Americans are not obliged to take the advice of a meddling Brit but nonetheless I feel compelled to offer a polite suggestion to my conservative cousins: do not underestimate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Conservatives are in danger of misreading the 2016 election. Americans were not dubious about Hillary Clinton because they disliked the Democratic party half as much as because they disliked Hillary Clinton. The Democrats’ 2016 candidate was extraordinarily shady, extraordinarily inept and extraordinary uncharismatic. Voters had no such qualms with Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and might have no such qualms with future Democratic candidates. These could well include Ocasio-Cortez.
Of course, the young Congresswoman will not be eligible to stand in the 2020 election, and dismissed Matt Yglesias’s call for her to run regardless with the selfless pronouncement that ‘political media is too fixated on personalities instead of policies’ (a pronouncement which, by design or otherwise, only encouraged people to fixate on her). In the future, though, she could be a formidable opponent. Though some claim that a now ubiquitous video of her dancing as a college student make her ‘relatable’ might be using that as a euphemism for ‘attractive’, she has many virtues as a future presidential candidate. She is charismatic, well-spoken, attuned to modern communication methods and marked by some of the same rhetorical shamelessness as President Trump, by which I do not mean his coarseness but his willingness to seize any chance for self-promotion.
The video of Ocasio-Cortez dancing to Phoenix’s classic ‘Lisztomania’ became ubiquitous after conservatives expressed their disapproval of the dance. Or did it? AOC posted a new video of herself to dancing to Edwin Starr’s ‘War’ with the caption, ‘I hear the GOP thinks women dancing are scandalous. Wait till they find out Congresswomen dance too!’
In fact, ‘the GOP’ had said no such thing about the video. One idiot on Twitter had mocked it and been dogpiled into closing their account. The narrative of right-wing disapproval had confirmed the biases of progressives to such an extent, however, that refutation was futile. Millions of Americans will die believing that Republicans were united in condemnation rather than it being restricted to some obscure and anonymous fool who called himself ‘AnonymousQ1776’. Such has been the success of Ocasio-Cortez’s exploitation of this manufactured controversy that some have proposed this was a progressive disguise. I do not believe this, but a scheming socialist could hardly have been more ingenious.
I rarely agree with Jonah Goldberg of the National Review but he was perceptive on the matter of Ocasio-Cortez’s thirst for misplaced criticism. Writing before this latest flurry of fake news he commented:
‘Trump prefers positive attention, but he’ll take negative attention over no attention every time, in part because he knows his supporters will intensify their dedication to him in response to allegedly unfair attacks. AOC is doing the same thing. By forcing partisans to take sides, she generates controversy. Controversy attracts media attention. Media attention generates even more controversy. And so on.’
Yet this does not excuse Republicans giving Ocasio-Cortez what she craves. Like President Trump, she has benefited from her critics. The American right are in danger of making exactly the same mistakes that American liberals and leftists made in 2016, namely (a) granting their opponent undeserved attention, (b) attacking them on grounds that the general public will not find especially condemnable and (c) embarking on humorless ‘fact checks’ no one gives a damn about.
The media’s obsession with Trump’s candidacy has been well documented. In March 2016, the New York Times reported that months before the presidential election, Trump had already been given ‘$2 billion worth of free promotion.’ Trump had spent less on paid media, its reporters wrote, but had gained vast amounts of ‘earned media’: ‘news and commentary about his campaign on television, in newspapers and magazines, and on social media.’ That news and commentary was often critical but it still kept his name and face in the minds of Americans. AOC has gained vast amounts of earned media. Conservative and progressive publications have not just been amplifying her every word but reporting on her Instagram Stories and her choice of dress.
As with liberal journalists reporting on President Trump, right-wing journalists reporting on Ocasio-Cortez have often denounced her for things most Americans would not deplore even if they disagreed with them. Rising Republican Congressman Dan Crenshaw denounced her proposal to increase the income tax on the highest earners to 70 percent as ‘scandalous’. Disagree with it if you must, but there is no chance of uniting Americans against a candidate on the grounds of sympathy with multi-millionaires. Just as Trump punctured the sunnier illusions of liberal multiculturalism, ‘democratic socialists’ are puncturing the sunnier illusions of American meritocracy, and the average taxpayer is not going to be outraged by the prospect of CEOs and executives having less lavish lifestyles and stockpiling less wealth. Find this regrettable you may, but it remains true.
Republicans have also succumbed to the kind of ankle-biting pedantry that conservatives mocked when it was applied to Donald Trump. It is true, of course, that Ocasio-Cortez is a moderately intelligent public figure with a loose grasp of facts but when Republicans pick holes in her Instagram videos they look like mirthless and obsessive nerds.
What, then, are Republicans to do? To some extent there is nothing they can do to discredit Ocasio-Cortez. Charisma can only be met with more charisma. Memes can only be met with better memes. The Democrats failed to promote a charismatic candidate to oppose Trump and the Republicans cannot make the same mistake. The left allowed Trump’s provocateurs to live inside their heads and the right cannot be so accommodating with the left’s.
The most important lesson that the American right must learn, however, is to not become mere defenders of the status quo. ‘America is already great’ was Hillary Clinton’s impotent response to Donald Trump’s famous slogan, somehow failing to inspire Americans who saw an opioid crisis, a higher education bubble and a series of foreign policy disasters among other issues plaguing the US. It is often the underlying implication of conservative responses to Ocasio-Cortez.
Of course, conservatives cannot become impulsive critics of the status quo. The clue is in the name. But if your opponent has dangerous ideas, and if they appeal to voters as solutions for the problems that concern them, you must have different means of satisfying their concerns. If AOC promises free tuition in public colleges, for example, bleating about the problems of paying for it isn’t a good enough response: you must address the ludicrous credentialism that has been enabling the higher education crisis. Thus, your response to a political rival is ancillary to your own ideas. You becomes a contributor and not just a commentator in the nation’s narratives. Otherwise you may come across as complacent, snide and desperate. People on the right may disagree on the content of each other’s ideas but they can at least stop being suckers.
Of course, it may seem contradictory if not hypocritical to write a piece about Ocasio-Cortez which suggests that people stop making her the story. It is somewhat futile. But if it can at least serve as a reminder not to get involved when ‘MAGAMan62’ calls her makeup ugly and the Western media wets its collective pants when she tweets ‘no u’ then it has not been for nothing.