The victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over the third most powerful Democrat in the House of Representatives, Joe Crowley, this week has sent shockwaves through the party. Much like Republican Eric Cantor’s loss in 2014, the upset suggests deep disunity and a desire to punish the old establishment in favor of a radical new vision. In Ocasio-Cortez’s case, that vision is so progressive as to potentially remake the Democratic Party.
The 28-year-old political neophyte is not just a Bernie Sanders campaign veteran and supporter, but a voice to the left of the old man from Vermont on many issues. Indeed, Crowley was not some blue-dog, pro-life Democrat, but a reliable progressive vote whose great sin in Ocasio-Cortez’s eyes was his reliance on corporate money. Crowley seems at peace with his loss and the changes it may create. After his defeat, he grabbed a guitar and crooned “Born to Run” to the victor.
But not everyone seems quite so thrilled. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi attempted to downplay the result. She suggested it was just another local election in a very blue New York City district and did not represent a Democratic Party careening towards the socialism the young nominee embraces.
So which is it? Is this just a young, attractive, demographically perfect candidate ousting a ten-term congressman who’d gotten a little stale? Or does it represent a sea change in how Democrats are going to run and, if they win, govern? To answer that, we need to know how the Democrats will confront five challenges that Ocasio-Cortez’s victory presents.
1 Are Democrats The Party Of Open Borders?
Over the past couple of decades it has been easy to tell whether the Democrats are in or out of power based on their rhetoric regarding illegal immigration. Under Obama this was a question full of hard choices. Massive deportations, including those that separated families, took place at an alarming rate and were accepted as a necessary means to secure our border. Even abuses of migrant children were ignored under Obama, who was given the benefit of the doubt that he was acting in good faith.
But something happens when Republicans take power. Somehow securing the border suddenly becomes something akin to fascism. It becomes racist and inhumane, and Democrats run on promises regarding immigration that they never seem to keep. Ocasio-Cortez is running on a promise to abolish the U.S. Department of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.
Let’s be clear about what this means. It means complete amnesty, as it means eliminating the main authority set up to keep trespassing foreign citizens out of the country. Under her plan, the border would become a loosely protected turnstile with little to no enforcement. Are Democrats prepared to make this part of their platform?
2 How Much Anti-Semitism Is Okay?
Standing behind Ocasio-Cortez at her victory party was Thomas Lopez-Pierre. Lopez Pierre is a major supporter and former City Council candidate who ran promising to protect constituents from “greedy Jewish landlords.” He also circulated an email to potential supporters about having a meeting to “discuss the potential damage to the political empowerment of the Black and Hispanic community if Mark Levine, a white/Jewish candidate was elected to the 7th Council District.”
With the emergence of photographs of Obama with infamous anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan and questions about Rep. Keith Ellison’s relationship to him, Democrats are edging into questionable ground on this issue. How much anti-Semitism is acceptable? Are there very fine people on both sides of this issue? Or must the party denounce bigots like Lopez-Pierre?
3 Are Democrats Socialists?
The central question facing Democrats going forward, especially into the next presidential cycle, is whether they will move to the center, as leaders like Rep. Tim Ryan suggest, or careen farther into progressive leftism. What effect does having your new rising star label herself a democratic socialist have on that question?
For the 2018 midterms, Democrats may be able to have candidates in New York City who call for universal Medicaid and huge tax increases to pay for it, and candidates in Ohio who, well, don’t. But by 2020, a national message will need to be agreed upon. Which message will it be?
4 Are ZIP Codes Our Destiny?
In the viral Internet ad that played a big role in promoting Ocasio-Cortez’s message, one line stands out: “I was born in a place where your ZIP code determines your destiny.” Now, setting aside the fact that in her case this destiny likely includes being the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, we have to ask what this means, and if it is even remotely true.
This is where the “socialist” in democratic socialist comes into play, and why Democrats need to tread very carefully. ZIP code is a stand in here for demographic identity. There is a wing of the Democratic Party that believes the free market condemns people from “wrong” ZIP codes to poverty and oppression.
Their answer is not to invest in and do the hard work to make these ZIP codes more self-sustaining, but to punish other ZIP codes. We see this in Ocasio-Cortez’s own backyard, where progressive Mayor Bill deBlasio is trying to take spots in top public high schools away from high-performing Asian students because fewer blacks and Hispanics achieve enough to earn spots. Is this really a platform national Democrats want to embrace?
5 Are We All In On New York?
It really is a remarkable time in American politics when so much national political power is invested in politicians from one, albeit very large and wonderful, city. This includes the current president, who is obviously on the Republican side, but also on the Democratic side it includes the Senate minority leader, at least four viable 2020 Democratic nominee possibilities, and now the woman being touted as the future face of the party.
Hillary Clinton arguably lost because, as Woody Allen points out in Annie Hall, regarding Brooklyn being the universe, “Brooklyn is not the expanding” Hard as that is for some of us to believe, it appears to somehow be true. Should Democrats focus so much energy and attention to the bright lights of Gotham, or do they risk losing in the places with forests and trees? It’s an intriguing dilemma, and one they have about a year to work out.
People paying attention have known for some time that there are deep fissures in the Democratic Party. Of late, a passionate disdain for Trump has glossed them over. But Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise victory brings them front and center again.
Crowley did nothing wrong. He wasn’t ousted for any sin other than not representing the socialist wing of the party. For him, in his district, that was disqualifying enough. Is this the party Democrats want? Is it one they can win with across the country? They better decide, or at least try to, as it turns out the decision may well be made for them.