She leans firmly on the bar, as if to stop herself from falling. Surrounded by her team and supporters, her eyes glued to the TV screen above her head, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t seem to realize. Her hands, which hide half of her face, show her surprise, but the sparkle in her eyes expresses an intense joy. On this evening of November 2018, the 28-year-old woman becomes the youngest elected representative in the history of the American Congress.
“You see, it all belongs to us,” her father, a Puerto Rican native, told her in front of the US Capitol Building in Washington. Alexandria was only five years old at the time and today, she knows how proud of her he would be.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will represent the Queens and the Bronx, a borough of New York so dear to her and where she was serving as a waitress in a taqueria not long ago. With her election, “AOC” will undoubtedly breathe new life into the American political class.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez but also Amy Vilela, Cori Bush or Paula Jean Swearengin were all Democratic candidates for the 2018 congressional primary elections in different states. The 2019 documentary Knock Down the House available on Netflix follows the stories of these women who, from the primaries onwards, had to campaign relentlessly against candidates comfortably settled in their seats.
The candidacy of these women whose politics is not their profession, coming from under-represented backgrounds, is enough in itself to challenge the “establishment”. Indeed, until the early 2000s when it began to (very) slowly drop, about 85% of the elected members of Congress were still white men versus an average of 65% today.
The establishment, an English term also used in French, first appeared in the 19th century in the writings of the American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson. It refers to all those who control the established order and seek to maintain it in their own interests. These people have occupied the political, economic and media space for many years, from Congressmen elected for repeated terms, to a whole range of privileged and powerful people in different spheres, political but also economic.
The contestation of the establishment, on which democratic candidates with “unusual” backgrounds rely on, is also an argument used by populists on the other side of the political spectrum, who blame the social inequalities created by the “system”. Donald Trump has built – and won – his 2016 election campaign on his visceral opposition to the political elites, even though he embodies an economic establishment himself and can seem far removed from the day-to-day concerns of his many working-class constituents….
In contrast, women like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who have run for Congress in 2018 come from less advantaged social backgrounds and bring ideas that aim to transform politics in depth.
It is in this reformist state of mind and following the campaign of Bernie Sanders, candidate for the Democratic primary for the 2016 presidential election, that the “Brand New Congress” and “Justice Democrats” were created – both citizens’ organisations aiming to recruit “everyday people” candidates to represent the American people.
It was Alexandria’s brother who presented his sister through an open-source candidate nomination system. She was then chosen for her strong convictions and unique personality.
From that moment on, the race for the Democratic primary began for AOC. Facing her was a certain Joseph Crowley, a 56-year-old white undisputed Congressman who had been a member of Congress for twenty years. A few private companies endorsed him, and his campaign would cost almost twenty times more than that of AOC. For the media, the opposition between the two Democrats was a godsend. A David and Goliath of modern times.
AOC’s main fight remains against social inequalities. She denounces the “big money politicians”, the lobbies, and categorically refuses to receive money from private companies. From door to door to leaflets and meetings, she led a merciless struggle. AOC also made a name for herself on social media, which she made perfect use of, from tweets directly addressed to Donald Trump to her daily life Instagram Stories – always in line with her political convictions.
She managed to find signatures and support along the difficult path from election to Congress. “If I had been a rational person, I would never have continued,” she said.
From primary school to now, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was often blamed for her youth and inexperience, two arguments used to undermine her credibility but which also constitute her strength. If the young parliamentarian still elicits so many reactions, it is precisely because she leaves no one indifferent and disturbs the guardians of the establishment. As a new rising figure of the American Left, she is not only fundamentally opposed to the majority of “career” politicians in the United States, she also shifts the lines with her ideas and charisma.
By her age, she embodies a generation that is disconnected from politics and does not feel in tune with its representatives. AOC is an expert on how to communicate on social networks and interacts with young people through this medium. She brings back to the forefront the concerns of her generation, which is committed to social justice and strongly involved in the ecological cause. As evidenced by her Green New Deal, a drastic environmental plan to fight the climate crisis that she presented with Edward Markey in 2018, or her formula, which has become viral: “climate delayers are the new climate deniers” – AOC cares about her generation’s concerns.
By her social origin and her strong class-consciousness, she represents the “working people” – the working class – and defends with great fervour the right to health insurance for all by relying on her experience or that of her relatives. Recently, in one of her Instagram Stories, she explained that she had orthodontic braces fitted, which she could not afford a few years ago when she had no health coverage.
Thanks to her Puerto Rican origins, she always has a word of Spanish to say to the inhabitants of her district, half of whom are Spanish-speaking. She campaigns for the rights of immigrants to work, fights against discrimination, and without hesitation became involved in the “Black Lives Matter” movement following the death of George Floyd.
By her gender, she also knows how to represent all women, and more precisely stood up for women victims of harassment, when she responded last month to the attacks (“disgusting”, “crazy”, “fucking bitch”) of one of her detractors, the Republican representative Yoho, and made a poignant speech against harassment that would be shared millions of times on the Internet.
Close to its voters and followers, committed body and soul with authenticity in each of its struggles, AOC demonstrates that “ordinary” citizens have their rightful place in Congress, and that they could even be the most legitimate.
Highly noticed during her public interventions, through her tweets, and her speeches in Congress, she represents an immense hope for the new American Left. It will still be a few years before the fearless AOC reaches the legal age of 35 to run for the presidential election primary…”. If they’re good enough, they’ll win, if we are good enough, we’ll win,” she had said boldly during her campaign. Relentless.
Photo: Ståle Grut / NRKbeta
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