The Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Effect

The Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Effect

The Democratic party’s new rock star is storming the country on behalf of insurgent populists.

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez preaches that “the movement for economic, social and racial justice knows no zip code.” Radical campaigners for a new politics have long held on to this faith, but the 28-year-old democratic socialist, whose upset victory in New York’s 14th Congressional District made her one of the most recognizable political figures in the nation, is determined to prove it. Since her win, she’s been crisscrossing the country—from Detroit to Honolulu, Wichita to Los Angeles—on behalf of insurgent populists.

Let’s test her theory. Mail sent from the 10462 zip code in the Bronx, where Ocasio-Cortez trounced veteran Democratic Congressman Joe Crowley, must travel at least 1,427 miles to reach the 67025 zip code of Cheney, Kansas. Conventional wisdom says that bold political messages cannot possibly leap the ideological divide between an urban borough that gave just 10 percent of its vote to Donald Trump in 2016 and a rural state like Kansas, where Trump carried 103 of 105 counties.

Janice Manlove disagrees. It’s a midsummer night, and I am sitting with Manlove, a 64-year-old retired postal worker, on the back of a hay wagon decked out with campaign signs for Democratic congressional candidate James Thompson, a civil-rights lawyer whose challenge to a Republican incumbent has attracted the support of Ocasio-Cortez and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. We’re waiting to join the parade that kicks off the annual Sedgwick County Fair in this community of 2,100. It’s almost 100 degrees and wickedly humid. Manlove is irritated—not with the weather, which she’s used to, but with the politicians and pundits who say that Middle America won’t take to Ocasio-Cortez and her message of working-class solidarity. “That’s just crazy,” Manlove says. “People love her.”

“I don’t know if you noticed, but there were a lot of working people in Kansas,” she continues, thereby joining the roiling debate about whether a party that has been wrestling with its identity since its traumatic 2016 defeat should rally around this self-proclaimed “girl from the Bronx.” The proud president of Sedgwick County Democratic Women, Manlove says a call to arms from Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders might be just what it takes to get working-class voters, especially young ones, to the polls in November. She does not buy the argument from former senator Joe Lieberman, who wrote in The Wall Street Journal that Ocasio-Cortez is a “far from the mainstream” radical who threatens “to hurt Congress, America and the Democratic Party.”

Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth has also warned against getting too enamored with Ocasio-Cortez. “I don’t think that you can go too far to the left and still win the Midwest,” she said in July. But as James Thompson’s pickup truck pulls the Sedgwick County Democratic Party’s float onto the main drag of a very Midwestern town, Manlove praises what she hears from Ocasio-Cortez as “common-sense language.” “She’s not looking at what divides us; she’s looking at what unites us,” Manlove explains. “She’s saying that if Congress would just stop worrying so much about taking care of big business and start taking care of working people, we’d all be better off. That’s what Democrats should be saying. I think it’s inspiring.”

So do a lot of other grassroots voters. When Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders arrived in Wichita a few days later to campaign for Thompson, the new Democratic star was given a hero’s welcome. Five thousand people showed up, many wearing blue-and-white “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for Congress NY-14” T-shirts they had ordered online. Thunderous applause greeted her as the New York candidate outlined a robust economic- and social-justice agenda and declared: “They said the people of Kansas did not want these things. They told me I would not be welcomed. But you have proven them wrong.”

The response was just as enthusiastic in Missouri, where Ocasio-Cortez traveled to campaign for insurgent congressional candidate Cori Bush, and in Michigan, where she made a two-day swing through Grand Rapids, Flint, Detroit, Dearborn, and Ypsilanti on behalf of gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed, a 33-year-old who made his name as Detroit’s crusading health director and was backed by the progressive political-action committee Justice Democrats. In the Wolverine State, Ocasio-Cortez drew standing-room-only crowds and lines of young people waiting to take selfies, including 24-year-old college student Lia Fabbri, who told her, “One day when I run for office, it will be because of you.”

El-Sayed ended up losing his bid, as did Bush and labor lawyer Brent Welder, another congressional contender that Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders appeared with in Kansas. But civil-rights activist Rashida Tlaib, who was also supported by the democratic socialist from New York, won a closely contested primary for a Michigan House seat and is now likely to become America’s first Muslim congresswoman. In Kansas, Thompson won his primary by a 2–1 margin; he’ll face incumbent Ron Estes in November.

