How AOC Went From Influencer to Influenced

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became a star by taking on the Democratic party establishment. Now she’s given up being an “agitator” and become much less vocal in pushing Medicare For All and a Green New Deal.

In 2019, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the most visible self-described democratic socialists in public office, narrated a short film in promotion of her signature resolution, the Green New Deal (GND). The film, called “A Message from the Future,” was set in a fictional speculative future and looked back on our own time to explain how the GND came about and transformed the world:

The wave began when Democrats took back the House in 2018, and the Senate, and the White House in 2020, and launched the decade of the Green New Deal, a flurry of legislation that kicked off our social and ecological transformation to save the planet. It was the kind of swing for the fence ambition we needed. Finally, we were entertaining solutions on the scale of the crises we faced, without leaving anyone behind. That included Medicare for All, the most popular social program in American history. We also introduced the federal jobs guarantee, a public option, including dignified, living wages for work.

Well, the party did take the House, the Senate, and the White House in 2020. It turns out, however, that the difference between the Democrats of AOC’s fictional future and the Democrats of reality could not be more stark. There has been no transformation like the one AOC imagined.

A tired-appearing AOC had appeared on Instagram live in fall 2020 to encourage viewers to vote for Joe Biden, who had said just months prior that he would veto Medicare for All (during a pandemic, no less). “Voting for Joe Biden is not about whether you agree with him. It’s a vote to let our democracy live another day,” AOC advised. Young voters and progressives, and especially Black voters, turned out to give the party the win. 

In return, the party has failed to deliver on practically every promise made during the election campaign. 

“Bringing the Party Home”

AOC has said that she sought to bring about change within the Democratic Party. Two weeks before her election in the 2018 Democratic primary, she said, as quoted in the 2020 essay collection AOC: The Fearless Rise and Powerful Resonance of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, “We need new leadership in the Democratic Party, and we need new leadership in the country.” In a 2018 interview, she said that the Democratic Party needed to “return to social advocacy and the working class,” and that Democrats needed to “break free” from corporate money in order to “survive.” In a November 2019 tweet, she wrote: “We’re not pushing the party left. We’re bringing the party home.”

Indeed, essay writers in the book AOC gushed over AOC’s potential significance to the Democratic Party. Erin Aubry Kaplan claimed that AOC was like a superheroine, “straight out of a Marvel Studios movie script,” and that she brought a kind of “chi, if you will, that’s been missing from the party and from the left for a long time,” infusing the party’s “bloodlessness with the truth about color.” Pedro Regalado, evoking New York City’s history of radical Puerto Rican activism (including the militant socialist group The Young Lords Party), wrote that “her victory provides a formula for how the Democratic Party can re-energize itself.”

According to the 2019 documentary Knock Down the House (about AOC and other Justice Democrat candidates) and AOC, AOC was nominated by her brother to the Brand New Congress, which, according to their old website, says they want to help elect “regular working people to Congress, who put people before party.” BNC vetted her and decided to help her run. Justice Democrats also supported her bid. According to their website, Justice Democrats (started by former Bernie 2016 campaign staffers) is a federal PAC funded by grassroots donations that is “working to transform the Democratic Party while building independent power. We do this by running primary challengers against out-of-touch Democratic incumbents and organizing to hold the party accountable to our issues.”

Timothy Shenk, a professor of modern U.S. history, in a piece titled “The Twisty Road from Eugene Victor Debs to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez” in Take Up Space: The Unprecedented AOC, a 2022 book by the editors of New York Magazine, writes that AOC is part of an effort to “build a democratic majority committed to radical change.” He places her within the tradition of a “‘visionary gradualism’ that held up socialism as an ideal while accepting the Democrats as the lesser of two evils.”

Political theorist Benjamin Studebaker, in his 2023 book The Chronic Crisis of American Democracy: The Way is Shut, has concluded that AOC and the larger Bernie et al. movement have been politically ineffective at the national level and are actually operating an industry of “false hope.” He writes:

What happens when a political movement is strong enough to win a handful of elections in fringe congressional districts, but not strong enough to produce anything like a governing majority? Its politicians have to find some way of appearing effective. They slowly shift the goalposts. They quietly abandon their transformative policy goals and instead offer their supporters the satisfaction of symbolic victories. Instead of fighting for big legislation, they fight to embarrass their opponents on television and on Twitter. They make viral videos. They work with the center of the party, because working with the center is the only way to win even small victories. They talk those petty victories up and present them as grand triumphs.

