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The rise of Ilhan Omar

Lessons from a self-portrait

Shamus Cooke assesses the record of Representative Ilhan Omar and what her autobiography reveals about her political trajectory.

In 2018, Representatives Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota made history by becoming the first Muslim women elected to Congress. They were joined in the house of representatives by other newly elected members, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) of New York, establishing themselves as a progressive wing inside the Democratic House caucus, adopting the moniker “The Squad.” AOC, Omar, and Tlaib all were challenged in 2020 primaries from the right, but won by large margins. The Squad also added two new members when Cori Bush of Missouri and Jamaal Bowman of New York were elected in 2020 after defeating incumbent Democrats in primary upsets.

Like Bernie Sanders, they attracted the support of many on the Left, and the backing of influential groups like the Sunrise Movement and Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), of which AOC, Bowman, Bush, and Tlaib are members.

After two years of Republican control of the U.S. Senate and Donald Trump’s presidency, much has changed following the 2020 election. With Democrats in control of the government, the records and impact of the Sanders moment, including the existence of a renewed progressive, Democratic Party wing in Congress, demands a strategic assessment. (Even Jacobin, notable for its support for a Sanderite realignment of the Democratic Party, ran an article in its Winter 2022 print issue entitled, The End of the Honeymoon for AOC.)

It is in hopes of furthering these debates, and strengthening the Left in the process, that Tempest presents Shamus Cooke’s critique of Representative Ilhan Omar’s political trajectory and record.

At the same time, we recognize the onslaught of sexist, racist, and Islamophobic attacks to which members of the Squad have been subjected. Omar, in particular, has faced hundreds of death threats and has been slandered as a Jihadi by the far-right, while members of her own party have accused her of anti-semitism for any signs of opposition to Zionism. Christopher Hasson, a coast guard lieutenant, was arrested for allegedly plotting to assassinate Omar. Two months later, another man Patrick Carlineo, Jr. was arrested after he threatened to assault and murder Omar in a phone call to her office. After he pleaded guilty, Omar asked the court for leniency in its sentencing. Multiple Republican candidates have called for her execution, including her own 2020 opponent in the general election. She has also faced disgusting and false rumors about her personal life, suggesting that she gained entry to the U.S. by marrying her brother.

These attacks against Ilhan Omar—themselves a product of this self-same political moment of a resurgent and confident Right—makes any policy or strategy disagreements from the Left difficult to articulate given the very real threats to lives. But only in calling attention to both, and by restating our unequivocal commitment to defeating the threats posed by the Right, can we hope to make progress. Only by building a Left strong enough to face the strategic challenges of the moment can we have any hope of defeating these reactionary (bi-partisan) politics, and defending and deepening the political opening for the Left and socialism.

As progressive Democrats make concession after concession to the right-wing, it’s increasingly clear that the “Squad” lacks the will, vision, or politics to lead the Democrats down a left-wing path. Instead the left-wing is being dragged to the right, with the broader working class trampled underfoot. The Squad’s boldness deficit is now on national display, but it’s been months—or even years—in the making.

For example, on July 28, U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar made a stunning ‘yes’ vote in support of a $62 billion legislation (H.R. 4373) that funds many of the more unsavory areas of U.S. foreign policy, including $3.3 billion in aid to Israel.

To call Omar’s vote “shocking” is an understatement, and represents the biggest political capitulation—if not outright hypocrisy—in recent D.C. memory, a town famous for Olympic-level flip-floppers. Omar voted in favor of the exact thing she was famous, internationally, for opposing, at a time when Israel was still bloodily “mopping up” in Gaza after its devastating military action. Omar had very publicly condemned Israel’s actions in May, boldly railing against the U.S. aid to Israel that she ultimately voted for in July.

A 2017 protest against U.S. aid for Israel in Washington D.C. Photo by Ted Eytan.

Omar’s about-face garnered much more attention internationally than it did in the U.S., though it was denounced loudly by many pro-Palestinian groups, including Jews for Palestinian Right of Return, who said, “it is reprehensible that anyone, let alone someone who presents herself as progressive would vote yes on a bill that sends money to apartheid Israel”.

How did this happen? Simply speculating isn’t necessary, since Omar gives many hints in her autobiography, written last year, which outlines her political trajectory. In her book, This is What Democracy Looks Like, Omar doesn’t paint a self-portrait of a leftist connected to a progressive movement, but a more ambitious, establishment-style politician dedicated to the existing Democratic Party.

