‘Socialist’ Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Is a Lot Like the Men Who Tore Down the Iron Curtain
The future has a way of arriving when you least expect it. Republicans and Democrats can both learn a lot from the great wave of change that swept Europe 30 years ago.
In the dark and fetid rooms where Republican strategists are chopping up video clips to be deployed in the 2020 presidential campaign you can be sure there is one frequently recurring image: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
With virtually every utterance the youngest ever member of Congress provides what all political attack dogs dream of: the single face and voice that they believe can be used to define the opposing party.
It doesn’t have to be a potential presidential candidate. With so many Democratic candidates already in the field it’s far too early to pick off the most likely threats, and will be for months to come. In the meantime AOC will serve to drive the Trump base (and many other Republicans) apoplectic.
She is the gift that will keep on giving in a thousand soundbites. She is in their faces with the stridency of a world they loathe, almost martial in the way she articulates the multi-cultural energy of the new generation of progressives.
In the Republican playbook the strategy begins not with the defining face but the defining word, socialism. This is a term that in every other part of the western world until recently was hard to stigmatize—in western Europe, for example, the social democratic parties have brought a level of equality and social security that remains theoretical in America.
And the Republican Party is determined that it should remain theoretical here. Even normally rational Republican commentators seize on the egregious usurpers of socialism like Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela and Jeremy Corbyn of Britain’s Labour Party as omens of what to expect if you begin to feel that maybe socialism is exactly what America needs.
That kind of deliberate misallocation of meaning invoked to scaremonger is part of the putrefaction of language used by demagogues through the ages. Fear of that didn’t deter Bernie Sanders, the first presidential hopeful in recent history with the balls to invoke socialism’s true principles and urgent application.
But Bernie was never really the right fit for the hate figure that the Republicans sought. He was too avuncular and obviously not really viable. Elizabeth Warren, on the other hand, was much more promising as a target and as a threat—a brainy woman on a mission of reform with a well-researched portfolio of capitalist excesses that she was determined to go after.
Then, almost out of nowhere, came the true slayer of inequality and plutocracy, AOC. First, to get elected, she managed the defenestration of a primary opponent backed by a complacent big city party machine. The next they knew she was sashaying along the corridors of Congress flanked by a posse of fired-up freshmen looking like the face of a tomorrow that would make “make America great again” look like the con trick it really was.
Sometimes there comes a moment in the fitful evolution of political movements when you hear and feel a faint seismic murmur; structures that seemed firmly fixed forever wobble a little and, perhaps, don’t quite settle back exactly where they were before.
Such moments can be deceptive. Those who sense them may invest too much hope in them—who, for example, in 2008, could have expected that two terms of Obama would be followed by Trump?
For sure, AOC is attaining celebrity at a speed that unbalances judgment, as when she was far too unmeasured in celebrating the death of Amazon’s New York campus. No doubt in the command and control center where sits Nancy Pelosi carefully calibrating every legislative step by House Democrats the noises off are increasingly annoying—a little more discipline will be required.
Nonetheless there is something to be said for political immaturity. Like adolescence it passes all too quickly. And if by “maturity” you mean cynicism, surrender to the realities of a system, then something valuable has died in the course of maturing—a kind of creative insolence that is otherwise absent and can serve us well. The Green New Deal may look unattainable to a cynic now but in the 1930s a lot of people thought the original New Deal was a bridge too far (some Republicans still do).
It as well to remember this because 30 years ago, in 1989, a vast political fortress that at the start of the year seemed unassailable was by the end of the year in ruins. It was a fortress built and sustained on a belief in its own immutability and ruled by those just as confident in their hold on power as the Republican leadership was until the 2018 midterms.
In 1989 Eastern Europe broke free of 50 years of subjugation to Soviet rule in a largely bloodless upheaval. That was not anticipated by any of the East European communist governments beholden to Moscow. But in an astonishing move the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, cut them loose. He declared that the social and political order of those nations “is entirely a matter for the people themselves and of their choosing.”
Two of those countries had already produced charismatic men able to see off the communists and lead them to democracy. In Poland Lech Walesa prepared the ground by creating Solidarity, a labor union ready to be a political party. In Czechoslovakia a longtime dissident writer, Vaclev Havel, led the “Velvet Revolution” and became the first president of the new democracy.
