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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Death of American Conservatism

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At the 2019 MLK Now event, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), the Democrat firebrand recently elected congressman in New York, argued algorithmic decision-making would replicate human biases, prompting a new urgency in removing human social biases based on characteristics like race. There may be much to dispute in this reading of bias, but it is nonetheless a common fear. Amazon received some scorn for its AI recruiting tool which showed bias against women, but whether this was as a result of replication or misspecification is still up for debate. Regardless of the side you take, those studying this issue understand it is complex and that consensus has not been reached.

The next day Ryan Saavedra at Daily Wire tweeted that “Socialist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) claims that algorithms, which are driven by math, are racist.” Not only has Saavedra repeatedly attacked large tech companies for allegedly manipulating their algorithms against conservatives online, but he seemed to have completely ignored the emphasis AOC placed on the role humans have in crafting algorithms. He repeatedly doubled down on his accusations of her ignorance by showing off his googling ability to find a random paper from 2013 on desktop facial recognition applications. What could have been an interesting response to a certain reading of the evidence was reduced to a pathetic “gotcha” against someone American conservatives view as prima facie ignorant.

Conservatives have taken any opportunity they have to shame AOC for anything they can find, even if they have no clue what she is talking about. In one of the most disgusting examples, Emily Domenech at The Federalist used her colleague Bre Payton’s sudden and tragic death as an attack on AOC. An entire industry has appeared on the right to attack AOC with clickbait headlines that overshadow any real attempts to articulate conservative values or policy positions. A similar obsession has developed on the left for her clapbacks of conservative critics. This media complex with every word she says contrasts heavily with her own party’s response to her beliefs.

AOC remains engaging not necessarily for her ideas, but for her personality. She represents a new wave of millennial politics that is digitally savvy, fun, and focused more on grand ideas than policy wonkery. Establishment figures who respond to her factual errors with vitriol come off to her followers as online trolls attempting to point out a grammar error to refute her beliefs. Her popularity baffles those who are so used to a technocratic vision of the political that dominated post-war America, and they have yet to reconcile with its fracturing.

This has led many mainstream conservative and libertarian thinkers to equate AOC’s appeal with Trump’s, as a form of left-populism. While she is certainly populist, her appeals differs in a key way from the forms of populism that has dominated the world in the last few years. Whereas figures such as Trump and Bernie Sanders appeal to a certain nostalgic view of America in the early decades following the Second World War, at the height of its global prowess, AOC appeals to a growing percentage of young voters who believe America was never great. Her view of a future America distinct from anything in its past could provide the foundation for a stable political coalition as less Americans have vivid memories of the postwar idyll, and instead remember the U.S. as a bastion of slavery and oppression.

The American establishment has been unable to articulate a new vision for America because they have no vision for America. No new ideas of any political pertinence come out of mainstream American conservatives. They can claim to be “Never Trumpers” all they want, but their archaic political beliefs will never again be popular among the average voter, because the issues of a post-industrial economy differ radically from an era when their ideas were mainstream. Trump may not be building a stable political coalition or articulating a political philosophy, but he is at the very least acknowledging that something is wrong. In a similar way, AOC may make some mistakes, but she gets a few important fundamentals right. 

The fear that this new politics poses is that it denies the supremacy of American foundations in political thought and the belief that the only task left of governance is policy formation. Her platform contains radical policy proposals, but its grounding is something entirely alien to American politics. She has emphasized that her beliefs in social justice and economic dignity are grounded in her Catholic faith and Catholic Social Teaching, something that Catholic Republicans fail to do, preferring an American creed. While the orthodoxy of this grounding might be questionable, given many of her beliefs which are in direct conflict with the Magisterium, her sincerity is not. Her membership with the Democratic Socialists of America, a group founded by Michael Harrington, who himself was once a devout Catholic and member of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement, attests to this imperfect, but legitimate claims of political grounding in principles of solidarity and subsidiarity.

Catholic Social Teaching found no place in mainstream American discourse in the 20th Century, with Dorothy Day herself being sidelined by the religious mainstream. Even those who professed the faith found the political program of the Church too far gone. There is a story about a higher-up at the Heritage Foundation, upon learning of G.K Chesterton’s political philosophy of distributism, lamented that a man so great turned out to be a pinko. This narrowness of thinking has left conservative thinkers with nothing to say as their fusionist political coalitions between the faithful and those that believed in the gospel of the free market has fallen apart.

Unable to provide positive solutions to problems that younger voters articulate, the right has resorted to denying the validity of these problems wholesale, at their own peril. Instead of seeking to redress issues of inequality or corporate power in ways more consistent with a philosophy of tradition and incrementalism, they have attempted to brand those that believe in the validity of these issues as cranks. AOC may be the only elected representative in Congress of her kind at the moment, but she certainly will not be the last. To ignore, dismiss, or attempt to diminish her appeal with stale conservative platitudes will simply cost the right a seat at the table when millennial and gen-z voters form the majority of America’s voting demographic.

A new American right needs to have promise and vision for it to arise. It needs alternative foundations to Americanism. And it needs to take seriously why young figures on the left are gaining in popularity. It cannot simply decry those it disagrees with, betraying its own lack of independent values. There is still time for the right to shape America’s future, but it must look a lot more like Dorothy Day than Ben Shapiro.

Ryan Khurana is the executive director of the Institute for Advancing Prosperity. Follow him on Twitter.