New York’s Democratic primaries caught the attention of the entire nation. To some, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory over Rep. Joe Crowley came as an unwelcome shock; to the young and fervent electoral left, her triumph is an obvious indicator of the changing political landscape they have fought to influence. Now, if the Democratic Party intends to stay relevant, they must pay attention to her success and follow suit.
A quick Google search of Ocasio-Cortez’s name days after the primary would paint the picture of a baffling, unexplainable upset. Political commentators struggled to understand exactly how an unknown young woman of color who identifies as a democratic socialist was able to take down a 10-year incumbent and party leader by a 15 percent margin. Many wrote it off as an anomaly. Within the party leadership, the same sentiment could be found.
At a June 27 press conference, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi dismissed Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, saying democratic socialism is not gaining popularity within the party.
“They made a choice in one district,” Pelosi said to reporters. “It is not to be viewed as something that stands for anything else.”
Pelosi is wrong on both counts. It is not just one district. It is undoubtedly indicative of an important political shift: if not toward democratic socialism then certainly away from the Minority Leader’s establishment brand.
In Pittsburgh, two congressional candidates backed by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) unseated incumbents Dom and Paul Costa, members of a politically powerful Pennsylvania family. A couple hundred miles east, in Philadelphia, DSA-endorsed Elizabeth Fiedler defeated Jonathan Rowan, who was backed by the incumbent congressman not seeking re-election.
In New York’s 24th Congressional District, Syracuse University doctoral candidate and community activist Dana Balter outperformed the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s (DCCC) handpicked candidate, Juanita Perez Williams. In Nebraska, the DCCC-backed incumbent Brad Ashford lost to progressive Kara Eatman.
Texas has felt this shift, too. According to the Primary Project, compared to the previous two election years, Texas has seen a 19 percent spike in self-identified, non-incumbent progressive candidates. Of those candidates, about 40 percent won their primaries or advanced to a runoff.
Statistics show progressive policies are increasingly favorable among Democratic primary voters, but not all representatives are moving left with them. According to Data For Progress, multiple academic studies have shown politicians from both parties dramatically overestimate the conservatism of their constituencies, causing misrepresentation and voter alienation. For example, while 67 percent of Democrats in the Senate represent states where constituents modeled support for “Medicare for all,” only 33 percent of Senate Democrats support the policy.
Additionally, according to Vox, support for so-called socialist policies is on the rise. For one, Americans are now evenly split on whether they support a private insurance system or one that is government run. In 2016, more than 60 percent of Americans supported free college tuition for every student.
Perhaps even more impressive is the DSA’s massive surge in membership since November 2016, jumping from 5,000 to 40,000.
All of this in mind, it is hardly inexplicable that voters are replacing moderate, establishment politicians with a new wave of grassroots progressives and democratic socialists who will better represent them. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory is not an anomaly, but a jolt of life in an otherwise dying party. It is a chance at resuscitation if embraced; a reminder to career politicians that they are never entitled to one more term. Whether or not Rep. Pelosi chooses to acknowledge it, the tides are certainly turning left.
– May Olvera is a journalism senior