WASHINGTON, Jan. 20, 2025 — President-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s rise to the top has been as rapid as it once seemed improbable. But the New York Democrat’s inauguration today should remind all of us how quickly political paradigms fall when political elites fail.

In hindsight, the failures that brought the first socialist president to power seem obvious. The rapid collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s made the United States the world’s only superpower. Presidents from both parties used that power to usher in a regime of global neoliberal economics backed by U.S. military power. As the Greek historian Thucydides wrote two millennia ago, the strong do what they can while the weak do what they must. The rest of the world fell into line, and the 21st century was born.

Cracks in the edifice soon appeared. The United States could conquer countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, but it lacked the will and the means to hold them. Insurgencies in both countries cost trillions of dollars without bringing victory. At the same time, vast swaths of the U.S. homeland were falling apart, hollowed out as firm after firm left communities small and large to invest elsewhere. America’s house still had curb appeal, as witnessed by the large numbers of migrants streaming to get in. But the foundations were slowly subsiding.

The financial collapse of 2008 was the first clear sign of endemic failure. No elites saw it coming, and its arrival was clearly the result of failed policies that encouraged finance and housing to spur economic growth. It took trillions of dollars in bailouts to prevent a second Great Depression, but little of that money went directly to the people whose lives were upended the most. Banks were saved, but neighborhoods were lost. Recovery was slow when it came, and popular resentment grew. Twin populist challenges in 2016 — Bernie Sanders among Democrats and Donald Trump among Republicans — was the result, culminating in Trump’s shocking election.

Trump proved incapable of leading the reform movement he birthed. A divisive, unserious man, his administration lurched between trying to remake the global neoliberal order and enacting the standard Republican economic agenda. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, he did what he had always done in office: gyrate wildly between populist bluster and meek submission to elite advice. In the end, that meant he held his future hostage to the very swamp he said he would drain.

Those elites said they could put the economy into an induced coma and restart it with massive injections of cash. But they were wrong. There was no V-shaped recovery. Instead, the country remained mired in depression on Election Day. Joe Biden’s landslide victory swept Democrats into power.

But the 78-year-old Biden was not up to the task. He had always been a man of consensus and restoration, not vision and boldness. Like Herbert Hoover after the crash of 1929, Biden sought to preserve a system with half-measures rather than embrace dramatic reform. The economy did not fall, but it also did not rise. After three years of misery, Americans had seen enough.

The 2022 midterms sealed Biden’s fate and foreshadowed Ocasio-Cortez’s rise. Her successful primary challenge of another septuagenarian Democratic establishment paragon, Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, made her the heir to Sanders’s progressive army. Many other Democratic establishment figures lost their primaries to progressive challengers, shifting the party’s gravity sharply to the left.

Democrats kept power, however, because of Republican weakness. They were hindered both by Trump’s divisive legacy and their leading role in crafting the failed bailout strategy. They were also fatally hobbled by their own internal civil war. The dominant faction thought the current crisis was a rerun of the 1970s experience with stagflation, and thus sought to fight the depression by cutting taxes and spending and expanding global trade. But saying neoliberalism hadn’t gone far enough was not what most Americans wanted to hear.

Ocasio-Cortez easily defeated Biden in the Democratic primaries as he looked as feeble as his policies. Republicans, meanwhile, put up their own woman of color, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley. But she failed to catch on as party orthodoxy prevented her from assuming the mantle of change Americans desperately wanted. Ocasio-Cortez’s extreme youth — she only turned 35, the constitutional minimum age to become president, in October of 2024 — also helped her. This new leader was clearly untainted by discredited old policies she had always loudly opposed.

The new president has long been known by her initials, AOC. Perhaps not coincidentally, that places her in the long line of Democratic presidents also known by their initials: FDR, JFK and LBJ. As the first woman, the first Latina and the first socialist to become president, no one doubts that she will seek to transform the United States more dramatically than any of her predecessors dared to attempt.

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