Last week, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — a 28-year-old socialist who ran on progressive policies such as Medicare for All, a federal jobs guarantee, the human right to housing and abolishing ICE — defeated Rep. Joe Crowley, one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory left much of the political world in awe with observers wondering out loud what the upset means for the ongoing ideological contest between the Democrats’ establishment and progressive wings.
Some, like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, have swatted the suggestion away as silly, overhyped nonsense. “They made a choice in one district,” Pelosi told reporters. “So let’s not get yourself carried away.”
Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth has toed the same line. When asked by CNN’s Jake Tapper if the future of the Democratic Party runs through unflinchingly progressive candidates like Ocasio-Cortez, Duckworth quickly rejected the forecast: “I think it’s the future of the party in the Bronx, where she is.”
After giving a quick shout-out to Ocasio-Cortez’s gifts as a candidate, Duckworth quickly pivoted back to her warning, arguing that while Ocasio-Cortez’s brand of democratic socialism might work in New York, taking the message nationally would be a strategic error for Democrats. “I think that you can’t win the White House without the Midwest and I don’t think you can go too far to the left and still win the Midwest…you need to be able to talk to the industrial Midwest, you need to listen to the people there.
Duckworth is wrong on at least two fronts.
First, she is essentially arguing that any candidate who takes the time to listen to the opinions of people in the nation’s heartland would easily see the disaster waiting for them down the path of democratic socialism.
At the heart of this argument is the mistaken belief that America is, at its core, a politically moderate-conservative country. But this is an old myth supported by flimsy and widely misunderstood public opinion polling. Once you get past terms like conservative and liberal, and start talking basic policy priorities, it turns out the country is more on the side of Bernie Sanders than Mitt Romney.
As New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz highlights, for instance, there is strong majority support for progressive policies like Medicare-for-all and a federal jobs guarantee, including among those in “flyover country.” The same goes for healthcare overall, with polls consistently finding massive public support — including among a majority of Republicans — for more federal spending on healthcare and against cuts to Medicaid. There’s more. Breaking up the most colossal banks, the ones deemed “too big to fail”? A bipartisan majority of voters say go for it. How about on climate change? According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, 72 percent of Americans believe “the United States should take aggressive action to slow global warming.”
Because misinformation about the region, as well as Americans’ political tendencies, is so widespread, it’s easy to miss the fact that specific progressive policies — not words we’ve drained of all substance — are, in fact, widely popular. And when candidates make a plainspoken case for them, they can win elections all across the country. Ocasio-Cortez’s simple moral position that “no person in America should be too poor to live,” is a shining example.
On the second front, whether she means to or not, Duckworth completely vanishes people of color from the region’s story. By pitting the industrial Midwest and the Bronx against one another, she immediately set up a split screen of conflicting images. The residents of Ocasio-Cortez’s district are largely people of color (though she also carried many of the district’s gentrifying areas). Meanwhile, the industrial Midwest conjured in Duckworth’s scenario is the same one that so often swallows the regional narrative — one of rolling plains and neatly-packaged tales of small-towns that are somehow at once both innocent and culturally backward. The people in those stories, of course, tend to be white. That’s because, as HuffPost senior reporter Zach Carter has pointed out, you can’t believe the Bronx and the Midwest to be entirely different creatures without erasing the many Midwestern cities where people of color, black people especially, form a majority — Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Cleveland, and on and on. But they are there. And they care deeply about the decisions that shape their lives.
As Sean McElwee has detailed at the Nation, black voters are perhaps the country’s most economically progressive, with majorities in favor of a federal jobs guarantee, socialized medicine, and minimum wage increases. And across a vast body of polling data, black people consistently show deep concern about their economic lives and the role racism plays in shaping them. Criminal justice reform also sits atop the priority list for overwhelming majorities of black voters.
One doesn’t have to be a professional strategist to see how the persistence of those concerns, and the refusal to address them, can have a significant impact on elections. Black voters, for example, made up a pivotal slice of the Obama coalition in 2012. Yet a disproportionate share of 2012 voters who decided to sit out in 2016 came from this same group. The drop off was especially significant in, as you might’ve guessed, the Midwest.
There is a strong argument to be made that the failure of Democrats to run on a more muscular progressive platform in 2016 lost them critical votes, particularly among black voters, without whom the party would be a fading memory. It seems obvious that inspiring these folks to step back into the voting booth ought to be a top priority for Democrats. The policies championed by democratic socialists like Ocasio-Cortez, with their sharp focus on eliminating exploitation and oppression in society, would do more than any other mainstream political platform to improve the lives of black people.
These mistakes, about what policies people believe would improve their material lives, are easy to make. This is especially true in a country that pays endless lip service to democracy, giving off the impression that people actually have a meaningful say in the everyday decisions that impact their lives. Yet evidence suggests what most already knew in the pit of their stomachs: that public opinion has almost no impact whatsoever on policy, with influence over decisions titled heavily toward those with the deepest pockets.
But even if hardly anyone is listening to the public, it’s important to get the basic details about their political priorities right: people want a fairer distribution of the country’s unmatched-in-all-of-world-history wealth and resources, and they want oppression vanquished wherever it appears.
That includes in the poorly understood Midwest.
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ELI DAY was an investigative fellow with In These Times’ Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting. He’s also a Detroiter, where he writes about politics, policy, racial and economic justice. His work has appeared in Vox, Current Affairs, Mother Jones, and the New Republic, among others.