What Omar reveals in her autobiography

In the past, politicians wrote memoirs once they retired from public life. For sitting politicians, autobiographies are now commonly used to increase one’s political capital as they prepare for their next electoral conquest, and they typically do this using two tactics at once: projecting a sympathetic picture to a broad population, while also signaling to the political class where they stand on key issues: for the masses, “like me,” and to the establishment, “don’t fear me.”

Obama did this in his autobiography The Audacity of Hope, which helped endear him to millions while he also disclosed to the more sophisticated politicos that he was a neoliberal in the Reagan sense, of whom Obama described his admiration. This helped ease fears that Obama would, if elected, pursue a radical left program, or that he would even stray from the neoliberal path laid down by Reagan and followed by Republicans and Democrats ever since.

Omar’s autobiography has an eerily similar feel to Obama’s. Most notably, Omar admits that “the person I admire most” is Margaret Thatcher, that enemy of the British working class who was Reagan’s political counterpart. Omar proudly notes that she shares a nickname that Thatcher made famous, “the Iron Lady.” It’s also noteworthy that Omar is only 39 years old, and thus likely has little memory of Thatcher exercising power. Her admiration is therefore limited to history books, and any biography of Thatcher should mention that her removal from power came in response to mass protests against her poll tax, after she physically crushed labor unions, privatized and deregulated huge swaths of the British economy, and ushered in the neoliberal era.

Omar tries to distance herself from Thatcher politically, saying “her politics aren’t mine,” but such disclaimers fall flat whenever praise is lavished on a tyrant. Nor is Omar’s fondness of Thatcher an aberration in an otherwise progressive political outlook, since the political figure she writes about most is Nancy Pelosi.

Omar describes Pelosi in terms ranging from glowing to gushing. To Omar, Pelosi is “someone I admire greatly,” a pioneer of decentness and respectability in politics, not a decades-long pillar of the Democratic Party that has been running to the political Right for decades. Omar makes it clear that Pelosi is her mentor, and makes no attempt to distance herself politically.

Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, gets barely two sentences of mention in Omar’s story, while Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez receives an unremarkable half-sentence.

Aside from her obvious passion for refugee issues—Omar is a Somali war refugee—her autobiography mentions little to nothing about a broader progressive vision. She mentions inequality in one paragraph, but no remedy is suggested and virtually no other issues are touched upon. Black Lives Matter is ignored along with the unmentioned climate crisis. The issue of war and peace isn’t mentioned (after she writes about leaving Somalia); there is no mention of the fact that Obama and Trump—and now Biden—have been bombing Somalia relentlessly for years, while serving as money and gun conduits for Israel’s war crimes against Palestinians.

Omar’s brief mention of Israel-Palestine is also revealing: a shallow analysis that seemingly blames both sides, drastically minimizing the scale of Palestinian suffering at the hands of the Israeli government.

Unmentioned entirely is the term “the Squad,” or any implication that she is part of a left insurgency attempting to revolutionize the Democratic Party. Omar’s book suggests, quite loudly, that this assumption about her should be abandoned. After she enters college Omar’s political evolution barely differs from any sitting politician in Congress.

Omar’s establishment political upbringing

Omar describes an upbringing in Somalia of privilege, where her family had multiple staff to help with the chores of daily life. After her harrowing flight from war, they resettled in Minnesota, where her family was reduced to the ranks of the working poor, with her father finding work as a taxi driver.

She describes the beginning of her political life in college, where she was an active member of the College Democrats. She then went on to become a Policy Fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, one of the top public policy schools in the U.S., known for “equipping students to play key roles in public life at the local, state, national, and global level.” One needn’t emerge from such a school with a pro-establishment mindset, though it would be difficult not to.

Omar’s political career began in 2012, when she became campaign manager for Kari Dziedzic’s successful re-election campaign for the Minnesota State Senate. To call Dziedzic a “progressive” is a serious stretch, and Omar gives scant explanation as to what inspired her to lead the campaign.

The next year Omar became the campaign manager for Andrew Johnson in his successful bid for Minneapolis City Council, ushering Omar into the position of his Senior Policy Aide. Omar admits her friends expressed surprise that she supported Johnson, implying that he didn’t reflect her self-identity as a progressive—nor does Omar defend herself well against her friend’s astonishment.

