“Last February, I was working as a waitress in Downtown Manhattan at a taqueria,” freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told a crowd of 25,000 Bernie Sanders supporters in New York City on Saturday afternoon, revisiting a story that played a major role in her own campaign. “I worked shoulder to shoulder with undocumented workers who often worked harder and hardest for the least amount of money. I was on my feet working 12 hour days, with no structured breaks.” She didn’t have health care and she wasn’t earning a living wage, she said, both of which she said she was convinced she didn’t deserve.
Her perspective began to change while working as a volunteer organizer on Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, she explained: “It wasn’t until I heard of a man by the name of Bernie Sanders that I began to question and assert and recognize my inherent value as a human being that deserves health care, housing, and a living wage.”
In the year since she took office, Ocasio-Cortez has fought hard for this vision—communicating it in plain language that can feel electrifying and refreshing coming from a member of Congress—and has become for others what she says Sanders was for her: a reminder that we deserve better than we often get.
In this way, Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement of Sanders makes total sense. A shared vision for policy, sure, but also a shared sense of how movements work, grow, and sustain themselves. Which is why she didn’t just endorse Sanders—she endorsed the movement that has to build beyond the presidency and outlast him.
Still, a number of people in and around political journalism expressed surprise at her decision to endorse him. Perhaps the most galling example of this was the now-deleted tweet from Jane Eisner, the director of academic affairs at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, who offered the following in response to Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar’s endorsements of Sanders: “I find it fascinating that women of color overlook female and minority candidates to endorse a white guy. Is ‘identity politics’ over? Is ideology more important than race and gender? Genuinely curious.”
That a white woman in academia would find brown women prioritizing their politics over surface-level identifiers to be “fascinating” is a jarring reminder of how, despite endless news cycles dissecting Ocasio-Cortez’s every move and endless scrutiny of Ilhan Omar, many of the powerful people who claim “expertise” about our politics clearly aren’t listening to women like Ocasio-Cortez and Omar when they speak. Both are more than just members of the so-called Squad, more than right-wing nightmare fuel. Both have been aligned with Sanders about who they’re fighting for, but also how they’re fighting.
Ocasio-Cortez, a democratic socialist, is unsatisfied with relying on mere reformism to solve problems: better to create new systems than build on top of broken ones. This ethos is the heart of the very “revolution” Sanders champions—and almost every major proposal Ocasio-Cortez has championed in Congress.
“We need to build a mass movement, centered on the working class, the poor, the middle class, one that is actively anti-racist, that is rooted in principles of universality,” Ocasio-Cortez said at the Sanders rally. “Everybody has a right to healthcare, everybody has a right to an education.”
But this vision goes beyond Sanders, and Ocasio-Cortez and Omar’s endorsements of Sanders feel like building the future of the movement that will carry it out. Ocasio-Cortez has already sponsored the sweeping Green New Deal, introduced her Just Society platform, and has defended the prison abolition movement. These are all just the beginning of the work ahead, but transformed the landscape of how we talk about these issues and imagine what might come next.
Sanders can boast of good health following his heart attack all he wants, but the aging senator will not be around forever. Ocasio-Cortez and Omar have graciously grabbed the baton and are willing to take the movement forward. Part of that work is rejecting the kind of incrementalism that many Democrats favor. This was also on display in the response to Ocasio-Cortez’s speech.
Neera Tandeen of the Center for American Progress took particular issue with a moment during Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement speech in which she said, “When I was a child that relied on CHIP so that I could see a doctor, Bernie Sanders fought for a single-payer healthcare system.”
“@HillaryClinton was a key architect of CHIP,” Tandeen tweeted. “I worked on its implementation with her. I’m so glad it provided health care to @AOC and millions more.”
“I’m deeply thankful for Sec. Clinton’s leadership and role in the establishment of CHIP,” Ocasio-Cortez replied. “I am also looking forward to fighting for an America that treats healthcare as a right for *all* people, regardless of their age, income, or background, with #MedicareForAll.”
This is what it means to build a movement: Not only rejecting the don’t go too far, don’t go too fast politics that have dominated Democratic thinking for decades, but also refusing to be so committed to past reforms to the point of inaction. It’s reminiscent of Joe Biden insisting that we improve upon Obamacare instead of opting for Medicare-for-All, as if seeking a better solution to the nation’s healthcare crisis is an insult to the good that Obamacare provided to those who could afford it. Similarly, Tanden acting as though the main takeaway of Ocasio-Cortez’s praise of Sanders’s decades-long commitment to single-payer should have been graciousness toward Clinton’s advocacy of CHIP—a program for uninsured children—plays directly into this problem. CHIP is a vital program—and there’s still so much more to be done. It’s time to move forward with a more ambitious vision of universal programs. To get caught up in incremental victories from the past is a form of inertia that this movement and that this nation’s most vulnerable frankly do not have time for.
This is about fighting for the vision you want, not the fearful vision you believe—if you ask nicely, or compromise just enough—might be small enough to get.
“Bernie Sanders did not do these things because they were popular,” Ocasio-Cortez said of Sanders’s progressive history and voting record. “He fought for these aims, and these ends when they came at the highest political cost in America.”
And that’s what Ocasio-Cortez is doing. She is a freshman Congresswoman who has gone head-to-head with Nancy Pelosi, one of the most powerful women in the country and most respected women in the Democratic Party (and received a mountain of blowback for it). Those who believed Ocasio-Cortez would endorse Elizabeth Warren over Sanders thought that Ocasio-Cortez valued political calculation, polls, and a friendly lunch date over her principles. But if this endorsement and her short congressional tenure have taught us anything, it’s that Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t do something to be popular, she does something because she feels it’s right. She sees a future in the movement building around Sanders’s candidacy, and she’s decided to fight for it.