It’s tough being a member of the “Squad” these days. Once the darlings of the American left, the group of progressive and socialist House members that includes Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Jamaal Bowman, and others are as likely to be savaged these days from the Left as they are from the Right. Popular YouTube commentators regularly denounce them as “sellouts,” protesters interrupt their meetings calling them warmongers, and even committed socialists question what the point of the Squad has been.
The lion’s share of this ire has been trained on Representative Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who’s faced relentless criticism since winning office from all sides, sometimes over substantive issues (once failing to show up for an Amazon union rally, casting a vote that denied railworkers the ability to strike), sometimes over remarkably petty ones (conciliatory rhetoric, the positioning of her hands while being arrested).
Much of this was crystallized in a recent critical analysis of Ocasio-Cortez’s record in New York magazine by Freddie deBoer, who charged she has drifted “from radical outsider to Establishment liberal,” making mere “token gestures of resistance to solidify the illusion that she is a gadfly,” and argued that her and the rest of the Squad’s entry into Congress has been entirely fruitless.
But this is hard to square with both a closer analysis of Ocasio-Cortez and the Squad’s record, and with the picture painted by progressive groups and unions that work with them. Have they occasionally fallen short? Sure. But the reality of the Squad’s accomplishments and movement importance is far more positive than the one-dimensional, gloomy narrative that has become popular in some corners of the Left.
“A Tremendous Win”
First, there’s lawmaking. Ocasio-Cortez’s legislative record is not nearly as barren as her detractors have it. Much like Bernie Sanders, the congressswoman has been able to sneak through the cumbersome legislative process by putting forward amendments to larger bills.
For example, one successful 2019 amendment cut $5 million from the Drug Enforcement Administration budget and redirected it to treatment programs for the opioid crisis. A year later, she managed to get her repeal of the 1998 Faircloth Amendment passed through the House — a landmark vote and a longtime priority for affordable housing advocates, given the Bill Clinton–era measure’s effective ban on new public housing construction. Another from 2022 mandated the Pentagon study the therapeutic uses of MDMA and hallucinogens.
Sometimes, Ocasio-Cortez and the Squad have made contributions by blocking legislation instead of passing it.
Sean Vitka, policy counsel for Demand Progress, told Jacobin the Squad, and particularly Representative Tlaib (D-MI), were instrumental in a major 2019 victory against mass surveillance, when they forced through the end of the Patriot Act’s Section 215. The controversial provision had allowed the warrantless collection of a broad swath of “business records” — everything from banking and library history to medical records and, most controversially, phone metadata — and drew particular outrage when the Edward Snowden leaks revealed just how badly it was being abused to spy on Americans.
When time came to reauthorize the Patriot Act’s many sunset provisions in 2019, according to Vitka, Tlaib served as “one of the key organizers” of a congressional letter signed by twenty House Democrats (including herself and fellow Squad members Representative Omar [D-MN] and Ocasio-Cortez) vowing to oppose it unless certain privacy protections were ensured.
“Tlaib helped lead one of, if not the, earliest efforts staking out what reform would be necessary to allow the Patriot Act to continue,” he says.
The end result: Section 215 and two other controversial provisions finally expired, after then House speaker Nancy Pelosi in May 2020 pulled the reauthorization bill, realizing that opposition from progressive Democrats and Freedom Caucus Republicans meant the votes weren’t there.
“This was a tremendous win,” says Vitka. “I’ll be damned if that isn’t one of the biggest successes in terms of protecting the privacy interests of the US public.”
Critics have pointed to Ocasio-Cortez and the rest of the Squad’s support for continual military aid to Ukraine to charge they’re counterfeit anti-imperialists or even war hawks. But important as it is, the Ukraine war is not the only pressing foreign policy issue.
Take Latin America, for instance. Ocasio-Cortez was, after Omar, the second member of Congress to declare the 2019 Bolivian coup what it was: a coup — beating even Sanders by a couple of hours and staking out a position that’s somehow still a minority opinion in US politics. In fact, she went further, introducing an amendment banning the transfer of weapons and crowd control equipment to the coup regime, language that made it into the bill that passed the House.