Omar admits she had considerable sway with Johnson’s office once in power, but cannot describe any progressive policies they jointly pursued, though she explains that their “brand” was finding and deleting outdated codes/laws from the Minneapolis government, something that any Republican politician might pursue.

In 2016, Omar was elected to the Minnesota Legislature as a House Representative. She fails to mention any progressive policy initiatives she ran on or championed after winning. She does highlight, however, that she was successfully voted in by her Democrat colleagues into party leadership, a position she won by promising a strong commitment to the party, especially helping Democrats retake the Minnesota Legislature.

Omar’s campaigning acumen, ambition, and dedication to the Democratic Party are likely what drew the attention of Keith Ellison, who Omar admits helped recruit her to run for the position he was leaving, and which she retains today in the U.S. House of Representatives.

When Ellison reached out to Omar, he had already shown himself to be a loyal Democrat no matter the circumstances, accepting a symbolic leadership role with the DNC that came with no influence inside the party after an unsuccessful run for DNC chair in 2016, where establishment forces intervened to defeat his candidacy. Presumably, Ellison would not attempt to recruit a loose cannon “radical” to replace him.

Omar’s election victory to Congress is often attributed to the left grouping around the Justice Democrats, who found an unpolished fighter ready to wage war against the Democratic establishment. Omar was in fact a Democratic Party loyalist who worked her way up the food chain using the traditional methods.

A star is born in resistance to Trump

An unfortunate fact of American politics is that Democrats pose quite convincingly as radical progressives whenever a Republican is President, and retake their position as pro-corporate, establishment administrators the moment Democrats regain power.

For example, when George W. Bush was President, many Democrats used radical language in denouncing him. But when Obama became President—and continued some of Bush’s most unconscionable policies, from drone strikes to mass deportations—the once-loud radicals transformed their criticisms into quiet murmurs, if not outright praise.

With Trump’s victory, the Democratic Party returned to resistance mode, unleashing the attack dogs on every level. Ilhan Omar rose to prominence in this political climate for her passionate stance and bravery under political fire.

A protest at San Franciso’s International Airport, one of a number of impromptu demonstrations that took place at U.S. airports in the immediate aftermath Trump’s executive order instituting a Muslim Ban. Photo by Quinn Norton.

After Trump announced his ‘Muslim Ban’ on travel from seven Middle Eastern countries, Omar became a key Democratic figurehead opposing the policy, earning her international fame that catapulted her to political celebrity status, though not without cost. For opposing Trump’s policies and her willingness to speak out as one of the few Muslim people in Congress, Omar was—and continues to be—subjected to vicious Islamophobia and racism from Republican politicians. Most recently, Representative Lauren Boebert (R-CO) sparked outrage for a video in which she referred to Omar as a member of the “jihad squad” and compared her to a suicide bomber, leading Omar to receive hundreds of death threats. And while pressure has grown among Democrats to discipline Boebert, members of Omar’s own party have repeatedly accused her of antisemitism for her willingness to criticize Israel. These are obviously attacks against which the Left must continue to defend her.

Given this context, Omar and the rest of the Squad came to be seen as representative of an insurgent leftwing willing to buck the centrist party establishment. For some on the Left, they inspired hope that the Democratic Party could be transformed into a party for the working class.

A falling star under the Biden Administration

When Biden was inaugurated, however, the Squad’s ferocity shriveled. Omar went from roaring lion to inaudible cub; the long leash given by party insiders to attack Trump shrunk to a choke chain. Many of the progressive issues mentioned in her successful 2020 re-election campaign have seemingly been abandoned. It’s impossible to speculate whether Omar is simply a calculating politician or simply got caught in the crushing gears of the Democratic Party— whichever the case, the outcome is similar.

The most stunning example of the political turnabout—other than her vote for aid to Israel—was Omar’s silence over Biden’s immigrant-refugee policies, many of which began with Trump; this was the core issue that Democrats used to demonize Trump during Biden’s electoral campaign.

The border crisis has only worsened under Biden, who is daily deporting thousands of refugees without due process, while pressuring the Mexican government to take a more violent approach to the refugees that pass through Mexico on their way to the U.S. Kids remain in crowded cages. After raising the hopes of millions, Biden’s violent methods seem especially cruel. Throughout most of this, Omar has been silent.

