Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the sharp focal point of attention on the latest leftist pull within the Democratic party. To describe her politics using the term progressive is too broad, as many of her ideas are yet undefined. Further, many policies that so-called progressives aim for are neither a form of progress, nor are they necessarily liberal. The fact that she, as a 29 year old, managed to successfully primary a Democratic incumbent in her district, and win a Senate seat as her first real job out of college shocked many. To some, that a young, Latino woman won a primary challenge against an established Democrat appeared emblematic of a generational and demographic shift in the Democratic party and the United States, and the attention shined on these aspects of her candidacy may be reflective of the deepening and corrosive influence of identity politics in the American psyche.
However, the circumstances of her win are not the only radical thing about her. Not only are her policy ideas are rough around the edges, she has shown as of late that she is certainly willing to try to break the rules of partisan politics. Supporting primary challenges within the Democratic party, challenging legislation brought by the Democratic speaker, and sparring with staples of the party for decades, she has shown that she is an unapologetic maverick. Corrupt as the party may be, and whether or not one is a fan of the Democratic party, she is the most Trumpian figure to appear in the Democratic party in the last 20 years.
A firebrand and neophyte with little interest in the details of policy, with no political experience, little party loyalty, and a bright spotlight on her every word, she may shake the Democratic party out of the stupor it has been in since the tea party movement ennervated a Republican revival and grassroots anti-establishment fervor that led us to Trump.
It is absolutely certain that there are both positive and negative aspects to her rise. The Democratic party was never a bastion of inclusionist unity in terms of ideological diversity, nor has it been fully democratic. As always in democracies that share the electoral structure of America, the parties have unusually large power relative to the power of the grassroots voter, and this has allowed some corruption, and political distance between party and people to take shape, but most clearly, it has led to the disenfranchisement and a gap between career politicians in the party and the hopes and dreams of their constituents. On the other hand, the parties are one of the few institutional structures that theoretically can keep a demagogue, a dangerous radical, a criminal populist, from sitting on the ballot representing a major party, and thus having any chance of winning.
The very gap between establishment politicians and their base is what created the weakness in the Republican leadership that led Donald Trump to victory over the wishes of the classical wing of the Republican party. His brand of populism and outrageous promises proved capable of demolishing lifelong Republican voters and politicians and what they had built the Republican party to stand for, turning the party 180 degrees on many of the Republicans key issues.
In Trump, the party found a counterbalance to their years of drift from their base. The power that they had been endowed allowed party heads to stray from constituent congruence, and their deviance from the norm eventually led them to lose power, allowing for a recalibration their ideology. This turn, however, may lead to the end of the Republican party as it stood before, breaking the coalition of pro-trade and pro-business Republicans, Christian conservatives, military hawks, and ultranationalist anti-interventionists, a contradictory and unstable coalition if one has ever existed.
Almost the exact same can be said of the Democratic party, and therefore this trend too is a threat to the left. A coalition of mostly coastal state residents and economic and social liberals perhaps, but within them, a diverse group of young leftists who are both economically redistributivist and extremely socially liberal, working class economically re-distributivist families across the Midwest and coastal suburbs who are moderate on social issues, and urban minority voters who vote with the party over identity-politics issues. This is also a fragile coalition.
The Democratic party certainly has inclusion and transparency issues, but Ocasio-Cortez makes a fatal mistake challenging the “progressive” orthodoxy of other candidates in her blanket support of primary run-offs. The crucial issue at stake is the unity of the party, and this is true not only for reasons of practicality, but for ideological reasons as well.
The ultimate undoing of the Trump presidency was the inability of the Republican machine which controlled the entire congress and the Presidency to pass a single meaningful piece of legislation outside the use of budget reconciliation measures. The extreme wings, moderate wings, and revisionist wing in the Oval Office agreed on nothing, and thus utterly failed. In order to pass legislation in this era, the parties must be willing to compromise within their ranks.
If voters, Democratic voters, want to elect Democrats into office to pass legislation, and not simply to preside, unity and practicality are necessary. The weakness of extremists on either side is that they are so focused on their conception of right, their inability to compromise over real issues means that they are all eventually doomed to failure. The left wing of the Democratic party needs to accept this, too.
This is not advice to primary voters, and people should vote based on their values, not the electability of candidates, but on their policies. However, once elected, legislators should be clear headed, and not act as ideological extremists at the wrong times. Political extremism has its place to change the frame of the debate, but unwavering extremism in the face of a brick wall is a path leading nowhere.
Most importantly, ideological litmus tests as a measure of who is a “true” democrat or “progressive” are as inane as they are dangerous, hearkening to a totalitarian and controlling inflexibility that does not allow the party to either grow, or display flexibility.
Progressivism is not monolithic, there are strains within, and a large difference in the scope and extremism of the policy proposals and ideologies floating around this movement. Those who support a public option for healthcare may not support 70% upper marginal tax rates, re-opening unconditional trade with China, or the complete abolition of border controls with the elimination of ICE, which Ocasio-Cortez recently used as her reason to vote against Pelosi’s bill to re-open the government post-shutdown.
Ocasio-Cortez is free to make statements advocating primary challengers, and the Democratic party is free to return the favor when she faces re-election in less than two years. What the party shouldn’t do is turn on itself, and back her rhetoric in the efforts to ideologically purge the party from elements that one young firebrand doesn’t agree with. Self-described “progressives,” in whatever that term may entail, have the right to vote in primaries and elect who they choose in their districts. They don’t have the right to, nor should they, try to dominate a national party and enforce a rigid orthodoxy over a party in which they play a large part, but do not own.
In a district with a legitimate primary challenge, if people vote their values, then this is democratic and representative. When a demagogue declares war on the establishment and creates a Maoist style orthodoxy war over critical issues across the entire party, before she herself has served a day in congress and dealt with the constraints of real power, she risks naïveté, and may stoke divisions in the party instead of advocating unity in a party that is a lot more diverse than she may care to understand. Hyperbole and boldness look more like personalized attention seeking at this point to some than true ideological firmness.
America must wait and see how the 2018 class of the US House of Representatives performs, and how they vote.
One should always vote one’s values, but one should never close one’s mind to compromise. We should remember too that most importantly, elected representatives serve their constituents, and serve the people of the United States as a whole before they serve their party, or some ideology.
Some statistics about the policy reversals that have occurred in the two major parties over the last five years worth considering:
- More Democrats than Republicans, by a margin of 19%, think defending human rights in other countries should be a top foreign policy priority, showing Democrats to now be more interventionist in defense of human rights
- Yet, Democrats now support some of the most brutal human rights violating dictatorships in higher numbers than Republicans, with an 8% margin of additional support by Democrats for China, and a 15% margin for Iran. Russia is an exception, with Republicans showing more support by a margin of 10%
- This clearly displays how the partisan divide has affected international relations. Obama’s Iran deal, Trump’s trade war, and the Russia investigation may affect how each party approaches foreign policy with these countries for decades to come.
Staff writer: Ari B
Photo credit: Nathan Wright