Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent appearance on the Pod Save America podcast had, for me, the feeling of a final disappointment, the kind that’s a little sad but brings a set of quixotic hopes to a close. AOC appeared on the popular Crooked Media show to announce her endorsement of Joe Biden for president in the 2024 election. To deliver that particular endorsement while appearing on that particular podcast — where former Obama-administration staffers define the limits of acceptable left-of-center opinion — was to send a very deliberate message. It was AOC’s last kiss-off to the radicals who had supported her, voted for her, donated to her campaign, and made her unusually famous in American politics, the beneficiary of a wholly unique cult of personality that is now starting to come undone.
An endorsement of a sitting president, after all, doesn’t have to be a ceremonial affair. Ocasio-Cortez could have sent out a tweet. In making her announcement in a forum where the hosts were saying that a vote for anyone but Joe Biden was a vote for Donald Trump — a distillation of the hollow “We’re Not Trump” message that Democrats have been loudly pushing for the past seven years — AOC was putting a bow on a half-decade-long drift from radical outsider to Establishment liberal. Since taking office in January 2019, she has deferred to party leadership again and again on the issues that matter, even as she has made token gestures of resistance to solidify the illusion that she is a gadfly. And increasingly, she seems stung by criticism from the left to the point where she appears ready to simply embrace her party and its politics with open arms.
In a 2021 interview with a publication of the Democratic Socialists of America, Ocasio-Cortez attacked left critics of the Biden administration on identitarian grounds. “We really have to ask ourselves, what is the message that you are sending to your Black and brown and undocumented members of your community, to your friends, when you say nothing has changed?” This is a stark example of what socialist critics have accused Democrats of doing for years — that they forbid criticism and enforce loyalty to the party through vague accusations of racism and references to people of color and other marginalized groups. Yet during the very period in which she gave that interview, the Biden administration had been busily deporting tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants, almost all of them Black and brown.
Less than three years earlier, on the campaign trail, Ocasio-Cortez had sung a very different tune about partisan politics. At a campaign event in 2018, she addressed how Brett Kavanaugh could be confirmed to the Supreme Court despite the sexual-assault allegations against him, saying, “When people say, how could this have happened — it is because of the slow slide of our public institutions, when too many people sat on the sidelines and read the news and said, ‘Wow, that’s crazy. Time to go to class.’” In her consistent fealty to Democratic Party leadership, she has done exactly that, lamenting about how crazy the world is, then hurrying off to dutifully follow the lead of her superiors.
There are two indelible images of Ocasio-Cortez, neither of them flattering, that bookend her evolution. The first is the photo of her weeping outside an immigration camp in Texas in 2018, before she had won election to Congress. Dressed all in white, she wails in protest of “kids in cages,” the phrase employed by activists to denounce Trump-era immigration policy. The protest itself wasn’t offensive; our treatment of migrants at the border is indeed indefensible. The trouble lies in what didn’t happen next. When Biden took office in 2020, American immigration policy did not meaningfully change. This is often chalked up to COVID-era restrictions, but those restrictions are long gone and Democrats have not made significant changes to Trump’s border policy. There are, literally, still kids in cages — so why isn’t Ocasio-Cortez at the border again, protesting her country’s president?
The second image of AOC is at the 2021 Met Gala — a who’s who of celebrity and wealth, a celebration of precisely the elitism that the left is meant to oppose. So it was a bit depressing, but not at all surprising, to see this champion of the working class at an event in which celebrities wandered around unmasked while their many servants dutifully wore masks to prevent the spread of COVID. Politicians, even lefty politicians, go to fancy events and hobnob with the ruling class; it’s a fact of life. But Ocasio-Cortez tried to have it both ways: she wore white again, this time a dress emblazoned with the words “Tax the Rich” in bright red. And this made her opportunity to rub shoulders with the one percent a matter of direct hypocrisy. It’s one thing to go to the party; it’s another to blare out a message that you disapprove of the party while you’re there.
If there is a key to AOC’s political persona, it lies between these two poles. The former betrays the fundamental moral corruption of partisanship: It compels people to care about political issues precisely to the degree that those issues are convenient for the party. Losing interest in our immoral immigration system after Biden’s election is exactly the sort of thing that AOC’s rabid fans once said she would never do. The latter not only sees AOC transported from outside the gates to inside the most elite of venues; it also showcases AOC’s increasingly half-hearted attempts to cover up her genuine predilections with the most superficial of symbolic acts.
