This summer, US representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – popularly known as “AOC” – stated that in any other country but the United States, she and Joe Biden wouldn’t be in the same political party, and that the Democratic Party might be “too big of a tent”. To understand her statement, let’s look at the stance of one of the new icons of the American left.
American leftists: inside/outside
In June 2018, Ocasio-Cortez burst onto the political stage by winning the Democratic primary of New York State’s 14th district. At the time she was a member of the Democratic Party as well as the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), founded in 1982, an organization of approximately 45,000 activists. She went on to win the election, becoming the youngest member of Congress in American history, and has come to symbolize the new generation of young politicians driven by the fight for social and economic justice. Three other young women, also elected in 2018, have ties to the DSA as well: Ilhan Omer, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley, and together they’ve been called “the Squad” in the media and been repeatedly attacked by Donald Trump.
In Congress, Ocasio-Cortez has maintained the style of DSA activists. The movement is marked by its “inside/outside” stance with regards to the Democratic Party, similar to that of Bernie Sanders who, while never part of the DSA, won their support. A former independent, Bernie Sanders aligned with the Democrats when he became a senator in 2007, since Senate committees are allocated along party lines.
Like Sanders, DSA-affiliated activists such as Ocasio-Cortez have several options to choose from: remain independent, form their own party or seek to gain traction for their ideas among Democrats. For example, they and other progressive Democrats support an environmental plan called the “Green New Deal”, as well as the public health care plan supported by Sanders, “Medicare for All”, developed by Doctors for Single Payer and trade unions. Donald Trump exploits the DSA as part of his repeated claims that the Democratic Party is “socialist” and deliberately conflating them with antifa (antifascist) groups that have assertively faced off with alt-right white supremacists.
In a July 2020 New York Magazine interview, Ocasio-Cortez reaffirmed her affiliation with the Democratic Party while stating that in any other country, she and Joe Biden wouldn’t be in the same party – an assertion picked up by the magazine linked to the DSA, Jacobin. She still plays by the rules, however: Along with John Kerry, she is the co-leader of the Climate Task Force, a think tank formed by Biden during his campaign. Similarly, when Sanders conceded the primaries in the spring of 2020, he firmly called for his supporters to support Biden and not to repeat the division of 2016.
The reasons behind the Democrats’ centrism
Single-round, winner-takes-all voting is the main reason why the DSA supports the Democrats in national elections. Under a proportional, multi-representative system (where parties present lists and candidates are elected according to the number of votes won, as in the European elections), the stakes would be very different. In spite of constant criticism, the chance of reforming the bipartisan system appears nonexistent. Concrete change must therefore come from within the system, even for those on the left.
It is also important to highlight the role that private funding plays in moderating the stance of the Democratic Party. It is telling that Joe Biden chose Kamala Harris as his running mate over Elisabeth Warren. Both are the equally brilliant, but as a presidential candidate Warren ran on a progressive platform of higher taxation for the rich and greater regulation of the financial markets. Aside from being a woman from an ethnic minority, Harris has a reputation as a firm centrist. Biden is from Delaware, a state with low corporate tax rates and with more companies officially headquartered there than inhabitants, and Harris also has the support of Wall Street. Since the 1980s the Democratic Party has done little to support improved workers’ rights and increased unionization. One striking example was then-President Barack Obama’s broken promise to support the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have reformed complex unionization procedures to the benefit of workers.
Additionally, the Democratic Party electorate is far more disparate than that of the Republican party, which has the advantage of being far more homogeneous and geographically concentrated. A study by the University of Texas shows that the Electoral College system, in spite of its demographic proportionality, favors less populated, more rural states over more urban states with higher populations. If the Democrats want to win national elections, they must win over more moderate voters in small states. This is what played out in the 2018 midterm -elections, when a number of Democratic governors were elected in Midwest states precisely because of their moderate-centrist discourse.
From center right to center left: responding to distress
Things have changed within the Democratic Party, however. As Laurence Nardon writes, it has left its neoliberal period, characterized by the Clintons, whose supporters are now part of the establishment within the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
Hillary Clinton was the last candidate of the New Democrats era. The change began in 2008, when the financial crisis forced Barack Obama to propose increased protection and regulation. Windfalls of Roosevelt’s 1930s New Deal were revived with Obamacare, an act that extended health care coverage to millions of Americans. At the same time, Obama provided no real answer to social movements such as Occupy Wall Street (denouncing the impunity of financial markets) and “Fight for 15”, which centers on increasing the minimum wage to 15 dollars an hour.
The social tragedy brought about by the current pandemic has sped up the Democratic Party’s transformation. In the face of unchecked wealth concentration, spiraling private debt and devastating unemployment, it is no longer possible, even for centrist Democrats, to ignore the need for greater regulation and redistribution. It is true that Joe Biden has not adopted the “Medicare for All” plan promoted by Bernie Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, preferring to expand public health insurance without interfering with the private system, and the only thing he has taken from the “Green New Deal” is its focus on clean energy. But the president-elect’s program is the most socially focused that the United States has seen in the last 30 years.
Joe Biden and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez might indeed be in different political parties in any other country than the United States, but they are both in the Democratic Party, and changing times have moved them closer together rather than farther apart.
This article was written in collaboration with Léo Durin of the Lille graduate school of journalism (ESJ Lille). It was translated from the French by Alice Heathwood for Fast ForWord and Leighton Walter Kille of The Conversation France.
The Fact check US section received support from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, an American foundation fighting against disinformation.