Ilhan Omar is the U.S. House representative of Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District. The 37-year-old Muslim Congresswoman was born in Somalia. Rashida Tlaib represents Michigan’s 13th Congressional District and is 43; she is also Muslim and the first Palestinian-American to serve in Congress. Ayanna Pressley represents Massachusett’s 7th Congressional District; she is 45 years old and the first Black woman elected to Congress from her state. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the fourth member of the group now known as “the Squad,” is the representative for New York’s 14th District; she is 30, and her family is originally from Puerto Rico. “The Squad” is a term coined by Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) after the 2018 House elections, in which all four became congresswomen.
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They are young. They are women of color. And this is their first term in Congress. They press for “bold action” on progressive issues, which makes them loved by many—especially young people—and vilified by conservatives. Their Twitter game is on point. Gathering significant national attention through their brazen opposition to Trump’s policies, the four members of the Squad embody the reemergence of a broad-based left liberalism that is committed to addressing economic problems in the United States, as well as a host of other social justice issues.
AOC and many of her allies and supporters seek to bring about what they call a “political revolution,” bringing back social democracy as a political ideal. A critical observer will understand this project as a face lift for the Democratic Party that will allow it to defeat Trump, either through impeachment or in the 2020 elections. But the Squad’s goals include reforming, rather than transcending, the capitalist system so as to curb its worst excesses.
The political agenda embodied by the Squad is in many ways an expression of a strong left sentiment among sectors of the youth and the working class who are fed up with the ravages of capitalism and gender and racial oppression. The Squad also represents a progressive wave that wants to break from the neoliberal consensus and take on the far right, which has gained momentum in recent years as well.
The context of this conjuncture most certainly includes the economic crisis that followed the financial meltdown of 2008, as well as the 2016 presidential elections, which propelled Sanders into the national spotlight and exposed the bankruptcy of the Democratic Party. Hillary Clinton’s spectacular loss undoubtedly contributed to the growth of “Sanderism,” which grew around the Vermont senator’s positions on issues like corporate control of politics—manifesting in his positions on campaign finance reform—and income and wealth disparity in the United States. Popular enthusiasm for “democratic socialism,” especially among young people, turned the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)—a previously small political group—into a formidable organization with over 55,000 members.
The growth of the DSA is a significant phenomenon that is part of the global return of left reformism. It is also a response to Trump and, more broadly, the product of a rising of class consciousness in this country and elsewhere, which in turn is a result of the economic crises generated by today’s capitalism and the terrors of neoliberalism and austerity. An internally heterogeneous “big tent” organization, the DSA emphasizes grassroots activism and electoral campaigns. According to its website, the group uses “a variety of tactics, from legislative to direct action, to fight for reforms that empower working people.” Strategically, however, the organization is focused on working within the Democratic Party, which its members—especially those in leadership, influential caucuses like Bread and Roses, and the publication Jacobin—see as the most viable path toward change. That’s why the DSA has endorsed Democratic Party candidates in various races for political office, including Omar, Tlaib, Pressley, and Ocasio-Cortez, but also Sanders in the primary elections for the DP nomination, and even Cynthia Nixon when she tried to challenge Andrew Cuomo during the 2018 New York gubernatorial election.
Both the rise of Sanders and that of the DSA are symptoms of the loss of legitimacy experienced by the Democratic Party. As the global resistance to neoliberalism and austerity has deepened, the parties that have traditionally presented themselves as fighting for the interests of working people have been severely discredited because their collusion with the capitalist class has become ever more shameless and blatant. Whether intentionally or not, the Squad is effectively an attempt to restore the public’s confidence in the Democratic Party. Young, politically engaged people who are not afraid of the word “socialism” are a powerful potential voting bloc and cohort of activists.
But many people who have been active on the left for years have also become Bernie supporters and/or joined the DSA. If one were to ask them why, they would likely say that building an independent workers’ party is not a possibility right now and that, in the absence of such a party, the next best option for leftists is to “use” the Democratic Party for the left’s own purposes. From our perspective, this strategy is a dead end because the Democratic Party will simply squash or swallow any challenges to its role as one of the two major parties of capital.
