Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Understands Democracy Better Than Republicans Do

The idea that proponents of greater electoral equity have to quiet down because we live in a ‘republic’ is absurd.

It’s worth asking where this quip — “we’re a republic, not a democracy” — even came from. Nicole Hemmer, a historian of American politics and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics,” traces it to the 1930s and 40s. “When Franklin Roosevelt made defending democracy a core component of his argument for preparing for, and then intervening in, the war in Europe, opponents of U.S. intervention began to push back by arguing that the U.S. was not, in fact, a democracy,” she wrote in an email.

One Roosevelt opponent, for example — Boake Carter, a newspaper columnist who supported the America First Committee (which opposed American entry into World War II) — wrote a column in October 1940 called “A Republic Not a Democracy,” in which he strongly rebuked the president for using the word “democracy” to describe the country. “The United States was never a democracy, isn’t a democracy, and I hope it will never be a democracy,” Carter wrote.

The term went from conservative complaint to right-wing slogan in the 1960s, when Robert Welch, the founder of the John Birch Society, used it in a September 1961 speech, “Republics and Democracies.” In a democracy, Welch protested, “there is a centralization of governmental power in a simple majority. And that, visibly, is the system of government which the enemies of our republic are seeking to impose on us today.”

“This is a Republic, not a Democracy,” Welch said in conclusion, “Let’s keep it that way!”

These origins are important. If there’s substance behind “We’re a republic, not a democracy,” it’s not as a description of American government. There’s really no difference, in the present, between a “republic” and a “democracy”: Both connote systems of representation in which sovereignty and authority derive from the public at large.

The point of the slogan isn’t to describe who we are, but to claim and co-opt the founding for right-wing politics — to naturalize political inequality and make it the proper order of things. What lies behind that quip, in other words, is an impulse against democratic representation. It is part and parcel of the drive to make American government a closed domain for a select, privileged few.

‘Go Back’ Message Deepens Immigration-Debate Wounds

The country is being riven by an issue unresolved by successive administrations and Congresses000

At Mass on Sunday, Catholics around the world heard the gospel parable of the Good Samaritan: It is the story Jesus told of a Samaritan encountering on the road a Jewish man—a foreigner to him—who had been beaten and left for dead. While others walked by and let the man suffer, the Samaritan stopped, dressed his wounds and took him to safety despite their deep cultural differences.

At about the time that gospel was being proclaimed, President Trump tweeted out his already-famous, incendiary declaration that young Democratic congresswomen criticizing America should “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”

The contrast in those Sunday messages was striking. So too was the evolution in Republican rhetoric from the days of Ronald Reagan, an earlier GOP president who, in his farewell address, talked of America as a “shining city” that was “teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace” and whose “doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

Mr. Trump’s tweet came at a time when the country already was pained by television images of illegal immigrants packed into chain-link pens at the border, and while the immigration and Customs Enforcement agency was beginning a wave of raids to round up undocumented immigrants.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.) PHOTO: NICK WAGNER/ASSOCIATED PRESS

There is a root cause for all this: The country is being riven by a seething immigration debate, left unresolved by successive administrations and Congresses. Put bluntly, the immigration system is broken and needs fixing, yet the emotions now being stirred probably are making it less likely, not more likely, that it will be fixed any time soon.

In his message, Mr. Trump was referring to a group of young congresswomen known as “the squad”—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. All are minorities and, despite the implication of the president’s tweet, three of the four were born in the U.S.

Ironically, the four outspoken progressives had been a far bigger problem for fellow Democrats, and specifically for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, than for Mr. Trump. They have incensed fellow Democrats by charging them with racist behavior, encouraged progressives to challenge incumbent Democratic lawmakers, and undercut the party’s attempts to modulate its message to win back moderate and working-class voters who drifted toward Mr. Trump in 2016.

In fact, comments by Trump allies suggest they would like to make those controversial congresswomen the new face of the Democratic party in the eyes of middle-of-the-road Americans.

The president’s attack on the congresswomen had significant racial overtones, because all four are women of color. But the policy debate running beneath the charged rhetoric is over immigration.

The nuts and bolts of the immigration problem now riveting the country are relatively simple. Rampant social violence and economic dislocation are compelling working men and women in Central America to seek a way out. Current immigration law and court rulings have created a muddle over when and how such people might seek asylum in the U.S., and what should be done with them when they do so.