Take, for example, the chronic mistreatment of workers in our railway system that contributed to the derailment and subsequent air crisis in East Palestine, Ohio. Ocasio-Cortez publicly castigated the railway companies and demanded better conditions for workers — then voted to forbid them from striking. It’s hard to imagine a clearer example of her overall political orientation, speaking up like a militant supporter of workers in the press then immediately betraying them with her vote. She would go on to claim that this was really a matter of supporting what the workers wanted, but Railroad Workers United quickly clarified that this defense was an act of remarkable dishonesty. Labor is the heart of the left, and strikes are the sword of labor; to vote to forbid workers from striking, for a supposed socialist, amounts to an unforgivable betrayal of basic values.
Less surprising, but just as damning, has been Ocasio-Cortez’s meek attitude toward Biden’s foreign policy. The Israeli occupation of Palestine is perhaps where AOC’s position has been most indefensible, most self-parodic: She has mixed at times impressive rhetoric with total inconsistency as a legislator. On the campaign trail in 2018, she ruffled many feathers by saying, “The occupation of Palestine is just an increasing crisis of humanitarian condition.” It’s a testament to just how constrained the Establishment conversation is on this issue that such a mild statement drew controversy, but simply referring to the occupation as an occupation was an encouraging sign. So disappointing, then, that Ocasio-Cortez has spent the past half-decade waffling on this issue. Notoriously, she cried on the floor of Congress over a bill to fund Israel’s “Iron Dome,” one small part of our country’s seemingly limitless willingness to support that country’s domination of Palestine — and then proceeded to vote “present” rather than “no” on the funding bill in question.
Some suggested that there was a deeper political purpose to her “present” vote, that she was playing 12-dimensional chess. It’s powerfully difficult to understand how this could work, though. Israel’s vociferous champions will denounce any opponent as an antisemite, and indeed AOC’s vote did not spare her from their wrath. Perhaps it’s true, as some suggested, that the point was to better position her for a Senate run, but again it’s difficult to see how voters motivated to defend Israel would ever support her given her past statements anyway. If she simply privately agreed with sending Israel’s military even more American funding, then she had little to worry about; the measure carried by a margin of 411 votes. So what was she doing, beyond simultaneously angering the base of voters who had put her into office and the pro-Israel Establishment that would be antagonistic toward her regardless?
As is so often the case, Ocasio-Cortez seemed simultaneously aimless and calculated, a ruthless political operator and someone in over her head. Even her symbolic acts are confusing and inconsistent. Consider the debates within the Democratic Party about using the 2021 American Rescue Plan COVID relief bill to raise the federal minimum wage. Adjusted for inflation, the 1970 federal minimum wage was more than $12 an hour; the 2023 minimum wage stands at $7.25. Under the auspices of a federal Democratic trifecta, some left-leaning Democrats proposed raising that meager minimum. There was nothing nefarious about this effort; ramming through favored legislation as part of major packages is a bog-standard element of congressional practice. Republicans do it all the time. And yet, predictably, centrist Democrats fought against the effort.
Ocasio-Cortez, at first, looked like a champion of the minimum wage increase. “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Take Minimum Wage Fight Directly to Joe Biden,” read a Newsweek headline that was typical of the breathless style with which AOC has been covered. “There are progressive Democrats that have that muscle in the House,” Ocasio-Cortez was quoted as saying. “If we as a party decide to stand down on our promise of elevating the minimum wage, I think that’s extraordinarily spurious and it’s something that as a party we could have a further conversation about how to fight for it.”
Would it surprise you to learn that they did not, in fact, use that muscle? When the time came, she voted for the ARP bill anyway. Of course she would have lost if she had voted against the bill, but then why not do so as a symbolic gesture? She clearly has no issue with making such gestures, given that some 18 months later she would stand as the only Democrat to vote against an omnibus spending bill supported by the president. This has been a maddening element of her tenure in Congress: There’s no rhyme or reason to when she will and won’t buck party leadership, no internal logic to which hills she’s willing to die on and which she isn’t. Are protest votes valuable, or aren’t they? If they’re valuable enough to do in some scenarios where her vote won’t matter, why not demonstrate solidarity with Palestinians or in favor of a higher minimum wage? What is the plan here? How are her values operationalized? I have no idea, and I suspect that Democratic voters don’t, either.
Ocasio-Cortez once said, “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party,” an assertion of her distaste for the Democratic Party. Now she seems increasingly comfortable with leaving her past radical branding behind. If she wants to be a docile Democratic senator one day, she should. Just drop the wince-inducing efforts to have it both ways.
