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Explaining Away Ocasio-Cortez’s Political Earthquake

Liberal pundits are twisting themselves into pretzels trying to explain away Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's victory.

A sign for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at her June 26 victory party in New York City. Scott Heins / Getty

Since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s shock victory over high-ranking Democrat Joe Crowley, the socialist challenger has been the subject of a number of absurd attacks from the Right, from the fact that she, among other things, “supports seniors” in her platform to the fact that she once lived in a house.

It’s easy to forget, however, that Ocasio-Cortez’s victory was also a shock to the system for liberals and the center. While this group largely embraced Ocasio-Cortez’s win, they too have found their own, more subtle ways to play down its significance to the future ideological tilt of both the Democratic Party and the country. Here are four of the most common rationalizations.

1

It was just “demographics.”

It’s perhaps little surprise that many pundits chose to view the Ocasio-Cortez win purely through the prism of her identity as a young woman of color.

“The argument that there is a Democratic establishment resisting the progressive tide is a straw man,” wrote Dana Milbank. “Crowley lost because of the changing demographics in his district, which had been redrawn considerably after 2010 and is now only 18 percent white.” As proof, Milbank argued that Crowley was “a down-the-line liberal” and claimed dubiously that Ocasio-Cortez ran a “largely non-ideological” campaign against him.

“The real warning shot here isn’t ideological but generational,” wrote Michael Tomasky, who similarly pointed to the fact that the district was “just 18 percent white” and mostly Latino. Similarly, Jim Kessler of Third Way, a centrist think tank, told the Guardian that while Ocasio-Cortez’s victory wasn’t an “accident,” it had less to do with ideology than Democratic voters’ yearning for more female candidates.

This fixation on identity found its crudest form in a Daily Show segment that, in lieu of jokes or actual analysis, used the win as a vehicle for host Trevor Noah to channel tired sassy-Latina stereotypes that weren’t even funny in their heyday. Meanwhile, Gina Raimondo, the Democratic governor of Rhode Island who is facing a progressive challenger, compared herself to Ocasio-Cortez despite the fact that, as David Sirota pointed out, she’s a Wall Street–friendly former founder of a private equity firm.

So there you have it: Ocasio-Cortez won not because she waged a hard-fought campaign or because her message and policies were more appealing, but because Joe Crowley was a white guy.

How true is all this? Well, not very. For one, the idea that a Democratic establishment isn’t resisting the rise of more left-wing forces within the party is only believable if you’ve spent the past year in a bunker. And the idea that Ocasio-Cortez ran a “non-ideological” campaign doesn’t quite square with her actual platform or her widely praised campaign aid, which rattled off some of her major policies and explicitly positioned her campaign as part of a struggle for power between working families and the wealthy elite, of which, the ad implied, Crowley was one.

More saliently, according to a post-election analysis of voting data by the Intercept, Ocasio-Cortez actually did better in more mixed neighborhoods, and was outpolled by Crowley in some areas of Queens that were less white.

2

It doesn’t really matter.

While a number of pundits insisted on the primacy of “demographics,” congressional Democrats insisted that there was no point in deriving any sort of wider lesson from the race.

“It’s ascendant in that district, perhaps” said House minority leader Nancy Pelosi when asked if the victory showed democratic socialism was ascendant within the party. “It is not to be viewed as something that stands for everything else.” Elsewhere, Pelosi stressed that “every district is its own entity,” that the Democrats are a “big tent,” and that “many of the districts in our country are focused in a different way.”

Illinois senator Tammy Duckworth echoed these points, arguing that Ocasio-Cortez represented “the future of the party in the Bronx, where she is,” and that you can’t “go too far to the left and still win the Midwest.” (Duckworth apparently doesn’t share the view that Ocasio-Cortez’s victory was non-ideological.) A number of other Democrats repeated similar dismissals to Time magazine. South Carolina representative Jim Clyburn, who might be better known for arguing during the 2016 primary that free college would be a bad idea because it would kill private black institutions — and prior to that, for running a charity that served as an influence-peddling operation — said it meant “nothing for the party.” “One election out of five hundred and thirty five?” Vermont senator Patrick Leahy asked in disbelief.

It wasn’t just congressional Democrats. Time itself got in on the action, arguing that “adding a socialist to the Democratic caucus is unlikely to help the Midwestern Democrats’ efforts” to win seats.

This is rich given that since 2016, liberals and centrists have relentlessly advanced the (completely false) narrative that Sanders’s appeal was solely limited to white people, men in particular, chiefly because of his poor showing with older black voters in the South during the Democratic primary. Now, that criticism is seeing a wholesale reversal: socialists can only win where white voters are a minority.

3

Socialism? What socialism?

One trend that quickly became apparent was that Ocasio-Cortez herself  was more willing to label herself a socialist — albeit not just a socialist — than were a number of news outlets.

