On Monday, Politico published an article about how Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s approach to politicking has begun to differ from that of other activists on the left—in particular, Justice Democrats, the group that helped support her political rise. The piece explored Ocasio-Cortez’s tendency to endorse fewer insurgent progressive candidates than when she first entered office in 2019, limiting her endorsements to Democrats competing against Republicans and anti-abortion moderate Democrats. It also mapped the ways in which Ocasio-Cortez is pushing her leftist agenda to a wider audience in a way that, using strategies that differ from that of Senator Bernie Sanders, one of her inspirations for getting involved in politics in the first place.
The article was classic Politico fare: Frame a relatively mild critique of a popular figure on the left with some Washington gossip and quotes by unsavory pundits and figures, and inject some unwarranted sensationalism over a couple of staff changes and niceties. This isn’t to say that Politico’s reporting was nefarious, but it was melodramatic, especially with a headline like “AOC Breaks with Bernie On How to Lead the Left” and the very straightforward URL “AOC-divides-the-left.” But it was the perfect bait for a certain subset of the online left that is—for whatever reason—eager for Ocasio-Cortez to reveal herself as a sellout.
What was largely an exploration of Ocasio-Cortez’s strategy to push a leftist agenda was read by some as Ocasio-Cortez becoming a witting darling of establishment Democrats and doormat liberals. James Carville, strategist-turned-professional curmudgeon and leftist skeptic, lauded Ocasio-Cortez as a talented and smart young woman who may finally have realized that she wants to be “part of the coalition.” Neera Tanden—president of the Center for American Progress, Hillary Clinton confidant, and arbiter of toothless liberalism—characterized Ocasio-Cortez’s apparent pivot toward warmer relationships with House Democrats and Nancy Pelosi as “a sign of leadership” needed in a post-Bernie Sanders political landscape.
In one Twitter rant among many, Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks opined that Ocasio-Cortez’s “decision to work with establishment rather than challenge it is very disappointing.” In another tweet, he added that because Ocasio-Cortez has endorsed so few progressive challengers in 2020 races, “her political calculations now would lead her to not endorse someone exactly like herself. That bridge was awfully nice while you were crossing it. Apparently not so much anymore.”(Uygur apologized and resigned from Justice Democrats in 2017 over “sexist and racist” blog posts he wrote in the 2000s; earlier this year Uygur lost a primary bid for Congress in California’s 25th district.)
On Tuesday night, Ocasio-Cortez responded to a series of questions via her Instagram stories, including one that asked whether the “Politico article about your change to a moderate Democrat based in reality?” She said, “If anything I’ve only gotten more ardent in my positions, but I do think it’s funny that all these folks that are one day like, ‘Keep your third eye open! Manufactured consent!” are the same ones who fall the fastest for these ploys to demoralize the left.”
While leftists should be skeptical of seeking the wisdom of Uygur—a known union buster—for clarity, it’s true that Ocasio-Cortez’s lack of endorsements for some progressive candidates is disappointing. In February, Ocasio-Cortez launched a political action group dedicated to boosting progressive congressional candidates called Courage to Change, so it’s not as if she’s neglecting them entirely. But Ocasio-Cortez’s focus on progressives who are competing in red districts or against Blue Dog Democrats leaves potential allies in the dust. For example, I believe Morgan Harper, a fellow Justice Democrat competing against corporate-funded incumbent Democrat Joyce Beatty in Ohio’s 3rd district, would be a great candidate for Ocasio-Cortez to endorse. Like Ocasio-Cortez, Harper is a young, driven woman of color with a leftist platform that includes Medicare-for-all, affordable housing, an expansion of workers’ rights, and support for the Green New Deal that Ocasio-Cortez herself has championed.
But endorsements aren’t magic, and a lack of endorsements on its own is not proof of anything. With primaries postponed (including Ohio’s, for that matter) due to covid-19 and the rush to get emergency legislation through the Congress to combat the pandemic, on top of her busy campaign schedule with Sanders for most of the year thus far, there could be plenty of reasonable explanations. But Ocasio-Cortez can’t even leave a non-combative reply to a tweet of Elizabeth Warren on Saturday Night Live without being called a backstabber.
Ocasio-Cortez’s voting record matters more than some corny tweets, staff changes, and even endorsements. And her record shows that she is one of the strongest advocates for working people in this country. But Ocasio-Cortez has an earnestness about her that contrasts against the sensibilities of some of the loudest online leftists: White, male, gruff wannabe pundits who are irony-poisoned with a sense of humor that can only be described as an acquired taste. This small group has largely judged her leftist credentials by her adherence and support of Sanders, the leader of the American left, and has been waiting for her to break ranks. Because among this lot, painting Ocasio-Cortez as a feckless neoliberal is practically sport; the main problem is that it requires ignoring her actual record to do it, which makes these critiques appear based in unfair bias—at best, the left’s impulse to eat its own, at worst, plain old sexism and racism—rather than reflective of her time in public office.
Whether it was the rumor that Ocasio-Cortez would endorse Elizabeth Warren (she didn’t) or people’s continued tendency to write political fanfiction on Twitter about Ocasio-Cortez becoming a centrist (her disdain toward the bipartisan covid-19 stimulus package’s failures to better protect the working class and her support of striking Instacart, Whole Foods, and Amazon employees, and her call for ending sanctions in Iran suggest otherwise), there is this almost rabid desire to see this woman fail us, an overwhelming thrill to say, “I told you so.”
This isn’t just the left eating itself. This is the left becoming so cynical that some valid critiques corrode into outright dismissals. At a time when so many Democrats in leadership are willing to negotiate before they even get to the table, it would behoove some of the most sardonic among us to remember that Ocasio-Cortez is an ally, not an enemy—and certainly not because Carville and Tanden said a few nice things about her in Politico.