The Voice of a Generation That Doesn’t Know What It Wants
When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley by 15 points this June, she gave Washington’s insider class a new folk hero.
Crowley was now an all-of-a-sudden former Bronx-Queens congressman, former chairman of his caucus, and former presumed successor to Nancy Pelosi. When he and his electric guitar took the stage as the “surprise guest” at Politico Playbook’s summer bash after his loss, some wondered: Is this what awaits fallen Democrats of the old order? Welcomed home to the bosom of the Beltway, something of a wounded soldier but mostly a clown?
The woman who cut Crowley down to size is a new breed of hero herself. But for a very different set.
Ocasio-Cortez, at 28, is an age-appropriate symbolic leader for the sub-millennial generation of self-styled socialist-sympathizers who’d held out hope for a Bernie Sanders presidency. Sanders was robbed, they believe, and it’s guys like Crowley who bear the blame. She’ll run virtually unopposed in November. (Her Republican opponent Anthony Pappas has said he is “realistic” about his chances in the heavily Democratic district.)
Before long, she’ll be another socialist voting with the Democrats on Capitol Hill.
[She} has more in common with the Sanders youth than with the septuagenarian senator they idolize.
But Ocasio-Cortez, soon to be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, has more in common with the Sanders youth than with the septuagenarian senator they idolize.
Like many who’ve “felt the Bern,” she calls herself a Democratic Socialist without knowing what it means. She claimed during a country-crossing jaunt in August to have enjoyed “examples of Democratic Socialism,” but listed Acadia National Park, a co-op general store, a worker-owned business, and a Planned Parenthood outpost… none of which has the least bit to do with her platform of Medicare for all, free college, a $15 minimum wage, and a federal jobs guarantee.
This summer, a Gallup survey of Democrats found 57% view socialism favorably. Last year, 69% of Americans polled with a multiple-choice question by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation could not define communism. Whatever it is, it polls highest among Millennials, more than half of whom believe the U.S. economy works against them and that they’d be better off in a socialist country.
Ocasio-Cortez belongs to the Democratic Socialists of America, a group rooted in Eugene V. Debs’ Socialist Party. But true to generational form, she isn’t a stickler about labels. She said in an early interview that her political individuation has been “more about action than about words or descriptions or -isms.”
Her father, an architect, was “born in the South Bronx while the Bronx was burning,” and her mother, who worked as a housekeeper, “was born in poverty in Puerto Rico,” she said in a Vogue magazine interview published the day before her big win. She majored in economics and international relations at Boston University and headed the school’s Latin-American affinity group. As a teenager, she interned for Ted Kennedy, and she was later a community organizer for Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. That is, when she wasn’t tending bar to make ends meet – a resume detail Sanders appreciates. “Last year, she was a bartender! Now she’s practically a congresswoman-elect!” Sanders cheerfully grumbled the day after her primary at a party for his senior-most staffer, Jeff Weaver, who was promoting his memoir of their 32 years together.
This summer, Ocasio-Cortez upstaged more top-billing names at events across the nation. At a rally for New York attorney general candidate Zephyr Teachout at SUNY New Paltz, Ocasio-Cortez received the first and loudest standing ovation. Her team tried not to steal Teachout’s thunder. “We’re letting them steer this one,” Ocasio-Cortez’s communications director Corbin Trent told me, sotto voce, stageside in New Paltz. Progressive candidates weren’t altogether thrilled with the amount of attention Ocasio-Cortez – or, as Trent calls her in an establishmentarian flourish reminiscent of Hillary Clinton’s monogram, “AOC” – siphoned from their campaigns. But the thrill of her win almost doubled donations to the mutually endorsed candidates, all fellow heirs to Sanders’ presidential campaign. In a closed-door rap session with reporters after the rally, she let Teachout take most of the questions. But it was Ocasio-Cortez the students were waiting outside the door to see.
In brown sandals, black jeans, and a cropped khaki blazer over a Zephyr Teachout T-shirt, she greeted selfie-wishers like they were old friends. And it felt that way to the students, too.
One, Jessica Meneses, who also hails from the Bronx, described her preference for Ocasio-Cortez as a kind of hometown simpatico. “In terms of policy, I have to learn more about her,” she said, “But I know where she comes from, and I know she gets the struggle.” Meneses registered to vote in New Paltz after the school year started in late August, so she can’t vote for Ocasio-Cortez as she’d hoped.
She’s not alone in her disappointment. For many at the rally, the star power of Ocasio-Cortez renewed their interest in politics, which had been waning since Sanders lost the 2016 nomination.
Socialism-curious cynic Alex Martino, a SUNY student who hung around after the rally with a friend from the campus chapter of the International Socialist Organization, still resents the Democratic establishment for what they did to Sanders. “Her ideas, especially that a movement is bigger than policy or politics, are right. But I’m cynical,” Martino said, adding that he “wouldn’t be surprised” to see an outsider candidate like Ocasio-Cortez accommodate herself to corporate centrism now that she’s tasted power and fame. “At least she still calls herself a socialist.”
Beating Crowley catapulted Ocasio-Cortez to international fame unseen since Sanders. And progressive Democrats have needed her on the trail, which took her to Delaware, Michigan, and San Francisco before she headed back home to the outer boroughs. “I’ve only been out of the district 11 days in three months,” she told me after the rally, perceptibly losing patience while Trent and the team still smiled along. “Those are the days the media likes to focus on,” she added, turning the critique back on me and my overly-critical ilk.
