AOC and the Making of Millennial Politics

AOC and the Making of Millennial Politics

AOC and the Making of Millennial Politics

A new book on Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez offers a portrait of a new generation of elected officials and political activists coming into its own.


While running for Congress in 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was fond of saying “Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office.” It was the sounding note of her two-minute, campaign-defining ad, produced for $10,000 by democratic socialists in Detroit. By “a woman like me,” Ocasio-Cortez meant something specific: a woman born to the working class, in a place (the Bronx) where “your ZIP code determined your destiny,” a woman who had waited tables and tended bar, endured the gendered indignities of low-wage service work, and whose family was plunged into precarity by her father’s death. The work of governing the nation supposedly called for other credentials—often wealth, connections, and Ivy League degrees. As Brecht once wrote, “Those who lead the country into the abyss / Call ruling too difficult / For ordinary men.”

Today, few people would describe AOC as “ordinary.” In the wake of her upset victory over Joe Crowley—a 10-term incumbent expected to succeed Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House—Ocasio-Cortez rocketed to political stardom. At 29, she became, as David Freedlander puts it in his new book The AOC Generation, an “avatar” for a millennial cohort hungry for change. She transposed Bernie Sanders’s endearingly hoary socialist anthem into a new key. Using her position in Congress and her enormous social media platform, she advocated an unapologetic left-wing agenda—universal health care, free college, a jobs guarantee, a Green New Deal—in a warm and legible idiom animated by her own experiences as a Latina, as a woman, and as a service worker. Gracing the covers of news and fashion magazines alike, she became one of America’s foremost political celebrities, with equal emphasis on both terms.

Indeed, for some on the left, AOC’s rapid rise seemed almost too good to be true. Conditioned by history to anticipate defeat—to associate competence with compromise and marginality with virtue—the American left can be suspicious of victory itself. But as Freelander’s book reminds us, AOC is not merely a singular phenom; she is a product of her times. She owes her rise, and her convictions, to an array of political figures, factions, and forces, whose advent bodes well for the future of the left. “No person, no matter how dynamic, is the product only of their own will and talent,” Freelander writes. “All of us are pushed quietly along by thousands of unseen hands, are the product of society and circumstance, the place we were born into and the people we come to know.”

To tell this story, Freedlander interviewed friends, teachers, and colleagues who knew Ocasio-Cortez before she became an icon. He also spoke to dozens of activists, organizers, and volunteers who enabled her victory. Freedlander’s generational story has both an ideological and a strategic dimension. From the Iraq War to the 2008 financial crash, from the hope and promise of the early Obama years to Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, climate activism, and Bernie 2016, the millennial left’s condensed political education imparted two lessons: one, that American society required transformational change that neither party was equipped (or inclined) to instantiate; and two, that achieving such change would require arming our critiques with power. In other words, it wasn’t enough to be right; the point was to win. That meant engaging in electoral fights that previous generations of leftists (and even our younger, more hard-core selves) might have considered, as Freedlander puts it, “grubby or impure.”

This millennial eagerness to blend populism and pragmatism, protest and power, unites the groups profiled in The AOC Generation. There are chapters dedicated to the rejuvenated Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), which endorsed AOC and infused her campaign with young volunteers; Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats, upstart electoral outfits who recruited her to run; and outsider media outlets like Jacobin, The Young Turks, and The Intercept, which covered AOC and other socialist campaigns when no one else would.

While a group narrative has sociological merits, one wonders whether Freedlander’s choice to focus more on the supporting cast also stems from the fact that the star stopped returning his calls. Ocasio-Cortez and her office declined to participate in The AOC Generation. For original quotes, he relies on the two interviews he conducted with her for New York magazine, and for the rest, he draws on news items, social media posts, and conversations with allies and friends.

