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How Broken Is The Debate About Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): Conservatives just can’t stop talking about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But neither can Democrats. She has captured headlines since her surprise primary victory in New York’s 14th Congressional District over 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley. And her continued efforts to push the Democratic Party further to the left has also captured much of the national spotlight.

So what do we make of the coverage of the freshman superstar? What is it about Ocasio-Cortez that has the attention of both Republicans and Democrats?

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): I’m of like 47 different minds on this, because there’s so much going on: media coverage, party politics, her race/ethnicity, gender and age.

sarahf: Fair. Let’s talk about her age first. At 29, she is the youngest congresswoman ever. So, criticisms from her colleagues have often focused on her lack of experience.

One quote that stood out to me was in a recent Politico story: An anonymous House Democrat said, “She needs to decide: Does she want to be an effective legislator or just continue being a Twitter star?”

As if you can’t be … both?

meredithconroy (Meredith Conroy, political science professor at California State University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): That was an annoying ultimatum because as we’ve seen, just about every member of Congress uses Twitter as a platform and usually in an effort to go viral.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): So, using data from December 2016 (I’m sure this has shifted a bit), the average age of House members was 57. I just think that a lot of House veterans think your job as a new member is to be seen and not heard. And remember the way she got there — knocking off a veteran House member who was well-liked within the caucus. Of course, they see her and her style as a threat — it is.

meredithconroy: And it’s not just members of the House, Perry! On “The View” last week, Whoopi Goldberg shared a similar sentiment, which led to lots of nodding from her co-hosts and applause from the audience. Goldberg said, “So you just got in there and I know you got lots of good ideas, but I would encourage you to sit still for a minute and learn the job.”

sarahf: To Perry’s point, Ocasio-Cortez was also denied a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee (although arguably that decision was expected given her lack of seniority). And the new climate committee she championed was created without the power to subpoena, which Ocasio-Cortez has argued leaves the committee in a weak position.

So it does seem as if Democratic Party leaders are trying to signal on some level that she needs to put in the work before she can wield real power … which is a very old-school way of thinking about how Congress works, of course.

perry: I don’t begrudge House Speaker Nancy Pelosi not giving Ocasio-Cortez power. Congress is run on seniority — Pelosi has her job because longtime members stuck with her.

julia_azari: Regarding the party leaders and this idea of putting in the work, I think there’s a logic there that people find appealing — especially in the Trump era, when the president’s critics have identified a lack of experience in government and politics among Trump himself and other executive branch officials as a big problem (I’ll be here on understatement island). But I’d argue that building up a following around your ideas qualifies as doing some kind of work.

meredithconroy: But this idea that “seniority rules” has been breaking down in Congress for some time now.

julia_azari: Breaking down the importance of seniority was one of the changes that Republicans made in the House after Newt Gingrich became speaker in 1995, right? And the Democrats post-Watergate before then?

meredithconroy: Right. Political scientist Barbara Sinclair has called it “unrestrained activist style.” She found in the 1960s and ’70s that there was less legislative restraint from new members, buoyed by a growth in social movements and diversifying interest groups.

Sinclair also discussed the extension of national media attention to more and more members of Congress over time, which also flattened hierarchy in Congress. At the time she was writing, Sinclair was talking about national televised media, but the same principle applies to social media.

perry: Ocasio-Cortez ran as an anti-establishment outsider. She is against the system. The system is pushing back. I think the more experienced members criticizing her is entirely logical. Bernie Sanders’s colleagues don’t like him a ton either.

julia_azari: This idea of running against the system and then becoming part of the system has been a big tension in American politics since at least the 1970s.

meredithconroy: The reality of running against the system but becoming a part of the system is something any activist-turned-elected-official has had to grapple with. That is probably one reason that Ocasio-Cortez is recording her new congressional experiences on social media — she’s pulling the curtain back by documenting the orientation for new House members, for example. By doing this, her status as an outsider remains intact with her “millennial” identity.

sarahf: One thing that seems to be missing in this debate around Ocasio-Cortez is whether her challenge to the traditional rules and order is a good thing.

perry: I think Democratic critics too often invoke her age to diminish her. That is not ideal. But older members of Congress saying, “I’m part of the system; I like the system; it has benefited me; and I support this person who wants to change it in a way that would not benefit me,” would require a level of self-awareness that I’m not sure some members have.

julia_azari: Yeah. It’s been a challenge for Republicans to strike that balance — I explained a bit in this article how political figures like Ronald Reagan and Paul Ryan both came out of anti-establishment traditions to then join the ranks of the powerful. But it’s an entirely different problem for Democrats, who tend to value preserving and even expanding the role of government.