As we in the press like to point out, she has in recent history struggled with irrefutable facts…
One recent stumble was the status of Puerto Rico’s sovereignty – she called it “a colony of the U.S.,” then backtracked in a campaign e-mail. Days before, she’d struggled to answer a question posed by CNN’s Jake Tapper – namely, how she would pay for the estimated $40 trillion cost of 10 years’ worth of Medicare for all, guaranteed jobs, government housing, and free college. She couldn’t say.
She hasn’t said yet whether she’s met with Pelosi since her big win, or to what extent she’ll challenge the California Democrat, a powerful fundraiser who’s unpopular with her party’s far-left wing. Ocasio-Cortez wouldn’t be wise to cross Pelosi if she wants to have any influence as a freshman congresswoman, New York-based Democratic consultant Morgan Hook pointed out in a recent interview. “Her primary victory was huge because of who she beat,” he said. “But when she gets to Congress, she’s going to be buried – whether she’s in the majority or not.” If Ocasio-Cortez has made peace with Pelosi, she hasn’t publicized it…
“Everybody [has reached out],” was all she would say up in New Paltz. “I was not expecting this reaction to the race.” When I asked for names, she repeated, “Like, literally, everybody.”
Crazy as it’s been, she spared the time to pose for a photo outside the popular Lower East Side diner Coffee Shop, where she used to waitress. The owner had announced its imminent closing, telling the New York Post that the rising minimum wage was to blame. Ocasio-Cortez and friend bid farewell to the eatery with an Twitter tribute to the good times they’d shared, toiling for tips at a trendy dive. In the photo, she’s balanced piggyback-style on her friend’s shoulders, laughing while a frowning busboy refills water glasses in the background. He’s out of a job, because of the anti-business wave of progressive policies sweeping New York City under Mayor Bill de Blasio – the same wave Ocasio-Cortez is riding to Congress.
On the subject of “economic justice,” a key plank of her appeal to the progressive base, Ocasio-Cortez has made some strange misstatements. “Unemployment is low because everyone has two jobs. Unemployment is low because people are working 60, 70, 80 hours a week and can barely feed their family,” she claimed in a mid-July interview with PBS’s Firing Line. Her supporters’ enthusiasm doesn’t depend on the documented consequences of her professed ideology. Venezuelan socialism, the closest example, led to deprivation and dictatorship. Nor does the support hinge on her grasp of the facts.
“You can tell she’s sincere,” New Paltz sophomore Lora Morales observed, when I asked what she likes about Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign. “Plus, she’s so cute,” Morales’ friend Kailey Strafford, also a sophomore, agreed. “I thought it was exciting when he lost,” Strafford said of Joe Crowley. “And she’s young,” added Morales, who is 19 and voted for the first time this year.
Ocasio-Cortez’s defeat of Crowley, and her youthful energy, have made higher office look less remote to these 19-year-olds – and voting more appealing. They were among those disappointed to find out that having registered to vote in New Paltz meant that they wouldn’t get cast their ballots for Ocasio-Cortez. The progressive organizers roaming campus with clipboards and registration cards might be taking advantage of these students’ Ocasio-Cortez fever, the three of us considered.
But that’s all part of the strategy Ocasio-Cortez described during her pump-up introduction of Teachout…
“We bring the energy, and they show us the way,” she said in a speech about young people’s role in political activism, which helped no one forget how young Ocasio-Cortez is compared to Teachout, a law professor and longshot attorney general candidate who – at 46, and seven months pregnant – was the resident grownup in the student union.
At an event in Brooklyn the following day, the full slate of New York’s Democratic Socialist candidates shared the stage. Most would soon lose their primaries. But Ocasio-Cortez and her win injected the scene with a sense of possibility. When a supporter shouted, “I love you!” she replied, popstar-style, “I love you too!” As the lead-in to her speech, she translated the vaguely revolutionary refrain of the Latin American song Teachout and Cynthia Nixon had been dancing to when I’d arrived minutes before. At one point, the candidates sang a groovy rendition of “Happy Birthday” for Sanders, who was turning 77 and whose super PAC supported several of their campaigns. Ocasio-Cortez slipped away after addressing the crowd – “probably to canvass,” an event staffer told me. It helps, when you’re knocking on Brooklynites’ doors to talk up a socialist state senate candidate, to have a certain celebrity sheen. And Ocasio-Cortez’s star appeal is such that Sephora sold out of the shade of lipstick she wears within 24 hours of her beating Crowley.
Plus, Ocasio-Cortez’s knowledge gaps and her resilience after mainstream media types criticize her – like CNN’s Tapper, the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, and the folks at PolitiFact who’ve graded her public statements “false” or “pants on fire” three times – betray a brassiness that the 18-to-25s seem to appreciate. Supporters take her seriously, if not literally, to borrow a phrase.
One I met this summer, 19-year-old Esther Joseph, summed it up. When I asked whether she thinks inexperience and limited expertise ought to matter, Joseph recalled, “She was on one of the late-night shows, and she was talking about the budget and what we could do about it.” Ocasio-Cortez misunderstood the entire $700 billion defense budget for 2018 to be the amount of last year’s military spending increase in a July interview with the Daily Show, after which, “Fox News came at her, She’s so wrong! And I was like, Yeah, but she has a point.”
Her point, in other words, transcended truth.
And indeed, as President Donald Trump has proven, to topple the establishment – to reduce them, in so doing, to Crowley-esque caricatures of their former selves – you don’t need truth. You only need a core of supporters who are convinced they know what you mean, even when it’s all made up.
Alice B. Lloyd is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.