Adam Kenworthy, chair of the Iowa lawyer chapter of the American Constitution Society, sees a message for all Democrats in a recent New York Congressional primary. -promoted by desmoinesdem
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in the Democratic primary for New York’s fourteenth Congressional District showed that authenticity, passion, and a strong commitment to a democratic socialist vision of policies for all people can win elections. That bright spot in an otherwise dark period in our country’s history offers hope for the future of the current Democratic Party.
Her victory should also illustrate the risk of relying solely on political pundits to explain, and validate, her individual impact and the root causes of her success. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory was inspiring, both for the boldness of her platforms and for two very striking factors: young age and lack of money. At 28, her obvious maturity and depth is portrayed as rare among her generational peers. But is it truly rare, or have we Democrats simply failed to explore the potential of a new generation or candidates that challenge conventional assumptions?
If Ocasio-Cortez is elected in November, her age will also make her perspective diverse. Democrats often tout our commitment to diversity, yet a rigid definition of diversity prevails–and the result is excluding a generation that defines diversity as “variety of experience” rather than simply race, religion or gender. When we look at the Democratic Caucus in Congress, younger voices are poorly represented. New voices and different perspectives matter. We know it. We say it. Yet, there is a disconnect when it comes to elected office because it would mean incumbents relinquish power and popular ideas could be challenged.
Ocasio-Cortez’s victory makes clear that the next generation has come of age and ready to have a voice at the table. But the hard fact is that this can only happen in two ways: someone steps aside, or someone is challenged. Within Democratic politics, we tend not to like primary challenges to incumbents. At large fundraisers, young progressives are asked by party leaders or wealthy donors, “why don’t more young people get involved?” but if any sign of interest is shown, that statement is typically followed by a cheerfully tone-deaf warning: “then someday maybe we’ll run you.” Meaning, “wait your turn, we’ll decide when you’re ready.”
One other major reason: money. Young candidates, activists, and supporters get the message early–if you don’t have the money or know where to go get it, then you’ll never play at the next level. How many Democratic fundraisers or campaigns have VIP lines and VIP sections? How many students or young families can drop the money to get in or actually garner influence? A better question might be, why does the supposed party of the working class have VIP lines and exclusive fundraisers in the first place?
If you look at Joe Crowley’s donor list for the primary, it shows exactly why people are cynical about party politics. Look at all the funds from big business and industry. “But you have to take the money, right?” This is the narrative and dreamy new voices who espouse otherwise are dismissed as naïve candidates. Yet, try to debate bold policy issues like getting rid of student debt, free college tuition, or socialized child care and the “serious” folk scoff at such naiveté. I don’t think they are being disingenuous, but many have been around long enough to know how corrupt this process is. And that’s natural. That’s what happens. But that’s why new voices are vital to maintain the kind of energy and hope necessary to fight for something more.
The Ocasio-Cortez victory should be interpreted as the rebounding vital signs of a party about to lose the will to fight. In the first episode of the series “Eyes on the Prize,” the brilliant documentary on the Civil Rights Era, Coretta Scott King spoke about the very first days of the bus boycott in Montgomery, right after Rosa Parks had been arrested. She described what the leaders and activists were hoping to gain from the boycott as a concession, “a more humane form of segregation.” It’s a haunting turn of phrase. Even that was more than the city appeared ready for, she went on to say. When those in the movement realized that they were never going to be given anything, never going to be dealt with in good faith she said they knew then that they might as well go for broke.
Think about that–if the city had compromised just a little, maybe there is no confrontation in Selma, maybe there is no March on Washington. More likely, it all gets delayed a few years. But history champions those organizers for pushing the discussion when it seemed futile. They ultimately refused to accept the premise because they realized those who believe they are entitled to power and entitled to hold it over others will never act in good faith. Or they might, but since they don’t typically have to, the rest of us are stuck waiting around.
The other important aspect to remember about those early days of the civil rights movement was that the energy, the naive hopes and goals of it, were driven by a new generation of leaders and activists. The same with the women’s movement and the anti-war movement. But then George McGovern lost in 1972 and it seems the Democratic Party decided to abandon the ideals that gave it momentum.
It’s time to stop being quiet. It’s time to speak of a moral vision that is an actual alternative to what we have now. If Barack Obama showed us anything, it’s that no matter what we do, critics are never going to meet us halfway. We might as well go for broke. It’s about power, and until you can show you are willing to fight for some, and stand for something, then you will be left standing on the Senate floor calling into the void for civility and asking for a more humane form of disrespect.
These are the times when sides are chosen. If the Democratic Party is going to have any appeal to that vast array of people out there who don’t see a reason to vote or participate, but who hurt, who struggle, who know nothing else but new forms of exploitation, then we better take back our power. Consider a reimagined labor movement, with an expanded definition for a new generation of progress. If modernized, it becomes something all can relate to and fight for— a collective action that brings civility through meaningful civil disobedience and diversity of thought. A collective action that studies history and looks to past leaders for guidance and inspiration, but one which is driven by those who will inherit the consequences of inaction or prosper from a shared moral vision of a more just and purposeful future.
The story from Ocasio-Cortez’s victory is not simply that a talented young activist unseated a powerful, well-funded incumbent. It is a story about believing in the power of collective purpose, and that we can achieve more, if we are willing to fight to attain it.