaotic and only barely logical coalitions of many different political tendencies. A voter who always votes Democrat may be supporting a pro-war, abortion-equivocating, anti-Medicare-for-All, climate-change-ignoring candidate — or a democratic socialist.
Fundamental change is needed. How we get out of this nightmare for democratic decision-making is the big question for the 2020s, though there are no easy solutions. But regardless of where change comes from, AOC is undeniably correct that the current party system in the United States is absurd and a travesty for democracy. She and Biden don’t belong in the same party. No party is big enough for the both of them.