Dialogue

AOC and the millennial movement set to dominate American politics: David Freedlander discusses the resurgent young left

U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez , D-N.Y., speaks at a campaign rally for Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., Sunday, March 8, 2020. Paul Sancya/AP Photo.

Author and journalist David Freedlander joins Hub Dialogues and host Sean Speer to discuss his new book, The AOC Generation: How Millennials are Seizing Power and Rewriting the Rules of American Politics. They touch on the young and progressive movement emerging in the United States, why Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been so successful as its figurehead, and what is driving these political trends amongst younger people.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

Transcripts of our podcast episodes are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by journalist and author David Freedlander, whose most recent book, The AOC Generation: How Millennials are Seizing Power and Rewriting the Rules of American Politics, has just come out in paperback. I’m grateful to speak to him about the book and its key insights. Thank you for joining me, David.

DAVID FREEDLANDER: Thank you for having me. Appreciate it.

SEAN SPEER: Your book outlines the rise of a new progressive movement of millennials in American political life. What issues or factors have led to its emergence?

DAVID FREEDLANDER: Well, I think the biggest one was the election of Donald Trump, which was just such a shock to the system, and has been such an ongoing shock to the system here in the States. And it’s because, like anything else, it’s like if you woke up one morning and the sky were orange, you’d sort of eventually kind of get used to it, not say anything about Donald Trump. But it’s worth remembering that this guy who was a reality TV show star, and “businessman” and real estate developer who had this long history of—he had no experience like anyone else who ever held an office before. And so, I think that really spurred a lot of people to kind of recognize that something was really fundamentally broken about the country in a way and its political system. 

And so that, whatever you want to call it, fear, concern, was kind of glomming on to these other things that have been bubbling up a little bit beneath the surface prior to his election, including the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2015 and 2016 which really galvanized young people. And then other similar movements: Occupy Wall Street a few years before that; various climate-related things; school debt; and stuff like that.

SEAN SPEER: At The Hub, David, we think and write a lot about the intellectual and political paradigm that underpins contemporary politics. Preparing for our interview, one thing I wondered is the extent to which the rise of this movement that you outlined in the book reflects the end of an intellectual and political paradigm that had been with us since the end of the Cold War. 

If that’s right, to what extent is this a transitory period of political weirdness before we get to something resembling a new political centre? In other words, are these political developments temporary or more durable, in your view?

DAVID FREEDLANDER: That’s a great question and I’m not sure, really, if I could have an answer for that, including how liberal, lefty, progressive this rising generation will turn out to be. I suspect that for many reasons they will remain that way, not least of all having to do with the fact that there’s just so many of the footholds and gateways to a kind of more middle class, established life are unavailable to them. Including homeownership, and including not being saddled with college debt, including a thriving job market for people with elite college degrees, frankly, and I don’t think all that is available for them. 

But, there’s—it feels sometimes like there’s a more pressing, almost political, force in the country, which is the Trumpist, far-right, nationalistic, populist force. And so how those two things end up grappling with one another, I think we’re not really quite sure about. We might get into it but the young millennial progressives that I write about— it’s very much a phenomenon of coastal big cities for right now—and how that kind of ends up here in the States. Tthe geography ends up mattering as much as the voters. And so how those two things collide, I think we’re just not quite sure about.

SEAN SPEER: David, I’ll come back to the question of the dialogue between the left and right later. But let’s take up the book’s title, which specifically cites Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as the unofficial leader of this movement. How much is she an avatar for the movement versus an intellectual and political force driving it? Is she, in other words, a perceptive politician? Or an ideological leader?

DAVID FREEDLANDER: I think she’s very much both. I think that her politics are certainly deeply felt. I don’t think that she is somehow just jumping to the front of the parade. I think that a lot of young people of her generation, you’re kind of socialist or democratic socialist before you even know it. At least from my reporting on her—you know she joins groups, like Democratic Socialists of America, just because they’re the hip thing to join at the moment. But I think that she was very much feeling that as someone who graduated from an elite college, really struggled to find a place in the world, couldn’t get a foothold hold here or there. And she’s a real political phenomenon. 

