An expert in political science explains what makes Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez such an effective member of Congress

An expert in political science explains what makes Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez such an effective member of Congress
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has taken Washington, D.C by storm.

She successfully ran an insurgent, grass-roots Congressional campaign. She is exceptionally bright. She is incredibly media savvy. She is hugely charismatic, because she is telegenic and photogenic, but also because she consistently seems to be a sincere, authentic, and truly nice and caring human being. In an age of bullshit, she is “real.” And she has the courage of her convictions.

She has thus quickly been embraced by the left, reviled by the right, and treated with enormous skepticism by the center.

AOC is no moderate. She candidly denounces injustice. She celebrates activists who confront fellow members of Congress (like Ana Maria Archila, who confronted Senator Jeff Flake during the Kavanaugh hearings) and even visits protestors conducting a sit-in at the office of her party’s legislative leader, Nancy Pelosi. And she advances bold new visionary policy ideas, like the Green New Deal, which she not only helped to catapult to political center stage, but managed to get senior Democratic leaders, such as Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, to co-sponsor.

How will she “pay” for the Green New Deal? “She” won’t. The U.S. government will—if the broad and ecologically-sane goals and policies outlined in the broad Resolution that she sponsored are taken seriously by the political process. This is not about her, or about Bernie, or Markey. It is about what is obviously a real and contentious political process. AOC, 29-year old Congressional neophyte that she is, has managed to dramatically focus the current policy debate. Now others are presenting arguments about how they have “better Green New Deal” ideas. Meanwhile AOC will continue to use her role to furnish a platform for the leftist ideas she supports. Will every one of these ideas be enacted into law. Not likely. Do you think that she imagines that every one of her ideas will be enacted into law. Not likely.

Why do I say this? Quite simply, because while AOC is clearly an idealist, an activist, and an adamant proponent of a broadly “democratic socialist” vision of social justice, she has also behaved in a consistently politically serious and responsible way, demonstrating that she knows how to get attention, but also to work with others, and to get things done. Big things, and small things.

This was placed beautifully on display during yesterday’s House Oversight and Reform Committee hearings featuring over seven hours of testimony by Michael Cohen. AOC, one of the most junior members of that committee, and thus one of the last to have her five minutes to question Cohen, was masterful, something immediately recognized by major media commentators on MSNBC and CNN. Today’s New York Times featured a major op ed by Caroline Frederickson on this, bearing the clear headline: “How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Won the Cohen Hearing: Too many representatives chose to bloviate instead of interrogate — except for one.

This piece clearly demonstrates why AOC is such an important Democratic politician right now, and why her approach to being a member of Congress holds so much promise.

Its author is the President of the American Constitution Society, which is the premiere liberal legal association in the U.S., founded in 2001 as an explicit counterweight to the conservative Federalist Society. And this important liberal lawyer and legal scholar singles out one member of Congress for her sharpness during yesterday’s hearings: AOC.

It is worth taking a moment to think hard about this.

To liberal friends who are pretty skeptical of if not hostile to AOC: what do you make of the fact that it is she who is being singled out for her fine performance? Many more “moderate” and more senior Democrats also had their five minutes yesterday, and yet this 29-year old “radical” would appear to have most intelligently used her time to advance the cause of the rule of law, a liberal value if every there was one, in this matter.

To left, DSA-member friends who love AOC (as I do) but disparage all of those liberals, like me, who continue to place so much emphasis on Trump’s real threats to the rule of law, constitutional due process, and liberal democracy: what do you make of the fact that AOC did not use her five minutes to talk about the Green New Deal (which she rightly talks about all the time!) or to comment on how the hearings are a waste of time and the real policy issues are being ignored (it was the lunatic Republicans who said this). She used her five minutes to ask painstakingly direct and factual questions of the witness, and thus to seriously address the issue at hand in the hearings: the issue of Trump’s unhinged and unaccountable Presidency, and the need to defend constitutional democracy by using constitutionally-prescribed Congressional authority to hold Trump to account.

AOC is much more serious, and politically responsible, and “mature,” and thus important, than most commentators, those who love her and those who don’t, appreciate. While too many, left, right, and center, are using her as a symbol to beat each other up, she is doing her job and being a role model of what Democratic politics can be.

As a young millennial woman with much obvious brilliance and energy, she is a superb multitasker, and she appears to completely understand that it is possible to work at a number of levels at the same time. She is an activist. She is an inspiring politician. She is a policy advocate. And she is a responsible legislator. She is not alone, and I have recently made a similar case for Rashida Tlaib. But we need many more in Congress like her.

Liberals who raise questions about her inexperience, need to get serious, and really pay attention to what she says and does, how she readjusts, how seriously she engages, and how quickly she learns. Does she have “growing” to do? Of course. But compare her to every single Republican on her committee, and to every single new House member of either party, and indeed to many senior Democrats. If you are serious about the comparison, then it is simply inarguable that she looks very good by comparison. And she does very good.

Leftists who are serious about socialism but impatient with all of the talk about the distinctive dangers presented by Trump and all of the appeals to “violations of the social contract” by liberals, also need to pay serious attention to what AOC says and does. She is a serious defender of liberal democracy, indeed in many ways a more serious defender than many self-described “liberals.” This is part of her broad appeal and her remarkable success. And it is not an unfortunate digression from her commitment to social justice. It is a necessary aspect of this commitment.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez really is a breath of fresh air and an exemplary politician of the left.

It would be a good thing if we thought harder about the reasons why she is so exemplary, and then worked harder to promote these things.

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