Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder
Reflecting on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
The other night I watched two films in a row: Knock Down The House, the documentary about four progressive candidates running to unseat Democratic incumbents in the 2018 US election, and Douglas, Hannah Gadsby's comedy special.
They're both very interesting, and afterwards I read and thought a bunch in particular about what's striking about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's political career.*
Making expectations explicit
In Douglas, Gadsby starts the show with a lengthy table of contents, telling you what she is going to do, saying that she would like for everyone to have their expectations properly set. She calls her shot.
In Knock Down the House I noticed a related thing that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did -- talking explicitly about expectations. When Crowley tried to tie her to scandalous local politician Hiram Monserrate, her retort included an explicit refutation of the de facto way that "women tend to be made responsible for the actions of every man in the room". She brings to light an implicit expectation that underlies the smear, which makes it possible for her to explicitly refuse to meet it.
In this exchange Ocasio-Cortez demonstrates one of the skills that makes her an aspirational figure, a role model for so many marginalized people: live and in the moment, she can notice an unfair or misleading criticism coming her way, refute the specific criticism, and then name and categorize what's illegitimate about the criticism so as to defuse it and get the upper hand (and point out the problem to all watching).
This is such a powerful skill. I see it in Ocasio-Cortez, in Sarah Taber, in Rep. Katie Porter, in Alexandra Erin, in Tressie McMillan Cottom, in siderea, and in some other public intellectuals and activists and politicians (often women) who are unapologetic and sharp in their fast-paced analysis of illegitimate criticism. It's like they don't just deflect the object coming their way, but they also X-ray it and show everyone the schematics so we can build our own shields too.
I don't think I have this skill. I think it really helps to have gone through the school of hard knocks, which they have way more than I have. And it helps to have a ton of practice in fast-paced live oral argument, which I've probably atrophied in recent years since so much of my work is in written conversation.
But, in organic conversation, when conflicts crop up, I think I do a tolerable job of stepping back and asking (to myself or out loud): what mismatch of expectations brought us here? Which is definitely useful.
Analytical and organizing skill
You can watch the part of Knock Down the House where Ocasio-Cortez analyzes the difference between two campaign mailers and predicts their effectiveness. This is an example of the level of skill in analysis and organizing that Ocasio-Cortez brings to her job. Which is less surprising when you remember not only that she was a promising researcher as early as high school, and that she worked as an organizer for the Sanders campaign in 2016 and got a bunch of experience in on-the-ground political work.*** The skill she demonstrates in articulating progressive arguments in compelling ways is not just a general gift of gab; it comes hand-in-hand with wonky behind-the-scenes research and thinking that brought her to those positions, and deep and specific expertise in what disengaged voters need to hear to get them to turn out at the polls.
Ocasio-Cortez's college peers remember her as brilliant and driven, often calling her "the smartest person I know" -- which reminds me of similar phrases frequently popping up in people's recollections of Hillary Rodham. The first time Elizabeth Warren met Hillary Clinton (in May 1998) she had a similar experience.
Back in October 2008 I wrote about Obama's success and noted: "people used to think the Clinton machine was the best there was. But with the right tools, investment in time, and leadership, a networked/egalitarian group will beat a linear, top-down group." Hillary Rodham went to law school instead of taking a job with Saul Alinsky's new training institute. What if she'd leaned harder into the organizing model? I think with Ocasio-Cortez you get a glimpse of what kind of independent political force she might have been.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is conventionally beautiful. She is not only pretty, she frequently deconstructs beauty standards, and she has choice words for haters who think she is only pretty, but, as Tressie McMillan Cottom writes, you need to acknowledge her beauty to understand some of the dynamics around her place in politics:
I believe the right’s attacks on AOC (and a few of the left’s to be honest) are a visceral reaction to their inability to control what they see is her only legitimate source of power.....
We also feel icky about pointing out that someone is attractive and that is a certain kind of power because powerful women make us squeamish. And beauty as power makes us deeply afraid for our own self-worth.
Our culture is so predicated on diminishing women and preying on our self-esteem, and so it's quite a radical act - and it's almost like a mini protest - to love yourself in a society that's always telling you you're not the right weight, you're not the right color, you're not the right, you know, whatever it is ... When you stand up and say, 'You know what? You don't make that decision. I make that decision,' it's very powerful. But that doesn’t mean we can't have fun.
