When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upset Joe Crowley in the summer of 2018, the political environment on the left was drastically different than today. The Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016 had brought together disparate progressive forces and merged them into something resembling a political movement. That energy buoyed Ocasio-Cortez and what would become known as the Squad, and only grew stronger throughout 2019 and into the presidential race, where Sanders won the popular vote in the Iowa caucuses, finished on top in New Hampshire, and blew the other candidates out in Nevada, producing a meltdown among the party establishment and on cable news.
The party brass recovered quickly, consolidated behind Joe Biden ahead of South Carolina, came from behind on Super Tuesday, and finished Sanders off. Over the next year, the ecosystem that came together, increasingly organized around YouTube shows and podcasts, began splintering off. Some followed Tulsi Gabbard as she drifted out of the party, while others worked to build an alternative to the Democratic Party.
At the start of her career, Twitter was a place where Ocasio-Cortez could be seen to be leading an army of supporters, but often today it seems more like she’s fighting off an army of critics from the left. Others in the progressive ecosystem who still support Ocasio-Cortez complain that she isn’t invested heavily enough in building infrastructure or supporting candidates early enough for it to matter.
She responds to those criticisms and others in the second part of an interview, the first part of which was posted on Wednesday. The transcript has been lightly edited for filler words.
Ryan Grim: The party machine players that you talked about, and the big money groups, they often work really closely together. But that doesn’t seem like it’s been happening as much on the left. Like there’s a coalition of groups — [Working Families Party], Indivisible, Justice Dems, etc. — that gets behind candidates, but often the stars of the progressive world like yourself or Bernie or others don’t seem to be working as closely with them as corporate Democrats are working with corporate groups. And you guys often don’t, say, endorse a candidate until pretty close to the end of the campaign. It doesn’t seem to be the same level of teamwork as on the right wing of the party. Why is that?
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Well, I think some of it just has to do with resources. I think the ability to do that with big money is very different than the ability to do that with not big money. But I also think that the left in this country, like we’ve just been in this — in a big way — for just a couple of years. And so I think that the left is really going through a lot of growth. And I do think that, and I hope that over time, this degree of collaboration gets even better and gets even stronger.
Because yeah, I mean, I think there’s so much work to do, but there’s fewer organizations and resources to do it on the left than there are, of course, just on the monied right wing and corporate wing, that it then falls on individual organizations to have like these huge missions, which sometimes can lead to a little bit of a dilution of focus — a lot of people arguing over what one organization should do, as opposed to the corporate wing of the party where every small priority has its own PAC, has its own organization. And so that level of granularity takes time to achieve. So, I think that there’s that, but I don’t think that it’s something that we count out on doing. And I do think that there’s examples of us being able to do that. More successfully, like on the local level. So nationally, I think things can be hard, because we don’t have as much of an insight into some other communities, races, dynamics, etc.
But locally, for example, we coordinated with the Working Families Party, and we were able to pick up 17 or so seats on the [New York] City Council. And we were able to run slates of candidates. We’ve coordinated with [Democratic Socialists of America] to elect slates of candidates, and I actually believe that — and I’m gonna get the year wrong on this — but one undertold story from yesterday is that in Astoria, we elected the first democratically socialist slate, full ballot from city to federal, for the first time, I think, since 1917. And again, I’m probably gonna get the year wrong on that, but I think it’s been over 100 years. This is the first time in American history, or the first time in 100 years in American history, that the city council person, the state assembly person, the state senator, and a member of Congress are all not capitalists.
Not only that, but they also drove and delivered a sea of statewide victory for the governor. I mean, if you look at where these votes are coming from, it is this seat of organizing that really helped contribute very strongly to a Kathy Hochul victory. Queens turnout was up very high relative to a lot of other communities and areas.
“The left of the United States, until very, very recently, is not used to power, not used to being in power, not used to wielding power.”
So, taking some of what we’re learning in our state-level work and city-level work and busting up some of these local political machines, I think if we can take some of those lessons and apply it to our national coordination that can definitely help us strengthen the progressive movement. But I do think that we’re growing, and I do think that the left is growing and maturing. I think that for a very long time, the left of the United States, until very, very recently, is not used to power, not used to being in power, not used to wielding power. And I think sometimes the immediate reaction to making gains is being suspicious of it, because then you can, after so long in the wilderness, eventually — I think sometimes people make the mistake of associating losing with virtue, and winning with a lack of virtue, like you must have done something wrong. And I think that we’re starting to shake that a little bit as a movement and learning to wield some of these wins, especially as we’ve made gains in the last two cycles.
