The stunning victory in June by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old democratic socialist, over Representative Joseph Crowley, a 10-term incumbent and the heir apparent to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, has discombobulated the Democratic establishment and the mainstream media. “No one is safe,” an unnamed and somewhat hyperbolic Democratic strategist announced to ABC News.
The media that largely ignored Ocasio-Cortez’s unheralded, underfunded campaign now seem intent on misinterpreting it. On the right, she’s portrayed as a radical extremist leading the Democrats over a cliff. “Red Alert,” screamed the New York Post headline. “Young socialist upsets King of Queens,” the paper continued, while proclaiming Ocasio-Cortez the “vanguard of the Democratic Party.” The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank rushed to debunk rumors of a broader insurgency, asserting that Crowley lost “because of the changing demographics in his district.” Pelosi echoed that point: “They made a choice in one district…. We have an array of genders, generations, geography, and the rest—opinion—in our caucus, and we’re very proud of that.”
Happily, Ocasio-Cortez, a volunteer for Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign who took three jobs to help her family fight off foreclosure after her father died of cancer during the financial crisis, was far more lucid about her victory. “We beat a machine with a movement,” she said. “We’re in the middle of a movement in this country…. That movement is going to come from voters…. It’s not just one district.”
Her stunning victory and those of other progressives should put to rest many of the misleading narratives of recent months. For example, she dismisses the tension between identity and ideology as a false choice. As she told Nation reporter Raina Lipsitz, “I can’t name a single issue with roots in race that doesn’t have economic implications, and I cannot think of a single economic issue that doesn’t have racial implications. The idea that we have to separate them out and choose one is a con.”
Ocasio-Cortez swamped Crowley with 57 percent of the vote in a district that is about 70 percent people of color. But some of her biggest margins came in Queens neighborhoods like Astoria and Sunnyside, among the whitest areas in the district, which are increasingly attracting young, creative types—who are also most inclined to support insurgent left candidates. As Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir concluded, “If she got Latino voters excited because she looked like them and spoke their language, she got Bernie Sanders voters excited for exactly the same reason.”
Ocasio-Cortez points out that the focus on “identity” also discounts the hard work of her grassroots campaign. Crowley is head of the Queens Democratic machine, so powerful that he hadn’t had a primary opponent in years, and he outspent her 10 to 1. She countered with small donations and shoe leather—a volunteer army who knocked on doors and leafleted at subways. That isn’t easy, and it’s a testament to Ocasio-Cortez’s candidacy and campaign that she could overcome those barriers so decisively.
Her victory—and that of Ben Jealous for the Democratic nomination for governor of Maryland, as well as down-ballot candidates like Summer Lee and Sara Innamorato this past spring—also put the lie to the mainstream media’s charge that the insurgency begun by Sanders was “flailing,” unable to translate his popularity into victories in the primaries. In fact, more and more of the party’s “mainstream” candidates are embracing elements of the Sanders agenda, particularly Medicare for All. And progressive challengers have fared remarkably well in primary battles. As Nebraska Democratic state chair Jane Kleeb, a board member of the Sanders spin-off group Our Revolution, noted: “We have about a 50 percent win record, which I think is a miracle given the fact that we usually endorse the underdog, or a woman, or a person who comes from a community of color.” And, as any organizer will attest, the challengers who fall short are helping to build the movement and spread the agenda.
New York’s 14th Congressional District is one of the most Democratic in the country, but Ocasio-Cortez’s victory directly challenges the established party’s encrusted ways, which favor candidates who can raise big money. The party’s operatives still advise caution in promoting bold ideas like Medicare for All, which can alienate deep-pocketed donors. “The Democratic Party takes working-class communities for granted; they take people of color for granted,” Ocasio-Cortez said. The party assumes “that we’re going to turn out no matter how bland or half-stepping [their] proposals are.”
Ocasio-Cortez ran not just against Trump but in favor of a strong progressive agenda: Medicare for All, tuition-free public college, a $15 minimum wage, a federal jobs guarantee, a green New Deal, abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, and more. As she told Stephen Colbert on The Late Show after her victory, “In a modern, moral, and wealthy society, no person in America should be too poor to live.”
“We were so clear about our values,” she added. “We were always naming what we wanted to accomplish.” The contrast with Crowley wasn’t merely about generation and identity; it was about clarity and boldness. She got that right, and the party and its candidates would do well to pay attention.