The Democratic establishment is clearly flustered by the stunning upset victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over the person who was considered to be the likely next Democratic leader of the House, Congressman Joe Crowley. Former DCCC Chair Steve Israel, in a quote I found entertaining as a former Iowan who has knocked on a lot of doors in Brooklyn, Iowa, opined that “What sounds good in Brooklyn, New York, doesn’t work in Brooklyn, Iowa.”
Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth, who is at least a Midwesterner, said in response to Ocasio-Cortez’s victory that a political platform “too far to the left” could not win in the Midwest. Other Democratic insiders are insisting that this upset isn’t that big a deal, making the case that Ocasio-Cortez’s ideas are actually no different than mainstream Democratic Party stuff, she just wraps it in the label “socialism.” Which of course is a direct contradiction of the first two quotes. Meanwhile, AOC (as people are calling her now) has become a rock star to progressive insurgent activists and other candidates, becoming a major fundraiser for the candidates she has endorsed and the groups affiliated with her. What is going on in Democratic politics?
As I write in my new book How To Democrat In The Age Of Trump, the answer to that question, as well as to the more vexing question of how Donald Trump came to be our president and the Republicans came to control every level of government, can be explained by looking at the way Democrats drifted from their historic identity as the party of working people over the last decade.
After the 2008 economic collapse, blessed with dominant majorities at every level of state and federal government, a demographic edge that was expanding across the board, and a thoroughly discredited Republican economic philosophy, Democrats could have passed into law a series of big, bold, fundamental reforms that would have both thrilled their growing political coalition and solidified their credibility with working-class voters angered at the way Wall Street had destroyed the Main Street economy. Had they fundamentally restructured the financial industry, immigration, energy policy, the criminal-justice system, and the way campaigns were financed, Democrats could have built as sustained a governing majority as the New Deal had created in the 1930s. When they failed to deliver on restructuring how the economy worked for working people, and, importantly, failed to prosecute the Wall Street bankers whose fraud had led to the economic collapse, they lost credibility with working-class swing voters and the enthusiasm of their base. Democrats broke their own political coalition, and it remains broken to this day.
It didn’t help that party leaders were invested in a top-down party structure and were determined to control what happened to congressional candidates. Over the past decade, it has been painful to watch party leaders in DC deciding to support primary candidates that were unexciting to grassroots Democrats, frequently without any dialogue or consultation with local folks whatsoever. Progressives around the country are so electrified by AOC’s shocking victory precisely because of this pattern of national-party big-footing in local races.