U.S. President Joe Biden speak with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)

U.S. President Joe Biden speak with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) following a speech at Prince William Forest Park on April 22, 2024 in Triangle, Virginia. Biden announced a new seven billion dollar "Solar For All" program with the Environmental Protection Agency as well as an American Climate Corps initiative while commemorating the 54th anniversary of Earth Day, started in 1970 to raise awareness and support for environmental protection.

(Photo by Andrew Harnik/Getty Images)

Breaking Down AOC Derangement Syndrome

Relentlessly tearing down one of our most effective leaders undermines the capacity for progressives to win. And win we must.

Last week, something exciting happened: The Biden Administration announced the official launch of the American Climate Corps (in addition to rolling out $7 billion in federal grants for residential solar investments in low-income communities).

When a Climate Corps program was initially proposed by organizations like the Sunrise Movement and Congressional leaders like Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, I remember thinking to myself, “Well that’s a lovely idea . . . but yeah right.” Reviving one of the most radical New Deal programs, the Civilian Conservation Corps, to put thousands of young people to work decarbonizing the country? It sounded like a leftwing pipedream. But there was Biden last week, standing next to AOC to describe in concrete, practical terms how you can now apply for a job with the Corps. After five years of electoral organizing, civil disobedience, and legislative advocacy pushing this proposal, it was an announcement worth celebrating—at least for a moment— before diving back into the fight.

But for a segment of the online left, this was not a moment to celebrate. For them, given Biden's terrible Gaza policy, there was only one relevant takeaway from the event: AOC, by standing next to the president showed she was a “a pathetic, spineless coward,” as one representative tweet on X put it. Nevermind that AOC has been one of the most sustained and effective critics of Biden’s uncritical support for Israel's war; nevermind that she provided arguably the highest-profile definition of Israel’s conduct in Gaza as an “unfolding genocide”; nevermind, even, that she took the opportunity at that very Earth Day event to loudly praise campus protesters. For AOC’s haters on the left (and I think “haters” is the right word, versus, say, “critics”—while all politicians deserve accountability, the people I’m referencing here are not those offering constructive critiques of AOC), the rollout of a visionary Green New Deal program that she introduced, that would almost certainly not exist without her organizing and leadership, was just one more opportunity to call AOC a traitor to the progressive cause.

This left-wing AOC derangement syndrome has a lot to say both about the brand of politics that AOC’s haters represent and the role she occupies within our political system.

But first, it bears noting that, according to every piece of private polling I’ve seen, AOC haters comprise an extremely small slice of the American left. They may be very loud on their preferred stomping ground over on X, formerly Twitter, but they do not represent the vast majority of us. What they do represent, to a profoundly precise degree, is a particular strain of leftist politics that has been an obstacle to the goals of our movement for a very long time. Indeed, one’s stance on AOC may just be the most accurate diagnostic test we’ve got of what a supposed leftist is most interested in. Do they want to change the world, or to engage in in-group masturbatory preening? Do they want to win, or do they want to lose?

This left-wing AOC derangement syndrome has a lot to say both about AOC’s haters and the brand of politics they represent, and about AOC and the role she has taken on within our political system.

Much has been written about the proclivity of some on the left to valorize defeat—to, as my friend Sam Adler-Bell put it, “imagine there is some meaningful consolation in losing righteously.” But for those of us who take our progressive values seriously, securing a fairer world and a livable future is not just a social media talking point. It’s a necessity. In the oft-repeated words of Assata Shakur, it is not only “our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win.”

Taking seriously one’s duty to win requires having a theory of change that is grounded in reality. Of course, different progressive organizers, movements, and elected officials can employ a range of varied yet equally valid visions for how we win. But to be grounded in reality means, at the very least, accepting that we live in a majoritarian democracy in which winning real change requires getting to 50% + 1. (It’s true that the authoritarian right has worked for decades to change this, to instantiate its will through the creation and maintenance of minoritarian structures, from Republican gerrymandering and voter suppression to the Federalist Society’s takeover of our courts. But that only means that, in those arenas, it’s necessary to build even broader majoritarian support to overcome and reverse those antidemocratic developments.)

