Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ historic defeat of Rep. Joe Crowley (D-NY), has become a flash-point in the continuing internecine struggles between the establishment and progressive branches of the Democratic party.
For their part, Ocasio-Cortez and Crowley were gracious in victory and defeat. The pundits, in the media and on Twitter, were less so. The next day, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) dismissed Ocasio-Cortez as a one-off, saying her election “is about that district. It is not to be viewed as something that stands for anything else.”
The establishment kicked in behind that narrative, and there’s a reason for that. Ocasio-Cortez ran on an unabashedly progressive agenda: free public college, Medicare for all, a $15 minimum wage…all of the ponies that have official Washington fretting.
But was Pelosi right? Was Ocasio-Cortez a one-off? Crowley was the fourth most powerful Democrat in the House. She was a bartender this time last year. Crowley spent four times what she spent. He sent surrogates to debate her. He was backed by every establishment Democrat and interest group. The New York Times never even mentioned her name. She is an avowed socialist.
According to Ocasio-Cortez, she won because she worked her butt off. She canvassed for months, organizing a grass roots campaign that went completely under the radar in New York City’s stuffy political echo chamber.
One can’t help but think her message didn’t have something to do with it as well.
The first official analysis of Ocasio-Cortez’ victory came from Lloyd Green, writing in The Hill. The headline ran “Democrats can kiss swing voters goodbye with progressive ballot.” Establishment Democrats nodded silently, while progressives hopped up and down in anger at the sentiment.
The idea, though, that swing voters decide elections, is a conviction that has become deeply imbedded in the soul of the Democratic Party. It comes from Bill Clinton, whose “Third Way” strategy was if you move to the right on policy, you will pick up swing voters, and win elections.
It worked for Bill, twice. (Hillary, not so much.) Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), is another priest at the Third Way altar. In 2016, he predicted that the Democrats would win back the Senate. “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.”
He was wrong. Dead wrong.
In fact, the Third Way has been a disaster for the Democratic Party. It started in 1994, two years after Clinton was elected, when the Democrats began losing seats in the House. There was a brief gain when Obama was elected, but overall, the Democrats have been losing ground for 20 years.
The Third Way meant replacing popular appeal with appeals to corporate donors. The direct and immediate result was increased American disillusionment with the political process. By 2008, voters had figured out that neither party represented them, and refused to affiliate with either. It wasn’t because they were undecided — it was because they were disgusted. In 2016, only 58% of eligible voters came out to vote. These people aren’t swing voters, they’re fed up, angry voters. They’re the voters who hate having to choose between the lesser of two evils.
Truth is, there is no such thing as swing voters. There are only unmotivated, discouraged, uninspired, apathetic voters. And there’s only one sure way to get them out to vote:
Do that, and you’ll get their vote. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proved it can work. Will the Democrats follow suit? Time will tell.