10 min read

What Democrats Can Learn From Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Her communication style is worth emulating, not dismissing There’s no shortage of criticism for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s approaches to tweeting and activism. But her deep passion for change and morality is what the next generation is all about.
What Democrats Can Learn From Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Attention is a limited resource in politics, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., commands a lot of it. She has almost 2.4 million Twitter followers, and media outlets breathlessly cover her statements and policy proposals as well as feckless attempts by Republicans to throw her off her game.

For a lot of Democrats in Washington, this is disruptive. Normally, a freshman member of Congress would command little if any public attention and would quietly sit in the back benches, slowly building seniority over time with the hopes of one day running a powerful committee.

But millennials grew up with a political system that has proven incapable of addressing student debt, income inequality, or climate change. We aren’t waiting for change; we don’t have the time. And there are more of us voting every single year.

That’s why it’s a mistake for Democrats to try to “rein in” the party’s biggest rising star, as this Politico article put it. Instead, the party should be looking to Ocasio-Cortez for guidance on how to effectively speak to working people, collaborate with activists, and beat Republicans soundly in 2020 and beyond.

Compromise Can Come Later

An anonymous Democratic House member was quoted in an article on Politico as saying this about Ocasio-Cortez: “She needs to decide: Does she want to be an effective legislator or just continue being a Twitter star? There’s a difference between being an activist and a lawmaker in Congress.”

This idea is so backward. Twitter stars can be great legislators, and having nearly 2.4 million Twitter followers is a very effective way to get out the message about legislation.

Activists also make excellent lawmakers. Just ask John Lewis. In fact, I’d say every lawmaker is an activist for one thing or another, whether they like the term or not. But, too often, we use “activist” to describe progressives and leftists but not activists in three-piece suits who work for Exxon-Mobil or Aetna.

Another group of activists pretty important for politics are volunteers. They’re the ones who knock on doors, call people, and convince their less political friends to vote.

Ocasio-Cortez’s advocacy for a Green New Deal is a great example of combing inside and outside influence from activists to advance an agenda. Several progressive House candidates campaigned on a Green New Deal last year, but the topic received little interest during the campaign. It only grabbed public attention after Ocasio-Cortez joined Sunrise Movement protesters in Nancy Pelosi’s office who were demanding a special committee create a Green New Deal.

At the time, commentators criticized Ocasio-Cortez for not working inside the system for change, but they missed an important point: Change comes from both inside and outside the system, so you can and should do both.

Maybe Ocasio-Cortez gets this because she was so recently knocking on doors and making calls for the Bernie Sanders campaign. Or maybe it’s the time she spent at Standing Rock with Dakota Access Pipeline protesters. The simple truth is that there is nothing preventing a lawmaker from actively working with protesters, dissidents, and activists to achieve serious political change. In fact, doing so is smart politics.

Did the Sunrise Movement and other Green New Deal advocates get exactly what they wanted right away? No, definitely not. But now the Green New Deal is a new standard for what serious climate policy looks like, and presidential candidates are starting to line up behind them.

Google Trends results for interest in “Green New Deal” over time. Screenshot: Aaron Huertas

Practical results like this are what make Beltway think tankers like Max Boot ring hollow when they criticize Ocasio-Cortez’s style while ignoring her political goals. “She is a politician of immense gifts who can have an outsize impact,” Boot said, “but only if she masters the intricacies of policy and curbs her fatal attraction to political celebrity and vacuous sound bites.”

What Boot dismisses as “celebrity and vacuous sound bites” is simply a politician he disagrees with commanding public attention for their proposed policy agenda. Such criticisms are, of course, also lobbed more at women, especially young women of color, than they are at men. It’s hard to imagine a leftist Congressman getting the same kind of dismissive, paternalistic treatment Ocasio-Cortez gets from commentators like Boot. Indeed, Lee Carter, a socialist state legislator in Virginia, is probably a good counterexample of someone who is attacked as a “commie” but is not attacked for being “vacuous.”

A big reason Ocasio-Cortez resonates is that millennials actually have members of Congress who represent our generational interests now.

