What Planet Is AOC On?

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The crossfire between the Democratic Party’s left and moderate wings, each blaming the other for the party’s flaccid performance in congressional races, has been diverting enough that it has obscured a striking point of commonality.

Both sides have similar descriptions of Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill — arrogant, bereft of creativity, generationally obsolete.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in an interview with The New York Times, accused her party’s leaders of losing elections by relying on “magical thinking” rather than grappling with changing power dynamics, and by being “blinded [by] anti-activist sentiment.” Rep. Conor Lamb, a centrist who won reelection to his swing district in Pennsylvania, told the Times that “when push comes to shove the younger members who have come from these really tough districts and tough races don’t always feel that the leadership takes our input as seriously as we would like.”

In a post-election report, meanwhile, a coalition of influential progressive groups accused party leadership of “unforced errors” in the campaign and of recruiting “has-beens and cookie-cutter candidates” in the Senate. “We need a new generation of leadership grounded in a multiracial, working class experience and background,” the report concluded.

Well, not yet. For now, the Democrats will rely on President-elect Joe Biden, who will turn 78 in eight days, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who will turn 70 three days after that and 80-year-old House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to summon their decades of collective wisdom to try to prod 78-year-old Mitch McConnell into abandoning his usual strategy of remorseless obstructionism. Generational change will have to wait.

For the moment, it is not obvious that the younger generation of Democrats has more compelling ideas than their elders about the party’s basic strategic problem. Moderate Democrats are eager for an ambitious expansion of government’s role in addressing health care and climate change. Democrats on the left are eager for something more ambitious still. Neither side has a credible answer to the central problem: The party does not have sufficient power for half a loaf, never mind a full.

Ocasio-Cortez, on some occasions, counts as one of the party’s freshest and most-appealing new voices. Her sour interview Saturday with the Times’ Astead W. Herndon was not one of these occasions. She said moderate lawmakers who blamed the left for losing their seats or having uncomfortably close calls have only themselves to blame for being “sitting ducks.” She plausibly asserted that she knows a lot more than most members about effective use of social media. She implausibly suggested that if more members had used Facebook effectively, and accepted her help when she was practically begging to give it, the Democrats could have avoided the losses which leave Pelosi clinging to a narrow majority. “Every single [member] that rejected my help is losing,” she complained, “and now they’re blaming us for the loss.” She gets so frustrated by the lack of support from fellow Democrats, she said, that she considered not running for reelection.

Self-referential commentary is hardly unusual for a politician of any stripe or any generation. More striking about AOC’s interview was that she sounded less like a political visionary and more like a campaign operative, boasting for reporters at some hotel bar as last call nears. This from the primary sponsor of the Green New Deal? This is the transformative future of the Democratic Party?

In its own way the interview was emblematic of Democrats’ larger post-2020 challenge. It was often said that this election was about “mobilization” — stimulating turnout among people whose minds are made up — rather than “persuasion,” growing the pool of potential supporters through arguments to people whose minds are open. True enough. There has never been a better mobilization politician, or one whose style left fewer open minds in his wake, than Donald Trump.

But 2020 showed the limits of mobilization politics. There is a near-term problem, and a long-term one.

In the moment, the things that a candidate or party do to mobilize their side, even or especially when successful, typically also motivate the other side. It was Trump, on his way to winning the second-most votes in American history, who helped Biden win the first-most. The Democratic turnout for the presidency didn’t translate to gains in the House and Senate; turns out there are still some ticket-splitters out there.

In a larger sense, even if a mobilization strategy wins an election it is a persuasion strategy that will win an argument. If AOC helps fundamentally change the U.S. response to climate change, or systemic racial inequities, these would be outsized historic achievements. She is right that you can’t do this with the strategy of caution and accommodation that some moderates — but not all — gravitate toward. But you also can’t do it without a constant calibration of appeals that are both challenging and reassuring. You can’t do it without reframing and updating outmoded terms of debate. You can’t do it without engaging consistently — in both political and substantive terms — people whose views overlap only in part with your own.

In some ways, this tension between the politics of mobilization versus persuasion is more central to the Democrats’ future than the increasingly stale debate over whether moderates are too tepid to drive meaningful change or progressives are too radical to win.

It is folly for progressives to avoid the obvious: The reason they are far from achieving their policy aims goes beyond the notion that moderate Democrats are clods who can’t play the game. There are many places in the country where progressives need better arguments to reach people who don’t currently support their goals.

The post-election memo by four progressive groups — New Deal Strategies, Justice Democrats, Sunrise Movement and Data for Progress — came closer to the mark than Ocasio-Cortez’s interview. It called for a new set of policy and rhetorical appeals that seek to merge the Black Lives Matter message with an economic message that would also appeal to less-prosperous and less-educated whites who have been attracted to Trump. There is not abundant evidence that this can be successful, but it is at least more attuned to the genuine challenge than scolding fellow Democrats for not being with it on Facebook.

Ocasio-Cortez has earned the right to lecture moderate Democrats like Conor Lamb on how to connect with a rising generation of impatient progressives. Lamb has earned the right to lecture Ocasio-Cortez on how to take a seat that used to be held by Republicans and put it in the Democratic column. But a more promising strategy likely would put listening before lecturing.

“What planet is she on?” a veteran Democratic operative scoffed to me over the AOC interview, which he took as denying the reality that movements like “defund the police,” even while at the fringes of Democratic politics, were a serious headwind in many places that the party urgently needs to win to hold power.

It was a rhetorical question. But let’s answer it seriously. She is on a political planet where she is amply rewarded for her uncommon skill at framing issues in bold terms, for her stylish spontaneity, for her comfort with political combat, for her instinct to open her sails rather than trim them.

What planet is Conor Lamb on? He’s on a political planet where Democrats can’t win unless they constantly practice the politics of reassurance, and he’s been amply rewarded for his self-discipline and skill in softening sharp edges that can be used as a knife against him.

The future of the Democratic Party will hinge on its progress in interplanetary travel.

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