Did Obama really ‘snub’ Ocasio-Cortez and does it signal a split in the Democratic Party?

Danielle Ryan
Danielle Ryan is an Irish freelance writer based in Dublin. Her work has appeared in Salon, The Nation, Rethinking Russia, teleSUR, RBTH, The Calvert Journal and others. Follow her on Twitter @DanielleRyanJ
Did Obama really ‘snub’ Ocasio-Cortez and does it signal a split in the Democratic Party?
Barack Obama waded back into politics last week, publishing a list of 81 endorsements for the November midterm elections – a list which curiously did not feature New York’s rising star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Ocasio-Cortez, who identifies as a Democratic Socialist, pulled off a stunning victory back in June when she defeated 10-term Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th congressional district primary after launching a massively successful grassroots campaign.

Various theories have been put forward as to why Obama “snubbed” the 28-year-old up-and-comer in his party. Some have noted that this is just the “first wave” of Obama endorsements, and that he quite possibly will endorse her later, while others say that he is not quite ready to attach his name to Ocasio-Cortez’s brand of Democratic Socialism, particularly given the unease it is causing among more traditional Democrats. There’s also the theory that he didn’t endorse her because, in her very left-leaning New York district, she is regarded as an absolute shoo-in come November.

Whatever the reason, and whether Obama endorses her or not, it is still as clear as day that there is now a big split in the Democratic Party. Ocasio-Cortez’s primary win sent shivers down the spines of establishment figures everywhere.  

To Republicans, the thought of the long-dreaded European socialism creeping its way into the American mainstream was terrifying. There is no better demonstration of this fear than Meghan McCain having a meltdown on daytime TV about how the US will surely turn into Venezuela if Americans are given access to basic, affordable healthcare (something which other rich, developed countries have somehow managed to master without the world caving in).  

To Democrats, the thought that progressives like Ocasio-Cortez could upset the whole apple cart by taking policy positions that are too “radical” for the party faithful is scary. Democrats are deeply obsessed with the notion that you can only win elections by standing in the middle ground, by being a good old-fashioned centrist. In their view, that’s how you hoover up as many voters as possible. The problem is, that’s not actually true.

Apparently, the Democrats have entirely missed the Euroskeptic and anti-establishment uprisings that are happening right now across Europe and, indeed, the one that put Donald Trump into the White House in their own country. When people are desperate for radical change, sitting safely on the fence and trying to sweep in as many middle-ground voters as possible is not necessarily a winning strategy.

Ocasio-Cortez scares them for another reason, too. She is proof that political races can be won without taking buckets of corporate cash (she refused to take corporate and lobbyist money) and that kind of integrity throws a spanner in the works of the entire system. 

After all, this is how Democrats (and Republicans) get elected. American politics is essentially a system of legalized bribery by which rich donors and corporate lobbyists pour millions into campaign coffers and reap the benefits later when the candidates they financed serve their private interests, while ordinary citizens have near-zero impact on public policy. This is borne out by evidence and logic; when elections are privately financed by incredibly rich individuals and corporations, politicians will serve the interests of those who elected them. It’s not rocket science. Both parties are neck-deep in this corruption, but somehow have managed to convince people that it’s just ‘the way things have to be’ to get anything done.  

Naturally, Ocasio-Cortez was dismissed by top-dog figures in the Democratic Party. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who has been representing California districts since before Ocasio-Cortez was born, played down her victory, making sure everyone knew it was just something that happened in “one district” and warning people not to get “carried away” with fancy new ideas like actually giving voters what they want.

I wrote recently about rumors that Hillary Clinton is secretly planning to run for president again in 2020, and what a disaster it could be if she did. In the weeks since, speculation about a third Clinton bid has died down and another familiar establishment name has cropped up: Joe Biden. The logic of a Biden bid is that he has huge name recognition and that he does well in the polls when matched against Trump, which is fair. A recent poll had him leading Trump by seven points. But while Biden is generally regarded as someone who has broad appeal due to his nice-guy persona, that hasn’t proven good enough. Both times he has actually run for president (1988 and 2008) he performed badly and dropped out of the primaries in the very early stages. Not to mention, 2016 proved that making broad assumptions based on polling data isn’t exactly the shrewdest form of political analysis.  

It’s far too early to predict what will happen in 2020, but if the Democratic Party throws its support behind someone like Biden and works to quash more progressive voices (as they did to Bernie Sanders in 2016), that will be another clear indication that there is no appetite for change in the ranks, despite the colossal task the party has ahead of it in trying to defeat Trump. At that point, you could fairly suggest that the Democrats either a) would prefer to lose than to adapt to a more progressive strategy; or b) that they are actually just stupid and impervious to common sense.  

But it’s not just the party establishment that has this problem with admitting which way the wind is blowing. The media is just as clueless. In July, CNN published its “definitive ranking of 2020 Democrats” and put Bernie Sanders at number five, arguing that because he is a “white male” he might not be the best candidate for 2020. Guess who CNN put at number one? Joe Biden.  

Now, last time I checked Biden was also a white male. But, of course, a traditional white male Democrat is safe. A radical progressive one like Sanders with proven mass appeal who actually does even better than Biden in match-ups against Trump? No thanks. Then, when things go wrong, they throw their hands up in the air and blame people like Susan Sarandon instead of having the sense to reassess their own political strategy.

Mainstream media routinely maligns more left-progressive candidates, dismissing them as radicals with unworkable, airy-fairy policies who are just getting in the way of the realistic, down-to-earth Democrats. 

There is a tendency to write off candidates like Ocasio-Cortez by arguing that she is some kind of anomaly, a blip in otherwise normal proceedings, and that she represents one super-liberal district in New York and not a countrywide movement – but that, frankly, is wishful thinking.  

We know that because Sanders, despite a huge effort from Clinton-loyal Democrats to pin the blame for her loss partly on him, was still ranked the country’s most popular politician last year. Sanders energized huge swathes of new, young people into politics. He built a movement, not a campaign, in a way that a middle-of-the-road Democrat couldn’t do.

There is a divide in the Democratic Party and it’s not going away anytime soon. If the traditional, more conservative wing of the party doesn’t manage to take back the House or Senate in November, that divide will only widen.  

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