It’s been less than a week since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her primary, and she’s already risen from longshot newcomer to Democratic household name. The Bronx-born 28-year-old—who ousted 10-term Rep. Joe Crowley from a comfortable perch in New York’s 14th Congressional District—has spent the past six days on an ambitious press tour, explaining to a national audience what democratic socialism means and how a woman who was, until recently, a bartender with no experience in political office beat the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House.
According to Ocasio-Cortez, she owes her success to hustle and good messaging. On Twitter on Friday, she shared a photo of her “1st pair of campaign shoes,” a dirty and cracked pair of sneakers she said she wore door-knocking “until rainwater came through my soles.” The alternative theory, that Ocasio-Cortez won for “‘demographic’ reasons,” she tweeted, is false: “We won w/voters of all kinds. … We won bc we out-worked the competition. Period.”
Ocasio-Cortez has been working hard to dispel what she sees as a damaging myth: the idea that her win merely reflected the makeup of her district, which is about 50 percent Latino, 40 percent Spanish-speaking, and about three-quarters people of color. The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, for instance, wrote that Crowley lost not because far-left progressives like Ocasio-Cortez are convincing voters that they can lead better than a more centrist Democratic establishment, but “because of the changing demographics in [Crowley’s] district.” Ocasio-Cortez reiterated her disagreement on The Young Turks last week. “A lot people kind of tried to write this victory off as a demographic victory. They tried to write this off as, you know, a fluke,” she said. “This campaign … it really dominated almost every demographic.” At the Intercept, senior politics editor Briahna Gray corroborated that point, noting that Ocasio-Cortez performed best in northwest Queens, where only 15 to 40 percent of residents are Hispanic.
Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign had many strengths that those dismissing her win as primarily “demographic” are unfairly discounting. But she should reconsider her instinct to play down the role her experience as a Latina played in her victory. Her personal history and identity helped her understand her constituents, and her ability to build a policy platform from their needs helped her win. Voters who desire demographic representation aren’t discounting the substance of their candidates’ arguments. Candidates whose communities intersect with those of their constituents are often simply better at speaking to and learning from the people they represent.
To be fair, Ocasio-Cortez has occasionally encouraged the demographic interpretation of her win. “There are a lot of districts in this country that are like NY-14, that have changed a lot in the last 20 years, and whose representation has not,” she told Chuck Todd on Meet the Press Sunday morning. But more often, she’s tried to complicate simplistic understandings of what many analysts call identity politics. In an interview with the Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, Ocasio-Cortez said too many candidates who say, “vote for me, I am this intersection of different identities” end up being “Trojan horses” who are financed by special-interest groups and don’t end up advancing the causes of the communities they represent. She said her identities—as a Latina, as a middle-class American, as a former restaurant worker—are most useful as “lenses” that help her understand and communicate with the neighbors she is highly likely to represent in Congress come 2019.
In other words, she’s saying, demographic representation in Congress doesn’t mean much if those representatives abandon the concerns of their demographics. Before the election, Remezcla got the then-candidate on camera making a distinction between someone saying “Vote for me, I’m Latina” and saying “Latinas deserve representation and a seat at the table.” In the video, Ocasio-Cortez makes the case that her identity and background are more than a few lines in her biography that attract voters who show up for their own. They’re lived experiences—epistemological frameworks, almost—that can’t easily be learned by outsiders. A transgender person, or someone with close transgender friends or lovers, is less likely to see fights over pronouns as fun intellectual debates. A woman who has had to consider what it means to relinquish control over her own reproductive organs is more likely to approach abortion rights with the life-or-death solemnity they deserve. A person who has worked alongside undocumented Americans in the restaurant and bar industries, as Ocasio-Cortez has, will have a deeper, more personal perspective on the family detentions happening at the border.
On the flip side, Crowley—who Ocasio-Cortez has criticized for not picking up Spanish over his 20 years in office—would never be able to talk to his Spanish-speaking constituents on the street the way Ocasio-Cortez does in the Remezcla clip. Having a Spanish-speaking representative could turn area residents into engaged activists, giving them a renewed sense of ownership over, and belonging within, American democracy. Underrepresented minorities don’t stay home from the polls because they’re uneducated, lazy, or uninformed, Ocasio-Cortez says in the video: “People aren’t voting because no one is speaking to them.”
While Crowley has made some visible moves to adequately represent his diverse constituency in Congress—he founded the Congressional Bangladesh Caucus and, as Queens Democratic Party head, said he supported Asian American Rep. Grace Meng over his own cousin “in the best interests of the district”—he gravely underestimated how eager his constituents were to elect someone who not only speaks their language, but speaks to the policies that govern their lives. Before the primary election, Crowley told Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel that he thought he’d win the Latino vote “because they know me,” then admitted he couldn’t pronounce the name of a well-loved restaurant in his district, Tortilleria Nixtamal, because “it has an ‘X’ in it.” At a campaign meet-and-greet, he told Democrats that Ocasio-Cortez was making the primary “about race,” which was “unnecessarily divisive.” “I can’t help that I was born white,” he added.
For a representative from a minority-white district, this is a remarkably shallow understanding of how identity figures into a voter’s political calculus. It’s not just about racial labels or a candidate’s skin or hair color; it’s about the meaningful application of constituents’ concerns to public policy. Crowley, like much of the Democratic Party over the past two years, was already moving to the left before Ocasio-Cortez arrived with her Democratic Socialists of America endorsement and a climate plan more ambitious than that of any member of Congress. Like Ocasio-Cortez, he supports universal Medicare, and has gone so far as to call ICE a “fascist” apparatus. But Ocasio-Cortez had the courage to carry her district’s progressive ideals to bolder conclusions: ICE isn’t just fascist; it should be abolished. Medicare for all isn’t enough; the U.S. should offer guaranteed employment through a “green New Deal.” In a country where Latino residents are more likely than white ones to live in poverty, to be shunted into a bloated carceral system, and to face family separation regardless of their own citizenship status, race is no superficial consideration. “To fail working-class Americans is also to fail Latino Americans,” Ocasio-Cortez has said.
From that vantage point, a win on “demographic” grounds would not be as insignificant or diminishing as Ocasio-Cortez has made it out to be. Her win should scare white legislators who represent largely nonwhite districts (and there are a lot of them) into making bigger efforts to listen to and advocate for their constituents. It should encourage progressives to challenge Democratic incumbents when their districts could support a candidate further to the left. And Ocasio-Cortez’s astounding 15-point win over Crowley should embolden citizens of color to demand, or become, the representation they deserve in a legislative body that has for too long treated their needs as negotiable and their lives as political bargaining chips. The demographic shift in NY-14 certainly didn’t hurt Ocasio-Cortez’s candidacy, but it’s not what won her the primary. Her platform, outreach strategy, and message—informed by her own demographics and those of her neighbors—did.
One more thing
If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.Join Slate Plus