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How a Movement Grows

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Dayen’s profile of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent visit to Los Angeles was I thought quite telling about how an individual can help a movement grow and help her own political career by subjugating the heroic ego to organizing the masses.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the probable next member of Congress from New York’s 14th District, barnstormed through Los Angeles with two fundraisers last week. But I hesitate to call them fundraisers. They weren’t held on the Hollywood Hills balcony of some showrunner for prestige TV. They weren’t showcases for one woman’s singular vision to personally revive the American left and solve the nation’s challenges.

They were organizing meetings — the kind that used to be held in the back of union halls and community centers when we still had unions, and communities. Ocasio-Cortez presented herself not as the savior of a moment but a small part of a movement, amplifying the actions of everyday activists toiling in relative obscurity on the ground. “This work doesn’t rely on any one person,” Ocasio-Cortez said at one event. “But the work needs every one person to act. That’s what collective movement-building is all about.”

When the program began, Ocasio-Cortez took a seat on stage while presenters spent an hour pitching the crowd of more than 500 on their projects. The Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment asked for support for Proposition 10, which would repeal the statewide ban on local rent control efforts. Trinity Tran of Revolution LA gave a rousing speech about the historic movement to create a public bank for city tax revenue, another issue that goes before voters in November.

Finally, Ocasio-Cortez took the mic. She explained her role as “half student, half cheerleader,” supplying a platform for community voices and learning about their concerns.

Ocasio-Cortez was an engaging speaker, but she used those gifts to direct people to the “uncelebrated and un-talked about” work of change – her eight months on the campaign trail knocking on doors, talking to neighbors, building coalitions at the community level. She talked of a “moral infrastructure,” constructed to engage the broad mass of people who may have tuned out the horse race, but would be willing to join the causes of single-payer healthcare, tuition-free college, and an end to the war on drugs and mass incarceration.

The Koreatown event was organized by the Democratic Socialists of America, whose ranks have swelled to more than 47,000 in the wake of the Trump election. The discussion between Ocasio-Cortez and two Democratic Socialist leaders doubled as a membership drive and a chance for the group to tout its priorities, including Prop. 10 and the public banking initiative. “Movements are not possible without our collective power,” said Rachel Reyes of the Democratic Socialists.

The discussion again stressed organizing as the solution to an atomized public square. “It’s our job to let people know they are not alone,” Ocasio-Cortez told the crowd. “Not alone in their poverty, not alone in their identity, not alone in their right to dignity.” She highlighted the loneliness of movement building, how it can initially lead to failure when opposing powerful forces. “But as long as you feel you’re doing the right thing, it’s worth doing.”

You hear a lot of politicians say that the power of the people is greater than the people in power, that change comes not from the top down but the bottom up. They usually say this at a campaign stop when they need votes, before returning to Washington and tuning the public out. Ocasio-Cortez is a person soon to be in power who identifies as one of the people, someone who started from the bottom and is determined to remain there, because she actually believes it to be the center of transformational change.

Not many people end up being seen as the potential leader of a transformative movement. But at this time, the left is really seeking that leader. It’s found it off and on. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was effectively a big social movement, even if Obama himself was never comfortable with it. That discomfort explains much of the frustration with him on the left in the aftermath. Bernie Sanders certainly found himself the head of a social movement and he is comfortable with it. But Bernie is also such an independent operator and has a big enough ego that really, he’s not the best person to lead it because he doesn’t do a good job reflecting the power back onto the people. But Ocasio-Cortez, that is what she is doing and that’s a real skill. Here’s someone with some of the best political skills the left can offer taking her rapid rise as a hero to many, calling to use it to take over the Democratic Party while being a proud Democrat instead of wasting it on pointless third parties, and then also using that fame to urge people to organize themselves and focus on the issues that mean the most to them. The thing about doing this is that it helps build a larger left and at the same time, only looks great for her, helping to make her even more a hero for the left.

These are very interesting times for left politics. More of this would go a long way.

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