I don’t have a grand theory to explain why Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—a 28 year old social democrat running her first race—beat Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY)—the chairman of the House Democratic caucus in the NY-14 primary Tuesday night. But I do have a theory of why the opening existed, and, more to the point, of why it’s important that she won.
There are a million ways to tell this story. In some of them Donald Trump is a bit player, in others he’s not a character at all. But many versions are about the different ways American political institutions have responded, not just to his candidacy and presidency, but to myriad other indignities the political system has inflicted upon the majority of people in the country for years.
Trump is the most vicious and abusive major-party leader anyone working in politics today has ever seen. He makes no pretense of representing all Americans, or even all Republicans. He tries to damage—personally, professionally, and legally—people who criticize him, and whips up angry mobs to threaten them with impunity. He proudly boasts of his indifference to the majority, then takes migrant children hostage at the border in all of our names.
But, again, this is just a backdrop. Against it, many people, particularly people who are most vulnerable to Trump’s predations, are desperate for moral leadership—for people who will give voice to their fears, and exemplify better values. Yet very often, when citizens step in to fill that void, they find themselves chastised, and not just by Trump and his supporters.
This week provides a perfect example. The American political establishment has spent the better part of it lecturing a restaurant owner for imposing an extremely mild form of social censure on Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, because of her complicity in Trump’s child separation policy. Trump and Sanders responded by inciting retribution against the owner and her restaurant, including death threats and vandalism.
In 2012, when, for different moral reasons, a baker in Virginia turned away Vice President Joe Biden, the Republican Party celebrated him, and invited him to campaign with Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. Democratic leaders have effectively hung the owner of the Red Hen out to dry, and crouched defensively from demands for civility from the least civil political figures in the country.
That’s just one illustration. The double standard repeats itself in dozens of contexts. For multiple election cycles in a row, including this one, the political press corps has interpreted the “incivility” of Republican candidates and their supporters in euphemisms—as outgrowths of economic anxiety, and anti-establishment fervor—rather than textually, as hostility to multicultural democracy.
Amid the clamor for civility on the left, 11 Republicans in Congress have called for criminal prosecutions of Hillary Clinton, former FBI Director James Comey, and four other public servants Trump has identified as his political enemies. Republican candidates for House and Senate are mimicking Trump’s vitriol and his authoritarian rhetoric, and the political establishment has shrugged.
The establishment also shrugged at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—a model of civility and democratic values—until she won, at which point it entertained thumb-sucking concerns that she represented the Democratic Party’s unsettling leftward drift. It’s no surprise that Democratic leaders supported one of their own in the primary race, but it’s also quite clear that they buy into the moral panic over elements of the progressive grassroots, where the voices of moral clarity in the gilded Trump era are emerging. Citizens lodging protests of various other facets of the broad assault on democracy have thus been leaderless.
I’m glad that Ocasio-Cortez won, because her victory shakes up that stultifying equilibrium. The writer Jonathan Schwartz identified a key source of the dynamic Ocasio-Cortez disrupted way back in 2007. He wrote, “The Iron Law of Institutions is: the people who control institutions care first and foremost about their power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself. Thus, they would rather the institution ‘fail’ while they remain in power within the institution than for the institution to ‘succeed’ if that requires them to lose power within the institution.”
The article was nominally about the Democratic Party, as it existed near the end of the Bush administration under Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and Steny Hoyer. But, as laid out, it was also a general diagnosis that applies to other major political institutions, including the media. It is a testament to the power of the insight that 11 years have passed, Trump is president, and the same political leaders, media gatekeepers, and conventional wisdoms remain incumbent.
Ocasio-Cortez and her supporters took a run at that entrenched power structure and won. They might have won under different circumstances, too, but the fact that the activist energy that has inspired protesters and restaurant owners to draw new, hard lines had gone untapped in her district surely helped. Her victory will do lasting good less by replacing one senior Democratic member of Congress with a new and more progressive one, than it will by waking those incumbents to the fact that they can’t carry on in the same way forever.