Sitting in the Las Vegas hospital room where his boss was convalescing in October 2019, Bernie Sanders’s deputy campaign manager, Ari Rabin-Havt, thought this could be the end of the run. After a legendary insurgent bid for the presidency in 2016, the Vermont senator fueled enthusiasm the Left hadn’t seen in decades, but he was barely polling at 15 percent his second time around. A dismal late-September survey in the Des Moines Register had placed him fourth, and Elizabeth Warren surged ever closer to the top slot. Then, just when it felt like things were hitting their nadir, they hit their real nadir: after uncharacteristically requesting a chair during a Nevada fundraiser, Sanders learned he had suffered a heart attack. It isn’t the sort of thing that plays well when you’re campaigning for the world’s most powerful office at the age of seventy-eight.
Anyone who still has a “solidarity forever” sticker on their laptop can tell you what happened next: the team got a call from Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, saying she’d be endorsing him for president alongside representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. Rabin-Havt and a campaign colleague got permission from the hospital staff to lug tables and chairs to the senator’s bedside so they could make arrangements for a comeback rally in Ocasio-Cortez’s district in Queens. Before long, Sanders had some wind at his back: he got the most votes in Iowa and New Hampshire; Nevada was an absolute blowout.
For Rabin-Havt, the hospital phone call was an obvious turning point. “You know, you look at that moment and see a trajectory upward from that point,” he recounted by phone. “You have to give them credit for a move at a time when it was not politically advantageous to endorse. . . . It was literally at the point when it was the riskiest, and they stepped up.” I agreed with him. Seeing it all unfold over news reports — these unabashedly movement-aligned young women of color elected in a wave Bernie himself had set in motion, rallying around him when he was at his weakest to change American politics — I felt undeniably moved.
But it wasn’t enough. After a brief stint as front-runner — around the Nevada caucuses’ apex, where Ocasio-Cortez bolstered Spanish-language outreach for the operation that swept the Las Vegas Strip — fortunes flipped once again. Joe Biden won in South Carolina and pretty much never stopped winning. Sanders dropped out within weeks and left much of his young and noisy coalition adrift.
Two years later, the outlook for this new left is still not clear. Thanks to the limits of the human life span, there won’t be a Bernie 2024. And large parts of the post-Bernie vacuum are losing faith in his young successors, thirty-two-year-old Ocasio-Cortez and the progressive members of Congress surrounding her.
Riding the Tiger
If “the Squad” is an irritating moniker, it’s a useful one, evoking half a dozen congressional representatives elected in 2018 and 2020 who ran to the left of the Democratic Party’s median, mostly as outspoken progressive alternatives to entrenched corporate dingbats. By far the biggest star of the bunch is Ocasio-Cortez, who ousted Representative Joe Crowley with a long-shot primary bid in which she ran as an open socialist.
AOC’s political backstory is well-known by now: after moving from the Bronx to the suburbs as a kid, she attended Boston University and interned for Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy. Until she ran for Congress a decade later, her professional trajectory was one that would likely strike urban millennials on the broader left as familiar. After college, she moved in with her mom in the Bronx, working as a server, followed by stints in creative and nonprofit jobs. She became an organizer for Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, which inspired deepened political commitments; soon after, her involvement with protests against the oil pipeline at Standing Rock reportedly triggered her decision to run for the House. She operated a shoestring campaign from her apartment in Queens while working as a bartender. As she rounds out her third year in office, she reportedly still has student debt.
Ocasio-Cortez had joined the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) during her first campaign while seeking her chapter’s endorsement. So new were her ties to socialism that some skeptics assumed she was motivated more by the prospect of campaign volunteers than by deep ideological commitments. Tellingly, in an early New Yorker profile, when asked about her political heroes, she brought up Bobby Kennedy. But so many of DSA’s cadre were brand-new to the Left, too, and they voted to endorse her anyway — campaigning would build organizational capacity and give newbies something to cut their teeth on, supporters’ arguments went, and counteract the “toxic white Bernie Bro” narrative to boot. The decision turned out to be a consequential one for the fledgling left, rendering AOC democratic socialism’s second-most prominent national spokesperson and tethering her own political branding to DSA’s. (Three other Squad members — Rashida Tlaib, Cori Bush, and Jamaal Bowman, representatives of the Detroit area, St. Louis, and the Bronx, respectively — also belong to the organization.)
