I Miss the Old AOC

This article continues a current debate within DSA over whether or not to re-endorse AOC in her 2024 reelection campaign. Other articles in this series include one arguing in favor of and one against endorsement. 

In 2016, Kanye West released The Life of Pablo, his much anticipated seventh studio album. The ninth track, “I Love Kanye,” opens with “I miss the old Kanye / straight from the Go Kanye / Chop up the soul Kanye / set on his goals Kanye,” a tongue and cheek response to fans who believed Kanye to have changed since he first burst onto the scene, expressing nostalgia for the old Kanye.

Just two years later something dramatic fundamentally changed American politics. A bartender from the Bronx, running as an open democratic socialist on a platform of Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and Abolishing ICE, shocked the world by winning a primary against Joe Crowley, the second most powerful Democrat in Congress. I miss the old AOC.

“Straight from the Go” AOC

As a politically conscious high schooler, I was inspired by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s dark horse victory. I had been a progressive Democrat, quickly losing faith in the party’s commitment to social justice and ability to defeat the far-right. I became intrigued by DSA, began consuming left-wing media, and got involved in a local DSA race in Brooklyn – Julia Salazar’s insurgent campaign against corporate Democrat Martin Dilan. The campaign felt like a grassroots social movement, run top to bottom by DSA members, with a class struggle message of workers versus capitalists and tenants versus landlords. I joined DSA a couple weeks into volunteering for the campaign. We won our race.

Ocasio-Cortez was sworn into office and started her term by joining the Sunrise Movement to stage a sit-in of Nancy Pelosi’s office to demand a Green New Deal. I was once again inspired. I had cast my lot with the team that had sent a radical outsider into the halls of Congress who was not going to play by the traditional elite rules.

Five years later, Ocasio-Cortez feels like a completely different political actor. No longer the outsider in the House, she has transformed into a “bridge” between establishment politicians on the inside and social movements on the outside. While radical working-class movements have demanded an answer to the question “which side are you on?” for nearly one hundred years, Ocasio-Cortez has attempted to straddle both sides. Her theory of change is that, to get things done, she has to play the insider game and build close relationships with some leading Democrats. 

This transformation has led to a series of missteps, increasingly drawing her away from the movements that she was elected to serve – voting to break the rail strike while providing political cover for the President breaking it, voting present on funding for the Iron Dome and indicating she’d vote Yes on future funding, donating hundreds of thousands to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), and most notably uncritically supporting Biden’s re-election and making the rounds on media circuits to boost his candidacy, while actively working to lower her supporters’ expectations of politicians. It has been incredibly demoralizing for me and many other DSA members who joined because of her. 

As DSA debates re-endorsing Ocasio-Cortez, I can’t help but feel, like those Kanye fans in the mid 2010s, a nostalgia for the “old AOC.” It’s that version of Ocasio-Cortez that DSA should endorse. 

It’s unclear if the old Ocasio-Cortez still exists, or if she ever really did. It’s even more unclear if she can be brought back. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. But we also should not keep her within the DSA fold by abandoning key socialist principles and strategies for building long-term independent working-class power.

“Set on Her Goals” AOC

I want DSA to be able to re-endorse Ocasio-Cortez, but also find most of the arguments for re-endorsement unconvincing. The pro-endorsement side seems to have a desire to endorse at all costs, rather than a strategic discussion of under which conditions we should endorse or not and what we would like to see from Ocasio-Cortez in order to receive the endorsement.

For instance, it would be great if Ocasio-Cortez committed to helping start a Federal Socialists in Office (SiO) Committee, but how would such a committee properly function as a home for coordinating between her and Rashida Tlaib? Tlaib is the greatest champion for Palestine in Congress and has publicly declared to Biden that our movements “will remember” in November. In contrast, Ocasio-Cortez has regularly gone on the news to shame people upset at Biden into voting for him by overplaying his successes and downplaying his crimes, and has even appeared in videos standing side by side and laughing with Biden.

Our organization has taken the position that Biden is not only aiding and abetting a genocide, but is an active participant and coconspirator. Not only has Ocasio Cortez’s actions been a moral failure, but a massive strategic misstep according to her own logic that her endorsement of Biden is necessary to defeat the far right. Not only has Biden adopted and codified many of those far-right policies – most recently Trump’s xenophobic approach to the border and immigration – but his unprecedented unpopularity makes him uniquely weak against Trump compared to down-ballot Democrats who are faring much better in their races against Republicans. 

