We reprint this post as part of our ongoing efforts to critically look at left electoralism and to pose an alternative vision of movement building and popular power from below. In this piece Black Agenda Report editor Bruce Dixon gives a critical assessment of the primary victory of New York congressional candidate Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez which stands in contrast to pieces such as “Why Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Won” by Jacobin magazine. This a more detailed follow up from “Sure We Can Elect The Occasional Democrat Progressive. Then What?”
By Bruce Dixon, Black Agenda Report
Being the only sober guy at a victory party isn’t fun. After writing earlier this week that we can sometimes elect progressives but we can’t hold them accountable, friends and comrades are all over Facebook accusing me of negativity, saying I got no analysis and I’m a magical thinker. I dunno, let’s see.
Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez won the NY 14th district Democratic primary earlier this week with only 16 or 17 thousand votes, a strikingly low number that wouldn’t carry most such primaries. According to Democrat chairman Tom Perez, she has no Republican opponent in November, so she’s in. That’s a victory for sure. At least for a while, she’ll be able to put out her message which includes abolishing ICE, free tuition and Medicare For All in places that till now have rarely given a professed socialist the mic. That’s a good thing.
But there are four points to look at here, which I touched on in my previous piece and posts on Facebook. I’ll dive into them just a little deeper here.
1. THE OCASIO-CORTEZ NUMBERS AND WHAT THEY MEAN
Historically NY authorities have rigged primary elections for low turnout. You can only vote in a NY primary if you’re pre-registered a party member months in advance, so only 271,000 voters were eligible in the first place. The low 13% turnout in that contest was actually higher than in some neighboring NYC districts. The engineering of low turnout primary elections allows Machine politicians to monopolize their party’s nominations by getting out their relatively small and dependable vote and not getting the masses too excited over much of anything till the November general election when their numbers are needed to defeat suburban and upstate Republicans. Except for New York’s partisan registration it’s the same system used by the Daley Machine in Chicago until 1980, when we broke it open to elect Harold Washington in 1983.
Still, 16 or 17 thousand votes in a congressional district of 750,000 is far from a socialist landslide. Winning a congressional seat with that small a vote is a rare feat made possible by some local features that seldom occur outside New York City. While the Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez crew no doubt worked their asses off to get what they got, the same money and effort in most other places would not have done the trick in a congressional race. The 14th NY CD was a target well chosen by the folks at Brand New Congress , whom Ocasio-Cortez says asked her to run.
That’s running and interpreting the numbers through the lens of history, and applicability to other contests, not negativity or magical thinking.
2. JOE CROWLEY PRETTY MUCH GAVE UP THE SEAT
After 10 terms in Congress and with lots of corporate friends, Joe Crowley knows he can start at seven figures, at least six to twelve times his congressional salary plus bonuses as a lobbyist. That had to be a powerful motivation not to campaign too damn hard, and another circumstance unique to this particular contest.
The career path from legislator to well paid lobbyist is also not magical thinking, it’s an American tradition. Ignoring this tradition and its likely effect on Crowley’s campaign might be magical thinking though.
3. DEMOGRAPHICS MATTER, MESSAGING MATTERS
Ocasio-Cortez correctly portrayed Crowley as an arrogant lazy white boy deep in the pockets of corporate contributors allegedly representing a majority Latino district. That was a necessary and highly potent message needed to raise turnout enough to make the difference in a contest with historically low voter participation. A former Bernie campaign staffer, she also ran to the left of most Democrats, campaigning on free college tuition, Medicare For All, unambiguously denouncing the Gaza massacres and jumping with both feet on the massively unpopular Trump policies of tearing families apart at the border. This too is classic US left electoral strategy aimed at raising turnout among the folks who ordinarily pay little attention to elections, a tactic the electoral left has to repeat everywhere.
The phenomenon of white politicians representing minority districts is not as common as it was a generation or two ago. Neoliberal black and Latino politicians have moved into most of those spaces, and are far less vulnerable to attack purely on representational grounds. So that part of the Ocasio-Cortez playbook is not something that leftists will often be able to duplicate.
Assessing the relative importance of demographic factors and the messaging they enable is not magical thinking. Gauging the applicability of the strategy that achieved victory in the NY 14th CD to other contests across the country isn’t legerdemain or sophistry either, it’s the kind of common sense we must employ if we intend to achieve leftist victories elsewhere.
4. US LAW AND CUSTOM MAKE CANDIDATES ENTREPRENUERS, NOT RESPONSIBE TO ANY LEFT CONSTITUENCIES OR INSTITUTIONS
I caught flack too for pointing out that under US law and custom candidates and office holders are free to do pretty much do what they like. This is true even in the Green Party, let alone the Democrats. Political campaigns are top-down affairs in which the candidate gets the final word on everything. Anybody who’s actually worked a campaign knows this.
While there are no institutions under US law and custom that can hold leftist candidates and officeholders accountable to left constituencies or organizations, it’s a fact that there are a galaxy of institutional levers and pressures operating inside the Democratic party aimed at flipping progressive elected officials rightward.
In my previous piece and Facebook posts I never touched on how socialist Ocasio-Cortez is or is or is not, nor on her foreign policy stands if she has any, which Berniecrats frequently don’t, something that ought to make us a little uneasy. Bernie Sanders calls himself a socialist too, just with an imperialist foreign policy. I did say that progressive candidates and officeholders do sometimes flip, a little at a time or all at once, and when they do we have no institutions with which to punish them. “Feet to the fire” and “holding them accountable” are actually the phrases of magical thinkers because no means have yet been devised which enable the left to do those things.
I got in trouble for observing that while we can elect progressives from time to time we cannot compel them to remain that way. Until we figure out how to build institutions that can, we are at the mercy of their individual moral and political compasses. The need to develop left institutions to which progressive candidates can be held responsible is an acute one, which the Nation in its slavish devotion to the Democratic party predictably ignores. Noting this truth got me accused of being a petty, lazy purist and ultraleftist. Oh well. Sober analysis may not be what some people wanna hear at a victory party where everybody’s popping champagne corks, dancing the electric slide and toasting the universal lessons of the Ocasio-Cortez victory without the bother of real analysis.
Being the sober guy at a victory party kinda sucks that way. But real talk, we’re all gonna have to sober up eventually and figure out which parts of the Ocasio-Cortez playbook are peculiar to and which ones are applicable outside a majority Latino New York City district, and we have yet to devise any means of holding progressive politicians truly accountable. Those who think we don’t need critical analysis or institutions to enforce accountability are the magical thinkers.
Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report where this article originally appeared.
If you enjoyed this piece we recommend the similarly themed pieces: “The Lure of Electoralism: From Political Power to Popular Power.” Additional articles can be found in our “Electoralism” and “Strategy” tags.