Gradually, a symbiotic relationship forms between the Berniecrats in Congress and the Democratic Party establishment. The Berniecrats discipline the base voters, ensuring that they remain Democrats. By continuing to hang around, the Berniecrats give Democratic base voters false hope that one day the Democratic Party will move in their direction. The Berniecrats critique the party from within, and their critiques create an impression of intellectual diversity and vibrancy within the party. They tell the base voters that they will push the party to the left. If the base voters just work hard to get them re-elected, and to elect more Berniecrats to congress, one day, they’ll have the numbers to move transformative legislation. The base voters are kept on a hope treadmill, supporting the Democrats in the hope that the Berniecrats will one day succeed in improving the Democratic Party from within. That day never comes…

Studebaker’s critique, or one similar to it, reverberates among the online left, some of whom, like Briahna Joy Gray, question the rationale behind “vote blue no matter who” or have left the Democratic Party entirely. I’m partial to looking beyond the party. I think that “false hope” is too polite. It’s corrosive to tell people—particularly those from groups marginalized by race, class, and gender—that they need to vote for a party that does not act in their interest.

Policy Failures

Here’s what a 2020 vote for Biden has yielded us on the left. The $15 minimum wage, which was included in early COVID relief legislation, was effectively killed by an unelected Senate parliamentarian—a technicality the administration could have disregarded but chose not to. On student loan cancellation, Supreme Court struck down the Biden administration’s initial forgiveness plan, so Biden has decided to fix some problems in the current loan forgiveness plan for people who have already made decades of payments (this is not a new forgiveness plan, despite what the headlines suggest). There is no public healthcare option. And, perhaps most egregiously, the $2,000 stimulus checks that were promised during election season were instead issued for $1,400.

Calls in late 2020 by Briahna Joy Gray and others for AOC and “the Squad” (a term coined by AOC in 2018 for four progressives including her and Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley, which now includes Reps. Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman) to act like a voting bloc and force a vote on Medicare for All in exchange for supporting Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker were flatly rejected by AOC herself. She tweeted that there was an “opportunity cost to weigh” between a floor vote and doing other things in the future, including fighting for a $15 minimum wage. When independent reporter David Sirota asked AOC recently why the Medicare for All movement had apparently stalled, her first response was that the health “insurance lobby is so incredibly powerful” and that “the insurance companies have a broader number of members that can be influenced by that.” This statement of fact, of course, has nothing to do with what she and other progressives who don’t take corporate money are doing (or not doing) on healthcare. AOC gave another reason for lack of movement on healthcare: the Senate filibuster. But the Democrats had all of 2021 to overturn the filibuster, and they refused. As Andrew Perez put it in Jacobin in June of 2021,

Democrats, with their narrow Senate majority, have in their power the ability to end the filibuster. In fact, voting to change the rules and eliminate or reform the filibuster is one of the few things Democrats can actually do on their own with fifty-one votes — and it would allow them to enact President Joe Biden’s agenda at whatever pace they want. Instead, the party has consistently and deliberately opted for gridlock.

What’s worse, as Sirota noted in the same interview, the Biden administration has actually lurched to the right. Some liberals initially proclaimed that “Biden [was] embracing his inner FDR.” The administration did manage to get through significant social spending on the pandemic welfare state in the form of stimulus checks and enhanced unemployment insurance. But we’ve since gotten horrible policies like approval of the Willow Project, an $8 billion oil drilling project in Alaska; cuts in Medicaid and food stamp benefits for the neediest; an expiration of the public health emergency designation for the pandemic in May; onerous work requirements for public assistance as part of the recent debt ceiling deal (itself a crisis entirely of Congress’s own making); and a vote to preemptively crush a rail strike in December 2022—all on the Squad’s watch. Sirota pointed out that AOC has voted 91 percent along party lines (the percentage is similar for Squad members1) and asked AOC point-blank why she and the Squad don’t go against the party more or act as a voting bloc to advance progressive interests—particularly in the case of the vote on the rail workers. AOC’s response was to blame everyone else: the workers wanted her to prioritize a vote on a sick leave provision (which, separate from the vote to make the strike illegal, failed in the Senate); the workers weren’t ready for a wildcat strike; and some unnamed people on social media, she said, were invested in sowing conflict on the left. 

