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.”