Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez holds up a pledge to not take contributions from the oil, gas, or coal industries

Who is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?

You might have heard of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as someone the Democratic party is afraid of. That is the wrong light in which to view her groundbreaking victory and immense leadership potential.

The Courage to Change | Ocasio-Cortez 2018

On June 26, 2018, Ocasio-Cortez won the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th congressional district in what has been called the biggest upset victory this year. The 14th district includes some of the most densely populated and iconic neighborhoods of America — the Bronx (where Ocasio-Cortez grew up), and Queens in New York City. She ran on an unapologetically progressive campaign. She called for improved and expanded Medicare for all, tuition-free public colleges, and the abolition of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement  (ICE), as well as keeping money from special interests out of her campaign.

These issues are familiar to the Democratic Socialist cause, which has generally been regarded as too far to the left of mainstream American politics. But the past couple years have challenged long-held views about where Americans stand on the ideological spectrum. 2016 has shown us that large swaths of America, disillusioned by corrupt establishment figures, increasing wealth disparity, and declining social mobility, is more populist than ever. Public figures who acknowledge populist angst are rewarded with a groundswell of grassroots support.

"We know that the future of this party, if we are to win again, is to rediscover our soul." 

Just 28 years old, from an ethnically diverse background and a woman to boot, Ocasio-Cortez speaks to the future. Of course, age, ethnicity, and gender are not enough reason on their own to warrant support or disdain. Ocasio-Cortez has other things going for her. Among them, a keen sense of the challenges she faces, and a bold strategy to overcome them.

Her opponent in the primary, Democratic Caucus Chair Joe Crowley, spent $3.4 million on his campaign. Less than one percent of the money was from small, individual contributions. He was endorsed by party leaders like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and New York senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer. The Ocasio-Cortez campaign spent just $194,000. Almost 75 percent of that money came from small, individual donations. She has never held political office before, and had only a handful of endorsements, mostly from progressive and digital-based organizations like Move On, Brand New Congress, Black Lives Matter, and Democracy for America. She won with 57.13 percent of the vote, to Crowley’s 42.4 percent.

“I knew from the outset — you know, I had no misconceptions of the fact that the New York political machine was not going to do me any favors,” she told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! “So I knew that I had to build a broad-based coalition that operates outside of the traditional Democratic establishment, and that I had to pursue kind of an uphill journey of convincing activists that electoral politics is worthwhile.”

When grassroots activism is defeated by the workings of electoral politics, superdelegates, and intra-party management, it leads to finger-pointing and simmering resentment among groups that should be allies. Ocasio-Cortez has successfully bridged that gap to win the primary. This is not a fluke; it attests to her ability to find consensus, and then build on it.



What’s more, she has a thundering intellect that absolutely upstages any questions about age, ethnicity, or gender. It invigorates her oratory and makes her among the most exciting, inspiring public speakers in America today. Take a look at her speech at Netroots Nation, where she lays out how Democrats can win in November.

“We know that the future of this party, if we are to win again, is to rediscover our soul,” she told an electrified crowd. “[The future of this party] is to come home, and to realize that we can fight for social, economic, and racial justice.”

“It’s time to remember that universal college, education, trade school; a federal jobs guarantee, exploration of a universal basic income, were not all proposed in 2016. They were proposed in 1940 by the president of the United States, the Democratic president of the United States.”

“It’s time to remember that universal college, education, trade school; a federal jobs guarantee, exploration of a universal basic income, were not all proposed in 2016. They were proposed in 1940 by the president of the United States, the Democratic president of the United States.”

In contrast to Democratic leaders who shy away from big ideas and struggle to find a unifying message, Ocasio-Cortez authoritatively and rightfully claims the great social and economic achievements of the past century for the Democratic party. The New Deal, Social Security, Medicare; the Civil Rights Movement; even nationwide access to electricity — all were outcomes of a Democratic president or a Democrat-majority legislature. “We can own that,” she says — a simple and powerful message.

The traditional Republican response to ambitious government projects was to invoke fear of Big Government — a federal apparatus so large and omniscient that personal liberties are at stake. The antidote was to keep government small. Limit its budget through lower taxes and curb the reach of its administrative branches through lesser regulation, so that politicians and bureaucrats are not interfering in the day-to-day life of citizens.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez holds up a pledge to not take contributions from the oil, gas, or coal industries

It’s difficult to imagine a Republican making such an argument today, when public discourse has reached an all-time low. The Republican agenda has also morphed since its former ideal. General support for surveillance, the rights of corporations over individuals, and invasive meddling into women’s health choices are the actions of a bloated government, not a lean one.

The candidates who are generating real excitement — Beto O’Rourke, Randy Bryce, and Ocasio-Cortez among them — are not paying attention to what their opponents are saying. Instead, they are embracing the kind of socio-economic justice that not only speaks to voters, but hearkens back to periods when the Democratic party was most successful.

Unlike Bernie Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez is not trying to distance herself from the Democrats. She has embraced the party, while trying to redefine what it stands for. The party establishment should learn from past mistakes and embrace Ocasio-Cortez right back. She might very well be what a blue wave looks like.

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