When she began her run for congress in the 14th congressional district, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was working as a bartender and waitress in Manhattan. She had worked as an organizer on Bernie Sanders’s 2016 run, and, after taking a road trip through places like Flint, Michigan and the Standing Rock reservation, she decided to run against the ten-term incumbent, Mike Crowley, in her district. Having run unopposed in the primary since 2004, Crowley was caught flat-footed—he didn’t even show up to their primary debate—and AOC, as she is now known, successfully painted Crowley as a complacent and out-of-touch. In June of 2018, Ocasio-Cortez beat Crowley by almost 15 percentage points in a landslide victory that the New York Times predicted would “reverberate across the party and the country.”
AOC’s stature as a political figure has only grown since then, as has her platform of Democratic Socialism. If Bernie Sanders introduced the ideology of democratic socialism to the American people, AOC has made it mainstream. In quick succession, she has brought once-unthinkable propositions to the table: she has championed the Green New Deal, a sweeping package designed to curb American’s carbon emissions while creating thousands of new jobs; she has proposed a 70% marginal tax rate for those making more than $10 million dollars per year; and she opposed the construction of Amazon’s much-discussed “HQ2” near her congressional district, leading a chorus of voices that may have contributed to Amazon’s decision to scrap the plans.
These bold moves have certainly won AOC many supporters, but they have also made her the target of breathless criticism. Critics on the right have seized upon AOC’s idealism as naïve and dangerous. Many on the left, too, view her as too disruptive a force within the Democratic party. Former Governor Ed Rendell recently stated that “AOC does not speak for the democratic party,” and that people like her will decrease the likelihood that a Democrat will defeat President Trump in the 2020 election. People like Rendell believe that the Democrats should occupy the safe territory of criticizing President Trump and winning back the moderate voters who voted for Trump believing that he could deliver some change in Washington.
While there may be a logic to that sort of thinking, AOC’s power lies in her ability to tell a story that makes sense to voters, rather than just trying to cobble together enough votes to win elections. For AOC and her supporters, the status quo has become so perilous—fast-approaching climate catastrophe, precipitous wealth disparity, a disappearing middle class—that fundamental shifts must be made in the way we operate. For too long, the democratic party has overdelivered inspiring rhetoric while underdelivering policy that will improve their constituents’ lives. Unlike the vague promises of “change”, AOC speaks to concrete, if historically ambitious, policy proposals.
While this may seem like a small distinction, it constitutes a fundamental reimagining of the democratic party as it exists today. For those like Governor Rendell, the democratic party is essentially a hedge against the hard-right instincts of the GOP; for AOC, the democratic party should push an ambitious platform that advocates for the poor and the working class. In a nation with a runaway conservative party that denies scientific consensus, refuses to address gun violence, and actively seeks to strip health insurance from constituents, arriving compromise is insufficient.
If her career thus far is any indication, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez understands these dynamics and has a preternatural ability to engage with them. She is the first political leader that not just understands but embodies the burgeoning social consciousness that defines her generation and those that will follow it. Her political appeal is as emotional as it is philosophical, deeply felt and deeply held. For those who do not agree with her politics, this emotionality is further evidence of her un-seriousness as a politician. But for those who do agree, her conviction is all too fitting: the oceans are rising, the forests are burning, and three Americans (Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett) have the same combined wealth as 50% of the American population. For the vast majority of the American people, these trends are dangerous, hostile, and anathema to a well-functioning republic.
Using her unique blend of social media savvy and congressional advocacy, AOC can singlehandedly propel an issue into the conversation. As she continues her political career, it is conceivable that she will champion even more ambitious progressive issues like universal basic income and free college tuition. Her advocacy is powerful, and she commands an enormous audience of Americans who share both her anxieties and her aspirations for a new mode of American life. In that way, she maybe a sort of ‘oracle’ for American politics and where we might be heading. Regardless, she is a true leader and a new model for the type of citizen that, like it or not, might come to define the next chapter in American history.
© Dr. Carmen Schaye