Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Historic Win and the Future of the Democratic Party | The New Yorker
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is twenty-eight. She was born in the Parkchester neighborhood of the Bronx and lives there now, in a modest one-bedroom apartment. Parkchester was originally a planned community conceived by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company and was for decades segregated, predominantly Irish and Italian. Today, it’s largely African-American, Hispanic, and South Asian. Ocasio-Cortez comes from a Puerto Rican family in which the parents’ self-sacrifice has been rewarded by their daughter’s earnest striving, and, now, a historic achievement. Come November, Ocasio-Cortez is almost certain to become the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. As recently as ten months ago, she was waiting tables at a taco place near Union Square called Flats Fix. On June 26th, she pulled off a political upset in the Democratic primary for the Fourteenth Congressional District, soundly defeating the incumbent, Joseph Crowley, the most powerful politician in Queens County and the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives.
We sat down at a table near the window. She allowed that she was getting worn down. “You’re speaking to me when I am still emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and logistically processing all of this,” she said. “The whole thing’s got me knocked a little flat.”
With good reason. Not long ago, Ocasio-Cortez was mixing margaritas. Today, she is the embodiment of anti-corporate politics and a surge of female candidates in the midterm elections. “It’s a lot to carry,” she said. As a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, she was on the receiving end of Murdoch-media hysteria. The Post greeted her win with the headline “RED ALERT.” Sean Hannity pronounced her “downright scary.” And Ben Shapiro called her a member of the “howling at the moon” segment of the Democratic Party. On the anti-Trump right, Bret Stephens wrote in the Times that “Hugo Chávez was also a democratic socialist,” and warned that, in a national election, the likes of Ocasio-Cortez will be “political hemlock for the Democratic Party.” None of it seemed exactly real. When I asked her where she was going to live in D.C., her eyes widened in surprise, as if it had not occurred to her that she would no longer be spending most of her time in the Bronx. “Not a clue,” she said.
One of her most effective strokes was a two-minute-long video, the creation of Naomi Burton and Nick Hayes, D.S.A. activists from Detroit, who started Means of Production, a media-production company, and set out looking for working-class-oriented campaigns. They learned about Ocasio-Cortez on Facebook and sent her a direct message on Twitter. For less than ten thousand dollars, they produced a soulful social-media-ready film that showed the candidate in her apartment, on a subway platform, in a bodega, talking with a pregnant woman, to kids selling cupcakes. All the while, in voice-over, she speaks directly to the viewer:
Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office. I wasn’t born to a wealthy or powerful family. . . . This race is about people versus money. We’ve got people, they’ve got money. It’s time we acknowledged that not all Democrats are the same. That a Democrat who takes corporate money, profits off foreclosure, doesn’t live here, doesn’t send his kids to our schools, doesn’t drink our water or breathe our air cannot possibly represent us. What the Bronx and Queens needs is Medicare for all, tuition-free public college, a federal jobs guarantee, and criminal-justice reform.
The video went viral. Something was afoot.
On Election Day, in a car on the way to the billiards hall where Ocasio-Cortez was going to watch the returns, some of her advisers were getting encouraging reports from polling places. Shut it down, she said. No more looking at phones, no more guessing: “Let’s see the vote.” That night, cameras captured her expression of shock as she watched the news: a thirteen-point landslide. She had no words. It was a moment of pure joy playing out live on television. Crowley gamely accepted the results and, with a pickup band behind him, took out his guitar and dedicated “Born to Run” to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. For a man in six kinds of pain, he sang a creditable version.
If the Murdoch press was predictably outraged, some establishment Democrats were wary, too. Nancy Pelosi dismissed the win as a local phenomenon. And, while her tone was curt and superior, her larger point was clear: in November, Democratic candidates, no matter what shade of blue, had to beat Republicans. Districts had to flip. At dinner, Ocasio-Cortez bristled at the establishment dismissals. She did not doubt that there were many factors in her win—her identity as a young woman, as a Latina, as a daughter of a working-class family—but she had also out-organized a party boss, hammered away at immigration and health-care issues, and brought out new voters. It was infuriating for her to listen to the condescension.
“I’m twenty-eight years old, and I was elected on this super-idealistic platform,” she said. “Folks may want to take that away from me, but I won. When you hear ‘She won just for demographic reasons,’ or low turnout, or that I won because of all the white ‘Bernie bros’ in Astoria—maybe that all helped. But I smoked this race. I didn’t edge anybody out. I dominated. And I am going to own that.” The more complicated question was how she was going to own her identity as a democratic socialist.
When Ocasio-Cortez is interviewed now, particularly by the establishment outlets, she is invariably asked about “the S-word,” socialism; sometimes the question is asked with a shiver of anxiety, as if she were suggesting that schoolchildren begin the day by singing the “Internationale” under a portrait of Enver Hoxha. When I asked her about her political heroes, though, there was no mention of anyone in the Marxist pantheon. She named Robert F. Kennedy. In college, reading his speeches—“that was my jam,” she said. R.F.K., at least in the last chapter of his life, his 1968 Presidential campaign, tried to forge a party coalition of workers, minorities, and the middle class.
D.S.A., which was founded in 1982, is not a party but a dues-paying organization, and it has seen a bump in membership recently, from five thousand in 2016 to more than forty thousand today. The first co-chairs were Harrington and the author Barbara Ehrenreich. David Dinkins, the former mayor of New York, was a member of D.S.A. There’s no question that some members are Marxists in the traditional sense; some want to see the destruction of capitalism and the state ownership of factories, banks, and utilities. Jabari Brisport, a D.S.A. member from Brooklyn who recently ran, unsuccessfully, for City Council, told me that the group is “a big umbrella organization for left and leftish types, from Bernie-crats to hard-core Trotskyists.” Julia Salazar, a D.S.A. member in her mid-twenties who is running for the New York State Senate with the ardent support of Ocasio-Cortez, told Jacobin, a leftist quarterly, that a democratic socialist “recognizes the capitalist system as being inherently oppressive, and is actively working to dismantle it and to empower the working class and the marginalized in our society.”
Ocasio-Cortez and, for the most part, the people around her speak largely in the language of Sanders. Sanders calls himself a democratic socialist, and yet in the most extensive speech he ever gave on the theme—at Georgetown University, in November, 2015—he did not mention Debs. Rather, he focussed almost entirely on Franklin Roosevelt and the legacy of the New Deal. He said that he shared the vision that F.D.R. set out in his 1944 State of the Union speech, what Roosevelt called the Second Bill of Rights. Sanders pointed out that universal health care was “not a radical idea” and existed in countries such as Denmark, France, Germany, and Taiwan. “I don’t believe government should own the means of production,” he said, “but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal.”
Ocasio-Cortez and her circle focus less on the malefactions of the current Administration than on the endemic corruption of the American system, particularly the role of “dark money” in American politics and the lack of basic welfare provisions for the working classes and the poor. When they hear conservatives describe as a “socialist” Barack Obama—a man who, in their view, had failed to help the real victims of the financial crisis, while bailing out the banks—they tend to laugh ruefully. “I think the right did us a service calling Obama a socialist for eight years,” Saikat Chakrabarti, one of Ocasio-Cortez’s closest associates, said. “It inoculated us. But people focus on the labels when they are not sure what they mean. What people call socialism these days is Eisenhower Republicanism!”
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