Still, in its opening chapters, the book manages to paint a vivid, if uniformly flattering, portrait of the young political star. The narrative speeds through AOC’s early life, but we’re told the familiar facts: She was born in the Parkchester neighborhood of the Bronx, and her father, an architect, moved the family to a prosperous Westchester suburb when she was 5. There, Ocasio-Cortez excelled in school—she has described herself as a “dorky kid”—despite feeling out of place among her richer, whiter classmates. When Freedlander turns to her college years, he offers the most thorough account I’ve encountered, with some amusing and illuminating new details. At Boston University, “Sandy” performed cringey slam poetry, pushed David Foster Wallace on her friends, and started a blog; she studied abroad in Niger and, like other high achievers with altruistic instincts during the Obama years, got roped into a bunch of “social change through innovation”–type entrepreneurial bullshit.

This stuff—market-based philanthropy, “leveraged” nonprofits, microcredit—was everywhere when I was in college. Always vague in their pecuniary underpinnings, these projects were prized by administrators, who tended, by contrast, to ignore those of us who merely aspired to be “organizers.” (Not that we knew what that meant, either, but at least we knew we weren’t starting banks or pyramid schemes.) AOC, like many people I knew in school, soon burned out on this model of social change. She didn’t get a job out of it, and anyway, anarchists camping in the park seemed to be getting more done. As she wrote on her blog in a critique of “conscious consumerism” during her junior year at BU, “We’ve made a world where 10% proceeds sprinkle karma on our transactions…. Is social consciousness enough? What about social action?”

Years later, after her election, conservatives would question whether Ocasio-Cortez had oversold her working-class roots, circulating a photo on Twitter of her family’s modest home in tony Yorktown. This “gotcha” didn’t exactly land; moving to the suburbs and attending BU were always parts of AOC’s story. But there was a kernel of truth in their claim: AOC doesn’t share the experience of the poorest people in her district. Rather, her trajectory resembles that of many highly educated millennials calling themselves socialists today, who experienced downward mobility and economic insecurity as they entered the workforce. Like them, AOC is ultimately a product of the failed promise of meritocracy in the United States.

AOC’s elite education, along with her academic prowess and altruism, should have delivered her comfortably into the embrace of the professional managerial class. But they didn’t. Her father, her family’s main source of income, died of cancer just as the global economy came crashing down. A degree from BU was not sufficient defense against economic calamity or the cruel whims of fate. Upon graduating, AOC returned home to tend bar, help her mom with house payments, and eventually volunteer for Bernie. As Freedlander recounts of these years, “She had been a star in high school, a star in college, and a star as a graduate, who suddenly, through the vagaries of the modern economy, found herself serving overprivileged hipsters and overripe tourists.” Now she was paying for doctor’s visits in stacks of ones. For AOC’s generation, all it took was a single false step, an unforeseen misfortune or health crisis, to “fall through the cracks,” as she put it, and lose any sense of stability.

Here the cynical reader chimes in: But didn’t she achieve her PMC dream in the end, by becoming a world-famous congresswoman? (At one point after college, Ocasio-Cortez consulted a life coach for “underfulfilled overachievers”; she posted on Instagram the day of her swearing-in, “I honestly thought as a 28-year-old waitress that I was too late; that the train of my fulfilled potential had left the station.” Not so, Sandy!) And yet AOC has remained committed to the sort of universalist program that could, in principle, unite the interests of working-class wage earners and downwardly mobile professionals alike. Though some on the left are loath to admit it, she is a reminder that if democratic socialism has a future in America, it’s in part because her trajectory has become so common, because fewer and fewer products of the PMC (nurses, teachers, journalists, engineers) are taken in by the meritocratic ruse. Like AOC, they’re making an alternative bet—on solidarity—allying with the working class against capital to build a society where no one slips through the cracks.

As the book continues, AOC recedes somewhat and “the people who powered her rise,” as Freedlander puts it, take center stage. We’re introduced to volunteers like Shawna Morlock, a working mom and Bernie voter who discovered AOC after attending the Women’s March, her first protest. We meet Winnie Wong and Charles Lenchner, Occupy Wall Street veterans who, after failing to “draft” Elizabeth Warren to run against Hillary Clinton in 2016, founded People for Bernie, building up a progressive social media army they’d later unleash on AOC’s behalf. And we meet a new generation of political operatives (in particular, the staff of Justice Democrats) who have declared war on the moderates in their own party.

