The status quo is working great, if you’re the heir of a billionaire estate, or a corporate CEO, or a long-time incumbent elected official.
But for the vast majority of Americans, it’s unsustainable and needs to be upended for the good of society. That’s why the 116th Congress is the most diverse, most female, most queer, and arguably most progressive in history — because voters who have been harmed by an indefensible status quo demanded it.
This is what the subjects of a recent Politico article about “exasperated Democrats” trying to get Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) to “play ball” and “rein in” the 29-year-old former bartender don’t understand — the new progressive freshman members of Congress aren’t interested in learning how to best grease the wheels of Washington. They ran on dramatic, radical change, and aren’t beholden to well-heeled donors or the lure of a lobbying gig after their time in Congress, like Joe Lieberman, who went from being a U.S. Senator to a lobbyist for a foreign company.
Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Oregon), one of the few House Democrats who went on record for the Politico article about Ocasio-Cortez, condescendingly described his fellow colleague as “new here, feeling her way around,” and that she “doesn’t understand how the place works yet.”
Schrader has, according to OpenSecrets, received more than $443,000 from the pharmaceutical industry throughout his Congressional career. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-New York), who also patronizingly described her Empire State colleague as “very nice” and “very charming” while adding that she’ll “soon learn that Republicans are ‘the real enemy,’ has taken more than $677,000 from commercial banks since she’s been in Congress.
If taking money from powerful industries and proceeding to pass bills and defeat legislation that all coincidentally also enriches those donors’ bottom lines is “how the place works,” then no, Ocasio-Cortez isn’t interested in becoming part of that process. Nor is it her job to sit down and shut up and let that gravy train keep rolling uninterrupted for her colleagues’ benefit.
Unsurprisingly, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz — who has nearly $3 billion in personal assets — isn’t a fan of the new progressive agenda, whether it be Medicare for All or a universal job guarantee, as Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) has proposed. Schultz couched his opposition to those proposals in realism.
“It concerns me that so many voices within the Democratic Party are going so far to the left,” Schultz told CBS in 2018. “I say to myself, ‘How are we going to pay for these things,’ in terms of things like single payer [and] people espousing the fact that the government is going to give everyone a job. I don’t think that’s realistic.”
The constituents of the Bronx voted for Ocasio-Cortez to see radical change. Just like the people of Minneapolis voted for Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), the first Somali immigrant in Congress. Just as the people of Detroit voted for Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan), the first Palestinian American woman in Congress. Radical change is the same reason the people of Boston voted for Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts), the first black female member of Congress out of New England, over ten-term incumbent Michael Capuano.
Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and her progressive freshman colleagues are admirable, but in the end they are a manifestation of the change we were calling for. We have to maintain our determination for change. And in the long run, we have to move away from seeking saviors and personalities to seek the kind of change we’re trying to create as a society.
The new freshman class of Congress is doing the part they were called to do. Our part is to not allow people to beat us down — or the people we send to Washington to work on our behalf — with rhetoric of “realism” that only serves to maintain the status quo. Nobel Peace Prize nominee and scholar Dr. Daisaku Ikeda once wrote that the defeatist attitude imposed by proponents of the status quo is antithetical to change, which he described as “the essential quality of reality.”
“One tragedy of our times is the willingness of realists, in spite of impending crises, to criticize and obstruct people who expend their energy toward finding solutions. Their judgments, however, are superficial and conventional, and their attitude distances them from the essential quality of reality — change. Often the wisest realists cannot escape this trap. The challenge, then, is to create a new kind of reality that offers hope for changing the world.”
The impetus behind electing women like Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, and Tlaib wasn’t to keep things the way they are, but to enact radical change for the betterment of society. And trying to water down what these women are calling for would be a betrayal of what voters demanded in November. We have an obligation to reject so-called “realism” when its sole function is to sustain the status quo.
To be clear, this movement didn’t begin with these women, and it isn’t up to them alone to change society. This movement began with ordinary, working-class Americans who decided the status quo was unsustainable and created the political environment that allowed these women to get elected. And it’s up to us to maintain it.