With Barack Obama no longer in office and Hillary Clinton mostly absent from public life after her loss in the 2016 election, the American right lost these major rallying points that had reliably energized their base. The hatred that was stoked over the years, especially by far right media outlets like Breitbart and The Daily Caller, was also highly profitable, so it was only a matter of time before they would begin the search for fresher figures to demonize.
An unwillingness to fight back is a weakness that troubles centrist, liberal parties in much of the world, but it’s especially noticeable in American politics, where the Republicans seem to be engaged in an ideological death match and their Democratic opponents… not so much.
A case in point is Nancy Pelosi, also the subject of constant attacks from her opponents, some of them bordering on ridiculous, who immediately began talking about “bipartisanship” in her victory speech after her party won back the House in the midterm elections. As the Democratic Party’s biggest fundraiser, Pelosi obviously understands that her donors, the real source of her power, want Republican-lite policies that will continue enriching them at the expense of working people, regardless of which party is in power.
While most can understand the desire to stay above the fray as Hillary Clinton mostly did in 2016 (and, in fairness, when she did attempt to fight back, as when she called Trump supporters ‘deplorables’, it seemed tone deaf and didn’t stick), one can’t help but feel that the current political environment, so hyper-charged by social media, requires different tactics.
Thankfully, the youngest soon to be member of the Congress, 29 year old Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (often shortened by supporters to AOC) is giving a master class in how to reply to the slanders directed at her and her fellow progressives by the right, while at the same time trying to push her own party in a more leftwing direction.
Her ideas include a proposal to put together a Committee on a Green New Deal, where policy makers not beholden to Big Energy would create an ambitious plan to decarbonize the American economy while at the same time using this necessary shift to renewables to address issues of inequality across the board.
Having repeatedly made the point that she decided to run for office after being inspired by time spent at Standing Rock during the anti-DAPL protests, AOC understands the power of activist movements and has already demonstrated this before even taking her seat in the U.S. Congress by appearing with and supporting the environmental group Sunrise, mostly made up of Millennial activists, when they occupied Nancy Pelosi’s D.C. office to demand that the soon to be Speaker of the House put the climate crisis at the top of the House agenda.
Even though she won’t be sworn in until Jan. 3, Ocasio Cortez is already an obsession for rightwing media, which talks about her clothes almost as much as her politics. In one example, many commentators on the right noticed that when AOC did a photo shoot for Interview Magazine, she was wearing an expensive outfit. Outlets like the Daily Wire then used their reporting skills to find the price of each item, including the $625 Manolo Blahnik shoes.
That people in the media don’t know that the clothes are provided to the subject, usually just for the duration of such photo shoots, is baffling (unless they think that their readers and viewers don’t know this, which is worse).
When Ocasio Cortez’s policy proposals, as opposed to her clothes, are actually critiqued, the argument is often, “How will you pay for it?”, something that applies to cable news networks like CNN almost as much as Fox News. This is especially pronounced when someone like Jake Tapper uses disingenuous arguments to discredit the idea of Medicare for All, a policy idea that’s popular with most Americans regardless of party, which both AOC and Bernie Sanders had stated would cost Americans $2 trillion less over ten years, a truth that Tapper dodged by seeming to forget that while government would spend more, citizens would spend substantially less.
Besides, this question is never asked when it comes to bailouts for uber rich bankers or increasing funding for the country’s bloated military.
And then of course there is all the ‘socialism’ shaming, which conflates the far from radical Social Democracy championed by AOC and her cohorts that has long been popular in Europe with the ‘communism’ of Stalinist Russia or Maoist China.
Ocasio Cortez even engaged in a short Twitter battle with Donald Trump Jr., arguably the least equipped member of the Trump family for any such contest. Although he’s a middle aged man, if any word describes his public persona, it must be callow, as he demonstrated when he shared a meme, directed at her rhetorical question to his father, “Why are you so afraid of socialism?”
His reply being a meme that said, “Americans want to walk their dogs, not eat them.”
Her comeback was classic AOC, “I have noticed that Junior here has a habit of posting nonsense about me whenever the Mueller investigation heats up.
Please, keep it coming Jr – it’s definitely a “very, very large brain” idea to troll a member of a body that will have subpoena power in a month.
This caused yet another rightwing meltdown as some commentators claimed Ocasio Cortez was not being witty but actually threatening the current president’s son. Perhaps these pundits should have taken the time to read her response where we can see she clearly stated that it was the House of Congress that has subpoena power, rather than it being vested in individual members like herself.
Less trivial, with AOC there has been a desire, even in the mainstream press, to discredit her personal story, one of the main things that allowed her to connect to voters in New York’s 14th district, where she won that first unlikely victory over the 4th highest ranking Democrat in the House during the Democratic primary.
While she was still on the campaign trail, a reporter for the far right Newsmax site, John Cardillo, posted a photo of one of her childhood homes, in Yorktown Heights, New York, before falsely claiming she went to Brown, rather than Boston, University.After correcting the reporter on Twitter and recommending he, “Try Google,” she went on to say that Yorktown Heights, a town of less than 2000 just 50 miles from New York City, was a, “good town for working people…my mom scrubbed toilets so I could live here. And I grew up seeing how the ZIP code one is born in determines much of their opportunity,” and, “Your attempt to strip me of my family, my story, my home, and my identity is exemplary of how scared you are of the power of all four of those things.”
While she was obviously academically distinguished and had worked for former Senator Ted Kennedy’s immigration office as an intern while in college, her father’s 2008 death from lung cancer created a family crisis and put their home at risk of foreclosure. Alongside her mother, who worked multiple jobs, Ocasio Cortez put much of her energy into dealing with these financial calamities after finishing school by taking a service job, in her case ending up at a taqueria called Flats Fix in Union Square.
That she lost none of her ambition or interest in politics is clear from the publishing company she started at just 22 years old with help from the Sunshine Bronx Business Incubator, the Brook Avenue Press, and her time working on Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign.
Smartly, AOC immediately allied herself with Senator Sanders and other progressives, many of them also incoming members of Congress, like Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. Most recently, she appeared at Senator Sanders’ town hall on Climate Change.
For his part, Senator Sanders has worked in recent weeks to bolster his foreign policy bona fides, perhaps with an eye to a second attempt at winning the Democratic nomination in 2020. He has also become increasingly vocal in his own calls for action on climate change. At the same time, Sanders and other allies across borders, including Greece’s former Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, convened at the Sanders Institute in Vermont and called for a kind of progressive international to counter the growing power of the authoritarian right and to take control of international institutions like the IMF to make them more accountable to the billions of people who must live with their decisions. This new international will also be pushing for a global version of the Green New Deal.
Progressive Democrats like AOC will face many obstacles in the months ahead, not the least of which will be the many members of their own party beholden to corporate and other interests. With a continued willingness to listen to and learn from activists and explain their ideas to voters, these new leaders, along with the few true progressives in Congress like Senator Sanders who were traditionally kept out of the conversation, could build the kind of left that the United States and the world desperately needs.
Traditional, centrist politicians have proven time and again that they’re not able to address the many issues facing ordinary Americans, let alone the growing threats of climate change and the rising authoritarian right.