The term “Squad” implies that AOC, Omar, Pressley, and Tlaib are part of a team with one agenda. Of course, they are four different people with their own political biographies. Before they joined the House, Pressley had a seat on the Boston City Council since 2009, Omar worked as a campaign manager, and Tlaib served in the Michigan House of Representatives. AOC was a waitress and bartender and also an activist working for the 2016 Sanders campaign. There are also some more or less subtle political differences between them. For instance, whereas AOC, Omar, and Tlaib endorsed Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary and voted against criminalizing the BDS movement, Pressley did not.
At the same time, the Squad members constitute a group of like-minded politicians who have become part of a larger effort to move the party to the left—that is, to reform the DP. This effort is orchestrated in large part by a number of liberal and left-liberal political action committees and organizations, including MoveOn, Brand New Congress, Black Lives Matter, Democracy for America, and Justice Democrats.
Who Are the Justice Democrats?
Justice Democrats is a PAC that started in 2017 after Trump won the presidency. Its founders are Cenk Uygur (The Young Turks), Kyle Kulinski (Secular Talk), and two former Sanders presidential campaign staffers: Zack Exley and Saikat Chakrabarti. Their stated goal is to unseat the corporate-backed members of Congress. They especially support progressives who will take on incumbents in the hopes of giving the Democratic Party a makeover. After her surprise victory in the primaries, AOC tweeted that she was proud to be a Justice Democrat and that it was thanks to the group that she defeated her opponent, Joe Crowley. She also wrote that she saw herself as contributing to the Justice Democrats’ plan to create a caucus in Congress that is free of corporate funding.
The Justice Democrats are a reformist organization; as such, they recruit and endorse candidates with clear, reformist ideas. AOC was recruited and endorsed, but they also endorsed 79 other candidates, including Omar, Pressley, and Tlaib. Twenty-six of them won their primaries, and seven of those won the general elections. In addition to the Squad, the newly elected members are Raúl Grijalva, Ro Khanna, and Pramila Jayapal. When it comes to finding new “talent,” however, what they look for is compelling “stories.” In an interview with The Huffington Post, Alexandra Rojas, who is currently the organization’s executive director, spoke about the recruiting process:
I’d say a big part of our process for candidate recruitment isn’t necessarily that checkbox of progressive issues that you care about and that you support. It’s how those lived experiences that you have in your life impact those issues. And, are you down with thinking about the collective versus just your own race? And I think that translates into, are there instances in your life where there’s an opportunity for you to sell out, or take some other position, and you chose not to, because you wanted to stay and help your community?
In other words, they insist that they do not want sellouts or career politicians. They are all about principles and people. But while they acknowledge the pressures to sell out and put one’s own interests before those one claims to represent, they aren’t doing much to indicate that they actually willing to combat it. AOC might already have bent under that pressure; her chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, a co-founder of the Justice Democrats, left her office when he had been deemed too confrontational. (He had called the centrists in the House “New Southern Democrats” on Twitter during the debates over the border bill.) Her communications director, Corbin Trent, another prominent Justice Democrat, departed at the same time, likely for the same reason.
A Progressive Agenda
The four women are, in certain ways, a “team” and have voted on the same side (with only a 1-2 percent margin of difference) on the issues that have come before the 116th Congress thus far. On most major domestic and international issues, they have been largely on the same page, but there are also some divergences. Omar, for example, did not hesitate to call the Trump administration’s policies toward Venezuela an attempted coup. AOC and Tlaib also openly opposed the economic sanctions and the possibility of a military intervention, though AOC was not very clear initially, even saying that “this is about authoritarianism versus democracy.”1
Omar has been the most vocal on issues relating to the imperialism of the U.S. and Israel. In July, she introduced Resolution 496, a defense of the right to boycott the state of Israel. This resolution is meant to challenge a recent spate of legislation and executive orders introduced in at least 27 states, which punishes companies, organizations, and individuals for refusing to do business with Israel. While the text does not specifically mention the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, it affirms the right to freedom of speech “in pursuit of civil and human rights at home and abroad, as protected by the First Amendment.”2
This effort on Omar’s part is in line with her outspoken criticism of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. When she and Tlaib were denied entry to Israel in August, they strongly denounced its repressive colonial regime in a press conference. The two women discussed at length the barbarity of the occupation of Palestine and expressed their support for the BDS movement. AOC, Tlaib, and Pressley co-sponsored Resolution 496, although Pressley also voted for Resolution 398, which expressly condemns the movement. She explained afterward that she supports BDS but felt the need to “[affirm] to my constituents raised in the Jewish faith Israel’s right to exist,” but in the same breath declared that, “I believe that I can hold these strong views without opposition. Protest is sacred and activism is critical.”This muddled and contradictory explanation is yet another example of capitulation to pressure from various currents.