Nonetheless, the pundits who reduce the struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party to a weekly scorecard were quick to note the defeats. But Ocasio-Cortez has said from the start that she won’t play it safe. She talks instead about a movement strategy: go for the wins that are possible, but also look to “build power” and “make unlikely races flippable for the next cycle.” That’s a smart way to use one’s newfound prominence to “advance the front lines for economic and social justice everywhere.” And make no mistake, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has a lot of newfound prominence.

Ever since she beat Crowley, the fourth-highest-ranking Democrat in the House, Ocasio-Cortez has been on a journey reminiscent of the one that swept the young winner of the 2004 Illinois Democratic Senate primary, Barack Obama, onto the national stage. She isn’t a member of Congress yet, but she is all over the late-night and Sunday talk shows and has keynoted Netroots Nation, as well as solo events in packed halls in Los Angeles and San Francisco. She has more than 820,000 Twitter followers, and candidates across the country covet her endorsement. Conservative media figures savage her as “a Marxist [and] communist running for election [as] a Democrat” (Rush Limbaugh), “downright scary” (Sean Hannity), and “petrifying” (Meghan McCain). And she has provoked feverish pontificating about whether Democrats might finally abandon the centrism favored by a circle of elite campaign donors and strategists, who imagine that America is so divided that it can no longer be stitched up into a great coalition in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal or even Obama’s “Yes We Can.”

Ocasio-Cortez wants Democrats to go big. “Don’t let them carve us up into red districts and blue districts and tell us where it is ‘possible’ and where it is ‘impossible.’ It’s all possible,” says the candidate who identifies as an organizer. “The status quo is not an option,” she tells a cheering crowd in a packed church in Ypsilanti. “There is no way forward but to fight for economic and social and racial justice for working Americans.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s call to arms pits her against the managerial elites who have made centrism the default position of the Democratic Party, even as it lost control of the presidency, Congress, the majority of governorships, and close to 1,000 state legislative seats. To renew its fortunes, grassroots activists argue that the party must stop pulling its punches. For these veteran campaigners and newcomers alike, Ocasio-Cortez speaks the language they want to hear from party leaders. When she took a poke at the billionaire class and its political pawns in early July—“New Rule: anyone that was cool with the GOP inventing $2 trillion out of thin air for freebies for people with yachts that have tiny yachts inside doesn’t get to demand how we pay for people who need chemotherapy treatments”—40,500 people retweeted the message and 168,000 “liked” it. DNC chair Tom Perez’s most popular Twitter message on the same day got 198 retweets and 359 likes.

On the campaign trail, Ocasio-Cortez rejects “either/or” politics and insists that “we have to champion each other as our whole selves,” linking the struggles for economic, social, and racial justice with a commitment to expanding the party’s range of candidates. There’s an urgency that surrounds her as she seizes what she describes as “the important window” to intervene in late-summer primaries on behalf of candidates backed by Justice Democrats, the group that also championed her primary run.

“There are a lot of people in this country who are counted out of everything,” she says. “They’re counted out of being seen as qualified; they are counted out in all sorts of ways and manners. I was counted out. When people who are counted out come together, that’s power.”

Ocasio-Cortez knows that many of the candidates she’s backing are running uphill races with little money. Some have already lost, and she knows that others will lose in the future. Yet she is ready to take risks in order to build a caucus of congressional newcomers that she hopes will include people like Thompson, Tlaib, and Massachusetts’s Ayanna Pressley, who heads to a primary on September 4.

For all the intensity of the moment, Ocasio-Cortez remains steady and focused. Yes, she is a vibrant campaigner, quick to embrace new allies, quicker still to lean into selfies with the young people who swarm around her at rallies. But she is also an astute activist who began wrestling with economic and social issues even before her 2008–09 stint as a college intern for then-Senator Edward Kennedy. Ocasio-Cortez understands the dynamics of campaigning as well as any Democratic strategist; she didn’t upset a 10-term incumbent through luck. She maintains a detail-oriented, almost studious approach to the political process. She checks in with candidates like Thompson and El-Sayed to get the lay of the land before embarking on a campaign swing. She peppers her speeches with historical details that connect with her audiences, adding recollections of the antislavery struggle in Kansas or of labor battles in Michigan. And she urges activists to “leave it all on the field” as they make campaigning a moral mission.

