The future of progressive politics is bright and its name is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
A new wave representatives have come to Washington, and things are looking different. Perhaps it is best demonstrated in emoji form:
Among those fresh faces of newly elected members in the bottom half, is a woman by the name of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Chances are she’ll be on the stage for some time, so we should get to know her story.
Born in the Bronx to family of Puerto Rican origins, she had a warm working class upbringing. “If you didn’t have a place to go on Thanksgiving, you came to our place. We never had a table big enough to fit everyone, but we’d always have folding chairs. You’d make a plate, eat it out of your lap, and share stories.”
At age 5 she moved to Westchester County, with a wealthier demographic. This has since led to criticisms of ‘not being poor enough’, to which she responds by saying “The thing that people don’t realize is that wherever there is affluence, there’s an underclass. There’s a service class. And that’s what I grew up in, scrubbing toilets with my mom.”
In school she loved science, and actually won second prize in the famous Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (IISEF) with a research project on microbiology. Politics could definitely use more scientists. And here’s a fun fact, there is a small asteroid named after her: 23238 Ocasio-Cortez.
She went to study medical science at Boston university, then worked at a maternity clinic on the outskirts of Niamey, Niger, the country ranked last on the UN Human Development Index. There, she saw “a lot of pretty brutal things”, which had a profound impact. Upon her return to Boston, she changed her major to economics and international relations, to focus on how policy can improve the lives of working class people.
To support herself, and her mother, she worked as a bartender and as a waitress at a Manhattan taqueria. Whether she knew it at the time or not, it was the perfect preparation for politics. “The food industry is the nexus of almost all of the major forces in our politics today. It’s super closely linked with climate change and ethics. It’s the nexus of minimum wage fights, of immigration law, of criminal justice reform, of health care debates, of education.” Not to mention the service element, working long hard hours to meet people’s needs. If only more politicians had that training.
Amongst all this, she worked as an educational director at the National Hispanic Institute (a nonprofit serving Hispanic youth), and also started a publishing firm, Brook Avenue Press, specialising in kids books which portray the Bronx in a positive light.
Her formal involvement in politics came in the 2016 presidential primary, where she worked on Bernie Sanders’ campaign. After the election, she went on a road trip to places like Flint Michigan and Standing Rock, to speak to people affected by the water crisis and the Dakota Access Pipeline. She’s called Standing Rock a tipping point in her life. Until then, she assumed that to make a real difference, you needed deep pockets and institutionalised connections to run for office. But “seeing people putting their whole lives and everything that they had on the line for the protection of their community”, inspired her to begin to work for her own community.
So she set her sights on congress. New York’s 14th district, covering parts of the Bronx and Queens in New York City, was represented by Joe Crowley, a guy who’d been in congress since 1999, and had been repping the 14th district specifically since 2013. He wasn’t actually elected, he just filled in when the guy before retired. He was the epitome of an “establishment democrat”. He was endorsed by the governor of New York, both senators, and the mayor.
And he had become complacent. He wasn’t listening to the voices in his community. He was doing what lobbyists told him to do. So AOC decided to challenge him in the primary. It was always a long shot. But the first step is believing.
The second step is figuring out how to do it. Her team realised that when 40% of the population doesn’t vote, that is an election-winning resource to be tapped. Talk to them, learn what they want and what they need, and work to get it for them. Inspire them to come out.
She said “You can’t really beat big money with more money. You have to beat them with a totally different game.” The Ocasio-Cortez campaign spent $194,000, to Crowley’s $3.4 million. They focused on warm bodies rather than radio buys.
In the election on the 26th June, she got 15,897 votes to Crowley’s 11,761. A total newcomer beat a 10-term incumbent by 15 percentage points. It’s almost unheard of. The moment she found out she won, her shock became internet legend.