The AOC of 2023 is defending a vote to stop rail workers—who work grueling schedules and have one of the highest rates of injuries of all occupations—from striking to obtain better working conditions. 

Recall that one of AOC’s first notable actions—just days after her election in November 2018—was to participate in the occupation of Pelosi’s office with activists demanding a climate plan and that officials pledge not to take money from fossil fuel companies. Earlier that year, she’d told Cenk Uygur on The Young Turks that she’d support forcing a “budget showdown” in order to fight for immigration legislation. Scroll through AOC’s social media timeline from 2018-2019 and you see heavy references to Martin Luther King Jr. and a serious expression of moral commitment to fighting injustice. What happened to the militant AOC of pre-2018, the one who said, “If you’re a one-term Congress member, so what? You can make 10 years’ worth of change in one term if you’re not afraid”? 

The Well-Traveled Path

In AOC, Nathan J. Robinson wrote about “The Democratic Socialism of AOC” and made a prescient assessment:

Of course, many reformers mellow once they get into power, and those on the left who admire AOC sometimes worry that she will succumb to political pressure to moderate her positions. […] A cynic might expect that AOC would follow the well-traveled path from ‘youthful radicalism’ to ‘acceptance of the status quo,’ as she finds out ‘how Washington really works’ and ‘learns to make compromises.’ If that is indeed what happens, it would be disappointing, because AOC is remarkable and compelling precisely because of her ‘youthful radicalism’ and her refusal to make the usual compromises. She is independent minded, daring, and says what has been on the minds of many but too few have been willing to say. If she tones it down, we will all be poorer for it.

The media has attempted to answer the question of why AOC seems to have toned it down. As New York Times explained in September 2019, AOC had come in as a “divisive outsider”: two of her staff members had been quite outspoken against the party establishment, particularly on social media; there were hints that she might support a primary challenge to Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who is now the House Minority Leader and was rising in the party at the time; and she and the other three Squad members had voted no on a border aid package which led to some unflattering public remarks about them by Nancy Pelosi. But now, with her two outspoken staff members gone, and after having had a private (presumably sobering) meeting with Pelosi, AOC was learning how to “balance her twin roles as a dissident and a member of Congress.” The article summed up:

But after nearly nine months, with her eyes now wide open to the downsides of her revolutionary reputation and social media fame, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has tempered her brash, institution-be-damned style with something different: a careful political calculus that adheres more closely to the unwritten rules of Washington she once disdained.

A more recent profile in Puck from March of this year reports that AOC has become “more subdued and party-line-toeing,” inviting speculation that she’s either “playing three-dimensional chess” or “diligently earning her stripes on the Hill.” Puck quotes an anonymous Democratic congressperson claiming that “she’s come to realize that you cannot be an agitator as a congressperson.”

But what these articles fail to capture is that there is no “careful political calculus” or “three dimensional chess” game for an official—certainly not one who calls themselves a socialist—working to advance the interests of ordinary people against a government that mostly serves the rich and corporations. And all movements attempting to make fundamental change—not superficial reforms—depend on agitators to win. A more “subdued” AOC is simply an ineffective, not “strategic,” AOC. 

As Jordan Bollag argued in Current Affairs last year, progressives have failed to act confrontational enough to win an agenda that is popular with the public (such as Medicare for All, student debt cancellation, $15 minimum wage, and more). “The left will never win through backroom-deal politics. That’s the establishment’s turf. We will only win with grassroots social movements and organized labor working alongside our allies in office to mobilize their base,” he concluded, citing the example of the movement work by Socialist Alternative and Kshama Sawant (Seattle’s open socialist and Marxist city council member since 2014), which has resulted in wins at the local level such as a $15 minimum wage, a tax on Amazon, and a city ban on caste discrimination.

As inspiring as the rise of AOC and other Squad members has been, it’s clear that they remain bound by a party that refuses to address the most pressing issues of our time.

