Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had another glowing profile this week, this time in New York Magazine, but unlike most of the glowing profiles she gets, she actually said something interesting within it. AOC made clear that she wants to start using her star power to enforce purity tests against her fellow Democrats, kicking out fake progressives from the movement.
Her main project going forward may be this: harnessing her immense star power and the legion of young lefties who see her as their avatar, not just to push the Democratic Party away from an obsession with its most moderate members but also to make the stuff of government, like congressional committee hearings and neighborhood town halls, into must-see TV.
She said the Congressional Progressive Caucus should start kicking people out if they stray too far from the party line. Other caucuses within the Democratic Party in Congress require applications, Ocasio-Cortez pointed out. But “they let anybody who the cat dragged in call themselves a progressive. There’s no standard,” she said.
The same goes for the party as a whole: “Democrats can be too big of a tent.”
It is comments like that that kept Ocasio-Cortez and the rest of the Democratic Party from reaching any kind of meaningful détente. I asked her what she thought her role would be as a member of Congress during, for instance, a Joe Biden presidency. “Oh God,” she said with a groan. “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America, we are.
Republicans will recognize the echo here of the 2010 version of Jim DeMint, who wanted to boot the Arlan Specters of the world and dreamed of a Senate filled with 30 Marco Rubios. Those were the days. But when DeMint advanced that contention, it was in a certain way less ambitious than what AOC is talking about today, and that makes for some interesting possibilities going forward.
DeMint accurately assessed that the Washington Republican establishment – meaning elected officials and the donor class – was less conservative and less populist than its voter base. But AOC recognizes that the progressive donor class is more aligned with her than with the Democratic leadership – that it looks more like Tom Steyer, and was all-in for impeachment in ways that helped the Squad push Nancy Pelosi down this inadvisable path. DeMint had to marshal small donors and grassroots activists against the dominant money – AOC may find that money at her back.
The problem is that progressives like AOC and the Squad want the benefit of the broad party apparatus and name recognition without having to worry about appealing to a broad section of voters, which has been the primary concern of Pelosi and other members of leadership. They are well aware that around half of Democrats describe themselves as moderates or conservatives. And those voters are overrepresented in a lot of the Trump 2016 voting, Democrat 2018 voting districts which are key to the current House majority.
AOC doesn’t seem to particularly care about that. Nor does she care about the optics of which voters she would want to boot out of the tent in order to achieve her aims. Just as in DeMint’s case, where he was arguing for the priorities of conservative primary voters taking precedence over the general election gaming of the consultant-donor class, AOC wants the progressive activist core – 42 percent of the party – to drive Congressional selection. That requires ignoring the priorities of general election moderate voters.
But unfortunately for AOC, that’s a lot of voters. “CNN data guru Harry Enten observes, contra the conventional wisdom, moderates and conservatives still make up roughly half of Democratic voters, while only 19 to 25 percent consider themselves “very liberal.” Moreover, “Millennials and Generation Z voters (roughly those younger than 40)… made up just about 29% of all Democratic voters in the 2018 midterm, per Catalist [a firm that maintains a voter database for Democratic and progressive causes].” Voters over fifty constituted 56 percent of Democratic voters in 2018.”
So this raises the obvious question: who does AOC not want in the tent? Older voters, working class men, and voters of color all skew more moderate within the Democratic coalition – they also favor Biden, who AOC doesn’t even think belongs in her progressive party.
The woke white voter’s burden is retaining churchgoing, socially conservative or moderate minority voters, who are affiliated with Democrats for historic reasons but would not be a natural fit in a more progressive party. AOC wants to end that uneasy collaboration – riding the Great Awokening to a new political reality where upper class whites fully depart the GOP and help drive a much more progressive direction for Democrats in the future would risk allowing Republicans to make inroads among minority voters. And preventing that trend will lead to even more toxic race-based appeals to keep those voters from departing.
It should be obvious what comes next. Should Joe Biden become the Democratic nominee and lose, Ocasio-Cortez will absolutely advance the argument that failing to nominate a true progressive was the Democrats’ undoing in 2020. And unlike Jim DeMint, she will have the money behind her in advancing that argument and doubling down on more extreme progressive policies as the next generation of Democrats take over their party.