For the Associated Press, Ocasio-Cortez was a “twenty-eight-year-old liberal activist” who was running on “an unabashedly liberal platform.” In one story, the AP did at least note that she “received endorsements” from groups including the Democratic Socialists of America (in fact, she’s a member), but still didn’t use the s-word to describe her.

This was repeated in a range of other outlets. At CNBC, she was a “progressive challenger.” At the Star and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, she was again a “liberal activist.” In headlines, the USA Today described her platform as an “ultra-liberal” pitch, and Axios called her win a “stunning liberal surge.” These last two at least did both quote someone else correctly identifying her as a socialist.

The insistence on referring to Ocasio-Cortez and her platform as anything but socialist is likely a holdover from older convention when “socialist” was still an unspeakable word — a subconscious tic, in other words, for a media that has always found it difficult to imagine politics beyond whatever Democrats and Republicans say they stand for at any given time. Although it’s an unacceptable erasure of Ocasio-Cortez’s political identity — and a continued, subtle marginalization of the Left — it’s unlikely this was calculated.

The same can’t be said for the next category.

4

Liberals have always supported these policies anyway.

What some liberal pundits are now asking us to swallow in the wake of Ocasio-Cortez’s win takes particular gall. After a full two years (and decades, really) of trashing anything to the left of Richard Nixon, the Left’s sudden resurgence is leading some of them to play catch-up — in this case, by pretending it was something they were for all along.

“I’m starting to wonder if, like “neoliberal,” [“socialist” is] becoming a useless term that means whatever you want it to mean,” wrote Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum. “It just sounds like the left wing of the Democratic Party but without trade unions,” he continued, arguing that both Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders were actually social democrats, which is “basically the European left,” and is “what I call myself.”

Paul Krugman, meanwhile, published a piece titled “Radical Democrats Are Pretty Reasonable,” in which he argued that Ocasio-Cortez’s “policy ideas are definitely bold, and you can make some substantive arguments against them. But they aren’t crazy.” Krugman zeroed in especially on her support for Medicare for All. “Calling for us to do what everyone else has managed to do is perfectly reasonable,” he wrote in reference to the policy.

Meanwhile, the folks at Pod Save America praised Ocasio-Cortez for her “very simple, bold, progressive policy solutions” and noted that she talked about issues in a “morally clear way.” “We would be fools as a party to not look at how Bernie Sanders ran his race,” said co-host Dan Pfeiffer. “He made that campaign feel like a cause. And he did that by making a moral argument around simple policy issues.”

All of these people were singing a very different tune before now.

As late as April of this year, Drum was arguing that Sanders’s federal jobs guarantee — which was also a major part of Ocasio-Cortez’s platform — was “insane,” and that it showed “why even our lefty comrades in social democratic Europe don’t guarantee jobs for everyone.” In May the year before, he rejected an overwhelming consensus (including among centrist and business groups) to claim that a universal health system wouldn’t be less expensive, and that “nobody serious is going to buy it” if you say otherwise (though for the record, Drum says he’s “supported single-payer health care for at least the past twenty-five years”). This was after charging during the primaries that Sanders “conned” his followers, arguing that he “will have no lasting effect” and that his followers would either scatter to different callings or even be turned off from politics in the long run.

Meanwhile, during 2016, besides pushing the offensive “Bernie Bro” narrative — one that, incidentally, Ocasio-Cortez’s very existence challenges — Krugman was one of the most vociferous liberal critics of Sanders’s single-payer proposal, at one point warning about middle-class tax hikes and that “switching to single payer would impose a lot of disruption on tens of millions of families who currently have good coverage through their employers.” In fact, Krugman’s latest abrupt evolution on the issue represents the latest in a yo-yoing series of positions that he appears to switch depending on the election.

As for Pod Save America, once upon a time, Dan Pfeiffer charged that “there is no Bernie Sanders movement,” and that were Sanders to win the presidency, his “Politifact rating on promises kept will be brutal” (he was referring to specific policy positions that overlapped with Ocasio-Cortez’s platform). Jon Favreau, meanwhile, once tweeted that he agreed with this piece, which accused Sanders of putting forward “unrealistic policy ideas that have little chance of being passed,” trashed his various policy proposals as flimsy, and charged him with having a “singularly naive and simple-minded understanding of American politics.” Now, apparently, “simple, bold, progressive policy solutions” are a positive.

To be fair, some of this can probably be attributed to some amount of growth or evolution since the tumultuous 2016 election; Pod Save America has been relatively sympathetic to Sanders, for instance, even as they’ve always leaned more toward the side of their former boss. But the suddenness involved in some of these evolutions, coupled with a lack of acknowledgement of their earlier, often very different stances, makes one suspect there’s something else going on here.