In his 2020 essay about AOC, Robinson discussed AOC’s politics. He acknowledged that it seemed uncertain how “anti-capitalist” the self-described democratic socialist actually was. He concluded, “For the moment, it is enough to say that [her] socialism would create a very different kind of American economy from the one we have now, one that would be far more egalitarian and humane.” That’s a reasonable assessment—and, I think, enough of a reason for people to have gotten behind her campaign at the time.

But sometimes AOC says things that I don’t think are helpful to the political project of socialism. For example, in October 2021, she was interviewed about the then-upcoming general election for mayor of Buffalo. India Walton was running openly as a democratic socialist on a platform of criminal punishment reform, public safety, and tenant rights. AOC was a vocal supporter of Walton and stumped for her in Buffalo. The TV anchor mentioned that both women identified as democratic socialists but that “they say voters shouldn’t focus on the title.” AOC explained, “When you talk about capitalism, socialism, et cetera—these are very high-minded debates. I think what’s important is we say, ‘Where’s the beef?’ What are the policies each candidate is actually proposing?” While she’s right that the focus should be on policy, one has to wonder: why would a socialist say something like that? Why not take the opportunity to highlight the left critique of capitalism? Why not take the opportunity to highlight the contradictions between what mainstream politicians are offering and what a democratic socialist would offer? Why not take every opportunity you can to normalize the ideas of democratic socialism (and, yes, the title, too)? AOC’s comment actually resembled what a Democratic Rep. who supported Walton’s opponent had to say about Democrats going too far left in that election: voters “don’t want pie-in-the-sky philosophical debate.” 

I’m not sure that AOC was ever strongly attached to the label or identity of “socialist” to begin with. According to Take Up Space, AOC only joined the Democratic Socialists of America in early 2018, “around the same time she was seeking its endorsement.” The book also notes that AOC said:

I don’t read a book and decide what I am. … I’m like, these are my goals: Health care. Housing. Education. If my belief that housing is a human right … if that makes me a socialist, then all right, I guess I’m a socialist. … Some people may really disagree with me on the left, you know, you have to be, like, really pure and all this stuff, but for me, it’s more tactile. What am I trying to accomplish? This is what I’m trying to accomplish. You can call that whatever you want to call that, but these are the things that I want.

In another instance, she’s quoted as saying, “I didn’t know this [socialism] was a political way of being. I just thought it was a moral way of being.”

Now, I happen to have come to socialism through a moral lens myself because it seemed commonsense to me. But I don’t think we’re going to win socialism through appeals to the goodwill of the billionaire class and the corporate executives—or the politicians bankrolled by them. Why? Because it’s not in their interest for us to enact Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, a higher minimum wage, public housing, better funding for education, and so forth. As Kwame Ture and Charles V. Hamilton wrote in their 1967 book Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, “Politics results from a conflict of interests, not consciences.” So if the main justification for your policies is moral, where do you get your theory of change from? Where does your political strategy come from? 

What an elected official calls themselves does seem to suggest their underlying political analysis and strategy. Kshama Sawant, for instance, has explained her and Socialist Alternative’s idea of a “fighting” socialist strategy. As she has explained: “It’s a question of, do you have the courage to take on a clash with those who are in power in the interest of those who need you to fight alongside them and for them?” Additionally: If you are not facing absolute hostility from the ruling class and their political representatives, then you’re not doing what needs to be done for the working class.” In other words, this is class war. It just doesn’t seem like AOC and her Squad comrades are willing to wage it.

Just as Studebaker describes, AOC (and the Squad, to a lesser extent) has risen to the status of celebrity politician and influencer.2 AOC is the 10th most popular politician according to YouGov, and she’s one of the most popular politicians on social media, with 13.4 million followers on Twitter and 8.6 million on Instagram. Her celebrity began soon after her primary win, when she stunned the political establishment by defeating “Queens Machine” Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary and went on to win the general election in New York’s 14th Congressional district to become, at age 29, the youngest woman elected to Congress. Just a few months later (before the general election), in October 2018, she was being photographed in her Bronx apartment for Vogue by Annie Leibovitz and being called an “anti-Trump,” a principled, working-class brown woman as the foil to the sleazy rich white president from the same city.