It’s a very a non-top-down kind of thing if you follow her closely. She’s really engaged in a dialogue with for, lack of a better word, we call her followers, frankly. But she also really commands them, I think, when she wants to. For example, here in New York City, we had a mayoral race last year. And once she endorsed a candidate, that candidate zoomed up in the polls. It was like an old-school precinct ward situation where the leader says, “This is who you are for if you’re a young progressive,” and people just moved en mass to that candidate. So I think that’s a little bit of both.

SEAN SPEER: What in your view, David, makes her such a special political talent? Why is she a phenomenon?

DAVID FREEDLANDER: She’s incredibly fluid in both kinds of media, new and old, I think, is part of what it is. If you follow her Instagram stories or follow her on Twitter, or wherever, she clearly has mastered that medium in a way that certainly no other politician quite has. But she’s also so self-possessed and confident. For lack of a better word, she’s just so well-spoken and she’s such a great orator. I think that is part of the phenomenon. I also think that she is fluent in the language of pop culture, and in the sort of Stations of the Cross of popular culture in a way that few other politicians are. 

There was an incident that happened—gosh, I forget now, but I think it was two summers ago—where a Republican politician called her a sort of misogynistic epithet on the floor of the House, if you recall. And she took that and made a really big deal about it. She gave this very impassioned, fiery speech on the floor of the House, got all her colleagues there. And it’s things like that. She is the wrong person to mess with if you want to mess with someone because in those kinds of scenarios, she’s just so much better than her opponents in the kind of game of politics.

SEAN SPEER: You mentioned her relationship with her Democratic colleagues. Let me ask a question about that. Her hyper-progressive politics are hugely popular with the Democratic Party’s most energized base. But some members of the Democratic Congressional Caucus have argued that it harms the party in swing districts. What do you think about this perceived tension between AOC and the Democratic establishment? Are there limits to the broad appeal of the new Left? Or do you think that U.S. political culture is changing due to demographics and other factors, such that there’s a mainstream future for someone like Ocasio-Cortez?

DAVID FREEDLANDER: When I wrote the book, I would have thought there was more of a mainstream future for her than I think it appears there is now. Who knows? Things certainly change pretty quickly. I think a lot of her politics are kind of unpopular in the sort of broader country, frankly. I mean, a lot of them are popular and a lot of them aren’t. Bernie Sanders, he probably got what? Like a third of the Democratic primary vote when he ran? Half of it roughly when he ran the year before, which is pretty close to being the Democratic nominee. And then you have Democrats that rally to the cause. But no, I think that a lot of her views aren’t that, frankly, popular. And she has, interestingly, shown no sign of moderating at all. 

She’s not trying to be popular; she doesn’t seem to be trying to run for President who’s gonna be trying to be a national leader of the Democratic Party. But what I think what was interesting about your question was that she defeated a 20-year incumbent, an old white guy to win her seat, and other folks like her, who also beat somewhat incumbents and similar candidates that year, they do put pressure on the Democratic coalition that was just not there before. And yeah, I bet that the Democratic leaders in the House, Nancy Pelosi and others, don’t like her because it’s tough. When you have a very liberal person representing a very liberal district, and I don’t think they really think about “Is this gonna keep Democrats in the majority if I say this thing?” It’s more like, “Is it going to play well with my base in my district?” and I think it ends up being a real problem.

SEAN SPEER: It’s such an important point, David, let me take you up on that issue more broadly. It seems to me there are different ways in which to measure success. One, of course, would be to rise to the top of the national party. Another is to influence the ideas and the policy agenda that animates the party. It seems to me, that where AOC and others who are having their greatest success, it is not necessarily rising to the top of the party ticket, but in changing the centre of gravity in democratic politics. 

Do you want to just elaborate a bit on the extent to which we’ve seen a shift to the left in Democratic politics over the past decade or so and the extent to which this progressive millennial movement is responsible?

