The past 24 hours have been among the Democratic Party’s most tumultuous since the 2016 election. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old self-described socialist who was working as a bartender as recently as this fall, defeated Queens congressman Joe Crowley, one of the frontrunners to replace House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, in a stunning primary upset. After a likely win in the deep blue district this November, Ocasio-Cortez will be the youngest congresswoman in history. Crowley, the longtime head of Queens’ Democratic Party machine, will be a cautionary tale.
There are some early prognostications floating around about how Crowley’s loss shakes up the race to lead Democrats in the House, but most Democratic leaders and analysts spent the day in cycles of simple bewilderment and denial. When asked whether democratic socialism was ascendant in the Democratic Party on Wednesday morning, Pelosi flatly said no and cast the very suggestion as a right-wing smear. “It’s ascendant in that district perhaps,” she said. “But I don’t accept any characterization of our party presented by the Republicans.” Matt Bennett of Third Way, a prominent center-left think tank, dismissed the result in an interview with Axios. “Ms. Ocasio-Cortez deserves credit for knocking off a titan,” he said. “But her win had more to do with the nature of her very blue district than it does with national politics.”
It is certainly true that Ocasio-Cortez enjoyed advantages in the race—for one, New York’s 14th Congressional District is a majority-minority district—that aren’t fully replicable for Democrats across most of the country. Crowley, an Irish American in his mid-50s, was so disengaged from campaigning that he appeared in the House a day before the election and skipped a debate with his young rival.
But Ocasio-Cortez’s win was nevertheless a shock to those framing it as an almost foregone conclusion now. Even if a candidate like Ocasio-Cortez can’t win everywhere, Crowley’s loss is a clear signal that fairly liberal Democrats in fairly liberal regions shouldn’t consider themselves comfortably ensconced. Whatever happens in redder parts of the country, Democrats in deep-blue America will very likely be pushed even further left in the coming years by the always-looming possibility of facing candidates like Ocasio-Cortez—just as Republican candidates in very conservative districts were made to look over their shoulders by Tea Party candidate Dave Brat’s defeat of Eric Cantor in 2014.
That dynamic will change the party and should trigger, too, a change in our political vernacular. Ocasio-Cortez has been widely referred to today as a member of the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party. While Ocasio-Cortez worked for Sanders’ presidential campaign and shares many of his positions, including her support for Medicare for all, she’s currently to Sanders’ left on the most important issue in American politics at the moment, immigration enforcement. Ocasio-Cortez campaigned largely on abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Given the opportunity to endorse the same position on CNN on Sunday, Sanders demurred.
But beyond those differences, political journalists should move uniformly, at some point, toward describing what is happening to the Democratic Party in explicitly ideological terms. As convenient as it has been for pundits and voters alike to frame Democratic politics as a contest between constituencies loyal to certain personalities—Barack Obama, the Clintons, Bernie Sanders—the party is being moved by activists invested in achieving policy goals that did not intellectually originate from Sanders’ presidential campaign and will not fade away after he leaves the political scene. The party is being moved left by the left, which seems poised for, and is already achieving, really, more mainstream political success than it has seen in many decades in this country. They would like to see a Democratic Party, or some other party or movement should the Democratic Party disappoint, commit itself to socialism in precisely the same way that the Republican Party is ostensibly committed to conservatism—widely understood as an actual ideology not particularly tethered to the fortunes of any individual political leader. The left has begun to win that battle, if not in every or even most of their electoral contests, then certainly in the race to shape the policy agenda that will be advanced by the Democratic Party’s emerging leaders, including top-tier 2020 candidates like Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, and Kamala Harris, all of whom seem to be prepping for campaigns that will mirror Ocasio-Cortez’s in style and substance.
A Democratic Party reshaped by the left will very likely transform not only its ideological commitments but also its political strategy. On Wednesday afternoon, it was announced that Justice Anthony Kennedy will be retiring from the Supreme Court, allowing President Donald Trump to cement a solid conservative majority on the court for many, many years to come. There is little that Democrats, still smarting over the GOP’s torpedoing of the Merrick Garland nomination, can substantively do. Shutting down the Senate until the midterm elections by denying a quorum is theoretically plausible with John McCain’s current absence, although it’s unlikely that Democrats would have the needed support of the Democratic senators who voted in Neil Gorsuch—Joe Manchin, Heidi Heitkamp, and Joe Donnelly—even if most of them were dispositionally prepared to make such a radical move. Most Senate Democrats plainly are not. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said in a statement that Democrats “should do nothing to artificially delay” the consideration of whomever Trump nominates. (He later called for delay on Twitter.) Sen. Ben Cardin said he was uninterested in throwing “the first punch” with obstruction and urged patience. “Let’s see what the president does,” he said.
Among the opportunities Democrats miss with this kind of fecklessness is the chance to hammer away at the hypocrisies of Republican governance and emphasize the perils of a conservative court and conservatism, broadly speaking, for the female, minority, and working-class voters they would like to turn out in November. But, perhaps more importantly, the commitment to proceduralism and long-standing norms behind comments like Cardin’s and Blumenthal’s would hobble the changed party Ocasio-Cortez and the left are after. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to enact and preserve highly ambitious policies—like the creation of a single-payer health care system, for instance—without ending the filibuster and possibly adding new states, in addition to packing the Supreme Court to insulate new legislation from conservative judicial challenges. Showdowns, like the one at least some Democrats seem ready to forgo over the court, are chances to make the case to Democratic voters—and uncommitted voters besides—that norm-breaking is and will continue to be necessary to pursue goals that the Democratic Party believes should be our collective goals. The coming imbroglio over Kennedy’s seat will be another reminder that many in the party don’t have what it takes to make those goals reality. Tuesday night offered another reminder that those Democrats are at risk of being replaced by ones who do.