Saturday 24 August 2019

Code Red: Is AOC the new face of US politics or a step too far to the left?

Trending lower: AOC in the polls

Rising star: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was elected to the US House of Representatives in November
Rising star: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was elected to the US House of Representatives in November
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
High-profile advocate for the left: Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren
Former vice president Joe Biden is expected to run for the White House
Senator Kamala Harris, who has already declared her intent
2016 frontrunner Bernie Sanders

The left's awake - and in America, no less. 'Socialism' - for decades a dirty word in US politics - is becoming fashionable, at least among the young. Last year, a poll from Gallup sent tremors through the political world. It indicated that 51pc of Americans aged 18-29 saw socialism favourably. Just 45pc felt the same way about capitalism. A clear majority of Democratic-leaning voters also had a more positive view of socialism than capitalism, 57pc to 47pc.

Advocates of what passes for the hard left in the US celebrated, arguing their ideas were finally gaining momentum. A writer for the conservative National Review, David Boaz, pronounced the results "frightening".

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Credit it to a reaction against Donald Trump's presidency, a hangover from the Great Recession or a slower accumulation of myriad frustrations - but the American left is enjoying its most vibrant moment in living memory.

The evidence can be seen in the Democratic Party's 2020 presidential field, too.

High-profile advocate for the left: Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren
High-profile advocate for the left: Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren

Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont and a self-described Democratic socialist, is one of the two leading candidates, snapping at the heels of former vice president Joe Biden in most opinion polls. (Biden had not declared his candidacy at the time of writing, though he is expected to do so soon.)

Sanders had been a fringe figure in American politics until he stunned the establishment in 2016 by mounting a competitive challenge to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Presidential Nomination.

These days, Sanders' biggest problem is very different. His ideas have become so popular that he is no longer their only high-profile advocate.

Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, a former Harvard Law School professor who made her political name with fierce denunciations of chicanery in the financial industry, is also a top-tier 2020 candidate.

A step or two closer to the centre, Senator Kamala Harris of California, co-sponsored a Sanders-led measure to - finally - enact universal, government-run healthcare.

That idea was considered so radical only 10 years ago that even President Barack Obama never seriously pushed it. Obama faced a gargantuan enough battle merely to enact 'ObamaCare'. The Affordable Care Act was the biggest expansion of heath coverage in a half century, but created nothing resembling a national health service.

Former vice president Joe Biden is expected to run for the White House
Former vice president Joe Biden is expected to run for the White House

Whatever way the 2020 race shapes up, one thing's for sure, the American left's most charismatic standard-bearer won't be running to replace Donald Trump as president next year. She's constitutionally barred from doing so because she's too young (you have to be 35). Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (29) was a New York City bartender and waitress in early 2018. A former organiser for Sanders and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, she decided to mount a challenge to her local congressman, Joseph Crowley.

Crowley was a Democrat, but too close to the centre-ground for Ocasio-Cortez's tastes.

Crowley, one of the last extant examples of an old-school Irish-American urban lawmaker, was a contender to eventually replace House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi as the most senior Democrat on Capitol Hill. He was also twice as old as Ocasio-Cortez: 56 to her 28.

No one in Washington's halls of power, or in the city's punditocracy, gave Ocasio-Cortez a chance in the primary election.

She beat him by 15 percentage points. It was a political earthquake.

Come November's general election, Ocasio-Cortez romped home. Her district, which includes swathes of The Bronx and Queens, is virtually impossible for a Democrat to lose.

Senator Kamala Harris, who has already declared her intent
Senator Kamala Harris, who has already declared her intent

Four months later, she is a fully-fledged political phenomenon.

Her main Twitter account - @AOC - has more than 3.5 million followers. In January, she tweeted an 11-second video of her dancing outside her Capitol Hill office to the 1970 Edwin Starr hit, 'War'. It has been viewed almost 21 million times.

When Ocasio-Cortez, or AOC as she is popularly known, gave her debut speech on the House floor, it swiftly became the most-viewed Twitter video of all time by any member of either party on C-SPAN, the earnest TV network that covers the minutiae of politics. The speech racked up more than a million views in little over 12 hours.

Breaking down Ocasio-Cortez's political celebrity into its constituent parts is no easy task.

One element is her mastery of social media. Perhaps because of her youth, she has an instinctive understanding of Twitter and Instagram that eludes her older colleagues.

She seems equally happy firing back at critics, cooking on Instagram Live, or asking her followers what five pieces of furniture she should buy for her newly-rented DC apartment.

