Modern America: what’s behind the rise of AOC and the Squad?

Saturday 2 November, 16:0017:15, Auditorium 2Eye on the World

In June 2018, a young Hispanic Democrat, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, caused a major upset by defeating a 10-term incumbent, Joe Crowley, in the party primary for New York’s solidly Democrat 14th congressional district. Crowley had experience, name recognition, fundraising and traditional Democrat endorsements heavily on his side, yet still lost. In November, Ocasio-Cortez – often simply known by her initials, ‘AOC’ – beat the Republican candidate to become the youngest-ever female member of Congress.

Ocasio-Cortez quickly became a star on the Democrat left. She is a member of Democratic Socialists of America, and many of her policy positions would broadly be called ‘socialist’, as least in American terms: single-payer Medicare for all, tuition-free college and trade school education and a Federal jobs guarantee. Most notably, she has proposed a ‘Green New Deal’ in Congress, including many of those commitments, but also demanding that all power is generated from renewable sources and building a ‘smart grid’, demanding retrofitting of all housing to reduce power consumption, decarbonising transport and industry, investing in carbon capture to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, and more. The cost – running into trillions of dollars – would be covered by increasing taxes on the wealthy.

Ocasio-Cortez seems to be the quintessential millennial politician. One aspect of her success is being, as one Buzzfeed writer noted, ‘the brightest political star born fully of the social media age’. Examining her social media output – she uses Twitter even more than Donald Trump – Buzzfeed noted her familiar style, including plentiful use of emoji, humorous style and willingness to show her vulnerability. She has also fully embraced identity politics and intersectionalism. Her profile rose even further with the release on Netflix of Knock Down the House, a documentary which follows the primary campaigns of four ‘progressive Democrats’, including Ocasio-Cortez.

Equally, she has become catnip for critics of the Democrat left. For example, in April, the Guardian reported the claim that Fox News and Fox Business had mentioned her for 42 consecutive days, with over 3,000 mentions in total. One of the researchers behind the stats said: ‘Fox figures go on extended, aggressively angry rants about her. They’ve repeatedly attacked her intelligence, used her age to discredit her, and dismissed her as a “little girl”.’

What is AOC’s appeal and who does she appeal to? Does her celebrity suggest that socialist values are now mainstream in America? Why do conservatives seem so obsessed with attacking AOC, despite the fact that she is, for the moment, simply a junior congresswoman? What should we make of her political ideas? What does the rise of AOC say about contemporary American politics?