How far can the left go in the Democratic Party?

June 28, 2018

Alan Maass and Elizabeth Schulte analyze the upset victory of socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — and look at some of the questions for the left that it raises.

NO ONE predicted the stunning victory of a 28-year-old Latina socialist in a New York City primary election for Congress on Tuesday.

But in retrospect, this political bombshell is a sign of the times — especially the deep desire for an alternative to the meek and compromised Democratic Party leadership that usually goes unanswered.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won the primary vote against Joe Crowley, a 10-term member of the House of Representatives, where 97 percent of incumbents running for re-election won in 2016. The last time Crowley faced any primary opponent at all, Ocasio-Cortez was 13 years old.

Not only that, but Crowley is the fourth-most powerful Democrat in the House and was thought to be a possible future House Speaker. He had plenty of money: According to Politico, Crowley spent $1.1 million on his primary campaign between the beginning of April and June 6. Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign spent $128,140 in the same period.

Left: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; right: Democratic leaders in Congress, with Rep. Joe Crowley (at left)
Left: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; right: Democratic leaders in Congress, with Rep. Joe Crowley (at left)

One of the top national leaders of the Democratic Party was beaten decisively by a card-carrying member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

Ocasio-Cortez sounded the Bernie Sanders-inspired themes like Medicare for All that some liberal Democrats, even presidential hopefuls, have adopted. But she went further, calling, for example, for the abolition of ICE — in pointed contrast to Sanders’ feeble refusal to do so.

The New York Times seemed astonished to point out in its post-election analysis that “[d]ays before the election, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez had unexpectedly left New York entirely to travel to Texas to protest the ongoing separation of children from their parents who crossed the border illegally.”

And it wasn’t even close: Ocasio-Cortez won by a 15 percentage point margin.

Even more revealing is the fact that Crowley — the powerful “Queens County Democratic Party boss,” as the media continuously referred to him on Wednesday — managed fewer than 12,000 votes in a congressional district with a population of 712,053 as of 2010. That’s a sign of the hollowness of the political status quo that also drove support for Ocasio-Cortez.

OCASIO-CORTEZ wasn’t the only progressive figure to triumph on Tuesday or in primaries earlier this year. For example, Ben Jealous, the former NAACP president, won the Democratic primary for the Maryland governor’s race with an anti-Trump message that went against the grain of the party establishment.

What else to read

Socialist Worker readers and contributors are debating the lessons of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory in New York. SW’s coverage of the election began with this article:

Alan Maass and Elizabeth Schulte
How far can the left go in the Democratic Party?

Further contributions include:

Dorian B., Jason Farbman and Zach Zill
What can we do with the Democrats?

Alan Maass, Jen Roesch and Paul Le Blanc
Socialists, AOC and the Democratic Party

Aaron Amaral, Samuel Farber, Charlie Post and Shane James
A “socialist movement” in the Democratic Party?

Fainan Lakha
Getting concrete about AOC and the Democrats

Lucy Herschel
The old guideposts matter on new terrain

Owen Hill
What kind of break from the Democrats?

Kyle Brown
Elections and the socialist tradition

Hadas Thier
Independence and the Democratic Party

Todd Chretien
Revolutionaries, elections and the Democrats

Chris Beck
Who will win the Democratic tug of war?

Nate Moore and Craig McQuade
Independent inside the Democrats?

Eric Blanc
Socialists, Democrats and the dirty break

Robert Wilson
Seeing all the opportunities in elections

Alan Maass
Can socialists use the Democrats?

Elizabeth Wrigley-Field
On spoilers and dirty breaks

Paul Le Blanc and Steve Leigh
What do socialists take into account?

Joe Evica
What kind of break are we looking for?

Nate Moore
What should independence mean today?

Eric Blanc
On history and the dirty break

Nate Moore
Precedents for flexibility?

But Ocasio-Cortez’s victory rightly captured attention because of its historical significance. In a district where Republicans have no real chance in November, she is almost certain to break some barriers: the youngest woman elected to the House; one of the first young Latinas; the first member of a socialist organization in generations.

Beyond that, her success runs counter to the media’s conventional wisdom about this election cycle: that liberals and radicals inspired by Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential primary campaign may have energized the Democratic Party, but they aren’t winning elections.

There’s some truth to this. Before Tuesday, of 80 candidates endorsed by Sanders’ Our Revolution organization, fewer than half had won their primary contests. The party apparatus has been successful in a number of smear campaigns against progressive primary challengers.

Ocasio-Cortez’s left-wing campaign cut through that. In a campaign video that went viral on the internet, with more than half a million views, she said: “It’s time we acknowledge 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.”

Her victory reasserts the lesson of the 2016 election: that millions of people who loyally vote Democratic want an alternative to the conventional candidates they reluctantly cast a ballot for every two or four years.

Ocasio-Cortez has been especially effective in countering narratives that pit race against class. “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,” she said. “The idea that we have to separate them out and choose one is a con.”

Don’t expect the Democratic honchoes who take the corporate money and all the rest to be convinced of any of this, of course.

They may have to accept that one of their favorites got taken down by a socialist upstart, but they won’t make it easy for Ocasio-Cortez to use a seat in Congress and prominence in the party to project a left-wing message that runs counter to what they stand for.

Thus, Ocasio-Cortez’s victory is significant for everyone on the left, including those, like us at Socialist Worker, who stand for an independent alternative outside the Democrats.

Her victory should inspire anyone who doesn’t buy the party line that a radical message will alienate people, rather than unite and galvanize them. Ocasio-Cortez proved that left-wing politics are a source of strength, not weakness.

And she showed that left-wing politics shouldn’t be limited to appealing for votes, but should embrace protest and activism outside the polling booths — as far outside them, in fact, as the detention facilities along the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas are from the 14th congressional district’s precincts in the Bronx and Queens.