2016 frontrunner Bernie Sanders
2016 frontrunner Bernie Sanders

Ocasio-Cortez is also a potent demographic fit for the times. A young, leftist Latina woman from New York City seems tailor-made for a Democratic base that feels increasingly eager to highlight its diversity - and equally well-suited to driving a certain brand of older, white, male conservative to the heights of apoplexy.

For all the attention Ocasio-Cortez gets from liberal or left-leaning outlets, she also receives enormous coverage - of a much less sympathetic nature - from Fox News.

The network's intense focus on her is so pronounced that the satirical website The Onion ran a spoof story in January suggesting the network would begin to offer a subscription-only service with 24-hour news solely about her.

In the real world, there is a third facet to AOC's appeal which is both extremely obvious and extremely sensitive.

She is, well, 'hot'.

It's a topic that profile writers tend to approach gingerly, knowing the importance appearance has had for politicians of both genders - men like JFK and Barack Obama clearly benefited from their looks - and the much more pronounced tendency for women to be judged by their appearance rather than their accomplishments.

This tension has led to some linguistic contortions, especially in publications that are broadly sympathetic to her ideological stance, but don't want to be seen as leering about her looks.

A Rolling Stone writer recently noted: "Her striking features are almost impossibly symmetrical, her outlook millennial, and her answers pointed and well-constructed." It was then noted that she had arrived for the interview in a "hot-pink pantsuit".

More seriously, Ocasio-Cortez is already drawing some fire from more centrist Democrats. Some of that is political. But resentment about the amount of media attention she receives bubbles just beneath the surface.

Her most high-profile push has been for a sweeping idea called the 'Green New Deal', which has galvanised left-leaning Democrats and their supporters as an overdue response to climate change.

The measure also incorporates a host of other themes. It has no chance of getting through the Republican-led Senate, however hard Democrats like Ocasio-Cortez push for it in the House. It proposes a rapid shift that would see all the power demands of the United States met without the use of fossil fuels, as well as the upgrade of "all existing buildings in the United States" to be more energy-efficient.

It also urges the guarantee of a job "with a family-sustaining wage… to all people of the United States" and the provision of universal healthcare.

To advocates, it's the kind of radical change that America needs. To its critics, it's pie-in-the-sky dreaming. Even some Democratic leaders seem to fall into the latter camp.

In a February interview with Politico, Pelosi said: "It will be one of several or maybe many suggestions that we receive. The green dream, or whatever they call it. Nobody knows what it is, but they're for it, right?"

The disdain was obvious.

AOC was also a critic of a proposal for a new, huge Amazon facility in New York. The company promised it would have created 25,000 jobs, but it would have received almost $3bn in government incentives to do so.

The corporation pulled the plug on the idea in February amid grassroots opposition.

The New York Times noted that although Ocasio-Cortez was an "outspoken opponent," she was "hardly a leading organiser on the ground" - an assessment with which she appears to agree.

Still, her critics seized on a new poll from Siena College released on Monday which showed her unfavourable numbers in New York State having risen from those in a broadly similar poll conducted by Quinnipiac University in January. Almost 40pc of New York voters said they felt she bore responsibility as a "villain" in Amazon's decision. Whether that points to any serious problem is questionable, however - and, in any event, the heavy Democratic lean of her district makes her virtually unbeatable for the moment.

More broadly, Ocasio-Cortez and others on the left insist that the polls show public opinion moving in their favour across a range of issues, however.

Last month, a CNN-SSRS poll showed 54pc of adults support a de facto national health service. A Reuters-IPSOS poll last year indicated that 60pc, including 41pc of Republicans, back a tax on speculative trading in order to provide free means-tested university education.

Dramatic shift

Those findings may seem modest to Irish eyes, but they represent a dramatic shift among Americans. The change may have been spurred by the near-impossibility for many people of attaining a basic measure of economy security.

The average student debt in the US has risen to around $37,000. In aggregate, total student debt in the nation is around $1.5 trillion.

When it comes to healthcare, the average family premium was more than $19,000 last year, according to data from the website of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

It's easy to understand why those harsh realities create fertile ground for the kind of politics espoused by Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders.

When Ocasio-Cortez announced she wanted the top rate of income tax raised to 70pc - it is currently 37pc - the right was incensed. But 59pc of registered voters supported the idea in a January survey from The Hill/HarrisX.

Still, there are Democrats who worry that AOC and her comrades could be shifting the party too far to the left.

Trump and the Republicans are already working overtime to portray the likely 2020 Democratic nominee, whomever he or she may be, as a socialist - and, by definition, outside the American mainstream.

After Sanders officially launched his campaign last month, Trump's re-election campaign gave him a welcome of sorts.