There’s also Aaron Taube, a Queens DSA member who whipped votes to help secure a citywide DSA endorsement for AOC—a more complex task than one would imagine. Many DSA members worried that the long-shot campaign was a waste of time, that Ocasio-Cortez was a bandwagon socialist who’d only joined the group when she needed their support. This was true, to a point. But as Sam Lewis, another member, reminded Freedlander, “Everyone else there was pretty new too”; most had joined only since Trump’s election. In this context, Taube’s pitch for the endorsement was two-pronged: First, that win or lose, backing an “amazing, dynamic Latina” like AOC would help dispel DSA’s reputation for being “a bunch of white dudes.” Second, that the Queens branch needed a project “to rally around,” and a campaign would help the fledgling group to grow and cohere, imparting useful skills for future battles.

While such insider accounts are thrilling, at times the generational portrait can feel a bit overdetermined: Was every one of the people in these supporting roles equally indispensable to AOC’s triumph? Was it DSA or Justice Democrats that provided the decisive infusion of energy and personnel? Is it really, as Freedlander writes, “impossible to overstate” the impact of Jacobin magazine on creating Ocasio-Cortez’s “political moment”? Would her campaign have “languished in obscurity” had not the writer Matt Stoller texted his friend, Intercept editor Ryan Grim, about her in late 2017?

Part of the problem is that when you ask a given group of activists who was responsible for AOC’s world-historic victory, of course their answer will be “us.” Success has many fathers and mothers. Still, I can sympathize with the impulse to gloat. The AOC Generation prevailed because it was willing to risk failure. It shared a hostility to mainstream liberalism, a conviction that progressive change had been stymied not only by Republicans but by the timidity of Democrats, and a notion that the primary system provided an opening, a sufficiently unguarded flank through which a more egalitarian and adversarial politics might be smuggled into Washington.

Most savvy politicos doubted them. Those who joined AOC’s crusade shouldered an enormous risk, one that most legacy political organizations (including New York’s Working Families Party, which endorsed her opponent) weren’t willing to take: that of supporting a quixotic primary challenge against a powerful incumbent who’d have no reason to take their calls after he, inevitably, won. As is often the case for the insurgent left, only slightly crazy people, with less to lose, were willing to take that gamble. It was precisely this cautious risk analysis that protected lackluster Democratic incumbents, especially those like Crowley, who had accumulated power through the party machinery, not by charisma or policy achievement.

When AOC won, the left was proved right on at least one account: Moderate incumbents were not safe. Suddenly, everyone had to listen to the left and take it seriously. AOC, after all, was not alone: In 2018, left-wing insurgents Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley also won primaries and, with AOC, joined Congress that winter. Groups like DSA, which was just beginning to build an effective electoral program in New York City, suddenly found they had hitched their wagons to a rocketship. And to the surprise of more cynical onlookers, Ocasio-Cortez didn’t try to shake them off—or at least didn’t try very hard. (AOC’s official online shop still sells two DSA T-shirts; in January, she sat for an interview with DSA’s internal magazine Democratic Left.) As she said to a crowd of friends, allies, and volunteers at the pool hall where she celebrated her victory on election night, “Every person in this room is going to D.C. with me.”

And they did, sort of. Two pugnacious Justice Dem organizers—Corbin Trent and Saikat Chakrabarti—joined her congressional staff, and on one of her first days in office, AOC attended a sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office organized by the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate action group. The move signaled that she would not abandon her base, even if that meant antagonizing her new colleagues. “She was elected as part of the movement,” Trent told reporters, and “she intends to govern as part of the movement.” A few weeks later, AOC and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey introduced the Green New Deal, which garnered 115 cosponsors. Though it went nowhere in Trump’s Washington, most of the Democratic presidential contenders (Joe Biden excepted) would endorse the plan in 2020. Yet Biden’s new infrastructure plan contains elements of the Green New Deal, and progressives are pushing to expand them.

