At Paste, we understand most political questions can be complicated. And yet, to quote from Love Actually, “sometimes things are so transparency, they don’t need evidential proof.”
Here it is: The moment you accept that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is cooler than Barack Obama is the day you begin to truly live. It is the exact moment your progressive political soul stops dying. The Obama-AOC conflict is there, between the lines, waiting to emerge. The fight is really a battle between the two branches of the Democratic Party, two visions of America. Benjamin Wallace-Wells wrote in the New Yorker about “How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Allies Supplanted the Obama Generation”
There are hard limits on how much power the group has won—House Speaker Nancy Pelosi quickly rejected Ocasio-Cortez’s call for a select committee on the Green New Deal—but its influence has been plain. ... On the campaign trail, and in the House, Democrats have a confident veneer. They are winning elections; they are younger than the opposition; the press is full of appreciations of Pelosi’s tactical savvy. But to watch the unlikely progress of the Green New Deal is to realize how much of the Party’s program and its sources of moral authority remain up for grabs.
Wallace-Wells later quotes one of AOC’s allies:
Several of them told me that, on climate policy, Obama had not been audacious enough. “It sounds like hyperbole, but we are fighting to preserve life as we know it,” O’Hanlon said. “A lot of the solutions proposed during the Obama Administration were not up to that scale.” Chakrabarti said that Obama “wasn’t talking about a big mobilization and the solutions were too small.”
Obama, the man who gave the banks a trillion dollars and no jail time, recently decided to tell the Millennials they were dreaming too dang much. He used code:
Former President Barack Obama has cautioned freshmen House Democrats that the liberal policies becoming popular in their ranks—such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal—will cost a lot of money. Although he encouraged the lawmakers to push forward “bold” ideas during their first year in the House, he said they had to consider the pricetags, too. “He said we [as Democrats] shouldn’t be afraid of big, bold ideas—but also need to think in the nitty-gritty about how those big, bold ideas will work and how you pay for them,” said one person in the room, according to The Washington Post. The former president didn’t mention specific policies, but some at the event took his words as a warning about Medicare for All and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal proposal. Most Democrats seeking the presidential nomination have backed a single-payer health-care system and the plan that aims to make the U.S. economy energy efficient within the next decade.
You feel for the guy. It’s like watching the last Bourbon king complain about all of those raids on the Bastille. His entire disappointing presidency was about scolding people who wanted to change the world. Why would he stop now, in his retirement?
This is one of those crucial moments in American history. In 2019, Dems must decide the only question that really matters: who am I going to post memes about? Who do I give my posting valor to?
And so, we come to the question of cool.
Before I elaborate, a necessary word of caution. In America, cool is dictated by consumption, which means it’s related to money, which means the world’s squarest people tend to decide what cool is. Who epitomized cool products? Steve Jobs. Who was profoundly uncool in every aspect of his behavior? Same guy. Cool is also defined by surrounding context. Let’s be honest: it doesn’t take a lot to be “cool” in politics. In politics, “cool” usually just means “a member of the ruling class that isn’t a bloodless ghoul or cousin of the Cryptkeeper.” This is a field where the human meme-prop Cory Booker has been labeled “cool” by gullible journalists. We shouldn’t consider cool as a factor in our politics.
But unfortunately, cool does matter. Coolness creates viability. Coolness crafts what the Cillizzas of the world call “a narrative.” Coolness means you get more magazine covers. It means college interns posting as teens create YouTube channels all about you. Coolness means random frat pledges will jump off their house yelling, “This death is for [YOUR NAME]!” Finally, coolness means conservatives get more upset at you than they would normally. On its own, cool is a meaningless signifier. But in politics, cool amounts to something, simply because the TV pundits and the media and the moneyed elite think it does. It’s a bit like owning a Harley.
I know AOC messed up by playing soft-serve during the smear of Ilhan Omar. She’s not perfect on everything. Like every other prominent leftist politician in America, she’s not as left-wing as FOX News thinks she is. Her socialism is more New Deal than worker-power. She’s very online, with everything that implies. Sometimes her instincts go awry.
