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AOC's searing criticism of Democrats is insightful

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's New Yorker interview is packed with insights on Democrats' missteps on crime and Build Back Better.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has done something extraordinarily rare for a politician: given an insightful and interesting interview.

In a wide-ranging conversation with The New Yorker’s David Remnick, the firebrand progressive from New York shared her thoughts on everything from overcoming hopelessness as an activist to the backlash over her Met gala dress to Republicans’ war on voting with an eloquence and depth we rarely see in an interview with an elected official.

Ocasio-Cortez explains how groupthink can develop within the caucus around a desperation for quick wins that causes institutional drift.

But what stands out most is Ocasio-Cortez’s analysis of the shortcomings of her own party — one she’s always had some sharp disagreements with from the left but has caucused with on most major legislation during her brief tenure in Congress.

Top Democrats tend to undermine Ocasio-Cortez’s political ideology by characterizing it as at least in part a luxury of having a progressive constituency, with a district that covers parts of Queens and the Bronx. But what Ocasio-Cortez does in this interview is flip that narrative on its head, sketching out how the Democrats’ hypersensitivity to media narratives, concern with short-term wins and all-consuming focus on protecting vulnerable seats can also crowd out what it takes to build longer-term gains for the party.

There are a few passages in which Ocasio-Cortez does a nice job laying out candidly how she believes her colleagues are failing to meet society’s most pressing challenges. But instead of recycling the usual fare about corruption in the Washington swamp (not necessarily a wrong diagnosis, but certainly a cliché and incomplete one), she instead points to another idea — herd thinking within the party:

[T]here is so much reliance on this idea that there are adults in the room, and, in some respect, there are. But sometimes to be in a room with some of the most powerful people in the country and see the ways that they make decisions—sometimes they’re just susceptible to groupthink, susceptible to self-delusion.

When Remnick asks Ocasio-Cortez to elaborate further, she explains how groupthink can develop within the caucus around a desperation for quick wins that causes institutional drift from the bigger policy picture. And she delves into how the Democrats’ decision to decouple the passing of infrastructure legislation and the Build Back Better Act — the massive social spending plan that constitutes the bulk of Biden’s primary policy agenda — was driven by a media-manufactured desperation for a quick win. Her account is worth quoting at length:

The Progressive Caucus puts up a fight, and then somewhere around October there comes a critical juncture. The President is then under enormous pressure from the media. There’s this idea that the President can’t “get things done,” and that his Presidency is at risk. It’s what I find to be just a lot of sensationalism. However, the ramifications of that were being very deeply felt. And you have people running tough races, and it’s “he needs a win.” …

And people really just talk themselves into thinking that passing the infrastructure plan on that day, in that week, is the most singular important decision of the Presidency, more than voting rights, more than the Build Back Better Act itself, which contains the vast majority of the President’s actual plan. You’re kind of sitting there in the room and watching people work themselves up into a decision. It’s a fascinating psychological moment that you’re watching unfold.

As we now know, Biden’s speedily signing the infrastructure bill didn’t revive his tumbling approval ratings. And the act of passing it ahead of Build Back Better (predictably) gave the party less leverage over conservative Senate Democratic holdouts Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema when it came to settling on the provisions of the more important bill; the fate of even a vastly reduced version of Build Back Better is now very much up in the air. As that process has stalled out, the hugely effective child tax credit that Democrats meant to renew with Build Back Better has expired, dealing a blow to Democrats and providing a gift to Republicans, polling suggests.

Ocasio-Cortez explained in her interview that lawmakers like her who hail from deeply blue districts are criticized as out of touch in debates about legislative priorities because they don’t have to walk the tightrope that Democrats in more competitive districts and states do. But she argues that taken to extremes, that outlook entails reneging on policy promises and doing what it takes to maintain an engaged voter base. “What a lot of people have yet to recognize is that the motivations and the sense of investment and faith in our democracy and governance from people in communities like mine also determine majorities,” she said. “They also determine the outcomes of statewide races and Presidential races.”

She’s right — while it’s perfectly reasonable to care about not alienating moderates in the few remaining competitive districts, it's also critical to make sure the base feels heard and rewarded to keep it motivated. Presidential races can be won or lost based on keeping the base excited enough to vote, and the outcome of competitive senate races can hinge on a motivated base. If quick wins entirely eclipse the big wins that foster trust and loyalty, it could be a Pyrrhic victory.

One other perceptive point Ocasio-Cortez made in her interview was about the way Democrats have been held hostage by panic over a backlash to criminal justice reform. She described being “disappointed” in the party’s leadership and her colleagues who have chosen not just to reject the “defund the police” demand from progressive advocates for police reform but have, in fact, sprinted in the opposite direction. “Our job is to be able to engage in that conversation [about ‘defund the police’], to read what is happening, and to be able to develop a vision and translate it into a course of action,” she said. “All too often, I believe that a lot of our decisions are reactive to public discourse instead of responsive to public discourse.”

That last point about reacting versus responding is an enlightening distinction — and on crime, Dems are succumbing to reacting. In response to increased crime rates, the Democrats have tacked to the right on policing in recent weeks and are holding up New York Mayor Eric Adams as a paragon of police policy while he actually focuses on unraveling progressive police reforms. The moves make a mockery of Democrats' promises to focus on substantive criminal justice reform and display a fearfulness about Republican attacks over crime that will carry on unabated no matter what the Democrats do. The Democrats are in a difficult position, but the answer is decidedly not the Adams playbook of doing things like trying to roll back bail reform and reviving some version of stop-and-frisk, which look tough but are ineffective.

Ocasio-Cortez’s interview provides us with something unusual: a politician with a left-wing movement background reflecting on both the benefits and the limitations of trying to work within Congress. While I think Ocasio-Cortez could be doing more with her progressive bloc known as “the squad” to apply pressure to the Democrats' legislative agenda, it’s still useful to see someone draw from firsthand experience to reflect on her party’s weaknesses and critique it from within. If more Democrats thought like her, the party would be in a better place, and delivering better policies.