A young Hispanic woman from the Bronx is exactly the disruption global politics needs
At a time when staid politicians want to put up divides, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's win at the primaries represents a break from the politics of the past, writes Gavin Esler
Here’s a name you will soon be hearing a lot about: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She’s a 28-year-old American woman of Puerto Rican origin with little political experience, who has just pulled off a stunning upset within the Democratic Party.
In a New York primary election, she challenged Joe Crowley, a veteran congressman with some 20 years' experience. She beat him and now looks likely to win the seat in November's midterm elections. One Democratic strategist commented that for Mr Crowley, “running against a young, energetic, attractive Latina is pretty hard when you’re an older white guy”.
Well, maybe. Ms Ocasio-Cortez is clearly a fine candidate but her win represents something much bigger – the fracturing and turmoil within traditional political parties around the world, with profoundly divisive effects in the countries they seek to lead.
Ask traditional US Republicans. They love having a Republican president but scratch the surface and many will privately admit Donald Trump calls himself a Republican but his only political philosophy is “Trump First”.
Conservative Republicans typically believe in free trade, free and open markets, the Nato alliance and limited government. Mr Trump believes in tariffs, protectionism, provoking a trade war, upsetting Nato and the G7 and being nice to North Korea and Russia. His policies may be successful or otherwise but either way, Mr Trump is not a Republican as Americans used to know the term.
A similar pattern is obvious all across Europe. Pick a country. It happens that I’m working in Madrid, where just along the road outside the Cortes, or parliament, there are dozens of TV crews covering the latest Spanish political crisis.
The former prime minister Mariano Rajoy was caught up in a scandal and forced out. His conservative party, the People's Party, is leaderless and in turmoil.
Meanwhile the new Madrid government is struggling to come to terms with appalling relations between the Spanish state and those who wish to break it up, through the richest province, Catalonia, achieving independence.
In Germany, the person who has been Europe’s most impressive politician for years, chancellor Angela Merkel, faces the rupturing of the key conservative alliance between her Christian Democratic Union of Germany party and its Bavarian brothers and sisters, the Christian Social Union.
In Italy, strong anti-immigrant and anti-EU feelings helped create a populist coalition of relatively new parties. And in Britain, members of the Conservative and Labour parties are so busy fighting internal battles and loathing people on their own side, British politics currently resembles a destruction derby. Politicians are going round in circles bashing each other while voters are either fascinated by the car crashes or utterly repelled.
One sign of turmoil among political conservatives in Britain, the US and elsewhere, is the strong disconnection between nationalism and economic interests. In Britain, the Conservative Party, like America’s Republicans, has always claimed to be the party of business.
But for nationalistic reasons, Conservatives who most strongly support leaving the EU simply deny the real concerns of business leaders that Brexit could be economically disastrous. The Brexiteers call it Project Fear, yet it is now becoming Project Fact.
British workers in Airbus, BMW, Jaguar Land Rover, banks, financial institutions and in many other sectors of the economy hear almost daily that their jobs are at risk and heading for the EU.
Within the Conservative “party of business”, there have been some truly bizarre reactions. One strongly pro-Brexit Conservative, Lord Michael Ashcroft, recently explained that businesses leaving Brexit Britain should relocate to Malta.
Another prominent Conservative Brexiteer, the MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, is associated with an investment company which is eyeing up prospects in Ireland.
Yet another leader of the Brexit campaign, Nigel Lawson, is seeking permanent residency in France.
All these politicians tell the rest of us there will be a “Brexit dividend” while planning personally to avoid the pain ahead.
And shockingly, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson dismissed business fears with an expletive at a diplomatic reception. In normal times, he would be fired for incompetence – but these are not normal times.
And “normal” political parties worldwide are themselves fearful of upstart newcomers turning politics upside down, with predictions of more discontent and disintegration ahead.
The big disruptive forces – migration, fear of economic dislocation or stagnation – are international. But many of the supposed solutions are strongly nationalistic, including Brexit, America First and the current nationalist strains within the European Union.
One pessimistic future scenario is that frightened voters decide democracy itself is failing and turn to authoritarian strongmen in a high tech version of the 1930s for the digital age.
The more optimistic scenario is that suggested by the victory of Ms Ocasio-Cortez. She won not because she is “a young, energetic, attractive Latina”, nor even because of her policies.
She won because she represents something refreshingly new, a break from the brain-dead politics of the past. People of any age, gender and race can represent change.
Perhaps these new emerging leaders might like to reflect that working together has ensured the survival of homo sapiens as the world’s most dominant species. A little co-operation right now might pull us together when others wish to pull us apart.
Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and television presenter
Updated: July 2, 2018 12:59 PM