Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez clearly has superpowers. When was the last time a freshman member of Congress was able to not just vault policy issues up the agenda with a remark in an interview or a visit to a protest, but whip much of Washington into such a frenzy of consternation and jealousy?
We don't yet know how Ocasio-Cortez (already known by her initials AOC) will use these powers. But her extraordinary celebrity tells us a good deal about what politics, and the Democratic Party in particular, look like in 2019.
Ocasio-Cortez's rise owes a great deal to her own gifts, but it also had something to do with timing. She was one of two Democrats to defeat a House incumbent in a 2018 primary, and since the national media had largely overlooked the race until her victory and were shocked that she took down a member of the Democratic leadership, she suddenly became a perfect symbol of the election that was underway. A young, charismatic, unapologetically progressive Latina booting out a doughy-looking old-school white guy pol with shoe leather and deft use of social media? You couldn't ask for a better story as Democrats were headed for a historic win driven by women voters.
But as Ocasio-Cortez sailed through the general election an into Washington, she has shown some unusual skills, ones that seem to be driving Republicans absolutely nuts. Despite the occasional misstep, she seems earnest and even joyful (a rare quality), and has become a social media star. She has 2.4 million followers on Twitter and another 1.8 million on Instagram, where she mixes politics, policy, and humor in an appealing combination that few politicians can match.
It isn't just natural charisma, though. In a recent interview, historian Rick Perlstein put his finger on something important in the reaction people have to her, and why she's something many in both parties learned not to expect from a Democrat:
I think psychologically there’s a lot of, shall we say, neurosis [among Democrats]. Again, going back to this trauma of the Reagan victory, the Gingrich victory, the Bush victories—it's people who built their political identities around a neurotic response to trauma.
Generations of Democrats were shaped by those traumas, of having the American people reject them and then being rolled over by bold Republicans. The response of much of the party was to become defensive and timid, to work to show voters that they could be tough on crime and welfare, or support military adventurism, or try in a hundred ways to prove that they weren't really liberals. Like animals who had suffered too many beatings, they flinched in fear at the first sign of a raised fist from the right.
That's how you got milquetoast, apologetic presidential candidacies like those of Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry, among other things. And when Barack Obama ran for president, one of the most intoxicating things about him was that he didn't display any of that timidity. He might not have been the most liberal candidate, but he wasn't trying to pretend to be more conservative than he was. Over the course of his presidency he certainly displayed ideological caution on issues like health care or going after the big banks in the wake of the 2008 economic meltdown. But he didn't exude fear of the right the way so many other Democrats did.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is too young to have been shaped by the traumas of the 1980s and 1990s, so she represents the next step in the Democratic evolution beyond them. Not only is she not afraid of being attacked by Republicans, she's eager to advocate policies like single-payer health care and dramatically higher taxes for the wealthy despite the fact that she knows Republicans will react in horror.
And oh boy, have they. They sometimes seem utterly obsessed with everything from her thoughts about policy to her clothes. Which on one level isn't surprising, since there are so few politicians who actually seem like interesting people. Would you watch a dozen cable news segments on Kevin McCarthy? But conservatives are appalled by her for much the same reason progressives love her, because she embodies everything that the GOP rejects as a party and that Democrats want to embrace.
Not every Democrat, however. Or at least one can say that her overwhelming celebrity has made some in her party a little uneasy about her. Last week Politico published a story entitled "Exasperated Democrats try to rein in Ocasio-Cortez," which may have been overblown (there isn't some kind of anti-AOC conspiracy in the party), but it did feature some more veteran members of the House gently suggesting that she be a little less bold and a little more, well, traditional. Likewise, The New York Times reports that "Her rise has stirred a backlash among some Congressional Democrats, who are seeking to constrain her anti-establishment streak and fear her more radical ideas could tar the party as socialist." No doubt nearly every other Democrat in the House would be happy to get the kind of attention she's been getting.
Whatever her career holds—and don't forget, she's only 29—Ocasio-Cortez signals the coming of a new kind of Democratic Party. It will take some time for the transition to complete itself, and it will naturally include old-fashioned Democrats too. But it won't be returning to its old self, and that's what really ought to have Republicans unsettled.