And it still doesn’t matter. Even if we play by the rules of mainstream Democratic horse race politics, AOC is cooler, and woker, and better at her job than former President Barack Obama. The sooner you accept this, the freer you will feel. What Obama spent eight years pretending to be, AOC is: a genuinely progressive, real-as-hell, eloquent radical with righteous politics, who, if put into power, could really change the world.
Why does this matter? Because there are mainstream Dems who hate progressivism but love AOC. They don’t spend their time thinking of policies, of course. They tend to follow the party where it leads them. They cheered for Hillary despite the super-predators. They huzzahed for Obama when he failed to prosecute Wall Street. But the same thing that makes them forget Dem values—their lack of interest on policy, their hyper-attentive focus on personalities—can work in favor of the left. Coolness can sell universal healthcare in the way a reasoned argument can’t.
The center’s hold on the Democratic party is part of the long American conflict between the sizzle and the steak. It’s easy to ignore the divide when you’ve got boring substance (Bernie) versus oratory (Obama). The center gloms onto the garnish and forgets the meal.
So what happens when you’ve got a person with substance and star power (AOC) versus just star power (Obama)? What then? Remember, in the history of the Dems, it’s rare for those two factors to coexist.
But this is a time in America where A) there is a viable and visible socialist movement, B) American institutions have been debunked, and C) the most prominent spokeswoman for socialism is extremely media-savvy. Now, Obama was a rare manifestation of political charisma, so unique that it was hard to imagine any viable left challenger taking him on. And yet, here’s AOC. In the same way that Hillary and Trump seemed designed to frustrate the other, so do AOC and Obama.
AOC takes every platitude about the former president and turns it on its head. She shows the essential powerlessness, bad faith, and lack of conviction that determined the Obama presidency.
During the Obama administration, the staff responded to progressive demands for justice with the same tired arguments. The usual one was, “We have seriousness and practicality on our side.” The implied second defense was, “Who do you have that’s as charismatic as Obama?”
First off, the argument for Obama’s seriousness is dubious. What useful ends did his “seriousness” win for the American people? Aside from Hillary, Obama did more to elect the Orange President than any other human being. Every bipartisan buy-in initiated by Obama over eight years led directly to the door of Trump Tower. The hope we placed in Obama curdled right quick. No wonder so many 2008 and 2012 Obama voters switched en masse to the garish boob in the White House.
Second, the argument from practicality. Obama’s patronizing, transactional, so-mature politics stands revealed as a toothless farce. If your response to neoliberal crises is to double down on austerity programs, to promote endless wars, bailouts, dronings, and detention centers, then Trump is what you get.
Third, the question of charisma. AOC has it. We already know that progressive ideas are wildly popular. AOC gives them a highly engaging face. She rarely backs down from a fight, and will say what needs to be said.
There’s an ancient maxim: Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line. If progressives are to beat the right, Dems must learn to leave their crushes when it is correct to do so. How did the conservatives climb to power? By calling out their leaders. By demanding change. The postwar conservatives kept pouring their right-wing ideology into the party. During this time, the Dems were giving more and more ground, moving right on economics, the environment, and the national security state. AOC is the first generation of the post-Carter Dems to break with the herd and call out the faux-progressivism of a once-popular presidency. It is cool and good she did that.
The people who are with Bernie will always be with him: he remains the most popular politician in America. But we need to think of the future. There has to be a figure who can say and do what Bernie cannot, because of his age and his dignity and his curmudgeonly nature. Additionally, the mainstream media is scared of Bernie. So there needs to be someone to fill the role that Obama filled, as apostle to the airwaves and beloved of moderates. Incredibly, AOC can play this role. Perhaps she can be the one who matches “coolness,” whatever that means, to genuinely transformative policy. The promise of Obama can be fulfilled, 12 years later.
The Democratic past has much that needs forgetting. The party must bring down the curtain on the age of Money, Meritocracy, and Means-testing. After 40 years of giving up and selling out, centrist-style surrender is finally going out of fashion. Enough humiliation. Enough cutting social spending. Enough of licking Republican boots in hopes that they’ll be bipartisan. Enough flattering the Howard Schultzes of the world. More power to AOC, and to all of us. The appeasement years, the Obama years, are over.