DAVID FREEDLANDER: Yeah, that’s a great point. And when I, as a reporter, when I interview, you know, leftist activists and others, I try to get at this point a lot. Which is that maybe the point of left politics is actually not to gain power, but to move the centre of gravity of debate? And on that, they’ve been really successful. Then the way it seems like the dynamic works is that you move the centre of gravity of debate towards you, and then you kind of push a little further. So, you never quite get to hold the flagpole kind of thing. But it’s fine because you’re winning the battle of ideas. And that seems really, certainly to be true.

I mentioned in the book when you compare the platform of Ralph Nader’s 2000 political campaign. Ralph Nader, who ran as a Green Party candidate, got 2 percent of the vote. It is more conservative than Joe Biden’s platform in 2020. And, you know, I think that’s a real testament to the way in which Ocasio Cortez and others have stretched the boundaries of debate in their party.

SEAN SPEER: One of the appeals of AOC, David, is that she communicates a traditional class-based understanding of politics, which has something of a broad resonance. But there are others on the new left that are more focused on issues of culture and identity that David Shor has argued are less popular with the American mainstream. 

Is there a risk that the emphasis on culture and identity may actually stand in the way of the popularity of the new left’s economic programme? And if so, how do AOC and others in this movement think about the trade-offs between these different parts of their worldview?

DAVID FREEDLANDER: Yeah, I mean, David Shor is exactly right about that. I always think of it as a 2016 version of Bernie Sanders versus a 2020 version of Bernie Sanders, and the 2016 version was very much class-based, and also really focused on working-class voters, and the 2020 version was much more of these cultural, salient, high profile issues. And he did worse. You don’t hear someone like Ocasio-Cortez, I think, and others, talk about that culture war stuff that often, right? When asked, when presented, she’ll sign along with a suite of issues that people who want to talk about those things would agree with, but it doesn’t really feel like it’s the sort of focus of her politics. 

I think it’s also just worth noting that as a child of Puerto Rican parents, there’s less of a need for her to talk about that kind of thing, in a funny way, than there is for like, a white guy like me, or a white woman to talk about them, I think. I think people feel like she has more leeway, and doesn’t need to be confronted with it. No president talked about race less than Barack Obama, because he didn’t have to. And so, I wonder if it’s sort of similar as a young Puerto Rican that she doesn’t get quite caught up in these issues quite the same way.

SEAN SPEER: You mentioned earlier, David, the potential for a dialogue across the ideological spectrum. What do you think about accompanying intellectual and political ferment among younger American conservatives? There seems to be something of an inverse trend towards heterodox and weird political ideas on the right as well. Maybe just have you elaborate: are these ideological movements indeed in dialogue or are they on separate tracks?

DAVID FREEDLANDER: You know, I think they are probably in dialogue. I think there’s a lot of dissatisfaction, at least rhetorical dissatisfaction, with the prevailing liberal orthodoxy. That dissatisfaction tends to kind of dominate the talk space of little magazines and podcasts and Twitter and places like that. I don’t foresee when the chips are down that there’ll be a lot of cross coalitional work there. It’s fun to have a debate, but I think that these two camps are just probably too far divided for any common purpose.

SEAN SPEER: Now, one of the striking things about American politics, is that while we’re having this conversation about the power and influence of this emergent, progressive millennial movement, political leadership in the U.S. is still dominated by President Biden, who’s 79, Donald Trump, who’s 75, Nancy Pelosi, who’s 82, and Mitch McConnell, who’s 80. What do you attribute this kind of gerontocracy to in American politics? Why is the American political class so old?

DAVID FREEDLANDER: That is a great question, and I don’t know if I have a real answer to it other than that it’s hard to push someone off the stage who has a lot of political power and who wants to be there, right? I mean, if Nancy Pelosi wants to lead the House and Democratic Caucus, she has all these built-in advantages to just keep doing it, regardless of whether or not she actually can keep doing it. I want to say it’s a unique moment, but it’s really not a unique moment. I feel like it’s been that way for a really long time. We haven’t had a Gen X President, for example, or a leader of any of these bodies, but it’s really remarkable. 