What’s most striking about Ocasio-Cortez, however, is her certainty that this mission is not about her. In interviews, she’ll discuss how her family’s own economic struggles influenced her decision to run in 2018. But on the trail, she spends her time detailing a program—a living-wage guarantee, single-payer health care, tuition-free college, immigrant rights (including abolishing ICE), criminal-justice reform—that addresses the hardships faced by tens of millions of people. There is nothing “super spooky” about this program, she explains; it is simply a plan for a country and a future that will “speak to people’s needs.”

Critics attack Ocasio-Cortez as inexperienced and unrealistic—in the words of National Review, “the unserious face of an unserious movement.” They could not be more wrong. Ocasio-Cortez can wonk out with the most dedicated policy analysts. A graduate of Boston University with an economics degree and a passion for digging deeply into budgets, she has hosted campaign events and exchanged ideas with Stephanie Kelton, the “rock-star economist” who contributes to the New Economic Perspectives blog. Ocasio-Cortez talks about “reprioritization”: having the “political and moral courage” to place the needs of working families ahead of the demands of billionaires for tax cuts, and ahead of a military budget packed with items that the Pentagon “didn’t even ask for.”

This rebalancing of priorities on the side of human needs has been at the heart of the American democratic-socialist impulse for more than a century. At least since Michael Harrington and others founded Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) decades ago, it’s been at the heart of efforts to move the Democratic Party to the left. It’s the program that Bernie Sanders brought to his 2016 presidential run, in which he explained that his ideas extended from those of FDR and Martin Luther King Jr.

Ocasio-Cortez describes this agenda with the ease of a post–Cold War millennial candidate who was born a month before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and who has no trouble distinguishing between Scandinavian-style social democracy and Soviet-style authoritarianism. When she’s asked what democratic socialism means to her, she replies: “We live in a society that is capable…of ensuring that we have basic frameworks where people can be covered by health insurance, can send their kids to college, where we can pursue a very bold action on climate change and save our future, and that is part of a moral and ethical economy…. I believe we are morally obliged to pursue it.”

Ocasio-Cortez is comfortable discussing ideas and ideologies that the political and media elites had successfully kept off the table until Sanders’s challenge in 2016, and which have been amplified by candidates backed by groups like DSA, Justice Democrats, and Brand New Congress. She is deeply engaged with debates about the direction not just of the Democratic Party but of American politics—so much so that late-night host Trevor Noah described her as “the dream of half the country and the nightmare of the other half.”

But it’s not really half and half. Polls find overwhelming support for a progressive platform that delivers health care, education, and economic fairness. Yet the elite minority who reject this agenda remain determined to thwart it with scare tactics, even to the point of ridiculousness. When Ocasio-Cortez traveled to St. Louis to campaign for Cori Bush, another Justice Democrats–backed contender running against an entrenched incumbent in a primary, hundreds of their supporters gathered at a local bar, the Ready Room, to cheer for a young Latina and a young African-American woman who proposed to break the boundaries of contemporary electioneering with an intersectional vision of politics. Virginia Kruta, the associate editor of the conservative Daily Caller website, was also there. Struck by the crowd’s intense response, she wrote: “I saw how easy it would be, as a parent, to accept the idea that my children deserve healthcare and education”—an admission that prompted The Late Show’s Stephen Colbert to quip, “Reading that is like watching someone almost have a light bulb go off in their head but not quite getting there.”

Ocasio-Cortez takes it all in stride. When Sean Hannity exposed her “dangerous” platform planks (“Medicare for All, Housing as a Human Right…”), the candidate tweeted: “Pretty much!” And that’s what really has people on the right shaking in fear: Ocasio-Cortez has a gift for explaining democratic-socialist ideas as common sense.

As Meghan McCain griped, “Some of us do not want socialism to be normalized in this country.” In fact, such ideas were normalized long ago. Like Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez also draws inspiration from FDR—for example, promoting the “Green New Deal” as a response to climate change. Yet when she and Sanders announced plans to campaign for Thompson in a Kansas district that backed Trump by 20 points, incumbent Republican Congressman Ron Estes’s campaign ripped Thompson for appearing with “the lunatic fringe of the extremist left pushing for socialist policies like raising taxes, abortion on demand and abolishing ICE.”

“Estes was saying I should disinvite her. That’s laughable,” Thompson recalls. “I think he’s scared by the message that when the working class stand together, they can beat the big money and the establishment.”

Sanders agrees: “What Alexandria did, in pulling off one of the great upsets in recent history, is show the folks in Kansas and states across this country that, yes, it can be done.”

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