Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ recent statements on Palestine-Israel in response to a PBS Firing Line interview have, not surprisingly, led to a huge political discussion. The most thoughtful commentators, including Corey Robin, Philip Weiss, and Ali Abunimah, have raised important and productive points. But there are two crucial political points that I haven’t seen come up. Both of them might prove important down the line for those of us who consider ourselves part of the Palestine solidarity movement and who are also engaged with the electoral possibilities of socialist candidates like Ocasio-Cortez.
First: there is no question that Ocasio-Cortez’ performance, in response to questions that were clearly intended to knock her back on her heels, was far from her strongest. But it needs to be said: even the weakest, least-thought-through, and most conciliatory statements that she made during the interview were still miles better than what 99% of Democratic politicians say 99% of the time when it comes to Palestine-Israel. The default position of the centrists who are the leaders of the party amounts to simply being cheerleaders for Israel, even (especially) during times when Israel is carrying out massacres in Gaza. Don’t even get me started on my bluest-of-blue-states Senator, Chuck Schumer. But even the congressman who represents my district in Brooklyn, Hakeem Jeffries—a bona fide member of the “progressive” wing of the party—spoke at a “United We Stand With Israel” rally in the midst of the bombardment of Gaza in the summer of 2014 and solemnly intoned (with a weird echo of George Wallace): “Israel is here to stay and it will remain…Israel today, Israel tomorrow, Israel forever.”
Please don’t misunderstand my point: I’m not saying that Ocasio-Cortez’ positions, as stated in the recent PBS interview, are defensible in the larger context of U.S. electoral politics, or that the general awfulness of Democrats on the issue should give her a free pass. Not at all. Here’s the point: when left/socialist/progressive politicians running for office take truly ethical stands on the question of Palestine–as Ocasio-Cortez did in her tweet that described the massacre of unarmed protesters by snipers to be, precisely, a massacre–there is no political reward for doing so; and when other Democrats, progressive or otherwise, take deeply immoral and opportunistic pro-Israel positions, there are no political consequences for doing so.
Even if Ocasio-Cortez were to double down on her recent statements and completely renounce her previous ones–I’m completely certain that this won’t happen, but even if it did–it might dampen some of the enthusiasm for her among the left, but nevertheless, most of us would still vote for her. Similarly, even those of us who howl with outrage (or the social media equivalent of this) when Schumer, Jeffries, et al among the Democrats take politically craven positions vis-a-vis Israel-Palestine, the great majority of leftists who vote in their districts will nevertheless vote for them, because the Democrats gaining control of Congress is a major political concern (and so it should be). So the logic of the “Blue Wave” rolls over all other concerns.
What this means, for those of us active in Palestine solidarity, is that when we ask Ocasio-Cortez, or other left candidates, to hold the line on Palestine, it is not a fully-formed political demand, since there is no electoral effect attached to taking this position, in terms of gaining or losing support among the left. The only potential electoral effect, in fact, would be the possibility of losing support from liberal and moderate Democrats who identify as “pro-Israel” (the famous and ever-popular “Progressive Except for Palestine” position).
I’m not just deploring this fact. I’m saying, structurally speaking, that this is where our work needs to be in the days to come. There are good reasons why the Palestine solidarity movement, writ large, hasn’t had much to do with U.S. electoral politics, since there was little or no room in which to operate. One reason why the BDS movement has gained so much support is precisely because it provides a way of creating forms of political power that don’t rely on influencing or accessing electoral power. The fact that elected officials have been forced to face the influence exerted by the BDS movement is a mark of its success. This has been, in other words, a winning strategy.
But right now feels like the moment to re-open the struggle within electoral politics, with the rise of the DSA as an electoral force within the Democratic Party and the momentum being gained by left-of-center candidates. The political shift in terms of Palestine, especially among the younger generation in the U.S., has been well-documented, and will certainly continue. Accordingly, now is the time to change the political context, such that, for any Democratic candidate who wants to claim the label of “progressive,” reactionary positions on the question of Palestine-Israel will no longer be acceptable, any more than reactionary positions on a plethora of other political issues would be. In other words, there need to be political rewards and political costs built into the equation. Limiting ourselves to moral outrage—and simply declaring to candidates such as Ocasio-Cortez: “Hold the line, and damn the consequences”—is bad, dumb politics. Changing the game such that the consequences for not holding the line, on the other hand, could become a very productive project for Palestine solidarity activists in the U.S. right now.
Related to all this is a second point, which is even more relevant to the question of Ocasio-Cortez’ recent comments: the active hostility of Democratic Party elites towards socialist candidates running as Democrats. This became blatantly explicit today when former senator Joe Lieberman, in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, called upon voters in the 14th Congressional District to vote for Joe Crowley, the long-time Congressman who was soundly defeated by Ocasio-Cortez in the Democratic primary. One hopes that a pathetic figure like Lieberman no longer wields any sort of political influence, but the point is, his position is perfectly in line with the manner in which the Democratic party leadership has dealt with “challenges” from left-leaning candidates. This leadership, which has been timid to the extreme in confronting the most violent aspects of Trumpism, seems to relish the opportunity to turn its fire upon the left flank of its own party—and, more broadly, to take whatever steps are deemed necessary to bring the young and burgeoning left into line with the centrism that has defined the party for the past quarter century.
