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Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez addresses the virtual convention.
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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s DNC speech emphasized the need for systemic change

Ocasio-Cortez called for ambitious progressive solutions to some of the country’s biggest problems.

Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may have had just 60 seconds to speak at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday, but she gamely used that time to make a bold call for systemic change.

“In a time when millions of people in the United States are looking for deep systemic solutions to our crisis of mass evictions, unemployment, and lack of health care — and out of a love for all people, I hereby second the nomination of Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont for president of the United States of America,” she said.

Her speech was not an endorsement of Sanders in some ongoing contest with former Vice President Joe Biden, but rather part of standard practice at the DNC, where any candidate who secures enough delegates is eligible to get “nominated” to the party’s ticket. Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks Tuesday evening were a symbolic nomination of Sanders aimed at acknowledging his run and his contributions. She did not mention Biden in her speech, but her backing of Sanders was not a statement of opposition to the former VP, something she made clear on Twitter.

Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks were significant for several reasons.

First elected to Congress in 2018 after winning an upset victory over incumbent Joe Crowley, Ocasio-Cortez isn’t just a star within the Democratic Party, but a critical envoy to younger voters and progressive ones. Her speech Tuesday honored the “mass people’s movement” that powered Sanders’s campaign, which pushed for a revolution aimed at addressing economic inequality:

Good evening, bienvenidos, and thank you to everyone here today endeavoring toward a better, more just future for our country and our world, in fidelity and gratitude to a mass people’s movement working to establish 21st-century social, economic, and human rights, including guaranteed health care, higher education, living wages, and labor rights for all people in the United States.

A movement striving to recognize and repair the wounds of racial injustice, colonization, misogyny, and homophobia. And to propose and rebuild reimagined systems of foreign policy that turn away from the violence and xenophobia of our past. A movement that realizes the unsustainable brutality of an economy that rewards explosive inequalities of wealth for the few, at the expense of long term stability for the many.

Ocasio-Cortez’s presence at the convention, along with Sanders’s the night before, could help Democrats connect with a segment of voters they’ll definitely need this fall — and in the long term.

According to exit polls from Super Tuesday earlier this year, just 17 percent of Democratic primary voters ages 18 to 29 voted for Biden at the time, while 63 percent backed Sanders. A survey from NBC finds, too, that younger Democratic voters are far more likely to identify as “very liberal,” compared to their older counterparts.

Both Ocasio-Cortez’s and Sanders’s remarks help add another dimension to the event. As Vox’s Aaron Ross Coleman has written, the DNC on Monday was broadly focused on moderation and maintaining a big-tent environment that highlights Democrats’ (and some Republicans’) unified front against President Trump. “Build back better” — the name of Biden’s policy platform — has become a common refrain throughout the event, a catchphrase that seems to speak less to overwhelming structural change than more modest reforms.

That slogan, too, could underscore a tension in Biden’s presidency: Although Biden has supported one of the most progressive policy platforms in the party’s history, his track record as a vice president and senator is focused on more moderate efforts, Vox’s Dylan Matthews reports.

Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks, brief as they were, were a chance for the party’s left to assert itself amid that tension.

“The next generation of Democrats looks and thinks a lot more like AOC than Joe Biden,” says Justice Democrats’ communications director Waleed Shahid. “AOC’s leadership on the Biden-Sanders task forces also shows the progressive movement’s growing power as a key constituency within the party.”

Ocasio-Cortez has energized younger voters in the party

Ocasio-Cortez is among the lawmakers who could be vital to keeping younger voters enthused about the Democratic Party.

Since her election in 2018, she has energized progressives with her policy priorities — including the Green New Deal and Medicare-for-all — and her willingness to press Democratic leadership on these issues. She’s also been adept at using social media as a way to reach constituents and explain everything from movements to defund the police to misogyny in Congress.

“She is reflective of the future of the Democratic Party,” says Alliance for Youth Action executive director Sarah Audelo. “If you’re looking at the Democratic Party overall, there’s a short-term problem as it relates to November, but there’s a long-term problem as it relates to the future of the party.”

Younger voters are more liberal and more diverse; according to multiple polls, many are eager to embrace policies that would guarantee government-run health insurance, address racial disparities, and reform student loan programs. Audelo notes that they’re looking to the party to include them in policy discussions, and to treat them as key players in these efforts.

Ocasio-Cortez, as well as Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley of “the Squad,” are among those who could help Democrats continue to grow and connect with younger voters as the party grapples with its identity moving forward. A number of Democratic rising stars including Rep. Colin Allred and Nevada state Sen. Yvanna Cancela were also part of an opening video segment on Tuesday.

Building on the energy of Sanders’s and Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaigns, and the longstanding work of lawmakers like Rep. Barbara Lee, progressives are increasingly seeing their message resonate. They’re winning at the ballot box — Jamaal Bowman in New York and Cori Bush in Missouri notched major wins against Democratic incumbents in primaries this summer — and in the back room: As Vox’s Ella Nilsen has reported, they successfully helped push a Democratic task force leftward on the timeline for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

Their influence, however, is far from assured. This week, as HuffPost reported, the DNC decided to remove a provision in the party’s platform that called for the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies and tax credits, infuriating activists.

Progressives call for more voices to be included

Ultimately, progressives would like to see more voices included in the DNC — something they see as pivotal for the party to connect with a wider swath of voters.

“There were pretty big lowlights on Monday, including everything from giving [Republican former governor] John Kasich a platform when he’s literally opposed abortion rights, and [former Austin police chief Art] Acevedo, who was not someone I wanted onstage representing my community in Austin,” says Audelo. (Before his appearance, Kasich criticized Ocasio-Cortez, which she noted on Twitter.)

The length of Ocasio-Cortez’s speech, just one minute, also prompted pushback. (According to a DNC aide, the average length of speeches was two minutes, and because Ocasio-Cortez was serving as a nominator for Sanders, she was given 60 seconds like the other nominators.) For context, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer spoke for roughly four minutes on Monday, and former President Bill Clinton spoke for nearly five on Tuesday.

The DNC is a platform that should be used to amplify more people, argued former Bernie Sanders campaign adviser Chuck Rocha during a radio interview earlier this week. For a party that could benefit significantly from younger voters’ support in many elections to come, establishing stronger connections with them now is an imperative.

“We have to change the way that we do this to welcome more people and give them a bigger platform,” he said. “I’m just saying AOC and folks like her — not her policy positions but just this next mixed demographic of amazing leaders — are the future of our party, and we must embrace it if we’re going to live beyond the next couple of cycles.”

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