Ocasio-Cortez: The Millennial Politician

By David Malcolm

Young people live something of a double life. On the one hand, they are blamed for everything wrong in the world. Housing, marriage, beer, holidays, movies, focus groups, napkins, golf, diamonds, wine corks, department stores: you name it. Millennials, it seems, destroy everything they touch because they’re too sensible.

Yet, on the other side of the coin, millennials are also blamed for being too lazy to buy a house at 21 or for complaining about getting less than $15 an hour. It has nothing to do with a major housing crisis, the rise of inflation, a still struggling economy after a great recession and an ever-growing gap in wealth inequality. No, it’s all the fault of millennials. Take that, kids! That’ll teach you to ruin our napkins!

It might just be the old generational divide flaring up again. Every generation gets its own James Dean “You’re tearing me apart!” moment in history. In fact, James Dean sums it up beautifully,

You, you say one thing, he says another and everyone changes back again!

Maybe I’m biased. I am a millennial myself, apparently more content with staying indoors and sipping coconut water rather than careering from bar to bar with a beer in one hand and a girl’s backside in the other. One makes me look boring. The other makes me look stupid. I’ll let you decide which is which.

The biggest issue I notice is that, for all the talk about millennials and their place in the world, politics doesn’t seem to reflect this generational shift. For many young people, politics is usually boring or isn’t worth engaging with. It’s not hard to see why: the average American is 20 years younger than their Representative in Congress with the incoming 115th Congress set to be the oldest Congress in history. 

Not everyone fits that pattern neatly. In fact, one Representative, in particular, is making waves in Congress. Blue waves, one might say.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, born October 13th, 1989, is fast becoming the face of millennials in Congress. At 29 years old, she will be the youngest woman to ever serve in Congress in the history of the United States. A working-class Catholic woman of Puerto Rican descent, Ocasio-Cortez was working as a bartender to help make ends meet and pay off her student debt after college. She was an activist in Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign where her own public speaking tour inspired her to think about running for office. 

No one expected her to match up against Joe Crowley, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, a ten-term incumbent. No one at the time ever thought that she would beat him by almost 15 percentage points, despite being outspent 18-1. Even in New York, a progressive socialist from the Bronx could never hope to beat the Democratic political machine. 

Yet she did. In doing so, she has garnered worldwide attention.

Yet, it’s not her politics that might stand out to millennials (although they’ll find it hard to disagree with some of her ideas), but her age. Even after winning the Democratic primary, she faced condescension from her Democratic peers and was treated like the outsider she was.
Conservatives have been quick to attack her with a whole four-man panel talking about her shoes on Fox News. They mocked her style of clothing, her shoes, her Tweet about being unable to rent an apartment until she gets her Congressional salary.

But Ocasio-Cortez has an advantage that few in Congress can boast. Unlike so many politicians, she can make an actual claim to understand what it’s like to be a millennial and be believed.

When she Tweets about being unable to rent an apartment in New York until her congressional paycheck comes through, millennial feel a wave of sympathy. They see the Tweet and think: I’ve been there too. I know what it’s like as well.
Similarly, her Tweets about still paying off her student debt really hit home. How many in Congress are still paying off their student debt? Now ask yourselves, how many people who voted for Ocasio-Cortez are paying off their debt? 

Much like Trump and Sanders, the attacks on her strengthen her case to her supporters. When they see Fox News attack her Tweet about her salary, it’s easy to imagine themselves in her position. Being told by your ‘superiors’ that it’s your own fault for not being able to rent an apartment because you spent your entire salary on food and electricity. Being mocked for your ‘expensive’ fashion on your meager earnings. Getting shouted down because you believe in healthcare for all because ‘you don’t know any better.’

While some might hiss at her socialist ideas, it seems clear that those ideas are gaining mainstream attention. Her millennial audience, whose defining political moment is the crash of 2008-09, believe her when she talks about capitalism failing future generations. They cheer when she stands up for Toys R Us workers who were fired without severance benefits despite working at the store for decades. They enjoy being able to talk to her directly on Twitter, on Instagram, on Facebook. She isn’t using it as a gimmick or an afterthought like many of her fellow Representatives, it’s part of her daily life, her routine, as it is for her followers and voters.

The truth is, whatever you think of her politics or her ability to represent a generation of people, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is part of the new face of politics. For the first time in years, millennials feel that someone in Congress is listening to them, someone who understands their experience. There is no doubt that a new generation is discovering their voice and changing the world in a new way. 

 Ironically, Ocasio-Cortez shares one feature with Donald Trump: both are political outsiders who, in their own way, have the potential to shake up the established order and change American politics forever. 

Until then, I’m waiting for the newest article, ‘How Millennials Are Destroying Politics’.

Some things never change.