The template was set, of course, starting with the 2016 election. First the DNC, in Mark Blyth’s phrase, “cut the legs” off Bernie Sanders and his campaign; then came the idiocy of figures like Schumer, declaring that it didn’t matter if the Democratic Party lost votes from traditional leftist constituencies so long as “suburban Republican” voters could be wooed away from Trump (which seems to be, incredibly, the game-plan once again for the midterm elections); then, after the disastrous loss, the disgraced party leadership pulled itself together in order to prevent Keith Ellison from becoming chair of the DNC. Since then, Tom Perez, the current DNC chair, broke from his own promise that the DNC would remain “scrupulously neutral” in primary races in order to endorse New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul, who are facing a primary challenge from the left from Cynthia Nixon and Jumaane Williams.
In other words: it would be a vast understatement to say that left candidates such as Ocasio-Cortez can’t rely upon the support of the Democratic party leadership. The truer statement is that this party leadership, more often than not, has shown itself to be openly hostile to such candidates, and not at all shy about destroying their chances. In the 14th District, Ocasio-Cortez’ primary opponent, Joe Crowley, current remains on the ballot for the primary election. This is largely due to New York’s bizarre election laws (Crowley received the endorsement of the Working Family Party in the primary and will remain on their line, in spite of the fact that the WFP has endorsed Ocasio-Cortez in the general election and has publicly implored Crowley to have his name removed from the ticket). But is impossible to believe that this fact doesn’t also reflect what the Democratic leadership would love to see happen, precisely the result for which Joe Lieberman is rooting. Witness Nancy Pelosi’s dismissive reaction towards Ocasio-Cortez’ victory.
Crowley has, thus far, insisted that he is not in fact intending to challenge Ocasio-Cortez, despite remaining on the ballot. But if the Democratic leadership wanted to go all in to truly support Ocasio-Cortez and other left candidates, it seems certain that Crowley’s name would not be appearing on the ballot, even if New York law required him to fake his own death or leave the country forever. The fact that the party leadership is more concerned with—or, at the very least, more vigilant about—maintaining the party’s centrist line than it is with defeating the Republicans couldn’t be clearer. Of course, this was already apparent in the 2016 election: as Blyth argues, Sanders, in offering an anti-austerity agenda that resonated with voters across the spectrum, represented a real threat to the standing neoliberal consensus of the Democratic party. “He had to be stopped,” Blyth concludes. “And he was stopped. And the price of stopping him is what we have now.”
Again, none of this is intended to say that the badness of the Democratic leadership means that candidates such as Ocasio-Cortez should be given a blank check when it comes to holding the line on issues such as Israel-Palestine. But it’s politically naïve to believe that any of this is happening in a political vacuum. Left challengers are fighting for oxygen within the Democratic party, and that won’t stop being true any time soon. And in that specific context, the question of Palestine becomes an especially potent one: Ellison’s willingness to articulate criticisms of the Israeli government’s policies, and support for Palestinians who are suffering because of them, was arguably the most important reason why the centrist leadership of the party worked to deny him even the largely symbolic position of DNC chair. Crowley’s stance on Israel-Palestine, by contrast, is largely typical of the mainstream of the Democratic party as a whole (as was his vote in favor of authorizing the Iraq War in 2002). Ocasio-Cortez, and candidates like her, are a real threat to this party consensus, just as Sanders was in 2016.
None of this means that Ocasio-Cortez’ recent statements aren’t open to criticism, nor that those of us concerned with Palestine solidarity don’t have a responsibility to demand better from her. But the larger context, by which the Democratic leadership have made clear their desire to maintain the party’s centrism by any means necessary, leaves us with another urgent responsibility: to protect our left candidates from this party leadership. It’s not enough to alternately cheer these socialist candidates on or scold them via social media; we need to fight to maintain the space that their candidacies require, which in turn means fighting to preserve the space that has been, painstakingly, opened to even allow these difficult discussions to occur in the first place.
The phrase that I keep encountering among friends on social media, when it comes to Ocasio-Cortez’ PBS interview, is our responsibility to “hold her feet to the fire” when it comes to articulating her positions on Israel-Palestine. As it happens, that’s not a favorite phrase of mine; it smacks a bit too much of the Inquisition. But sure, let’s do what’s necessary to make sure that left candidates like OCASIO-CORTEZ don’t succumb to the pressure to “moderate” their positions—or, worse, simply lapse into silence rather than cause “controversy.” We can’t do that, however, without acknowledging that there’s also a much larger fight involved—a fight for an electoral politics in this country that would actually allow us to vote our consciences when it comes to Palestine-Israel.