After a high-profile national tour, Ocasio-Cortez defends her perceived missteps—and calls cynicism “the greatest enemy of the progressive left.”
By Raina Lipsitz-The Nation
On June 26, few people outside New York’s 14th Congressional District knew who Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was. But by the next day, when news spread that she’d toppled her opponent, 10-term Representative Joseph Crowley, in the Democratic congressional primary, she was a national celebrity. She appeared on CNN, Meet the Press, PBS’s Firing Line, The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, The Daily Show, and MSNBC as the fresh face of a revived American left. Her lip color of choice—Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick in Beso—sold out in several stores.
When she appeared a few weeks later at a rally near Wall Street’s Charging Bull statue in Lower Manhattan to endorse Zephyr Teachout, who was seeking the Democratic nomination to become New York’s next attorney general, a large crowd cheered—many of them clearly there to catch a glimpse of Ocasio-Cortez, not the candidate she was supporting.
Photographers—paparazzi?—shouted out, “Alex! Alexandria! Over here!” An “I Love NYC” tour bus pulled up alongside the statue. “Hey, I know her! That’s her!” yelled a guy in a baseball cap, standing and pointing from the bus’s top deck. Dozens of tourists began frantically snapping photos of the young woman whose face, if not name, they recognized—or assumed they did. Ocasio-Cortez waved, flashed a toothy grin, and shouted, “Vote for Zephyr Teachout in September!” Then she was hustled away by a staffer, to a chorus of disappointed groans. “Sorry, guys,” she said, sounding genuinely regretful. “I gotta go!”
Since the hectic days following her primary win, Ocasio-Cortez has only gained momentum. In November, she will face her Republican opponent, Anthony Pappas, in the general election. She’s expected to win, which would make her the youngest woman in Congress come January. Still, in spite of her star power, her staff and volunteers stress that Ocasio-Cortez is part of a movement in which no individual deserves sole credit. They emphasize building community and sharing power as the keys to an effective progressive movement.
Crucially, these supporters insist that the movement’s work does not end with an election. Alexandra Rojas, 23, a founding member of Brand New Congress and the executive director of Justice Democrats—two groups that supported Ocasio-Cortez—told me that the candidates her organization endorses know that it’s “not just about one election, but building a movement and helping one another.” Jeff Latzer, a campaign volunteer, praised Ocasio-Cortez’s skill in reaching out to the grassroots: “Alexandria is the perfect combination of an extremely grounded person who did not set out to get involved in politics, but just has this amazing ability to communicate issues for people on a level they can relate to.” Or as Naureen Akhter, Ocasio-Cortez’s 31-year-old director of organizing, put it: “It might sound corny, but she really does feel like one of us.”
Barring any last-minute surprises, Ocasio-Cortez won’t be the plucky wunderkind of the insurgent left much longer; she’ll be a sitting member of Congress instead. Given the pressures she’ll face from Republicans and establishment Democrats, it’s worth asking how she will square her democratic-socialist ideals with the politics of Washington. But it will also be hard for the grassroots groups that helped drive her candidacy to keep from being eclipsed in the political spotlight when the candidate herself is so extraordinary. That’s why members of the movement that got her elected must figure out how to support Ocasio-Cortez in achieving their progressive policy aims—while also holding her accountable for doing so.
Ocasio-Cortez’s life has changed dramatically since the primary. Forget free time, or even the luxury of scheduling interviews well in advance: It took three canceled meetings over the course of the summer before Jeff Latzer, my contact on her campaign, was able to slot me in. On the morning of our interview, he asked me to change the location and push back the time by an hour, because “she tries really hard not to be late.” And when we finally convened, Ocasio-Cortez was, in fact, 15 minutes late—though profusely apologetic about it—and arrived looking chic but tired, her hair pulled back tightly beneath wire-framed glasses.
