Wednesday, October 16, 2019

AOC, Tlaib, Omar Endorse Sanders

Reports are that three of the four "squad" members -- Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) -- are set to endorse Bernie Sanders for President. The fourth "squad" member, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), is both more moderate (or at least more "establishment"-friendly) than the other three and is from Massachusetts, so it's unsurprising she's not joining them.

Anyway, what to make of this news?

Well first, it's obviously a great get for Sen. Sanders, whose campaign really could use a shot in the arm after losing a lot of ground to Elizabeth Warren over the past few weeks. AOC, Omar, and Tlaib are very well liked among the insurgent progressive left, and their backing can certainly help him make the case that he is materially distinct from Warren as the "true" left-wing candidate in the race.

That said -- how much will it help him? And what does this bode for the careers of AOC et al?

I suspect there was already a fair bit of overlap between Squad stans and Bernie fans. On one level, that means this endorsement makes sense -- the Squad is backing the candidate who is most well-liked by their base. Indeed, in some ways it might be not just a sensible but a politically necessary move -- I remember a few months back some of AOC's erstwhile backers had their knives already out at the prospect she might endorse Warren. On another level, though, it limits how much this endorsement moves the needle, insofar as their most enthusiastic backers were also already Bernie diehards.

Could the endorsement even turn out to be a negative for Bernie? I don't think so. Certainly, there certainly is a segment of Democrats who actively dislike the Squad. But I think that cadre generally consists of people who also loathe Bernie, so they weren't ever in reach to begin with. The real question is whether, of Democratic primary voters who have an amenable but not fannish outlook towards the squad, does this endorsement do much to push them into Bernie's arms? My gut says no. But we'll see.

This also raises the question about what this means for the influence of the Squad going forward. Rightly or not, AOC, Omar, and Tlaib have cultivated (or had thrust upon them) a particular image -- "giantkillers", "the future of the party", "voice of a generation", and so on. Much of this was exaggerated, and frankly a lot to place upon a group of first-year Congresswomen. But nonetheless, the image is in place. What happens, then, if they back Sanders and ... it has virtually no impact? They'll be viewed as paper tigers. Now again, really that'd mostly be a case of wildly unrealistic expectations coming back down to earth. The sense that AOC, Omar, or Tlaib were transcendent political figures who were going to immediately revolutionize progressive politics was always a hype job (and one that didn't just emanate from their own campaigns).

But to have it so clearly falsified -- endorsing Bernie and barely moving the needle -- still might be a painful process both for the Squad, and for their most passionate backers. It would represent a pretty decisive demonstration that the Democratic party and progressive movement still is moving to its own beat, and that far from representing the wave of the future, the Squad will have to put in a lot of work if they want their brand of progressive politics to stretch beyond the deepest blue U.S. House districts.

(The flip side of this, of course, is that if the 3/4 Squad endorsement ends up reviving Bernie's campaign -- much less propels him to victory -- then I think that's a pretty hefty datapoint in favor of the claim that there is a seachange and the Squad is leading it.)

Oh, and one more thing. Because this story involves Ilhan Omar and a Jew, we're seeing the usual frenzy of terrible takes on the subject of Omar and the Jews. On the one hand, no, simply endorsing a Jew does not itself falsify any antisemitism issues Omar might have. That's sophomoric; it's just another iteration of the "I have Jewish friends" defense. On the other hand, neither is it the case that Omar endorsing Sanders is a case of tokenism or a cynical act of pandering. Everything about Omar and Sanders' politics suggest they'd be natural political allies, and nothing in Omar's record suggests she'd refrain or even have second-thoughts about endorsing a natural ally simply because he's Jewish. Indeed, I bet that if Omar had endorsed, say, Elizabeth Warren instead, her most incorrigible critics would use that against her too ("Why didn't she endorse Sanders, who shares her far-left vision? It must be because he's a Jew!").

Ironically, both of these are opposing sides of the same coin: that antisemitism can only come in the form of frothing, undifferentiated hatred. If that's what it means, then a Sanders endorsement falsifies the case; save that the "it's a cynical tokenization play" is an attempt to salvage it. Both sides are wrong. The case that Ilhan Omar is that sort of antisemite is impossibly weak; the case that this sort of antisemitism is the only kind is theoretically bankrupt; the case that the kind of antisemitism that can plausibly be attributed to Omar is unique to her (as opposed to apparently being absolutely epidemic in Minnesota state politics and running riot through the Minnesota GOP in particular) is shot through with anti-Black and Islamophobic over-policing.

The simple, boring story is that Omar almost certainly endorsed Sanders because Sanders best maps onto Omar's vision of progressive politics. Nothing more complex than that.

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