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Does Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Represent the Politics of the DSA?

Things have moved quickly since June, when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won a primary election in New York, becoming the Democratic Party’s candidate for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Juan Cruz Ferre

August 7, 2018
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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became a political celebrity overnight. Having appeared on news broadcasts, Comedy Central and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, she is now the face of “democratic socialism”—or at least her version of it—and the most well-known member of the Democratic Socialists of America. Most importantly, she has toured the country in support of other progressive Democratic candidates, whether they are DSA members or not.

Several articles have covered her conspicuous appearances in Kansas and Michigan to bolster the campaigns of Justice Democrats Brent Welder and Abdul El-Sayed. In this effort, she’s been quite effective. As Politico reported in early July, “Like nearly all of the longshot candidates Ocasio-Cortez has backed—from Hawaii to Kansas to Florida—[Delaware Democratic candidate Kerri] Harris says her campaign experienced a surge of energy after Ocasio-Cortez tweeted support for her candidacy, including a burst in the number of donors and volunteer signups.” On one day in San Francisco, she helped raise $15,000 at one event and several thousand at another, more exclusive $2,500-a-head fundraiser.

Ocasio-Cortez is thus funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars into the Democratic Party’s coffers and signing up volunteers for its campaigns by the hundreds. But this is part of a leftist plan to take over the Democratic Party, right? Well, the distinction between left Democrats and establishment ones is unclear. The candidates endorsed by Ocasio-Cortez are not strictly “socialist.” For example, Welder raised almost $700,000 by mid-July, with only a third coming from contributions under $200. When asked whether he considers himself a democratic socialist, he replied, “I call myself a Democrat, as I have my entire life.” Having worked as a campaign organizer for Barack Obama and John Kerry, Welder maintains his identity as a mainstream Dem, as summed up in his campaign slogan: “Yes, we Kansas.”

In early August, Ocasio-Cortez arrived in California, where she attended a slew of fundraising events, including the exclusive affair at The Assembly in San Francisco and a more down-to-earth, left-leaning event, to support Jovanka Beckles, a DSA member and incumbent member of the Richmond City Council. Beckles’ challenger is Buffy Wicks, who is widely seen as a hardcore establishment Democrat.

The local battle has become one of the most contentious nationwide, and while DSA local members see Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement as leverage for the progressive Beckles to take on the party establishment, Wicks’ adviser Debbie Mesloh insisted that “Ocasio-Cortez’s presence and win lifts all Democratic boats.” After all, Politico reported, Wicks was a cohost of Ocasio-Cortez’s San Francisco fundraiser … [which, Mesloh said,] “speaks to the new energy that’s been galvanized with new groups like Indivisible and Swing Left—they’re harnessing this energy with a slew of new candidates.” The lesson for all Democrats, [Mesloh] said, is that Ocasio-Cortez “showed she could do retail campaigning and talk about issues that people care about—and that’s exactly what Buffy has done, in more than 160 house parties in the district.”

Yes, some Democrats are scared of the growing wave of progressives in the party. Any political party can develop contending factions. A section of elite Democrats, the more hardcore neoliberals with closer ties to Wall Street and a host of profitable links to U.S. capital, may be threatened by the shifting balance of power within the party. But let’s be clear about this: most Democrats are quite happy with Ocasio-Cortez and the newcomers. At a time when the Democratic Party is in deep crisis, the fresh air brought in by Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive candidates is helping revitalize the party.

We must ask: Why would Ocasio-Cortez spend over a month after her win campaigning almost exclusively for other Democrats? Why not, instead, use her newly acquired political capital to support the struggle led by New York’s for-hire drivers (Uber, Lyft and other platforms) to win recognition and rights as workers? Or call for mass mobilizations to stop deportations?

A Liberal Agenda with Right-Wing Undertones

Ocasio-Cortez’s politics are linked to her mediocre conception of democratic socialism: “I believe that in a moral and wealthy America, in a moral and modern America, no person should be too poor to live in this country,” she told Meghan McCain on The View. Many of the DSA’s national and regional leaders have since come out to expound their version of democratic socialism. Although there is no unanimous agreement within the DSA about the meaning of this term, some remarks are considerably to the left of Ocasio-Cortez’s. Julia Salazar, who is also running on a Democratic ticket, was more categorical when asserting that “a democratic socialist recognizes the capitalist system as being inherently oppressive, and is actively working to dismantle it and to empower the working class and the marginalized in our society.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s statements about replacing ICE with a more humane INS have already garnered criticism from her left supporters. But a major source of concern for DSAers was Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks on the occupation of Palestine. Pushed a bit by Margaret Hoover on Firing Line about a tweet in which she denounced the Land Day Massacre, Ocasio-Cortez said not only that she “believes absolutely in Israel’s right to exist,” but also that she “just looked at that incident [as] just an incident.” When asked about her use of the term “occupation,” she replied, “I’m a firm believer in finding a two-state solution on this issue, and I’m happy to sit down with leaders on both of these.”

