The US is witnessing the future of politics and a new generation of leaders who are providing a new vision for the nation and resistance to the policies of Donald Trump. If the US Democratic Party is to have a future – and if American democracy itself is to have a fighting chance against the forces of authoritarianism – that future is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Ocasio-Cortez, 28, upended the New York political landscape and created an upheaval in the establishment when she defeated Joseph Crowley, a veteran member of Congress, in the Democratic primary election for the 14th congressional district of New York, which encompasses parts of Queens and Bronx counties.
Crowley, a 10-term incumbent legislator who raised $3.4 million to his challenger’s $300,000, was the fourth-ranking Democrat in the US House of Representatives and was regarded as the heir-apparent to minority leader Representative Nancy Pelosi and a serious contender for speaker of the house should Democrats regain control of the legislative body. Ocasio-Cortez has floated the idea of selecting Representative Barbara Lee as speaker.
A young Latina of Puerto Rican descent who has not held elective office, Ocasio-Cortez is a democratic socialist who advocates for a federally guaranteed job and “Medicare-For-All,” calls for tuition-free public colleges and the dismantling of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and supports Palestinian rights. She is expected to win handily in the general election, in a Democratic district that is majority people of colour and half Latino. The Bronx activist represents a new generation of bold and uncompromisingly progressive leaders, many of whom are women and people of colour who hail from grassroots social justice movements. They stand in marked contrast to an old-guard political system that has relied on corporate patronage and has failed to address the myriad social and economic maladies in the US. This, as the “all white men” of the Trump administration make decisions impacting women, and the members of racial minority groups who will constitute a majority of Americans in coming years.
It is a political season of much promise, with candidates such as community organiser Cori Bush, an ordained minister, single mother and Ferguson organiser who hopes to win a Congressional race in Missouri. Ayana Pressley, the first woman of colour elected to the Boston City Council, hopes to unseat a 10-term member of Congress. Ben Jealous, the former head of the NAACP and a Bernie Sanders supporter, is the Democratic Party nominee for governor of Maryland. Lucy McBath, the mother of gun violence victim Jordan Davis, is running for Congress in Georgia. And if Stacey Abrams is elected governor of Georgia, she would become the first African American woman to lead any US state.
Meanwhile, much is at stake in the once self-proclaimed land of the free, as the nation courts authoritarianism, and its chief executive launches trial runs in fascism, and test cases in savagery. The most salient example of Trumpian barbarism is the separation of migrant children from their parents at the Mexico border and their placement in internment camps. With reports of imprisoned children changing the diapers of babies, and immigrant toddlers as young as 3 years old ordered into court alone for their own deportation proceedings, this is what America has become.
A poll commissioned by former President George W Bush and Vice President Joe Biden found that 50 percent of Americans believe the nation is “in danger of becoming a nondemocratic, authoritarian country”. Last year, the Anne Frank Centre for Mutual Respect had already warned of “alarming parallels” between the US under Trump and Adolf Hitler’s 1930s Germany with its “escalating steps of oppression”.
With the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, Trump – who is the subject of a criminal investigation regarding Russian collusion in the 2016 presidential election and obstruction of justice – now has the opportunity to shape the high court in his image. Such a court will carry on the work it has undertaken for much of its history, which was to subvert the rights of the vulnerable and uphold the wealthy and powerful.
Thirty-six of the 41 judges Trump has appointed to the bench are conservative white people, who are known to sentence black people more harshly. Ultimately, Trump, who has shown his willingness to subvert the rule of law, is in a position to stack the Supreme Court with justices who will perpetuate Islamophobic travel bans, further erode women’s reproductive rights and eradicate labour rights, sanction voter purges and racial gerrymandering to ensure continued Republican rule, and shield their president from accountability in the probe of special counsel Robert Mueller.
These conditions underscore the grave circumstances facing American democracy, and the pressing need for millennial leaders such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to seize the reins, meet the true needs of the people and overcome the dangers of the Trump era. However, the Democratic establishment has faced criticism for being unprepared to meet the challenge of Trump. Party leadership has downplayed the power of the very young, ascendant progressives such as Ocasio-Cortez – the bold, new blood they will need to bolster voter enthusiasm and propel themselves to victory. Backed by grassroots support rather than Wall Street largesse, progressive newcomers have even accused the party of sabotaging their progressive campaigns and backing weak candidates.
Rather than target Trump, whose threat to a free society is palpable, the Democratic Party risks losing its focus with calls for civility and moderation. Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer criticized Congresswoman Maxine Waters, a firebrand progressive black legislator for urging people to confront White House officials and protest their anti-immigration stance. Waters has also called for Trump’s impeachment.
Such establishment repudiation of progressive politicians as “divisive” and “not American” reminds us of Martin Luther King, who said the greatest stumbling block for black people seeking freedom was “not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
Civility cannot save a nation of child internment camps, but audacious and creative leaders will. The energy emanating from the American political left is both exciting and crucial. Young, dynamic individuals such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez represent the future of the Democratic Party and the last chance for a nation derailed. Democrats must embrace the proliferation of social justice movements, which will provide the leaders, the support and the policy agenda necessary to rebuild and govern.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.