“I really like the new crop of young people who were just elected to Congress. They now need to stop acting like young people. It’s time to do that.”–Aaron Sorkin, self-important screenwriter of television shows about politics
“What . . . really distinguishes this generation . . . is its determination to act, its joy in action, the assurance of being able to change things by one’s own efforts.”–Hannah Arendt, a political theorist, writing about youthful idealism
There can be no doubt that the November 2018 “blue wave” injected new blood, and new energy, into the Democratic party. Record numbers of women were elected, representing a wide range of constituencies. Among them were three members of Democratic Socialists of America: Omar Ilhan, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who, at 29 years of age, is the youngest member of Congress. “AOC,” a charismatic, telegenic, media savvy, and brilliant politician, has come to symbolize this new energy. And her immediate impact on a range of policy debates—including marginal tax rates, Medicare for All, and especially the Green New Deal—and the combination of enthusiasm and antipathy that she has inspired in others, have come to symbolize the growing pains that the Democrats are now experiencing.
Aaron Sorkin speaks for many pundits and mainstream Democrats. His comments are foolish and condescending, and they greatly exaggerate the “radicalism” and the “immaturity” of “the new crop of young people.” For this “new crop” is diverse, and does not speak with one voice (for example, while Omar Ilhan is a Muslim-American critic of U.S. imperialism who supports Palestinian nationalism, Max Rose is a Jewish-American military veteran from New York who is a Zionist). Its most outspoken members, including Tlaib, Omar, and AOC, have proven themselves to be quite serious, and self-reflective, in dealing with the controversies they have abetted (Omar, for example, masterfully walked back/clarified her recent comments about AIPAC in a way that was both generous and principled). And, perhaps most importantly, while the most radical among them, especially AOC, surely project new energy and new ideas into policy debates, these new ideas are hardly the provenance of “the young.” Many have long been promoted by Senator Bernie Sanders, one of the oldest members of Congress, who is likely to be the oldest contestant in the Democratic Presidential primary. And AOC’s Green New Deal Resolution, for example, is being sponsored in the Senate by Ed Markey, the 76-year old Democrat who has served in Congress since 1976—for more than forty years.
All the same, it cannot be doubted that many of the new young members of Congress represent millennial constituencies and concerns (especially about climate change and debt) and a reinvigorated left that definitely presents challenges to the Democratic leadership, which is more centrist on domestic and foreign policy issues and more “pragmatic” ( read: opportunistic) in its approach to legislative bargaining and electoral politics.
The tension is real. But its “dangers” have been greatly exaggerated. For, as with drama and sex, without some tension, and some friction, you have—very little to speak of.
The maneuvering over the Green New Deal is a case in point.
A little over a week ago CNN’s Chris Cilizza published a piece bearing the headline “ Nancy Pelosi just threw some serious shade at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s ‘Green New Deal .’” The piece went viral on Facebook, delighting mainstream Democrats and angering leftists. Beneath the headline, Cilizaa observed that Pelosi, when asked about the Green New Deal, responded: “It will be one of several or maybe many suggestions that we receive. The green dream, or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?”Cilizza interpreted this as “dismissiveness” intended to publicly “dis” AOC and “put her in her place.” And he is surely right that Pelosi, the 30-year veteran of the House and the first woman to ever hold the Speaker position, both has and exercises power over AOC, is not overly impressed with AOC’s celebrity, and surely has not been converted into a democratic socialist ready to embrace AOC’s ideas. At the same time, Cilizza’s piece grosly distorts the interview in question, in a way that seriously exaggerates the divide between Pelosi and her young colleague.
In fact, Cilliza lifted the Pelosi quote out of context. In the interview Pelosi defended AOC, Tlaib, and Omar from partisan attacks, stating: “You can’t worry about what the Republicans are going to say about you.” As the Salon piece points out: “Pelosi’s efforts have paid off with Ocasio-Cortez, especially. The freshmen superstar told NPR on Wednesday that Pelosi has done a really good job so far,” even as Pelosi has sidestepped one of the left’s top priorities — a ‘Green New Deal.’” Pelosi did make the “offending” statement, refusing pride of place to AOC’s proposal. But what she said was also true:“It will be one of several or maybe many suggestions that we receive.” And she made clear that she was thinking as the Democratic leader in the House, whose responsibility was to get Democrats working together, and to generate legislation that had a chance of passing in Congress.
Indeed, Pelosi, herself once a maverick, made clear that she well understood the difference between her position, and perspective, and that of her younger or newer or simply more activist colleagues, who have a different role to play: “The fact is, you are by definition as an advocate dissatisfied, relentless, and persistent. Whatever the elected are doing is a compromise, it’s not the purity of what we want.”
From a naïve activist perspective, such words might sound dismissive. But they are simply wise, and politically responsible. Everything that AOC has done thus far—including her very nuanced solidarity with activists sitting-in at Pelosi’s office, and her also nuanced and ambiguous comments about supporting primary challengers in the future, but also her support for Pelosi’s election as Speaker—indicates that she understands this, and is willing to play her part, as an activist legislator and agenda-setter pressing the Democratic center to the left by generating compelling new ideas and using the means at her disposal to promote and mobilize support for them. There is a dialectic here, a kind of “inside/outside” approach to legislative and electoral politics, an agonistic but respectful, and perhaps even exciting, collaboration.
This will not be smooth. But little that is worthwhile is smooth. Such productive tension is not a problem. It is indeed the only way for the Democrats to move forward into the future—by incorporating bold new ideas and new constituencies. The Democratic “new blood” does not need to become schooled, or rendered old before their time. They need to be embraced, listened to, argued with, and worked with. For, as Hannah Arendt understood, it is the new that gives life to politics and that makes possible what politics at its best can deliver.