Corey Robin, a center-left political commentator, reacted with disappointment:

Prompted about her use of the word “massacre,” Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t stay with the experience of the Palestinians. Instead, she goes immediately to an affirmation of Israel’s right to exist, as if Israelis were the first order of concern here, and affirming that right were the necessary ticket to saying anything about Palestine. Asked about her use of the phrase “occupation of Palestine,” Ocasio-Cortez wanders into a thicket of abstractions about access to housing and “settlements that are increasing in some of these areas.” She apologizes for not being an expert on a major geopolitical issue. She proffers liberal platitudes about a two-state solution that everyone familiar with the subject knows are just words and clichés designed to defer any genuine reckoning with the situation at hand, with no concrete discussion of anything the US could or should do to intervene.

But Ocasio-Cortez’s most alarming public statement has come in a tweet on July 26. In an ostensible critique of the Republican Party, she tweeted that “the GOP is: weak on fighting for working class Americans, weak on crime, weak on equal rights, weak on national security, weak on rejecting racism, weak on moral courage, weak on family values”

Let’s look at this tweet in detail. What does she mean when she says the GOP is “weak on crime”? That she and other Democrats are ready to be “tough on crime”? And what would this mean? More police, more prisons, tougher laws? We know that this translates into racist police practices, racial profiling and police brutality. It is hard to ignore that she is using right-wing vocabulary and conservative signifiers. The same is true of “weak on National Security.” Does she want to expand the already mammoth surveillance apparatus? To earmark a larger share of the federal budget for national security? Nationalist rhetoric and in particular the reference to “national security” has been historically used as an excuse to criminalize ethnic and religious minorities. It is would be naive to think that she or her campaign team is unaware of this.

I won’t try to decipher what she meant by moral courage, although it doesn’t sound very socialist. With regard to “family values,” one could generously interpret this as a critique of the Trump administration’s policy of separating families at the border. But even a quick Google search shows that “family values” is a dog-whistle for homophobia, transphobia and the rejection of any form of deviation from the “traditional family.”

Corey Robin excused her regrettable statements about Palestine on her alleged lack of experience or study. My interpretation is much less generous. I wrote right after her victory that she would soon be under enormous pressure from the Democratic Party establishment to moderate her discourse. She must have known that Israel/Palestine is a thorny issue and that it was safer for her to backtrack and moderate her words when pressed to talk by right-wing talk show host. In a similar vein, her right-wing populist tweet about national security, crime and family values can be interpreted only as an attempt to expand her supporters on the right. After all, she and Bernie Sanders have taken it upon themselves to turn red states blue.

DSA’s Socialism

The DSA is a big-tent organization, whose membership includes everyone from progressive Democrats to anarcho-syndicalists. Between these extremes, you’ll find socialists who think using the Democratic Party ballot line is a maneuver to dodge the two-party system and those who advocate a break with all capitalist parties, including a minority of revolutionary Marxists.

Those who support using the Democratic Party ballot celebrated Ocasio-Cortez’s victory and pointed to the dramatic increase in DSA membership after her win. They wielded this as a confirmation that successful elections, even on a Democratic ticket, build the organization. And while the membership increase is undeniable, it is reasonable to assume that the roughly 10,000 members who have recently joined the DSA are overwhelmingly sympathetic to collaborating with the Democratic Party (or at least using its ballot line).

According to Seth Ackerman, one of the main architects of DSA’s electoral strategy, using the Democratic Party ballot line is a strategy to grow the organization until it can frontally challenge the Democratic Party at a national level. But electoral victories, as in the case of Ocasio-Cortez’s win, increase the share of members who see elections as the main battlefield and who regard progressive Democrats as fellow travelers on the path to socialism. Once the balance is tipped, the door is open to endorse candidates who are closer and closer to the Democratic Party’s center of gravity. For example, the DSA’s New York chapter endorsed Cynthia Nixon, who campaigns on a weak progressive platform and has ties to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio . If there were doubts about how to keep Ocasio-Cortez accountable to the DSA, any illusion of holding Nixon in check is a fantasy.

Candidates who win, including even longtime DSA members like Julia Salazar, can easily get co-opted to establishment or “reform” currents within the Democratic Party. And while there are reasons to doubt whether Ocasio-Cortez was ever an organic member of the DSA, she’s now loyal above all to the Justice Democrats and the Brand New Congress. Tellingly, her DSA membership is no longer displayed in her Twitter profile. As she tours the country to support Democratic candidates, her discourse becomes more and more moderate.

On August 4, she took part in the Netroots Nation conference alongside the heavyweights of the Democratic Party, including a dozen potential presidential candidates for 2020. Ocasio’s speech was one of unity and reconciliation: “Discourse is not discord. Family can argue, and that’s all right because we come out healthier on the other end,” she said. She later closed with a hyperbolic “we are the party of King, of Roosevelt, of the ones who went to the moon, who electrified this nation, who accomplish the great successes and crown jewels of our society.”

This is what we mean when we talk about the Democratic Party’s extraordinary capacity to co-opt progressives, social movements and radicals who don’t have a clear class perspective. If the DSA wants to remain a potentially disruptive element in U.S. politics and avoid being rapidly folded into the Democratic Party machine, its members must urgently reassess their electoral strategy. Working-class independence should be the starting point of any organization that claims to fight capitalism.

The DSA leadership body has remained silent on Ocasio-Cortez’s most conservative remarks, as well as on her open strategy of revitalizing the Democratic Party. In her role as the celebrated face of American democratic socialism, Ocasio-Cortez portrays the DSA as an organization that aspires to serve as the left wing of the Democratic Party. Without a rapid course correction, that is what it will become.

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