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Give the Left a Chance

What Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning primary victory means for the 2018 midterms and beyond

Scott Heins/Getty Images

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was not supposed to defeat Joe Crowley. Crowley has been in Congress since 1999, representing both New York’s 7th and 14th Congressional Districts at different points in his career. He led the Queens County Democratic Party. He was the fourth-ranked Democrat in Congress, a possible successor to Nancy Pelosi as House Democratic leader. On Tuesday evening, he performed Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” at what many thought would be his victory party in Jackson Heights. He dedicated the song to Ocasio-Cortez, who had just defeated him handily with 57 percent of the vote.

A 28-year-old Latina from the Bronx, Ocasio-Cortez had been working as a bartender as recently as 2017. Small donors funded the bulk of her campaign, which combined viral digital ads with old-fashioned, aggressive canvassing efforts. But Ocasio-Cortez’s tactics aren’t the only reason she won. The key to her victory can be found in her politics. Once an organizer for the presidential campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez wants to abolish ICE and for-profit prisons. She supports Medicare for All and tuition-free public universities. And that is what Democratic voters wanted, thought it is a program that the party has struggled to accept.

The party had largely lined up behind the incumbent Crowley, which placed more left-leaning members of Congress, like California’s Ro Khanna and New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand, in uncomfortable positions. Khanna eventually issued a “dual endorsement” of Ocasio-Cortez and Crowley after his initial endorsement of Crowley alone drew fire from the left. For almost the entire duration of her campaign, Ocasio-Cortez worked nearly unnoticed, save for pieces in left-leaning outlets like The Nation and In These Times and The Intercept. At one scheduled debate, Crowley even refused to show up, and sent New York City council member Annabel Palma to debate Ocasio-Cortez in his place.

The Democratic Party may not have taken Ocasio-Cortez seriously, but voters did, and she will almost certainly become the youngest sitting member of Congress and its second, self-identified socialist in November. Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t the only leftist candidate to experience some skepticism from party leadership. In Maryland, former NAACP President Ben Jealous faced similar challenges in his primary, but prevailed to become the state’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee.

Despite a well-established record of civil rights activism, Jealous is not beloved by some influential members of his party. He appeared in the leak of John Podesta’s emails during the 2016 campaign, in a message to Podesta from Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden. “I know there are a million reasons to want Hillary [Clinton] to win,” Tanden wrote in February 2016, “but Ben Jealous feeling he has no power is a particularly good one.” In March, Tanden complained that Jealous had become “obsessed” with Clinton’s failure to repudiate Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who had closed public schools in majority black neighborhoods.

Jealous endorsed Sanders’s primary bid in 2016. In 2017, Sanders repaid the favor and endorsed Jealous for governor; meanwhile, Representatives Steny Hoyer and Chris Van Hollen endorsed Jealous’s opponent, Rushern Baker III. With Crowley out of the House, Hoyer, the minority whip, has a clearer path to becoming Pelosi’s successor.

Jealous now faces a tough race against Republican incumbent Larry Hogan. But Maryland is not a conservative stronghold, and Jealous has a real chance of winning his race in November. The skepticism of Democratic elders has been misplaced; Ocasio-Cortez and Jealous are strong candidates in their own rights. And they won without sacrificing a commitment to either progressive economic policies or social justice, a compromise Third Way types have consistently insisted the party would have to make.

This is partly because Ocasio-Cortez and Jealous ran in relatively blue areas. But they are also part of a wave that is far bigger than Maryland and the 14th Congressional District of New York. It’s happening in states and districts that should, according to conventional wisdom, be wary of envelope-pushing stances on Medicare or minority rights. Stacey Abrams, who supports ending cash bail and raising the minimum wage, is running a landmark bid for Georgia governor; Sanders endorsed her in May. Another Sanders-backed candidate, Emily Sirota, won her Democratic primary for a seat in the Colorado state House. In Virginia’s 9th and 6th Congressional Districts, Anthony Flaccavento and Jennifer Lewis are running on platforms that include support for a $15 minimum wage, free higher education, and Medicare for All. Democrat Richard Ojeda is leading his Republican opponent in West Virginia’s deep-red 3rd Congressional District—while running on an unapologetically left-wing platform that resembles the Bernie Sanders template in many respects.

A year ago, the possibility of a Democratic victory in West Virginia’s 3rd district seemed unthinkable. But Ojeda, a remorseful Trump voter who enthusiastically supported the state’s striking teachers this spring, seems to have tapped into a force that party leadership failed to notice. The strike galvanized the 3rd’s voters. That same dynamic might not play out in future elections, but the point is that these policies motivated Democratic voters in the first place.

November’s general elections will more accurately test the viability of leftist candidates. But it is clear, at least, that the Democratic Party’s base does not necessarily share the pragmatic concerns of party leadership or, for that matter, the party’s donors.

The trick is to give voters real targets for their resentment. Voters are correct to believe that something’s rotten. Their livelihoods are indeed under threat—but from growing wealth inequality, not from immigrants. Wages are stagnant and housing prices are going up, along with the cost of health care. “U.S. infant mortality rates in 2013 were the highest in the developed world,” U.N. Special Rapporteur Philip Alston reported after a trip to the U.S. in December 2017. “Americans can expect to live shorter and sicker lives, compared to people living in any other rich democracy, and the ‘health gap’ between the U.S. and its peer countries continues to grow.”

And while circumstances have worsened under Donald Trump, the country was in weak shape under his Democratic predecessor. Those infant mortality rates date from Barack Obama’s second term in office. The U.S. did not become 36th in the world for access to sanitation and water on Trump’s inauguration day. The Affordable Care Act has improved health care access, but it always left some Americans behind, and it did little to check the power of the insurance industry.

Under Trump, both the executive and judicial branches seem determined to roll back the incremental progress this country has made. The Department of Justice announced on June 7 that it would not defend the ACA’s protections for people with pre-existing conditions against a lawsuit, and congressional Republicans are on their way to attaching onerous work requirements to food stamps. Just this week, with its ruling in Janus v. AFSCME, the U.S. Supreme Court has weakened unions, even though union membership is the most reliable way for women and people of color to achieve equal pay. Justice Anthony Kennedy is retiring, giving Trump another Supreme Court pick. Trump himself has threatened further attacks on the right to asylum. The wall, when he builds it, won’t just be the physical manifestation of a deeply racist administration. Walls also keep people in, and behind this wall America will languish.

If the Democratic Party wants to reclaim state legislatures and Congress, it will have to turn out voters. And if voters want universal health care, free public college, and a fairer immigration policy, then the party should give them what they want. It’s also what we all need.