Alan Zendell, July 12, 2019
When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sprang onto the national scene in 2018 I cheered. She seemed to be exactly what the country needed in Congress – a young, intelligent, self-assured woman with a strong belief in social and racial equality, women’s rights, and the urgency of saving our environment. She also spoke about the need to defeat Donald Trump, which should have resolved any doubts I had about her. But even in my enthusiasm, fueled somewhat by the coincidence that she represented a district I lived in for many years, I had reservations.
Her youthful idealism reminded me of my own fifty years earlier, and her charisma made her delightfully attractive, especially her viral dancing videos on a New York City rooftop and entering her Congressional office for the first time. And in response to criticisms from the right and from within her own party she simply smiled and carried on, ignoring it. Very impressive!
But in the fifty years since I might have marched alongside her, oblivious of the collateral damage I might be causing, I grew up. I learned that sometimes goals have to be prioritized. Sometimes we have to reign in our passionately held ideals and recognize that in politics timing is everything. Sometimes fighting for something we believe in can undermine other, more fundamental ones, and we need to choose our battles carefully.
Perhaps the most important growing up lesson was that loners who never learn the value of being part of a team usually fail in the end. After watching her during her first six months in Congress, it’s clear that the evolution of AOC still has a long way to go. In her current incarnation, she is as much a danger to our future as a potential savior.
Today, a coworker said AOC’s behavior and overall demeanor reminded him of Trump’s. That startled me until I thought about it. I’d have said they couldn’t be more different, but if you disregard AOC’s words and focus only her brashness and her commitment to the promises she made to her base their similarity is striking. They both carved their own path through the jungle of politics. They both totally disregarded the establishment wing of their party and won upset victories that surprised everyone.
In Trump’s case, his victory left a horrifying trail of debris, the remnants of the former Republican Party. He not only trashed everything the legitimate Conservative movement stood for, but he has been on a thirty-month rampage that sought to redefine the rules of behavior and decency we live by and undermine the respect for law that has been the strength of our democracy. In doing so, he shined a spotlight on the fundamental weakness of what the Republican party had become prior to his campaign. What might once have been seen a strongly principled bloc of people turned out to be a bunch of self-absorbed sniveling cowards who trembled in the face of a far-right bigoted base that no one realized still existed in this country.
Given all that I have two concerns. One is that despite the skilled, strong leadership of Nancy Pelosi, AOC and her “Squad” may ultimately have a similar effect on the Democrats. Big tents contain disparate interests that don’t always get along. If she continues to create wide schisms among Democrats she can make her party as dysfunctional as Trump made the Republicans, and that would be a tragedy for the country.
The other is that since there is enough dissatisfaction with Trump as president (by a roughly three-to-two margin in every poll taken since he took office) to assure his defeat in 2020, the most likely path for his re-election is a fractured opposition. Trump understood that in 2015, and he proceeded to dismantle the party he shanghaied and remodel it to suit his base of support. He could never have won otherwise.
There is only one priority over the next sixteen months. Donald Trump must be defeated for the good of the country. To those who criticize Pelosi for marginalizing AOC and a few other young Turks, I say you should be thanking her, because the divisiveness they create runs parallel to Trump’s route to victory in 2016. The difference is that while the fissures that already existed in the Republican Party ultimately enabled Trump’s victory, exacerbating differences among Democrats can only result in their defeat.
It’s possible that both Trump and AOC will prove me wrong. Trump the narcissistic loner might survive 2020, and AOC could wind up heading her own wing of a splintered Democratic Party. But they’re possibilities that must be averted at all costs, like nuclear war and making our planet uninhabitable for our grandchildren.