Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Is Bringing 'Dignity and Respect' Back to Politics: Her Most Inspiring Moments
By Manuel Betancourt
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At just 31 years old, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has established her iconicity. The congresswoman from the South Bronx, also known as AOC, is one of the most recognizable politicians in the U.S. Her candor and passion have made her a face not just of the future of the Democratic Party but its present as well. It’s no surprise Cardi B is eager for the representative to run for president one day.
“Women like me aren't supposed to run for office,” she said in her very first campaign video, which set the tone for her political career. “I wasn't born to a wealthy or powerful family. Mother from Puerto Rico, dad from the South Bronx. I was born in a place where your zip code determines your destiny.”
Using her family narrative to position herself as being able to speak to and for her constituents felt both novel and familiar. Politicians, after all, have long used family anecdotes to bolster their campaign messaging. But it never felt like AOC was embellishing: she was speaking plainly and making a connection between her lived experience and the way communities like hers in the Bronx were often neglected in Washington.
Rather than positioning herself as an outsider eager to disrupt Washington, she pitched herself as someone who wanted to live up to the ideals of a political machine that was in dire need of being fine-tuned. During her years in office, the young congresswoman has become just as well known for her ambitious progressive policy positions as for helping Americans understand more about how the government works.
Throughout her time in office, she’s used her platform to inform her constituents and the public at large on the ways Congress and the U.S. government operate – and the ways that very process is in need of change. Here are just a few highlights from her career so far.
“Justice is about making sure that being polite is not the same thing as being quiet.” The line, delivered by AOC during her speech at New York City’s Women’s March in January 2019, could easily serve as a mantra for her entire political career.
“Justice is about the water we drink, justice is about the air we breathe,” she said. “Justice is about how easy it is to vote. Justice is about how much ladies get paid. Justice is about making sure that being polite is not the same as being quiet.”
Time and time again, her impassioned calls for reform and for ambitious policies like the Green New Deal, have been delivered with grace. And even as she’s clashed with fellow Democrats, she’s long championed a vision of dissent and resistance that allows for disagreement — so long as it’s respectful. But she’s also long understood the way calls for civility and politeness are weaponized against people eager for systemic change.
From Day 1, AOC has used her social media to bring us along for the ride, chronicling what her day to day looks like. She’s made a concerted effort to be transparent about her work, which in turn has helped demystify the political process for many of her followers.
When she first arrived in Washington, she began documenting everything about her orientation as a new member of Congress. Her Instagram Stories from those first few months (aptly archived as “Congress Camp” on her profile) are a mix of A+ selfies (with “The Squad,” of course), nifty history tidbits about her new surroundings as well as nitty-gritty details of what it takes to be a congresswoman.
Here was someone demystifying the political process in real time, something she’s continued to do every day since — one tweet, speech and Instagram post at a time.
GREEN NEW DEAL
AOC’s commitment to breaking apart how we understand politics has also informed how she communicates her ideas. The congresswoman has an innate ability to distill tortured and abstract concepts (or seemingly incomprehensible policy ideas) into their simplest of terms. More importantly, she never loses sight of the nuances of those very ideas.
This is nowhere clearer than in The Intercept’s video titled “A Message From the Future With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.” Aimed at reframing how the Green New Deal was talked about (it continues to be labeled as "too ambitious"), the short animated production was co-written by AOC and found her explaining why such ambition was not only called for but urgently needed.
The video later earned AOC a News & Documentary Emmy nomination — yet another example of how she’s constantly making waves outside of Capitol Hill.
KNOCK DOWN THE HOUSE
Which brings us to Knock Down the House. Rachel Lears’ documentary chronicled the campaigns of four progressive Democrats who had been endorsed by Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress during the 2018 midterm elections.
AOC may have been the biggest success story out of those profiled but to watch Knock Down the House is to see how her own campaign was part of a larger movement. And no fluke.
The doc was also inspirational because it stressed much of what AOC has come to stand for: you need not and cannot do it alone. Whether she’s uplifting her fellow “Squad” members or shouting out grassroots organizations or community leaders, AOC knows there’s strength (and inspiration) in numbers.