The asylum option is drawing northward thousands of immigrants. A sensible U.S. policy solution would be to

  • clarify the law’s provisions about asylum,
  • establish a more sensible system for handling asylum seekers and their families, and
  • provide more help to Central American nations to reduce the problems that compel people to leave in the first place.

As U.S. officials and lawmakers have concluded at various times in the past, the price of helping Central American nations solve their problems there is probably lower in the long run than is paying the financial and social prices of having the problems land here.

Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar PHOTO: SAUL LOEB/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Nearly lost in the process is a recognition of the considerable contribution immigrants make to American society. The New American Economy is an organization, funded by business leaders, that has set out to document the contributions immigrants make to U.S. economic growth. On its website, it estimates the impact of immigrants by state, and even by city.

Example: The Kansas City metropolitan area has 140,442 immigrant residents, who pay $1 billion in taxes, have $3.1 billion in spending power, and include 9,625 immigrant entrepreneurs.

Mr. Trump’s supporters often point out that his administration supports legal immigration, and is fighting illegal immigration, which is true. Presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner has overseen the drafting of an immigration proposal that would boost border security while also setting up a merit-based immigration system that would keep the number of legal immigrants at current levels while shifting the mix more to those with needed job and technical skills.

But the congresswomen Mr. Trump targeted also are here legally, a sign of how fast rhetoric can slide downhill.

Top Ocasio-Cortez Aide Becomes a Symbol of Democratic Division

House Democratic leaders, their patience clearly fraying, signaled this weekend to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s outspoken top aide that his seeming efforts to lead an insurrection against more moderate Democrats would no longer be tolerated — a message also aimed at the freshman congresswoman who employs him.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, a liberal firebrand from the Bronx, has given her chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, remarkable latitude to pursue the divisive politics that made his name when he led Justice Democrats, a group founded to challenge entrenched Democrats through primary campaigns.

With that license, Mr. Chakrabarti has become an unelected symbol of the party’s growing disunity, as Democrats try to coalesce as a party before what promises to be a punishing fight next year for the White House. The battle between the Democrats who secured the House majority last year by flipping Republican districts and the smaller, but politically potent, left-wing from secure Democratic districts has found its cause célèbre.

Mr. Chakrabarti ignited a firestorm two weeks ago after a bruising intraparty fight over an emergency border aid package that progressives said lacked sufficient restrictions on the Trump administration. Calling out moderate Democrats who sank a more liberal aid package, he compared them to “new Southern Democrats.”

They “certainly seem hell bent to do to black and brown people today what the old Southern Democrats did in the 40s,” he said on Twitter. He later deleted the tweet.

On Friday night, Democratic leaders showed that they had enough. Using the House Democratic Caucus’s official Twitter account, they delivered a rhetorical slap that questioned not only Mr. Chakrabarti’s future but also whether Ms. Ocasio-Cortez wanted to be a lawmaker on the inside or an outsider campaigning to purge the party of centrists and force it to the left.

The rebuke shared a tweet by Mr. Chakrabarti that explained that he believed Representative Sharice Davids of Kansas, one of the two first Native American women to serve in Congress, was enabling a “racist system” in voting for a weaker border aid package.

“I don’t think people have to be personally racist to enable a racist system,” the aide had written, to which Democratic leaders demanded,“Who is this guy and why is he explicitly singling out a Native American woman of color?”

The slap ended with, “Keep her name out of your mouth.”

House Democrats

@HouseDemocrats

Who is this guy and why is he explicitly singling out a Native American woman of color?

Her name is Congresswoman Davids, not Sharice.

She is a phenomenal new member who flipped a red seat blue.

Keep👏🏾Her👏🏾Name👏🏾Out👏🏾Of👏🏾Your👏🏾Mouth.

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That last phrase was filled with its own meaning. It echoed a blow delivered on Tuesday to the White House adviser Kellyanne Conway by Representative Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts, a member of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s “squad,” who wrote, “Keep my name out of your lying mouth.”

To further make the point, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, Drew Hammill, retweeted the slap.

Mr. Chakrabarti, a former Silicon Valley start-up founder turned left-wing political organizer, has defiantly retained his outsider streak even after becoming a chief of staff at one of the nation’s most establishment institutions, the House. That has riled ranks of Democratic lawmakers and aides. While convention on Capitol Hill holds that aides are to be seen and not heard, he has publicly and repeatedly criticized Ms. Pelosi. Perhaps most galling to lawmakers, he has also encouraged his Twitter followers to support liberal candidates trying to oust sitting Democrats, an uneasy reminder of his work with Justice Democrats.