Ocasio-Cortez’s demeanor was as warm as when I’d met her before the primary, if slightly more guarded. Over the past three months, she’d campaigned hard for several candidates, with mixed results. She stumped for Abdul El-Sayed (running for the governor’s seat in Michigan), Fayrouz Saad and Rashida Tlaib (for congressional seats in Michigan), Cori Bush (in Missouri), Kaniela Ing (in Hawaii), and Brent Welder and James Thompson (in Kansas). Tlaib and Thompson won, and Tlaib is now poised to become the first Muslim woman in Congress. Together, she and Ocasio-Cortez will also represent the Democratic Socialists of America on the federal level.
But before she heads south, Ocasio-Cortez says she wants to “get back to the basics” of working with the people in her district, which spans parts of two New York City boroughs: Queens and the Bronx. Before June, she points out, the only power structure in both places was “the machine.” That’s why she and her team are focused on building relationships with progressive community groups and leaders in her district. “People who were ‘just’ organizers two months ago are now very formidable community figures,” she explains, and “we’ve been keeping our ear to the ground.” Jake DeGroot, the 32-year-old deputy operations director for the campaign, told me they are corralling “people already doing organizing work: tenants, bodegas, food-cart workers. We want to [show] them this campaign is here to hear from them and promote their interests.”
Two key organizations to emerge from the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries, Brand New Congress and Justice Democrats, have been crucial to Ocasio-Cortez’s success. Brand New Congress, which recruited her to run, requires its candidates to reject money from corporate PACs and lobbyists. Justice Democrats advocates for a federal jobs guarantee, single-payer health care, and the abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). The groups share many of the same principles but employ different strategies.
While much of their energy comes from Bernie Sanders supporters with previous campaign experience, they are also attracting young people just getting involved in politics as well as people who supported Hillary Clinton but believe the Democratic Party should move more to the left. Ocasio-Cortez tells me she plans to join the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the Medicare for All Caucus, and “quite a few others.” In addition to her well-known talking points—single-payer health care, climate justice, criminal-justice reform, immigrant justice, rejecting corporate money, and taking on the fossil-fuel lobby—“we’re starting to see a little more of a galvanized anti-war movement [in the House], and folks like Barbara Lee have really led the way on that.”
She also stresses the importance of building trust and the need for “radical transparency” from elected officials, particularly when addressing how she’ll make the necessary compromises in Washington without alienating her left-wing base. It’s crucial to communicate with constituents and, when necessary, to explain that “this is what we believe, this is what we are actively fighting for,” she says. “But also, these are the possibilities at the moment—whether it’s a Republican majority [or] a majority of more conservative Democrats on a given issue.”
Ocasio-Cortez also seems visibly frustrated by the recent criticisms coming from her own side. Responding to the angry reactions on Twitter over a few perceived missteps, she denounces “cynicism” as “the greatest enemy of the progressive left.” First came an interview after her election, in which she gave an answer on Israel/Palestine that was widely criticized—by the right for using the word “occupation” in relation to Palestine, and by the left for betraying her supposed ignorance of “geopolitics.”
If you “take any individual person, and if I put [them] on the spot on giving me a flawless answer on the political status of Puerto Rico, for example—people are going to falter,” she says, adding that the idea that left-wing candidates can only run “if you’re flawless and ready to go on every single potential question you could ever be asked in any policy zone—it’s too high of a standard. We’re setting ourselves up to fail.”
And on lefty Twitter’s ire over her tweet about John McCain (“John McCain’s legacy represents an unparalleled example of human decency and American service”), she says, “We need to look at: Have the commitments changed? And I don’t think my commitments on any of these issues have changed at all. It’s one tweet, after a multi-decade public servant passed away—does that mean I’m no longer an anti-war candidate? That’s a ridiculous assumption to make. That’s a huge leap in logic.”
