Nobody is as insignificant in the Washington pecking order as a freshman member of Congress just off the turnip truck and into a maelstrom of ignorance and uncertainty all about him. One member of a freshman class of not so long ago recalls arriving at Reagan National Airport, finding his way through the terminal maze to curbside, and hailing a taxi.
“I want to go to the Capitol,” the new greenhorn in town told the cabbie.
“OK,” the cabbie said, “if you know how to get there.”
New congressmen have learned the way, and with familiar expectations. There are giants to be slain, campaign crusades to be completed and bad customs encrusted with the grime of the decades to be eliminated, and not much time to do it. Everything promised in the campaign can be delivered in a week, a fortnight at most.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the great Hispanic hope from the Bronx, got into town puzzled about where she should apply to collect the money to pay her rent. She hadn’t expected to see rents like those on Capitol Hill and she needed the money in a hurry. (Good luck.)
Mzz Ocasio-Cortez had more to learn than she imagined. She remembered hearing somewhere about “the three chambers of government,” and, having just been elected to membership in one of them, wanted to get on with occupying her part in one of them. “If we work our butts off to make sure we take back all three chambers of Congress — uh, rather, all three chambers of government, the presidency, the Senate and the House.”
Mzz Ocasio-Cortez, like many of the newcomers, is a product of the salons of the like-minded, where never is heard a discouraging word from anyone who disagrees with them, and eliminating opposition to the party line. She put out a call over the week end for reinforcements (winning the war might take a little longer than the shock troops counted on), telling some 700 “progressive activists,” to run for office. If she succeeds, the movement will have more candidates than seats, even if she farms out some of them to the Senate.
“Long story short,” she said, “I need you to run for office. We need to run at all levels of government, but I really hope that many of you will join me here in Congress.”
Well, why not? “In politics,” Napoleon said, “stupidity is not a handicap.” He might have included ignorance, too. Indeed, Bernie Sanders, the beau ideal of the millennials, once observed that ISIS was attacking everybody because of global warming, said white people (all of them meaning all of them save Bernie himself) didn’t know what it was like to be poor. Hillary Clinton said she had observed that women are the primary victims of war. Barack Obama once promised to campaign “in all 57 states,” and Nancy Pelosi said the only way to find out what was in Obamacare was to enact it.
Many of the Democratic newcomers have an unusual understanding of how everything but how their wishes and dreams work. Anyone who questions the power of desire (if you want something bad enough, like a free college education or Medicare for all, or professes concern for how to pay for any of it) is a heartless grinch, and probably a Republican, too.
The leaders of the so-called Justice Movement, which worked for the election of some of the most radical of the newcomers, including Mzz Ocasio-Cortez, sometimes sound as if they’re eager to terminate many Democratic old-timers. The movement is driven by the conviction that most Democratic congressmen, despite the warm words that greeted the early success of Mzz Ocasio-Cortez in the Bronx and Rashida Tlaib, elected in Michigan as the first Muslim woman in Congress. They’re determined to break up and shake up the old order. The Justice Movement is focused on biography, identity (no more white guys, if possible, and white ladies can be tolerated if they behave themselves). They have their eye on lots of free stuff — free college, free health care, after-school programs for children, nutrition for old folks.
Though new to federal machinery, Rashida Tlaib served three terms in the Michigan legislature and might have become a fixture but for term limits. She saw a crowded field in the race to succeed John Conyers, who had held a House seat for approximately forever, and leaped. She won the Democratic nomination over a dozen rivals with a comfortable margin.
Michigan has a Muslim population of considerable size, originally drawn to Detroit and automobiles, particularly to Dearborn, home of Ford and once notably unfriendly to minorities. The new Congress heralds a new day, and where the new House goes will be to unexpected places.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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