Saturday, 30 June 2018


Two stories dominated political news this week in the United States, which I was able to watch from the inside as I made a family visit, and from the inside their effects seemed to be interpreted in a curiously backward logic, which speaks to way politics is played in America.

On Tuesday, not far from where I was staying, a 28 year old woman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, scored an amazing upset in the Democratic party primary for New York’s 14th Congressional district, defeating Joe Crowley, a 20-year incumbent who was considered the front-runner to replace Nancy Pelosi as minority leader in the House, and who, at 56, was at least 20 years younger than the three Dems higher than him in the party hierarchy.

The next day, 81-year old Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the Supreme Court, effective at the end of July. Though he seemed to be tacking well to the conservative side in recent years, Kennedy was still considered the ‘swing vote’ between right and left on the nine-member court. His resignation gives President Donald Trump the chance to appoint another young die-hard rightist, in the mould of Neil Gorsuch, whose impact after being nominated last year has already been great.

The Kennedy resignation seems timed to allow Trump to make an appointment before the upcoming mid-term elections in November. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who when President Barack Obama tried to fill the seat opened by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, flat-out refused to provide the Senate’s ‘advice and consent’ as prescribed by the Constitution, thus holding the seat open until Trump could select Gorsuch, immediately announced he would this time fast-track the process. Commentators opined that the rush would be to avoid Republicans losing their majorities in an anti-Trump landslide in the mid-terms. Many of the them pointed to the Ocasio win as a sign the country was turning left.

That analysis missed the biggest point about Ocasio's win, the difference between national and local politics, particularly in today’s America. Because on the national level, Democrats would need a massive swing away from Republicans, estimated by pollsters at between eight and ten per cent nationally, to merely eke out a slight majority in the House of Representatives. This is due to the dual effects of systematic gerrymandering and intense voter repression, whose roots can be traced to the Republican focus on local politics in the 2010 midterm elections. By making huge gains in state legislatures, the party was able to dominate the redrawing of Congressional districts in the wake of the 2010 US census. By drawing districts that lumped likely Democrat voters together, they ensured their majority in the House, even when they polled fewer votes nationwide in Congressional elections.

Meanwhile, those same state legislatures were busy passing laws requiring government-issue photo ID in order to vote, and concocting schemes to defeat non-existent voter fraud by setting up registration checks designed to fail people who rented, moved, or simply wouldn’t check what looked like junk mail. With Justice Kennedy voting with the other four right-wing judges to allow virtually unlimited political spending, those who could vote were increasingly influenced by local advertising closely coordinated with national aims.
After ignoring the Ocasio campaign (the New York Times, which after al is her local paper, never ran a single article about her, though she did get mentions in election round ups), the national media jumped onto her victory to illustrate their own narratives, tied to national politics.

Ocasio had worked for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Presidential primaries, so pundits either characterised her win as the beginning of a revolution for the Democrats, proving a rleativelt radical agenda could energise their voters or else as another futile gesture which would fail on the national stage because moderation is what they see as the only means of defeating Trump. Neither view was accurate, because it overlooked the local story.

Joe Crowley was a powerful man in Congress, a successful fund-raiser (he had outspent Ocasio by a 10-1 factor even before the final two weeks of campaigning) for the Democratic national committee, and for himself and his lobbyist brother. He came up through local politics in his New York City borough, Queens, which also produced Donald Trump. He was known locally as ‘The King Of Queens, but his congressional district aslso included parts of another New York borough, The Bronx, and after 20 years in Congress, he was perceived as not representing the interests of that part of his constituency.

Ocasio capitalised on that perception. She produced a virtually homemade campaign video (you can link to it here) which went viral with over 300,000 hits in its first day. It emphasied her own roots in the community and Crowley’s distance from the voters in his home near Washington. She articulated policies which may have seemed Sandersesque to the national media, but resonated with a community of working class people, many of them immigrants. Arguing for free university education in the city may seem radical today, but it was the reality in New York for decades before Reaganomics changed our perspective of the world. Beneficiaries of the city colleges included former Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter, author Frank McCourt, designer Ralph Lauren, polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk, General Colin Powell, novelist Mario Puzo, artist Barnett Newman and many more, often themselves the children of immigrants. What was seen as necessary then is seen as radical now.

The circumstances of Ocasio’s victory cannot be replicated across America. She won a primary where fewer than 30,000 voters turned out against a complacent candidate who, for all his power was very much vulnerable. She herself will likely be more vulnerable than Crowley in a heavily-Democratic district where she may not be able to enthuse Crowley supporters. Her campaign was based on providing a strongly articulated platform that was a real alternative to big-spending politics as much as to Republican policies or indeed Trumpism.

Nationally, the Democratic party has been content to present itself as a kinder, gentler alternative to the Republicans. This is a significant difference, and it can appeal to a wider audience when articulated effectively. But underneath its appeal is the famous dictum attributed to Bill Clinton when asked where the left would go if his ‘third way’ was not enough of an alternative. ‘Where else are they going to go?’ There will not be a horde of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezes arguing with passion and courage a progressive programme and attracting those voters in the centre besieged with heavy media spending portraying them as radicals, nor will there be minority and immigrant voters battling simply to get registered and be allowed to vote. 

Following Crowley's defeat, Trump tweeted that he lost because he hadn't been respectful enough to his president. Missing the point is endemic in the American Beltway establishment, reinterepting every hiccup in their punditry's estimation in a way that will reinforce their previous convictions. Their picture of the centre fails to recognise how far to the right it has been shifted in the past four decades. The lesson of Ocasio-Cortez is not that a determined, energetic and attractive young self-proclaimed socialist is necessary to shift that paradigm within which 'liberal' is perceived as a smear. But it requires what Ocasio called the courage to stand up for the values which even a hesitant electorate can see are necessary to combat not just Trump but the modern, Koch Brothers Tea Party Christian Fundamentalist Republican Party, should it survive Trump, rather than empower him to some Erdogan-like President for Life status. Even though a look through history shows that most Supreme Court justices are Republicans when appointed, in the past many of them became bastions of liberal democratic values. Earl Warren had been Republican governor of California when Japanese were intered in concentration camps. Hugo Black had once belong to the KKK. And so on. The odds of Trump appointing anyone who might be considered a 'swing vote' by even the most accomodating mainstream pundit, or who had any human proclivity to slide that way, are very small indeed.

The mid-term elections in November will be above all a test of the nation’s acceptance of Trumpism. But it will also take place in the shadow of the nation’s quiet acquiescence to a sea-change in the political landscape. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was a ripple in the waters. But the appointment of another Gorsuch, or worse, to the Supreme Court, could be the start of a right-wing tidal wave.

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