Take an article published in Politico this month, which featured a series of on-the-record attacks on AOC, as she has become known. Some lawmakers bristled in particular at her willingness to openly criticize other Democrats. “I’m sure Ms. Cortez means well, but there’s almost an outstanding rule: Don’t attack your own people,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.).
Another subtle put-down — nicely encapsulating what voters hate about Washington — came from Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.): “Washington is a political animal where a lot of the work that you want to accomplish depends on relationships within the Democratic Caucus.”
Calls for party unity might seem to be oriented around ensuring Democrats can most effectively attack President Trump. The truth is they more often serve to protect powerful financial interests. This becomes obvious when you look into the record of the man whom Ocasio-Cortez defeated in the primary, Joseph Crowley, who portrayed himself as progressive and a good Democrat while taking money from Goldman Sachs, Facebook, Google, BlackRock and a surfeit of other well-heeled interests.
Crowley was such an effective channel for political money that, had he not lost his primary, he was on track to become speaker of the House. What’s more, Democrats like Crowley shape the culture on the Hill by operating as quasi-human resources outfits, offering and vetting staff for new members — staff who likewise bend to moneyed interests. After Crowley lost, he fittingly became one of the biggest prospective hires for lobbying outfits.
For six years, I worked on Capitol Hill as a staffer, and I saw how this deferential culture pushed the party out of touch with ordinary people and paved the way for Trump. I got an early lesson on my first week on the job, in early 2009, when I staffed a member on the Financial Services Committee during fights over the bailouts. A senior committee staffer offered me a guided tour of the committee operations, with a description of what I was supposed to do — and he explained whom the various trade associations represented. “Make sure you get the business card of every lobbyist,” he told me. “So you can give it to your fundraiser.”
He had good reason for saying this. House leaders want to retain the majority, because being in the majority lets you run the place. Protecting your members, especially new ones and ones in seats with a lot of undecided voters, is essential. My boss was a freshman in a such a seat, so leadership wanted to “protect” him for his reelection. But to House leaders at the time, such protection didn’t mean doing a good job for the voters and giving them a reason to vote once again for Democrats. It meant they expected freshmen members to raise money from plutocrats.
This “protection” involved misleading the public to make it look like Democrats, especially vulnerable freshmen, are engaged in populist policymaking when they are not. In one case, in response to the financial giant AIG offering bonuses to its executives after having taken a massive government bailout, leadership had freshmen Democrats sponsor a bill that would have barred unreasonable bonuses by financial institutions that had taken public money. The bill was designed to easily pass the House floor. But the Obama administration wanted to ensure that these banks could pay bonuses, so the bill wasn’t meant to be signed into law. Putting the name of freshmen on it let those freshmen take credit for being tough on bankers, but without actually doing anything to threaten banker interests.
Everyone was proud of their very clever little scheme that they imagined fooled voters. Of course, no actual voter cared about any of it; they were too battered by the financial crisis to notice. And the practice was far from unusual. The Obama administration routinely pledged to help homeowners in foreclosures, but as then-Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) observed, when given the chance, President Barack Obama wouldn’t actually do it. Instead, Timothy Geithner was seeking to, as he put it, “foam the runway” for the banks, meaning space out foreclosures instead of stopping them, so banks wouldn’t have to take hits to their balance sheets. There were similar rancid deals around pharmaceutical pricing and trade deals.
The voters don’t know why the political rhetoric they hear and the policy outcomes they experience don’t match, but they know that something about politics smells.
This isn’t purely a money-in-politics problem. Yes, members need money. I worked for a congressman in 2009 and 2010 who attacked bankers instead of sucking up to them and used that stance to raise large sums in small-dollar increments online. Democrats didn’t have to pick a political posture to pander to the powerful; it was a choice.
Democratic unwillingness to take on concentrated power led to major political failure. A year after I started on the Hill, one leadership staffer told me how well we were doing. I was surprised at the optimism, because constituents kept complaining about their economic situation. “We’ve passed 12 out of 12 bills we put on the floor,” he said proudly. I wanted to ask him when the Democrats changed their slogan from party of the people to party of the teacher’s pet. Then Republican Scott Brown won a Senate seat in Massachusetts, making the point more forcefully. Democrats continued losing throughout the whole Obama era, with more than 1,000 elected officials losing to Republicans during those eight years, until a flawed and unpopular nominee, Hillary Clinton, lost to a slightly less unpopular and much more flawed Donald Trump.
Because of the unwillingness to have open debate, voters couldn’t tell which Democrats were making these dishonorable political and policy choices, and why. They just said, “Throw the bums out.”
Yet as that Politico article, and others, show, the Democratic Party’s culture of deference to the powerful remains deeply embedded.
Ocasio-Cortez certainly has things to learn. And it’s true that she has an intuitive sense of theatricality and social media. But her political success is not, as her critics suggest, a result of her Twitter account. It’s the result of her rejection of the Democratic culture of superficiality and deference to the powerful.
But to understand why Ocasio-Cortez is inspiring attacks from her Democratic peers, it’s important to note that her political ideas are oriented around taking on plutocrats. Her most prominent proposals are raising marginal tax rates to 70 percent, which frightens the super-rich who go to Davos, and the “Green New Deal,” a crash course in carbon-emission reduction. (At the same time, it’s important not to overstate her break from the old model; economist Paul Krugman, no outsider, is talking up her approach to policy.)
Some of her less-noticed policy arguments will cause even more discomfort to the Democratic establishment than what she has proposed so far, reflecting the work of someone who has paid attention to the details of policymaking. Take Puerto Rico. In 2016, Obama urged Congress to pass a bill called PROMESA to address the debt crisis on the island. It handed power over to a financier-dominated control board, whose neglect of infrastructure set the stage for the destruction of the electric grid by Hurricane Maria. While most members of Congress didn’t bother to learn what was in the bill, Ocasio-Cortez attended PROMESA board meetings, called for debt cancellation, criticized the utility’s management, lambasted Crowley for supporting the bill and called for more public investment. She saw that good policy is not just about saying nice things about Puerto Rico while taking in a charity “Hamilton” show on the island, as Democrats did this month; it’s about recognizing that hedge funds are the obstacle to helping people.
Or consider her ideas about making markets fairer. This is not something Ocasio-Cortez has talked about much recently, but during her campaign, she discussed support for small businesses. She has been involved in fights over local real estate zoning choices that protect the big chain stores, and has advocated making sure that marijuana decriminalization doesn’t lead to corporate control over this nascent industry. And last April, when no one was paying attention to her, she was paying attention to Mark Zuckerberg, calling for a U.S. privacy rule based on European standards and for antitrust action against Facebook and Google.
The Democratic Party has become calcified and inward-looking, misleading its supporters so it can sustain the approval of billionaires and bankers. Ocasio-Cortez is grabbing attention because she is young and cool, yes, but also because she is grappling with genuine questions of economic and political power. She has demonstrated that there is a hunger for a more open and populist kind of politics. That’s also why she is uniquely jarring to insiders. She has fused a cogent political and ideological critique with theatricality. It’s important not to make premature conclusions about where this is all leading, but Ocasio-Cortez is channeling public hunger for a genuine restructuring of our society’s power arrangements.
For too long, disagreements in the Democratic Party have been kept behind closed doors, and the result was the protection of powerful financial interests. It is time to start talking about this dynamic, so that voters can make a democratic choice about what kind of politics they actually want to build. That, in the end, is why it’s called the Democratic Party.