Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has changed the conversation in American politics. Young, articulate, personable and unafraid to speak her mind or make mistakes along the way, she’s becoming a beacon of hope for America’s youth. She has already earned a reputation for calling out the corruption going on around her in public office. Not everybody likes that, including some within her own party. She’s not playing the game by established rules. She’s not accepting the mantra that ‘you don’t change Washington DC, it’s DC that changes you’, just as Westminster seems to dilute ideals and causes in the cocktail lobbies of British politics.
Amongst today’s young people, this is a perception which is becoming endemic. Every day, as a university lecturer talking about social issues, I hear the common refrain that today’s students see politicians as being all the same. Even when somebody different comes along, there’s an expectation that they’ll get changed by the system rather than bringing about change.
British students can point to the Cool Britannia of Tony Blair, whilst some in America might use the example of Obama’s presidency. Arriving on the scene, quoting Martin Luther King, the world fell in love with the prospects of change that Barack Obama offered. By the end of his tenure with war still raging in foreign climes and climate change continuing apace, disengagement had cancered hope. Partly due to apathy, Donald Trump blazed his way into the picture, capturing the presidency and leaving Democrats reeling. Some would say they’re still dazed, on the ropes as they’re entering a new election cycle – uncertain about who’s likely to contend the next battle.
Though she’s ruled out because of her age, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could play a big part in shaping the election battleground. At 29, she is the youngest woman to serve in the United States Congress. However, it is the nature of her politics as much as her youth that defines Ocasio-Cortez. Styling herself as a Democratic Socialist, she started out her campaign for election to Congress with the slogan “Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office”. For many, in an age of disenchantment with mainstream politics and the machoism of the right, that phrase struck a chord. The success of her sweep towards a place in Congress offers Democrats a vision for their 2020 battle.
Through an astute campaign built on a political communication style tailored towards her audience, she energised the young. More so, she energised the disenchanted. Having taken her place in Congress, she continues to do the same – expressing a determination to change the system and not be changed by it. Ironically that has echoes of Trump, the man who’s her very antithesis in politics, in refusing to dilute or reshape her message around the needs of those who wouldn’t support her anyway. Even if that leaves her open to attack, she has proven able to stand and defend her ground as well as her heritage and the place that she comes from.
Like Trump, she knows her audience and uses the affordances of the digital age to her advantage. Already her usage of Instagram, visual image and Twitter draws the kind of debate once found in universities as regards Prensky’s definition of today’s kids as Digital Natives and the rest of us as Digital Immigrants. Ironically Trump’s tweets are directed at the latter and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez addressing the natives. In doing so, unlike Trump, she doesn’t resort to cliché, abuse, body-shaming and so on. Yet the current President has nearly 60million followers on Twitter, compared to the three million or so for @AOC. But when you divide the three million by less than 7,000 tweets compared to @realDonaldTrump’s 40.5k, the potential of this rising star of American politics has a long trajectory before it hits peak. Generally too, the way she gets her message out has more in common with Martin Luther King than the current president. She talks about causes, prioritising the bigger picture and rising above the personal attacks she’s had to face more than most.
More than anything else though, she understands the changing story of the age we’re living in. She seems able to tap into the pulse of her generation and the issues they face. In contrast, the way she’s attacked by her opponents shows the same level of ignorance about today’s youth as the British right in their attacks on Jeremy Corbyn’s politics. The young don’t care if somebody makes grammar mistakes, and they don’t care if a politician uses foul language in public. What’s more foul after all – defending racism and ruination of working class communities or coming out with a few profanities in the midst of a heated debate?
The rules are changing and the political class has been slow to accept that, even with the rise of Trump. Many young people today are not the politically-correct, infantilised generation that even some on the left treat them to be. They’re not afraid to step outside safe spaces and confront hard topics. Ocasio-Cortez shows a greater sense of this than many of her contemporaries, engaging in open discussion and debate about society’s big issues. In doing that, she’s again showing awareness of changes to the landscape of politics in America and the broader western world. The boundary lines have been re-drawn, and even binary terms such as right and left, liberal and conservative no longer capture a sense of a political spectrum more fragmented than ever before.
With so many fragments, today’s audiences can be hard to reach. In the UK, politicians have tried everything from celebrity endorsement to promises targeted specifically at students but often this lends itself to accusations of playing to fashion and being a passing fad, a Pokemon kind of politics. In the case of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she has an advantage of being young enough to be seen as genuine, to be representing her own generation’s interests rather than latching onto them for her own gain.
She could, in time, be the Democrat that ties together the party’s different factions into a single garment of destiny. Probably, in order to assume any high-powered position in American society, there are some aspects of her ideals that she may have to tone down, with time. Conversely though, if she changes too much she may lose her appeal. Politicians of lesser conviction might struggle with this but evidence so far suggests that AOC knows her audience enough to make the right decision.
She listens to people. She answers them directly. Maybe in time she could offer answers to the creation of a fairer America, for everyone, and by extension a fairer world. There’s a long way to go, I’m guessing, before this story’s complete. A great part of it might be written in tweets and visual images, the native tongue of present and future generations rather than language of the past.