He has cultivated a remarkably high profile for a congressional aide. He “isn’t just running her office,” a Washington Post Magazine profile of him said, “he’s guiding a movement.” A headline from Elle magazine crowed, “You Need to Know Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Chief of Snacks Saikat Chakrabarti.”

Mr. Chakrabarti has also remained defiant. He dismissed the rebuke from Democratic leadership Friday night, arguing that “Everything I tweeted 2 weeks ago was to call out the terrible border funding bill that 90+ Dems opposed.”

“Our Democracy is literally falling apart,” Mr. Chakrabarti tweeted. “I’m not interested in substance-less Twitter spats.”

Justice Democrats, the group he founded, and over a dozen other progressive groups backed him on Saturday, releasing a statement expressing concern that “senior Democratic Party leaders and their aides have been escalating attacks on new leaders in the party” and urging them to focus on “the real crisis at hand” at the border.

The drama may be more reminiscent of a high school student council than the House of Representatives, but it has created a dilemma for Ms. Ocasio-Cortez. The progressive darling has remained silent on her aide’s remarks; her spokesman declined to comment on Saturday. Asked on Thursday to comment on her aide’s earlier tweets, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez replied that she had “not been paying attention to this.”

That is likely to further anger House members, many of whom are people of color representing moderate to conservative districts. It is considered a breach of protocol for unelected congressional aides to criticize lawmakers even in closed-door meetings — much less publicly blast out their grievances — and those who step out of line typically face consequences.

As the chairman of a powerful conservative caucus, Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 Republican, fired a top aide in 2013 after allegations that the aide had allied with conservative advocacy groups to blow up a Republican leadership budget deal.

“We all rely on staff, but we have to have the full trust of our staff,” Mr. Scalise said at the time.

But Ms. Ocasio-Cortez prides herself on eschewing convention — an instinct that guided her ascent to become the youngest-ever elected representative — and so far has extended that approach to her staff. Shortly after arriving to Capitol Hill, her legislative assistant, Dan Riffle, gave an interview in which he described fellow Democratic congressional aides as Ivy League “careerists” who “don’t think big and aren’t here to change the world.”

Mr. Chakrabarti also has unloaded his grievances, sparing no one.

“Pelosi claims we can’t focus on impeachment because it’s a distraction from kitchen table issues. But I’d challenge you to find voters that can name a single thing House Democrats have done for their kitchen table this year,” Mr. Chakrabarti wrote after the divisive vote on border aid. “What is this legislative mastermind doing?”

“I like to show my cards and see people’s reactions,” Mr. Chakrabarti told The Washington Post Magazine, echoing President Trump. But other controversies have dogged him — in part because of the outsize attention Ms. Ocasio-Cortez receives from right-wing news outlets — for a lack of forthrightness.

After graduating from Harvard, Mr. Chakrabarti worked for a year as a technology associate at the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, and then moved to Silicon Valley to help found the technology company Stripe. He is presumed to be rich, but has not filed a financial disclosure form, leadership aides say.

Because Ms. Ocasio-Cortez capped her senior aides’ salaries to ensure she could offer an entry-level wage of $52,000, her employees are below the income threshold that mandates public financial disclosure. Instead, a House ethics panel required her to compel at least one of her aides who can “act in the member’s name or with the member’s authority” to file a disclosure form.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez chose Mr. Riffle, the legislative assistant, to submit the disclosure, rather than Mr. Chakrabarti.

In March, a conservative group filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission saying that Mr. Chakrabarti improperly disclosed the spending of two political action committees he helped establish that paid more than $1 million in 2016 and 2017 to a company he ran.

The company, Brand New Congress L.L.C., was an arm of a group he helped found by the same name that recruited community organizers as candidates who would all adopt the same transformative progressive platform; in turn, the group would contract their staff out to help run the candidates’ campaigns. To do this, Brand New Congress argued, the group had to be set up as a limited liability company — which is not required to disclose information about its owners or spending.

A lawyer for the company has said that Mr. Chakrabarti never received any salary or profit from the company, the political action committees or the campaign, and that the move was legal.