Ever since she upset Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley in a New York primary last year, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been caught between those who say she’s too radical and those who say she’s doesn’t go far enough. In her first week in office, Ocasio-Cortez came under fire from conservatives and moderate liberals alike for her proposal to raise taxes on those with incomes over $10 million.
To her left, she was blasted for voting in favor of a batch of resolutions aimed at ending the ongoing shutdown of the federal government because one of them provided stopgap funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which includes the hated Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
In an article titled “While the Internet Was Celebrating Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Dance Moves, She Voted Against a Key Campaign Promise,” Chicago-based reporter Elizabeth King claimed Ocasio-Cortez’s vote proves her campaign vow to abolish ICE was nothing but an empty slogan to be immediately jettisoned once in office.
King, who self-identifies as an anarchist, called the vote a “significant departure from her explicitly anti-ICE campaign messaging:”
[T]he policies Ocasio-Cortez supports still matter, especially when those policies betray the progressive ideals that her supporters believe in. If Ocasio-Cortez promised to overhaul ICE, the last thing she should be doing on her first days in office is putting her support behind funding for the DHS — even as a short-term measure.
In the article, these ostensibly legitimate issues are counterposed with “illegitimate right-wing concern trolling” about Ocasio-Cortez’s unearthed college dance video, but King’s commentary is likewise in bad faith and lacking in substance.
King contends that Ocasio-Cortez should have voted “no” on the measure as a symbolic gesture. Since it would have passed anyway, she could have used it as an opportunity to soapbox about defunding ICE permanently, the argument goes:
Putting aside the fact that DHS is a post-911 umbrella agency that includes not only ICE but also FEMA and the agency that processes asylum requests, this vote is not really about funding. It’s part of a package of resolutions aimed at ending the shutdown without funding the wall.
A “No” vote would be utterly useless as either a practical measure or a symbolic gesture, since voting was almost perfectly split down party lines:
The representatives who did vote against, like Steve “We can’t restore our civilization with someone else’s babies” King, obviously didn’t intend to defund ICE. They understood this resolution as a component of the struggle over the shutdown and voted accordingly.
Ocasio-Cortez is incredibly popular. She clearly poses a threat to both conservatives and the Democratic establishment, who would jump on any opportunity to attack her. The 28-year-old freshman representative is most vulnerable to accusations that she is naive and idealistic—that she’s inexperienced and clueless about the political process.
If she were to vote “no” on the resolution to appease the Elizabeth Kings of the world she would likely dominate the news cycle for several days, but the subject wouldn’t be ICE abolition. The talking heads would be baffled about Ocasio-Cortez undertaking a bizarre, quixotic crusade in the middle of the shutdown fight.
While it’s tempting to just write off King’s screed as just a monstrously bad take, it merits a response because it presages the kind of critiques that will come from the left of Ocasio-Cortez as she attempts to navigate the space between the mainstream and the margins of the political spectrum.
King is right to point out that Ocasio-Cortez’s constituents on the far-left should hold her accountable and that they should be clear-eyed about the limitations of electoralism as a means to achieve socialist goals, but it’s also crucial to have a sober understanding of the political realities in America.
By international standards, Ocasio-Cortez’s platform is hardly radical. Her key policies—the Green New Deal and universal healthcare—would be considered barely left of center in most European countries, but the ferocity with which she is attacked by the establishment is a good indicator of where American politics are at right now.
Using her personal charisma and social media savvy, Ocasio-Cortez is able to put these reforms on the agenda, and in doing so she highlights the extent of the establishment’s alienation from the public. Polling data show that policies like Medicare-for-All and tuition-free college have a broad popular mandate across the board, with 70 percent of voters—including 52 percent of self-identified Republicans—supporting single-payer healthcare.
One can’t overstate how much of a wake-up call it is for the average person to see policies they support come under assault from reactionary dinosaurs hellbent on preserving the status quo and then to see those same ideas eloquently championed by someone young and passionate.