Ocasio-Cortez articulates how important it is to retain “the ability to have accountability” without “undermining our movement.” She is careful to avoid rejecting criticism outright. “I welcome the criticism,” she says. “But we need to look outward, too. We need to bring people in.” Discussing Julia Salazar, the candidate who recently won her New York State Senate primary by a wide margin despite a last-minute blitz of negative press, she says: “Old modes are not working the way that they used to. Politics is local. And if you really want to be effective, it’s super-important that you build grassroots, on-the-ground operations. That is how we win. When you have a strong enough on-the-ground operation, you can really fend off a lot.”
Then she adds, slowly and distinctly: “Our work, on the progressive left, just started.” She wants to remind people that the democratic-socialist resurgence is new—and fragile. “We just got people in positions to get things done. But if we abdicate our responsibility now, we will have given up the biggest opportunity we’ve gotten in decades.”
After all, people on the right “support their candidates no matter what; they do not care.” She believes the left “can be a better version of that,” while still holding its representatives accountable. “Where the wheels really start to come off,” she argues, “is when people say, ‘Oh, this one word was used in this one place—it’s useless, she’s already compromised.’”
Another allegedly compromising moment for Ocasio-Cortez was her attendance at a soirée at the home of Audrey Gelman, a recovering Clinton supporter and founder of The Wing, an exclusive women-only networking club, who recently wrote on Instagram: “It’s important to make room for people who supported Hillary in 2016 who learned a tough lesson from her loss. Candidates like Alexandria have challenged my view of what’s possible in American politics.” Feminists who take issue with The Wing’s exclusivity and pricey annual membership fee rolled their eyes at what they saw as a blatant co-opting of the insurgent left’s popularity by capitalist entrepreneurs.
But Ocasio-Cortez seems to believe that it is possible to win over centrists, and even liberal Democrats. Organizing, she notes, is about persuasion, and bringing people—all kinds—closer to supporting your goals. “Being an organizer is very core to my identity,” she says. “And I think it’s a word that gets thrown around, and people don’t really understand what [the] tenets of organizing are.”
“How are we going to achieve the things that we want to achieve if your [average] young, upwardly mobile professional woman doesn’t realize that she’s part of a class struggle, too?” she continues. It’s crucial for the movement “to build power everywhere.”
“Does it mean that…The Wing is going to deliver the revolution?” Ocasio-Cortez adds with a smile. “No. But it also means that we can’t constantly be rolling our eyes at every person that goes to Starbucks.”
Political campaigns for high-profile candidates are notoriously competitive environments in which staffers vie for status and influence—think House of Cards meets Game of Thrones. Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign, by contrast, feels more like a kibbutz or a socialist summer camp: Staffers seem averse to asserting, let alone exploiting, their precise roles in the campaign or their level of intimacy with the candidate. They don’t emphasize distinctions between volunteers and staff, junior or senior, experienced or not. “I’ve known Alex for a long time,” one woman replied coolly when I asked if she was a staffer.
The campaign is fast becoming a training ground for a rising cohort of progressive political workers and media consultants like Naomi Burton and Nick Hayes, the production team behind Ocasio-Cortez’s viral campaign video. Burton and Hayes co-founded the Detroit-based media company Means of Production, whose goal is “to bring the skills and resources gleaned from the private sector to The Left.” Burton and Hayes are pros, but much of the campaign has been powered by capable amateurs with varying degrees of experience. As Ocasio-Cortez explained on Twitter, the campaign video was a group effort: “I wrote the script. My family is the closing shot. That’s my actual bodega. Detroit DSAers @means_tv worked with our team to film and tell the story. Volunteers coordinated the shoot.”
Everyone I spoke with praised the opportunities they’d been given, often in spite of their lack of experience. This is as much a strategy as a necessity: Being entrusted with real responsibility relatively quickly spurs a deeper commitment to the campaign and to politics in general. Several people I spoke with also mentioned having been encouraged to try out different roles within the campaign. “Most volunteers I worked with ended up wearing a lot of different hats,” said Jeff Latzer.
