When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated incumbent Joe Crowley to represent New York’s 14th Congressional District, she became the youngest woman ever elected to the U.S. Congress. Instantly, AOC became a national celebrity, the rising star of the Democratic Party. Winning 57.5% of the vote, AOC showed that her progressive platform and her professed working-class values were politically viable.
Many constituents viewed AOC’s ascendancy as a marker for hope and optimism. She promised advocacy for a slew of progressive reforms, including: Medicare for all; fully funded public schools and universities; a universal jobs guarantee; criminal justice system reform; immigration reform; campaign-finance reform; an “Economy of Peace;” paid family and sick leave; and housing as a human right. AOC even denounced identity politics as a trojan horse to court minority voters. She criticized the DNC ‘s support of Israel.
AOC was young, trendy, female, and “BIPOC”– and progressives were positively salivating over her political potential.
However, AOC’s time in office has demonstrated clearly that she is an upholder of the status quo. She turned out to be a master of identity politics and a talented crafter of her own celebrity – not for the sake of political action, but for the sake of celebrity itself. Only through the artful manipulation of social media has AOC has retained her moniker as a champion of progressive values.
A Well-Worn Formula
AOC established a stark contrast between her campaign and her tenure almost immediately. During AOC’s campaign, she said she wouldn’t vote for Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House. Of course, moments into her tenure, she endorsed Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House. In response to the criticism that followed, AOC did what she does best – what she does better, in fact, than anyone else in politics: She framed herself as the victim.
“Over 200 members voted for Nancy Pelosi today, yet the GOP only booed one: me,” AOC tweeted. “Don’t hate me cause you ain’t me, fellas.”
The left should have been booing AOC, too. She had broken a progressive campaign promise. But the optics of this slight, young, pretty, brown woman confronting the GOP establishment were just too good.
The GOP has “literally never been more threatened by a politician,” said a Twitter user. “You must be their biggest threat. They’re behaving like children,” said another. Clearly, AOC could break campaign promises as long as she took to social media afterward, went head-to-head with the GOP, and claimed some form of victimhood.
She has followed that same, simple template ever since. First, espouse a progressive policy point. Then, violate that progressive policy point and uphold the status quo. Finally, frame self as the victim.
Take another example: During AOC’s campaign, she openly criticized America’s, and the Democratic Party’s, unqualified support for Israel. Since, in her view, Israel has committed various atrocities against the Palestinians, U.S. and DNC support for Israel constitutes a human rights violation. She vowed not to endorse endless, unqualified support for Israel. Well, in October 2021, with the House set to vote on $1 billion in new funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, AOC had the opportunity to prove her mettle. She could have voted against sending money to Israel to fund weapons systems. And right up until the very moment of the vote, AOC held to her campaign promises, telling constituents in a letter that she opposed the Iron Dome funding because of “persistent human rights abuses against the Palestinian people.”
Yet when the moment came for AOC to cast her vote, she stepped in line and supported the funding. Having violated her promises, she swiftly pivoted to the final step of her formula: reframing herself as the victim.
In full view of the live television feeds covering the vote, AOC wept openly. “Yes, I wept,” AOC said, “I wept at the complete lack of care for the human beings that are impacted by these decisions, I wept at an institution choosing a path of maximum volatility and minimum consideration for its own political convenience.” Then, to fully crystallize herself as the victim in all this – “this” being her decision to send unconditioned military aid to Israel after vowing not to send unconditioned military aid to Israel – AOC blamed the decision on “hateful targeting,” “death threats,” and “dangerous vitriol” she had received on account of opposing the funding. Imagine if politicians pushing through the 13th Amendment, the New Deal, or the Civil Rights Act had withdrawn their support due to “hateful targeting” and “dangerous vitriol.”
A Social Media Star, That’s All
But that’s the thing with AOC. Despite being billed as America’s progressive champion, she’s not a serious progressive politician – she’s not seriously progressive, nor seriously a politician. Her progressive track record, three and a half years into her tenure, is paltry. And while she is, of course, an elected official, her true spirit is that of an influencer.
Perfectly nothing encapsulates who AOC is like last year’s dress incident. AOC, who voted in favor of the CARES Act, perhaps the single most comprehensive upward transfer of wealth in U.S. history, proceeded to wear a dress to the Met Gala, of all places, inscripted with “TAX THE RICH.” Images of AOC on the red carpet went viral. Criticism followed, but AOC was ready with a victimhood-claiming spin.
“I thought about the criticism I’d get,” AOC said, “but honestly I and my body have been so heavily and relentlessly policed from all corners politically since the moment I won my election that it’s kind of become expected and normalized to me.”
Harrison Kass is the Senior Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken. Follow him on Twitter @harrison_kass.