In a similar piece published on Libcom.org, Oakland-based socialist Scott Jay writes, “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.”
Given the larger power dynamics at work, it’s not unreasonable to predict that an insurgent leftwing politician will be co-opted by the liberal establishment—especially since there is ample historical precedent—but maybe Jay and King should wait until it actually happens. So eager are they to repudiate electoral politics in any form that they’re willing to manufacture a betrayal where none exists.
Like the non-issue of voting for DHS funding, Jay grossly exaggerates the significance of Ocasio-Cortez endorsing Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House. Referring to her earlier participation in the sit-in inside Pelosi’s office, he writes: “This was not a protest against Pelosi, rather it was merely a friendly nudge.”
Jay acts as if Ocasio-Cortez were operating in a vacuum rather than a hostile environment. Was her endorsement of Pelosi an act of fealty or a calculated move intended to head off potential attacks from within the party? The former could be argued had she dropped her support for the Green New Deal but she continues to chastise Democratic leadership over it.
Returning to “Abolish ICE,” Jay claims this was an empty slogan opportunistically picked up by the Democrats before the mid-terms to claim a moral high ground against Trump. While it’s true that others in the party have stopped talking about it, Ocasio-Cortez has not.
The demand to defund and abolish ICE was central to her recent rebuttal of Trump’s border wall speech:
The president should not be asking for more money to an agency that has systemically violated human rights. The president should be defending why we are funding such an agency at all.
Jay writes that Ocasio-Cortez represents a false hope that any sort of real change can come through the system but the alternative scenario he poses—that the masses will somehow grow impatient and rise up—is equally delusional:
[R]evolts 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.
Given the state of US politics at present, Jay should be careful what he wishes for. What are the odds that a crisis of faith in American institutions will find its expression in a socialist revolt? The smart money is on fascism.
To a certain extent, frustrations with the inability of the system to deliver prosperity gave us Trump, an outsider vowing to “drain the swamp” and wage war on the “Deep State.” And when Trump failed to smite the enemies of the right, many turned to the fever dream of QAnon.
If there is to be any sort of revolt at all, the precondition for it will be a strong, united left. There’s a short-sighted tendency to assume rigid dichotomies exist between struggle at the top and struggle at the bottom, between electoralism and direct action, between reform and revolution, when these processes are dynamic and feed into one another.
The candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez caused the ranks of leftwing organizations to swell, most notably the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which grew from 5,000 in 2016 to 40,000 plus in the wake of Ocasio-Cortez’s victory. Say what you will about the DSA’s politics or strategy, but it’s inarguably a good thing to have a large, well-funded organization pushing consciousness to the left as other groups from different tendencies work in tandem to do the same.
The hypothetical “revolt” that Jay describes is what Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci called the “war of maneuver,” a phase of class struggle involving direct conflict. But this phase cannot hope to succeed without a preparatory phase Gramsci referred to as the “war of position.” In The Prison Notebooks, he wrote:
“A crisis cannot give the attacking forces the ability to organize with lightning speed in time and space; still less can it endow them with fighting spirit. Similarly, the defenders are not demoralized, nor do they abandon their positions, even among the ruins, nor do they lose faith in their own strength or their own future.”
Gramsci’s most famous innovation was his theory of cultural hegemony. He argued that the ruling class is not merely protected by the coercive apparatus of the state; their true security lies in a fortress of absolute ideological and cultural dominance. The object of the war of position is to create “counter-hegemony,” to build a fortress of our own.
From that perspective, Ocasio-Cortez can be seen as part of this emerging counter-hegemony. Activists on the ground agitate, educate and organize. Independent journalists build alternative media in the form of leftwing websites, journals and podcasts. Meanwhile, elected officials use the bully pulpit as a platform to bring socialist ideas to a larger audience.
Ocasio-Cortez is not a savior. She’s not a fairy godmother who can abolish the class system with a wave of her magic wand. She’s a small step on the larger march of history. Her value lies in her ability to bring about a change in discourse not the system itself.