Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the left’s current “it” congresswoman, is a fantasy candidate. Indeed, some lefties harbor fantasies of amending the Constitution so the 29-year-old could run for president. Understanding this basic point is key to grasping the degree to which we live in an era of fantasy politics.
Consider the current field of announced and likely Democratic presidential candidates. They are a sorry bunch.
Sen. Kamala Harris is sorry for her record as district attorney of San Francisco and attorney general of California. Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has a similar problem regarding his record on criminal justice. Former vice president Joe Biden is sorry for the 1994 crime bill and his handling of the Clarence Thomas hearings.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren must atone for having been a Republican until 1996. Sen. Kristen Gillibrand regrets her prior, more conservative positions on issues like immigration, campaign finance, and the Second Amendment. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard apologizes for her prior stance on LGBTQ issues. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke apologizes for a decades-old theater review that used demeaning language about women. Sen. Bernie Sanders is sorry many times over that some of his 2016 campaign staff engaged in sexual misconduct, and he’s probably still sorry he once wrote about women having gang rape fantasies.
These declarations of contrition (or attrition) are generally viewed through the lens of a Democratic Party lurching leftward. The more basic lesson is that in this populist moment, having political experience––whether in campaigning or governing––is viewed by many as a negative.
America has been headed toward this point for some time. Former President Barack Obama recognized the value of being “a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.” It was no accident that his record in the Senate was comprised largely of minor legislation passed by unanimous consent or voice vote. Or that for all the mileage he got from opposing the Iraq War in his presidential campaign, his record on the issue in the Senate was more opportunistic.
There also was an element of this in President Donald Trump’s success as someone with no experience in elected office. Granted, he had a long record of public statements, but if he once attacked Pat Buchanan and the GOP as “too crazy right,” few cared. Trump was to be taken seriously, but not literally.
This populist attitude now represents the governing faction in the GOP. It is also where the energy is within the base of Democratic Party following Hillary Clinton’s defeat.
Ocasio-Cortez’s Rise To Fame
Accordingly, it is no wonder that Ocasio-Cortez became an overnight political sensation. It was not only that she scored an upset over a quite traditional incumbent like Joe Crowley, or that she is attractive and likeable. It was also that Ocasio-Cortez, having no personal track record in politics, was free to be the living embodiment of a Democratic Socialists of America flyer pasted on a lamppost.
Ocasio-Cortez appeared at a moment when her party is being driven by a disproportionately white, wealthy, and more credentialed elite in tension with a more diverse, more working class rank-and-file. One of the points of tension is the progressive elite’s use of political correctness to enforce the Maoist apology culture currently ensnaring Democrats with political records (it’s a nifty way to try to consolidate one’s power within the party and society).
Ocasio-Cortez fits the progressive elite’s fantasy profile for the party and its future: a woman of color and former bartender who champions their far-left agenda. That platform, incidentally, is even more of a fantasy than Ocasio-Cortez is. Medicare for All, the so-called Green New Deal, and abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement are all things even progressive politicians cannot figure out how to sell or implement.
Fantasy politics requires fantasy politicians like Ocasio-Cortez. A politician without a record is a politician who has yet to disappoint when faced with the harsh realities of governing a sprawling, diverse nation.
The Twin Pulls of Disappointment and Fantasy
Disappointment and fantasy form a vicious circle that drives our current politics. Americans currently have low trust in our institutions. Some of this distrust is rooted in the real failures of our so-called elites. Yet some is rooted in disappointment that our so-called elites cannot satisfy all of our conflicting desires.
This disappointment fuels a sense of losing on the left, no matter how much the right sees them as winning. The left lost the White House, despite winning the popular vote. They lost the chance to put two leftists on the Supreme Court, once because the dreaded Sen. Mitch McConnell held a vacancy open through an election. The Roberts court is dealing them a string of losses, with the notable exception of the Obamacare decision which, of course, fueled disappointment on the right.
This sense of losing almost invariably leads to the fantasy of winning. “Just wait until next year” is the losing sports fan’s immediate lament, and politics is increasingly viewed in this way.
So when Ocasio-Cortez complains that “there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right,” it resonates with many Democrats in part because they are already indulging fantasies of future victory. In Marxist fashion, they believe they must win eventually because they think themselves righteous. The details are irrelevant.
Ironically, this sort of magical thinking poses its own threat to a 29-year-old congresswoman with any ambitions to higher office. Ocasio-Cortez supports Medicare for All. But Harris just floated the idea of entirely eliminating private health insurance. Ocasio-Cortez supports a 70 percent tax bracket for the uber-wealthy. But Warren is pitching a wealth tax. Ocasio-Cortez supports abolishing ICE — but eventually, someone will propose the same. Fantasies, as it turns out, are virtually unlimited.
Ocasio-Cortez is now an elected official, which means she is on the clock. By the time she considers running for higher office, she will be made to apologize for her failures of imagination. As anyone who has seen any version of “A Star Is Born” knows, there is always a newer, fresher fantasy figure waiting to claim center stage.