Throughout it all was an unshakeable message of positivity:
“I think there was a real attempt to get me to really rip apart the establishment and create this antagonistic fight in the wake of my win. I rejected that because that was a narrative that some others were trying to advance, but that was not my plan. I’m not going to allow this movement to get hijacked […] when what we are really trying to advance is a positive and progressive vision for America’s future. I’m not going to get bogged down in Democratic infighting — not because I’m trying to do the establishment a favor, but because we have a movement to build.”
The victory catapulted her to the main stage, and she quickly became a sensation . She did the talk show rounds. But more importantly, she did her job, which is to represent her electorate.
The general election was essentially a formality. The republican candidate, Anthony Pappas, didn’t even really campaign, and AOC won with over 100,000 votes - nearly 80% of the total.
In the same midterm election, Democrats picked up another 39 seats, enough to take control of the house of Congress. It’s a new day in Washington.
Since the election, she has brought a whole new way of doing business. She’s not behind closed doors cutting deals with lobbyists. She’s at home on a Friday night making dinner and talking policy with 4,000 or so Instagram live viewers.
In what is probably the best political news of the year, this has since become a regular thing.
She is bringing a transparency to government which has been sorely lacking. She’s documented the whole orientation process, bringing the office to the people. Jacinda Ardern has done a similar thing in her short time in office as well, broadcasting what goes on behind the scenes. Also common to both leaders is a political philosophy based on kindness, respect and civility, good humour.
So, what are the actual policies? Let’s check in with our friends at Fox News to find out:
It’s a sign of how poisoned the well has become that the merit of these policies is even up for debate. We’ve become accustomed to letting conservatives define the narrative, that when someone stands loud and proud for these things, it’s almost confusing. Like we’ve forgotten that we can talk about them in a constructive way.
Healthcare is the best example here. Right now, Americans spend over $10,000 per person per year, on a health system which regularly denies people treatment, and sends them into crippling debt.
This is clearly absurd. The facts are clear, but the conversation has been deliberately muddied. The same goes for gun control, justice reform, campaign finance reform, voting rights, and more.
While it may be that at the executive level, the cruelty is the point, Americans are generally good people. They’ve just been sold a lie.
And so the left have made concessions. They’ve bought into the idea that you can’t just come straight out and advocate for these things, because Fox news will make fun of you. AOC’s response: Who cares?
Meanwhile, keep the conversation going. Stay on the front foot:
That second one sounds casual, but speaks to a fundamental tenant of democracy: Voting rights. A lot of working people can’t get to the polls because they have to work. This is, of course, how conservatives want it. There’s a simple fix, and with a ten words tweet, AOC is on the way to getting it done.
Unsurprisingly, all this is getting under the skin of some on the right. They feel their grip on power weakening, and they are lashing out with whatever they’ve got. She fires back with ruthless grace
She’s almost literally dancing while doing it. And singing. In Spanish. It’s just taunting them.
These people, from their position of privilege, are used to getting away with their bullshit bullying. AOC is having none of it.
Michelle Obama famously remarked, “when they go low, we go high”. AOC seems to have taken this to mean “head shots, not body shots”. Take them out in one fell swoop.
Working bars in NYC, you learn not to take crap from people. She’s dealt with a lot of Trump-types in her time. Don’t let them set the terms. Don’t settle for their script.
For example, “If they’re trying to end Planned Parenthood, I don’t think we go in with “No, let’s keep Planned Parenthood.” I think we go in with “Let’s expand women’s rights to health care and have it guaranteed in every state.”
After all, You get what you aim for.
The moral of the story here, is that those 4,000 votes on the 26th of June have had a profound impact on the political discourse. By putting progressives on the ballot, we get the causes we need on the table. So more progressives need to step up and challenge too. If that needs to be in safe districts to begin with, fine. But inspiring new voters to come to polls with polices that matter is a proven way of winning elections.
Conventional wisdom says you can’t run for congress if you’re a 28 year old bar tender. Conventional wisdom says if you run then you definitely can’t win. And that if you do win then for god’s sake, don’t screw it up by pushing too hard.
Luckily, we’re making our own wisdom. She’s shown the way. The world is already looking different, and it’s only just getting started.