We went from four to — then we added [Jamaal] Bowman and [Cori] Bush. We were able to help support in that cycle the ousting of [Illinois Rep. Dan] Lipinski, etc. And then on top of that, now, in this most recent cycle, we’ve added [Greg] Casar and Summer Lee. And we also have Delia Ramirez and other great candidates. So now this isn’t really a voting bloc to sniff at anymore. It’s becoming very real and big, to a level that I don’t think is being — is really appreciated how significant that is.
RG: It’s interesting because when the left was totally out of power from say, like, you know, 2015, up through the election of the Squad, that unity among kind of the national grassroots online left was really strong. That unity has really frayed; you can feel it online. What do you think brought that about? And what do you think can be done to recharge it?
AOC: Well, you know, again, I think a lot of it has to do with — It’s one thing to be united in what’s wrong, but it is a much more complicated, nuanced thing to navigate uncertainty. And so then once you have the responsibility of power, you have to make decisions on a daily basis, about what to do with it. And that takes a lot of communication and, frankly, maturity and understanding and discussion. And sometimes, the responsibility of wielding power for people requires a lot of discussion and debate, and also disagreement and how we manage disagreements.
“There needs to be a differentiation between an individual decision and a record and a pattern.”
If someone makes a mistake, it’s not the same thing as someone selling out. There needs to be a differentiation between an individual decision and a record and a pattern. And so in the initial aftermath of gaining power, having to have these conversations require a lot of growth. And it requires a lot of debate. And yeah, I mean, I think sometimes it’s very easy to turn on each other and have people turn on each other, and oftentimes mistake a disagreement with malintent or lack of character. That’s what we saw for a little bit. But I actually am also sensing a moving beyond that. Of course, much of that is still going to exist, but I actually do sense a growth in that, if you look at the growth in national DSA, for example.
These periods of growth can look messy, but actually, public debate and struggle is what allows there to be the transparency and also trust necessary in decisions. And to be able to hash out these disagreements, but then understand that despite disagreements a person may have made a decision, but it doesn’t — there’s an understanding when to draw the line between there being a difference of approach or that difference of strategy, even if it’s when you vehemently disagree with, and someone who’s just, like, not on our side. Those are two different things. And I think that there’s a greater appreciation of that.
I think that there is more movement building that’s happening. And I think that that is evident with the enormous electoral gains that progressives are making down ballot. I mean, if you look at the state Senate seats that we are picking up in places like Georgia and other areas across the country, like this is nothing to sniff at. I really do think that we’re building a bench. It’s trending in the right direction. Electorally, we are setting ourselves up for good things. But yeah, I think online discourse is — we can grow up like we can. And I don’t mean that in an accusatorial way. But I think that we can become more sophisticated. I think that we are becoming more sophisticated, but it definitely takes growing pains.
RG: And when you say “we,” are you including yourself in that too? When you look back, are there any things that you think your critics got right? If I were trying to pinpoint one, I’d say, the Amazon warehouse fight that was being waged where they were trying to get a whole bunch of support and didn’t. If you had to do that over again — or are there any things that you would have done differently if you could do them over again, to try to rebuild that communication, trust?
AOC: The thing is, it’s really about intra-left relationship, right? So if you look at that incident, now we’re all good. You know what I’m saying? That relationship, we’re cool. We dove in, and it wasn’t just about showing up at a press conference. We have offered infrastructure support.
But there really is a difference between asking one person to be there for every single thing, and then when they can’t make it for one thing, like, “Oh, it must be because they abandoned all principle.” There’s a difference between that and just like, “Hey, OK, we missed it on this one because there were literally 800 other things” — other fights that people were asking us to take up. And you know what? We showed up, and we’re back together again. And the discourse of that moment is so out of step with the reality of what played out, because we’ve continued to support and do everything we can to make sure that we’re up on that. And we’re good now.
I think there’s a temptation — and we have to be aware of the role that even algorithms play in this, right? YouTube, Twitter, all of it is designed to make us fight with each other; like, that is rewarded algorithmically. And so I think with the awareness of that — and it’s not to say that we shouldn’t [fight] ever — we’re better with sound criticism. But I think we really need to be grounded in strong citation and not just incitement of emotion. Like, let’s talk about having really thorough arguments to make each other better. That’s what political struggle is all about. And engaging in that with one another as a movement.