What Are Bernie and AOC Doing?

On the left's current crisis of leadership

The left is floundering. As with most crises of the soul, there’s no single cause to blame or bemoan. The predicament of the socialist project in the United States can be attributed in part to the pandemic, in part to the replacement of a galvanizing force in the White House (the world-historic villain Donald Trump) with a stultifying one (the human-shaped lump of oatmeal Joe Biden), and in part to a constellation of other things. But in any case, a symptom of the left’s spiritual disease is the fecklessness of our most prominent progressive politicians. 

Bernie Sanders the folk hero is MIA. The most famous socialist in the United States no longer sounds like much of a socialist. Maybe that’s too harsh—Bernie has been carrying the red banner longer than many leftists have been alive. Still, it’s fair to say that he doesn’t talk like a socialist at certain times in certain places, and these instances tend to be quite prominent. Like when Sanders went on Ezra Klein’s New York Times podcast to discuss Biden’s record so far:

[You] had a president who was a moderate Democrat throughout his time in the Senate, who had the courage to look at the moment and say, you know what? The future of American democracy is at stake, tens of millions of people are struggling economically. They’re really in pain. Our kids are hurting. Seniors are hurting. I’ve got to act boldly. And Biden deserves credit for that.

Let’s put aside the question of whether Biden’s signature piece of legislation—the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which did lessen the immediate financial strain on many people while also delivering piles of cash to the private insurance companies and landlords responsible for much of that strain—was a work of exceptional courage. It’s not unreasonable for Sanders to give Biden credit for the bill’s good bits. Biden also deserves to be credited for refusing to cancel student loan debt, declining to shut down the illegal Dakota Access Pipeline, and misleading the public about U.S. military support for dictators, among other things Sanders didn’t mention. Of course, it’s absurd to expect Sanders to stand before the New York Times’  massive audience and rattle off a list of his good friend’s shortcomings. Ever since he conceded to Biden last April, Bernie seems genuinely dedicated to the cause of unity. A détente between the two camps has been reached: Sanders can yell about the billionaires on his own time, so long as he occasionally stands beneath the spotlight to deliver Biden-friendly soundbites, which can then be packaged into glowing headlines that bolster the image of Biden as progressive savior. Bernie is holding up his end of the bargain so far.  

In his new role as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Sanders plays the same role (wittingly or otherwise) as Noam Chomsky each election year: a respected voice who can help keep the left in line during key moments, and then be safely ignored once the door of change-opportunity is closed. It’s been jarring to watch Sanders vaporize the credibility he accumulated over decades in a matter of months. Consider his comments after Biden’s inauguration, when there was still a chance the new administration would send out the $2,000 relief checks that Democrats had been promising (and which were the main reason the party had just achieved control of the Senate). “You can’t campaign on a set of issues,” said Sanders, ”and then after the election, when you get in power, say, ‘oh well, you know what, we’re changing our minds.’ That’s not the way it works. We made promises to the American people and we’re going to keep those promises.” 

Not only did the Democrats not keep those promises—even a novice con artist would’ve been skittish about pulling a bait-and-switch as egregious as the means-tested $1,400 checks that eventually went out—but Sanders amplified the Biden administration’s messaging on this act of deception. “The $1,400 direct payments in the American Rescue Plan will mean the difference between despair and dignity for millions of people in our country,” said Sanders in early March. “Finally, our government is responding to the pain of working people.” Considering that the average monthly rent in the United States is over $1,100, and the average monthly cost of feeding one person is nearly $350, the most generous interpretation of Bernie’s comment is that he had no clue what he was talking about. 

The transformation of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from fearless upstart to bumbling defender of the establishment has been just as disheartening. Perhaps even more so, since she is widely regarded as the future of the left and the most effective socialist recruiter in the country. She is arguably the most rhetorically gifted left-leaning politician in living memory. Ever since her election to Congress in 2018, AOC has been praised for her ability to reach people who don’t care about politics. But it’s getting increasingly hard to argue that the content of her messages is helpful to the cause of transformational change.