Typically, when I criticize Ocasio-Cortez, the response is not to argue that she has actually acted deftly as a politician, much less that she’s demonstrated any consistency between her statements and her actions. Instead, I’m constantly told that the problem lies in expecting anything from her at all. Hey, she’s just one congresswoman! She’s hemmed in by her party and an undemocratic system! She’s constrained by capitalism! Again and again, I’ve been told that asking Ocasio-Cortez for minimal ideological consistency or, even worse, results, is simply to ask too much.
But this defense immediately suggests a rather damning question: If AOC never had a chance to do anything … what have we been celebrating her for? Why has she been subject to such immense, embarrassing hagiography? And if the response to every complaint about a lack of results is to say that we should never have expected anything in the first place, what was the point of nominating her instead of Joe Crowley, the ten-term Democratic machine politician she displaced?
And, more concretely, if this wing of left-leaning Democrats was always so powerless that we would be fools to demand anything in exchange for supporting them, what were all the donations for? The Justice Democrats and various associated figures, particularly Bernie Sanders, have hoovered up tens of millions of dollars in donations since the 2016 presidential primary. That wing of the party is in the habit of bragging about the fact that this money comes from small donors — from regular people like you and me, rather than the rich or big institutions. But will AOC or anyone in her sphere ever divulge what we have purchased with our donations? It seems decidedly unlikely.
“Now I’m elected I have the power to draft, lobby, and shape the laws that govern the USA,” said Ocasio-Cortez in 2019 after being sworn in. How quickly that awesome power gives way to the insistence by her supporters that nothing can be done.
The lurking issue here is that taking a jaundiced look at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez might prompt people to critically evaluate Bernie Sanders, whose favorability among American leftists exceeds that of Santa Claus. We might, if we’re asking what exactly AOC has accomplished, or why her reception has been so rapturous if we aren’t allowed to expect anything of her, have the same conversation about Sanders. Many ardent lefties I know will go to great lengths to avoid that conversation. I am thoroughly convinced that Sanders’s 2016 primary campaign was worth the work and resources, and I have great personal affection for him. But that affection is precisely the problem — too many otherwise sober, politically minded leftists can’t see past their personal regard for Sanders, treating him as a kindly old socialist grandpa instead of a career politician whose legislative victories are meager and who should be held to the same critical accounting as anyone else.
The macro situation is this: Establishment Democrats and their liberal media mouthpieces expect total electoral loyalty from leftists while offering us little in return. As the Pod Save America crew demonstrated, the party Establishment barely attempts to hide its contempt for its leftmost flank. But as the constancy of third-party voting in presidential elections shows, the tactic of shaming voters has limited effectiveness. I don’t think Ralph Nader or Jill Stein cost the Democrats presidential elections; I think Al Gore and Hillary Clinton were terrible candidates who ran incompetent campaigns. But if you do think lefties voting third party determine the outcomes of national elections, perhaps at some point you might consider actually giving those lefties something to vote for?
For years, the standard line has been that Bernie and AOC and the Squad have value beyond their votes because they serve as a symbol of what’s possible on the far-left of partisan politics, and their visibility will inspire more people to vote for left candidates, donate to their campaigns, or run for office as socialists themselves. In 2016, I was told that, win or lose, Sanders’s primary battle was generating a permanent infrastructure for left organizing within the Democratic Party, that the email lists and donor corps would live on past that primary and beyond Bernie and become a tool for durable lefty muscle within the Democratic system.
Well, I think the jury has come back in: The increased visibility of a few socialist politicians has not made far-left Democratic power any more achievable or scalable. The radical wing of the party can still fit our representation in Congress in a three-row SUV. And perhaps we’ve waited long enough to recognize that there’s no reason to expect better in the near future. it’s been three years since a Democratic presidential primary in which candidates professed, so briefly, to care about the left wing of the party, including making broad promises about desperately needed health-care reform; five years since Ocasio-Cortez was elected after making constant self-aggrandizing statements about her revolutionary potential; seven years since the Bernie Sanders primary run in 2016, when it briefly seemed like real change might be coming to the Democratic Party; 12 years since Occupy Wall Street, which demonstrated the organic demand for radical change; and 15 years since the financial crisis that convinced so many Americans that the system is broken and that the wealthy broke it. What do we have to show for all of the noise that’s been made in that time? Where are the next-generation champions who were supposed to emerge from the Bernie for 2016 machine? Where is this much-ballyhooed wave of socialist agitators who were going to win office? We might, finally, have to admit that the too-pure-to-live lefties who insisted that nothing would ever come from all of this noise were right and that the Democratic Party is simply structurally resistant to socialist change. There is no more fruit to pick here.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was once a symbol of what American politics might become. Now she’s a message to the rest of us: it’s going to take more than symbols.