Why does Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 29-year-old freshman Congresswoman from New York who was only sworn into office this week, attract so much negative attention from the Right? You can hardly go anywhere in conservative media – Fox, talk radio, conservative magazines and websites, Twitter and other social media – without seeing somebody mocking or criticizing her. The latest example involved an old video of her in her late teens doing some goofy dances (including a Breakfast Club homage that ought to have been endearing to Gen X-ers). The video made her look somewhat silly, but no sillier than the average person is at that age; as I noted on Twitter, it was also a reminder that we now have Members of Congress young enough to have been in internet videos as teens.
Naturally, her fans see all the negative press as something nefarious or unfair, or alternatively as a sign of conservative fear of her. And some conservatives wisely fret that our side is just helping create a monster by elevating the profile of a glib young person on the other side with star power. In fact, there are a number of different reasons why “AOC” is such a magnet for negativity from conservatives, some of them more justifiable than others, but all of them grounded in the realities of political commentary in 2019.
Let’s start with two ground rules. On the one hand, Members of Congress are powerful people enjoying a public trust and authority over the rest of us; subjecting them to critique and even a certain amount of ridicule is healthy in a democracy, where popular opinion is the citizen’s best defense against Washington. On the other hand, it’s fair to ask if a politician is getting an undue share of this, or is being picked on to excess for things like how they dress that have little to do with their merits for the job. So, why AOC? Let me propose seven answers, none of which may explain the phenomenon on their own, but which taken together should help make some sense of it.
First, an elementary rule of political journalism (and even moreso, political entertainment): you always need villains. Personalizing political debates works, and in a world where ideas are implemented through people, it should be a legitimate tactic, and always has been. No matter how high-minded or serious you are (and many people in the political media ecosystem are neither), personalizing the target is also just more fun to write, read, or listen to than dry policy papers. Democrats have it easy right now, as the party out of power: their critical faculties naturally gravitate towards the president and his inner circle. But the party in power typically digs a little deeper: the other side’s Congressional leadership is a start, but attention often falls as well on lower-ranking people who seem to embody aspects of the other side’s unbridled id.
The demand for negative content is an enduring constant on both sides. If anything, the rise of meme-based social media only drives more of it. Liberals, in fact, have an entire apparatus of late-night comedians in the Daily Show model that have made careers out of mocking obscure Republican politicians and voters. Demand for negative content does, however, tend to spike a bit when there is a lot of bad news for one’s own side and it gets to be weary work writing scandal explainers and debunkers or moaning about failures to get things passed. The Trump era, whatever its successes, has had no shortage of those.
Second, conservatives in particular have a deep aversion to the media’s tendency to fall swooningly in love with the Democrats’ newest young hopes, while opening both barrels at those of the Republicans from the instant they emerge. Ocasio-Cortez originally attracted attention because she was a good story: young amateur who had worked as a bartender knocking off one of the House’s most powerful Democrats in a primary. But she also got a heavy early dollop of the kind of messianic press coverage that greeted the arrivals of Beto O’Rourke, Barack Obama, and John Edwards on the political scene. And then she did a bunch of gasp-inducingly ignorant interviews of the sort that would have provided weeks of late-night fodder if they’d been done by Sarah Palin or Dan Quayle or even Louie Gohmert. The temptation on the Right to push back with a taste of the other side’s medicine is irresistible.
Third, Ocasio-Cortez is an avowed socialist, and several of her policy proposals fit the label. She emerged after years of Democrats angrily lecturing us about how unfair it was to call them socialists, and then in the aftermath of Bernie Sanders rehabilitating the term with Democratic voters, especially younger ones. Bernie himself has been no small target of the Right for the same reason, even after his campaign ended. The fact that Ocasio-Cortez speaks for a different point of view than a lot of other House Democrats means that she actually does stand out for good and ill in DC as a spokesperson for her perspective, in the same way that Bernie or Ron Paul or other Congressional iconoclasts have over the years. The fact that she has eagerly embraced the spotlight makes this a two-way street and ensures a steady stream of new things to say about her.
Having someone who openly embraces exactly what conservatives have accused Democrats of being for years is gold for conservative media, for reasons similar to why progressive media loves Richard Spencer. It gives an easy, fat target for anti-socialist memes of the type produced by youth groups like Turning Point USA. And frankly, for conservatives in their mid-40s or older reared on the long and successful battle against Communism, there is a certain aspect of nostalgia and “take me back to my happy place” that comes from confronting socialists openly and showing those kids today why we were right back then.
Fourth, and relatedly, Ocasio-Cortez is both young and Hispanic (specifically, Puerto Rican) in addition to being a socialist. There’s a certain strain among conservative immigration hardliners that argues that large-scale Hispanic immigration means importing all the political dysfunctions of Latin America and ultimately, by sheer demographic weight, turning the United States first into California, then into Mexico, and eventually into Venezuela or Cuba. This is a short-sighted attitude; there’s plenty of data and history to suggest that the long-term arc of Hispanic Americans will be to leave behind the political baggage of their homelands in much the same way the Irish and Italians eventually did. Conservatives determined to thwart that by making Hispanic voters feel unwelcome in our tent could make their own fears self-fulfilling. But in the meantime, that fear is out there, and the 1-2-3 punch of Ocasio-Cortez’s age, race, and ideology makes her a perfect face for that strain of demography-is-destiny thinking and the audience that eagerly laps it up.
Fifth, traffic sells. Whether it’s radio ratings or retweets or clicks, most everyone in this business has some idea of what content generates more interest. Thus, the simple fact that the first hit or two on Ocasio-Cortez got you some attention creates a feedback loop that makes it more tempting to go back to that well rather than try to expose some other less-known or less-polarizing figure in the other party.
Sixth, Ocasio-Cortez is a young woman, and perceived as an attractive one. It may be unfair, but being good-looking has always been an asset in politics (think of anyone from JFK to Matinee Mitt), and especially for women. That cuts both ways in drawing eyeballs: if you know even the first thing about the internet or television, you know that attractive women drive more traffic (and not only from men), and it doesn’t even matter what kind of website or program you run or whether your coverage is worshipful, vicious, or sober. On its own, that doesn’t make anything she does legitimately newsworthy, but if we are describing why things happen in the real world, it’s an additional reason why she gets more attention than your typical Congressional newbie.
Seventh, and not inconsistently with my last point, Ocasio-Cortez is (like Bernie or Trump) easy to caricature visually – what you might call negatively photogenic. What that means is, it is really, really easy to find images of her that don’t need a lot of help to make her look a bit nutty. In Bernie’s case, that’s a result of his flyaway socialist-professor hair, perpetual sending-the-soup-back facial expression, and big Noo Yawk hand gestures. In Trump’s case, of course, there are even more reasons, starting with an almost limitless array of pictures of him making faces. In Ocasio-Cortez’s case, it’s more a matter of being wide-eyed and animated; conservative memes often capture her with eyes bulging in the middle of talking or shouting. Politicians who are easy to caricature – and better yet, easy to lampoon with photographs – have always made bigger targets (ask Richard Nixon or even Abe Lincoln), and all the moreso in the age of memes.
For my part, I’m not bothered by the fact that Ocasio-Cortez is a young, inexperienced Member of the House; in a representative democracy, some people are just there to represent. I don’t care much about her biography or her style, either. Conservatives’ main target should be her bad policy ideas, and the fact that her ignorance as a chief spokesperson for those ideas is illustrative of the youth appeal of socialism today. Some of the criticisms of her (like wearing a suit to a job that requires a suit) have been dumb and self-defeating. But like it or not, the Ocasio-Cortez show from both sides of the aisle is only getting warmed up.