She’s been similarly out front when it comes to Colombia, where leftist president Gustavo Petro has been struggling to enact his agenda amid entrenched opposition, a divided congress, and drug-fueled violence. In 2022, two of Ocasio-Cortez’s amendments made it into the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that passed the House: one directing the State Department to produce a report on US involvement in human rights violations during the country’s decades-long civil war, and another prohibiting any Pentagon involvement in anti-narcotic aerial fumigation operations in the country, which have contaminated water sources and caused serious health problems for Colombians.
Since the latter policy had already been put in place by the embattled Petro, Ocasio-Cortez’s amendment was effectively a signal of US support for his move, one that got significant press coverage in the country. Thirty-four Colombian senators wrote to their US colleagues urging them to adopt the measures, and when they were left out of the Senate version, a coalition of progressive groups as well as Colombian human rights organizations wrote Congress urging they be taken up, partly on the basis of “support[ing] the Colombian government’s efforts.” It’s a vivid illustration of the way the Squad’s presence in Congress reinforces the work of both outside groups and left-wing movements abroad.
“It might not matter to those sitting in wealthy countries and posting online, but in the countries faced with harmful policies enacted by the US or their allies, seeing prominent politicians speaking out can give hope and momentum to these people’s movements,” says Erik Sperling, executive director of Just Foreign Policy. “Congressional action in the US virtually always gets widely covered in the local press, raising awareness of the US role and putting real pressure on problematic client regimes.”
As Peru’s security services cracked down on anti-government protests that followed the December impeachment and arrest of leftist ex-president Pedro Castillo, Ocasio-Cortez and four other Squad members were among the twenty House progressives who signed a letter in January this year calling on President Joe Biden to end security assistance to the country. This past July, six weeks after further US troops and weapons landed in the country, Ocasio-Cortez introduced another NDAA amendment, this one suspending Pentagon funding for Peru until certain conditions were met.
Meanwhile, a few months after the January letter, the Peruvian government hired a $40,000-a-month US public relations firm to shore up its image in the United States, suggesting the impact that even just letters, public statements, and bills introduced by the Squad members can have on foreign governments. This is just a small sample of the total legislative action they’ve taken on foreign policy.
“With the entire Squad and their allies, you have a core of about a dozen members that will sign many of the most principled foreign policy letters on a wide range of issues, which is a big change from the past when the more centrist voices on the foreign affairs subcommittees would speak out on these topics,” says Sperling.
All or some of the Squad have signed onto letters: condemning Donald Trump’s sanctions on and threats of military intervention in Venezuela; calling for the lifting of sanctions on the country, as well as on Cuba and Iran; denouncing repression by Ecuador’s right-wing, Trump-supported government; warning the Organization of American States (OAS) away from further coup shenanigans in Bolivia’s 2020 election; and threatening to condition military aid to Israel. Ocasio-Cortez’s name was the common denominator on all those letters.
Likewise, she was one of only four members of both the House and Senate to sign a letter in 2021 calling on Biden to pressure Saudi Arabia to lift its deadly blockade of Yemen, and one of only five to sign on to a Tlaib-led letter calling on Biden’s attorney general to drop the charges against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. No GOP equivalent exists, even though it’s far more perilous for Democrats to take this stance.
Critics justifiably criticize Ocasio-Cortez’s “present” vote on Iron Dome funding in 2021. But this assessment should be balanced out by acknowledging her other, similarly symbolic actions that cut the other way. That includes her refusal to vote to condemn the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign while cosponsoring a pro-BDS resolution, her labeling Israel an “apartheid state” as early as 2021, as well as her and the Squad’s recent decisions to boycott the Israeli president’s speech to Congress and be one of only nine to vote against a resolution declaring Israel is neither an apartheid nor racist state. All of these are politically risky actions, especially when pro-Israel money has emerged as a real threat to reelection.
