The Viral Rise of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez

By: Ashley Bustamante

In January 2019, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest woman to ever be elected to the United States Congress. Although she represents just one district out of hundreds, the 14th, which includes parts of the Bronx and Queens — the media has since covered her like a national figure, making her the unofficial “second-most talked about politician in America,” according to Time’s Charlotte Alter.

Ocasio-Cortez has officially been in Congress for three months. In those three months, she has been interviewed with the New Yorker and Vanity Fair, profiled by Time and featured in the New York Times Magazine. Her nickname, “AOC,” has 24,300,000 results on Google. Between her primary victory over Joseph Crowley in June 2018, and March 31st (when I began writing this), the New York Times and the New York Post have run 600 and 492 articles mentioning Ocasio-Cortez by name, respectively. The Washington Post has run more than a thousand. Fox News has published 1,606.

To read every article published about Ocasio-Cortez is impossible. However, a look back at some of the highlights of the coverage in mainstream outlets over this period is instructive, not only about Ocasio-Cortez, but also about the interests and ideologies of the publishing world that has embraced her.

June 19, 2018: “If You Want to Be Speaker, Mr. Crowley, Don’t Take Voters for Granted,” NYT Editorial board.

“What are we – chopped liver?” said the editorial board of the New York Times when they called out the previous Congressman of the 14th District, Joseph Crowley, last summer. Crowley had been an incumbent politician for decades, so he didn’t even bother to show up to debate Ocasio-Cortez for the second time in a row. Nobody considered her a real opponent. The editorial board warned Crowley that he should have relished “a chance to make his case to voters.”

“What are we – chopped liver?” said the editorial board of the New York Times when they called out the previous Congressman of the 14th District, Joseph Crowley, last summer. Crowley had been an incumbent politician for decades, so he didn’t even bother to show up to debate Ocasio-Cortez for the second time in a row. Nobody considered her a real opponent. The editorial board warned Crowley that he should have relished “a chance to make his case to voters.”

In this first mention in the Times, Ocasio-Cortez was described as a “grassroots alternative to Mr. Crowley.” It was assumed the young Latina had no chance of defeating him, although the article did note Ocasio-Cortez was “a former Bernie Sanders campaign organizer, [garnering] significant support, [and] waging a high-energy campaign.”

July 5, 2018: “How Ocasio-Cortez Beat the Machine,” Jacobin, Susan Kang.

Although Ocasio-Cortez is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and received their endorsement in April 2018, her campaign was not a DSA priority. “We didn’t take the idea of supporting a long-shot candidate like herself seriously — taking on the ‘Queens Machine’ seemed like a masochistic task at best,” wrote Kang, a member of the DSA from Ocasio-Cortez’s district. The “Queens Machine” referred to how powerful Joe Crowley was as a politician — seemingly impossible to beat. But Kang lauds, “Ocasio-Cortez’s beautiful socialist vision” for being one of the reasons she won the primary. While the field operation of the canvassers was “impressive,” it was “Alexandria herself” that won the campaign. “Crowley did not live in the district, breathe our air, drink our water, or send his kids to our schools.” Despite their early hesitancy, Kang expresses optimism about the role “the passion, energy, and strength of the broader democratic socialist movement” played in Ocasio-Cortez’s win.

January 5, 2019: “Why it Matters That Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Wore Hoops to Her Swearing-In Ceremony,” Allure, Marci Robin.

Soon after Ocasio-Cortez was sworn into office, the political statements she made through her fashion and beauty choices started endless conversations. While Robin points out discussing a woman’s appearance is “incredibly tiresome,” Ocasio-Cortez is an exception: the way she draws “attention to her own lipstick and earrings as a means of spotlighting the prejudice they bring out in some people.” Ocasio-Cortez is praised for her choice to wear red lipstick and gold hoops to “express herself the way she saw fit and not capitulate to outdated perceptions and arbitrary standards.” In this case, her appearance does matter because “representation matters.”

February 28, 2019: “The Freshman Congresswomen Did Their Damn Job At Cohen’s Hearing,” Refinery29,Andrea González-Ramírez.

This piece looks at Ocasio-Cortez’s performance at Michael Cohen’s hearing alongside her fellow freshman Congresswomen, Katie Hill, Ayanna Presley, and Rashida Tlaib. The article praises all four Congresswomen for “showing more backbone than plenty of veterans grandstanding during the hearing,” instead “using their time to ask the necessary questions to uncover new information.” Hill, Presley, and Tlaib get one sentence each, while Ocasio-Cortez gets two full paragraphs: she “gained praise for the way she sharply got Cohen to give the committee a list of names of Trump associates who have inside knowledge.” A body language expert also praises Ocasio-Cortez for being “deliberate and forceful, but not rude.”

March 3, 2019: “Ocasio-Cortez leaves parade in 17-mpg minivan — blocks from the subway,” New York Post, Sarah Trefethen and Bruce Golding.