She’s known for her quick comeback tweets to reptilian right wingers like Ted Cruz and Ron DeSantis, among others, and her IG livestreams, where she does everything from assembling IKEA furniture while talking about the economy to zesting a lemon for her dinner prep while discussing stimulus checks to revealing her personal trauma in the context of the Jan. 6 Capitol Riots in 2021. Over 400,000 viewers once tuned in to watch her and Rep. Ilhan Omar play a video game on Twitch in 2020. In the Take Up Space, Andrew Rice credited her with having effectively killed, via a series of tweets, Amazon’s (popular with the public, he says) 2018 bid to establish a second headquarters in Queens. 

She has also taught other members of Congress how to use Twitter as an “effective and authentic messaging tool to connect with their constituents” while also emphasizing “the importance of digital storytelling.” Charisse Burden-Stelly, an academic and scholar of Black studies, has said that AOC and contemporaries are “more influencers than politicians, because of this very idea of the power of celebrity.” She explained:

“They have their fuckin’ platitudes on social media, … ‘this is what we need to do,’ [and] it’s like, do your job! Every time I’m on Twitter, you on Twitter! … I’m a civilian! … The U.S. is constitutively a celebrity culture, but I do not think we can afford to run our politics that way.”

Burden-Stelly’s analysis aligns with something Charles V. Hamilton wrote in his 1992 afterward to Black Power. What he writes about pop culture could easily apply to influencer culture today:

We are in an era of tremendous influence through the pop-culture medium, where many become politicized not through long, hard study and organizing, but through the passionate portrayal of our struggle through television documentaries, emotional speeches, movies, and television and radio talk shows. For many younger people, this is understandable, but not particularly efficacious.

Indeed, today’s parasocial relationships—developed through AOC’s pointed tweets to Ted Cruz or her telling of a dramatic personal story on a livestream—may make viewers feel validated and may politicize people. Further appeals in the social media space to identity politics3 (including what Studebaker calls the “activist rhetoric” of AOC) may also build viewer support. But this is not the same as a political movement. It’s not political strategy. And it’s “not particularly efficacious” by any number of metrics we might look at: membership in the Democratic Socialists of America is down (however imperfectly this group serves as a kind of proxy for interest in socialism); the left has no other mass membership based group around which to organize; the Squad is towing the line for the Democratic Party; and we will all be told once again in 2024 to vote for the Democratic Party as usual. Sanders’ early endorsement (followed recently by AOC) of Biden for 2024 makes things even worse.

AOC’s celebrity and influencer status, then, is more about who she is to us than what she’s doing as a politician. As writer and activist Yasmin Nair puts it

What should your politician do for you and what should your politician be to you: those are two entirely separate questions. Only in the U.S are we so completely obsessed with the latter as we forget the former. (emphasis added)

To think about what a politician might “do for you” is to think about the very strategies they use—and how you might alter your support for them when they fail to deliver.

Closing Ranks: “Fraud Squad” and the CPC

Writing from the Black radical tradition can help us think about political strategy on the left. In Black Power, the authors argue that “groups with particular identities and interests need to ‘close ranks.’” What they mean is that “group solidarity is necessary before a group can operate effectively from a bargaining position of strength in a pluralistic society.” Applying this logic to AOC and the Squad means that, politically, they should act as a bloc to advance the interests of the working class and marginalized people at large. The Congressional Progressive Caucus ought to do the same. But both groups suffer from a fatal lack of solidarity and discipline.

Some background on the Squad is useful. Recall that the Justice Democrats started the movement to get these progressives elected in 2018. Their website uses the Squad as a marketing tool for their cause. Executive Director Alexandra Rojas says in a website video, “the squad is still growing.” In the same video, Jamaal Bowman says that they are “transforming the Democratic Party.” Even Shahid Buttar, who ran against Nancy Pelosi twice as a Democrat in 2020 and 2022, sold himself as someone who wanted to help “expand the squad.” Hearing these words and seeing the image below, you’d think the Squad acted as a bloc politically. (Not pictured here are other Justice Dems such as Reps. Ro Khanna, Raúl Grijalva, and Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal. Pictured near the center are the newest Reps., Summer Lee and Greg Casar.)

Clare Malone wrote in the Take Up Space that Corbin Trent, fellow Justice Democrats founder and former AOC aide, “said ‘the Squad’s not a thing.’ To him it’s more a mirage of the media’s creation.” The facts would suggest that the Squad is indeed “not a thing.” (I’ve borrowed the term Fraud Squad from Briahna Joy Gray because I think it accurately reflects the way that many of us on the left feel about the Squad’s performance in office.)

