Review: How I learned to stop worrying and love the Squad

by Luca Tavan • Published 13 June 2024

Ryan Grim, The Squad: AOC and the Hope of a Political Revolution, Henry Holt and Co, 2023.

“It’s tough being a member of the Squad these days”, wrote Branko Marcetic last year in the pages of Jacobin Magazine, lamenting the fact that “even committed socialists question what the point of the Squad has been”.[1]

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s successful bid to unseat long-term Democratic powerbroker Joe Crowley from his New York congressional seat in June 2018 had unleashed an avalanche of expectations on the American reformist left. Ocasio-Cortez, known as AOC, was joined by three other successful progressive challengers. Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley, were, together with AOC, dubbed “the Squad” by the media. Jacobin Magazine – a publication aligned with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) – presented the victory of AOC and her colleagues as vindication of their longstanding claim that the Democratic Party could be the unlikely site of a new socialist movement.

Miles Kampf-Lassin wrote: “it’s no shock that Ocasio-Cortez and her cohort are being treated as a threat to a party establishment that has cozied up to corporate power and helped maintain the deeply unequal economic and political order in this country. It’s because they are one”.[2] In another article, AOC was called “a righteous disturber of the peace, an adept orator for the working class, a creative user of new platforms. Though still on the periphery of power, she is showing us a different kind of politics. Instead of accommodating herself to the powers that be, she’s expanding people’s sense of the possible”.[3] Her role was even compared to the heroic period of the German Social Democratic Party, a socialist workers’ party which claimed a million members in the early twentieth century.

Five years later, the Squad has lost its sheen. Rather than taking the hammer to the Democratic establishment, the Squad has become its enthusiastic left flank. AOC has endorsed Biden for re-election, stating in a recent interview with CNN: “I know who I’m going to choose. It’s going to be one of the most successful presidents in modern American history”.[4] Commitment to party unity has meant accepting the Biden administration’s right-wing domestic and international agenda, from voting to unilaterally impose a contract on railway workers and quash their right to strike, to voting to fund Israel’s Iron Dome.

What the hell happened to the group that was supposed to “burn it down”, in the words of one of AOC’s staffers?

The new American reformist clique around Jacobin has portrayed the Squad as insurgent leftists trying to confront the Democratic Party machine. Ryan Grim’s new book The Squad: AOC and the Hope of a Political Revolution is different. Grim is an effusive supporter of AOC’s attempts to rehabilitate the Democrats. But unlike the Jacobin crowd, he makes no attempt to disguise the Squad as a genuine challenge to the Party machine. His work is useful for revolutionaries, not because it condemns the Squad, but because it provides candid evidence that can furnish a radical critique. The book proves, intentionally or not, that the Squad are nothing more than moderate and aspirational liberal Democrats.

Grim’s account describes how each member of the Squad established their careers within the Democratic Party machine. Ayanna Pressley worked her way up as an intern for a member of the Kennedy dynasty, before becoming political director for John Kerry, one-time Presidential hopeful and current US climate envoy. Rashida Tlaib worked as a Democratic staffer from 2004, eventually serving in Congress in Michigan, while Ilhan Omar did the same in Minnesota from 2013. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez interned for Ted Kennedy, before establishing a Bronx-based company publishing children’s books. In 2012 AOC appeared alongside Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand at a press conference unveiling a tax break for new businesses; as Gillibrand intoned: “We know that government doesn’t create jobs, businesses do”. In a weak defence of AOC’s working-class credentials, Grim dismisses this awkward history by emphasising her one-time stint in the hospitality industry, adding: “Despite her earlier ambitions, by this point in her life, the proper way to understand Ocasio-Cortez was as a bartender” (ch. 1).

The Squad’s breakthrough came two years after the insurgent campaign by Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination. Sanders began his campaign with a series of scathing attacks on the Democratic establishment, but by July 2016 had endorsed Hillary Clinton, championing the neoliberal warmonger’s policy platform as “the most progressive in history”.[5]

AOC serves as the major focus of Grim’s book, reflecting her role as the leading and most influential member of the grouping. One of AOC’s first acts was her early occupation of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office alongside climate activists from the Sunrise Movement. Grim shows that even this disruptive action was couched within an approach which sought to gently nudge the party in the right direction. When asked whether her occupation was a direct challenge to Pelosi (and by extension the Democratic establishment), AOC replied: “One of the things I admire so much about Leader Pelosi is that she comes from a space of activism and organising, and so I think that she really appreciates civic engagement. And really what I’m here to do is just to support the folks who are here”; adding “Should Leader Pelosi become the next Speaker of the House, we need to tell her that we’ve got her back” (ch. 3).