This sort of tone and discourse policing obscures something I think is hard for a lot of us who have worked in the D.C. policy world to admit: Elite institutions have lost a great deal of power over the past 30 years. Instead of complaining about Ocasio-Cortez’s command of modern media, Boot and other pundits and columnists should be asking themselves how they can market their own ideas more effectively. Because there is a zero-percent chance any leftist politician is going to take their free advice and hand the spotlight back to them.

Don’t listen to the discourse police or the pundits. Democrats should embrace bold policy solutions. Yes, they will have to compromise to get things done. But save the compromising for after you propose the bold solution. And work with activists to push for change over time.

Further, Democrats should embrace young activists and young voters. A big reason Ocasio-Cortez resonates is that millennials actually have members of Congress who represent our generational interests now: eliminating student loan debt, income inequality, gun violence, and climate change.

In many midterm races, the youth vote was decisive as young people broke two-to-one for Democrats. Splits like that are a once in a generation opportunity to build lasting power.

Partisan breakdown of the 18–29 vote in midterm elections. Chart: The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement

Never Take Bad Faith Arguments Seriously

One of the reasons Ocasio-Cortez has such a dedicated Twitter following is that she dunks on right-wingers who make stupid arguments with abandon. While other Democrats ignore them or respond in somber, serious tones, Ocasio-Cortez rejects the premise that bad faith arguments should be taken seriously.

This has created an incredible attention cycle online. Every time a prominent Republican takes the bait and attacks Ocasio-Cortez, they simply empower her more by giving her the opportunity to spend a few minutes composing a trenchant tweet, which then gets covered with short posts on dozens of media outlets.

Most recently, Ocasio-Cortez suggested increasing so-called “marginal” tax rates for the highest income brackets. Several Republicans conflated her position with jacking up the average income tax rate.

A basic explainer of marginal vs. average tax rates. Chart: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Instead of taking this argument seriously or posting charts and graphs, Ocasio-Cortez responded by debunking a powerful GOP legislator, questioning his knowledge about policy, and then pointing out why the GOP routinely lies about tax rates.

This surely created a headache for Republican Rep. Steve Scalise’s office as it was confronted with media inquiries and a big old heaping of online commentary. And, importantly, it kept the focus on the policy agenda Ocasio-Cortez wanted to talk about, making it difficult for Scalise to mount any coherent response. (Fun fact: Politicians hate talking about their most unpopular policy positions, such as low taxes for wealthy people.)

Calling out bad faith arguments has also extended to what Republicans call “working the refs.” In Ocasio-Cortez’s case, that means taking on fact-checkers who have rewarded her with four Pinocchios/Pants on Fire ratings for relatively mild errors. For instance, what’s worse: denying the scientific reality of climate change or not precisely representing budget figures from a media story about Pentagon accounting? How about scapegoating immigrants with hateful, dishonest rhetoric or talking about people who aren’t unemployed but are working multiple jobs to keep ahead of the cost of living?

If you’re a fact-checker, it’s perhaps not something you’ve thought about because that’s a value-laden, moral question. But in challenging fact-checkers over what they choose to scrutinize, Ocasio-Cortez has exposed how an overly precise focus on facts can obscure the deeper moral questions at the heart of politics.

When debates are broken, challenge the premise of the debate. Don’t obscure the real-world impact policy has. Confront it.

That’s not to say facts are unimportant, but she nonetheless started an important discussion about how far the facts get us in a political debate. Indeed, most political debates aren’t about which facts are correct; they’re about which set of facts we consider most relevant for making policy.

Similarly, Ocasio-Cortez has helped foster more debate about the ways “how do you pay for it” rhetoric is selectively deployed for health, education, and environmental protection but not military spending, tax cuts, and other deficit drivers.

Historically, conservatives tend to ignore deficits when in power and then become extremely concerned about deficits in the face of popular Democratic policies, such as expanding health care coverage. Barack Obama tried to make deals with House Speaker John Boehner on this front for years with little to nothing to show for it other than emboldening reactionaries in the Republican Party to demand more.