Knocking out a ten-time incumbent made international news: the New York Times called the primary upset “the most significant loss for a Democratic incumbent in more than a decade, and one that will reverberate across the party and the country,” and “a vivid sign of the changing of the guard.” “RED ALERT,” cried the headline on the cover of the New York Post. AOC’s adept nonchalance about the incredulous reactions to her socialist political label echoed Bernie’s: she simply wanted “basic levels of dignity so that no person in America is too poor to live. . . . That’s what democratic socialism means in 2018,” she told Business Insider. Some observers, like Eric Levitz of New York magazine, surmised that AOC could be a credible route leftward for identitarian liberals turned off by the much-lamented white-guy-ness of the Bernie universe:
If Berniecrats can put forward strong, nonwhite, and/or female candidates who define racial and gender justice in economic terms, they can use the Democratic base’s desire to change their elected leadership’s demographic composition as a tool for transforming its ideological bent.
To do that bending, Ocasio-Cortez seemed open to using muscle with the Democratic establishment: in a viral campaign video made by a production outfit founded by DSA members, AOC said, “It’s time to acknowledge that not all Democrats are the same.” When her opponent, Crowley, asked as a “gotcha” if she’d endorse him if he won the primary, she refused to say yes, replying that she’d let the movement behind her decide. And during her first week on the job, she famously joined the Sunrise Movement in a protest action, occupying Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office to demand that Democrats prioritize the climate; soon after, Ocasio-Cortez rolled out her Green New Deal proposal.
The outsize media attention that AOC and the rest of the Squad have gotten relative to pretty much any freshman lawmakers in history is, for the organizations behind them, a big part of the point. As Alexandra Rojas, a founder of Justice Democrats, explained to me, a major goal of the primary-from-the-left strategy is to use congressional seats as bully pulpits to build support for “big ideas” like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, thereby shifting the party’s political center of gravity that determines what’s possible. “When you have that sort of gridlock, I think we do have to make the case directly to the American people,” Rojas continued.
You see these congresswomen culturally shifting how engaged the American public is into how broken the system is, and I don’t think any fix is going to come about if you don’t have pressure on public officials. . . . At the end of the day, we’re transforming the Democratic Party because that is the best opportunity right now in our two-party system to advance the progressive agenda and change the lives of working people.
But there’s a problem, which is that the dual mandates to act as both a bullhorn for disseminating big ideas and a conduit for institutionally advancing an agenda will never be fully reconcilable. For constituents and allies who expect their ideas to be the ones amplified by the bullhorn, or their agendas to get shepherded through gridlock-prone institutions, that dissonance can be squirm-inducing. As Michael Kinnucan, a DSA electoral organizer, described the dilemma, AOC and the Squad’s megastardom means that they speak to a vast number of different people well beyond any organized constituency. For that reason, they can be helpful tools for reverse engineering durable organized power — as a proof of concept, look no further than the droves of new DSA members who made their way into the organization through Sanders and AOC. But, Kinnucan acknowledges, that can be a bit like riding a tiger: “You can get somewhere really fast if you ride the tiger! But you’re a fool if you think you have control over that tiger.”
That’s not for lack of trying. Early last year, AOC and the rest of the Squad sparked fury when they declined demands from left-wing YouTubers and their enthusiastic audiences to #ForceTheVote, a retweetable nickname for the tactical withholding of votes for Nancy Pelosi for speaker of the House in exchange for a floor vote on the Medicare for All bill. Advocates like Sanders’s former press secretary Briahna Joy Gray argued that the Squad and their House allies could turn a failed floor vote into a viral media spectacle that would build momentum toward Medicare for All and expose those Democrats who were unwilling to accede to it even during a pandemic.