The Squad did indeed have Pelosi’s back. They supported the venture capitalist – who has an estimated net worth upwards of $100m – for re-election as party leader at the end of 2018. Soon AOC had christened her the “mama bear” of the Democratic Party. This established a pattern: members of the Squad would trade loyalty to the Democratic leadership for a shot at sitting in on influential Congressional Committees. AOC soon began withholding endorsements for other progressive primary challengers, and funnelling money from her “Courage to Change” fundraising committee to centrists. In 2023 the Squad unanimously backed Pelosi’s successor, Hakeem Jeffries, whose extreme hostility to the left was infamous in progressive circles.

At the time, the steadfast loyalty of the Democratic Party’s left wing contrasted awkwardly with dynamics playing out on the other side of the aisle. The far-right Freedom Caucus was giving a masterclass in obstructionism, blocking the election of establishment Republican Kevin McCarthy to the House Speaker position for days on end. AOC was forced to respond to an obvious question: Why doesn’t the Democratic left fight their leaders as hard as the Republican right fight theirs? Her response was revealing:

When people say, you know, why don’t we do this? First of all, there’s a lot of cost and dysfunction… Second of all, those people who are holding out right now, they may have made certain structural gains, but they have also made incredible reputational and relational harm within their caucus. And so, if you are trying to get something done within your caucus moving forward, you still need members of your caucus. And that, at the core, is an element of electoral politics that is simply inescapable (ch. 20).

While some issues created tension between the Squad and the Democratic leadership, this was never translated into an open political battle. AOC ruffled feathers by referring to the Israeli “occupation of Palestine” in a 2018 interview. But since then, she has waffled and evaded on the issue, culminating in her 2021 decision to vote “present” rather than “no” on a vote to fund Israel’s Iron Dome. This shocked many in left-Democratic circles, sparking debate about whether this represented a capitulation, or some subtle tactical masterstroke. The rationale that Ocasio-Cortez herself provided is far more banal: “I felt voting P[resent] was the only way I could maintain some degree of peace at home – enough to bring folks together to the table[,] because all this whipped things up to an all out war” (ch. 18). Maintaining friendly relations with right-wing Democrats and upholding party unity trumped principle and the possibility of mobilising sentiment against the craven pro-Israel politics of the Democratic establishment.

The relationship between the Democratic left and centre was consummated under Biden. After swiftly dispensing with the half-hearted challenge from Bernie Sanders in the 2020 primaries, he moved to co-opt the left and adopt some elements of their rhetoric as part of his policy agenda. AOC joined Biden’s “climate unity” task force with John Kerry, while Sanders was handed a plum spot on the Senate Budget Committee. Grim writes: “while Ocasio-Cortez and the Squad spent much of 2019 in conflict with party leadership, and spent the first half of 2020 trying to nominate Sanders for president, AOC had been a team player in the general election, and through Biden’s term, she had consistently framed her advocacy as in support of his administration and his agenda” (ch. 20).

Grim presents Biden’s suite of economic and social policies, dubbed “Bidenomics” by the press, as a victory for the left, something at least approximating the reformist vision of a Green New Deal. US socialist Ashley Smith argues that Bidenomics should better be understood as a project of “imperialist Keynesianism” – a capitalist project which includes three connected goals: “1) rebuilding the foundations of U.S. capitalism, 2) stabilizing domestic politics under the hegemony of the Democratic Party, and 3) restoring and protecting Washington’s imperial supremacy over China and Russia.”[6]

Rather than pulling Biden to the left, Sanders and the Squad were pulled to the right, abandoning their reformist program to cheerlead an administration overseeing attacks on workers at home and militarisation abroad.

Grim’s insider account reveals that this approach clashed with some of the expectations of AOC’s staffers who wanted a combative politics: “Her staff and many of the backers of Justice Democrats wanted to go to war against the people they saw as in the way of progress, AOC’s one-time policy adviser Dan Riffle said. They wanted a real political revolution” (ch. 10). In the end, AOC resolved this contradiction by replacing her two closest political advisers with Washington insiders.

Grim’s book makes it clear that the “activist” sphere with which the Squad interacts is the well-heeled NGO-industrial complex. If anything, this exerts a further conservatising pressure on elected officials. Grim recounts one tragicomic example on the issue of abortion. AOC’s staffers considered bringing a vote to Congress to repeal the Hyde amendment, prohibiting federal funding for abortion services. This longstanding piece of legislation is defended by Biden. They were discouraged from pushing for the legislation’s repeal by Planned Parenthood lobbyists, who explained that if they brought forward a vote to repeal the law, the NGO would be forced to publicly criticise Democrats who voted to maintain it. This was something they were not keen on, and the vote was abandoned (ch. 10).

