• Ben Chadwick

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Fighter For a New America

The 2018 midterm elections sent shockwaves through the Democratic Party and the United States. The ten-term incumbent of New York’s 14th Congressional House District, Joe Crowley, was soundly defeated in the primary by a dark horse challenger – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Her name was soon well-known throughout the nation, whether as grassroots hero or communist villain.

Ocasio-Cortez's journey into politics was far from traditional. She was born to a working class family in the Bronx, but they made the decision to move to Westchester County when she was five for better school access (Newman). In her sophomore year at Boston University, her father died of lung cancer, deepening her family’s financial woes (Alter). After graduating, she went to work at a non-profit. Famously, she also worked at a bar on the side, and continued to do so months into her campaign (Newman). Despite this, she was barely staying afloat. Two of her biggest expenses were her healthcare insurance and servicing around $25,000 of student loan debt (Alter). These precarious beginnings are the source of her commitment to liberal policies bolstering the social safety net.

During 2016 election cycle, Ocasio-Cortez worked as a volunteer for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 Democratic Primary bid (Alter). Shortly after the election, she and some friends travelled to Standing Rock Indian Reservation. There they joined the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, a massive demonstration against the planned pipeline construction (Alter). On the car ride back, she got a phone call from Brand New Congress. It was a group formed by former staffers on the Sanders campaign, and they were looking for people to run for seats in Congress. Specifically, they were seeking progressives who didn’t fit the mold of a traditional politician (Newman).

Such was the beginning of Ocasio-Cortez's political career. Her campaign started off in friends’ living rooms speaking to a handful of people at a time, and it grew as volunteers coordinated social media efforts (Alter). For all the grassroots power her campaign summoned, she was widely dismissed as a viable threat to Joe Crowley, one of the top politicians of the Democratic Party (Alter). That is, until the election results came in, showing that Ocasio-Cortez had handily won New York’s 14th Congressional District seat: 15,897 votes to the incumbent's 11,761.

Since then, Ocasio-Cortez has charted a course up the mountain of fame and notoriety, as she champions the progressive platform popularized by Bernie Sanders in his failed 2016 run. Wielding her Twitter account with vigilance, she has become the beloved firebrand of the left-wing. When NBC News tweeted in celebration of the DOW Jones index surpassing 29,000 in January last year, she responded: “The Dow soars, wages don’t. Inequality in a nutshell.” It is by definition true that the majority of stock ownership is concentrated in the hands of the wealthy. Thus, the mainstream media’s emphasis on the fluctuations of the DOW is quite removed from how the average person is faring (Kiersz). Ocasio-Cortez is among the small but growing number of politicians who are not beholden to lobbyists or the rich and powerful, but who are loyal to the average working-class American. Others like her include Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib – together, “the squad.”

The rise of Ocasio-Cortez is something that wouldn’t have been likely twenty years ago. Her use of social media to connect with and engage younger and disenfranchised people is the critical factor. The ability of mainstream news outlets like major newspapers and broadcasting networks to be the gatekeepers of truth, and control policy narratives, is in sharp decline. As it becomes easier for everyday people to make themselves heard online and around the world, more political disruptors will emerge from tending bars and other humble walks of life. Ocasio-Cortez is helping to lead that charge, setting an example for those to follow of how to generate excitement and momentum for change.

Since winning the primary, her Twitter following has grown well over a hundredfold to a sizeable six million and counting. She has made headlines during hearings as well. In February 2019, a clip of her grilling a federal official about financial accountability on political campaigns went viral. She is said to attend more hearings than anyone else on Capitol Hill (Alter). In an interview with a New York radio station, she said of dispossessed communities around the world that they sometimes “have no choice but to riot” (Silverstein). She specified that there are times when people feel like they have no clear path forward for their future, and rioting is the result -- “and it doesn’t have to be that way” (Silverstein). Ocasio-Cortez understands better than almost anyone in Washington the current position of the average American, and she’s committed to fighting for change, which is what makes her special.

Her ardent and exciting participation in Congress, her frank critique of the media and other powerful institutions, and her ordinary background are extremely rare in Washington, D.C. Those qualities, and her unlikely rise into political power, have reinvigorated the masses. Large swaths of working-class and marginalized groups who had given up on politics are, for once, seeing a glimmer of truth and authentic representation on the TV screen. There is a growing sense of disillusion that there’s nowhere to go for the millions of people who are in what was Ocasio-Cortez’s position just a few years ago. That is to say, those who are deeply in debt, burdened by healthcare payments, and working multiple jobs without good advancement potential or benefits. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is leading the fight to change that, uniting and influencing millions to pitch in and get involved to try to change the status quo.

Alter, Charlotte. “‘Change Is Closer Than We Think.’ Inside Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Unlikely Rise.” Time, https://time.com/longform/alexandria-ocasio-cortez-profile/. Accessed 16 Jan. 2020.

Kiersz, Andy. “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Said Cheering for Soaring Stock Prices While Wages Stay Low Is ‘inequality in a Nutshell.’ We Made 6 Charts to Show Why She’s Right.” Business Insider, https://www.businessinsider.com/alexandria-ocasio-cortez-tweet-stock-market-and-average-americans-2020-1. Accessed 16 Jan. 2020.

“Live Results: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Defeats Joseph Crowley in New York’s 14th House District.” The New York Times, 28 June 2018. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/elections/results/new-york-house-district-14-primary-election.

Newman, Andy, et al. “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Emerges as a Political Star.” The New York Times, 27 June 2018. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/27/nyregion/alexandria-ocasio-cortez-bio-profile.html

Silverstein, Jason. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Says Some Marginalized Communities “Have No Choice but to Riot.” https://www.cbsnews.com/news/alexandria-ocasio-cortez-says-some-marginalized-communities-have-no-choice-but-to-riot/. Accessed 16 Jan. 2020.

Warren, Elizabeth. “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: The 100 Most Influential People of 2019.” TIME, https://time.com/collection/100-most-influential-people-2019/5567752/alexandria-ocasio-cortez/. Accessed 16 Jan. 2020.

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