Hands Off AOC.

Reply to the Slandering of a Revolutionist.

Collage of AOC-focused article headlines that criticize her. Image Description: Collage of AOC-focused article headlines that criticize her.

Summary: A deep dive into the recent criticisms of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from both the left and the right, analyzing her actions and responses in the face of growing scrutiny.

In June of 1932, Leon Trotsky penned an article from exile for the radical publication The Militant in defense of Rosa Luxemburg. Forever trolling Joseph Stalin, his former revolutionary co-conspirator turned enemy, Trotsky was responding to Stalin’s tendency to rewrite history where other revolutionaries were concerned. We can learn a lot from history and even more from attempts to revise it.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is one of the country’s most famous politicians. Scratch that, one of the most famous people who happens to be a politician. She was called an f-ing bitch on the Capitol steps by a colleague; has been continuously ridiculed by right-wing pundits; has received multiple death threats; and was even stalked by Marjorie Taylor Green before MTG was elected. Some of this is par for the course. Much of it stinks of misogyny, bigotry and racism. White women don’t receive the same treatment even from the opposition. White men certainly don’t. This type of vituperative behavior is usually reserved for public officials of color, and mostly for women of color.

But we know this.

All of this is a pretty heavy lift for the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. Out of the 435 members of the House of Representatives, why AOC? Why the fixation on the right? It’s not like she flipped a district red to blue. Her vote doesn’t count more than the other 434 members. New York City has produced its fair share of progressive politicians over the years.

This one is easy to answer. She’s smart, media savvy, empathetic, dynamic, fearless, prepared and beautiful. All of the characteristics prior to the last one are enough to drive any opponent nuts but in our shallow media culture it’s the fact that she is stunning that makes her the bête noire of white men on the right in particular. (We did an early essay on the obsession with AOC among white men on the right.) That’s just who we are as a country and to ignore it is silly. Otherwise, the right would be talking just as much about Earl Blumenauer, Congressman from Oregon.

Blumenauer’s votes and ideology ranking line up almost identically with AOC but he charts higher on GovTrack’s leadership axis because of his tenure and number of sponsored measures. He’s smart. Engaging. Fearless. He’s been calling for the legalization of marijuana since the ’90s and fiercely critical of Israel, to name just a couple of his stances.

Yeah, but he’s from Oregon, which doesn’t exactly garner much media attention.

Neither does Rome, Georgia but that’s where Marjorie Taylor Greene is from.

Okay, but by this logic are you saying MTG garners the same attention because you think she’s an attractive blonde woman?

Nope. Not the same thing at all. MTG’s fame is derived from stalking people like AOC and survivors of school shootings, spreading conspiracies, shouting at other members of Congress, calling climate change a hoax, defending Donald Trump and saying the election was stolen.

Whereas, AOC made a name for herself by upsetting an establishment candidate in the Democratic Party and as part of the so-called Squad, which ushered in a wave of both diversity and progressivism in Congress.

Slightly different origin stories.

Rationale for criticism on the right aside, what we’re addressing today is the more recent trend of criticizing AOC on the left. The center left to the far left.

A recent article in New York Magazine titled “AOC is Just a Regular Old Democrat Now” made the rounds in the liberal media establishment and found more than just a few nodding heads. Here’s an excerpt:

“Typically, when I criticize Ocasio-Cortez, the response is not to argue that she has actually acted deftly as a politician, much less that she’s demonstrated any consistency between her statements and her actions. Instead, I’m constantly told that the problem lies in expecting anything from her at all. Hey, she’s just one congresswoman! She’s hemmed in by her party and an undemocratic system! She’s constrained by capitalism! Again and again, I’ve been told that asking Ocasio-Cortez for minimal ideological consistency or, even worse, results, is simply to ask too much.”

The author builds a case by cherry picking a few key moments in AOC’s brief tenure thus far. How she cried at the sight of kids in cages at the border as a candidate and is now, according to the author, mum on the issue under Biden, despite the continuation of several Trump-era border policies. Her bougie appearance at the Met Gala that almost broke the internet when she wore a dress that had “Tax the Rich” emblazoned on the back of it. Her vote of “present” on the issue of funding Israel’s Iron Dome and tears she shed thereafter on social media. Her supposed acquiescence to Biden’s interference in the railways strike earlier in the year. And, the greatest sin of all, recently endorsing Biden for re-election on the Pod Save America podcast.

These are the main points of contention not only in this article but often repeated by critics on the left. Fair enough. Let’s take a look.

The Border Crisis

Despite the criticism in this article, AOC is on record ripping the Biden administration for “barbaric” border policies and has repeatedly pressed the administration to do more and do better including demands for pathways to citizenship, worker visas for asylum seekers, and even reparations for those harmed, among countless other statements, press conferences and support for legislation. All of which was admittedly within the system.