Could things have gone differently? Could more organised left-wing pressure on the Squad have pushed them towards a more principled path? Adam Sacks’ Jacobin article comparing AOC to the German Social Democrats suggested so, stressing that “Going forward, we’ll need nationwide networks of left politicians, real structures outside the Democratic Party, and a vibrant working-class movement that can groom the next generation of socialists”.[7]

This statement has no relationship to the actual project of the Squad. As a grouping of elected officials, they have expressed no desire to foster independent organisations that can hold them to a baseline set of political principles. The organisations that helped propel the Squad into office, like the DSA and Justice Democrats, are ginger groups that operate within the framework of Democratic party politics, not independent working-class organisations. As the strategy of electing left Democrats has been exposed as a dead end, organisations built around this project have gone into decline. The DSA is mired in crisis, with falling membership, while Justice Democrats were forced in 2023 to lay off nearly half of their staff. Years of organisational investment into the Squad has only put left-wing organisations in the US in the discrediting position of feeling compelled to apologise for their unchecked backsliding and political capitulation.

More than five years on from the shock election of the Squad, there is a need for a serious critique of their project. Much of the criticism of AOC in leftist circles focuses on individual outrages – from her rebranding of Trump’s migrant “concentration camps” as “overflow facilities” under Biden, to her rebuttals of left-wing criticisms of his administration as “privileged” and “bad faith”. While these statements are pretty repugnant, the left needs a deeper critique of the arguments mobilised to justify the Squad’s project.

The strategy promoted by the American reformists operating around the DSA is that the Democratic Party can be taken over, split or disrupted by socialists running in elections as Democrats. This is an utterly unrealistic, distorting and disorganising perspective for any serious left.

The Democratic Party is the oldest and most established capitalist party in the world. Its list of crimes is the longest of any, given the party’s central role in administering one of the most brutal capitalist states on the planet – a state which has spent 80 years as the largest and most aggressive empire the world has ever known. The Democrats are the party of slavery and segregation, of Hiroshima and the wars on Vietnam and Gaza, of union-busting and austerity.

The very name “Democratic Party” is an oxymoron. Its structures are profoundly undemocratic and it’s not really a party. Rather, it’s a series of fundraising cabals controlled by a powerful wing of the US capitalist class. The speed with which the Democratic Party apparatus mobilised to defeat Sanders after his surprise breakthrough in the 2020 Las Vegas primaries is evidence of the imperviousness of these structures to democratic will. No genuine socialist could politically operate within its institutions.

This raises a broader question unexplored in Ryan Grim’s book and seldom touched in the pages of publications like Jacobin: what is a socialist? The label has been everywhere in the last decade. As an adjective, “socialist” appears 28 times in the book, reflecting its widespread adoption, even by very moderate politicians and organisations. The noun “socialism”, however, doesn’t appear once. It’s peculiar that a book covering five years of what has often been portrayed as an insurgent socialist movement doesn’t contain a single paragraph of discussion of socialism as a political objective, what it means and how to get it.

Socialism is about uprooting the capitalist system; it is about eliminating exploitation and doing away with the existing state. Socialism is a radical end that can only be achieved through radical means. To be a “socialist” requires a relentless hatred of the capitalist class and their institutions.

The best representatives of the socialist movement have always understood this. The American revolutionary Eugene Debs once said: “There was a time in my life, before I became a Socialist, when I permitted myself as a member of the Democratic party to be elected to a state legislature. I have been trying to live it down. I am as much ashamed of that as I am proud of having gone to jail.”[8]

The balance sheet of the Squad’s first five years shows that a grouping of aspirational, progressive political careerists can exist comfortably in the swamp of the Democratic Party, despite occasional ideological tensions and policy clashes. A socialist movement is something different – it will have to be built based on an implacable hostility to the oldest, most powerful capitalist party on the planet.


Elliot, Phillip 2024, “How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Became One of Joe Biden’s Most Valuable Boosters”, Time, 16 February.

Kampf-Lassin, Miles 2019, “They’re Not Just Mad at AOC – They’re Scared of Her”, Jacobin Magazine, 15 July.

Lepore, Jill 2019, “Eugene V. Debs and the Endurance of Socialism”, New Yorker, 11 February.

Marcetic, Branko 2023, “AOC and the Squad’s List of Left-Wing Accomplishments Is Quite Long”, Jacobin Magazine, 16 August.

Roberts, Dan 2016, “Bernie Sanders officially endorses Hillary Clinton for president”, The Guardian, 13 July.

Sacks, Adam J 2019, “Before AOC, There Was the SPD”, Jacobin Magazine, 6 December.

Smith, Ashley 2023, “Trapped in the Democratic Party”, Tempest, 21 August.

[1] Marcetic 2023.

[2] Kampf-Lassin 2019.

[3] Sacks 2019.

[4] Quoted in Elliot 2024.

[5] Quoted in Roberts 2016.

[6] Smith 2023.

[7] Sacks 2019.

[8] Quoted in Lepore 2019.

We’ve been down this road before: Jesse Jackson, the Democrats and the left

Nick Everett re-examines the Jesse Jackson experience, in the process casting light on debates regarding the candidature of Bernie Sanders.

Biden's plan for the US empire

Tom Bramble analyses the approach the Biden administration is taking to the new cold war between the US and China.