Even when Ocasio-Cortez has fallen short on the issue, she’s shown that she’s responsive to criticism from the Left, as when she backed out of a Yitzhak Rabin memorial event after an outcry from BDS activists. That’s not to mention the contributions other Squad members have made to shifting the Israel-Palestine discourse in the United States, which is slowly but surely turning toward the Left.
Squad members have been principled in these efforts, willing to work with the other side. Ocasio-Cortez and Omar praised Trump for his 2019 withdrawal from Syria (which, true to form, he ultimately didn’t follow through on), and the latter spoke in favor of and voted for Rep. Matt Gaetz’s (R-FL) push to withdraw US troops from Somalia. Most significantly, Representative Bowman has twice forced a vote to withdraw troops from Syria, and this year backed Gaetz’s resolution to the same effect. These were landmark votes on the undeclared US war in Syria, and each won incrementally more support.
And for all the grief the Squad has taken over their votes for Ukrainian military aid, they’ve staked out positions counter to new Cold War thinking at a time of rising McCarthyism.
Ocasio-Cortez was one of the few signers to publicly stand by progressives’ withdrawn pro-diplomacy letter last year, just as the entire Squad held the line on voting against sending cluster munitions to the country, despite a cynical last-minute maneuver to make it more difficult for them to do so. Most recently, as anti-China fervor has taken over even progressive Democrats, the Squad were the only seven members of Congress to vote against a bill escalating Trump’s erosion of the One China policy, and all but one voted against creating the GOP’s anti-China select committee.
“Obviously it’s not going to end the military-industrial complex or US interventionism overnight, but suddenly having a more boldly progressive lane in Congressional foreign policy has greatly impacted the debate and created the possibility of change in the near future,” says Sperling. “Anyone who is serious about helping the victims of US policies abroad should be encouraging this development, not belittling it.”
Upside, Inside Out
Meanwhile, Ocasio-Cortez and the Squad are uniquely responsive to unions and outside groups, according to those who have worked with them.
“Alexandria herself, in her first few weeks in office, reached out to me and came to my office for a meeting. She’s the only member of Congress who’s ever done that,” says Association of Flight Attendants-CWA president Sara Nelson.
“She was here for two hours, talking through issues, trying to learn what was important to us,” Nelson adds. Ocasio-Cortez has solicited information from and worked with the union to try to ensure its priorities were represented through the Federal Aviation Authority’s reauthorization process.
“I have her chief of staff on my cell phone,” says deputy director of Food and Water Action Mitch Jones. “We’ve found her office to be responsive when we need them to be.”
Food and Water Watch criticized Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal resolution at the time for failing to eliminate fossil fuels directly, criticism that was met with a policy response. “After hearing feedback from us, she introduced the Fracking Ban Act,” Jones says. “Not everyone who supported the Green New Deal was willing to take on fossil fuels in the way that she did.”
Ocasio-Cortez has worked with progressive organizations on other legislation and campaigns. In 2019, the congresswoman introduced a six-bill legislative package named A Just Society, focusing on everything from anti-poverty initiatives to improving working conditions, with her Place to Prosper Act including national rent control and beefed up tenant protections.
“The Center for Popular Democracy [CPD] worked closely with the congresswoman on the housing portion of the package,” the organization’s codirector Analilia Mejia told Jacobin. That included joining CPD affiliates for several mobilizations over housing, including an August 2019 “Welcome Back Congress” action that saw hundreds of protesters turn up at House members’ offices.
Mejia says that Ocasio-Cortez and other Squad members contributed to the organization’s Medicare for All campaign, including by helping CPD staff prepare activist Ady Barkan to testify at a hearing on the policy. Last year, Squad members also took part in a civil disobedience action over the overturning of Roe v. Wade that saw her and sixteen other members of Congress arrested, and where Ocasio-Cortez was criticized for faking being handcuffed by holding her hands behind her back — even though that was exactly what the organization had trained them to do, to show they weren’t resisting arrest.
