“Warren supporters have exhausted me,” tweeted writer Nylah Burton, who added that up until recently she was planning to vote for Warren. “Y’all made us talk about snake emojis for 2 months,” she said, in reference to the snake emoji Sanders supporters tweeted to Warren after a debate in January.
One radical took a different path. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) — known for refusing to compromise with centrists, opposing them in primaries, grilling their allies in committee rooms and endorsing Sanders (I-Vt.) in October — sought to build bridges. She declared herself a “Bernie supporter who builds with Warren supporters.” She called a viral “Saturday Night Live” video of Warren “legendary” (even as others took the chance to denounce Warren, as well as Ocasio-Cortez for offering a kind word).
“Maybe it’s not a great idea for the Sanders campaign to have one of their top surrogates continuously trying to make nice with an opposing candidate who keeps attacking Sanders,” journalist Walker Bragman tweeted about the congresswoman’s outreach.
Although Ocasio-Cortez is often labeled a “progressive firebrand” and a “liberal bomb thrower,” she is, in reality, a pragmatist. She wants results, and she’s willing to bend to get them. Her efforts to mend the rupture between Warren and Sanders supporters are typical. And the instincts behind them will, in the long run, equip her to forge ties among the Democratic mainstream that Sanders cannot. Her efforts at outreach today are not just good for Sanders, they are good politics. If done deftly, they could do more than help Democrats electorally. They might draw a few left-wing ideas into the Biden campaign.
Sanders promises to expand the Democratic electorate and drive turnout, but so far, new voters have not been appearing at the polls to award him delegates. That means he’ll need to win over centrist and undecided Democrats, building relationships with allies who can reach traditional liberals. This goes against the ethos his movement appears to have cultivated. The campaign seems to recognize this blind spot, though it might already be too late. Last week, Sanders’s campaign made its first real effort to embrace former president Barack Obama, airing a new ad highlighting Obama’s praise of him.
Ocasio-Cortez, by contrast, has acted practically since her 2018 election. Before she was sworn in to the House, she advocated for the Green New Deal by rallying protesters in front of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. (In 2019, Pelosi wrote off Ocasio-Cortez and her allies, saying: “They didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”) But when it came time to reelect the speaker or recruit a challenger, Ocasio-Cortez made the safe choice, voting for Pelosi (D-Calif.) and noting most of Pelosi’s challengers were more conservative than she is. “So long as Leader Pelosi remains the most progressive candidate for speaker, she can count on my support,” the freshman congresswoman said.
In March 2019, after her fellow “squad” member Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) profanely talked about impeaching Trump, exciting the base, Ocasio-Cortez sounded a more circumspect note. “I defer to party leadership,” she said at the time. (Once hearings had been conducted and impeachment articles drafted, she voted for the measures.)
Despite Fox News’s caricatures of the congresswoman, her politics — which focus on the economic issues affecting everyday, working-class Americans well beyond the confines of her New York district — appeal to voters outside of her base. She doesn’t run on identity politics, and her approach to holding the Trump administration accountable has centered on asking tough questions, not speechifying on cable news shows. During the House Oversight Committee’s hearing with Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen, while Tlaib ignited a dispute with a Republican colleague, Ocasio-Cortez chose to focus her questioning on the president’s finances.
Similarly, when Ocasio-Cortez was invited by Republican Rep. Garland “Andy” Barr (Ky.) to meet with Kentucky coal miners to see how her Green New Deal would affect miners in the state, she accepted. And when Barr rescinded the invite, she continued to express interest in visiting, despite the potential for a contentious meeting.
Even instances in which she has appeared to hold the left’s line have ended in practical achievements. After she supported a primary challenger to Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) in Missouri in 2018, Clay co-sponsored Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal legislation. Ocasio-Cortez’s decision to back Sanders while he recovered in a hospital from a heart attack turned out to be one of the most consequential endorsements in the 2020 primary. It was soon followed by Tlaib and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), her squadmates, which injected new energy into his campaign and significantly consolidated the left. This shows her grasp of the fact that, to rack up electoral wins, her wing of the party will have to demonstrate the kind of solidarity that establishment Democrats and the rich can deploy overnight.
If she could strengthen the progressive coalition by both building its left fringe and making inroads with establishment Democrats such as Pelosi, she is a different kind of politician than the avatars of ideological purity many have seen in her.