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  • Matthew Green

AOC and the Power of Party Norms

Official Congressional photo of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Wikipedia Commons)

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has apparently changed her tactics. No longer is she a rabble-rousing newbie criticizing her colleagues and threatening them with primary challengers. Instead, the freshman lawmaker has become less confrontational and more willing to work with fellow Democrats in the House.

The recent New York Times article that makes this claim offers several examples of how Ocasio-Cortez has “learn[ed] to play by Washington’s rules.” She has backed away from earlier calls for liberals to mount primary challenges against other Democratic incumbents. She has endorsed the reelection campaigns of party leaders and more conservative freshmen Democrats. And her first chief of staff, who compared defecting Democrats to southern segregationists, was replaced with a less vocal and more seasoned aide.

Ocasio-Cortez has disavowed the story, accusing the paper of “dripping condescension.” But if the article is accurate, I think it highlights the important role of informal norms in shaping and enforcing party discipline in Congress. And by “discipline,” I don’t mean just voting unity—AOC votes with her party most of the time—but also avoiding the kind of public and private intraparty conflict that keeps a party and its members from achieving their key goals.

For example, political parties in Congress care a great deal about their reputation or “brand,” believing it is key to securing the support of voters. But when one party member publicly attacks others, it may damage that brand by fostering an image of disunity and disarray. Similarly, congressional staffers who are in the public eye more than their bosses create an impression that it is they, not members of the governing party, who are the real decision-makers on the Hill. And if a lawmaker actively recruits challengers to fellow incumbents, it costs those incumbents valuable resources to defend their seats, possibly endangering the party’s majority status.

This kind of behavior is not illegal, but it violates unwritten codes of congressional parties (as well as Congress in general). And party members will impose strong social and political sanctions on individual legislators who do it.

Take, for instance, the criticisms of other House Democrats by Ocasio-Cortez and her staff. They may be greeted enthusiastically by liberal party activists, but who in Congress would want to help a colleague who openly disparages them? What staffer would confide in a legislative aide who makes his private complaints public? Someone who does these things is not likely to have many allies in Congress, and since successful legislating requires coalition-building within (if not between) political parties, this can seriously weaken one’s ability to pass bills and amendments.

Threatening the reelection of fellow party members, even indirectly, may be met with even greater scorn. As Ocasio-Cortez told the New York Times, “In many ways, I feel like I walk around with a scarlet letter because many members who just have any primary, whether I know about it or not, tend to project that onto me.”

Party leaders as well as the rank-and-file can make life difficult for a lawmaker who doesn’t follow norms. Pelosi repeatedly indicated her displeasure with Ocasio-Cortez, and given the influence of speaker over committee assignments and the legislative agenda (and Pelosi’s reputation for punishing disloyalty), this boded poorly for the freshman legislator’s long-term chances of success within the chamber.

Norms contribute to congressional party discipline and unity in other ways too. As Briana Bee and I have noted, if there is an established and widely-followed norm of voting with one’s party, leaders will not need to resort to threats or bargaining to enforce compliance on every roll call. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) once said that he sought to achieve a “psychology of consensus” in the Democratic Caucus so that its members would “want to be with the team.”

A few political scientists have recently written about norms as a major element of contemporary congressional politics. Brian Alexander, for example, discussed how norms restrain legislators from acts of disobedience in Congress. Looking beyond Congress, Julia Azari (a fellow Mischiefs of Faction writer) and Jennifer Smith (a former graduate student colleague who tragically passed away last year) wrote an insightful 2012 article about the role of norms in political institutions. Ocasio-Cortez’s experience underscores the wisdom of studying how norms shape political behavior within institutions—especially within congressional parties.

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