East Germany was different. Erich Honecker, the country’s communist leader, persisted in seeing a simple binary choice: Capitalism was bad and his party had created as its alternative a communist nirvana, absurdly—according to him—one of the world’s top 10 economies. East Germans had a higher standard of living than Russians and did not want for anything, he claimed. Honecker detested Gorbachev and Gorbachev responded in kind.
Honecker failed to see that the oxygen of democracy was not restrained by borders. The most serious challenge to his power came not in East Berlin but with demonstrations in the cities of Dresden and Leipzig. On the night of October 9 in Leipzig 70,000 people went into the streets and were faced by 8,000 security police. No shots were fired and a great cry went up, Wir sind das Volk!—We are the People!
Nine days later Honecker was deposed as party leader but the new leader was booed at his first public appearance and the communist regime’s days were numbered. The Berlin Wall came down on November 9.
When the barrier at Checkpoint Charlie opened a surge of East Berliners rushed into the arms of West Berliners. People wept and kissed each other. Massive traffic jams were caused by hundreds of Trabants—the tiny and primitive people’s car that exemplified Honecker’s idea of progress—that began pouring into West Berlin’s major boulevards. That night a radio station reckoned that 50,000 East Berliners had crossed into the West.
That spirit of exultation seems very distant now. Nativist autocrats have risen in Hungary and Poland, far-right parties are growing and France has had an ugly bout of anti-Semitism. Russian revanchism, driven by Vladimir Putin whose resentment at the loss of the Soviet empire is deeply personal, casts a long shadow in the east.
But what stands out from that truly world-changing year is how swiftly assumptions of permanent power can be destroyed. Honecker believed that his own hold on power was secure because his political doctrine was the only one that worked. In reality it was the only one that could sustain rule by a one-party clique. (Honecker’s end was hastened in May, 1989, when a pastor in the East Berlin Samaritan Church challenged an election result in which the Communists got 98.5 percent of the vote. Activism in the church was a major force in the following protests).
Here in America something of the same degree of hubris inhabits a figure who is in some ways reminiscent of Honecker. The otiose Mitch McConnell is committed to the idea of the Republicans becoming a permanent ruling party in the way that Honecker believed that East Germany would forever be a communist state. I have written before about how McConnell’s mindset is that of a Soviet apparatchik, defined as “a man not of grand plans but a hundred carefully executed details.”
But as calculating as he is, McConnell may have made a fatal error by supporting Trump’s wall in order to protect himself from being primaried in 2020. Walls are as powerful as metaphors as they are as objects. The Berlin Wall delineated not just a city but the rival systems of the Cold War. Trump’s wall delineates two ideas of what America is, a choice between a beacon of freedom or a medieval fortress—or, simply, between the past and the inevitable future.
The ultimate lesson of what brought down the Berlin Wall is not that single individuals can alone be decisive. Walesa and Havel both had movements behind them that were essential to taking power when the opening suddenly occurred. In East Germany there were thousands of individual acts of defiance but no figurehead heading toward the Brandenburg Gate. There was something stronger, a collective sense of generational change that was ineluctable.
Similarly AOC (born in the Bronx on Oct. 13, 1989, at the height of the East German protests) is not herself a lone agent of change but part of a far larger wave. The new freshman generation in the House is packed with talent, particularly the women, who are learning fast how to use the committees to rattle the system.
That won’t stop the Republicans making AOC the scary poster child of radical progressives. Their base in the hinterlands weren’t too worried about the country being subverted by the socialist hoards as long as it was Uncle Bernie out there proselytizing but the young firebrand from Queens is altogether different – alien, exotic and insubordinate.
As if to confirm this threat in a medium that everyone can enjoy Devil’s Due Comics is producing a comic book version of AOC (not endorsed by her) as the sword-wielding superwoman leader of the “Freshman Force.” According to the publisher, the book is a satire of Washington “that spares no one.”
There is a good chance that building AOC into an ogre could backfire. The energy of the “Freshman Force” impresses even some of those people who voted for Trump believing that he was, as he claimed, the outsider Washington needed to drain the swamp rather than, as has turned out, the crook who has made the place a lot swampier.
And this is no longer the Democratic party that, by choosing Hillary Clinton, fielded a candidate who proved that an older white woman could be every bit as politically tin-eared as an older white man. The force is with AOC and her generation.