For a so-called “little girl,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has certainly gotten under the Republicans’ skin.
The 29-year-old freshman congresswoman from New York has become the GOP’s latest liberal boogeywoman. A democratic socialist who’s proposing an ambitious renewable energy plan and floating a 70-percent tax rate for wealthy Americans, she has made conservative pundits apoplectic as they try to expose her as a naive political lightweight.
But personal attacks on Ocasio-Cortez have proven to be a poor strategy. The millennial is a social media maven who’s deftly used Twitter and Instagram to document her transition from bartender to congresswoman. The transparent documentation of her journey has opened up the process, making the pursuit of public office appear accessible to anyone.
She also never passes up an opportunity to clap back at her critics with fact checks and withering rebuttals. As the old guard is quickly learning, if you’re going to attack a millennial on social media, you better pack some sunscreen because you’re going to get burned.
Since being elected, she’s dismissed Sarah Palin’s mocking tweets as “grandpa emails,” and brushed off criticism from former-Gov. Mike Huckabee by telling him to, “Leave the false statements to Sarah Huckabee.”
More recently, an attempt to depict Ocasio-Cortez as unfit for public office by posting an innocuous video of her dancing with friends in college backfired spectacularly. The video turned out to be yet another viral win for the congresswoman.
While it remains to be seen if Ocasio-Cortez can deliver on the big game she’s been talking — endearing Instagram stories and pithy tweets don’t necessarily translate into good governance — she has already succeeded in inserting herself in the political conversation and even wresting control of the news cycle from President Trump.
As BuzzFeed tech writer Charlie Warzel observed this week, “She’s an insurgent, internet-native political force. Which makes her a perfect foil for a different, oxygen-sucking brand of political warfare: the pro-Trump media.”
While her age and quickness to respond to critics with snark has made it tempting for many on the right (and left) to dismiss and discredit her, more observant critics, like MAGA-verse true-believer Mike Cernovich, have acknowledged her skill for leveraging her current celebrity to start serious policy conversations.
“Everyone is talking about AOC’s tax plan....and she’s 29 and got sworn in a day ago,” Cernovich tweeted last week.
Warzel points out Ocasio-Cortez is part of a generational shift in political discourse that “leans into conflict.”
“She’s playing by the new rules of the internet while septuagenarian pundits on Fox Business are tsk-tsking and calling her ‘little girl.’”
He likens her outspokenness to the survivors of last year’s Parkland school shooting — another group of internet-savvy young people who have boldly called out politicians for their hypocrisy and intransigence.
The GOP’s dismissal of the Parkland teens and Ocasio-Cortez is a dangerous play for a party that is getting older, whiter and more male with every election cycle. While it’s unclear if the party can ever make substantial gains among voters under 40, they mock young people at their own peril.
Journalist Dan Rather acknowledged that fact on Facebook earlier this week. In response to the GOP’s continued belittling of Ocasio-Cortez, he wrote, “… I’m not sure if your political party is struggling with young voters and changing national demographics the smart strategy is to engage in television and social media battles with a young, popular, Latina freshman congresswoman who has proven to be a master at viral communication.”
Voter data from the 2018 midterms supports Rather’s critique. According to an exit poll analysis by the Pew Research Center, a majority of voters age 18 to 44, around 62 percent, voted Democrat.
An assessment from the Brookings Institution published in June 2018 further drives this bleak reality home, noting that since the beginning of the Trump administration, voters aged 18-29 have “consistently given him his lowest approval ratings.”
The authors went on to observe that “A political party that can’t attract young people, especially in a generation that is as big as the Millennial generation — America’s largest demographic group — is not a party with a very bright future.”
At this point, is it even possible for the GOP to appeal to young voters? The party has clung to power in recent years by doubling down on embracing racists, fostering intolerance and denigrating women and minorities. Its policies have restricted access to health care, polluted the environment, disenfranchised voters, gutted public education and disproportionately targeted people of color.
While young people aren’t a monolith, they are indisputably more politically progressive than older generations. The Republican party’s socially regressive values are simply out of step with a majority of young Americans. Coming of age in a post-9/11, post-Great Recession world, they are feeling impatient, restless and alienated. They are seeking a party that offers hope and opportunity, not pessimism and division. And as young people like Ocasio-Cortez have demonstrated, they are unafraid to boldly make themselves heard.