No one can stop talking about newly elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). And it’s not just her supporters keeping her name in the news — she gets at least as much publicity from her critics.
It’s not hard to explain her appeal to supporters. She’s young, charismatic, persuasive, and quick-witted, and she advocates passionately for a wide array of progressive priorities that have been continuously neglected by the federal government. She also started as an underdog in her primary campaign against Rep. Joe Crowley, a high-ranking and powerful Democrat who few professional observers thought was vulnerable.
But the fascination of her critics needs a bit more explanation. Conservative critics have been obsessed with attacking and smearing her, efforts that included a series of laughably half-baked attempts to tear her down by pointing out her high school nickname, an amateur music video she appeared in, and the location of her parents’ home that she had been open about. (It’s not clear to what extent these conservatives realize that these attacks have only elevated her further, whether that is part of their intent, and if so, whether this will end up backfiring.)
And it’s not just conservatives. An article in Politico published Friday morning featured a range of quotes, both on the record and anonymous, from House Democrats who are palpably afraid of Ocasio-Cortez’s clout. The piece explained how many establishment Democrats are trying “rein” her in, despite the fact that, in a recent interview, she said, “We acknowledge that we are part of — and that I am part of a larger party. So a lot of that is going to do and deal with building relationships across the party, making sure that we’re building consensus around these issues.”
Ocasio-Cortez added: “There’s a lot of folks that I think sometimes want to brand me as a flamethrower. But really, the truth, I think the truth of what I am is a consensus builder.”
Nevertheless, she remains threatening in the eyes of many of her critics. And writing for The Atlantic, Adam Serwer argued that the reaction she’s drawn is hardly surprising for a woman of color who is gaining in stature. In a particularly powerful paragraph, he explained:
In America, when people of color succeed despite the limits placed on them, and use their newfound status to indict the system for holding others back, they are held up as proof that the limits do not exist, they are denounced as ingrates, or they are pilloried as frauds incapable of the successes attributed to them. The exception is if they present their success as evidence that the structural barriers are not as great as they seem, and that in truth the only thing that holds back marginalized communities is their own lack of ability or motivation. If they affirm the righteousness of the class and caste system that they defied to succeed, they are hailed as heroes by the same people who would otherwise have denounced them as frauds.
He added that when people from marginalized communities succeed in this way, it forces entrenched groups to make a choice: “They can recognize that others might also succeed given the right circumstances, or they can defend the inequities of that system in an effort to preserve their self-image, attacking the new entrant as a charlatan or the group they belong to as backwards.”
Responding to the Politico article, Serwer noted Friday: “In light of this morning’s reporting on AOC I just want to emphasize that the observations in these two graphs are not limited to one party or the other. People experience this from white liberals too.”
Not only does Serwer’s explanation make sense of the reaction to Ocasio-Cortez, it also provide a framework for making sense of the conservative’s selective embrace of certain people of color at certain times. For instance, Ben Carson has been cheered because he fully buys into the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” rhetoric of the GOP. Kanye West was criticized on the right when he opposed President George W. Bush, but he was quickly welcomed into the fold when he revealed himself to be a fan of President Donald Trump. Omarosa Manigault-Newman was given a plum White House job as long as she showed loyalty to the president, but she was derided and condemned as a hack as soon as she turned on him. Those who challenge the existing hierarchies will be shouted down; those who reinforce them will be lauded as the exceptions that prove the rule.