I first met Naureen Akhter, a slight woman sporting a purple head scarf, turquoise outfit, black backpack, and silver sandals, at an Eid festival hosted by the Bangladesh Society of the Bronx.
Volunteering for the campaign, Akhter said, was “such a huge learning experience. I’d never signed a petition or knocked on a door before.” One of the things she values most is how easy it was to get involved: “With this campaign, there’s room for anyone who’s willing to do the work.”
For Anika Legrand-Wittich, a soft-spoken, blond 20-year-old who first got involved at the end of her freshman year at Wesleyan and is now on leave from school to work for the campaign, opportunities to take on more responsibility abounded. I spoke with her at Ocasio-Cortez’s district office in Queens over Top 40 hits playing on the radio, cranked to top volume.
Starting out as an intern, Legrand-Wittich graduated to office manager a couple of weeks before the primary. She has since become the campaign’s deputy communications manager, a role in which she directs a small team of volunteers. “I have no experience in communications,” she said, laughing. “They give us the opportunities that most [campaigns] would not give young, inexperienced individuals—as long as you’re willing to put in the energy. It is great experience for young people who have none.”
One Tuesday night in August, I attended a “community conversation” hosted by Ocasio-Cortez and the progressive activist Ady Barkan at St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Bronx. Around 200 people of all ages, backgrounds, and races were packed into a stuffy room, fanning themselves with event flyers to make up for the lack of air-conditioning. After a succession of speakers railed against the 1 percent and called for stronger unions, higher-paying jobs, and single-payer health care, Ocasio-Cortez briefly addressed the crowd, exhorting them not to show up just once, but to join a movement and commit to regular action.
Ajike Williams, a lifelong Democrat, was enthusiastic about Ocasio-Cortez’s commitment to passing Medicare for All and expanding affordable housing. Sean Butler, a self-described “Bernie guy” born and raised in the Bronx, told me he hadn’t heard much about Ocasio-Cortez before but appreciates her “Bernie-style politics” and her commitment to passing single-payer.
Looking at the crowd that night, a clear takeaway from Ocasio-Cortez’s success was that the left has more to gain from building cross-racial working-class solidarity than from preserving artificial distinctions. Not every working-class person is a white man in Kansas; nor is every white, working-class man in Kansas incapable of allying with women and people of color. That’s why Ocasio-Cortez campaigned there for white men like James Thompson and Brent Welder.
“The great evolution that we’ve had in [the last] two years is that we have really dismantled this idea of race or class,” she says. “We’ve actually realized that it’s only by uniting race and class that we can win. That’s what I think explains the surge in progressive-left candidates that are also of color—and particularly women of color are doing very well. Because it’s not an option for us” to separate multiple identities.
Another takeaway was that the progressive movement to which Ocasio-Cortez belongs is drawing disillusioned young people back into the political fold. Legrand-Wittich, the deputy communications manager, feels that people her age “don’t have faith in electoral politics. They’ll go to protests and get arrested—they just don’t believe that voting is the way to make change.” But “Alex showed that that’s not true. [Young people] think that money always wins out, and this is an example where it didn’t.”
For Ocasio-Cortez, this moment represents tremendous opportunity. The first step, she says, is about “figuring out how we continue to make our strategy and our arguments more sophisticated.” The American left hasn’t held power in a long time, so there’s a need to relearn what even having it feels like. “It doesn’t mean that we abandon activism, and it doesn’t mean that we abandon rigorous debate,” she explains. “It means that we add and we exercise and develop tools—in addition to activism, to organizing—into governance.”
On a personal level, it’s also an enormous responsibility. Ocasio-Cortez has been all but charged with leading—or at least representing—the progressive wave. That’s why it helps to be part of something stronger and bigger than just one person. “If we remain committed,” she says, “I really do believe that we can change this country a lot faster than people think.”
Raina Lipsitz has written about gender, politics, and pop culture for a variety of publications, including Al Jazeera America, Jewish Currents, and the online editions of The Atlantic, Cosmopolitan, and Glamour.