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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and the rise and rise of the attention candidate

It’s a powerful currency – and a hell of a drug

January 21, 2019

12:00 PM

21 January 2019

12:00 PM

Love her or hate her, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has proven that she can command a news cycle and use it to her advantage. She has an astute understanding of how not just to capture the attention of audiences, but to keep it. But she wasn’t the first candidate to lean on a knack for getting noticed – and she certainly won’t be the last.

Being an ‘attention candidate’ isn’t necessarily a good thing, however. Consider Aaron Schock, the former Republican congressman . His story should stand as a cautionary tale for what happens when a candidate or elected official relies too heavily on attention as a political currency.

The first member of Congress from the ‘millennial’ generation (those born between 1980 and 1995, roughly), Schock lived up to quite a few of the less savory stereotypes of his generation. He filled his social media accounts with globetrotting glamor shots. He parlayed his self-promotional savvy into media appearances that included a shirtless Men’s Health cover. And it turned out that he played a bit fast and loose with money. Following the revelation that taxpayer funds were used to bankroll a lavish redecoration of his congressional office, a federal ethics investigation led to his resignation and a grand jury indictment. (Pre-resignation, Schock’s Instagram feed was known for photos with Ariana Grande or ‘jump shots’ on a glacier hashtagged with ‘#iceicebaby.’ He’s now resurfaced on the platform following a post-resignation period of silence, and while he’s more subdued than before, his first post of 2019 was, sure enough, shirtless.)


I’m struck by how much of a novelty Schock’s schtick was at the time. From Ocasio-Cortez’s dance videos to Beto O’Rourke’s moody Medium posts to Ben Sasse’s offbeat Twitter account, we are no longer surprised when elected officials take cues from social media influencers or reality TV stars. In our era, the ‘attention candidate’ – the politician whose command of one or more mass media channels becomes one of his or her most valuable assets – is now the norm. But while attention is a powerful currency, it’s also a hell of a drug. Politicians who rely on their mastery of attention too heavily tend to resort to increasing extremes and often have downfalls that are swift and ignominious. And happens now that we’re electing more and more of them; that one of them is in the White House?

Attention candidates have been part of American electoral history since its beginning. Consider Estes Kefauver, the Tennessee senator whose surprise upset in an early Democratic primary in the 1952 presidential election caused incumbent Harry Truman to drop out of the race. He’d made himself a household name by televising his investigations of organized crime; with televisions entering American homes en masse for the first time, but not a whole lot to watch, this allowed him to build his reputation on a national level. But that reputation also came with notoriety, and Kefauver was left vulnerable: His folksy and grandstanding populism had made him plenty of enemies among urban Democratic party machines, and their bosses duly denied him the nomination at the national party’s convention.

Now, politicians’ access to media and their ability to manipulate it has exploded, but politicians who live by their star power can still die by it, too. I can imagine that there are current members of Congress who have misappropriated considerably more in taxpayer dollars than Aaron Schock did. But they didn’t have jet-setter Instagram accounts or Downton Abbey-themed offices to make it look quite so conspicuous.

It’s pretty easy to grasp that when the capacity for a politician to command attention is more powerful than ever, it will come with some unwanted attention. What’s less clear are the implications in a political and media landscape where the attention candidate has gone from novelty to norm. A Capitol Hill filled with increasingly radical ideologues willing to say increasingly ridiculous things to further their own media momentum is an episode of Celebrity Big Brother, not a functioning political system. There’s also the real possibility that attention-grabbing politicians’ tendency to fall swiftly from favor will have an impact on the longevity of political careers and level of institutional knowledge in Congress.

Many of the most crucial issues facing America don’t make for good hashtags or cable news soundbites. When policy details are subsumed by selfies, the public becomes less and less informed. To Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s credit, she’s used her media savviness not just to further her own brand but also to publicize her actual positions on national issues – including the less sexy ones. But with her generation of digital natives coming into national office, there have been no indications so far that they’ll be better than their elders at making decisions on, for example, technology policy and cybersecurity – issues that are frequently bone-dry, can’t be easily explained in 280 characters, and need to be addressed with nuance as well as expertise. They’re not what you talk about when attention is your primary currency.

Sometimes boringness can be a virtue. Aaron Schock may wish he’d learned that lesson sooner. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may never learn it at all.

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