BUT AS significant as this victory is, the odds are still stacked against those, like Ocasio-Cortez, who hope to transform the Democratic Party — because the party establishment is dead set against being transformed. A case in point has been playing out this month.

After the 2016 election, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) established a “Unity Reform Commission” to supposedly heal the differences between Hillary Clinton supporters and Sanders supporters. But the DNC’s definition of “unity” is something out of George Orwell.

At its meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, in June, the commission wasn’t much interested in addressing the concerns of Sanders supporters, like the unfair superdelegate system. It was interested in drafting new rules to keep someone like Sanders from running.

According to a new requirement passed in Providence, candidates who would like to run in Democratic presidential primaries “shall affirm, in writing, to the National Chairperson of the Democratic National Committee that they: A) are a member of the Democratic Party; B) will accept the Democratic nomination; and C) will run and serve as a member of the Democratic Party.”

In other words, self-identified “democratic socialists” need not apply.

Maria Cardona, a veteran party strategist who worked for Clinton in 2016, explained that this was really all about “unity”: “It was done to ensure that the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party is actually a Democrat. The entire committee backed this. It was unanimous.”

So it turns out the “unity” commission did find unity — in opposition to interlopers trying to bring non-corporate-approved ideas into the party.

The DNC commission was so united that when a Sanders supporter turned up to observe the meeting, they accused her of being a spy...for the Russian government.

Selina Vickers, who traveled to Providence to attend the meeting on her own dime, told the Washington Post why she was there:

I was so frustrated with the superdelegate issue after the convention. Being able to go to the meetings and live-streaming them for others who can’t attend and talking to members about my concerns gives me a way to do something, rather than be at home, disconnected and powerless...I feel that my presence has a positive effect.

But DNC member Bob Mulholland had some less-than-positive feelings about Vickers’ presence in Providence: He accused her of working for a foreign government, like Russia.

PARTY LEADERS may have nice things to say about Ocasio-Cortez today, but their actions speak louder than words.

The party establishment tolerates left-wing outsiders — to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the circumstances — but it will do anything to maintain its iron grip on the party apparatus. This means making up the rules as they go along, and breaking them whenever it’s convenient.

Don’t forget the dirty tricks carried out against Sanders by Clinton allies in the supposedly neutral DNC. Or the tens of millions of dollars funneled to Clinton’s campaign through state parties, as the Las Vegas Review-Journal recently reported.

Sanders was a victim of the party machine during the primaries, but after Clinton won the nomination, he was one of the loudest voices calling for his supporters to quell their concerns and criticisms, and get behind a neoliberal, pro-corporate candidate they despised.

He has continued to call for progressives to work within the party to transform it, but his own actions this year have disappointed supporters.

There are reports of turmoil within Our Revolution itself, and local organizers say they are frustrated that the national organization has made decisions about what candidates to endorse without consulting them.

As for Sanders, he angered supporters with his refusal to the join the calls — popularized by people like Ocasio-Cortez, who he endorsed — to abolish ICE.

And in New York, where Cynthia Nixon is running for the party nomination for governor against incumbent and establishment mainstay Andrew Cuomo, Nixon has the endorsement of Our Revolution — but Sanders has failed to formally endorse the self-identified progressive challenger.

THE DISCUSSION about Ocasio-Cortez — what led to her victory, what it says about the Democratic Party, whether the party can be a vehicle for DSA members like her, how much they can accomplish toward their socialist goals — should continue on the left. There is much more to be said.

One thing is certain: The reaction of the Democratic establishment may be mostly respectful now, but it won’t stay that way.

Party leaders are investing everything in a strategy of running to the center for the 2018 elections. Thanks to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s strategy of recruiting candidates that stand well to the right of most base voters, Ocasio-Cortez will be a radical exception — by a long ways — among 2018 Democratic House candidates.

There will be a lot of pressure put on Ocasio-Cortez to shift her message — and especially to blunt her criticisms of other Democrats, all in the name of “stopping the Republicans.”

The same tired arguments about not driving away swing voters or giving Republicans an opening will be the justification, and Democratic operatives have shown no shame about going after anyone who rocks the boat.

Ocasio-Cortez has given no indication that she will be intimidated or fall into line.

Her response to an overconfident Crowley — when he demanded to know during one debate whether she would endorse him in the general election — was a declaration of very different loyalties: Ocasio-Cortez told Crowley that she was accountable to social movements...and would have to get back to him with their decision.

The Democrats won’t let that be the end of the matter, of course. Especially after November, if she wins, the party leadership will have a lot of means to keep her lonely among fellow House Democrats, unable to project, or find allies for, her proposals. In the best of circumstances, she will be one person up against a big machine.

As Sanders himself acknowledged recently: “There is not a lot of love, frankly, for either the Democratic or Republican Party and many people are discouraged with both. They’re turning away from both.

“So I think it is not a bad idea to have somebody who says, ‘I understand that. I am an independent...I have had to run against Democrats. But I want you, as independents, to come into the Democratic primaries and transform the Democratic Party.’”

This is the call that Ocasio-Cortez answered with her campaign against Crowley, and her victory is a testament to the appeal of a left political alternative that speaks to the concerns of working-class America, not the demands of corporate sponsors.

People organizing in struggle to confront the ICE terror machine, the Supreme Court’s assault on civil liberties and public-sector unions, and the misery and violence of a system run in the interests of profit and power will hopefully feel greater confidence in working toward that alternative.

But the left must, at the same time, examine whether Sanders’ promise of transforming the Democratic Party is a way forward — and if not, how we can build an independent force inspired by the kind of socialist ideals that Ocasio-Cortez expressed.

Further Reading

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