Moderate Democrats, Ocasio-Cortez told the New York Times, are “sitting ducks.” Her colleagues, she explained, make easy targets for Republicans because they’re running analog campaigns in the digital age. Spending money on the Internet matters, she chided her elders, “in the Year of our Lord 2020.” She suggested that moderates stop blaming their woes on progressive sloganeering.
You can guess what came next: a whole lot of outrage. Ocasio-Cortez’s argument has set off an ideological donnybrook between her activist vanguard in the House and more veteran centrists who can’t stand the youngsters telling them off — especially because they feel those youngsters’ flirtations with socialism are creating a liability for everyone else.
But Ocasio-Cortez isn’t the ideologue here. Her critique is entirely practical. Unless Democrats end their love affair with television and get cozier with smaller screens, she argued, they will keep losing; the medium matters as much as the message. You can quibble with Ocasio-Cortez’s faith in the insurmountable impact of Facebook advertising — but the widespread declarations that she has broken her truce with centrists miss the point precisely.
Ocasio-Cortez isn’t picking a fight because of ideology. She’s staging an intervention.
Post-election punditry has, so far, seemed designed to confirm a given commentator’s long-held views. Losses are attributed to our pet peeves; wins to our hobbyhorses. Journalist Andrew Sullivan tweeted a perfect specimen of this political Mad Libs: “In four years I never changed my mind about Trump’s unfitness for office. But I found the left’s relentless identity politics increasingly repellent. I wasn’t alone.”
Certainly, progressives play the same game when they blame poor election performance on uninspiring promises, such as, say, a return to normalcy. And moderates play that game when they argue that the “defund the police” crusade was the sole reason for their struggles at the ballot box. Both sides are a little right and a little wrong. But Ocasio-Cortez has devised a clever strategy for sidestepping the argument about who has the best policies: She wants to talk about best practices.
Ocasio-Cortez cares most about advancing the activist cause, yet she also cares about getting the Democratic Party’s factions to cooperate — because that is the best way to advance the activist cause.
The former bartender from the Bronx spent the months following Bernie Sanders’s primary defeat acting not precisely as a surrogate for Joe Biden but at least as a liaison between the nominee and the left. She didn’t go on television to claim that she stood for everything the former vice president stood for, but she at least implied that what he stood for was, unlike the lies flowing forth from his opponent’s mouth and Twitter feed, something she could work with.
“This isn’t news, Kellyanne,” she responded when Kellyanne Conway tried to bait her with Biden’s debate-night insistence that “the Green New Deal is not my plan.” CNN’s Jake Tapper asked whether the party nominee’s refusal to disavow fracking bothered its foremost climate-change crusader. “You know, it does not bother me,” she replied. “It will be a privilege to lobby him.”
That answer, purposely or not, channeled a remarkably Biden-like philosophy of legislating: all about nudging and slaps on the back, agreements hammered out among those with small differences in the hallways and sometimes in the gym. That’s an irony if you see Ocasio-Cortez as his adversary; if you see her as his frenemy, it’s a triumph.
The Democratic Party is an ecosystem that thrives on its biodiversity. There’s hope for symbiosis between its left and its center if they don’t eat each other alive. And eventually, as Ocasio-Cortez keenly knows, there’s hope for those on the left to climb up the food chain.
Ocasio-Cortez’s message this week, self-interested or not, was the opposite of ideological. It was pragmatic. And by rejecting it, those at the center reveal that they believe the only views that belong in the big tent are their own. Which reveals where Democratic dogma really sits: right at the middle of things.