Oh Say AOC

The Rebels: Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the Struggle for a New American Politics by Joshua Green. New York: Penguin Press. 352 pages. $30.

The cover of The Rebels: Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the Struggle for a New American Politics

WANT TO FEEL OLD? Some Americans born during the 2008 financial crisis will be getting their driver’s licenses this year. These youngest Zoomers have never known an America where serious people think that the free market can work without significant government intervention, and they’ve likely known the names Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for as long as they’ve been politically aware. They have never believed capitalism would deliver for them, never experienced the disillusionment of seeing it fail for the first time, and never known the thrill of seeing it challenged by upstart politicians or the disappointment of seeing those politicians co-opted by moderating forces. They were born disillusioned.

Their parents’ generation, typically born in the 1970s, grew up in a completely different America, one in which the neoliberal consensus was first taking shape. This is the America of journalist Joshua Green’s childhood. In his new book, The Rebels: Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the Struggle for a New American Politics, Green traces the neoliberal turn to 1978, when he was six, and when Jimmy Carter’s populist proposal to restructure the US tax code to be more egalitarian was rejected by a Democratic Congress. In grim economic circumstances, Carter then succumbed to pressure to sign a bill that prioritized tax cuts over redistribution, two years before Ronald Reagan would unseat him with a platform promising even more of that. The stage was set for thirty years of market-driven policies, during which Wall Street bankers would become steadily more entrenched in both political parties and would set the terms of national debate.

Green uses this backstory to explain how the Democrats, a party once primarily accountable to unionized blue-collar workers, became so dominated by the finance industry that his titular protagonists had to mobilize for an ongoing struggle to restore the party to its working-class roots. If you’re my age (forty) or a bit younger, it’s a story you’ve probably spent much of your adult life immersed in. As the generation old enough to have grown up with the neoliberal dream and to have watched it come crashing down right when we were supposed to claim our stake in it, millennials are the base cohort for the genre of left-wing populism Green describes in The Rebels. Many of us have, or at least had, passionate feelings about one or more of the figures Green focuses on.

Speaking for myself, between about 2015 and 2020, an attack on Sanders felt like an attack on my whole identity. Like many Sanders supporters—and like our New Left antecedents after about 1972—I’ve spent the pandemic and the Biden presidency contemplating the limits of romantic, youth-oriented left-wing electoral politics. When you’re emotionally invested in a politician’s success, it can be hard to objectively assess their role in history, especially in the face of bad faith criticism from defenders of the status quo.

It’s to Green’s credit, then, that he’s able to tell a positive story about Warren, Sanders, and Ocasio-Cortez from the perspective of a mainstream political reporter who is broadly sympathetic. The Rebels is not the first book about these three or the movements they represent, but it might be the first to consider them soberly. Green documents their undeniable impact on national politics without indulging in hagiography or overinflated rhetoric.

For Green, as for many observers, 2008 is the key moment of rupture. After the collapse of the housing market and the resulting economic meltdown, millions of people saw how both parties prioritized rescuing Wall Street over helping ordinary Americans. As a matter of fiscal engineering, Obama Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s program of Wall Street bailouts succeeded on its own terms. As a matter of political optics, it was a disaster, communicating to a broad swath of the public that Washington had left them behind, as it largely had. Elements on the far right would eventually find ways to capitalize on this, culminating in the presidency of Donald Trump and the takeover of the GOP by MAGA populists. (Green wrote about this in his best-selling previous book, Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency.) But the populist left would also see its first real opening since the Carter era to at least attempt a remaking of the Democratic Party.

Although The Rebels’ subtitle and cover art suggest three protagonists with equal prominence, Warren gets the most attention. Sanders partisans who are still annoyed at Warren over the contentious 2020 primaries might look askance at this, but it makes sense in Green’s time line: for most of Obama’s two terms, Warren was the administration’s most prominent critic on the left, while Sanders was considered a Senate backbencher and the young Ocasio-Cortez had no profile whatsoever. It may be hard to remember now, but Warren’s reputation during Obama’s eventful first term was as a populist firebrand capable of channeling the public’s anger at the Wall Street bailouts through effective political theater.

Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Council Bluffs, Iowa, November 8th, 2019. Image: Wikicommons/Matt Johnson.
Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Council Bluffs, Iowa, November 8th, 2019. Image: Wikicommons/Matt Johnson.

Before she ever ran or intended to run for Senate, Warren drew national attention by becoming one of Jon Stewart’s favored guests on the Daily Show, where she had a gift for translating wonky policy analysis into righteous, commonsensical rhetoric (“We just keep pulling the threads out of the regulatory fabric”). But she also kept the administration on its toes, leaking unflattering stories about Geithner to reporters and leading successful campaigns to sink Larry Summers’s appointment as Fed chair and Wall Street banker Antonio Weiss’s nomination to a Treasury Department job. At the time, Warrenmania and Occupy Wall Street were seen as responses to the same problem. Both signified young progressives becoming disenchanted by Obama’s failure to deliver real hope and change in the wake of the financial crisis. By the time Sanders emerged as a national figure in 2015—with Ocasio-Cortez volunteering for his campaign in New York—there was a significant network of leftists ready to organize.

