Earlier this week, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez featured Taco Mix, objectively the best taco spot in Spanish Harlem, on her Instagram. I tell you this to a) convince you to go there if you are ever in the area, and b) because it speaks to the value of representatives who are normal people.
AOC’s well-documented rise from bartender to congresswoman is indicative of how a healthy democracy should function. In an era where we need climate policy to rapidly scale up, having representatives in Congress who reflect people’s lived experiences is essential to ensuring those policies are just and favor constituents and not corporations.
By almost every metric, Congress is completely out of step with the U.S. population. It skews older, more male, more white, and way more wealthy. More than half of all members of Congress are millionaires. While Republicans make up the majority of the top 10 wealthiest members in the House and Senate by a long shot, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi ranks up there as the sixth-richest member of the House with an estimated net worth of $115 million. The disconnect contributes to why people view Congress as such a failure. But as Saikat Chakrabati, AOC’s former chief of staff and co-founder of Justice Democrats, said, “it doesn’t have to be a faraway club of elites, the kings and queens who sit atop the throne and make decisions that lowly us can’t do anything about.”
When AOC broke through in the House in 2018 along with other representatives, including the so-called “Squad” of Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley, it changed both the complexion of Congress and opened the door to a new politics of what’s possible. The door opened even wider this year with high school principal Jamaal Bowman and nurse and Black Lives Matter activist Cori Bush both winning primaries in heavily Democratic districts, essentially guaranteeing them seats in the next Congress. We’re a long way from true representation, but the shifts taking place come at a time when Democrats are gunning for control of the White House and Senate.
Having a unified government is the most essential ingredient to passing any form of climate policy. But having people who have actually lived from paycheck to paycheck, faced discrimination, worked with students on free lunch programs, or dealt with any of the other myriad problems facing average Americans in 2020 is crucial to ensuring policy isn’t set by the wants of the highest donors and lobbyists.
One reason the Green New Deal has such a gravitational pull on the party is because its champions are politicians who have a real constituency in the climate movement and eschew big donors. AOC and other new leaders are accountable to the people, and that’s reflected in the ideas put forward by the Green New Deal resolution and other bills introduced to flesh it out, which in turn are building more support and power for the climate movement.
“A number of folks we’ve interviewed spoke to the fact that, before 2016, a lot of activists on the left had given up on electoral politics and didn’t really see it as something worth their time, politicians were seen as people to put pressure on through protests and other tactics, maybe they could be tentative allies but not champions,” Sam Eilertsen and Nate Birnbaum, filmmakers who have chronicled the rise of the new climate movement and currently host the “Generation Green New Deal” podcast and newsletter, said in an email interview. “The night before the Pelosi sit-in (Nov. 12, 2018), AOC and Rashida Tlaib showed up at Sunrise’s action training and a number of politicians said that was the first time they had ever felt like they had a politician in their corner.”
Obviously step one is ensuring Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden wins the White House and Democrats pull off enough wins to flip the Senate. Fail at that and democracy is in serious trouble, to say nothing of the climate or anyone who isn’t a rich, white guy. But if the blue wave does happen, the growing number of progressives are poised to ensure climate policy meets the needs of average Americans and tackles other existing structural problems rather than reinforcing them.
“Where the formula really is like actual democracy,” Chakrabati, who hosts a podcast on building a better world, said, “being accountable to your voters, being accountable to American people rather than just the people who are doing well off the current system means you treat the really big problems like the crises they are.”