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.