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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made quite a stir in her surprise victory in New York’s 14th Congressional district last year. Most notable was her radical-sounding declaration that she wanted to “Abolish ICE,” the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency responsible for rounding up and deporting undocumented immigrants.
Back in July, I wrote somewhat skeptically about this slogan emanating from Ocasio-Cortez, and taken up by many other Democrats. Now, we can begin to judge exactly what the slogan would mean in practice.
It turns out, she along with the entire Democratic Party caucus in the House of Representatives voted to fund ICE on their very first day in office.
This was not a catch-all bill to reopen the federal government, which has been shut down for weeks while Trump refuses to sign a budget until he gets funding for a border wall. That was a different vote. No, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi scheduled an entirely separate vote solely on funding the Department of Homeland Security. This is the department which oversees ICE as well as US Customs and Border Protections. And it passed with support of every Democratic member of Congress, including democratic socialists Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Talib, as well as a number of other self-proclaimed ICE “abolitionists.”
And yes, there have been other advocates of “abolitioning ICE” in the Democratic Party over the last few months. For a few months it seemed like a growing waive in the party as even mainstream Democrats and likely Presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand took up the slogan.
But a funny thing happened. The Democrats–and I know this is going to come as a shock to many–chickened out. A bill was even presented in Congress but the then-Republican-dominated House actually scheduled a vote on their bill, at which time our would-be abolitionists announced that they would vote against their own bill.
It was all bullshit
Yes, it turns out, it was all bullshit.
Unfortunately, we will not get much of an analysis of this turn of events from Jacobin or The Nation, who are too busy enthusing over this false promise in their unending quest to elect their fellow Democrats. Instead, sadly, we are once again left to reading the capitalist press to understand what is actually going on.
NBC News noted just before the election in November “With just days to go before the midterm elections, the “Abolish ICE” issue has all but vanished from the radar.” It turned out that what they really wanted to do was to point the finger at Trump–and thereby win seats in the next election–rather than fundamentally or even superficially transform the US immigration system. They also found that pointing the finger at ICE was akin to attacking law enforcement because really, what are ICE agents but cops who enforce laws against immigrants? And nobody (in Democratic Party politics) wants to attack cops.
So the slogan was dropped and on day one of the most diverse Congress in US history, the Democrats voted to fund ICE and border patrol and the rest of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). And if anybody wants to point out how ICE and DHS are not the same thing, and that DHS is more than just ICE, they are more than welcome to explain how DHS as a whole has contributed so much to humanity while the rest of us wait patiently.
It is worth noting what effective maneuvering this was by Nancy Pelosi, who out-maneuvered her colleagues to both her right and her left. Specifically setting aside vote for funding DHS–but without any funding for a border wall–forced the Republicans to vote no on DHS funding, as most of them did. It also bolstered her party’s credentials as being the better managers of national security, especially with her caucus entirely voting in support of the measure. And who would want to vote no in this situation? You would have to be really radical to want to do that. Better to be a team player and give the immigration and drug war machine its rightful funding.
This is the sort of thinking that went into the disastrous campaign of John Kerry in 2004, running for president against George W. Bush while declaring in a national debate that he would “hunt down and kill the terrorists.” These are the sort of politics that are going to play out in the 2020 election, with Pelosi leading the way and her caucus following diligently behind.
But was this simply an inopportune moment to raise abolishing ICE? Hardly. This was a perfect moment for radicals (if they really want to be radicals) to throw a monkey wrench into the entire operation and expose the policies of Pelosi and the rest of Democratic Party. If that is what they really wanted to do. But Ocasio-Cortez already announced that this is not what she wanted to do, as she told Vanity Fair: “There are certain issues where I’m going to make some Democrats mad if they’re trying to deliver paydays for Wall Street donors. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to burn the house down over it.” In other words, the goal is putting pressure on the Democrats while supporting their election campaigns–and supporting their continued dominance over the labor movement and the Left.
Some may have been inspired, or rather fooled, by Ocasio-Cortez’s visit to a sit-in at Pelosi’s office demanding swift action on climate change. But even this was hardly the radical swipe at the Democratic Party leadership that it seemed. “Should Leader Pelosi become the next speaker of the House,” Ocasio-Cortez said to the assembled protesters, “we need to tell her that we’ve got her back in showing and pursuing the most progressive energy agenda that this country has ever seen.” A few days later, Ocasio-Cortez announced that she would endorse Pelosi as the next Speaker of the House. This was not a protest against Pelosi, rather it was merely a friendly nudge.
There has rarely been such a gap between style and substance, which is not to denigrate the talents of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She can be a great communicator for basic socialist ideas when she wants to be, but far too disappointing a conciliator, far too often instead. And while it is nice to hear her talk about a 70% top tax rate on the rich, and it would be even better to see such funds go toward social welfare programs, we often need to remind ourselves that revolts do not happen because people are convinced that a better tax policy is possible. Revolts occur when ordinary people can no longer tolerate living as they have been, when there is no alternative or hope in the powers that be, when there is no faith in the two parties or in social reformers with big promises that they fail to keep.
That is something still worth hoping for.
This article was originally published on libcom.org on January 8, 2019.