The ensuing controversy over the value of such a procedural vote took on outsize dimensions because it spoke to a larger debate about what leftist lawmakers are for. For those who doubted the utility of #ForceTheVote, the point of getting leftists into public office was to give them power over actual laws, not just the cultural zeitgeist — Medicare for All hadn’t even been through a markup process, would lose by over a hundred votes, and could cast the activism surrounding it as an impotent pipe dream. Indeed, Gray’s assertion that “At the end of the day, the moral case for action requires no strategic justification” implies that crowdfunding publicists for left-wing pundits is potentially as useful as electing legislators.
Yet perhaps #ForceTheVote became such a lightning rod less because of the specifics of its demand than because of broader fears that what was distinct about Bernie Sanders and his combative antiestablishment politics was being lost to congressional realpolitik. Six rookie representatives failing to upend the $3.5 trillion health care system within their first term might not mean that they’re neoliberal shills, but there were red flags that left-wing critics could point to. The argument that AOC had been tamed and co-opted by the Democratic Party went something like this: in just over two years, the once-feted socialist went from protesting in Nancy Pelosi’s office with the Sunrise Movement to handing the speaker (whom AOC once referred to as “mama bear” in an interview) her top job again without extracting anything useful in return. As another sign, Ocasio-Cortez swapped out the staffers from her Justice Democrats days for standard Capitol Hill types. While she endorsed fellow insurgent Cori Bush in 2018, she declined to do so in 2020. By her second term, critics pointed out, AOC barely tweeted about Medicare for All anymore, and she offered swing-seat centrists chunks of her small-dollar fundraising haul, whose donors had presumably hoped she’d speak truth to power, not hand it campaign cash. When it came to campaigning for Bernie, some postmortem reporting alleged, she had declined to pick up as many events as his team hoped, after being angry at the campaign’s publicizing of a Joe Rogan endorsement and critiques of her rhetoric at primary rallies.
That allegation was “a load of horse shit,” insists Rabin-Havt. Whatever the case, the demonization of Ocasio-Cortez for “working inside the system” by those who still lionized Bernie Sanders neatly avoids the fact that Sanders was an independent who caucused relatively harmoniously with Democrats for most of his congressional career.
Fair or not, perceptions of AOC and the Squad’s resignation to the status quo and the relegation to limbo of the progressive movement’s key demand, Medicare for All, was more than enough to provide a basis for invective against them. Comedian Jimmy Dore — one of the first media figures to interview AOC when she launched her pie-in-the-sky candidacy in mid-2017 — whipped some eight hundred thousand viewers into a fury over the #FraudSquad, going so far as to say that “AOC is why you don’t have health care.”
The Bowman Affair
By the end of 2021, dissent about the Squad’s political project came from different quarters of the Left when Jamaal Bowman, representing a district straddling the Bronx and Westchester County, sparked ire for voting to fund Israel’s Iron Dome and participating in a J Street delegation designed to cultivate ties between US officials and right-wing prime minister Naftali Bennett. The DSA chapter of Madison, Wisconsin, called for Bowman’s expulsion from the organization, arguing that his actions undermined the cause of Palestinian liberation. Some three dozen chapters eventually joined it, issuing their own calls for removal or censure. (Ultimately, DSA’s National Political Committee had a meeting with Bowman and voted not to expel him.)
The Bowman fracas also highlighted competing visions of electoral strategy. For longtime Democratic Socialists of America organizer David Duhalde, the need for flexibility when it comes to public officeholders is a given. “For people like me, this is about winning, about building power with those elected to advance public policy and coalition work, and to raise the profile of DSA, not to act as a tribune for the organization,” he explained.
Of course, there is a universe where elected officials can do both. That was the traditional model of working-class parties — whether social democratic or communist — around the world, in which politicians were expected to toe the line of their parties on key issues and could be sanctioned if they went rogue. Indeed, in the United States, there is some precedent in the example of Kshama Sawant, who has served on the Seattle City Council since 2014 and has done a laudable job defending the interests of her city’s working people as a disciplined member of Socialist Alternative. (Sawant also supported #ForceTheVote, in sync with her party’s endorsement.)
