Yesterday Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez won a NYC Democratic congressional primary in a majority Latino district against the arrogant right wing,out of touch white head of the Queens Democratic party, who hadn’t even seen a primary challenger since 2004. The white guy was so deep in the pocket of corporate contributors that he was one of the few favored to succeed or oust Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. That’s how the two parties choose their leaders in every state legislature and both houses of Congress – they’re the ones who bring in the most donations from wealthy corporations and individuals.
Ocasio-Cortez campaigned on single payer health care and free college tuition. She denounced the latest massacre in Gaza. She says ICE ought to be abolished, and the day before the election she was at a South Texas immigrant detention center. She’s a young working class Puerto Rican woman who reportedly refused corporate cash and was working a real job, waiting tables at the beginning of her campaign. She’s a DSA member and professes to be a socialist. And now she’s the Democratic nominee in a New York City congressional district. What does it all mean?
For a lot of people on the left, it’s an occasion for celebration. I can understand that, I worked my behind off in campaigns against the Daley Machine in my native Chicago for a quarter century. We elected progressives to the city council, county offices, the state legislature, to Congress and 1983 and 87 the mayor’s chair. I helped register hundreds of thousands of people to vote. I and the folks I worked with imagined that we could build a movement that might transform the Democratic party from below. It didn’t work out so well.
It turns out that both elected officialdom and the Democratic party are institutions, and institutions change individuals way more often than the other way around. Some of our folks backed away from their commitments little by little, others frankly flipped, some were isolated and outlasted till they could be outspent. Despite the phrase being on everybody’s lips, we never figured out exactly how to hold anybody’s “feet to the fire,” to enforce any sort of accountability.
We were and still are at the literal whim and mercy of our candidates and officeholders. When Chuy Garcia ran for mayor of Chicago he refused to stand up in front of the Homan Square black site and denounce the thing. He even called for the hiring of a thousand more Chicago cops, and his movement supporters were utterly unable to talk him into the first position or out of the second. Even the Greens are not immune to this phenomenon. When Jill Stein chose to back away from a 2016 ballot access drive in Georgia and North Carolina there was nothing Greens in those states could do. Nothing. So exactly what does holding a candidate or office holder accountable look like? Do any means currently exist which enable us to do that? Maybe not. Maybe this is something we’ve yet to build.
Late last year, in a two day Movement School session in Jackson MS, Kali Akuno, the co-founder of Cooperation Jackson observed that in Jackson the movement forces proved they could elect a Chokwe Lumumba, the father and the son, mayor. But several years and multiple elections into the project, they still didn’t know what degree of support there is in Jackson for their agenda of radical economic transformation.
We figured out years ago how to win elections under the right circumstances. Ocasio-Cortez was a Puerto Rican woman running against a lazy white incumbent in a majority Latino NYC district, and she built a competent organization. It should have been surprising if she’d lost. Her expressed views on most issues are laudable. What we rarely bother to think through is what we actually GET when we win.
When we’re victorious in executive branch offices like mayoral elections, our candidates actually become responsible for administering the austerity and cuts. That’s what’s happening in Jackson MS and Newark NJ, to name just a couple places. We’ve been electing progressives here and there for a long time now. It’s time ask whether our ability to elect progressives has far outstripped our ability to exert real pressure upon them. Are we transforming the Democratic party, or are we merely legitimizing it, and launching yet another glittering career?
I don’t pretend to have the answers. But these are questions which ought to be asked. And we can't be too thirsty to ask them.
Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and a member of the state committee of the GA Green Party. He lives and works near Marietta GA, and can be reached via email at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.
Find an updated analysis of the Ocasio-Cortez victory here.