Trusting one's own judgment
And, to reinforce that point about figuring out what expectations of you are legitimate, and tying that to authenticity, the Vogue article continues:
Just over two years ago, after defeating a 20-year incumbent and winning what was seen as the biggest upset of the 2018 midterm election primaries, Ocasio-Cortez was thrust into the spotlight at just 28 years old. "I went from working in a restaurant to being on cable news all the time," she recalls. "I initially really struggled with that. At a certain point, I just learned that you cannot get your feelings of beauty and confidence from anyone but yourself ... If I'm going to spend an hour in the morning doing my glam, it's not going to be because I'm afraid of what some Republican photo is going to look like ... It's because I feel like it," she says with a smile. Here, she picks up Fenty Beauty's Contour Stick, which she glides lightly down her cheekbones, over her forehead, and around her jawline. "I'm not trying to change my features or shape-shift -- I'm just trying to accentuate my existing features," she says as she adds a touch of the cream-to-powder pigment to her nose. "I'm not trying to make it look bigger. I'm not trying to make it look smaller ... I'm just trying to show people what I got."
When I get past reticence to advertise my company's services, to realistically say "I am one of the world's experts on [thing]," I too am just trying to show people what I've got. I remember N.K. Jemisin's articulation, for fiction writers:
...care better. I think the shift from extrinsic to intrinsic valuation .... is a fundamental part of the transition from amateur to professional, perhaps even more than pay rates and book deals and awards and such. .... How do you know your judgment of yourself is sound? .... But for pro writers -- and I include aspiring pros along with established ones in this designation -- it's an absolutely necessary transition. Otherwise you spend all your time caring about the wrong things.
The incentives you can see, the appealing and obvious ones, will often try to make you care about the wrong things. This means that integrity comes with inherent discomfort -- but by demonstrating integrity in public you can reduce the difficulty others run into when following your path. We've only gotten to see Ocasio-Cortez's integrity in action for a few years of public service so far. I look forward to seeing who follows her path.
* I have a caveat for Knock Down The House; it seems like the filmmakers made some misleading choices in the sequence of scenes in the NY-14 primary race.
In particular: The film makes it seem like Crowley fails to show up for a candidate forum in the Bronx (instead sending Councilwoman Palma as a surrogate), and then, maybe weeks later, he calls the Ocasio-Cortez campaign and agrees to appear on a TV debate with her. The implication is that her growing popularity, and news attention to his surrogate gaffe, have possibly shamed or scared him into agreeing to a fresh debate.
But in actual fact, the TV debate was on June 15th, and the in-person debate that Crowley skipped was a few days later, on June 18th. Here's the order things happened in, as far as I can reconstruct**:
This is particularly difficult to reconcile with a bit of audio the filmmaker uses, where Ocasio-Cortez wryly says (just after we are shown footage of a Pride event from June 17th) that Crowley didn't show up to a 100-person event, but now wants to debate her on NY1.
The way I can sort of square the circle is if the filmmakers are using audio recorded before June 15th, and the skipped debate Ocasio-Cortez is referring to is the first debate that Crowley skipped (and which the filmmakers have no footage of).
In any case, the filmmakers are compressing and reordering stuff to strongly imply a particular narrative that is not congruent with the chronological record, and once I come across a discrepancy like this I gotta wonder what else in the film I should question.
** Twitter's advanced search options are helpful here, especially daterange search. Here's a search to get all of Ocasio-Cortez's tweets between May 1st and May 31st of 2018.
As long as I'm talking about the research I ended up doing for this post: Reddit user lpetrich seems to be a solid contributor to the world of AOC fandom. Thank you for your posts, lpetrich!
*** When and how did she choose to run? There's a little confusion on this point. In college she took an interest in politics as an intern for Senator Kennedy but then, as she put it, switched to more work that would have a more direct impact. She never thought she would get back into politics or policy again. So, what's the sequence of her brother nominating her to Brand New Congress, BNC's six-month vetting process, and her deciding to take that nomination? Did she hear from BNC before her road trip, or after?