Alejandra Ocasio-Cortez. 9Photo: Handout)

For progressive Americans – and there are many of us – a recent bright spot in the growing gloom of life under President Donald Trump was the June 26th primary election victory of Alejandra Ocasio-Cortez over Rep. Joe Crowley in New York City. Ocasio-Cortez, who hopes to represent the 14th district of the Bronx and Queens in Congress, is a Puerto Rican born in the United States. She has considerable experience in grassroots organizing, despite being only 28 years old. A Democratic Socialist, she is very much a political heir to Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, for whom she worked as an organizer in 2016. Congratulating her on her victory last month, Sanders claimed that “She took on the entire local Democratic establishment in her district and won a very strong victory. She demonstrated once again what progressive grassroots politics can do!” Ocasio-Cortez enjoys wide and enthusiastic support in her district, and, barring a scandal or a calamity, she will almost certainly be elected to Congress in November.

Ocasio-Cortez is a breath of fresh air in our stale and stultifying political climate. She is not beholden to the special interests, banks, and financial institutions that have captured nearly all Democratic politicians for the last four decades. Notably, she is pro-Palestinian, a stance that usually spells defeat for any politician aspiring to national office. In May, following the Israeli Army’s killing of over 60 Palestinians participating in the Great March of Return, Ocasio-Cortez tweeted “This is a massacre. I hope my peers have the moral courage to call it such. No state or entity is absolved of mass shootings of protesters. There is no justification. Palestinian people deserve basic human dignity, as anyone else. Democrats can’t be silent about this anymore.”

Ocasio-Cortez defeated the ten-term Crowley, Democratic Caucus Chair and a contender for Speaker of the House to succeed Nancy Pelosi, by nearly 15 points in the primary election. Pelosi and Crowley are the key centrists in the Democratic party in Congress, and Ocasio-Cortez’s upset win has sent shock waves through the Democratic leadership at a time when splits are deepening and widening in the Democratic base across the United States.

Donald Trump’s surprising victory over Democratic presidential candidate Hilary Rodham Clinton in 2016 has spawned a variety of theories. Some in the Democratic leadership point to Russian involvement and possible vote tampering. Others note that Clinton was a decidedly uninspiring candidate with too narrow a base–albeit a wealthy and influential one. Perhaps most detrimental to the unity of the Democratic Party is the theory that Bernie Sanders split the vote, even after he had lost the nomination to Clinton at the 2016 Democratic Convention. Sanders’ base was very enthusiastic; young urban voters and minorities were particularly engaged and energized. Compared to audiences at Clinton’s rallies, the crowds at Sanders’ rallies were immense, voluble, and lively. All of these theories are plausible, and all demonstrate how dramatically the Democratic centrists were blind-sided by Trump’s victory. The question now is, have they regained their vision? If not, the midterm congressional elections are the Democrats to lose.

Clinton, the corporate candidate, was backed by Wall Street, centrist liberal academics and journalists, and the wealthy and professional classes on the East and West coasts. Many of her high-profile supporters, such as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, seemed to support her not only for her policies and undisputed political acumen, but also and simply because she was the first female candidate for president. Yet, Clinton did not receive the majority of women’s votes. Paradoxically, suburban and rural women voted for Trump, whose treatment of women has been abysmal, to say the least.

Many Democratic voters simply stayed home on election day, either because they assumed Clinton would win easily, or because they were still angry that the Democratic National Committee had fought unfairly against their preferred candidate, Bernie Sanders. Emotions ran high after the 2016 Democratic Convention, and many on the left of the Democratic spectrum might not return to the fold in the upcoming midterm elections.

A decade ago, when the charismatic Barack Obama was the Democrat’s candidate, the Republican Party was in disarray. By the time Obama had finished his first term, there seemed to be two Republican Parties: The far-right “Tea Party,” and traditional Republicans who identified themselves as “fiscally conservative and socially moderate.” The latter are currently a very rare species in Congress. Now, it is the Democrats who are in disarray. It is no exaggeration to say that there are now two Democratic Parties, the cautious (and increasingly out of touch) establishment on one hand, and progressives on the other, largely mirroring the rift between supporters of Clinton and Sanders in 2016.

With only four months to go before election day on November 6th, the Democratic leadership is focused on unifying their base, i.e., encouraging progressives to be “realistic” and to accommodate to a more centrist stance. As part of an on-going political civility debate, centrist Democrats are criticizing progressive Democrats such as Rep. Maxine Waters of California, who has called on all Americans to confront and question Trump administration officials in public. In response, Trump supporters have intimated that Waters should be assassinated. Responding to this crisis, New York Senator Charles (Chuck) Schumer condemned such threats, but added that Rep. Waters was also out of line for encouraging Americans to confront Trump’s staff personally.

Decrying lively democratic debate and active citizen involvement in a time of growing tyranny and corruption is not a good recipe for political change. The Democratic leadership is completely out of touch with those who most need them to stand up and speak out. If the Democrats continue pleading for unity, rather than expanding their base to incorporate and respond to the disaffected masses who supported Sanders in 2016, Ocasio-Cortez might be a very lonely voice in Congress.

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