“Where did I get off?” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tells the New Yorker‘s David Remnick in a new profile of the 28-year-old democratic socialist for Congress. “I mean, I’m going to tell people that I, as a waitress, should be their next congresswoman?”
By now I suspect most people in the United States, or at least those on the left, know about Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning 13-point victory over Congressman Joe Crowley, the man who has served parts of Queens and the Bronx since 1999, is the fourth-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives and, as Remnick and others have put it, “the most powerful politician in Queens County.” Most people may also know that Ocasio-Cortez is a second-generation Puerto Rican American born in the Bronx, was waiting tables at a taco-and-tequila bar late last year, and, come November, will mostly likely become the youngest woman ever elected to the United States Congress.
I wouldn’t say her primary win surprised me. The demographics, for one, were on her side: if a young, socialistic Latina from a working-class background was going to win a Democratic primary, New York’s 14th district — which has changed a lot since Crowley’s early days in Congress, and is now almost 50 percent Latino and over 11 percent black — would be the place for it. (My native district, Illinois’ 4th, also comes to mind.)
But Latino voters don’t merely elect Spanish names, and many Latinos, especially the older ones, flinch at any socialist rhetoric, their families having emigrated from countries where charismatic men sought public office promising everything to the poor and oppressed, only to see those same men turn Trumpish once in power. So while demographics almost certainly helped Ocasio-Cortez win, demographics alone don’t explain why she won. As Kshama Sawant’s election to the Seattle City Council in 2013 showed, and as Remnick suggests in his piece, Ocasio-Cortez whipped Crowley because people are growing more and more open to socialism — especially young people:
In 2016, the Institute of Politics, at Harvard’s Kennedy School, polled people between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine, and discovered that support for capitalism was surprisingly low. Fifty-one per cent of the cohort rejected capitalism; thirty-three per cent supported socialism. A later edition of the survey found that fifty-one per cent were ‘fearful about the future,’ while only about twenty per cent were hopeful. John Della Volpe, the director of polling at the institute, told me that he was so surprised about the results of the survey that he repeated it to make sure they were accurate.
Everyone talks about how progressive we millennials are. Our progressivism springs from various sources — the ascendancy of media and information technology is a glaring one — though two causes seem the most immediate, at least to me. First, there is no denying that the world we millennials inherited was a product of the equal-rights movements of the 1960s, as well as the birth of neoliberalism in the 1970s, which ushered in nearly half a century of widening economic inequality. Second, and related to the latter part of the first, we came of age during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, seeing everyone around us lose their homes, lose their jobs and, thus, lose faith in capitalism. Add to these the devolution of the mainstream media, the partisan warring that has practically sabotaged our system of government, the nation’s increasing awareness of police brutality toward every sector of society not rich and white, including the resurrection of white nationalism itself, all of which has led most of my cohorts to believe that the status quo must go.
Ocasio-Cortez, as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, provides yet another harbinger of the looming shift toward social and economic justice. But she is only the beginning, and not nearly what will be required in the end. Her socialism, while better than Bernie’s social democracy, still counts plutocratic populists like Bobby Kennedy among its highest heroes; never will you hear her utter the name Trotsky, Luxemburg, or even old man Marx himself. This is all calculated on her part, to be sure: she wants to win elections, doesn’t she? Yet for all her talk about abolishing I.C.E., tuition-free college and “Medicare for all,” she, like Bernie, still focuses her efforts on relieving the symptoms of late capitalism (“capitalism in extremis“), instead of on replacing capitalism altogether. Hers is a politics of the could be, not of the should be. And while the co-editor of Dissent and D.S.A. member Michael Kazin doesn’t expect to see “a socialist transformation of America in [his] lifetime,” nor I in mine, no future generation will see one either unless we stop talking about what’s possible and start talking about what’s necessary.
Featured image: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Jesse Korman/Wikimedia Commons)