On the issue of the concentration camps, the Squad has strongly opposed ICE and Trump’s immigration policies. In June, all four voted no on a border funding bill that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi helped pass without any negotiations. AOC explained that no more money should be thrown at ICE, and Omar said, “A vote for Mitch McConnell’s border bill is a vote to keep kids in cages and terrorize immigrant communities.” Pressley said she voted no because ICE cannot be trusted with the care of immigrant children and families, given the agency’s “track record of promoting a deep culture of corruption and abuse.” After their much-publicized visit to two migrant facilities in Texas (which had been organized by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus), the women publicly decried the detainees’ deplorable living conditions and the abuses they suffer.
The freshman representatives voted against this $4.6 billion emergency funding bill, which was only nominally about “humanitarian assistance” because it did not include any of the proposed provisions to end family separations and to better protect immigrant children. Yet curiously, a mere month later, AOC and Tlaib both voted for a budget bill (the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2019) that included a record amount of military spending. They offered no explanation. Pressley voted against it, also without an explanation. Omar was the only one to expound on her no vote by clearly making a connection between U.S. imperialism and migration: “I cannot in good conscience support a bill that continues to throw billions of dollars at endless wars and Pentagon contractors,” she said. “In order to pursue peace and prosperity at home, we must not continue to destabilize entire countries, fuel migration crises, and put American troops at risk.”
The four women have also publicly confronted racism in the Democratic Party. In the aftermath of the border funding vote, for example, Pelosi attacked the Squad in an interview, referring to them as “all these people [who] have their public whatever and their Twitter world” but no “following.” In response, AOC pointed out that Pelosi had a pattern of singling out these women of color, suggesting that this treatment from her own party was abetting the vile racism coming from the right wing, which runs the gamut from the preposterous to the murderous. While Trump stays true to his modus operandi, telling the congresswomen to “go back to their countries” and riling up his crowds to shout “send [Omar] back,” it is hardly surprising that the group is receiving death threats on a regular basis.
Omar, especially, has been targeted by the Right. A Muslim woman of color, she embodies everything they abhor. But even the mainstream press has called her an anti-Semite and deemed her unfit for Congress. There have been calls for her impeachment, and the leadership of her own party passed a bill (Resolution 241) condemning the remarks she made in protest against the Israeli government. The ire that Omar has drawn from all quarters—mainly over the Israel issue—indicates that racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia are alive and well in this country; she and Tlaib are pushing against one of the most entrenched forms of support for imperialism in American politics. Their courage in doing so has been remarkable.
Other issues that the Squad has been addressing include promoting Medicare for All and a Green New Deal, as well as a federal jobs guarantee, closing corporate tax loopholes, and ending corruption in politics. Omar is the most confrontational among the four of them, routinely turning the questions of interviewers around on them in an effort to show how the media perpetuates stereotypes and the discourses that she challenge. On the other hand, Pressley and AOC present themselves as “regular” politicians who do not intend to be a threat to the establishment and are just doing their jobs, albeit from a strong progressive perspective. Pressley, for example, emphasized, “There is no insurgency… [we] are four lawmakers who happened to land in the same place on the same issue time and time again.”
Despite their spats with Pelosi, they are careful not to appear too oppositional, and even Omar tweeted photos of herself holding hands with Pelosi in Ghana. Meanwhile, AOC has changed since her first rabble-rousing days in the House, and although she joined a protest outside Pelosi’s office on her first day in office, her demeanor is far more tempered now. This may be because, as a New York Times article puts it, she “learned to play by Washington’s rules”—a claim that AOC called “dripping with condescension” and designed to “dismantle the left … [by trying] to gaslight and deflate it.” What these changes actually reveal is that she has had to yield to her own party’s efforts to stifle the voices of members whose views are too far left.
