When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat Joe Crowley in a headline-blitzing New York primary race last month, the first thing the Democratic Party establishment tried to do was minimise the significance of her victory.
“They made a choice in one district,” the House minority leader Nancy Pelosi told reporters the following day. “It is not to be viewed as something that stands for anything else.”
Donald Trump’s election as president ten months ago plunged liberal America into disarray. In addition to being at war with the White House, the Democrats are at war with each other. The right of the party blames the left for Hillary Clinton’s defeat in November, and the left levels the same charge against the right. Some liberals are convinced that Trump stole the presidency, because he failed to win the popular vote. Some have even bought into the daft conspiracy theory that Trump is a Russian plant, whose meteoric political rise over the past two years has been carefully stage-managed by the Kremlin.
Out of this confusion, not a lot of useful analysis has emerged. Despite the chaos that seems to permeate every layer of the Trump administration, progressive Americans remain divided and adrift. Trump’s healthcare bill – which, if implemented, would have stripped 24 million people of their medical insurance – failed this summer as a result of Republican, not Democratic, opposition. (The Democrats are in a minority in both Houses of Congress.) Meanwhile, Democratic commentators have been reduced to poring over every minor piece of Washington gossip for evidence of Trump’s looming resignation, impeachment, or arrest.
Bushwick in Brooklyn is a remarkable distillation of inequality in America. Walk five minutes west from Jefferson Street towards Manhattan and you’ll find white students in coffee shops tapping away on expensive MacBooks. Walk five minutes east and you’ll encounter all the familiar markers of metropolitan – in this case black and hispanic – poverty: inadequate housing, understocked grocery stores, and big plots of empty, overgrown land.
Bernie Sanders grew-up on the other side of Brooklyn, in Flatbush. Once a predominantly Irish, Italian, and Jewish neighbourhood, Flatbush is today a broader mix of American immigrant communities. One of the largest ethnic minority groups in the area is Haitian. Sanders left Brooklyn in 1960, transferring from Brooklyn College to the University of Chicago, where he studied politics, before decamping permanently to Vermont, the small north-eastern state for which he is now a two-term United States senator. But he is still every inch the Brooklynite. You can tell by the way he talks. “He speaks Brooklyn,” one of his former high school classmates told The New York Times recently. “He’s not a phoney, and that shows.”
On East Grand Boulevard in north-east Detroit stands the Packard Automotive Plant – or what’s left of it, at any rate.
Once the most advanced car manufacturing facility in the world – at its peak in the 1930s and ‘40s it employed 35,000 workers – the plant is now little more than a concrete frame sheltering thick layers of rubble and dust.
No post-war US president, including John F. Kennedy, holds a tighter grip of America’s political imagination than Ronald Reagan. Republicans and Democrats agree that Reagan’s presidency was ‘transformative’. For Republicans, Reagan rescued the country from decline after the disaster of Vietnam and at a time of flagging economic growth. For Democrats, he stacked the deck against ordinary Americans by cutting taxes for the richest, deregulating the labour market and liberating Wall Street.
Driving this summer from the home of a friend in Madison, Wisconsin to Brooklyn, New York, I encountered first hand the diverse effects of Reaganism. Pittsburgh, for instance, is thriving. Built by and formerly dependent on the Pennsylvania steel industry, the city is now a regional hub for advanced medical research and investment banking. Detroit, Cleveland and Philadelphia, on the other hand, all bear the scars of Reagan’s supply-side reforms. Indeed, some neighbourhoods in south Philadelphia are semi-derelict, their streets lined with gutted factory buildings and abandoned housing blocks.