“She’s addicted to Uber,” is how this article on Ocasio-Cortez’s seemingly hypocritical actions starts. The reporters had caught her taking an Uber after the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Queens. “The leading advocate for the proposed ‘Green New Deal’ was less than four blocks from a Queens subway station when she hopped into a white Chrysler Town & Country with livery plates around 1:20 p.m.” It even notes that the vehicle “gets an average of just 17 mpg in the city.” Ocasio-Cortez’s involvement with the Green New Deal is emphasized throughout the article to criticize her actions.

March 3, 2019: “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Is Coming for Your Hamburgers!” The New Yorker, David Remnick.

On the same day the Post criticized Ocasio-Cortez for using taxis instead of being environmentally conscious, the New Yorker published a profile analyzing her unique significance in the new political landscape. New Yorker editor David Remnick describes Ocasio-Cortez as “the nexus of all danger.” To conservatives she is a “Stalinist nightmare.” He quotes her response to being viewed as a threat: “The idea that a woman can be as powerful as a man is something that our society can’t deal with. But I am as powerful as a man and it drives them crazy.”

March 11, 2019: “‘I felt like I was being physically ripped apart’: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez opens up about her new fame, Trump, and life in the bubble,” Vanity Fair, Abigail Tracy. 

Vanity Fair discusses the right’s obsession with Ocasio-Cortez, without adding that the left has also been fairly obsessed with her: “She’s eclipsing Pelosi, and even Hillary Clinton, as a Republican target.” It invites her to explain how the barrage of criticism from the right has affected her: “I’m not a superhero. I’m not a villain. I’m just a person that’s trying,” she says. Tracy observes that Ocasio-Cortez’s critics “are always waiting for her to slip up — to say something inaccurate, to expose her relative inexperience, to provide anecdotes that support the narrative that she is a Communist moron.”

March 20, 2019: “Ocasio-Cortez Is Finding a New Model for How to Work in Public,” New York Times Magazine, Carina Chocano.

NYT Magazine describes the current media hysteria as “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.” Chocano explains Ocasio-Cortez has been blown out of proportion by both the left and the right. However, she praises the way Ocasio-Cortez has learned to rise above the criticism, creating a new model of women that can turn around the constant media attention into good. Chocano also focuses on a clip of Ocasio-Cortez speaking in a Congressional hearing that went viral; “she has incorporated into her public persona… a kind of running metacommentary on fame, spin and bias, [which] is also a handy way to channel it in useful directions.” Her accessible way of speaking can be seen in other videos from routine Congressional testimonies that have gone viral in the past couple of weeks.

March 21, 2019: “’Change is Closer than we Think: Inside Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Unlikely Rise,” Time, Charlotte Alter:

In this Time cover story, written by Charlotte Alter in the months after she took office, Ocasio-Cortez is described as “America’s newest human Rorschach test.” The story recounts how Ocasio-Cortez is trying to balance being a new freshman legislator with the burden of her newfound fame, signified by her 3.5 million Twitter followers and the “thousands of people tune in to watch her make black-bean soup or re-pot her houseplants on Instagram Live.” As with many of the profiles of Ocasio-Cortez from this period, Alter’s piece mixes political analysis — ticking through some of Ocasio-Cortez more notable policy proposals, such as abolishing ICE and the “Green New Deal” — and a celebrity puff piece, mixing in glamorous photos and mentions of her “signature red lipstick.” It also previews her as a flashpoint of an emerging divide within her freshman congressional class, between those who won in “purple” districts and council moderation, and those who, like Ocasio-Cortez seek to affect the “merging of movement and electoral politics.”

The 14th District includes some of the most diverse neighborhoods in the nation. Half of Jackson Heights’ population is Hispanic. Asians are a close second. It is a district filled with immigrants. As one of the 4,000 voters in the 14th district who were partially responsible for giving Ocasio-Cortez this platform, her nationwide coverage has come as a surprise. There was little media about Crowley during his incumbency. Consequently, I had spent most of my life not knowing this man represented me in Congress. The first time I heard about Ocasio-Cortez was via a postcard mailed to my family’s apartment. What my family and I saw was a young Latina woman who was concerned with things that made absolute sense to us: “Medicare for All,” “Abolish ICE,” “Housing as a Human Right.” To my family and me, it was clear that Ocasio-Cortez was one of us. I understand how incredibly appealing and hopeful it is to see someone like her in Congress, but her national ascendency has been an odd phenomenon to experience as a voter, especially when one is reminded she only represents one district, not even the whole state of New York. To us, she’s not an idol to worship or a hypocrite (yet), much less a “Rorschach test.” She’s just the person we chose to send to Congress, our local representative trying to lay the groundwork for a different, better future. Even if, as of mid-April, she has 3.8 million followers on Twitter.

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