The Met Gala “Scandal”

AOC created quite the stir by attending the Met Gala in her “Tax the Rich” dress. So much, in fact, that she’s currently under investigation by the House Office of Congressional Ethics, investigating whether she failed to disclose gifts. The most updated reporting appears to center on whether her office took too long to reimburse vendors for any expenses related to her attending and not whether she pocketed any gifts. Whether you like or dislike the optics, her advocacy was certainly outside of the system and the handling of it is within.

Funding Israel’s Iron Dome

The decision to extend funding to Israel for its “Iron Dome” defense system has become a flashpoint among progressives. Any support for Israel, in fact, has become a litmus test for whether or not one can even be considered progressive. That’s for another day. The particular critique around this measure was that AOC voted “present” rather than voting “no.” Afterwards she expressed remorse at this decision saying she was swept up in the controversy after begging leadership to delay the vote, which they declined. But I can see how that would enrage progressives. Curious, though… how did other progressives that align with her record vote on this measure?

  • Jamie Raskin - Yea
  • Barbara Lee - Yea
  • Earl Blumenauer - Yea.
  • Jamaal Bowman - Yea
  • Pramila Jayapal - Yea

You get the fucking picture. Bottom line is you didn’t hear about these other votes. Just hers.

Quick note. There was another “present” vote on this matter. Hank “Guam might tip over” Johnson.

Railway Workers Strike

AOC joined with several other progressives to force a contract on the striking rail workers late last year. This is mostly true, though a bit more nuanced as there were two separate unions and few members seemed clear on the demands. AOC’s stance was that she believed she was representing the path forward that the workers actually favored. But this was pretty hollow and, to me at least, remains the biggest hole in her progressive bona fides. It should be noted that many of the workers’ demands were quietly met just this summer largely through back channel efforts led by none other than Bernie Sanders. Bernie did it by working beyond the headlines and within the system.

Biden Endorsement

As for the endorsement of Biden, I don’t know what to tell you. The Democratic field consists of self-help guru and author Marianne Williamson, who has never held elected office, Robert Kennedy Jr., who has never held elected office, and Joe Biden who currently holds the office. I’m pretty well on the record for my feelings regarding Williamson and Kennedy so I won’t rehash that here. The only other thing AOC could have possibly done was announce her own candidacy for president.

The Scorecard

  • AOC continues to fight for immigration reform and better treatment for families at the border and within sanctuary cities.
  • Her “present” vote was more of a statement than most other progressives made and wound up garnering more attention to the issue whether you want to admit it or not.
  • She loses on the railroad strike but as an acolyte of Bernie, who is in a much greater position of power to do these things by the way. (Hopefully she takes notes and sees what’s possible as she grows.) 
  • The Met Gala either offended your sensibilities with bad optics or it was another promotional stroke of genius to attack the elite under their own noses.
  • And just because Marianne Williamson has a progressive platform that doesn’t mean she is fit to run the country. RFK is an alt-right libertarian in disguise, barely, and if you don’t believe me on that then explain his “14” and “88” tweet. Look it up.

For a refreshing take on all AOC and the Squad have accomplished, take a look at the recent Jacobin article by Branko Marcetic. Or you can catch his appearance on Left Reckoning. The Jacobin isn’t exactly a paragon of establishment media, by the way, which is why it deserves a look.

To be clear, I’m not saying we shouldn’t be critical of certain policies, beliefs or votes. Dissent is a right and we should hold political leaders to account, especially when there is so much rot and corruption.

I think AOC, as our example today, should be held to account for how she and her colleagues played the railroad strike. In this example, as was the case with certain negotiations within the Democratic Party during the fight against Manchin and Sinema, one must also appreciate the competitive aspects of governing. Not only are they competing with well funded, often corrupt ideologues on the right, they’re fighting with well funded often corrupt ideologues in the Democratic Party who are really, really good at bare knuckle fighting.

And sometimes, the progressives are outwitted and outmatched.

But it’s not about winning all the battles, it’s how you move on. How you continue to scratch and fight and claw even if you’re smarting from losses. The alternative to being beaten is to throw a tantrum, walk out and give up. You know who does that? Babies. But real fighters dig back in. They learn from mistakes. And evolve. And grow up to keep fighting. To act like a baby and give up is to leave the system and throw bombs from the outside, but that’s not what politicians are elected to do.

To broadly claim that AOC is a careerist, or a sellout is so demonstrably false it’s absurd for the very reason that being part of the American political system is a career. And sometimes it’s not called selling out, it’s called compromising and living to fight another day. Like Bernie did with the rail workers. Like the progress made on prescription drugs. Like getting funding accomplished for renewable energy projects. All while stacking the deck in your favor, encouraging more progressives to win races across the country until you build such momentum with an authentic coalition that you eventually get what you need.