In the 2016 cycle, Warren decided not to challenge Hillary Clinton for the presidency (despite an energetic “draft Warren” campaign) because she feared that a hard-fought primary would diminish her influence on a likely Clinton administration. In Green’s telling, the Sanders campaign inherited what might have been Warren’s activist infrastructure almost overnight. Sanders’s appeal lay in his decades-long consistency and authenticity—“a kind of anti-charisma, a truculent refusal to indulge the bullshit and euphemism that’s the lingua franca of electoral campaigning”—which managed to draw thousands of young people to rallies across the country. It also attracted $228 million in small donations, demonstrating the viability of campaigning nationally without any support from Wall Street or other big donors. These organizing efforts, along with Trump’s unexpected victory over Clinton, galvanized young progressives and helped inspire a new generation of activists of diverse backgrounds to run for office.

One of them was Ocasio-Cortez, who was working as a bartender when Sanders first ran and who found herself drawn into organizing by his calls for a “political revolution.” Green casts Ocasio-Cortez as a “natural” while also reminding us how improbable her rise was. He recounts how a group of Sanders campaign alums founded an organization called Brand New Congress that set out to recruit novice progressive candidates in all 435 congressional districts. In the end, they recruited only thirty, and of those, Ocasio-Cortez was the sole winner. Her upset victory against consummate Democratic insider Joe Crowley was a product of organizing, clever local strategizing, and demographic shifts in Queens and the Bronx, as well as her own unique strengths as a candidate.

“Thanks to the vagaries of New York’s primary system, Ocasio-Cortez was able to build her appeal among a small, very liberal segment of her district’s voters—she won fewer than seventeen thousand votes in a primary that drew barely 5 percent of the district’s eligible voters—and that was enough for her to prevail,” writes Green. “None of this precluded her from becoming a force in the party or invalidated her full-spectrum leftist platform. She played by the rules that Crowley and his cronies had established, and she won.” That’s all true, and it meant that the Ocasio-Cortez phenomenon would be difficult to scale nationally, even though a handful of like-minded candidates across the country have since managed to build up the progressive “Squad” in the House. What has kept Ocasio-Cortez particularly influential, Green argues, has been twofold: first, she is based in New York City (with strongholds in some of the fastest-gentrifying neighborhoods in Queens) and thus enmeshed in the social universe of journalists and political staffers with national platforms; and second, she has skillfully adapted to a different set of political realities in Washington. After initially trying to legislate as an insurgent against House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic establishment, Ocasio-Cortez moved away from the “activist phase of her congressional career,” toned down criticism of her colleagues, and began taking advantage of the theatrical potential of televised oversight hearings to drive national debates—a tactic Warren had pioneered.

Watching Ocasio-Cortez’s trajectory, some on the left have accused her of surrendering to pressure from the establishment; some liberals counter that she has left childish things behind and sought greater influence inside the system. Certainly, to Green, her approach represents political maturity: “Being on the inside isn’t the same as selling out. It means your interests are represented. You get a say in what happens.” There’s something to that, but it risks losing sight of why Ocasio-Cortez attracted so much attention in the first place. Politicians who pursue traditional routes to public office don’t find themselves balancing their principles against the incentives of the inside game, because they never had principles to begin with. It is precisely because Ocasio-Cortez ran as a sincere activist that her adaptation to the ways of Washington represents sophistication and not simple careerism.

Green credits his three “rebels” with successfully making the transition from outsiders to insiders within President Biden’s coalition, and in turn credits Biden with taking on their priorities. “In a break with past administrations, including Obama’s, Biden has begun to remake the political economy along many of the same lines as his populist opponents wished to do,” he writes. Green credits pressure from the party’s left wing—and its committed constituencies—for the fact that Biden began his term by pushing a $1.9 trillion COVID package through Congress “instead of worrying about deficits”; for walking union picket lines; for reinvigorating antitrust regulation and labor law enforcement; and for the record-setting climate investments of the Inflation Reduction Act.

These are real accomplishments, and Green is right that the activists, organizers, and high-profile politicians on the left deserve to be proud of pushing the Democratic Party. The Rebels represents the mainstreaming of the contemporary left’s narrative on economic policy, which itself is a measure of the mainstreaming of the contemporary left’s substantive agenda.

Still, the left’s narrative on Palestine remains well outside the Democratic mainstream. Since October 7, the Biden administration has squandered much of the credibility it built up with the left on its morally indefensible support for Israel’s assault on Gaza. To pro-Palestine activists, Warren, Sanders, and Ocasio-Cortez have all, to varying extents, fallen short of holding the administration accountable for its complicity in Israeli atrocities, even as it may cost Biden his reelection and return Trump to Washington. If that happens, it will fall to a new generation of leftists to organize for political power in the face of a hostile and intellectually exhausted establishment. As Green’s relatively optimistic account shows, that could take a long time.

David Klion is a journalist and cultural critic working on a book about the legacy of neoconservatisms.