There is a new profile of democratic socialist congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Vanity Fair, and anyone who does not come away impressed by her is probably letting their political ideology influence their judgment. The writer is clearly an admirer, but the facts are straightforward. Ocasio-Cortez, having managed to defeat a 10-term incumbent as a 29-year-old bartender, has braved death threats and harassment, has taken on the Democratic establishment, and is now cruising to re-election. She has worked hard to get where she is and she cares deeply about improving her constituents’ lives. Right-wing harassment has been so severe—even from fellow members of congress, one of whom called her a “fucking bitch”—that at one point she wondered if she should even stay in office. “There was a time where the volume of threats had gotten so high that I didn’t even know if I was going to live to my next term,” she comments in the article. (Thanks, Trump. Thanks, Fox!)
AOC is immensely politically skilled, and it comes across in the article. Bernie Sanders is quoted as saying: “There are some politicians who are very good on policy, and there are some politicians who are good communicators, and there are some politicians that have a way about them that relates very well to ordinary people… Alexandria has all three of those characteristics.” I have seen Ocasio-Cortez speak live several times, and came away amazed by her power as a public speaker. There are good reasons why people talk about her as a future senator or president.
However, even though there is much to admire about AOC, it is important not to hold her up as some sort of superhuman, or treat her as a once-in-a-generation exceptional figure. As she notes in the profile, the positive attention as well as the negative can be “dehumanizing,” because it treats her as an icon rather than a flesh-and-blood person who is muddling through life the same way the rest of us are, doing her best and making mistakes and just trying to figure out what it takes to be a good person. She says she does not believe in political messiahs, and resists all the talk about how she should be president. “I don’t want to be a savior, I want to be a mirror,” she comments.
This is critically important, because if the values AOC embodies are to be fought for effectively, we cannot depend on individual charismatic political icons to do the work. Equally importantly, we need to understand that AOC is not a demonstration of what an amazing “natural talent” can do, but what a normal person who is hardworking, perceptive, and committed can do. AOC is not showing us qualities that she alone is capable of possessing, but qualities that we can all cultivate in ourselves.
I wrote a while back about Martin Luther King, and the importance of seeing him as a normal human being and not an angel sent here to redeem the country. King did not find activism easy, he found it difficult. He was scared and uncertain and had doubt, and when he found himself the figurehead of an important popular movement, the burdens of his role could be overwhelming, because while he was an uncommonly smart person and a great speaker, he was also just a guy. Understanding how similar iconic leaders like MLK and AOC are to ourselves can be somewhat alarming, because it means that we ourselves might have a tremendous unlocked power within us.
I do not mean that everyone will be, or wants to be, a political leader. I just mean that social changes are not produced by some special class of change agents, but by reverends and bartenders and school principals. Just as fascinating as AOC to me are the dozens of other DSA elected officials in local and state office around the country, perfectly normal people, often in economically precarious positions, who decided that there was no reason why they shouldn’t be the ones in government, and who defied warnings that victory was unlikely or impossible.
The most important takeaway from AOC’s story is that she is proof that we should not accept conventional wisdom about what is “politically impossible.” Vanity Fair reports that she had an interesting small revelation at age 12, when she decided she was going to try to petition the local government to clean up a filthy pond in front of her school so that frogs and fish could live in it. She did not win the fight (probably because her local government was captured by austerity-obsessed neoliberal bureaucrats), but she discovered a sense of her own agency, realizing that we make the world just as much as it makes us.
It’s a delight to me to see a socialist on the cover of Vanity Fair, and to reflect on how unlikely that would have been even a few years ago. But what it really makes me think is: “If that’s possible, what else might be?” In the article, AOC talks about the fact that she currently only has a small set of allies in Congress, the Squad, but that this motivates her to go and build more political power. (“You keep telling me I’m just four votes… so I’mma go get more.”) I hope everyone reading about her will not just come away thinking “Wow, what an impressive woman she is, AOC kicks ass.” This is true, obviously, but more important should be the fact that AOC is proof that normal people have agency and power that they are told they do not have. Feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness have real causes that cannot simply be wished away through irrational optimism, but they are also in part myths pushed by those who would much rather you didn’t try to test whether they are true.
In a way, AOC is unique and exceptional. But she also isn’t; she’s very human and very typical of her generation in important ways. Let’s not wonder whether there are one or two more AOCs out there somewhere, then. Perhaps there are far, far more than that. Perhaps there are millions.