Ask LGBTQIA+ activists how long it took to get marriage equality. Read about the women’s suffrage movement. Study the work of Thurgood Marshall and the countless cases he won, chipping away at the law year after year until the Voting Rights Act was passed. Ask women’s rights activists how long it took to get Roe v. Wade codified into law.

Now think about how so many of these rights have been stripped away right under our noses because the loyal opposition never stopped fighting.

This is a war of attrition from the inside and it has been forever thus.

Now, I can sense the eye-rolling, and I get it. Activists, pundits, demonstrators, protestors. We all get to be perfect in our beliefs and unassailable in exercising our right to dissent. That’s the role of an agitator. But AOC was elected to be a part of the system, not apart from the system. She was selected to do exactly what she’s doing. Building coalitions. Learning. Generating awareness. Pulling the House caucus to the left and putting establishment Democrats on notice. And to say she’s punching above her weight in doing these things is the understatement of the century.

AOC has done more to educate young voters on how the government works than every other sitting politician for precisely the reasons I enumerated above. She’s bright, attractive, hard-working and ubiquitous in traditional and social media. And she’s done it with a steel fucking rod in her back considering the withering criticism she gets from all sides, not to mention death threats. (Earlier in my career I received a couple of those when I was a writer and I can tell you it’s unsettling, to say the least.) Now imagine you’re a young woman in today’s culture who is now one of the most recognizable faces in America walking around with the weight of that kind of pressure.

In terms of her job, even Republicans concede that she is already one of the most prepared legislators and effective interrogators in all of Congress.

Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t selected to be the protestor-in-chief of the nation. She was elected to represent a district in New York as one of 435 representatives in the country, 535 between two houses. If you’re looking for her alone to change the system or be right on every single issue that is important to you personally, that’s a you problem. That’s not her job.

As a part of this messy system, her job is to be vocal, to raise awareness, to be on the right side of history and the left side of the establishment. In fact, nowhere is she more criticized than within the establishment Democratic Party because she is so good at her job. Her original sin was taking out one of their own. But that wasn’t up to them. It was up to the voters in her district who continued to return her to her seat with astounding plurality.

Before AOC and the Squad there was Bernie. And Earl Blumenauer. They had no say, no seat at the table, no momentum. Then suddenly things changed and AOC became both the face and the lightning rod of the left movement and she delivered with grace. Her voting record is at the furthest left of the spectrum. Period. Not to mention, AOC and the Squad have done something even more important than deliver votes. They’ve modeled success and shown what’s possible to millions of Americans who look just like them. Held working class jobs. Built coalitions in their communities. Done the hard work on the ground, like Summer Lee in Pennsylvania and unlike Marianne Williamson or RFK Jr. They’ve demonstrated that you can work hard and make gains as people of color in a system designed for 400 years to oppress them.

That’s progress, which I might remind you is the root of progressivism.

When Rosa Luxemburg challenged the establishment socialists of her time she too built coalitions and fought within her parties. She challenged the likes of Kautsky in her home country and Lenin and Trotsky in Russia. She threw herself into the challenges of the day when it wasn’t yet clear whether capitalism would survive, when there was a real opportunity for a socialist revolution from Russia to Latin America. And when it became clear that the Kautsky wing was settling for reforms and the Stalinist wing in Russia was authoritarian, she left the system to attack it from outside.

And for this affront, she was murdered.

And because she was a woman and a Jew there are no statues in parks. No movies. No volumes of books about her struggles. Like many of her revolutionary contemporaries she wasn’t always right either. Even Trotsky who wrote the full-throated defense of her was critical of some of her beliefs.

Now, AOC is no Rosa Luxemburg, but neither is the United States Germany in the early 1900s. Capitalism has won the war and new tactics are needed. This system isn’t going to be torn down by any individual and there are no political parties, no industrial unions, no cooperatives or movements substantial enough to tear it down. Either it will, as some Marxists believe, ultimately tear itself down or it will be taken over from within as the other half of Marxists believe.

AOC, the Squad, Bernie. The nearly one hundred progressives in Congress today, as opposed to the handful just a decade ago, are attempting to do just that and their gains are measurable. They’ve chosen a revolutionary path that is one thousand times more difficult than being an armchair warrior. It’s not sexy but it’s a lot more effective than being shot in the head at point blank range and thrown into a river. I admire the minds and hearts of Trotsky and Luxemburg, martyrs both. But I’d prefer to keep AOC right where she is. Our woman on the inside.

Here endeth the lesson.

Max is a basic, middle-aged white guy who developed his cultural tastes in the 80s (Miami Vice, NY Mets), became politically aware in the 90s (as a Republican), started actually thinking and writing in the 2000s (shifting left), became completely jaded in the 2010s (moving further left) and eventually decided to launch UNFTR in the 2020s (completely left).