Omar only managed to find her voice, however, limited in scope, after Biden then announced he would maintain Trump’s historically low levels of refugee admissions, a bizarre move even for Biden. She then signed a letter asking that the admission level be raised to 62,500, still a pitifully low number in light of the U.S.-triggered refugee crisis across the Middle East, combined with the regional crisis that manifests on the U.S. border, where Biden’s core strategy remains a fear-instilling brute force and deportation.

Omar has also been fairly criticized for her sudden silence about Medicare For All. Omar is the Vice-Chair of the Medicare For All Congressional Caucus, and since Biden’s election, she has been nearly silent on the issue. Recently, when fifty cities collectively rallied for Medicare For All, she refused to even dedicate a Tweet mentioning the national day of action. The obvious reason is that Medicare For All is not on Biden’s agenda and, therefore, not a priority for Omar.

What little independence Omar had from Biden seems to have been smothered with her vote in support of aid to Israel, a vote that barely passed in the House, and which the Squad could easily have stopped (the Democrats have a tiny majority in the House, giving the Squad immense leverage). Omar is also the Whip for the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the biggest caucus in Congress—this, combined with her national profile, makes her a very powerful politician. This power, post-Biden, has regularly been limited to the occasional progressive Tweet.

Of course, Omar could have withheld the Israel vote to stage a public debate about the issue or held a press conference to raise consciousness about the ongoing crisis in Palestine and the direct role played by the United States. By voting “yes,” Omar is claiming direct responsibility for funding the atrocities in Palestine, along with fellow Squad colleague Jamaal Bowman.

Omar’s total capitulation on Israel—and U.S. foreign policy in general—was too blatant to not have involved a backroom deal. Most votes in Congress involve quid-pro-quo horse-trading, and when a politician like Omar takes a vote that ensures they’ll lose an important chunk of their political base, it’s almost certainly done in exchange for a new base, or a promised promotion, or some other significant remedy to offset the serious self-harm she knowingly committed by voting “yes.” Ultimately, the vote means that she has abandoned her most serious credential as a leftist in exchange for new opportunities to the right.

Post-Squad politics

On the surface, it seems strange that Omar’s Israel vote was barely discussed in the U.S. media, including the Left. This inattention is likely connected to the fact that some sections of the Left—including Jacobin, various podcasters/Youtubers, and the leadership of DSA— have embraced a political strategy rooted in the Democratic Party. They saw Bernie Sanders and the Squad as proof that their approach was working, even after the Democratic Party destroyed two consecutive Sanders’ campaigns and recently torpedoed progressive hopefuls Nina Turner and India Walton.

An over-reliance on the Democrats means a lack of criticism when “left” candidates take right turns. It’s thus no surprise that, last year, Jacobin gave a gushing review of Ilhan Omar’s autobiography, choosing to ignore the dozens of pro-establishment comments she sprinkled throughout the book.

Given the multiple social crises in the U.S., aspiring Democratic politicians have little choice but to insert populist rhetoric into their campaigns; the Congressional Progressive Caucus is the biggest caucus because any pro-corporate Democrat finds it convenient—and strategic—to call themselves “progressive,” even as they focus their fawning attention on the corporations. There is no civil war taking place inside the Democratic Party, even if there exists a spectrum of opinions and competing interests. The direction of the Party and its core political aims are not disputed or even discussed.

At a time where faith in Congress is at an all-time low and both parties are deeply hated, Omar and the Squad’s actions haven’t made fundamental changes in the system, but have served to prop it up, instilling a fake progressive hope in a party dominated by Wall Street, Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Tech, the military-industrial complex (which includes the Israel lobby), and myriad billionaires.

To actually achieve any of the core issues that many Democrats claim to support—Medicare For All, the Green New Deal, peace, jobs, eliminating student and credit card debt, etc.—will require a new party rooted in the working class. Decades of failed attempts to reform the Democrats must be abandoned, especially given the multiple, existential challenges urgently staring society in the face.

Some have suggested that Omar, AOC, and others may flee the Democrats to realize their progressive vision in a new party. If this isn’t done very soon, their legacy will be sealed as only the latest of progressive props in an establishment party dominated by billionaires.

Featured Image Credit: Photo by Gage Skidmore ; modified by Tempest.

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Shamus Cooke View All

Shamus Cooke is a social service worker and trade unionist in Portland, OR. He can be reached at