AOC has long attracted criticism for her fence-straddling stances on important issues. Some supporters say that her perceived deference to Democratic elites—like when she said that although replacing Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer is nice in theory, in practice it would allow “nefarious forces at play to fill that vacuum with something even worse”—is a sign of her political savvy. Power in Washington is built on personal relationships, the argument goes, and perhaps AOC is simply trying to make more friends than enemies. That might in fact be the case. But the centrists she’s courting have made it clear that they view any move to the left as a threat to the party’s ability to win future elections. It’s hard to envision a scenario where centrists come to their senses and decide that being pushed toward socialism isn’t such a bad thing. Fellow congresswoman Katie Porter has a much less radical reputation than AOC, but even she was stripped of most of her power for agitating the Democrats’ corporate backers. To her fans, AOC is trying to catch flies with honey instead of vinegar. To others, she appears oblivious to the fact that those buzzing insects are actually hornets who are mad as hell that their hive has been poked (and who are more interested in defending their territory than ceding or sharing it).  

Some leftists’ opinions of AOC are even more scathing—in their view, she’s little more than a “sheepdog” politician who uses the language of progressivism to lure disaffected voters back into the Democratic Party fold (similar criticisms have been levied against Sanders as well). Often such critiques highlight AOC’s focus on issues related to race and gender. As a recent article on the World Socialist Web Site put it, “Ocasio-Cortez adds a noxious dose of identity politics to the old Democratic trick of presenting left-wing opponents as aiding the right.” This view ignores the many ways in which identity politics can be a huge benefit to the left. Even worse, in some cases these critiques have undeniable roots in racism and/or misogyny. A number of AOC’s staunchest defenders, much like Vice President Kamala Harris' Khive, use this (accurate) observation to declare that bigotry is the real reason people find fault with AOC. The argument is powerful for two reasons: sometimes it is clearly true, and the rest of the time it can’t be disproved. Someone might claim their mistrust of AOC is the cumulative result of watching her do things like praise Nancy Pelosi as the “mama bear” of the Democratic Party (despite Pelosi’s longstanding opposition to police accountability, Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, or curtailing American militarism); decline to throw her full support behind the only socialist presidential candidate in “the most important election of our lifetime;” or help Biden deflect credible accusations of sexual assault by saying it was “a messy moment” and “not clear-cut.” But the possibility remains that citing these aspects of AOC’s record is just a cover for more sinister motivations. Until we have the technology to peer within other people’s hearts, we can never be sure. 

Still, it’s hard to look at AOC’s words and actions over the past year and remain optimistic about her as an advocate for some major left policy goals. Her recent refusal to help force a floor vote on Medicare for All was unsurprising, since she was working to temper expectations about radical changes to the U.S. healthcare system even when Sanders was the presidential frontrunner. “The worst-case scenario? We compromise deeply and we end up getting a public option,” Ocasio-Cortez told the Huffington Post in February 2020. “Is that a nightmare? I don’t think so.” (She might be right, but that is clearly not the worst-case scenario, which is the continuation of the present nightmare.) What was surprising was AOC’s newfound subtlety on the topic of immigration policy. When Biden was no longer able to suppress the release of photos of children sleeping under foil blankets in overcrowded facilities during a pandemic, AOC used her massive platform to cover for the administration. “I don’t want to excuse any of this,” she said, before excusing much of it. “What’s happening here is not the same as what happened during the Trump administration, when they took babies out of the arms of their mothers.” It’s unclear whether the 15,000+ children currently being detained in “pods” (not cages) take much comfort in this. 

Perhaps the clearest illustration of AOC’s metamorphosis is her about-face on Palestinian human rights. As chronicled by Ali Abunimah in the Electronic Intifada, the last three years have seen AOC go from an unapologetic critic of Israeli war crimes—“”This is a massacre. I hope my peers have the moral courage to call it as such… Democrats can’t be silent about this anymore,” she said in 2018 after Israeli snipers killed dozens of protestors in the occupied Gaza Strip—to someone who described their vision for “peace between Israelis and Palestinians” by saying:

*Note: In most cases, transcribing a person’s speech in its raw form—i.e. with all the “ums” and “ahs” intact—is frowned upon because it can be interpreted as an attempt to discredit the speaker (sportswriters in particular are notorious for this). I think this is a reasonable position to take. However, I chose to include the unedited version of AOC’s speech below because I think the contrast between the clarity of her previous statements and the incoherence of this one is relevant and notable:

What this really is about is a question, more than anything else, about process. And so we really need to make sure that, um, we are valuing a process where all parties are respected and have, you know, a lot of equal, um, opportunity, to really make sure we negotiate in good faith, et cetera. That being said, you know, I think there’s… there’s this central issue of, um, uh, settlements. Because if we—if the “what” that has been decided on is to stay, then the action of settlements is… it’s not the “how” to get to that “what.” And so, you know, I think that’s a central thing we need to make sure that, um, we center and that we value, um, Jewish, and… and… rather Israeli… um, uh, ahhhh… we value Israeli… the… the… safety and the human rights of Israelis. We value the safety and the human rights of Palestinians in that process that is similar and that, uh, on… on… um, equal footing. And so all of that is extremely important in that process.

Here it’s worth mentioning that the Israeli settlements to which AOC refers (1) have been denounced by the United Nations as a “flagrant violation of international law,” (2) are bases for settlers who murder Palestinians with near impunity, and (3) are integral to Israel’s publicly-stated plans for annexing the West Bank and purging it of Palestinians. If “the ‘what’ that has been decided on is [for the settlements] to stay,” as AOC claims, it appears neither the international legal community nor the people being ethnically cleansed were consulted. 

To be fair, both Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez have continued to do good work in other areas. They seem like they really do care about people—regardless of what you think about their policy choices, it’s hard to argue they’re irredeemable, power-hungry monsters. Bernie has been an outspoken advocate for the PRO Act, which could make it easier for some workers to form unions. He raised $2 million for coronavirus relief efforts after his mittens meme went viral. AOC has criticized Amazon for its dreadful working conditions. She also raised almost $5 million to help Texans impacted by recent winter storms. It’s disingenuous to suggest there’s no difference between corporate Democrats and the AOC-Bernie wing of the party.

But iIt’s equally disingenuous to say Bernie, AOC, and other progressive politicians are doing enough given the circumstances. For as much as the U.S. left praises decentralized, bottom-up movements as the real vehicles for change, the truth is we need heroes too. In particular, we need heroes who wield real power—whether in the legislature or the streets. 

The idea that we just have to mobilize and organize is a fashionable one on the left. It feels practical, strategic, and (most of all) achievable. During a year of disappointments, leftist organizers and activists have won some genuine victories. Thanks to their efforts, the politicians who poisoned Flint’s water are finally facing criminal charges. New Yorkers convicted of marijuana-related misdemeanors will have their records automatically expunged. Some Google employees now have a union. These are just a few examples of real wins that will have positive impacts on the lives of many people. But isolated triumphs are not a substitute for transformational changes to the country’s political, economic, and legal systems. “You don’t get to the moon by climbing a tree,” as basketball legend Sam Hinkie once said.

We desperately need to get to the moon, metaphorically speaking. In a more literal sense, we need to ensure we don’t need to get to the moon in order to escape a dying planet. The countdown to climate collapse has accelerated in the last year—the Amazon rainforest is now producing more greenhouses gases than it absorbs. The melting of polar ice caps has become irreversible. Wars over drinking water are no longer the stuff of dystopian fiction but an inevitable fact of life in the near future, according to Kamala Harris. These planet-wide catastrophes can’t be solved just by groups of citizens banding together with their neighbors and co-workers. They can’t be addressed over the course of decades rather than years. Problems of such scale and suddenness can only be addressed by pulling the legislative levers of power, and right now there are few progressive politicians who seem up to the task.

Leaders might be nothing without movements behind them, but movements need leaders to articulate a clear vision and inspire hope that the vision can be achieved. People respond to people more than abstract ideas, no matter how noble those ideas may be. That’s why organizers like Jane McAveley stress the importance of identifying “organic leaders” who “[act] as catalysts” for power-building movements. Without such leaders, a crucial component of the formula for success is missing. Sooner or later the vacuum that results from their absence will cause inertia and infighting, and any momentum gained up to that point will dissipate—the fizzling of the Occupy and the anti-Iraq War movements being two of the most recent and obvious examples. 