Freedlander’s book ends here. But the remainder of AOC’s first term was also sprinkled with small-bore victories. Her legislation to repeal a limit on the construction of new public housing passed the House in July 2020 (though not the Senate), and her amendments managed to divert $5 million in Drug Enforcement Administration funding to opioid addiction treatment and to allocate $10 million to clean up military waste in Vieques, Puerto Rico. In one sense—and to the chagrin of some leftists—AOC has become a more typical legislator. After a rocky start, her relationships with Democratic Party leaders have improved.

Chakrabarti and Trent both left her office before the end of 2019, the former after a dust-up over tweets harshly criticizing another Democrat. AOC and Chuck Schumer worked together in February to secure funeral reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for victims of Covid-19. And while she and other progressives extracted meaningful concessions from Pelosi, they eventually supported her reelection as House speaker. In her DSA interview, Ocasio-Cortez even defended Biden against “bad faith” criticism and chided overly dour leftists for refusing to take yes for an answer. (“We’re allowed to win too, by the way,” she quipped.)

But in another sense, AOC’s mode of politics remains sui generis. Like others in her generation, she has a gift for social media. With 5 million more followers than Pelosi, she uses Twitter to “clap back” at Republicans, amplify movement demands, and intervene in debates on the left; she conducts crash courses on policy and parliamentary procedure on Instagram while cooking dinner; and she streams herself playing video games and discussing Britain’s National Health Service. These methods of addressing, educating, and agitating voters have inspired comparisons to influencer and celebrity culture. AOC has many more fans than she has constituents, and she is dedicated to serving their psychic—if not always political—needs as well.

But to dismiss AOC’s tweets and Instagram stories as mere exercises in vanity or pandering is a mistake (one often buoyed by sexism). She has become what the scholar Paolo Gerbaudo calls a “hyperleader,” using digital platforms to form affective bonds with her base and beyond, which compensates for the failure of more traditional forms of political organization (e.g., parties, unions, and so on) to generate collective identities. (In Gerbaudo’s schema, Donald Trump, Italy’s Matteo Salvini and Beppe Grillo, Spain’s Pablo Yglesias, and even Bernie Sanders are hyperleaders as well.) AOC’s facility with new and various social media, her charm and authenticity, her instinct for virality and catharsis, and her sympathetic performances of emotional vulnerability have made her one of the most effective hyperleaders of our time.

This hyperleadership has paid dividends for the left—spreading its message far and wide; infusing redistributive policy ideas with warmth, intimacy, and urgency; and inspiring thousands of young people to participate in social movements. (Not to mention that AOC’s celebrity has almost certainly pushed Schumer to embrace a far more progressive agenda.) But it should be noted that the left’s reliance on hyperleadership signals a larger deficit: a dearth of political structures and associational bonds that have historically enabled the left to both obtain and hold power. As Chris Maisano writes in Jacobin, “digital parties” attempt to “reverse engineer” left party-building: Instead of creating working-class social organizations before seeking state power, they rush a hyperleader into government “as fast as possible” and then use that position to consolidate a “base of support outside the state.”

An appreciation for the brittleness of this framework, I think, helps account for the suspicion AOC sometimes meets from rank-and-file leftists. Hyperleaders earn loyalty and affection by vanquishing our enemies in symbolic acts of domination, or else by empathetically enacting our own sense of victimhood. When the bonds linking leader to movement are primarily emotional, rooted in a sense that she is her followers’ champion—an embodiment of their political desires, as opposed to a democratically accountable representative of their political program—the slightest conciliatory gesture, no matter its strategic logic, can resemble a betrayal.

For now, however, hyperleadership appears to be the only game in town. The number of committed socialists in Congress is paltry. Even the expanded “Squad,” now featuring fellow DSA members Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush, cannot pass Medicare for All on its own. And those on the left should probably be grateful that one of the most prodigious hyperleaders of our era is on their side. The question is whether the inchoate and largely parasocial bonds uniting AOC and her millions of followers can be translated into more durable political structures—new party forms or labor movements. It’s not Ocasio-Cortez’s responsibility to square that circle, and certainly not to do it alone. As Freedlander’s book contends, the AOC generation is composed of millions of men and women like her, ordinary people eager to lead the country out of the abyss.



Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to reflect that Ocasio-Cortez sat down for her interview with Democratic Left in January not March. 

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