Who is America’s leader of the opposition? There is no such position, of course, within the American system of government. But alongside Democrat congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, a new figure has emerged as a counterweight to President Donald Trump.
Her name is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also known to her followers as “AOC”. A newly elected congresswoman from New York City, Ocasio-Cortez came to attention last year. Then 28 years old, having worked as a bartender only months earlier, she upset a prominent Democrat to win the party’s nomination for a seat in the House of Representatives. Describing herself as a democratic socialist, she has rapidly built a following as the de facto leader of the Justice Democrats group.
Aligned with the left-wing populism of Bernie Sanders, Justice Democrats are aiming for something of a political revolution.
On climate change, they seek a Green New Deal, based on moving America to 100 per cent renewable energy. On economics, they call for more progressive taxation, including a 70 per cent marginal rate slug on the super-rich. The group also wants the abolition of ICE, the federal government agency that enforces Trump’s hardline immigration policies.
It’s the look and style of these politics that are as striking as the policies. Ocasio-Cortez is the face of a new generation of American progressive politics: one where minorities aren’t in the background, but whose leaders are women and people of colour. She is joined by Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, the first two Muslim women elected to Congress.
This breed of politicians won’t be told to know their place. Shortly after being sworn in, Tlaib told supporters that “we’re going to impeach the motherf---er” (referring to Trump). Ocasio-Cortez hasn’t been afraid to take on Trump, saying there is “no question” he is racist and has systematically violated international human rights law.
It’s still too early to know if Ocasio-Cortez and her cohort are cut out for the ruthless grind of politics. They could fizzle or burn out. Yet so far, they have been successful in firing up younger, millennial voters (while infuriating right-wing conservatives).
It helps that they’re savvy communicators. When Republicans leaked an old video of Ocasio-Cortez as a college student dancing on a rooftop, in an attempt to embarrass her, it instead prompted an outpouring of support. She responded deftly, posting a video of herself dancing into her office in Congress.
This is the classic expression of millennial progressivism: a politics that combines passionate advocacy, quick wit and personable authenticity. Many find it a welcome antidote to Trumpian populism.
Given how much Australian politics likes to borrow from America, should we anticipate the rise of a local version of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?
Answer: it’s not likely. Australian politics simply doesn’t open itself up to young talents in the way the American system can, with its primary contests. To get preselected for a seat in Parliament, you need to first join a political party, do your time, and keep powerbrokers on side. It’s the kind of game that turns off many capable people who might otherwise consider running for office.
And it’s one reason why we have such a narrow professionalisation of politics. Parliamentary ranks are dominated by insiders who live off politics, as much as they live for it. Many enter Parliament already compromised, rather than armed with conviction.
It has perhaps always been this way. But there’s no question our democracy can do with a new injection of diversity and energy. Our political system periodically needs to be shaken up.
This is because social progress rarely happens because elites and the powerful can be counted upon to act in an enlightened way. Reforms are usually only achieved when those affected by injustice agitate for change. It’s no accident that the Trump presidency, with its aggressive sexism and racism – and clear anti-democratic tendencies – has prompted many American millennials from minority backgrounds to enter politics.
The comparison with Australia is interesting. We’ve had systematic failure on climate change. We’ve had a divisive debate about marriage equality. We’ve been confronted with the return of race politics and rise of neo-Nazi extremism. Yet, as far as we can tell, none of this has driven many millennials, or minorities, into joining political parties because they wish to defend or improve the system.
What, then, are the prospects of a reinvigorated progressive political agenda? Are we likely to see one with the likely election of a Shorten Labor government this year? Social democrats are asking.
In a recent essay, Sydney-based writer and activist Osmond Chiu has argued the need for the ALP to “offer an ambitious transformative vision”. With a hopelessly divided Coalition self-destructing, historian Frank Bongiorno has suggested that, for Labor and Australian social democracy, “this may well be a one-in-a-generation opportunity and it should not be squandered lightly”.
Labor’s pitch does shape up as a safe and old-fashioned one: wage increases, job security, and fairness. Whether there will be a more far-reaching agenda once it’s in government, time will tell. Just don’t expect a charismatic young figure like Ocasio-Cortez to be coming through.
Tim Soutphommasane is a political theorist and former Race Discrimination Commissioner.