Unlikely as it must seem to anyone who knows the place, Yorktown Heights, N.Y. is all over the news lately. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a “Democratic Socialist” who grew up in the far northern Westchester County town, defeated an arrogant shopworn Bronx machine loudmouth in a Democratic primary in which only about 10% of eligible voters even bothered to cast ballots. Most who know Yorktown Heights will also probably agree that it is only because of some tangential connection with extrinsic events like these that anybody would pay attention to such a relentlessly ordinary place.Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
But it took the Ocasio- Cortez media hysteria to prompt a bit more reflection on Yorktown Heights. Particularly short-sighted are the charges from the right that she is somehow not an authentic Democratic Socialist, and instead “suffer[s] from internalized racism, self-loathing, and animosity toward her cultural constituency,” all because she grew up in an intact, upwardly mobile family in a small suburban house in Yorktown, as most residents refer to it, rather than the Bronx.
The same jeremiad against Ocasio- Cortez described Yorktown Heights with Clintonian–level nuance as: “a suburb of New York City located in wealthy Westchester County.” In plain English, this means Yorktown Heights is not Scarsdale or Chappaqua. A significant proportion of strivers, some with relatively high incomes, do live there, but they can’t amass much wealth because so much of that high income goes to pay for the privilege of living anywhere in Westchester County. This is key: Yorktown Heights is the great stretch, the hopeful leap into marginal affordability for the determined graduate who studied communications at Ithaca College rather than law at Yale. It is an error to view Yorktown Heights as a synonym for bourgeois stability and security. No—for most, landing in Yorktown Heights promises continuing challenges and hard choices just to keep the family’s head above water and the career on an upward trajectory.
The single most illuminating fact about Yorktown Heights is that it is home to a Wal-Mart that by some local authority’s diktat is not allowed to stock firearms. While residents need the low prices, they also aspire to the sophisticated sensibilities and progressive cultural trappings of the betters they one day hope to join. So they compromise.
Yorktown Heights is a place of compromise where the mundane dilemmas of every-day middle-class life confront people who want better but are without the connections, prestigious credentials, and informed counsel enjoyed by those who can afford to skip the Yorktown Heights phase altogether and proceed right to Charles Murray’s Belmont. Is a new job worth extending the standard hour and 15 minute commute from Grand Central by a subway ride of 40 additional minutes? In career terms, is it really a better job, or just a little more money? How many little league games and teacher’s conferences will thereby be missed? So, they work hard and take some chances; a few make it, while for others, things don’t work out.
In the case of Ms. Ocasio- Cortez, Yorktown Heights was what it is for a lot of people—a mixed bag—an early life in a pleasant suburb, decent if not outstanding schools, and then a loss that demands the family rise to the occasion in order to preserve what they had worked so long to gain. Somehow, she managed to afford college and the luxury of a poorly-compensated internship with Senator Edward Kennedy anyway, suggesting she is not without some Yorktown grit.
Along the line somewhere, she decided she was a Democratic Socialist. I accept that this might make her choice of political philosophy misguided, but I can’t go along with conservatives labeling her a phony. This facile dismissal is wrong for a variety of reasons, the most important being that it brings up a lot of embarrassing questions for all the conservative writers, think tanks, foundations, and radio and TV yakkers who have obviously failed to provide a more compelling answer than Reimagining the World in a Nicer Way with Bernie for Ms. Ocasio- Cortez and millions like her.
As a nation, we can’t afford to lose too many of the kids from Yorktown Heights; they make the country work. So what is to be done? Here is one small-bore idea: let Ms. Ocasio–Cortes lead by negative example. Clearly she will win her election to Congress. Equally clearly, in policy terms, she will accomplish none of her stated goals—fiscal, economic, constitutional and, for all I know, gravitational realities will not be overcome by platitudes and good intentions, sincere or otherwise. But Ms. Ocasio-Cortes will be a media star, the Dave Brat of her congressional class.
Why not exploit that notoriety to turn her entire congressional term into a running commentary on the poverty of her assumptions and fatuousness of “Democratic Socialist” proposals like free college and Medicare for all? Some smart, media-savvy conservative group could organize the O-C Project, which would consist of following her legislative antics, reporting accurately all her politico-cultural utterances and policy pronouncements, and taking them apart, respectfully but logically, one by one, and then responding with timely counter- proposals. A final audit of her first term would conclude the exercise. Name-calling is easy; quick, substantive rebuttal, with a strong media hook, that exposes the waste of time, opportunity, and money of electing one more vacuous busybody to Congress may be a little more demanding, but could be much more beneficial to the Republic.