The original Squad came about when AOC posted on Instagram a picture of the four women during House orientation and tagged it as “squad.” AOC and Pressley are said to have bonded over commonalities in their life stories, and AOC has talked about the “sisterhood” among the women. While it’s completely understandable that women of color who are socialists (Ayanna Pressley does not identify as a democratic socialist) operating in a very white and very male institution would band together for support (the four have been targeted viciously by Donald Trump, who told them to go back to the crime-infested places they came from), what’s telling is how they respond when challenged as a group.

For example, the original Squad voted against bipartisan border legislation in 2019, prompting Nancy Pelosi to make comments to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd about how the group has “their public whatever and their Twitter world. … But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.” This triggered a barrage of media coverage, AOC implied that some of Pelosi’s comments unfairly singled out women of color, and CBS’s Gayle King got the four women on an interview to talk it out. In that interview, the women made it clear that they were not acting as a bloc in any way politically. In fairness, King was pretty hostile to them at times. But their answers were not inspiring.

When King pushed, saying that it didn’t seem like the women were on the same page as their party, Pressley emphasized that the group just “happened” to land the same way on immigration and were merely representing their districts with their votes. She added, “There is no insurgency here. … There is nothing [conspiratorial].” “We take those votes alone,” was perhaps the most damning thing Pressley said. AOC added: “We’re still united as a [Democratic] caucus.” And Pressley topped the whole thing off with the idea that they’re just part of a larger movement. “The Squad is anyone dedicated to building a more equitable world,” she said. Cori Bush echoed those words at a gathering of socialist officeholders last month. “This movement is big. When people tell us, ‘The Squad is six people’—no, the Squad is all of us. We can’t do this alone.” But again, the question is what they are doing in Congress since they hold positions that average people don’t.

The CPC itself is another problem. As Pramila Jayapal details in her 2020 book, Use the Power You Have: A Brown Woman’s Guide to Politics and Political Change, the Caucus came about in the 1990s under Bernie Sanders and Maxine Waters initially as a social group to discuss progressive ideas. Jayapal’s priority, upon her arrival to Congress in 2017, was to build “infrastructure” for progressives. Jayapal comes from the nonprofit world, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that she wants to build institutions. She and other members built a staff, instituted dues, and created a 501(c)(3), the Congressional Progressive Caucus Center (has anyone ever heard of this?), and a PAC. She and her co-chair at the time, Mark Pocan, determined that “we did not want to be compared to the Freedom Caucus, which was in our mind a caucus of ‘NO’ while we were a caucus of ‘YES.’ But the challenges of figuring out how to flex our progressive power while not shutting down our own Democratic majority was complicated and required organizing.…” She admits that the caucus is “very large and diverse.” And when the Squad voted against the immigration bill in 2019, she laments: “This was a legitimate position to take, and probably one I would have joined with had I not been co-chair of the CPC.”

All of Jayapal’s words here run counter to the idea of closing ranks and building an effective and disciplined caucus willing to take a stand when it’s uncomfortable to do so. You don’t need a “large and diverse” caucus. You need to establish some criteria for entry (for starters, no person who accepts corporate money can join, or you must support specific legislation like Medicare for All) and some enforceable consequences for not adhering to those criteria. Currently the Caucus has a bloated 100-plus-person House membership (plus Bernie Sanders in the Senate) including Shontel Brown, whose GOP-backed and CPC-endorsed campaign defeated progressive Nina Turner in Ohio, and Sylvia Garcia, who doesn’t even support Medicare for All. Numbers are an obvious but perhaps unnecessary preoccupation with the Caucus. A 2022 Daily Beast article detailed how Jayapal wants to grow their ranks to push the Democrats left. But this is the same logic as “growing” the Squad. At what point does either group feel it has the “numbers” to try to consistently leverage power in the service of a progressive agenda? This question is never answered. To repeat Studebaker, that day simply never comes.

