The US mid-term elections last year were described as a watershed moment by many commentators. Lichi D’Amelio, an activist in the US, gives her take on the situation
The 2018 midterm elections were highly anticipated to be a referendum on the Trump agenda. While there was some debate about the particular hue of blue the electoral tide had brought in and just what could be inferred from the results, it has been pretty roundly accepted that 2019’s incoming freshman Congress is something different. It is, as has been noted in nearly every American news source, the most “diverse” Congress in US history.
With an average age of 49, Politico noted that 2019 also represents the youngest Congress to date. Additionally, there has been a significant number of historic firsts to pepper the field. Among them, Sharice Davids from Kansas and Debra Haaland from New Mexico are the first two Native Americans ever elected to Congress (Davids is also the first out LGBTQ person from her state to be elected to Congress).
Palestinian-American, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Somali-American, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota are the first two Muslim-American women ever elected to Congress. And Nuyorican, democratic socialist, media sensation Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (now, popularly known as AOC) is the youngest woman ever elected to Congress at 29.
In general, more women and more people of colour were elected in 2019 to the US Congress than any other time in history. With the country’s infamous history of racist and sexist exclusion from political office dominated almost entirely by wealthy, older, white men, these changes can’t easily be dismissed as superficial.
Even if one insisted on making the case that these changes are merely skin-deep, it would be hard to ignore the significantly left-wing political leanings of some of the newest and most prominent Congress members. Those who’ve made the biggest splash don’t just look more representative of Americans, they support policies that would actually improve their lives.
Medicare for All, free tuition, abolishing ICE and taxing the rich have struck the deepest chords in society. And while, for example, Ilhan Omar has demonstrated ambivalence in the past on, probably the most contentious question in US politics – Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel (BDS) – as a tactic, she has nonetheless expressed that she “believes and supports the BDS movement and [has] fought to make sure people’s right to support it isn’t criminalised.” Indeed, she voted against an anti-BDS measure while she served on Minnesota’s state legislature.
Recently, Omar tweeted in response to Trump’s attempt to oust Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro and install US puppet, Juan Guaidó, “A US backed coup in Venezuela is not a solution to the dire issues they face. Trump’s efforts to install a far right opposition will only incite violence and further destabilise the region. We must support Mexico, Uruguay & the Vatican’s efforts to facilitate a peaceful dialogue.”
Rashida Tlaib, who celebrated her primary win wrapped in a Palestinian flag and gave a tearful shout out to her family in the West Bank, has refused the “traditional” AIPAC trip to Israel – an unprecedented rebuke – and offered instead to lead a delegation to Palestine. Tlaib explained her reasoning to The Intercept, “I don’t think AIPAC provides a real, fair lens into this issue. It’s one-sided. … [They] have these lavish trips to Israel, but they don’t show the side that I know is real, which is what’s happening to my grandmother and what’s happening to my family there.”
Tlaib, a Detroit native, who was well-known in activist circles and had previously won a seat on Michigan’s state legislature, had not foregrounded Palestine during her congressional campaign. But, those who viewed that as an indication that she might ignore the issue have, thus far, been proven wrong.
Ocasio-Cortez is by now the most popular socialist politician in the country, second only to Bernie Sanders, though, it’s likely a tossup. (The mere fact that the phrase “popular socialist politician” actually matches reality in the US, should provide some insight into the dramatic leftward shift in mass consciousness the country has undergone). AOC has been such a whizz at taking on the near endless barrage of rightwing trollage, that her eager twitter followers (she has 2.47 million) can’t wait for the next bumbling fool to try and get the better of her only to fail supremely and, of course, publicly. Indeed, her twitter feed is a master class in what the kids call the “clap back.” Her takedowns are effortless and she leaves the impression that she’s only getting started, as her feeble opponent would do best to just whimper and fall away somewhere. There are dozens of examples but here are a couple of recent highlights:
Wisconsin’s union-busting Republican former governor tweeted in response to AOC’s widely discussed 70% wealth tax plan:
Explaining tax rates before Reagan to 5th graders: “Imagine if you did chores for your grandma and she gave you $10. When you got home, your parents took $7 from you.” The students said: “That’s not fair!” Even 5th graders get it.
AOC didn’t miss a beat(down):
Explaining marginal taxes to a far-right former Governor: Imagine if you did chores for abuela & she gave you $10. When you got home, you got to keep it, because it’s only $10. Then we taxed the billionaire in town because he’s making tons of money underpaying the townspeople.
Or when Daily Wire contributor Harry Khachatrian thought he could stump her with:
What, precisely, is the correct level of income inequality for you, @AOC ? Is there a distribution you are shooting for? Should everyone be equal?
AOC responded (in the midst of the UTLA teachers strike):
Somewhere between “teachers shouldn’t have to sell their own blood to make rent” & “billionaires with helipads and full-time workers on food stamps shouldn’t exist in the same society”
She can say in less than 40 characters, what so many Americans have been waiting for a politician – any politician – to say.
But, it’s not just the universe of rightwing airheads that are frightened of AOC, far more interestingly, the most established of the official liberal establishment seem particularly irritated by AOC’s popularity. Outgoing Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill seemed to take great, supremely condescending offense to the fact that AOC, a Bronx native, might be a tad more popular and representative than District 14’s previous Congressperson, Joe Crowley. “I’m a little confused why she’s the thing,” McCaskill harrumphed, “But it’s a good example of what I’m talking about – a bright shiny new object, came out of nowhere and surprised people when she beat a very experienced congressman.”
Most recently, The Hill reported that AOC’s very own colleagues want to “turn the tables” on her. At least one brave (but anonymous) lawmaker has reportedly said, “What I have recommended to the New York delegation is that you find her a primary opponent and make her a one-term congressperson.”
But, the most wildly out of touch commentary award might have to go to Aaron Sorkin, bastion of liberalism, real-life caricature of “the coastal elite” and creator of The West Wing, who suggested that the new batch of congress members would do well to “stop acting like young people.” Probably better advice is never to listen to Aaron Sorkin.
There have also been criticisms from the left. From her suggestion that people “rally behind” NY Governor Andrew Cuomo, to her January 4th vote on a batch of resolutions, one of which included stop-gap funding for the Department for Homeland Security – though, she voted against a bill that would have ended the government shutdown because it would have continued funding towards DHS – and ICE, as one of her campaign promises was to “abolish ICE.”
Still, even most of the left’s harshest critics would likely readily admit that, at best, these new congress members can play a role in building excitement and momentum around the policies that animated their campaigns. At worst, their emergence onto the electoral arena signals that millions of people are willing to fight for those policies.