Saving the Democratic Party
The rise of the Squad represents a particular moment in U.S. politics. The four women of color who make up the Squad are willing participants in a concerted effort to move the Democratic Party to the left by making more room within the party for left-liberal ideas. Riding a wave of anti-Trump sentiment and a deeper current of social justice movements, organizations like the Justice Democrats and the DSA have helped raise the profile of Sanders’ platform. The Squad also appears to be part of a push to expand this platform to include more progressive positions on foreign policy, borders, and the environment, although this applies more to the three others than it does to Pressley.
AOC’s entrance onto the national political stage sends a particularly strong signal that regular people can and should participate in government and fight for issues that the electorate cares about. This message is an important one, especially since most workers and students in this country feel thoroughly alienated from the political process. They know that the system is completely undemocratic—that a tiny oligarchy rules society and establishes laws serving only their own interests and the interests of their class. There can be no doubt that challenging this situation is necessary.
The problem, however, is that doing so from within the given structure is invariably a dead end because the Democratic Party, like the Republican Party, is not a neutral tool to be used for any purpose, let alone one capable of fundamentally reorganizing society so that it serves the interests of the working class rather than those of the capitalists. Just like the Republicans, the Democrats are a political machine that depends for its survival on upholding the system that produced it.
But let’s imagine that the Justice Democrats and similar organizations can succeed in removing moderate and conservative Democrats from the House of Representatives and replacing them with progressives. What then? Perhaps those newcomers would be able to help put pressing economic and other issues on the national agenda and even find support for this or that important measure. Beyond that, they cannot really achieve much. That’s because the goal of the Sanderist approach is a more “equitable” redistribution of wealth, not the abolition of capitalist private property; this change would require a “social revolution” (as opposed to the “political revolution” that Sanders has called for). At certain moments in history, relatively progressive politicians may enact more protections against oppression and violence, but we need to do far more than that to destroy the source of most forms of oppression and violence in society today.
The first step in that direction is for workers to build their own party separate from the bourgeois parties. At a time when more young people are moving left, the conditions for building an independent working-class political party, even a socialist party of the working class, are more favorable in the United States than any time in the past 80 years. Building such a party would be a historic accomplishment. Sanders, however, despite his long record as an independent, has squandered this opportunity by running, now for the second time, on the Democratic Party ballot. His brand of socialism, it seems, involves saving the two-party system, the main reason why U.S. politics remain firmly under the control of capital.
When three of the four members of the so-called Squad endorsed Sanders in the DP primary, the mainstream press predicted that this would give the Sanders campaign a boost. This prognosis, even though it turned out to be incorrect, is a reflection of the perceived influence of the women of the Squad, particularly Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. However, AOC has also come out saying that she, Sanders, and Warren are “on the same team in the party.” Sanders, for his part, has announced that he is going to support the eventual Democratic Party nominee, be it Biden or anyone else. This demonstrates that for all their supposed radicalism, AOC and her Squad are not only throwing their weight behind the Sanders/Warren block, but also that they are solidly implanted in the Democratic Party and not prepared in any way to challenge it fundamentally. While to the left of Elizabeth Warren, Sanderism is on the same page, insisting that the goal is an “accountable capitalism,” a contradiction in terms.
Similarly, the Squad aims to save the Democratic Party by transforming it from within. They have been very effective so far in reconnecting the party with its base and moving the political conversations—in and beyond the party—to the left. At the same time, they have rekindled illusions not only among liberals but also among leftists that the Democratic Party is open to being transformed in these ways and can be used to bring about radical change. It is too soon to speculate on the historical role of this phenomenon, but it looks as though the Squad are contributing in important ways to the shoring up of the institutions of U.S. capitalism. They are successful in this precisely because they press hard against its most brutal manifestations without urging us to abolish capitalism and go beyond the existing economic system that creates the very oppression against which the Squad claims to fight.