Defenders of progressive legislators in the Democratic Party often point the finger away from progressive missteps, arguing that all hopes of transformative policies have been dashed by the presence of two right-wing Democrats, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, in the Senate. The usual explanation of unsavory compromise is that it emerges out of “political constraint,” i.e., that nothing else could have realistically been done given the existing arrangement of power. (This was the false explanation given when Barack Obama’s centrist policies left progressives feeling betrayed.) But we can test the theory by looking at moments where there clearly was an opportunity to act differently. 

In the case of AOC and the other members of the Squad, for instance, there was a clear opportunity in 2020 to strategically refuse to vote for Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House until she granted major concessions to the progressive wing of the party. Some argued at the time that this method should be used to get Medicare for All voted on, thereby forcing legislators to either support universal healthcare or demonstrate to the U.S. public that they were in the pockets of the insurance industry. The strategy was not used; all Democrats, including AOC, lined up behind Pelosi. (This was reminiscent of when AOC called Pelosi “mama bear” and posed with her on the cover of Rolling Stone in early 2019.) Pelosi, who despises both the Green New Deal (“the green dream or whatever they call it” and Medicare For All (she has assured insurance executives they don’t need to worry about Democrats pushing it), was not forced to advance either policy. And the opportunity to galvanize the public around free healthcare during a pandemic was lost.

At the time, some doubted that withholding a speakership vote could get concessions from the leadership for a minority of the party. But the moment Republicans took the House this year, that’s precisely what the hard right did: they refused to vote for Kevin McCarthy until he gave them all the items on their wish list. It worked. But, as Gray has explained, it required a confrontational stance toward the party leadership, a willingness to treat them as adversaries. 

AOC is on the record talking about creating a sub-caucus within the CPC to get things done. After she won her primary, and before the 2018 general election, she talked about how she and other progressives could leverage power as a small bloc. As Ryan Grim wrote in the Intercept

“The thing that gives the caucus power is that you can operate as a bloc vote in order to get things done,” Ocasio-Cortez told Daniel Denvir, host of Jacobin’s “The Dig.” “Even if you can carve out a sub-portion, a sub-caucus of the progressive caucus, even if you could carve out that, even a smaller bloc, but one that operates as a bloc, then you could generate real power.” […] “If you can even carve out a caucus of 10, 30 people it does not take a lot, if you operate as a bloc vote, to really make strong demands on things,” she said. What Ocasio-Cortez is floating—a progressive mirroring of the Freedom Caucus—has been flirted with in the past in Congress.

But remember, Jayapal is against progressives doing anything like wielding power like the right wing—even though it was the Freedom Caucus that successfully maneuvered to oust House Speaker John Boehner in 2015. They started out as an invitation-only group of around 40 right-wing members. As distasteful as the far right’s policy priorities may be, they know how to leverage power in small numbers.

At the same time as the fight over the speakership was going on, Democrats including AOC were voting in lockstep for Pelosi’s chosen successor, Hakeem Jeffries, a former corporate lawyer who is one of the staunchest Democratic supporters of Israel’s apartheid regime and who has openly led opposition to progressives who challenge centrist incumbents. (Jayapal also said she was “thrilled” when Jeffries became the Minority Leader in November 2022.) AOC, rather than seeing the Republican pressure tactics as an example of how to wield power against the leadership, said that Republican behavior simply showed how comparatively “reasonable” progressives were for being compliant and unified with their party. This reasonableness is reminiscent of what David Sirota has called the “tyranny of decorum.” 

It’s unclear to me, though, why AOC or any progressive should adhere to decorum when we’re living in unprecedented times—including a climate crisis, a pandemic, and mass shootings, just to name a few. On May 25, 2022, the day after the Uvalde school shooting massacre, AOC went on Instagram live. She said she had been up all night thinking about the students and teachers. She said: 

It’s just really wild to be a person that works in a corrupt institution, which is what Congress is. And to try and be a normal person surrounded by so much decay and moral emptiness—that frankly transcends party—is very difficult.

If Congress is so decayed and morally empty, what are progressives protecting by adhering to decorum?4

When challenged over the last couple of years by leftist interviewers, AOC’s responses have not been good. In a 2021 DSA interview, she was asked to respond to leftists who might think that “no progress is going to come out of the Biden administration.” Her response:

Well, I think it’s a really privileged critique. We’re gonna have to focus on solidarity with one another, developing our senses for good faith critique and bad faith critique. Because bad faith critique can destroy everything that we have built so swiftly. And we know this because it has in the past, and it’s taken us so many decades to get to this point. We do not have the time or the luxury to entertain bad faith actors in our movement.