That fact is not an invitation to fall back on David Shor-style “popularism,” a shallow strategy that takes for granted the immovability of the public and preemptively surrenders our ability to make bigger, more structural changes. Social movements can—and, indeed, must—shift the horizon of what’s possible. But you can’t accomplish that by retreating to your in-group lefty clubhouse, talking only to your small circle of current believers, and waiting for the world to magically change. It requires a disciplined focus on winning over persuadable people, growing our movement, engaging in coalition politics, and making once-radical propositions seem reasonable, even mundane. These are all things that AOC does incredibly well. And they’re the very same proclivities that her haters use to brand her an enemy of the cause.

Yet this approach to politics has been essential in helping the left win a series of progressive victories over the course of Biden’s first term. Indeed, in the last week alone, the administration has ordered power companies to cut pollution from coal plants, banned non-compete agreements for 40 million Americans, raised overtime wages for four million salaried workers, forced airlines to automatically offer refunds for canceled flights and poorly handled baggage, banned illegal junk fees in mortgage lending, and blocked a major corporate merger, among other significant actions.

While it’s understandable to feel that Democratic failures on Israel/Palestine overshadow accomplishments like these, they don't negate the concrete impact of such gains for millions of Americans, and they shouldn't erase the countless organizers who helped achieve these wins.

You’d need a persuasive argument for why our movements—for a livable future, unions for all, reproductive justice, and so much more—aren’t massively better off under Biden than Trump. I haven’t heard any such argument from AOC’s haters.

Of course, the most vitriolic attacks on AOC stem from her support for Biden’s reelection. But what is the alternative strategy? AOC has a clear theory of change for her position: “I think about what conditions do I want to be organizing under in the next four years . . . I would rather, even in places of stark disagreement, I would rather be organizing under the conditions of Biden as an opponent on an issue than Trump . . . I am taking [Trump’s threat to democracy] very seriously, because we will not be able to organize for any movement towards anything [under] the kind of authoritarianism that he threatens.” That’s a strong, empirically-rooted analysis. It’s possible to disagree with her position. But you’d need a persuasive argument for why our movements—for a livable future, unions for all, reproductive justice, and so much more—aren’t massively better off under Biden than Trump. I haven’t heard any such argument from AOC’s haters, or any competing, reality-based theories of change regarding the 2024 election. (To be clear, third parties don’t work in winner-take-all electoral systems, almost by definition. The only way a third party can win in a system like ours is by supplanting another party, which necessarily means it’s no longer a third party, just the other half of a structurally similar duopoly).

And I do not say this as a blind Biden partisan. I was involved in some of the very first conversations kicking off the initial “vote uncommitted” campaign in New Hampshire this year, and in my home state’s presidential primary last month I actively encouraged people to join me in voting uncommitted. These campaigns had a clear, strategic theory of change: to push Biden on Gaza now, prior to the general election, by demonstrating in the most difficult-to-ignore way that recreating his 2020 coalition will be much, much harder if he doesn’t change course. Unsurprisingly, AOC was the highest-profile politician in the country to make an argument in support of this movement—as she so often is.

Of course, I know that nothing written here has a chance of influencing any AOC haters; that group has made up its mind on the subject. This plea is for all the rest of us. Our movement needs to start calling out AOC derangement syndrome for what it is. It’s not just stupid. It’s not just cynical. It is, in actual fact, the perfect distillation of a strain of left politics that represents a betrayal of our cause. As progressives, we have a duty to win. Relentlessly tearing down one of our most effective leaders—someone who’s proven she is able to use both the legislative process and the bully pulpit to move us materially closer to the world we need and deserve—undermines our capacity to win. And that is unforgivable.

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