Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Enduring Myths of the Democratic Party


Though Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill’s lost her re-election bid during November’s mid-terms, it that hasn’t stopped the Missouri politician from offering unsolicited advice to those who did win, including recently elected House representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

McCaskill has spent the waning weeks of her three-term tenure lamenting the ineffectiveness and polarization of Congress and criticizing Democrats for not doing enough to court “white working-class voters and independents,” political speak for centrist and the mythical Trump Country voter who could (ostensibly) be lured to the other side of the aisle with less talk of identity politics and more talk of jobs.

During an interview with CNN, McCaskill cautioned Democrats against politicians who are all soaring rhetoric with little hope of delivering results. For McCaskill, Ocasio-Cortez is a prime example.

“I don’t know her,” said McCaskill. “I’m a little confused why she’s the thing.”

She went on to call Ocasio-Cortez a “bright shiny new object” that the Democrats have perilously latched on to before referencing Ocasio-Cortez’s defeat of “very experienced” incumbent Congressman, Joe Crowley, in a primary upset.

From CNN (emphasis mine):

McCaskill added, “And so she’s now talked about a lot. I’m not sure what she’s done yet to generate that kind of enthusiasm, but I wish her well. I hope she hangs the moon.
“But I hope she also realizes that the parts of the country that are rejecting the Democratic Party, like a whole lot of white working class voters, need to hear about how their work is going to be respected, and the dignity of their jobs, and how we can really stick to issues that we can actually accomplish something on.”
And she concluded: “The rhetoric is cheap. Getting results is a lot harder.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s leftist politics are routinely painted as pie-in-the-sky policy proposals, but her actual platform consists of several run-of-the-mill ambitions: Increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, the endorsement of a Federal Job Guarantee, tuition-free trade schools, and access to healthcare and sick leave. This doesn’t appeal to everyone, but it’s far from ignorant of the needs of the working class. A recent Reuters poll found that slightly over 70 percent of Americans supported single-payer healthcare and the proposal is particularly popular among Democrats. In fact, Ocasio-Cortez’s platform appealed to the working class New Yorkers in Queens and the Bronx that Ocasio-Cortez was elected to represent.

So why did McCaskill speak as if Ocasio-Cortez’s policy proposals only appeal to the so-called coastal-elites (a group nearly as fictional as the Trump Country voter)? And what does a Democratic platform that includes the white working class actually look like if not Ocasio-Cortez’s? After all, several aspects of her platform run parallel to that of Senator Bernie Sanders, who famously appealed to that very demographic in the 2016 primaries.

It appears as though McCaskill doesn’t actually know what Ocasio-Cortez advocates, opting for media sound bites instead—especially those that frame leftist politics as little more than fantastical whims. There is absolutely nothing in Ocasio-Cortez’s platform that negates the needs of working-class people who happen to be white.

If we’re talking about the white working class as a political entity riddled with racism, then perhaps that’s a group Democrats shouldn’t be so keen to court. Instead, they’d be better off shoring up the working class voters who overwhelmingly voted to send politicians like Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib to the House. Those voters seem less interested in the “dignity of their jobs” or having their work respected by distant Senators, and more interested in ensuring a foothold somewhere in the middle class through the expansion of healthcare and livable wages.

Regardless, McCaskill’s claims of confusion over the fervor surrounding Ocasio-Cortez is only believable from someone who is increasingly out-of-touch with the needs and wants of the working class she invokes. Ocasio-Cortez is unabashedly left-of-center in an era of right-wing dominance. Her youth and social media savvy have enabled her to amass a cult following. She’s a Latina in a country that is slowly becoming less white. At the end of the day, Ocasio-Cortez is still a politician, not the second coming, and she’s just as prone to blunders as any other new member of the House. But it strikes as willfully obtuse to fail to understand her appeal.

McCaskill’s final term was certainly steeped in obstruction, no doubt a frustration. But her skepticism toward the congresswoman, and her read on how Democrats can win, seemed steeped in a vision of both politics and voters that has less and less appeal.

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