The 116th Congress has only been in session for a week, but some senior Democrats are already dismayed by one new kid on the block. In a Politico report published Friday, several members criticized Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the record – an unusual choice, especially when the target is a freshman who’s had little chance to establish herself as a lawmaker. “I’m sure Ms. Cortez means well, but there’s almost an outstanding rule: Don’t attack your own people,” said Representative Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat from Missouri. “We just don’t need sniping in our Democratic Caucus.” Ocasio-Cortez has publicly criticized the party, often on Twitter, for what she sees as its entrenched centrism.
Politico went on to explain that senior Democrats are put off by more than Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitter account. Some Democratic representatives objected to a grassroots campaign to put the congresswoman on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, and were affronted by her opposition to new House rules that include pay-as-you-go or PAYGO restrictions. PAYGO requires the House to match any new spending with proportional cuts, and critics generally consider it an obstacle to the welfare expansions that left-wing Democrats like Ocasio-Cortez are likely to favor.
Some conflict between Ocasio-Cortez, a democratic socialist, and senior Democrats, who are generally to her right, was inevitable. But the criticisms included in the Politico piece were not framed in ideological terms. “She needs to decide: Does she want to be an effective legislator or just continue being a Twitter star?” said one unnamed Democrat described as being “in lockstep with Ocasio-Cortez’s ideology.” They added, “There’s a difference between being an activist and a lawmaker in Congress.” Others worried that Ocasio-Cortez’s fame could cost the party seats. Nydia Velazquez, a Democrat from New York, said that she’d counseled the congresswoman against backing primary challenges to fellow Democrats in the future. Ocasio-Cortez’s own record – she ran as a primary challenger and supported similar bids from other left-wing insurgent – appears to concern them, as does her affiliation with Justice Democrats, which endorsed her and other insurgents in 2018.
It’s not clear from these criticisms that senior Democrats understand the reasons for Ocasio-Cortez’s run, or her victory over incumbent Joe Crowley. One party aide told Politico that people “are afraid of her” and her viral tweets, a sentiment that reduces the congresswoman to emotion and affect. But her stardom has discernible origins that counter such a simplistic depiction of her rise to power. Ocasio-Cortez’s popularity is tied to her ideology, which incorporates both her policies and her hostility to establishment politics. She is an insurgent, and that’s exactly why people like her.
Despite efforts to characterize Ocasio-Cortez as a social media celebrity lacking in substance, during her first week in office she advanced left-wing ideas that generated vigorous debate and could garner widespread support. She’s become the most prominent congressional backer of a Green New Deal, which would transition the nation away from fossil fuels while creating jobs in more sustainable industries. It’s an ambitious idea, and while some 2020 contenders like Elizabeth Warren have said they back it in principle, House Democrats haven’t greeted it with universal enthusiasm. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded to Ocasio-Cortez’s call for a select committee on a climate change with a watered-down version “in the spirit” of the Green New Deal. This recalcitrance may be due to a combination of donor influence and the popularity of certain narratives about the rise of Donald Trump – namely, that he won office because people in places like central Appalachia believed he’d bring the coal industry back to life.
Certainly, some voters hoped Trump’s election signaled the resurrection of coal country, but there’s some evidence that hope is beginning to fade, and those voters were never numerous enough to sway the election on their own. Nonetheless, that narrative became so pervasive that it may have obscured the degree to which members of both parties would back a proposal like a Green New Deal. A poll conducted by researchers from Yale and George Mason universities found that 81 percent of registered voters supported a Green New Deal. Support is lowest among registered Republicans, but even within that demographic, 64 percent said they favored the policy. It’s a proposal that could excite voters and tackle the effects of climate change – two goals Democrats should be eagerly pursuing.
Ocasio-Cortez’s other viral proposal, a 70 percent marginal tax rate, is simply a suggestion she raised in an interview with Anderson Cooper. Even so, the idea backed up by evidence and popular support. Americans tend to love taxes as long as it’s the rich who get soaked. The numbers are fairly unequivocal. CBS News poll conducted in October 2017, as Trump was pitching his tax cuts, found 58 percent of Americans wanted higher taxes on the wealthy and 56 percent wanted higher taxes for corporations, too. The same poll found that most respondents only wanted lower taxes for the middle class and for small businesses. In other words, the middle class doesn’t want to pay higher taxes on its own wealth, but thinks the rich need to pay their fair share. That’s the position from whence democratic socialists like Ocasio-Cortez operate, and their growing popularity suggests a good number of Democrats agree.
Celebrity is not by itself a qualification for powerful committee appointments, but the Ocasio-Cortez phenomenon helps advance an argument for placing newly-elected left-wing Democrats in meaningful positions. Their policies have a mandate among the Democratic base and at some point — preferably now – senior Democrats will have to ask themselves why that’s the case.
“She’s new here, feeling her way around,” Oregon Representative Kurt Schrader told Politico. “She doesn’t understand how the place works yet.” There’s an assumption here, a big one, that Ocasio-Cortez merely fails to understand “the place.” But maybe she does, and maybe voters do too. People don’t elect candidates like Ocasio-Cortez or Rashida Tlaib or Ayanna Pressley out of satisfaction with Washington D.C. Voters wanted to change the way the place works, not preserve it in amber for technocrats to come. Disruption is the point.