The Democratic Socialists of America, however, is not a party, but rather a far more decentralized organization than its peers, ceding considerable power to working groups and chapters while leaving much to the discretion of individual members. As a result, the hundred-plus DSA members serving in state and local office across the country, and even the socialists with significant blocs on city councils in urban centers like Chicago and New York, sometimes take positions that are wildly at odds with those of their organization. With no turn to democratic centralism on the horizon, is it surprising that public statements and outrage would fill the void of formal accountability mechanisms?
Yet this angry fallout and the media spectacle that accompanies it risks turning progressives like Bowman away from DSA and its priorities to begin with. Expanding electoral influence by gaining seats in higher legislative bodies or more districts indisputably means winning over larger and larger numbers of voters, as well as working in coalition with more and more groups.
Bowman is a public school activist and Medicare for All supporter who also happens to represent one of the most heavily Jewish districts in the country. According to one source close to his office, he was getting five calls a day urging him to support Israel in the lead-up to the Iron Dome vote, but he never got one about Palestine.
Leaders, of course, are meant to withstand pressure. Members who called for Bowman’s expulsion argue that an electoral strategy like the one articulated by Duhalde runs the risk of diluting the Left’s agenda, not bringing it into being. DSA doesn’t own Bowman, who never would have pledged to act in accordance with every resolution endorsed at the organization’s conventions, and can’t meaningfully sanction him. But what DSA can do, the argument goes, is take a principled stand and sever ties with Bowman, even if the Iron Dome funding passes by over four hundred votes anyway. They can refuse to ride the tiger — and find some other transportation instead.
With and Beyond the Squad
The real problem with the Squad may not be that they are insufficiently accountable to the Left, but that there still isn’t much of a Left in the United States. There are only six of them in Congress and, relatedly, not a lot of us to fan the flames of class struggle in our workplaces and communities.
As Teamster official and Jacobin contributor Dustin Guastella put it to me, “Given the relatively low level of political and civic organization in the United States, there is no secret, other type of politics available to us. The only successful mass social movements in this country — like the labor movement and the civil rights movement — were able to consolidate their power when sympathetic majorities controlled Congress.”
But we’re not at that point. And getting anywhere near it won’t be possible without a broader strategy. Every democratic socialist in the House so far represents a deep blue urban district filled with young, college-educated professionals — the very demographic the resurgent left has struggled to expand beyond since 2016 — who didn’t need much convincing to oust whatever moderate dinosaur had been in office previously. Of course, primarying Democrats from the left and courting a base of downwardly mobile professionals has yielded success. The Squad has shifted the political landscape, but winning universal social programs will only happen with a broad working-class movement, and freelancers with Jacobin subscriptions just don’t make up enough of it. It’s clearer than ever that simply peeling off parts of the Democratic base is a strategy with imminent limits, and nearly all the low hanging fruit has already been plucked.
Ultimately, AOC and the Squad appear to have vindicated arguments like the one Levitz made in New York — they’ve made insurgent progressive politics more popular within the Democratic Party, combining identity-based appeals with a robust class analysis that’s nudged plenty of liberals to the left. But there’s little evidence they’ve been able to extend their base beyond that.
In other words, the optimism that the Squad could be an alternative path forward to Bernie-style universalism was based on an assumption that, so far, has not turned out to be true. The Left’s electoral challenge isn’t figuring out how to pick up more votes in deep blue districts but in purple and red ones, something only Sanders’s first run seemed to promise. Whether the Squad’s ties to democratic socialists grow stronger or weaker over time depends on our ability to tap into that Bernie 2016 magic that captivated a young Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, along with so many more of us across the country.
AOC helped reinvigorate our movement once, at a pivotal moment when the Left really needed it. Here’s hoping she’ll be there for the next big fight, too.