Two weeks after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez‘s surprise victory over a low-profile yet powerful 10-term incumbent, she’s become a symbol of the bottom-up, post-Bernie transformation of the Democratic Party. It feels premature, but it’s not. Having beaten the reasonably progressive machine pol Joe Crowley in the June primary, she’s now running in an overwhelmingly Democratic district that encompasses parts of Queens and the Bronx — it backed Clinton over Trump by 77-20 — she’s virtually assured of victory over token Republican opposition in the November general.
In four months, Ocasio-Cortez will become the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, and she will have done so on a platform of democratic socialism, calling for a carbon-neutral energy system in less than 20 years, the abolition of ICE, free college tuition, and a $15 living wage.
Naturally, this has brought out the laziest, more condescending possible regurgitations of conventional wisdom, about how she only won because she promised “free stuff” or how the only thing that propelled her victory was tribalism (i.e., she’s of Puerto Rican descent, and her majority-Latino district finally voted against its entrenched white-male incumbent for that reason alone). None of that is true. In fact, the areas of Ocasio-Cortez’s future district that voted for her most strongly are ones with diverse populations. And if anyone’s doling out free stuff, it’s the Republican Party, whose giant vortex of red ink masquerading as some sort of tax reform will punch us all in the nose sometime in the next few years.
But over the weekend, The New York Times‘ Bret Stephens penned what might be the ultimate in wrote-it-with-one-eye-open-while-brushing-his-teeth concern trolling. In “Democratic Socialism Is Dem Doom,” Stephens launches an intellectually indefensible broadside against Ocasio-Cortez that goes out of its way to mischaracterize her as a neophyte who has no idea what she’s saying or doing. Yes, she’s 28 and until recently tended bar in the Bronx, but she’s also a runner-up in the Intel Science Fair who interned with Sen. Ted Kennedy, founded a publishing firm, and holds a degree in economics from Boston University. Stephens, a climate-change skeptic and neocon whom the NYT hired away from the Wall Street Journal‘s conservative op-ed page in a bizarre effort to diversify itself post-Trump, mentions none of this.
Calling her program “hemlock for the Democratic Party,” and arguing that ” ‘Democratic socialism’ is awful as a slogan and catastrophic as a policy” Stephens says that it always leads to disaster. Which disasters? He ticks off three obscurities: Israel in the 1980s, India in 1991, and Sweden in 1992. In other words, Stephens can’t furnish an example of a financial crisis from the last 25 years that can be attributed to democratic socialism, although two very large ones come to mind. The Great Recession of 2007-08 started as a housing crisis and grew into a massive banking catastrophe that nearly took down the world economy because financial institutions were essentially writing their own regulations, and the European debt crisis that grew out of it worsened after German Chancellor Angela Merkel insisted on dosing those profligate Greeks and Spaniards with some heavy-handed austerity.
After two colossal failures of neoliberal capitalism in a decade, is it any wonder that young people clamor for change or that people respond to it with enthusiasm?
Stephens then trots out the boogeyman du jour, Venezuela, ostensibly because a decent wage for working Americans is the road to Carácas. Never mind that Venezuela is an authoritarian petrostate with endemic corruption whose former strongman, Hugo Chavez, initially won election as a reaction by desperate people against a cosseted upper class. (Never mind also that he survived a U.S.-backed coup and that his successor is an erratic kook with no respect for rule by law, and who thinks he communes with Chavez in the form of a little songbird.) What’s happening in Venezuela is tragic, but if conservative columnists worry about American decline, they should probably theorize about different avenues of corruption-fueled collapse right about now.
The temptation is to do a line-by-line run-down of Stephens’ fatuous comparisons and overall foolishness. “Fisking,” they used to call it, back in the circa-2004 golden age of blogging. That’s annoying and heavy-handed and I’m not going to do it. But apart from howlers like Stephens calling the U.S. welfare state “robust” — seriously? — the fundamental problem with this column is its insincerity. Why should anyone take a conservative seriously when they proclaim that this or that is good or bad for the Democratic Party? Why should we believe what they say? Desperate to delegitimize a fresh new adversary as a trendy frivolity unaware of the danger of her ideas, Stephens ignores two ways in which Ocasio-Cortez threatens the money-choked power structure: her refusal to accept corporate funding, and her eagerness to rebuild a decimated Democratic Party.
Try to read these two sentences without shuddering at the smugness and borderline-incomprehensibility: “If Trump is the new Nixon, the right way to oppose him isn’t to summon the ghost of George McGovern. Try some version of Bill Clinton (minus the grossness) for a change: working-class affect, middle-class politics, upper-class aspirations.”
What exactly does that last phrase even mean, and how does it not apply to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? Didn’t we literally just try another middle-of-the-road, aspirational Clinton like 20 months ago and end up in a fascist dystopia? The New York Times paints itself into this corner a lot, because its house brand of “conservative” tends to be a glib, contrarian Never-Trumper-lite who occupies the outermost boundary of acceptability to its liberal readership. They’re never going to hire an Eric Erickson or a Milo Yiannopoulis — which is good, because people that malevolent don’t deserve any more media oxygen. But, however regrettably, such figures are much closer to the soul of contemporary conservatism, in all its fact-free xenophobia and noxiousness. So in its endless pursuit of ideological balance, the Times defaults to predictable socialist-bashing. The same centrists and guardians of savvy who demand Trump be given a chance or the benefit of the doubt are on the attack like never before. Why? Because the idea that the rules may be rewritten to favor the less powerful, the young, the non-white is gaining strength.
The Times‘ failure to notice Ocasio-Cortez until after she won the primary was so egregious that deposed former editor-in-chief Jill Abramson scolded the paper in no uncertain terms. And now it’s coming for her. But poorly argued socialist-bashing that consists entirely of alarmism tinged with I-can’t-believe-I-even-have-to-explain-this impatience reveals only one thing: fear. It’s the inverse of the fear that seizes progressives when we see Nazis marching with torches and children in cages. So welcome to the club, Bret Stephens! We invite you to show us a way out of this mess that doesn’t involve restoring power and prestige to the very people and institutions that have caused such intractable poverty and mass disillusionment.
Meanwhile, and tentatively speaking, the politics of the youthful Ocasio-Cortez, who was born four days before the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, represent a viable, alternative path. Without causing her shoulders to buckle under the weight of all our hopes and our expectations before she even takes office, every single person with reservations about Trumpism should cheer her on — if only to see how the experiment turns out. The Bret Stephenses of the world can tut-tut about the naivete of optimism and change all they want. But just because you’re convinced a better world than this is not even possible doesn’t mean you’re the only adult in the room.
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