Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and America’s Most Liberal Generation

David Freedlander’s “The AOC Generation” offers a picture of a growing electorate that may be changing American politics forever.

nonfiction

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the campaign trail, 2019.

Credit…Christopher Lee for The New York Times

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  • Published March 29, 2021Updated March 31, 2021

THE AOC GENERATION
How Millennials Are Seizing Power and Rewriting the Rules of American Politics
By David Freedlander

Perhaps the most striking political change that occurred during the stormy reign of Donald J. Trump is one his devotees utterly abhorred: the growth of a sizable left outside and inside the Democratic Party. Young radicals and middle-aged white suburban dwellers both flocked to “the Resistance,” under whose militant rubric one could do anything from marching in a demonstration to starting a Facebook page to canvassing for a favored candidate. During his second run for the White House even more than during his first, Bernie Sanders inspired millions of young people of all races to imagine living in a nation with strong unions and a robust welfare state instead of the “neoliberal” order long favored by leaders of both major parties. And, for many Berniecrats, socialism became the name of their desire instead of a synonym for state tyranny.

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The journalist David Freedlander’s slim new book, “The AOC Generation,” is a keenly observant narrative, albeit an entirely sympathetic one, about the young women and men most responsible for the upsurge on the left that infused the Democrats with their abundant energy, cleverness and grievances. At the center of his story is Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who may need no introduction but still might blush to read this glowing portrayal by a reporter who lives in her New York City district and appears to have interviewed only people who share his sentiments.

Freedlander calls the congresswoman, who is a wizard of social media, the “avatar of this new generation.” He describes his heroine as an “electric” orator and quotes one of her college friends, who recalls, “Everybody I knew was in love with her.” He interviews a Democrat who, after returning home from a gathering he attended with A.O.C., told his wife, “I think I met the future president of the United States.” On occasion, Freedlander’s terms of acclaim are reminiscent of how film magazines used to gush over Hollywood stars. A.O.C., he beams, “is an atmosphere all to herself, and it has become impossible to look away.” Dazzled by her radiance, he neglects the fact that, as a congresswoman in just her second term, she wields no institutional clout.

Fortunately, Freedlander looks away long enough to offer a vivid report on the growing leftist infrastructure for which A.O.C.’s election in 2018 was merely one step on the anticipated road to a party and, perhaps, a nation transformed. He moves briskly from describing the people who initiated such electoral vehicles as Brand New Congress, Indivisible and Justice Democrats in the wake of Trump’s victory to upstart media outlets like The Intercept and Jacobin and the Young Turks and on to the think tank Data for Progress. He explains how Sanders’s two presidential campaigns turned Democratic Socialists of America from a remnant of aging veterans of the 1960s New Left into a dynamo of close to 100,000 members. Inevitably, growth so rapid has also generated ideological skirmishes between more practical and more utopian comrades.

What binds together most activist members of this generation is a mixture of populist anger and political savoir-faire. On the one hand, they rage at the “big-money donors” and “establishment players” in the Democratic Party, who allegedly have stood in the way of measures to decrease economic inequality and reverse climate change. Yet they also reject the dogmatic, sectarian thinking that often plagued past leftists who, in Daniel Bell’s words, “could only act, and then inadequately, as the moral, but not political” force “in immoral society.”

In working to embed a growing social-democratic faction within one of America’s major parties, these activists have demonstrated a strategic realism that their progenitors in the old Socialist Party of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas never possessed. After Sanders came close to winning the 2016 Democratic nomination, Freedlander writes, “leftists realized that if they wanted power, and if they wanted to enact the policies they purported to believe, they would need to engage in political fights, and more importantly, they would need to start winning them.”

Freedlander’s book is informative as an in-house account, yet it fails to take on the difficult but inescapable question of how the “A.O.C. generation” might actually “seize” power and “rewrite the rules.” Left-wing Democrats have built a solid constituency in deep blue districts and cosmopolitan cities. Most of their prominent figures are college-educated and take the virtues of cultural tolerance and racial justice for granted. Although Ocasio-Cortez was serving up drinks in a Manhattan bar when she decided to run for Congress, she grew up in a prosperous suburb, attended a good private university, writes poetry and spent her junior year in Niger, where she counseled expectant mothers and also learned how to sand surf. How will she and her allies persuade Americans who are wary of their background, their image or their ideas to warm up to their programs?

Michael Harrington, the influential socialist thinker and organizer who died in 1989, famously worked to create “the left wing of the possible.” Under President Biden, insurgent Democrats will have to decide what is and is not possible in a party they have nudged left on issues like union rights and climate change but that still must rise or fall with a coalition that includes both voters who admire Ocasio-Cortez and those who are willing to keep a coal-state centrist like Joe Manchin in the Senate.

Pragmatic leftists do have one advantage over their intraparty rivals: the confidence that the future belongs to them. “Those of us in our 20s or younger, just coming into the electorate now, I don’t think people are ready for us,” Sean McElwee, a founder of Data for Progress, told Freedlander. “We could grow much more conservative over time and we would still be the most liberal generation ever polled.”

Michael Kazin is a professor of history at Georgetown University and an emeritus editor of Dissent. He is completing a history of the Democratic Party that will be published next year.

THE AOC GENERATION
How Millennials Are Seizing Power and Rewriting the Rules of American Politics
By David Freedlander
232 pp. Beacon Press. $25.95.

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From left: Harriet Tubman, Frances Seward and Martha Coffin Wright. Entwining these three asymmetrical lives as deftly as Dorothy Wickenden does in “The Agitators,” proves illuminating.

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