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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the future of the left

Rising star Ocasio-Cortez’s politics provide a model for a progressive movement seeking to diversify.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) addresses supporters during a campaign rally for then-Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders on March 8, 2020, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Brittany Greeson/Getty Images

This week’s Democratic National Convention roused more fuzzy feelings than a Hallmark movie.

From the heartwarming story of a teenager learning to manage his stutter to the endearing testament of Joe Biden finding love after losing his first wife and daughter in a car crash, the Democratic Party’s narrative arc inspired millions yearning for a return to American character and civility.

Yet for many progressives, the week was also laced with angst.

A number of Republicans received invitations to speak, while progressive star Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was only given a minute to speak. A story reported in the Hill suggested Democrats might dawdle on pushing for a public option even as a pandemic rages through the nation. Then the HuffPost noted that the DNC “dropped language calling for an end to fossil fuel subsidies and tax breaks from its party platform.” Biden had been making overtures to progressives, but they started to wonder if, as president, he might swap progressive ambition for political austerity.

Thus, it’s here, between skeptical support for Joe Biden and overwhelming opposition to Donald Trump, that progressives chart their future. For two presidential cycles, Sen. Bernie Sanders ignited and expanded the progressive left. Now organizers and activists seek to build on that working-class coalition by tapping into the energy of a national anti-racist protest movement and an increasingly diverse citizenry. It’s a political strategy previewed this week by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at the DNC.

Ocasio-Cortez’s brief speech described the left as a mass movement not only fighting for “guaranteed health care, higher education, living wages, and labor rights” but also “striving to recognize and repair the wounds of racial injustice, colonization, misogyny, and homophobia.”

AOC — a young, progressive economic populist — stands amid a cohort of movement-based officials and candidates like Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Cori Bush, and Jamaal Bowman (none besides AOC were invited to speak at the convention), who make up a newer, more diverse class of progressive politicians. Both in 2016 and 2020, the significant critique of the Sanders left was its shortcomings in mobilizing enough people of color, particularly Black voters.

Now, during America’s racial reckoning, progressives are seeking to fix that. But just as urgent is their desire to get Trump out.

For progressives, Biden is not ideal, but Trump is catastrophic

From the Blue Dog Democrats to the democratic socialists, many agree that Donald Trump is an existential threat to American democracy. It was a consistent theme for the DNC.

“I am ... asking you to believe in your own ability — to embrace your own responsibility as citizens — to make sure that the basic tenets of our democracy endure,” former President Barack Obama said in his remarks. “Because that’s what’s at stake right now. Our democracy.”

Sanders himself argued that “at its most basic, this election is about preserving our democracy.” Likewise, in a debrief following her comments, AOC said voting for Biden was about “stopping fascism in the United States — that is what Donald Trump represents.”

They are forming an alliance, however uneasy, with establishment Democrats to defeat Trump.

“Electing Biden allows us to move from defense to offense,” says the Working Families Party’s national campaign director, Joe Dinkin. “Living in Trump’s America is living every day to stop the latest attack on constituencies that we care about — on working-class people, people of color.” Dinkin describes electing Biden as “a door, not a destination” that allows for groups like WFP to grow a movement and make demands for more expansive policies.

“The very next task is to end the Trump era,” he continued. The political calamity of the Trump administration has unified the party behind Biden for now, the scope of the devastation stretches so wide — a deadly pandemic, lynchings, double-digit unemployment rates — that progressives believe the left will remain highly mobilized even if Biden wins.

“Some of the richest people in the world are still getting richer, and millions of people are on the cusp of eviction or foreclosure or hunger,” Dinkin tells Vox. “The dramatic crisis that we’re facing is making people embrace the kind of politics that the WFP, AOC, and our allies have been working on.”

The left believes its future is in organizing diverse coalitions

The Democratic Socialists of America, which stands to the left of the WFP, has a similar theory of the case on holding a future Biden administration accountable and expanding progressives’ power.

“It was a myth that you just vote in November and then your work as a political actor is done. That is not what we see now in DSA,” says Maikiko James, who serves on the group’s National Political Committee. “People are very animated and want to be involved and do more than vote. So as it relates to whatever administration is coming next — the energy that I see, I don’t fear dissipating.”

Following the protests over the police killing of George Floyd, James says the DSA has been working to support Black Lives Matter activists and organizations to conduct “progressive politics in a way that is in genuine solidarity with all communities.”

“We need to actively defend Black lives in material ways,” she continues. “Showing up to protest is a great step one, but how do we now, as a left, strategize around building coalitions, listening to Black leadership, understanding that there are incredible moments of opportunity for young Black leaders to emerge, but also our consulting elders who’ve been in this moment from civil rights and beyond. This is a crucial moment to understand what genuine solidarity and collective organizing means in creating an antiracist society.”

As groups like DSA work to expand their appeal, however, they face a particularly uncertain environment. Alliances have been drawn and redrawn by Covid-19, an unpredictable president, and the economic collapse. These shifting political currents make long-term organizing a tricky order.

Yet this type of multiracial coalition-building is something that Ocasio-Cortez, whom James describes as “a really important leader” for DSA, has excelled at in her congressional career. Regularly advocating for anti-racism, reparations, and police reform on her social media platforms and on the Hill, she has drawn comparisons to activists like Martin Luther King Jr. and politicians like Shirley Chisholm.

Her ease with Black activists and thinkers is a coveted asset for progressives who have long struggled to win over Black voters from mainstream Democrats. Often progressives are accused of forging a reductive analysis of the role of racism in American society in relation to class.

For all the good Sanders has done the progressive movement, his approach with Black voters did him no favors. Berkeley law professor Ian Haney López wrote in Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America that Sanders’s “approach to race carries a real cost, creating blind spots regarding how racism works today as well as alienating racial justice activists who form an influential part of the Democratic base.”

Sanders changed his political outreach in 2020. In 2016, the Sanders leadership team was all white, and even Sanders himself conceded that his campaign was too white.

In 2020, the campaign made a push to diversify and built a leadership team with workers who were Black and of South Asian and Pakistani descent, among other ethnicities. In the Southwest, the campaign’s months of investment in relational organizing led to a huge win in the Nevada caucuses thanks in large part to Latino voters. Sanders had lost the state to Clinton in 2016. When he was still surging at the top of the year, Sanders even overtook Biden in Reuters polling among Black voters in late February. Yet despite the campaign shifts, Sanders was trounced as the race moved through the South where Black voters revived Biden.

Today, still aiming to diversify, groups like the DSA have thrown themselves into coalition-building with Black activist organizations. Thus far, they’ve leveraged local chapters to help support Movement for Black Lives agenda items like defunding the police.

“There’s a lot of conversation happening around how we build coalitions across a very stark racial divide in this country,” James told Vox, adding that right now that looks like investing in campaigns at the local level to reroute municipal funding from police to community safety initiatives and educational opportunities in Black communities.

For years, Sanders sustained the organizations like DSA on the progressive left. He attracted young supporters. He bolstered political legitimacy. Yet Sanders will be 79 in September. It is “very, very unlikely” he’ll run again.

A new generation of left advocates, who are rooted in the lived experience of discrimination and fluent in the language of racial justice, stand ready to take his place. In so many ways, the future of Bernie’s movement looks a lot like AOC.

Correction, August 22: This story has been updated to include the correct pronouns for Maikiko James of the DSA.

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