"Bernie Sanders has already won the debate in the Democrat primary, because every candidate is embracing his brand of socialism," Trump 2020 National Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement. "But the American people will reject an agenda of sky-high tax rates, government-run healthcare and coddling dictators like those in Venezuela. Only President Trump will keep America free, prosperous and safe."

At a news conference with Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro in the White House Rose Garden on Tuesday, Trump warned darkly: "The twilight hour of socialism has arrived in our hemisphere… The last thing we want in the United States is socialism."

It's also notable that, even if Sanders has moved the Democratic Party to the left, he is the only one of the serious 2020 contenders to embrace the label of Democratic socialism.

Warren, his closest ideological soulmate in the field, does not describe herself that way. Harris has said simply: "I am not a Democratic socialist."

The Gallup poll last year that showed increasing sympathy for socialism over capitalism also carried a warning to the left not to get too carried away.

"Although a majority - even if not an overwhelming one - of Democrats nationwide react positively to the word 'socialism,' the strong antipathy towards socialism among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents suggests a political campaign favourable to socialism would not play well in a general election," the polling organisation's Frank Newport wrote.

Some Democrats argue that the most effective and appealing antidote to Trump might not be a mirror-image of his abrasive and confrontational approach, but one that instead reaches for common ground.

"One of the things that I think people are missing is that if Democrats are looking for an alternative to Trump, then one clear alternative is being not so ideological, more pragmatic, and being willing to work with people on both sides to get things done," Simon Rosenberg, the president of centre-left group New Democrat Network (NDN), told The Hill last month.

Be that as it may, there is something in the air. The times are clearly changing.

The question is by how much - and who can best surf the building wave.

"I think it's wrong to say that what I'm proposing is polarising the country," Ocasio-Cortez told Rolling Stone last month.

"What we are seeing now is a ruling class of corporations and a very small elite that have captured government... 90pc of Americans believe we need to get money out of politics. Eighty-something [per cent] believe that climate change is a real, systemic and urgent problem.

"Sixty-seven per cent of Americans believe that immigrants are a positive force in the United States of America.

"I believe," she concluded, "that I'm fighting for the American consensus."

Niall Stanage is White House columnist and Associate Editor of 'The Hill'

 

Trending lower: AOC in the polls

29%

New York voters who had an unfavourable opinion of Ocasio-Cortez in a

January poll

44%

New York voters who took an unfavourable view of Ocasio-Cortez in last week's poll (after the Amazon move)

34%

New York voters who said they viewed Ocasio-Cortez favourably in the January poll

31%

New York State who said they viewed Ocasio-Cortez favourably last week

 

In her own words

"AR-15s cost less than an iPhone and are designed to kill groups of people in short bursts. NRA politicians are also cheap to buy, and kill hundreds of people through neglect over extended periods."

- Twitter, March 2018

"Amazon is a billion-dollar company. The idea that it will receive hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks at a time when our subway is crumbling and our communities need MORE investment, not less, is extremely concerning to residents here."

- Twitter, November 2018, as controversy over Amazon's plans to build a New York HQ builds

If I walked into Congress wearing a sack, they would laugh and take a picture of my backside. If I walk in with my best sale-rack clothes, they laugh & take a picture of my backside. Dark hates light - that's why you tune it out

- Twitter, November 2018, after online comments about her clothes

"Millennials and Gen Z and all these folks that come after us are looking up, and we're like: 'The world is going to end in 12 years if we don't address climate change, and your biggest issue is how are we gonna pay for it?'

- January 2019

"As a person who actually worked for tips and hourly wages in my life, instead of having to learn about it second-hand, I can tell you that most people want to be paid enough to live... A living wage isn't a gift, it's a right. Workers are often paid far less than the value they create."

- Twitter, February 2019

"I didn't see any women like me in positions of leadership… And so when you're only seeing white dudes running the world, you think you need to act like a white dude to run the world."

- On growing up without role models, February 2019

"White supremacists committed the largest number of extremist killings in 2017… What the President is saying here: 'If you engage in violent acts of white supremacy, I will look the other way.' Understand that this is deliberate. This is why we can't afford to sit on the sidelines."

- March 2019, on Trump's response to the Christchurch killings

"You know, when I got to DC I was told that it's considered 'off-limits' to report on a member's family, love life, etc. Unsure why that consideration is suspended for me. (Also for those who ask how I learned to handle pressure, try being the only daughter in a Latino household)"

- On reports her mother wants her to get married, March 2019

"I do feel an intense amount of pressure. Every day for me feels like I'm walking on a high wire. Every single day."

- 'Vanity Fair' interview, March 2019

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