AOC and the tensions in the Democratic party
Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, being young, sparky and pushy, ruffles feathers in US politics.
Unlike many more moderate and centrist Democrats, she does not cringe or shrink from criticism by opponents. She faces it down. This makes her very popular with many people who believe that the Democratic Party desperately needs to be more unrepentantly progressive. The GOP has succeeded by being blunt, tough and uncompromising, goes the thinking. Time for the Democrats to stop being scared of their own shadows.
The ruffling of feathers by AOC may have come back to bite her. It is Committee season in the House, as the assignments on committees of varying prestige are determined. Representatives vote, usually in secret, for who will be on those committees. AOC seems to have lost out, being defeated 43-13 in secret ballot voting for a position on the Energy and Commerce Committee. This occurred despite her candidacy being supported by Nancy Pelosi. The winning representative, Kathleen Rice, weirdly and ironically, actually voted against Nancy Pelosi in the 2018 Speaker contest.
Now, a vote of 43-13 is not a defeat. It is a burying. It is difficult to conclude anything other than that this was an ambush. It was a punishment beating. The conclusion in many reports is that AOC lost because she, to use the old cliche, does not play well enough with others.
This result, leaving aside the interpersonal dynamics between AOC and more moderate Democrats, is symptomatic of a pathology that persistently frustrates and demotivates progressive Democratic supporters, and which will, if not addressed, continue to limit the performance of the party at State and local level.
The party continues to support moderate candidates in many areas, causing massive frustration in the progressive wing, which has led to an entire parallel ecosystem of financial support by organizations such as ActBlue, which was formed specifically to address the challenge of what became known as “Blue Dog” Democrats – candidates who, many progressives felt, were not representative of progressive values.
The fundamental tension between the two wings of the party – the establishment wing, which wants candidates to be a good fit for their districts, and the progressives, who want candidates to be representative of progressive values, remains unaddressed to this day.
There is plenty of evidence that you cannot win an election, no matter how much money you have, if the candidate is not a good fit for the district or state. In this election cycle, extremely well-funded Democrats such as Amy McGrath and Sarah Gideon were defeated in Senate races. Money helps, but it is clearly not the sole determining factor of success. Additionally, at House level, some districts are so heavily gerrymandered that the chances of a Democrat winning are twice the square root of nothing. ActBlue could throw tens of millions of dollars at these races and the Democrat would still be handily beaten. The votes simply aren’t there for a Democrat.
The lack of resolution of the deep disagreement between the two wings of the party, however, breaks out into public too many times, and sends the signal that the party lacks a unified voice, and lacks confidence in its own policies and messages. The trigger this election cycle was the fact that Joe Biden outperformed his own party in many states. The Democrats lost House seats, have failed to win control of the Senate, and that is giving Biden little room for maneuver as he sets out to undo the tremendous damage inflicted by Donald Trump.
The tension and resulting frustrations of progressives with what they see as weak, accommodationist and naive party leadership have existed for decades. Anecdotally, I knew several voters (including my ex) who voted for Ralph Nader in the 2000 Presidential election because, as one of them said to me, “I’m not a Republican, so why would I vote for a Democrat impersonating a Republican?”.
Now, you can dismiss that and shake your heads all you like, but the selection of Joe Lieberman and the distancing from Bill Clinton in 2000 sent a bad message of a party almost scared of its own shadow. I watched video of Al Gore at campaign events, and despite his attempts to sound passionate, he was simply not reaching a lot of people. Al Gore was, to use an old phrase, not a good retail politician, unlike Bill Clinton. Whatever you think about Bill Clinton as a person, he could probably sell refrigerators to the Inuit.
Did Al Gore’s decision to not run on the success of the Clinton era issue lose the Florida election for him? I have no idea, I lived in Texas at the time, and he certainly was never likely to win Texas. He didn’t even win his home state of Tennessee, so badly did he perform overall in 2000.
In 2016, the same pattern occurred, when I found 2 online friends, angered by Bernie Sanders failing to win the Democratic nomination, who informed me that they were going to vote for Trump. I don’t know if they actually did, but the fact that they were adamantly insisting that they intended to was worrying enough.
There are a lot of people whose political positions, compared to the major parties, are all over the map, but one thing that unites them is a conviction that “politics as usual” has fucked over the country and voters, including some of them personally. Trump captured a lot of those people in 2016, and we know how that has turned out.
AOC, more than Bernie Sanders (who is, we have to face it, no spring chicken), is a lightning conductor for the sentiments of many of those electors who self-ID as progressives. They are likely to regard her losing the committee vote as yet more bad-smelling evidence of “politics as usual”.
On one level, I can understand the desire by many House democrats to slap AOC down. She is an irritant, gets a lot of publicity, some of it negative, and the Democrats have a thin House majority, with reps like Henry Cuellar (who is from a very conservative Texas district, and nearly lost a primary this year to a candidate supported by AOC) always hovering at the “defect to the GOP” door.
Unlike some optimists, I regard a Democratic Senate tie as unlikely to unlock any significant changes in Senate direction, because the Democrats have this generation’s Joe Lieberman in the Senate in the form of Joe Manchin.
Could AOC walk away from the Democratic Party? I think it is very possible. She is young, smart, idealistic, and a LOT of progressive people I read and talk to are consistently unhappy with what they see as spineless milquetoast centrism. This translates to cynical fatalism and a reluctance to become actively involved in supporting local politics.
One of the few ways in which a political party can improve its chances of winning is to engage people who normally sit out elections. Some of those people are utterly alienated from politics and are not reachable. Others see themselves as outsiders, who fail to see any upside to participating in what they see as a corrupt system dominated by shysters, time-servers and bullshitters. Outsiders never respond positively to any explanation of political events that contains any element of “this is how it works around here”. That generally activates the “then let’s blow this fucking shit up” emotional reaction.
Most of these issues and sources of tension could be solved if the Democratic Party and their supporters across the entire spectrum actually knew how to work effectively at a national level to consistently communicate solid frames and seize control of messaging. George Lakoff has been offering to help the party for decades and they keep ignoring him. The result is that the party still cannot frame and deliver messages to save its life, so the entire electoral effort ends up driven by local ideas of “what will play well”, which in turn leads to consultants dominating election tactics, and at national level the effort relies on finding a Presidential candidate with charisma.
This, I suspect, is the root cause of the phenomenon where Biden outperformed Democrats in many districts in the election. If people had broken for Democrats at a more local level in the same way they voted for Biden as POTUS, the Democrats would be an a stronger position in the House and might already have control of the Senate.
I could go on, but IMHO, the idea that slapping down AOC by denying her a committee position is a positive for the Democratic Party is a delusion that needs to be dumped down a hole. It does not look good to younger progressive voters, period.