Last Tuesday, the first tremors of a political earthquake passed through New York City. The 14th Congressional District was its epicentre as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old former Bernie Sanders organizer, scored a surprise victory over Joseph Crowley, a ten-term incumbent and the Congressional Democrats’ fourth highest-ranking member. Ocasio-Cortez’ grassroots candidacy was largely ignored by the mainstream media who treated Crowley as a shoo-in – for one thing, his campaign raised easily ten times as much money as hers. But when they realised how badly they had misread the popular mood, pundits scrambled to make sense of the result. A New York Times editorial called it “a message to Democrats and Republicans across the country [that the] liberal base is fired up, showing up at the polls, and may be ignored only at great political risk.”
Interviewed while news of her victory broke on live TV, Ocasio-Cortez’ response was typical. “I cannot believe these numbers right now” she said, “but I do know that every single person here has worked their butt off to change the future of the Bronx and Queens. That’s what I know.” Then, after thanking the working parents and ethnic and sexual minorities who had formed the backbone of her campaign, she said: ”I think what we have seen is that working class Americans want a clear champion and there is nothing radical about moral clarity in 2018.”
If these words sound unfamiliar coming from a Democrat, that’s because they are. For the better part of a decade, as Obama bargained ineffectually with an obstructionist GOP, establishment Democrats have moved away from the party’s progressive ideals. Increasingly they have pandered to corporate interests just as opportunistically as any Republican. With the notable exception of Sanders, the old guard has quietly shelved its former rhetoric of social justice, and root-and-branch healthcare and immigration reform. This pusillanimity opened the door for the rise of the Tea Party and the emergence of the ““Trumpen-proletariat”
Ocasio-Cortez, by contrast, speaks unapologetically about her immigrant background and immigrant heavy constituency; she endorses universal healthcare, subsidized education and – daringly – the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Further hints of her agenda can be gleaned from chapter titles in “Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything” by Bernie Sanders’ former strategists, Becky Bond and Zack Exley. The first four read as follows: You Won’t Get a Revolution If You Don’t Ask for One; The Revolution Will Not Be Handed to You on a Silver Platter; The Revolution Will Not Be Staffed; and, Fighting Racism Must Be at the Core of the Message to Everyone.
Another core message is that income inequality can no longer remain at the margins of political debate. With retrospect it is clear that the Democrats’ retreat from a progressive agenda could not have come at a worse time. Over the last twenty years, neoliberal economics has hollowed out America’s middle- and working-class families. The scale of this impoverishment has received more attention since Trump’s ascendancy, but some of the statistics bear repeating.
Six years ago, US corporate profits peaked as a percentage of gross national product. Two years later, Wall Street employees received US$28.5 billion in bonuses – in addition to salaries that averaged US$190,970. By themselves, those bonuses amounted to double the accumulated earnings of the entire country’s minimum wage workers. (24 million Americans work low-wage jobs; 19 million of them, women.) It makes sense that three quarters of the public felt the country was still in a recession while the stock market was reaching new heights in 2014. In truth, this was not a mistake, for the reality of “jobless growth” meant that their lives and incomes remained stagnant or were declining.
It is worth remembering how, in May 2015, the Sanders campaign also seemed to have taken on a Quixotic challenge. The candidate was 75 years old, barely 3 per cent of the electorate knew his name, and the establishment believed his socialist agenda was unelectable. By the end of the race, Sanders had won 22 state primaries and 46 percent of the pledged delegates. If the upper ranks of the Democratic National Committee had not intrigued against him to ensure that their favourite – the most establishment candidate conceivable – won a rigged contest, he may well have won both the nomination and the election.
Reviewing the grassroots advocacy of the Sanders campaign, George Monbiot, described it as “a gigantic live experiment [that] revealed – too late to swing the outcome – [that’ volunteers can fill almost all the positions traditionally reserved for staff… [and that] there was almost no limit to what [they] were prepared to do, as long as the goals and the requests were big enough. By the end of the nomination process, more than 100,000 people had been recruited. Between them, they ran 100,000 events and spoke to 75 million voters.” Those numbers give some indication of the potential voter base that new candidates like Ocasio-Cortez are learning how to tap into. As Monbiot adds: “While the Clinton campaign was organising money, the Sanders campaign was organising people.”
Donald Trump may have upended US politics and, to many observers, ushered in a moment of political chaos, but he has also occasioned an overdue reckoning within the Democratic party. This crisis has given candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a perfect opportunity to step forward and take the country’s political future by the scruff of its neck. An upset victory in a Congressional race for New York’s 14th District may not sound like much, but Sanders’ campaign began in comparable obscurity. The next six months will show whether working class American really are willing to find new champions, and just how effectively the political force of moral clarity can be scaled.