AOC’s 90-Second Speech Was Not Evidence of a Democratic Rift With the Left

Ocasio-Cortez, identified via chyron in a screenshot from the DNC broadcast, speaks into the camera against a backdrop of American flags.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez addresses the virtual Democratic National Convention on Tuesday night. Handout/DNCC via Getty Images

One of the biggest stories leading into the virtual Democratic National Convention was that New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the party’s most popular leftist under the age of 78 depending on how you classify Elizabeth Warren, was to be allotted only 60 seconds of speaking time. Given the regular sass directed at AOC and “The Squad” by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, the mini-slot was interpreted as another insult to the younger, more progressive, and less white cohort of Dems that the institutional party tends to take for granted when it’s not overtly denouncing them to impress fiscally moderate baby boomers.

The actual convention, though—including Ocasio-Cortez’s Tuesday night remarks—should be taking the air out of those (understandable!) concerns. AOC, the left, and the youth vote are being treated as one part of a party that needs to maximize general election chances against a catastrophically inept incumbent—not the only part, but a part that is too important to ostracize.

There was no guarantee this would be the case. Four years ago, Bernie Sanders entered the convention on poor terms with Hillary Clinton, and some of his delegates booed when he urged them to support her during his speech. But on Monday, Sanders, who endorsed Biden months ago, spoke in support of his former Senate colleague in intense, characteristically furious terms. He was able to point to several progressive Biden-platform goals—a $15 minimum wage, a clean electricity transition by 2035, universal pre-K starting at age 3—that were not part of Clinton’s campaign four years ago. The nation’s foremost crazy-eyed socialist even defended the DNC’s decision to feature Republican speakers at the convention, making a rare reference to his own personal life in doing so. Said Sanders: “Under this administration authoritarianism has taken root in our country. I, and my family, and many of yours, know the insidious way authoritarianism destroys democracy, decency, and humanity. As long as I am here, I will work with progressives, with moderates, and, yes, with conservatives to preserve this nation from a threat that so many of our heroes fought and died to defeat.” In 2020, he is on board with telling his people to listen up and join the fight.

This is the necessary context for Ocasio-Cortez’s Tuesday segment—which was, in fact, 90 seconds, and involved formally nominating Sanders rather than talking up Biden. (Convention rules require the formal nomination of anyone who reaches a certain delegate threshold, so this wasn’t an act of defiance on her part.) It could have been longer! But it fit the pace of the night, and its rhetoric was even stronger than what Democrats are used to hearing from Sanders (who also appeared on Tuesday, amiably, in the background of the Vermont delegation’s on-location roll-call video). Ocasio-Cortez, in her words, is a participant in “a mass people’s movement working to establish 21st century social, economic, and human rights, including guaranteed health care, higher education, living wages, and labor rights for all people in the United States; a movement striving to recognize and repair the wounds of racial injustice, colonization, misogyny, and homophobia, and to propose and build reimagined systems of immigration and foreign policy that turn away from the violence and xenophobia of our past.”

Subversive stuff! And consider, after reading it, that as recently as 2004 the entire left of the Democratic Party was embodied by Howard Dean, who wanted to balance the federal budget and had an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association. Bernie Sanders didn’t even attend a DNC until 2008. Twelve years later, the party is projecting comfort that it can accommodate envelope-pushing policy vision and representational diversity alongside the broadly targeted, feel-good American sepia stuff that Biden prefers. In addition to Sanders’ prominence and Ocasio-Cortez’s appearance, Warren is scheduled to speak Wednesday to (presumably) tear Wall Street a new one. The Monday night “party establishment” speaker, Michelle Obama, stated as fact that “a never-ending list of innocent people of color continue to be murdered” in the U.S. On Thursday, the convention will highlight a Black mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, whose city (Atlanta) is prosecuting several police officers for inappropriate use of force against Black citizens. On Tuesday, two central broadcast segments—a montage of 17 “rising star” figures that culminated with an appearance by Stacey Abrams, and the surprisingly inspiring states-and-territories roll call—highlighted regular, idealistic Democrats, young and old, from all across the country.

The danger that AOC’s small role foretold was that the convention was going to be a turgid, turnout-depressing platform for vague, CEO-friendly generalities about progress. That sort of thing is a long way from being eradicated from the party—Pete Buttigieg did show up Tuesday, and will be back on Thursday. But these days he has to share the stage.

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