ON THE FLOOR
As much as her platform outside of Washington seems to define AOC, her work on the floor has earned her plenty of respect — and, yes, the occasional viral moment.
Let us name a few:
Her very first speech on the floor broke a C-SPAN streaming record on Twitter; her first committee hearing had her take on Big Pharma; she got to ask Michael Cohen whether the president had ever inflated his assets to an insurance company; she role-played as the "Bad Guy" in a scenario that aimed to show how broken the campaign finance system truly is; she even grilled Mark Zuckerberg about Facebook’s hands-off approach to fact-checking political ads; and pushed FBI Assistant Director Michael McGarrity on why white supremacists’ violent acts weren’t being labeled as terrorist attacks.
REP. TED YOHO & THE VITRIOL SHE’S RECEIVED
From the moment she won a historic primary in 2018, AOC has found as many passionate admirers as she has impassioned detractors. She may brush off much of the vitriol spewed her way online (it fuels her, she’s said) but getting called “a f**king b**ch” by one of her colleagues was a step too far.
The alleged incident took place in July 2019 and involved Florida GOP Rep. Ted Yoho calling her out and, along with another colleague, on the steps of the Capitol. Rep. Toho may have denied calling her the aforementioned expletive but he nevertheless offered an apology that was, for all intents and purposes, not a real apology after all.
"I cannot apologize for my passion or for loving my god, my family and my country," he said, on the floor, after speaking about his wife of 45 years.
AOC’s response was yet again a master class in standing up for herself while dismantling the systemic sexism she saw at work. “Having a daughter does not make a man decent, having a wife does not make a decent man,” she said. “Treating people with dignity and respect makes a decent man.” Clapbacks like these may have earned her plenty of virality, but at their core, they’re examples of how with grace, she’s paving a road for herself that makes sure no such misogyny is left unchecked.
There is a cool factor at the core of AOC. She’s breezy when being interviewed on late-night talk shows and effortlessly at ease in front of a crowd. And, as a canny politician, she knows how to harness that positive PR to spotlight important causes and stage key conversations.
Take, for instance, her interview with Residente. AOC joined the Puerto Rican superstar for one of his Instagram Live chats earlier this year to discuss not just what was then the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic but also Puerto Rico's "colonial status."
“One of the things that we are seeing with the coronavirus is that it’s amplifying all the injustices that we already had,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “When it comes to Puerto Rico, it has only amplified the injustices of the colonial status of the island. If Puerto Rico didn't have this kind of second-class status with the larger United States, we would be able to have more control over our island’s policies.”
In the wide-ranging (and bilingual!) conversation, AOC and Residente offered a nuanced discussion about the island’s politics that was designed to get more people informed about an issue that sometimes gets too simplified within and outside the island.
When she wasn't campaigning for Sen. Bernie Sanders or speaking out about racial inequality (or the wealth gap or climate change), AOC spent much of 2020 rising to the occasion when her community most needed her.
When New York's 14th congressional district was hard-hit by COVID-19, she could be found hand-delivering groceries to her constituents and urging people to phone bank, donate and volunteer to help out those most in need. She also took the opportunity to further champion Medicare for All policies.
“This pandemic has essentially taken all the inequity and all the broken systems in this country and set it on fire,” Ocasio-Cortez told her fans on social media. “This disease is kind of like a natural disaster that hits the entire city, except, as we know, those communities that have already been struggling due to systemic racism, inequality, unequal access to healthcare and so on are being hit much harder.”
AOC & RBG
The loss of Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a gut-wrenching moment for many. Yet amid the mourning and alarm bells that dominated social media following RBG’s death, there was AOC going on Instagram to make sure we all felt slightly less alone.
“It's a really, incredibly sad day,” she began, before launching into a 40-plus-minute Live chat that was equal parts a grief group therapy session and a rousing political call to arms. Knowing many of her followers would be mourning and in despair, she chose to give them hope, reminding those watching that the work continues. It was classic AOC.
“We're all tired but that is how authoritarianism works,” she said, noting how, like many others, she had bags under her eyes after a tiring day, week, year. “Right now what we need to do is never give in. That's our number one job. To not give in and not give up.”