The 116th United States Congress is not yet in session and already there’s been no shortage of headlines about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the incoming House Democrat who sent a shock through her party’s establishment with her primary win in New York’s 14th Congressional District. Even before she won the November midterm election and became the youngest representative ever to head to Congress, both Republicans and Democrats tried desperately to make sense of her popularity—and began throwing punches.
From criticizing her clothing and savings account to trying to cut down her activism, it seems media and politicians alike can’t stop talking about her. Former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and former Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman both scrutinized Ocasio-Cortez’s actions, with Lieberman warning in the run-up to the midterms that the would-be House member “hurts the party, congress and even America.”
In her own party, the incoming New York representative is already facing censure from her fellow Democrats, both for her push to establish a “Green New Deal” committee to tackle climate change as well as her support for the #OurTime campaign, which is seeking out primary candidates to challenge conservative Democrats in the next elections. An article in The Atlantic highlights how some Democrats on the Hill are reacting to her intrepid challenges:
The discussion surrounding the select committee [on the “Green New Deal”] is just a small squabble, one that is hardly acrimonious and involves an issue that most Democrats seem dedicated to. And the focus on the few more outspoken progressive freshmen, like Ocasio-Cortez, is disproportionate to the amount of power they’ll actually have in the House.
But the debate has nevertheless provided a preview of what will likely become a familiar dynamic in the early months of the 116th Congress: Ocasio-Cortez and her progressive colleagues will demand bold reforms; other Democratic lawmakers will praise their zeal, but encourage them to rein it in a little. It’s an important dynamic to understand: The Democrats don’t have a huge majority, so just a few votes could make or break party unity on legislation. … the new progressives’ criticism of their own party—and their push for reforms—is sure to continue in the coming months, as House Democrats begin prioritizing issues and introducing new legislation. But as their ambitions grow, so, too, may some Democrats’ fears that the newcomers’ zealousness is a liability.
“We do have the majority, but it’s a slim majority,” said one Democratic House staffer. “So [if] you have a couple people who oppose something, you’re gonna have trouble.”
The suggestion that maintaining control is worth sacrificing progressive policies such as “Medicare for all,” abolishing ICE, free college tuition and other goals Ocasio-Cortez promised to fight for is one many on the left have heard before. It seems that in Donald Trump’s America, however, this lesser-of-two-evils approach isn’t as convincing as it once was. As for the barrage of criticism, the following Quartz piece points out that it might actually work in Ocasio Cortez’s favor:
… Ocasio-Cortez “is in a position that is normally dominated by white, male members of society…Critics feel threatened by what she represents, and so they choose to focus on her clothes to show that she’s not who she says she is—and by extension, that she doesn’t belong.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s power is that she does belong, precisely because she is such an untraditional officeholder (not wealthy, white, and male). American college students and alumni collectively owe an estimated $1.5 trillion in student-loan debt. The skyrocketing cost of rent in every major American city, including DC, and the lack of affordable housing options just compound their financial imprisonment.
The squeeze is even tighter for women, LGBTQ people, immigrants, non-Christian Americans, and people of color who see a rise of sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-semitism, Islamophobia, and nationalism as a frightening feature of public discourse in America. And as the #MeToo movement proves, barriers to entry and power remain formidable for women, especially women of color, in every major industry.
Ocasio-Cortez, like so many millennial Americans, has experienced these problems. Yet she refuses to indulge in a victim narrative. She defines herself as a survivor and as a change-maker. As she wrote on Twitter in response to Scarry, “Dark hates light—that’s why you tune it out.”
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Swipes from both sides of the aisle aren’t anything Ocasio-Cortez can’t take, anyway, and if her recent social media activity is anything to go by, the freshman Congress member can give as good as she gets. Speaking of social media, the democratic socialist has been quick to turn her online presence into an effective tool for both contesting critics’ claims as well as informing her constituents and the rest of the American public about everything from her struggles on the Hill to her everyday life as a newly elected representative. Perhaps unlike many other politicians, she’s also recognized that in the age of Trump tweets, social media is a political battleground that should not be underestimated.
It was precisely on Twitter that the New York Democrat recently threw her support behind another bold idea that would go a long way toward promoting democracy: getting rid of Columbus Day, a holiday steeped in anti-indigenous sentiment, and giving Americans Election Day off to exercise their voting rights.
The opprobrium is unlikely to decrease once she takes her seat on Jan. 3, but if it’s any indication of how uneasy she’s making politicians eager to maintain the broken status quo, Ocasio-Cortez is already doing exactly what she was elected to do.