That’s not to say that paying for things isn’t a worthy topic of debate, but we have to be cognizant of who is paying for what in society more broadly. Right now, millions of Americans are “paying for it” by going into crushing medical debt when they get sick. Or they’re “paying for it” by forgoing health coverage altogether and then getting sick and dying. And even more broadly, younger people are “paying for it” whenever we fail to address climate change. If you’re not looking at all the ledgers, you’re not really having a debate about “how we pay for it.”

In other cases, Ocasio-Cortez has used very short references to defuse her critics, including former Sen. Joe Lieberman, who famously endorsed John McCain over Obama in 2008. This is not Lieberman’s first time getting dunked on by Ocasio-Cortez, and eventually, he may decide that the media coverage that results from punching left is not worth the backlash.

Conversely, other prominent Democratic Twitter users like Rep. Adam Schiff and Rep. Ted Lieu, both D-Cal., and Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, tend to strike a more serious tone and often point out their political opponents’ hypocrisy. These arguments have a lot of reach, but Donald Trump and other Republicans can’t really be hypocrisy shamed any more, so these messages don’t quite have the same reach or impact they had a few years ago.

They’ll also dabble in memes, leetspeak, and slang, but playing along with internet culture is distinct from being born into it, and as a younger person, Ocasio-Cortez’s use of these tropes resonates, is consistent with her bio, and is stickier for audiences.

Finding one’s online voice is different for every politician, but emulating Ocasio-Cortez in this regard means finding novel, deeply personal ways to talk about the news of the day and a progressive policy agenda. That means effective communicators don’t just play along with how social media works. They embody it. Finding ways to be authentic online is incredibly hard, especially for politicians, but that’s the difference between being good on social media and being great.

Make Fundamental Moral Cases

As I write this, we’re about to break the record for the longest government shutdown. A few days ago, Trump gave a national address in which he said a bunch of very stupid, racist things about immigrants and a border wall. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer gave a somber, serious response in which they strove to differentiate the shutdown debate over the wall debate. But that’s a rather lawyerly distinction. Trump is attempting to use his political power (this time manifested in calling for a shutdown) to harm immigrants, who he scapegoats for income inequality and violence.

Conversely, Ocasio-Cortez had a deeper and more meaningful response to the debate about the shutdown and border wall. It extends from recognizing that there’s no such thing as a singular wall. Any proposed border wall is a series of physical barriers that must be constantly policed by military and paramilitary forces. Walls and borders are extremely human enterprises that involve inflicting violence on people on one side of the wall.

So Ocasio-Cortez spoke out against the militarization of our immigration policy in vivid terms, including how that’s actively harming people, especially children:

He has separated children from their families. He talked about what happened the day after Christmas—on the day of Christmas, a child died in ICE custody. The president should not be asking for more money to an agency that has systemically violated human rights.

Ocasio-Cortez’s response was not about process. It was moral. She pointed out how our immigration policy is failing and how Trump has exploited and perpetuated that failure to keep attacking immigrants and blaming them for everyone else’s economic struggles. There is no good faith debate about immigration that’s possible with this administration. It’s okay to say that and try to move forward together with that knowledge.

When debates are broken, challenge the premise of the debate. Don’t obscure the real world impact policy has. Confront it. And speak to people’s moral values and the type of world we want to live in.

Embrace Change, Even When You Wield Power

Many of the reactions to Ocasio-Cortez’s politics are grounded in the idea that today’s politics should be like yesterday’s. They shouldn’t! We’re almost certainly not going back to the perceived bipartisan comity of the 1980s, which is as much a product of different politics as it is of false nostalgia that ignores the world outside official Washington.

When pundits urge Democrats to be more compromise happy, they tend not to account for what and who will get compromised, particularly as the Republican Party drifts further and further right.

Chart: The Washington Post

Instead, Democrats should be looking at the generation coming up and asking what inspires them, what will keep them involved in politics, and what they can do to keep passing the torch to a new generation of leaders.

More of them will be like Ocasio-Cortez, both when it comes to their policy agenda and when it comes to their communication style. That’s a good thing. Embrace that change, including change from the outside, and don’t be afraid to compromise with the next generation.

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