“It was ridiculous. You can’t win no matter what,” says Mejia of the criticism.
Ocasio-Cortez has likewise worked closely with Housing Justice for All, taking part in town halls, workshops on eviction defense, and other events. One of the campaigns that she was prominent in was for a package of state-level housing bills in 2019, one of which was sponsored by socialist state senator Julia Salazar, that presented sweeping reforms to New York’s housing regulatory landscape, including an expansion of New York City’s rent control. The legislation was passed and signed into law later that year.
“She held a number of town halls that were well-attended and carried the message that we need stronger rent control laws,” says Housing Justice for All campaign coordinator Cea Weaver. “She played the same role in our eviction moratorium and ‘cancel rent’ campaign during 2020 and 2021.”
This isn’t the only state-level campaign Ocasio-Cortez has lent a hand to. Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) organizer Charlie Heller recently detailed her involvement in two winning New York campaigns, one a two-year-long fight to block a new fracked gas plant in Astoria, and the other a four-year-long effort to pass the Build Public Renewables Act, a major step to shifting the state to renewable energy.
According to Heller, these victories wouldn’t have happened without Ocasio-Cortez’s vocal support and campaigning giving them needed publicity and legitimacy. National Nurses United has likewise praised the congresswoman for joining their fight against efforts to defund and privatize a Bronx veterans administration hospital.
Ocasio-Cortez has lent her considerable platform to other union fights. She skipped the inauguration to attend a Teamsters strike and urged others to show up, again rallied with UPS workers as they prepared to strike this year, publicly backed and spotlit Starbucks workers’ unionization struggles, joined the picket line at a Buffalo hospital, worked a bar in solidarity with tipped workers, and recently showed up at an actors and writers picket line in Manhattan.
Critics would dismiss these as meaningless symbolic actions. But this is belied by the fierce and well-justified criticism she received when she failed to attend an Amazon workers rally in 2021 prior to a union vote. Ocasio-Cortez and the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) ultimately patched things up, and she and Sanders appeared at a key ALU rally in Staten Island the following year, where the congresswoman threatened to cut subsidies and tax breaks to the company if they didn’t stop union-busting.
Similar to her Iron Dome vote, criticism of Ocasio-Cortez has focused almost exclusively on her justifiably maligned missed ALU appearance, but then wholesale ignores the ways she’s assisted unionization efforts and other worker struggles. The result is a distorted picture of not just her record, but the value she and other left-wing elected officials have for these movements — which, similar to the striking teachers inspired by the 2016 Sanders campaign, has included spurring on others’ own political work.
“Her campaign for office in 2018 was very inspirational to a lot of the people who ended up running on the No IDC slate,” says Weaver, referring to the movement that shattered the conservative stranglehold on New York politics in 2018, which has helped blow open the doors to progressive policy and socialism’s advance in the state.
“She’s utilized different mediums to get people engaged in politics who have never been and spurred on union organizing,” says Nelson. “We have activists in our organizing tribe because of her and the Squad.”
Seeds of Radicalism
Finally, there’s the somewhat more nebulous role Ocasio-Cortez and the Squad have played in the political shifts of the past few years.
The process of political transformation is messy and chaotic. Disparate actions add up little by little and then suddenly, building up pressure on those in power, expanding the bounds of what’s possible and creating momentum for change. It’s undeniable that the Squad, by virtue of their work in Congress and acting as a conduit for outside groups, has been integral to this.
Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal resolution might be one of the most impactful pieces of legislation that never became law. Simply by generating the level of publicity and debate it did — something hard to imagine without her involvement — the measure has directly inspired similar versions at the state and city levels and even in other countries. Similarly, shortly after she introduced her national fracking ban, the New York state legislature permanently banned fracking via legislation, preventing a future governor’s reversal by executive order.
