Shortly after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old democratic socialist, pulled off a surprise left-flank victory over incumbent Rep. Joseph Crowley in a New York congressional primary last week, pictures of her childhood home began appearing on social media. The grainy image of the small blue cottage was evidently swiped from Google Street View and uploaded to Twitter by conservative television host John Cardillo. The tidy little home, Cardillo tweeted, was in fact “the Yorktown Heights (very nice area) home @Ocasio2018 grew up in before going off to Ivy League Brown University,” he clarified: “A far cry from the Bronx hood upbringing she’s selling.” Got her, in other words: a champagne socialist, after all.
Cardillo was wrong. Ocasio-Cortez was born in the Bronx, though her family moved to Yorktown Heights years later in an effort to place her in better public schools. And she went to Boston University, not Brown University, and not Ivy League. But the failure of one set of accusations along these lines usually just leads to another, and it forms an ugly paradox that applies only to the left: If you care about material equality and you aren’t destitute, you’re a hypocrite; if you care about material equality and you are destitute, you’re never going to have a real shot at political engagement to begin with.
As more left-flank challengers face off with center-left incumbents and more democratic socialists begin looking toward public office, beware: You will all be called champagne socialists or yacht communists, the ritzier and more radical counterparts of limousine liberals. It doesn’t matter how comparatively humble your background is, or how relatively modest your means in the context of the political class at-large — it’ll always be news if Bernie Sanders wears a $700 coat or buys a house by a lake, because his political position on inequality is so obviously moral that the only way to impeach it is to make him seem dishonest about it. The same goes, and will continue to go, for every other candidate who attempts to advance material equality. This stance is hard to supply a persuasive democratic alternative to, so critics instead claim that its standard-bearers don’t really mean it.
Even when one’s status or story is presented unfairly, the argument usually isn’t worth having. One might as well not give them an opening, or another thing to mock: It’s not going to be enough anyway, so underexposure — a decisive turn away from the bare-it-all, narrative-based style of self-presentation typical of the left — is understandable. And why should it matter? Lives are infinitely complicated and nuanced, and if yours brought you to a good political agenda you’re ready to work hard for, then that’s good enough.
So there’s dishonesty and there’s bad faith and there are things better left unsaid — and underneath all of that is the neglected fact that there really aren’t many poor people in politics, not simply because politics is a good way to get filthy rich in the most emphatically filthy way but also because it’s a hard racket to break into if you’re not a little canny in the ways of the well-to-do. Only about 2 percent of members of Congress come from working-class professions, a fair index of class background, and only about 3 percent of state-level legislators come from the same.
White-collar upbringings impart by osmosis what it takes to get along in politics, and not just monetarily. Consider the case of Robert Gray, a long-haul trucker who, in 2015, won Mississippi’s Democratic gubernatorial primary. Gray barely had time to give any interviews after his surprising win; he had sweet potatoes to transport to a potato chip plant in Pennsylvania. And when he did speak to the media, he didn’t talk like a politician, or even a politician-who-doesn’t-sound-like-a-politician. As a semi-pitying New York Times article noted at the time: “Mr. Gray acknowledged that he had a lot to learn about glad-handing. He spends most of his time behind a wheel, he said. Truckers do not make great communicators.” Gray sounded like a working-class person because that’s what he was; it’s only the white-collar world, collegiate life and its professional aftermath that prepare one for the kind of slick self-promotion and brand packaging that translate into skill with donors and voters.
This isn’t inherent. Anyone can learn it — you just have to be given the opportunity, and only the relatively well-to-do generally are. But use that opportunity to advance politics that would more widely distribute the means to self-advocate, and recriminations are sure to follow. This is class conflict, plain and simple.
Conservatives will continue to skewer as hypocritical anyone who takes exception to the unfair, anti-egalitarian system outlined above by fighting for equality even if they come from inequality’s better side. They will do this to the detriment of everyone on its worse side, and for that reason should be ignored.