When David Sirota asked about the strategy behind the vote to prevent the rail strike, she said:

[U]ltimately there are moments where there are going to be internal disagreements about strategy. It is so important, especially among the left, that we develop a discernment between when there are differences in strategy. Sometimes they are intense and sometimes they are rigorous and vigorous disagreements versus equating that difference in strategy with somehow a 180 change in commitment to our vision and our principles.

“Privileged.” “Bad faith.” “Discernment” between legitimate and illegitimate criticism. These sound like the words of someone who has, as the Times put it, “learned to play by Washington’s rules.”

There has been speculation about AOC’s political trajectory over the years. Would she primary Chuck Schumer in the Senate in 2022, or Kirsten Gillibrand in 2024? No and no. In an interview with GQ earlier this year, the subject of a presidential run came up, but the conversation turned into whether a woman of color like her could be president rather than whether she would run. (AOC’s answer, a somewhat anguished, identity-centered response, was basically, It’s complicated.) AOC said that she is always re-evaluating how she might be most effective, whether that’s in elected office or not. I often think she might be more effective as a leftist outside of office—or that she could break from the Democratic Party and run as an independent or third party and inspire others to do the same. Activist and scholar Cornel West, who is seeking the 2024 presidential nomination of the Green Party, said in a recent interview that candidates for office can act as catalysts for larger movements. AOC, as part of the movement catalyzed by Bernie Sanders in 2016, has had her moment as a catalyst and now seems firmly entrenched within the Democratic Party. She and Bernie have chosen to endorse Joe Biden, who is deeply unpopular, for president in 2024.5 It used to be tempting to think that AOC (and her peers in the Squad) could pivot to act differently than they have, but their established patterns of behavior would suggest otherwise.

Young people today tend to reject capitalism in favor of socialism. But socialism can’t just be a negative rejection of capitalism in rhetoric and a synonym for a kind of generic “progressivism” as limited by the Democratic Party. As AOC said in a 2020 interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates, “We don’t have a left party in the U.S. The Democratic Party is not a left party.” Just as the Democratic Party is not a left party, the DSA is not a political party. We have to build an independent working-class party. The work of building this working-class movement includes supporting the candidacy of Cornel West for president.

Black Panther Fred Hampton put it best when he said, “You don’t fight capitalism with no black capitalism. You fight capitalism with socialism.” We on the left need to do better than the Democratic Party line and the politics of compromise. If our elected “socialists” like AOC and others aren’t willing to do this, we know which way to vote. We can, and should, close ranks.

  1. Bush – 91 percent; Omar – 94 percent; Bowman – 94 percent; Tlaib – 91 percent; Pressley – 93 percent

  2. AOC has an impressive ability to raise a lot of money when she wants to. She raised $5 million online, for instance, in 2021 during Winter Storm Uri, which left some 70 percent of Texans without power due to the shoddy state electrical grid. 

  3. In From #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes about “Black faces in high places” and questions whether Black elected officials can truly be committed to improving the lives of ordinary Black people. She concludes that there is “significant doubt” that Black elected officials are a “viable vehicle for Black liberation,” noting that Black people overall still face unacceptable levels of housing, food, and job instability as well as poverty despite the presence of increasing numbers of Black elected officials over the last few decades. This raises the question of whether the Squad simply represents, to echo a similar sentiment articulated by Ture and Hamilton, a “powerless visibility” of people of color. 

  4. Whether the situation involves voting strategy or simply taking a strong moral stance against war, progressives fail to act boldly. Last October, when a staffer released an unauthorized letter from the Caucus urging President Biden to consider diplomacy in the Ukraine war, Jayapal withdrew the letter, distancing the Caucus from any suggestion that they might not be fully supportive of continued U.S. backing of Ukraine. As Ryan Grim tweeted, “Jayapal throws staff under the bus for the gentle suggestion of diplomacy to end a war, then pleads guilty to the greatest crime in Washington today: giving the appearance of agreeing with the other party.” 

  5. Even Jayapal was tweeting, earlier this year, support for Biden’s reelection. 

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