When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez scored one of the most significant upsets of the primary season, beating Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), whom some had pegged as a possible future replacement for Nancy Pelosi as leader of the House Democrats, President Trump was initially off-message. He tweeted that Crowley “should have been nicer, and more respectful, to his President!” which was a weird interpretation of a race in which Ocasio-Cortez, a Bernie Sanders organizer, ran to Crowley’s left in a district Trump lost by 58 points in 2016.
But then a half-hour later, someone apparently clued him in that he ought to say that this shows Democrats are tearing themselves apart as wacky extremists take hold of their party:
It was a big night all right. But not in the way he meant.
The truth is that while Democrats don’t agree on everything, a result like Ocasio-Cortez’s victory doesn’t show weakness at all. It’s uncomfortable for some in Washington without a doubt; the Democratic Party apparatus, which has a bias toward both whichever candidate has the most money and what it perceives as electable candidates (which usually means moderates), is not exactly receiving a great deal of faith and admiration from the party’s rank-and-file these days.
And Pelosi, whom Ocasio-Cortez declined to say she’d vote for in the next leadership election, argued that the result didn’t signify any broad rejection of the current House leadership or a dramatic move to the left. It’s true that in many districts, more traditional candidates have won Democratic primaries. But the fact that a result like the one in New York’s 14th district is even possible demonstrates what a good position Democrats are in right now.
There are many ways to explain this election’s outcome. Crowley is a white politician representing a district where minorities are the majority, so maybe it was only a matter of time before a Latino candidate such as Ocasio-Cortez came along to beat him. At a time when you can make a biographical video go viral (hers was terrific) and reach thousands or even millions of people, the money to buy TV ads doesn’t matter as much — and it can be overcome with organization and shoe leather. As a member of the Democratic leadership, Crowley was too associated with Washington.
All of which may be true. But it’s only in a year like this one when those factors are sufficient to bring a 28-year-old first-time candidate such as Ocasio-Cortez to victory. In an ordinary year, she wouldn’t have been able to generate the enthusiasm that overcame all of Crowley’s advantages.
She also had an agenda designed to generate that enthusiasm: Medicare for all, a federal jobs guarantee, abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), free college tuition and more. It resembles what Bernie Sanders ran on, but unlike Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez is an unapologetic Democrat.
Many people compared the outcome in this race to the 2014 primary defeat of Eric Cantor, who at the time was House majority leader. There’s an undercurrent of warning to these comparisons: Watch out, Democrats, you don’t want to become as crazy as the tea party! It’s true that the tea party, with its endless rage at Barack Obama and hatred of immigrants, took over the entire GOP and mired it in internecine warfare for a decade. But from a political standpoint, it was pretty darn successful. Propelled by its energy, Republicans took over the House in 2010, then the Senate in 2014, then the White House in 2016. Democrats should be so lucky.
You can say that Ocasio-Cortez’s agenda wouldn’t play as well in districts that aren’t so heavily Democratic, which is also true. But liberal Democrats won elsewhere, as well: Ben Jealous, the former head of the NAACP and another Bernie Sanders supporter, won the nomination for governor of Maryland, and Jared Polis, a liberal Democratic congressman who would be the first openly gay governor in American history, won the nomination in Colorado. Those two got more establishment support than Ocasio-Cortez did, but that’s in part because the mainstream of the party has incorporated more liberal ideas like universal health coverage, and the candidates who advocate them, without all that much anguish.
As political scientist Julia Azari has written, “The defining characteristic of our moment is that parties are weak while partisanship is strong.” As institutions with the power to determine which politicians represent them, the parties are a shadow of their former selves. That means that in a year like the one Democrats are having, unexpected candidates with the ability to generate grass-roots support can take over, whether it’s what party officials initially want or not. And if what matters most in November is which side is more energized, that will serve Democrats well.