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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Promise of the Bronx

What her victory over Joseph Crowley in this week’s Democratic congressional primary portends

Paul Berman
June 27, 2018
Scott Heins/Getty Images
June 26, 2018: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upsets Rep. Joseph Crowley in New York primaryScott Heins/Getty Images
Scott Heins/Getty Images
June 26, 2018: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez upsets Rep. Joseph Crowley in New York primaryScott Heins/Getty Images

My big regret regarding Joseph Crowley, the defeated Democrat of the 14th District, Queens and the Bronx, has to do with his accent. Why do people around the country like Donald Trump, after all? Could it be the touch of Queens in his speaking voice? Is that what America wants? In that case, I have always figured that Joe Crowley might be the answer—same accent, except stronger, and with civilized politics. But then, if I am touting Crowley for his personal charm, I am happy to acknowledge a still greater charm in his giant-slayer, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—not the same accent, but an equally New York mix of English and Spanish, combined with Medicare for all and a spirit of rebellion.

Ocasio-Cortez’s attacks on Crowley during the campaign were unfair, of course. His New York working-class credentials could not be better. Ocasio-Cortez is the daughter of a father from the Bronx and a Puerto Rican mother, and Crowley is the son of an Irish-American father and a mother from County Armagh, Northern Ireland; and the differences appear to be largely a matter of geographical detail. In her now-famous campaign video, Ocasio-Cortez’s voice rises to a real anger as she denounces the unfortunate man for wanting to live with his family near Washington, D.C., instead of maintaining two homes and an extravagant commuter’s budget—which is ridiculous, on her part.

And yet, that portion of the video is the sign of her talent. Barack Obama’s worst flaw as a political leader was the inability to express anger, or even to look like he feels it. Hillary Clinton’s entire career in politics was staked on being able to master any anger she may have felt. Anger was and is Trump’s trump, though—a repulsive anger, in his case. It speaks to his fans. His appeal is not just his accent. And Ocasio-Cortez has the gift.

She will be able to find more deserving objects for it than the unfortunate Crowley, and when she does, the result will be—might be, depending on her wisdom—great. She will be able—she has already demonstrated the ability—to express a righteous indignation on behalf of the working class. She will do it—has already done it—with a reasonable program in mind, instead of the Trumpian demagoguery. She is indeed an acolyte of Bernie Sanders. During the 2016 campaign, Bernie was, after all, the only other person to express anger. Anger was his insight. She speaks with an intuitively patriotic vision of America, too, a hopeful vision, pointed to the future—an intuitive vision, I say, because she did it in her victory speech at the Bronx bar, standing on a chair or a table, without a mic, and without an index card scribbled with speaking points.

And Israel? At one point during the campaign she sent a tweet denouncing Israel for having committed a massacre in Gaza, and she followed up by talking about Israel with Glenn Greenwald in an interview for The Intercept. She compared the Gaza protesters to the civil-rights protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, and to protesting schoolteachers in West Virginia, and to any protests that have taken place on behalf of Puerto Ricans in the face of Trump’s negligence after the hurricane—and those several comparisons lead me to hope that, in the months to come, she will have the chance to do a little reading about Hamas. I recommend the Hamas charter. Still, nothing she has said so far seems to tie her to the dreadful chant of her comrades in Democratic Socialists of America at their last convention (ex-comrades in my case and, even now, my friends, some of them), “From the River to the Sea/ Palestine will be free!” which expresses the Hamas charter pretty well. She is plainly angry about the situation in Gaza, but her anger does not appear to be directed at Israel’s existence. The anger appears to be directed, instead, at the humanitarian situation confronted by the Palestinians—and, on this point, she is, of course, right, even if she could be still more right by acknowledging the complexities.

So it is good, mostly. It might well be great. I am sorry for Joe Crowley, but, hey, that’s politics. And the moment belongs to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the brilliance of the Bronx and the cause of the working class and the future of the Democratic Party.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.