The level of attention surrounding Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is, by any measure, extraordinary, bordering on Kardashian-grade. This goes for both the positive and the negative attention, each of which can feel more like a self-serving projection than an accurate representation of who Ocasio-Cortez is or what she’s doing.
The congresswoman has become a handy and versatile symbol — the representative representative. For the leftward and younger wings of the Democratic Party, she serves as a figurehead and a hero; for conservative media outlets, as reliable outrage bait. Everyone seems willing to let her be a lightning rod — including, notably, Ocasio-Cortez herself.
It’s not easy to absorb so much static. “At first, it was really, really, really hard,” she recently told Vanity Fair. “I felt like I was being physically ripped apart in those first two to three months.” But Ocasio-Cortez’s own acknowledgment of the attention, which she has incorporated into her public persona as a kind of running metacommentary on fame, spin and bias, is also a handy way to channel it in useful directions. Take, for instance, the lowly clip of routine congressional testimony — from a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing on H.R. 1, a bill involving campaign finance and ethics rules — that recently went viral, generating well over 40 million views.
There was nothing especially dramatic about it: no bombshell revelations, no combative exchanges, no emotional outbursts. On the contrary, Ocasio-Cortez was calm, upbeat and pleasant, framing her questions as a kind of game — a “lightning round” on the limits of campaign-finance rules. Casting herself as a hypothetical villain and enlisting witnesses as her co-conspirators, she described a legislative system reduced by special interests to a corrupt, zero-sum competition. “I’m gonna be the bad guy,” she says in the video. “Which I’m sure half the room would agree with anyway. And I want to get away with as much bad things as possible, ideally to enrich myself and advance my interests, even if that means putting my interests ahead of the American people.”
Criticism of Ocasio-Cortez has often come wrapped in dismissiveness; early attacks, especially, hinged on the ease with which Americans might be persuaded to see a young woman and political outsider as unserious, unprepared, even vapid. At the start of this year, a clip of her dancing in the style of “The Breakfast Club” — taken from a video made when she was an undergraduate — was circulated gleefully, as if an image of her younger self dancing would undermine her legitimacy as a legislator. Until quite recently, the protocol for a woman subjected to such attacks was to rise above them, brushing off all the negative attention (and even some of the positive), projecting an air of being occupied in stolid, competent work. But Ocasio-Cortez has, thus far, found more interesting reactions. Her response to the circulation of that video wasn’t to strike a more mature pose; it was to have herself filmed, as a legislator, dancing in front of her office.
Part of what makes her congressional questioning on H.R. 1 interesting is that she doesn’t try to play down the qualities that are used to mock or attack her. If anything, she harnesses them for rhetorical effect. Being dismissed as young, inexperienced and female turns out to be something she’s quite good at.
It’s not that the mode of her questioning is especially unusual. She wants to demonstrate how easy it can be, under current law, for unscrupulous people to hijack the legislative process, and like countless legislators and attorneys before her, she uses friendly witnesses to make the argument for her. She asks lengthy, essentially rhetorical questions and occasionally prompts the experts to confirm that what she’s saying is correct. This method is familiar enough to anyone who has ever watched television, as are its rhetorical flourishes — feigned naïveté, false modesty, hand-wringing solemnity and other devices, all enacted for the benefit of the audience.
And yet the tone here is completely different. Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t pretend to take the moral high ground or strive for a clinical, prosecutorial demeanor. She has fun with it. At least one reason this video has been watched more than 40 million times is that she has opted for the pretense of a “game,” embracing youthful speech and a breezy, chipper tone:
So, green light for hush money. I can do all sorts of terrible things. It’s totally legal right now for me to pay people off, and that is considered speech. That money is considered speech. So I use my special-interest, dark-money-funded campaign to pay off folks that I need to pay off and get elected. So now I’m elected. Now I’m in. I’ve got the power to draft, lobby and shape the laws that govern the United States of America. Fabulous.
By playing a game, she exposes the game — the way the law allows for behavior the average person might consider corrupt on its face. “It’s already super legal, as we’ve seen, for me to be a pretty bad guy,” she concludes, having prompted witnesses to confirm this. And on top of this game, of course, is a trickier one: The rest of the committee is being asked to indulge a what-if scenario that describes the actual rules under which they were elected. But citing real-world details would break the spell, plunging the whole thing into the mire of accusations. With a low-stakes hypothetical — hey, guys, let’s pretend someone, incredibly, did want to exploit the system — Ocasio-Cortez bends any air of wide-eyed innocence to her advantage. If you really were frivolous or an unwelcome interloper in serious affairs, the upside is that you’d be excused from having to pretend that the rules of serious affairs actually work. You’d be free to be the 2019 version of Elle Woods from “Legally Blonde,” charmingly turning people’s underestimation of you against them.
It’s a strange artifact of Ocasio-Cortez’s attention-magnetism that her hypotheticals about corruption might have ended up garnering more attention and emotion than the corruption itself. But if there’s anything she has shown amazing skill at, it’s knowing how to manage and channel that attention, to let the air out of it and turn it back on whoever paid it. It makes the old model — of keeping your head down and rising above — seem distinctly old. Amid the furious echo chambers of modern media, failing to acknowledge the most absurd image of yourself — failing to laugh at it or own it or hit back at it online — can hurt more than it helps. A caricature of Hillary Clinton, for instance, seemed to obscure her entirely, feeding on her silence. There aren’t too many models for how a woman, in particular, can respond to attacks and antipathy without being looked on as fragile, or shrill, or weak, or vain, or full of grievance.
Ocasio-Cortez is finding one. Today’s fray is too vicious to stay above; it is too handy with Photoshop and social media, too full of noise, too undivided between legitimate sources and illegitimate ones. It’s a mosh pit. There is no dignified attending to your own business in a mosh pit. You keep your elbows ready, and you dance.