I think just politics went berserk somewhere around 2014 and we just haven’t sorted it out. I tried to look this up one time, and I remember that it’s very unusual to have a handoff of a politician where the leaving President is younger than the next one, which is what happened when Obama handed off to Trump. Because you’ve been there for eight years and whatever else. I don’t have a good explanation for it.

SEAN SPEER: If I can come back to your first answer, where you talked about the extent to which the Trump election occurred at a time when there were already feelings amongst young people that middle-class progress in the United States as defined by homeownership, job security, and so on, was at risk.

To what extent do those sentiments and feelings continue to drive this progressive millennial movement? And if so, how can the American political class start to rebuild the promise of middle-class progress in the United States?

DAVID FREEDLANDER: I feel like that was the debate we were all having at the end of 2020. We were gonna recognize that we’ve accrued, that we inherited this situation that nobody was really quite comfortable with. And because the political system does not feel responsive, necessarily, to the needs and desires of the voters, that we were just not making progress on that. The Biden Build Back Better Program is dead, probably not going to be revived. 

And so, it doesn’t seem like any of that is improving. In fact, it seems like it’s moving in the opposite way. I do think that the switch to remote work may ease some of the pressures there. And this Zoom-ification of everything might open things up a bit. But you know, it doesn’t appear as if college is getting cheaper, homeowning is certainly not getting cheaper. Are there more good jobs? I don’t think so.

SEAN SPEER: We’ve spent most of the conversation talking about how these different ideas manifest themselves in issues in and around domestic policy. But this conversation is occurring against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and renewed discussion and debate about American foreign policy. 

To what extent, David, is this movement animated about American foreign policy issues? And how would you describe its approach or position vis-a-vis American foreign policy?

DAVID FREEDLANDER: I think that the movement is very suspicious of American foreign policy, and it does not view America as a force for good in the world. That is one of the defining features of it; that it believes that America is often a bad actor, and that, frankly, the Democratic Party is often also a bad actor. 

I don’t think there’s a lot of patience or understanding for this sort of foreign policy consensus, such that exists. You’re already, I think, in a funny way, seeing some of that actually unravel, with the pull out of Afghanistan, with the lack of American troops in Ukraine, which some call for—that feels like a little bit more successful, in some ways, as a project.

SEAN SPEER: Two final questions, David. The first is just on that point. It seems to me that at different times in the 20th century when progressive ideas have had the most political fecundity, it’s when they wrap their programme and agenda in a message of patriotism. I think of FDR’s New Deal, for instance, or even Lyndon Johnson’s The Great Society. 

To what extent is that suspicion about America’s role in the world an obstacle or barrier to building support for their ideas and agenda?

DAVID FREEDLANDER: I think it’s a huge and real one. That kind of view, I don’t think, is a really popular one. I think Americans want to rally around this idea of the country, right, as the sort of City on The Hill kind of thing. And that’s the glue that holds it together. I don’t think that there is a lot of appetite for addressing America’s wrongs in the world, for sure.

SEAN SPEER: I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t wrap up with a question about race, which, of course, has been the subject of so much attention and focus in the aftermath of George Floyd’s tragic killing. Maybe just a perspective from you, David, on the way that race is animating this movement and what you think about the extent to which it may catalyze change in American political life when it comes to issues of race?

DAVID FREEDLANDER: You cannot overstate how diverse this generation we’re talking about is and that it is a real sea change. When you think about that, it’s not just AOC but Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Jamaal Bowman. There’s not a white face among them and that seems like a real portent of the future of politics to come, in a way, and it’s right there front and centre. Obviously, we’ll see. Donald Trump famously did a little bit better with voters of colour in 2020. But, you know, how much of that is unique to Donald Trump and his sort of showmanship versus an ongoing trend? I think we’ll have to see.

SEAN SPEER: Well, those who are trying to understand the intellectual and political backdrop against those trends would be wise to read the AOC Generation, How Millennials are Seizing Power and Rewriting the Rules of American Politics. David Freedlander, thank you so much for joining us today at Hub Dialogues. 

DAVID FREEDLANDER: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

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