Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shocked the US political status quo by winning of the Democratic primary in New York City over her establishment rival and predicted Party leader in waiting Joe Crowley. Since then she has become a flashpoint for both hope and controversy. For progressives, she is a sign that the corrupt oligarchy that is US two-party politics is thankfully at the beginning of its end. For “moderates” and the Right she represents the threat of a rising socialist wave that challenges their power and the influence of their corporate donors.
Despite her status as a sudden 21st century leftist icon, her nomination for progressives has not been uncomplicated. Her status as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America certainly gives her a strong cache among many left-wing activists and has piqued the interest of certain members of the mainstream media. Yet it also raises questions as to whether it is possible to wage a genuine political revolution against the free market through elections. The fear is that it will inevitably lead Ocasio-Cortez to make ideological compromises that will ultimately politically compromise her.
These fears, for many, have been borne out in recent statements by the candidate. First there was the minor kerfuffle over her less than strident or seemingly informed defense of Palestine in interview. Such difficulties could be easily chalked up to initial growing pains of being in the national limelight and having to address a complex and politically sensitive issue. More serious, at least for her detractors from the vocal Left, is her tweet that Republicans were “weak on crime” and “weak on family values”. For those who lived through the 90s and for a younger generation still scarred by historical impact of Clintonism, these words spelled the inevitable move to the Centre that plagues all mainstream US politicians.
Yet there is a potentially different interpretation of this proclamation - one that reveals her to be Ocasio-Cortez more politically radical and transformative than may be at first thought. In a bold stroke she is attempting to progressively redefine precisely what it means to be strong on “family values” and “crime”. She is not simply echoing the playbook of the Right but in a less fanatical tone. Instead, she is arguing that to promote the same old Conservative policies that attack the vulnerable for the profit of the elite few is utterly “weak” and reveals distinct lack of political courage to take on the powerful for the benefit of the many.
Promoting Strong Progressivism
Since entering the national spotlight, Ocasio-Cortez symbolized the possibility of a political sea change. While most commentators are fixated on “Russiagate” and the potential of a “Blue Wave”, she has unabashedly championed the “political revolution” associated most heavily with the insurgent presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders. Suddenly democratic socialism was popular and its supporters growing in number. Free college, health care, and a federal jobs guarantee were now firmly on the agenda. In one fell swoop, Ocasio-Cortez had managed to not just topple a major player in the status quo but also fundamentally change the national debate.
It was precisely for this reason that her comments about family values and crime were so disheartening to a number of her supporters - not surprising to many in the Left. With popularity, the pull to embrace traditional “American values” becomes ever strong and perhaps unavoidable. Digging deeper, these comments are much less damning. Firstly they were part of a broader condemnation of the Republicans for being :
- "weak on fighting for working-class Americans"
- "weak on crime"
- "weak on equal rights"
- "weak on national security"
- "weak on rejecting racism"
- "weak on moral courage"
- "weak on family values”
In this context, it echoes Sanders ongoing efforts to redefine “family values” as revolving around progressive policies of paid family leave and broad-based economic security. Quoting from his current website on “real family values” he declares: “The right has claimed the mantle of “family values” for far too long.....When it comes to supporting real family values, the United States lags behind virtually every major country on earth. We are the only advanced economy that doesn’t guarantee its workers some form of paid family leave, paid sick leave or paid vacation time.”
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In doing so, both are proclaiming that the Right no longer has the monopoly on quite literally defining the terms of our political debate. That progressives have every intention of fighting and winning the culture war that Centrists have for decades shied away from. And most importantly, that strength is found not in punishing minorities or women in the name of “traditional” values but in fighting for a more inclusive and egalitarian society.
Courage not Compromise
This challenging of “traditional” politics is part of a broader struggle to reconfigure how to take on the GOP. Presently, Democrats have kept to the same political playbook introduced by the Clintons of co-opting the values of the right to win the support of “moderate” swing voters. It was at it heart an attempt to constantly win the political “center ground”.
In sharp contrast, Ocasio-Cortez has stated loud and clear that the failure to push for actual progressive values is due to a severe lack of political courage. In her viral video that helped to propel her to victory, she claims “Women like me aren't supposed to run for office. I wasn't born to a wealthy or powerful family” and even more damning to the entrenched political class “It's time we acknowledge that not all Democrats are the same”. However, she saved perhaps the most important point for the end, proclaiming: “What the Bronx and Queens need are Medical for All and tuition-free public college, a federal jobs guarantee, and criminal justice reforms. We can do it now. It doesn’t take a hundred years to do this. It takes political courage.”
She has continued in this vein, arguing in a widely viewed Daily Show interview that she was “bringing moral courage to American politics.”
This demand for courage not compromise has revealed deep ideological divides between herself and other Democrats. Indeed, while most Democratic congressmen were “voting overwhelmingly for $716 billion military budget,” she was retweeting a popular leftist journalists satirical question of “but how will we pay for this?” This was a not so veiled attack on the Centers constant refrain that socialist ideas may be nice but are unaffordable and unrealistic.
Of course, the politics of redefinition runs the risk of never actually redefining the scope of politics itself. Put differently, there is real concern that to continue to use the language of the Right means to fundamentally accept to a certain extent their warped worldview where “family” and “crime” are considered inherent parts of the social order. Yet, deeply held changing political meanings could also be an opening to a more revolutionary transformation of the meaningful possibility of politics and social struggle.
Already, Ocasio-Cortez is traveling around the country in support of similar “progressive outsiders” to herself. Her goal seems to build solidarity around left-wing goals so that the “Blue wave” becomes a socialist red “tidal wave” hitting areas in the midwest that until recently was safe grounds for Republicans. The question not just for her but all of us is whether we will have the courage to continue to redefine politics, not in a hundred years but right now.