Refusing to compromise, even if it meant that the government shut down or things weren’t funded, was consistent with the tea party’s arguments that government was too big. But for a progressive Democrat trying to pass “Medicare for All” or a Green New Deal, that’s a tougher mindset to reconcile.

meredithconroy: Right, and Democrats tend to value experience more than Republicans, too.

perry: Yes, Sarah, to me, that is the core issue: Is the traditional order a good thing? Ocasio-Cortez clearly thinks it’s not. This is kind of the Sanders critique too: The problem is insiders, not Democratic or Republican insiders, but insiders period.

julia_azari: Perry, I’m not sure I agree with that characterization of Ocasio-Cortez’s position entirely. A lot of what she says has been sharply partisan.

perry: But that’s not what the Democrats are objecting to, right?

julia_azari: I think the Democrats are objecting to the primarying threats from some of her allies and the fact that she has become such a strong presence in the party so quickly.

perry: So this is the place where I’m most interested. Take Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri. He was among Ocasio-Cortez’s critics in that Politico article, but he’s not a centrist. He is fairly liberal.

My instinct is (and I can’t prove this) that even some of the liberal Democratic members in the House have now decided that big progressive goals are unrealistic, so they never talk about them.

But then Ocasio-Cortez comes in talking about a Green New Deal and is busy protesting outside of Pelosi’s office. It kind of makes Democrats in Congress look like they haven’t been doing anything.

meredithconroy: One could say it’s working …

perry: My guess is that it pisses Democrats off. Maybe in the same way that some black members of Congress were pissed off when Obama showed up in the Senate and didn’t take them or their experience that seriously and then quickly ran for president.

julia_azari: It’s important to distinguish between process and coalition. Liberals who fall into a camp like Cleaver’s are not making a point about seniority or procedure for their own sake, but rather because putting together a big coalition to implement policy requires a lot of compromise.

Occasionally, someone like Obama or Ocasio-Cortez pops up and makes it seem like a different kind of coalition can be built. But new coalitions that are further to the left on policy have yet to show that they are reliable from election to election.

That said, it’s possible that Ocasio-Cortez and others like her have had an impact on the 2020 Democratic presidential agenda. I think there’s a reason that politicians tend to embrace new communication technologies — from radio to TV to Twitter. Reaching politically engaged citizens and shaping their priorities can matter.

meredithconroy: Right — it looks like 2020 hopefuls seem to be embracing a more liberal agenda, and Ocasio-Cortez is getting at least some of the credit.

sarahf: She now has more Twitter followers than Pelosi does, and she, arguably, uses Twitter a lot like President Trump to communicate directly with her supporters.

What’s good about that approach?

What’s bad about that approach, especially as it applies to coalition-building in Congress that Julia mentioned?

julia_azari: I’m not sure I would use the word good, but it does seem to be effective.

People clearly respond to good messaging, and I think there is some contingent of Democrats who respond to someone who speaks in a contemporary language via social media and who also offers a bold repudiation to Trump.

I also just think people get very bent out of shape about evolving modes of communication.

Twitter is the latest medium, but the overall dynamic is hardly new. Bill Clinton was the first baby-boomer president, fairly young (46) for that office in 1992, and did stuff like go on MTV and talk about his underwear.

(See also my views on this when Obama went on “Between Two Ferns” with Zach Galifianakis.)

meredithconroy: Oh good, I’m glad you brought up “Between Two Ferns,” because I was about to bring up the outrage that he dared to communicate with young people in an accessible way (which apparently was effective).

Also, Obama appeared in a BuzzFeed video in which he takes playful selfies to promote the Affordable Care Act. So, yes, I would agree that as politicians adapt to new modes of communication, criticism is inevitable.

perry: I do think Ocasio-Cortez is trying harder to get more Twitter followers than someone like Pelosi, who I don’t think is, say, using social media on Sunday afternoons to engage with writers from the National Journal.

