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Freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the most talked about politician in America — mostly because she has been willing to defy the behavioral codes that have been assigned to her.
The history of the United States federal government is a story about the collective decisions of older white men.
In 2019, the most diverse congressional class—the 116th Congress—was sworn in. Even so, only a quarter of its congress members are women, and while the percentage of white men in the Democratic caucus dropped from 41% to 38%, that same number for the Republican party rose from 86% to 90%. The U.S. government is not even close to accurately reflecting the diversity of the country.
Of the new Representatives sworn in this year, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — known as AOC by her admirers and her critics — has been especially vocal about her dissatisfaction with that fact. Less than a year ago, the Bronx native and self-identified Democratic Socialist was working as a bartender while running against Democratic ex-Representative Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th District. Before losing to AOC, Crowley was a key figure in conversations about the next Democratic Speaker of the House. At the age of 29, Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest woman to ever serve in Congress. Her win, partially due to her viral campaign video, “The Courage to Change,” shook the American political scene to its core.
So far, she’s demonstrated the desire and willingness to resist and defy, wherever possible, the behavioral codes that have been assigned to her as a member of Congress. She’s a woman of color who was raised by a Puerto Rican working-class immigrant mother, and she’s not shying away from that core part of her identity. AOC is not playing by the old, white, male rulebook — not in aesthetic, propriety, or convention — and that’s partly why she’s shaking the table. She’s enacting a distinct form of millennial political democratization that many people are uncomfortable with because of the fact that it is defined by working-class, people of color feminine rhetoric and etiquette.
Her election and the way she’s navigated her new position provides a source of hope, as fragile as it may be, that people—especially people of color—who step into positions of power can break with centuries-old traditions and consciously reject white middle-class ideas of respectability.
In many ways, AOC is this country’s first millennial politician—not literally, but certainly in ethos. She hops on Twitch and plays Donkey Kong 64 to raise money and advocate for trans kids. She uses social media to let her followers in on the details of everyday congressional happenings as well as more personal aspects of her life. She dropped her skincare routine on her Instagram story, used a Jennifer Lopez lyric for a picture caption, and vented about her need for a self-care session that included a press-on manicure. (“They are not corny anymore!” she wrote.) AOC participates in meme culture like no other and loves to ride the viral twitter waves that often turn criticism of her into hilarious trends. She’s also known for clapping back at people and is no stranger to defending her ideas against people both on the right and the left.
“I really like the new crop of young people who were just elected to Congress. They now need to stop acting like young people,” filmmaker Democrat Aaron Sorkin said during Fareed Zakaria’s CNN morning show Global Public Square, back in January. “I think that there’s a great opportunity here, now more than ever, for Democrats to be the non-stupid party.” When someone on Twitter suggested that Sorkin “really just wants gravitas” from members of the Democratic party, Ocasio-Cortez responded, “Ever wonder how expression that’s feminine, working-class, queer, or POC isn’t deemed as having “gravitas” but talking like an Aaron Sorkin character does?”
In February, billionaire and former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz announced his intention to run for president as an independent candidate. According to him, he no longer “feels affiliated” to the Democratic Party because of its affiliation with Ocasio-Cortez’s marginal income tax proposal that would tax the country’s top-earners a 70 percent tax rate on income over $10 million. Howard Schultz has something in common with AOC before she became a Congresswoman. He’s never held elective office. Pointing to the discrepancy in how this fact was covered by the media for each candidate, Ocasio-Cortez tweeted:
Why don’t people ever tell billionaires who want to run for President that they need to “work their way up” or that “maybe they should start with city council first”? https://t.co/3d8Nenrvl5
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) January 30, 2019
People committed to white middle-class ideas about what’s respectable and what’s not tend to interpret markers of non-whiteness, which AOC refuses to camouflage, as lowbrow, childish, and “stupid.” And that’s why the way AOC carries herself on social media — where she has 3.4 million followers on Twitter and 2.7 million on Instagram — and beyond is not insignificant. On several occasions, she’s recounted the story behind her red nails and hoops as a subtle act of subversion while being sworn in. “Lip+hoops were inspired by Sonia Sotomayor, who was advised to wear neutral-colored nail polish to her confirmation hearings to avoid scrutiny. She kept her[s] red.”
While these acts are not inherently revolutionary or groundbreaking, they do become a part of something far greater when combined with her demonstrated devotion to the people she represents.
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She stands in stark contrast to most of her colleagues who also represent majority POC communities, even those who themselves are people of color. Government officials don’t normally put in much effort towards eroding the distance that exists between representatives and constituents. Politicians have a propensity for portraying themselves as insiders with esoteric knowledge about governance that “regular” people cannot possibly understand. That premise is often used to justify the shortchanging of voters who elect representatives that value their positions of power more than serving the people who elected them. Positive social change, according to these people, is only possible in small increments and must necessarily come with ethical compromise.
“Don’t people realize that the most powerful position you can be in is when you are not materially attached to a position of power,” said Ocasio-Cortez in the conversation with Justice Democrats, “If you’re a one-term congress member, so what? You can make ten-years worth of change in one term if you’re not afraid.”
It’s worth noting that the current cultural fixation on imagining, for example, baby boomers and millennials as monoliths, obscures the fact that people within these generations also live very different lives and that unfair power structures are still very much in place. Though the media is deeply committed to the narrative that millennials and Generation Zers are more progressive than previous generations, the reality is not as clear cut or comforting.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez represents the millennial generation as a whole far less than she represents working-class, first-generation, and POC millennials. These are the groups that have led the most important progressive social movements of this generation and that have pushed intersectional thought and politics into the mainstream.
.@AOC: Do consumers ever explicitly consent to giving their data to you?
Equifax CEO: There is not consent by the consumer to give us the data.
AOC: So consumers own their data, but credit bureau’s collect their information without their consent?
Equifax CEO: That’s correct. pic.twitter.com/bE1UHg6CeD
— Public Citizen (@Public_Citizen) February 26, 2019
Even after the 2018 congressional elections, millennials, 44% of which are minorities, are greatly underrepresented in the federal government. Between now and the 2020 election they’re expected to surpass baby boomers as this country’s largest living generation. The millennial generation, made up of 75 million young adults, is the most educated, diverse, and indebted generation in the history of the United States. Baby boomers and Gen Xers had higher incomes, greater assets, and were more likely to own homes. Wages for millennials have declined by 20 percent, and young adult net wealth for millennials is half of what it was for baby boomers. But if these statistics are alarming, those for Black and Latinx millennials are even more so. Black and Latinx millennials, for example, earn 57 and 64 cents, respectively, for every dollar earned by white millennials. Black people born roughly between 1981 and 1996 have amassed one-tenth of the wealth that young white people born during those same years have. Black and Latinx young adults also own homes at half the rate of their white counterparts and have substantially less money for retirement. Millennials, above all, are the inheritors of The Great Recession: the financial and housing crisis that we did not create. Needless to say, AOC’s voice speaks much louder to a very specific sector of her generation.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez represents a group of Americans whose financial security, health care, and privacy was compromised in the name of greed and excess. She speaks the anti-capitalistic language of a group of people that is fundamentally distrustful of American politics, righteously angry, and just tired. And because of that, she refuses to adhere to the very culture that brought us here in the first place.
Mariana Viera is a first-generation Mexican-American writer. She has written for Teen Vogue, Noisey, and VIBE. You can follow her on Twitter @_malditamari