Ocasio-Cortez’s Secret Weapon: Fierce Values and Rule-Defying Authenticity

Most activists who focus on elections can remember their first campaign training seminar, the time and place they first learned the rules for success in electoral politics. No matter the organization, the basic messages are almost always the same: maintain strict message discipline. Speak in general terms about values. Stay silent on issues about which you don’t know all the details. When in doubt, redirect the conversation to your own talking points. Don’t make unforced mistakes, because a single error can doom your whole campaign. Whenever possible, speak in media-friendly soundbites using the 27-9-3 rule: 27 words, 9 seconds to say, 3 main ideas. Be cautious and circumspect.

This is fine advice under normal circumstances. But after an entire generation of candidates got elected following these rules designed for 20th century media, a strange thing happened: no matter which party they belonged to, every politician started to sound oddly the same regardless of party or ideology. Like a restaurant with a menu dozens of items long but where every dish has the same distinctly bland flavor and texture, Washington started to sound less like a debating ground for the people’s representatives and more like an endless parade of obfuscators speaking a language foreign to the public and playing by arcane rules none recognize. If you didn’t play the game, you weren’t taken seriously because you didn’t “know how Washington works.”

The phenomenal rise to stardom of newly elected representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez must be understood in this light.

Yes, it is true that her unapologetic embrace of democratic socialist policy in combination with an intrinsic understanding of the challenges facing women and people of color in America have made her a champion of many on the left.  Her primary victory over a white male Democrat who was associated with Wall Street-friendly policy and on a fast track to leadership was perfectly symbolic of the change many have clamored to see in the party for years. At 29, her comparatively young age makes her an inspiration for frustrated millennial activists around the country.

But what makes Ocasio-Cortez special goes beyond all of this. The key to her success is that she refuses to follow the rules all the experts say one has to follow to succeed in politics. She is authentically herself and doesn’t try to be something she isn’t. When she sees something that offends her moral sensibility she doesn’t sit back and wonder if she needs to better learn the ropes: she immediately tweets her outrage and dismay at the problems she sees. When no one else seems to be carrying the ball forward in a serious way on issues like climate change, she steps up and organizes to fill the gap as with her push for a Green New Deal. While everyone else in Washington gives lip service to the proverbial emperor’s robes, Ocasio-Cortez only mocks his nakedness–whether it’s questioning why we seem to have unlimited money for wars and walls but not healthcare and college, or why congressional trainings are given by corporate lobbyists with no need for disclosure. Where other politicians challenge only representatives from the other party using poll-tested attacks, Ocasio-Cortez isn’t afraid to call out wrongdoing on either side of the aisle without waiting to see how the message will play at the Bailey family’s kitchen table in Peoria–a fact that ironically makes those archetypal Baileys much likelier to appreciate and respect her.

Out are the careful talking points and staged media appearances. In are the cozy Instagram livefeeds over macaroni and cheese. Out are the canned releases, in are the heartfelt tweets. Despite her fame and the close scrutiny of a center-left and right-wing establishment hoping for her to fail, Ocasio-Cortez still acts and talks like a normal (albeit highly gifted and charismatic) human being. This in turn protects her from the damage of minor gaffes: when a politician seems to speak in earnest, voters forgive them a misstatement here and there. It’s when a politician is extremely cautious that an untoward and uncharacteristic error seems indicative of incompetence or a personality flaw.

As the world faces a wide array of environmental, economic and social crises into which the last few generations of politicians have seemingly sleepwalked, there is a desperation among voters for the kind of candor shown by Ocasio-Cortez. Progressives rightly balk at comparisons to Donald Trump, but where the analogy does fit is that they each speak the language of their electorate. The Republican primary electorate got tired of candidates who whispered their bigotries quietly while stating acceptable but dishonest platitudes in public. Trump broke that mold, told his bigoted base what they wanted to hear, and they rewarded him for it. For his part, Bernie Sanders also told uncomfortable truths about the policies that will be required to fix the broken economy, and everything about his unorthodox demeanor to his unkempt hairstyle made it clear that his approach would not be politics as usual, and his longshot candidacy came far closer to victory than most prognosticators ever expected.

Ocasio-Cortez speaks plainly and honestly to the needs of a younger voting base desperate for someone willing to challenge long-accepted shibboleths. Hence her rise to the sort of celebrity status most politicians can only dream of.

But she will not be alone. Other potential candidates for higher office are witnessing the trail she has blazed, and she will need allies in the same mold. It will not be a surprise to see her become involved in other Democratic primaries in order to elect an even larger team of representatives who understand the power of a progressive authenticity that defies the entrenched norms of yesteryear’s politics.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.