And that makes sense if you think about the power dynamics. For example, I have more Twitter followers than New Yorker editor David Remnick does (he doesn’t have a public Twitter account) because I need Twitter more than Remnick does. He has other power (editing one of the most-respected magazines in the world) that I don’t have.

I’m not surprised that Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitter following is big — it is her main source of power right now, so she should cultivate it. Pelosi gets to determine what the House votes on. That’s a different kind of power.

julia_azari: If I can go big-picture on the institutional dynamics for a minute … This is why presidents 100 years ago pushed the idea of the bully pulpit. Members of Congress had access to the federal purse and actual patronage networks that the president did not have. But harnessing public opinion was a way the president could make the presidency more powerful.

Presidents then had a monopoly on this for decades, but Twitter allows anyone who is funny or provocative or generally “good at it” to use that power, which allows members of Congress to get back in the public opinion game.

perry: I think the always-excellent Adam Serwer of the Atlantic captured Ocasio-Cortez’s appeal to liberals well in a recent article. He wrote, “She is an effective avatar of the rising left: a young, working-class person of color who is fluent in the culture of the internet and, unusually for a Democrat with a national profile, not easily spooked by criticism from the right.”

Should note: Her media diversity comments on Twitter were, from my experience, very on point.

sarahf: Something else that stood out to me in that Serwer article was this idea that when people of color enter elite institutions like Congress, there is an effort to try to discredit their right to be there.

meredithconroy: What’s more, Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t neatly fit into the accessible archetypes. Yet the attempt is still made to discuss her in familiar terms, which is why you have the comparison to Sarah Palin in the opinion section of the The Washington Post last week. The two couldn’t be more different, but the comparison is still made because Palin is one of few political women with a national presence in American political culture.

perry: That comparison is dumb, on so many levels. Ocasio-Cortez clearly reads “newspapers and magazines,” etc. And she is a House member, not the potential vice president for a 71-year-old presidential candidate. I feel like Ocasio-Cortez’s rise is much more like Sanders’s or Obama’s than Palin’s, but I think this was an attempt to find a comparable woman.

julia_azari: The fact that there aren’t many comparable women is not an accident, however.

And I see why it seems to people who’ve been in the House for 40 years that Ocasio-Cortez is skipping her turn in important ways. But having a member of the House be associated with coolness and effective communication and policy leadership seems like a good thing for the institution.

perry: The reason she is being covered so much overall is that she is just, well, an interesting politician. If I were running a network — liberal, conservative or down-the-middle — I would feature her more than most members of Congress.

julia_azari: Totally. I find myself drawn to tweeting and blogging about her because she brings up interesting issues from a political science perspective.

perry: She is young and dynamic, and she has policy ideas outside the mainstream, as well as a compelling personal story. Sort of like Obama when he first came along. Or Trump to some extent in 2015 — you never knew what he was going to say.

sarahf: Will Ocasio-Cortez change her “outsider” approach when she has to pivot to governing? Or what do we see as her biggest obstacles moving forward?

julia_azari: Ocasio Cortez has said that she isn’t keen on bipartisanship in the age of Trump. I think this resonates with some Democrats in the electorate. But it’s a big country full of diverse opinions, and at some point, compromise will probably be necessary.

perry: I think she faces two big obstacles: 1. Young members in the House don’t have much influence because of seniority; 2. The old guard in the House is especially unlikely to pick her to play key roles because they are scared of her outside and outsized power.

I don’t think her role in governing will be to get on big committees or to have Pelosi’s ear. I think her influence will continue to be what we are seeing now: tweeting and pushing out ideas on TV and on social media and then watching as reporters and others ask the real powerbrokers (Trump, Pelosi, 2020 candidates) about her ideas. Power is in part about setting the agenda — and she has that power.

meredithconroy: I expect Ocasio-Cortez to continue to operate as an outsider because, from what I can tell, she sees herself as a proxy for a larger progressive movement and she was ushered into Congress by channeling that movement. I don’t see her abandoning those principles anytime soon, which means that she may continue to upset her Democratic colleagues.

Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s politics editor.

Perry Bacon Jr. is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Meredith Conroy is an assistant professor of political science at California State University.

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties and political rhetoric. She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.”

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