The raw numbers point to the fact that the best thing Ocasio-Cortez could do to help defeat Trump would be to call for Biden’s removal as nominee, since other Democrats would likely fare better in the general election. But her desire to defeat the far-right has been dramatically warped by her commitment to staying in the good graces of the Democratic establishment, and the ideologies she is surrounded by in Washington, D.C. If we endorse her, and then choose to take a clear position on Biden dropping out, what will happen when our most well-known politician actively and publicly opposes an important political intervention our organization could make in the 2024 election? It’s not that hard to imagine, given her public pushback against criticism of Biden.

Some arguments in favor of uncritically endorsing Ocasio-Cortez reference her popularity and how DSA can benefit from it. There are some clear positive examples of this, with her campaign successfully turning out volunteers and supporters for DSA-endorsed candidates like Claire Valdez in Queens. That should be the basic norm and expectation for endorsed candidates, but she is currently failing to meet that standard by notably not endorsing the Eon Huntley campaign, likely in order to stay within the good graces of Democratic House Leader Hakeem Jeffries.

There are clear benefits to being connected to her high profile, but there are also major drawbacks. At once we’d be associated with a high-profile champion of left-wing priorities and also a high-profile booster of the Biden candidacy and the Democratic Party. How could we institutionally advocate members donate to her campaign when there’s a good chance it could be sent to the DCCC, a major enemy of the left and working-class movements, and the movement for Palestine? Our endorsement of Ocasio-Cortez could just as easily tar our organization among the pro-Palestine movement as she continues to boost the re-election campaign of “Genocide Joe.” I however, would like us to be associated with the Ocasio-Cortez who sat in Pelosi’s office.

“And Now I Look and Look Around and There’s So Many” Democratic Socialists

Throughout this discussion period, there have been multiple extended threads on the member-only forum debating the endorsement. Many comments have suggested an endorsement on the condition that Ocasio-Cortez commit to a combination of the following: 

  • Publicly opposing US government spending on Israel, military or otherwise
  • Publicly supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement
  • Withdrawing her endorsement of Biden for President due to his active support of the genocide in Gaza
  • Refusing to speak at the DNC this year
  • Refusing to continue platforming Zionists
  • Agreeing to collaborate with DSA on developing a federal SiO at the national level alongside our other federal electeds and committing to regular meetings
  • Designating an official staff liaison for communications with DSA’s NPC
  • Making no further donations to the DCCC or affiliated fundraisers for the DNC
  • Regularly promoting recruitment to DSA on her comms channels

While some combination of these conditions are reasonable, there’s no evidence she will agree to any conditions, much less multiple, which is a point in favor of those skeptical of an endorsement. We also just don’t fully know where her office stands on all of these questions, especially in the context of an endorsement process.

We have no insight into what Ocasio-Cortez is willing to agree to and that should be clear before we agree to endorsing her. For members and the NPC to have a real discussion, debate, and vote on an Ocasio-Cortez re-endorsement we need recorded answers. The NPC must either issue a questionnaire, meet with her and her office, possibly open for members to observe, host a national town hall with her, or some combination of these, to get direct answers on these kinds of questions. Ocasio-Cortez’s responses must be made available and accessible to members to inform our debates and discussion so we do not have to rely on guesswork and second-hand information.

Following these debates and discussions, the NPC can choose between a series of options, rather than a simple yes or no on re-endorsement. Some other options could include an endorsement conditional on agreeing to specific stipulations. Another might be granting the endorsement without an agreement on conditions, but public red lines, the crossing of which would trigger revoking the endorsement. Of course, some may still advocate no endorsement whatsoever, while others may advocate an endorsement without conditions. 

Different factions and members in the organization who may agree on the idea of a conditional endorsement, may also disagree on what exactly those conditions should be. The ideal outcome would be to establish a certain level of conditions acceptable to both a majority of members and to Ocasio-Cortez herself. It would be an endorsement of the “old AOC,” or at the very least a version committed to moving in that direction. If such an agreement cannot be reached, or if Ocasio-Cortez violates endorsement terms, it will not be us abandoning her, but her own failure to return to her roots that inspired so many of us in 2018.

If Ocasio-Cortez rejects a conditional endorsement, or crosses red lines established in the endorsement, while unfortunate, it would be by no means the end of the world. Throughout the country DSA members are engaged in all kinds of exciting and important work to build independent working-class power, including much of our electoral work. More and more DSA cadre are running for office, and there are shining lights of non-cadre, class-struggle elected officials like Rashida Tlaib, Cori Bush, and many more on a state and local level. I hope Ocasio-Cortez would want to be part of this movement, but it will continue with or without her.

Photo by Matt A.J. Shared under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.