Ocasio-Cortez is often said to embody a generational break with senior Democrats. “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party,” she told New York magazine, in January. But she also represents a suppressed strain. Watch the network coverage of the 1988 Democratic Convention and you’ll find that the standout performer wasn’t Michael Dukakis, whose acceptance speech was dull, or Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas, who spoke for thirty-three minutes and “completely lost this crowd,” in the words of Chris Matthews, then a young NBC reporter on the floor. (Biden, who was feuding with Dukakis’s campaign, missed the Convention because he was recovering from surgery for a brain aneurysm.) The obvious star was Jesse Jackson, then forty-six and the embodiment of a rising multiracial progressivism, having won nearly seven million votes and eleven contests in the primaries. “For almost eight years, we’ve been led by those who view social good coming from private interest, who view public life as a means to increase private wealth,” Jackson said. “We believe in a government that is a tool of our democracy, not an instrument of the aristocracy in search of private wealth.” Of all the talented speakers at that Convention, it was Jackson who would fit seamlessly onto the virtual stage of 2020.
In 1988, as the baby boomers took over the Party, Clinton’s vision represented a viable electoral proposition, and Jackson’s didn’t. Now, having spent much of his career working in a party that was dominated by the Clintonite wing, Biden finds himself the standard-bearer at a moment when leading the Party means undoing that choice—to identify the Democratic Party fully with the Black Lives Matter movement, to take a more combative stance on capital and wealth, to supplant Clinton’s legacy with Jackson’s.