“She’s introduced big things that don’t pass but set the tone,” says Lisa Gilbert, executive vice president at Public Citizen. “What comes of that is people moving individual components of it, things at the state level that are connected.”
It’s hard to imagine the few but important climate victories that wound up in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) happening without the Green New Deal, Ocasio-Cortez labeling climate change an “existential” threat, and actions like her joining the Sunrise Movement’s sit-in at Pelosi’s office, which together helped shoot the perennially ignored climate crisis up the list of media and political priorities while legitimizing progressive policies to meet it.
Mejia, who served as national political director for the 2020 Sanders campaign then Biden Labor Department appointee, argues there’s a direct line from the congresswoman to the White House’s climate policies, thanks to the Sanders-Biden policy task forces.
“AOC and John Kerry cochaired the climate table,” she says. “I had a front row seat and saw these policy positions get hardwired into Build Back Better, the IRA, the American Rescue Plan Act [ARPA].”
It’s likewise hard to imagine the extremely pricy ARPA, Biden’s much larger stimulus bill correctly credited for pulling the US economy out of crisis, being passed at all under the lifelong penny-pinching Democratic president without the likes of Ocasio-Cortez consistently dismissing deficit concerns at the same time that she elevated voices critical of fiscal hawkery.
More than that, a number of popular pandemic-era policies had antecedents in or received crucial public support from the Squad. A third round of stimulus checks wouldn’t have happened under Biden without their leadership forcing the issue. Squad members were consistently pushing for student debt cancellation as far back as 2019 and were among the most prominent voices urging Biden to enact it as soon as he won in 2020, which he of course eventually did.
In fact, from the very start of the pandemic, Ocasio-Cortez called for direct cash payments, a pause on student loan repayments, mortgage relief, and a moratorium on evictions, all of which soon became core, popular parts of Trump and then Biden’s pandemic responses. She did this on the very day Congress’s second pandemic relief bill was signed into law, a relatively modest effort that simply mandated some employers to give their workers expanded paid sick and family leave.
It was only nine days later that the much larger CARES Act, with its stimulus checks and universal basic income–like unemployment insurance payments, became law. Then, between its passage and Trump ordering an eviction ban, the Squad introduced a bill canceling rent and mortgage payments, creating political space for Trump’s flawed but fairly radical tenant protection measure.
In one case, there’s actually a very direct and unambiguous link between the Squad’s agitation and a pandemic-era policy victory: Biden wasn’t planning to lift a finger about the expiration of the eviction moratorium in 2021 until Rep. Cori Bush’s August sit-in on the steps of the US Capitol forced his hand, keeping the vital pandemic protection alive for two more months.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the rest of the Squad are elected officials. There’s any number of criticisms of their time in Congress that are fair, reasonable, and necessary, including over key votes they’ve been on the wrong side on, times they’ve failed to stand with unions, and their failure to, as promised, fully take advantage of the leverage they had under the Democrats’ formerly slim House majority.
Left-wing scrutiny of the Squad and particularly Representative Ocasio-Cortez has steadily veered from constructive criticism and needed pressure to a kind of caricaturish vitriol — one that magnifies the ways they’ve fallen short, while saying nothing about their accomplishments nor their usefulness to activist and workers’ movements. Sometimes, you suspect the most unfair critics have taken their anger and frustration at the conservative, corporate-controlled political system in which they have to operate, and simply redirected it at the congresswoman herself.
What’s at stake isn’t the feelings of one member of Congress or even the Squad’s career, but the health of the socialist and broader progressive movements. The left pessimism embodied by New York magazine’s profile — which argues explicitly that socialists have nothing to show for five years of electoral victories and that the whole experiment should be abandoned — is a recipe for despair, apathy, and in the end, demobilization, which may already be having a trickle-down effect. It’s a self-defeating, possibly self-fulfilling prophecy that threatens to undermine socialist gains — ironically at the exact same time the movement is racking up victories it hasn’t seen in many decades.