AOC's old-fashioned machine politics
Some constituents of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez actually got something out of politics this year beside a barrage of campaign advertisements: With a sliver of the almost $19 million that she raised on her glide to re-election, AOC bought and gave away 200 Thanksgiving turkeys.
Turkeys are reminiscent of New York's Tammany Hall, which used to deliver birds, along with coal and other useful things, to Democratic constituents. Much of AOC's New York City district is poor. If government is hobbled, and mediating institutions like political parties and unions (another traditional source of holiday turkeys) are diminished, constituent needs go unmet. That's both challenge and opportunity.
"The Congresswoman believes that when a larger federal response fails, as it has with COVID-19, we have a responsibility to think creatively about what we can do with others in our community to meet the needs of our constituents," said Ocasio-Cortez campaign spokesperson Lauren Hitt in an email. Hitt said AOC campaign volunteers and donors made 200,000 community check-in calls, delivered 80,000 meals, distributed 100,000 masks and recruited more than 11,000 tutors for students in remote learning.
The results of a decades-long conservative campaign to destroy the efficacy of government, and to undermine voters' faith in it, are now painfully evident. The politics of the 21st century has consisted, to a substantial degree, of a series of Republican mega-failures — Iraq, Katrina, financial crisis, Donald Trump, COVID-19. Yet consequences have been severed from performance; voters have repeatedly stuck with the party. Democrats have held full control of the federal government for only two years this century.
Polarization has been devastating to U.S. governance but a financial boon to U.S. campaigns. Democrats spent tens of millions of dollars on losing campaigns this year. Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot, raised an absurd $94 million in her run for Senate in Kentucky, most of it thanks to Democratic rage at her opponent: Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Defeats don't necessarily mean all the money is wasted; some campaigns produce positive after effects. But what if a portion of that money had gone to the equivalent of turkeys and coal instead? What if Democrats, as a party, provided fewer television advertisements and more health care — delivered directly to struggling constituents?
As long as Republicans retain the power to obstruct, the capacity to use government to improve outcomes is limited. But the capacity to use a party is not. ActBlue, the Democratic donor website, raised more than $4 billion this election cycle. If 1% of that sum were redirected to high-profile, politically salient constituent projects, Democrats would have $40 million to work with. That's $40 million — potentially far more when combined with local donors — to ease cynicism, build trust, nurture loyalty, deliver services. (It wouldn't be a crime if a disproportionate number of beneficiaries were in swing counties.)
AOC delivered turkeys (and more) this year, like a ward boss of the past. It may be time for Democrats to try some new — or very old — tactics to reconnect citizens to party politics.
Wilkinson writes about U.S. politics and domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion.