After what felt like the longest presidential campaign in US history — amid a pandemic, no less — the Democratic Party escaped defeat. Sort of. The dust has yet to fully settle, but the disasters down ballot point to a House and Senate where Republicans will still wield substantial power. Party centrists ran the campaign they wanted, and this was the result.
But win or lose, centrist Dems see the Left — on the streets and in their own House — as enemy number one. So the party’s leaders, rather than taking the opportunity to do some much-needed soul-searching, are focusing their crosshairs on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and the party’s left wing.
The first postelection attack came from Virginia congresswoman Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA officer who narrowly flipped her traditionally red district in 2018 and won reelection by two percentage points. During a private, several-hour-long Democratic caucus call, Spanberger, a stringent opponent of the party’s left wing, angrily denounced calls to defund the police, the core demand to emerge from the Black Lives Matter movement, reportedly declaring that “no one should say ‘defund the police’ ever again.” Socialism was also on her list of banned topics: “We need to not ever use the word socialist or socialism ever again.”
Other Democratic Party politicians soon joined the barrage, including West Virginia senator Joe Manchin, who decried socialism and “the so-called left,” and House Democratic caucus chair Hakeem Jeffries, who insisted, “the socialism message wasn’t helpful.” More recently, South Carolina congressman and House majority whip Jim Clyburn, widely viewed as having saved Joe Biden’s seemingly dead-in-the-water primary campaign, invoked the late congressman John Lewis to warn that, much like the slogan “burn baby burn” during the Civil Rights Movement, “defund the police is killing our party and we’ve got to stop it.”
In the face of these attacks, AOC has proven herself a tireless and astute spokesperson for the Left. Instead of slinking into the background, hoping the attacks might subside, she’s hit back at centrist attempts to muddy the waters and squelch the Left.
Her strategy in responding to detractors has been threefold. First, she’s setting the record straight politically. Contrary to what the centrists would have us believe, left-wing stances aren’t electoral suicide. “Every single candidate that co-sponsored Medicare for All in a swing district kept their seat,” she told the New York Times. “We also know that co-sponsoring the Green New Deal was not a sinker. [California representative] Mike Levin was an original co-sponsor of the legislation, and he kept his seat.”
In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, she explained: “If you look at some of the arguments that are being advanced, that ‘defund the police’ hurt or that arguments about socialism hurt, not a single member of Congress that I’m aware of campaigned on socialism or defunding the police in this general election. And these were largely slogans, or they were demands from activist groups that we saw from the largest uprising in American history around police brutality.”
AOC is right. Mere months ago, centrist Democrats were tripping over their Kente cloths in a cringe-inducing attempt to appear solidaristic. Now, they’re turning around and attacking the core demand of a movement they supposedly support and blaming it and left politicians for their own dismal electoral showing.
Rather than throw the movement under the bus, as her colleagues are so quick to do, or offer easy answers to perhaps the most complex historical question the country faces, she calls for something politicians rarely do: deeper engagement. “I think a lot of Dem strategy is to avoid actually working through all this,” she says, “Just trying to avoid poking the bear. That’s their argument with defunding police, right? To not agitate racial resentment. I don’t think that is sustainable.”
Secondly, AOC has argued that the electoral organization and campaign infrastructure of the Democratic Party is outmoded and that she knows how to do it better. Calling out her fellow party members for “still campaigning largely as though it’s 2005,” she recently quipped: “I’ve been unseating Democrats for two years. I have been defeating Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee–run campaigns for two years. That’s how I got to Congress.”
This argument is not separate or apart from her political argument, but has to be seen as an extension of her case that the Democrats didn’t lose because they have swerved too far left. They floundered, at least in part, because they’re far behind technologically, and they chose to pitch their message to white, wealthy suburbanites rather than workers of all races. From the perspective of someone who wants to shift the party leftward, this is a crucial argument to win — inside and outside the party.
The third piece of AOC’s argument is that Democrats shouldn’t be pointing fingers and blaming each other right now, calling her detractors “irresponsible” for attacking their colleagues. While we should be wary of left politicians calling for unity, in this instance it’s smart politics and shrewd tactics. “I need my colleagues to understand that we are not the enemy,” she tells the New York Times. “And that their base is not the enemy. That the Movement for Black Lives is not the enemy, that Medicare for all is not the enemy.”
A good rule of thumb in politics is to frame your adversary as making war on you, not the other way around. That’s especially true for the Left, which, as of yet, is smaller and exceedingly vulnerable to getting shoved out, shut up, or co-opted. The task for our side continues to be building organizational and political strength — in the halls of power, in our unions, and in our neighborhoods — so that we can eventually overcome the Democratic establishment as the main political alternative to the Republicans. By fighting for working-class demands, and by fighting smart, AOC is moving us in that direction.
While there is certainly a widespread desire for the Democratic Party to champion progressive policies, the vast majority of the Democratic electorate does not yet see the benefit of an all-out intraparty war — quite the contrary, given the ever-looming threat of reactionary Republicans. The party’s left wing still has a huge task on its hands convincing much broader portions of the population that they are the more viable faction — and the faction with a nationwide strategy to defeat Trumpism.
Despite a lack of appetite among most Democratic voters for war within the Democratic Party, conflict has been roiling since 2015, when Bernie Sanders first announced his run for the presidency, pulling American socialism out of the margins and drawing millions of new, enthusiastic young people to its cause. To many, AOC is his successor, carrying the torch of a social-democratic platform that felt for a moment to be within reach. It’s still far too soon to tell who will win this struggle — but we should applaud her dogged willingness to stand with us and put up a fight.