As Bernie and AOC settle into their roles as domestic ambassadors for the Biden administration, there are no obvious candidates to replace them as leaders of the U.S. left. No one has given a big picture answer to the question: “so what does the left do now?” Nobody is standing up to articulate a comprehensive vision for change that goes much beyond tugging Biden’s sleeve and hoping he’ll be willing to compromise more often. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, author of the Medicare for All Act, has punted on her own idea—as a recent profile in TIME put it, Jayapal’s “continued influence in D.C. depends on her ability to convince her caucus that compromise and incremental gains can sometimes be the best way forward.” John Fetterman, the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania whose humor and hulking presence won him a national following, is probably no longer viable at that level after his lackluster response to reports that he pulled on a gun on a Black jogger in 2013. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib is busy claiming that symbolic statements about human rights are making a “huge difference” even as the White House goes on the record to say how little it cares. Fellow progressives in the House of Representatives like Ilhan Omar and Ro Khanna have voiced “disappointment” with the Biden administration’s lies about COVID relief and raising the minimum wage. But more substantial forms of opposition don’t seem to be in the works. 

Despite the underwhelming performance of progressive politicians, many serious leftists hesitate to criticize them past a certain mildly exasperated point. They’re the best we have, after all, and most just got into office. If we’re too hard on them, future progressive candidates could struggle to spark public enthusiasm. As Ryan Grim of the Intercept put it, “Insurgent Democrats had their first big upsets in 2018, sworn in in 2019. [It’s] April 2021 and people are bored of it because we don’t yet have Medicare for All. I wonder if this is widespread enough it’ll make it harder for new candidates to compete.” And since many newly-elected progressives are women and/or people of color who face enormous amounts of hatred and abuse from the right and center (and the left too, on occasion), it’s understandable why people who pride themselves on their moral principles would rather avoid that unwelcome epistemic company.

But there may be another reason why we’d rather not acknowledge how the left’s leaders are failing us. Sarah Jones of Intelligencer has written eloquently about the “year of lost opportunities” in the wake of COVID and Trump’s self-destruction. Thirteen months ago, it seemed possible—probable, even—that humanity stood on the brink of a new era. Twelve months ago, that hope had faded. But the days that followed brought glimmers of promise. Historic uprisings across the United States seemed to signal that it was impossible to suppress demands for racial justice any more. Grotesque accumulations of wealth by the world’s richest people felt like a sign that the gospel of capitalism could no longer be preached with a straight face. Hundreds of thousands of people dying alone in agony… it had to lead to something, didn’t it? 

But as Jones wrote, “The opportunities that revealed themselves amid so much pain and death last spring have now almost vanished.” Some change has come, to be sure. Biden is not the same as Trump, and many people’s lives are better today than they were last April. Yet what a low bar this is to clear. What a calamity it is that, confronted with a series of crises unprecedented in human history, we have emerged with an expanded set of tax credits and some new street signs. And how sobering it is that the people we trusted to champion our cause have put up such an ineffectual fight. 

So what is to be done? Most of us don’t have the luxury of taking the black pill and slouching toward our species’ demise. Nor do we have the powers of self-deception necessary to convince ourselves that climbing a series of trees, no matter how tall, will one day get us to the moon. We want, and need, to do something big. Over the past few years, people have shown time and again that they’re ready to fight for a better future—even when their needs are mocked and dismissed by those in power.

It’s time for progressive politicians to do the same. Bernie, AOC, and others can re-evaluate their choices based on the evidence at hand and rediscover the fighting spirit that made them so popular in the first place. People want to support them, and they have many tools at their disposal. If they can’t muster the votes they need to change things in Congress, they can get creative and confrontational outside of it. Instead of running interference for the Biden administration, progressive politicians can focus people’s anger upon it, because every year of “slow but steady progress” means many more will suffer as the century goes on. Our leaders need to fight for us. Often this won’t be easy or pleasant for them. But they wanted the responsibility. And as they are fond of reminding us, giving up isn’t an option.