If you watched the first video clip in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Instagram Story on Monday without knowing a thing about her, you might think you’d stumbled across an extremely popular, refreshingly unpolished lifestyle blogger. “As promised, I’m going to give you the recipe for this Instagram Live black bean soup,” she said, her smartphone camera wobbling from a poorly lit pot of brown sludge to her own un-made-up face. “It is from Bon Appétit. Just swipe up and you will get it.”
Already famous for her unexpected ouster of a high-ranking, long-serving Democrat, the soon-to-be congresswoman from the Bronx has earned more national buzz than any other incoming member. That’s in part because of her democratic-socialist platform and in part due to her PR prowess. Over the past couple of weeks, Ocasio-Cortez has used Instagram to solidify her image as an authentic representative of the working class and an energetic outsider ready to air out D.C.’s musty corridors of power. Speaking directly to constituents and fans on their phones, Ocasio-Cortez has invited her 820,000 followers to follow her to places other legislators keep private: into her kitchen, onto her train cars, and behind the security checkpoints of the federal buildings she’ll soon inhabit. When Ocasio-Cortez broadcasts herself relaxing at home with her Instant Pot and a Janelle Monáe album, she’s making a statement of purpose: No matter how hard her critics try to make her feel unqualified and unsuited for power, she’s not going to change who she is and what she does.
Ocasio-Cortez’s biggest success, Instagram-wise—and the most impressive, given the high degree of difficulty—is that she doesn’t seem to be straining for relevance. She is no Hillary Clinton beseeching voters to “Pokémon Go to the polls” or Sen. Ted Cruz peppering his pre-election tweets with “y’all.” Rather, she is a millennial communicating in her native medium. In one clip from her congressional orientation, she holds up her phone in selfie mode to show herself walking down a hall with fellow incoming freshmen Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar. “Say hi, everyone!” Ocasio-Cortez prompts them. “We out here!” The moment was casual—without the business wear, it would have looked like an affable group of friends getting ready for a night out. But it wasn’t without political significance: The women are all groundbreakers when it comes to congressional diversity and have promised to push for a more progressive Democratic Party. A less savvy communicator might have plugged her newcomer solidarity with a heavy-handed caption, something like, Together we will work for a better America! Instead, with Ocasio-Cortez, it’s “Squad,” and somehow, it doesn’t sound insufferably thirsty.
Ocasio-Cortez’s youth and working-class background, the novelty of which helped her rise to prominence as a candidate, are working in her favor here. She’s not a middle-aged fogey or a trust-fund kid who grew up practicing stump speeches in the mirror in a child-size blazer and khakis. So while there’s a thick veneer of performative humility in some of her videos, it never feels fraudulent. We see Ocasio-Cortez working a coin-operated washing machine in one Story whose sole message seems to be that she’s not above doing chores or saving money. “Congressional life getting off to a glamorous start,” she quips. It’s the equivalent of eating fried food at a state fair or, for Republicans, holding a shotgun—a conspicuous display of relatability from someone who’s usually seen in fancy clothes at fancy meetings. But for Ocasio-Cortez’s fans, videos like these represent something more valuable. “Watching Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Instagram doing coin laundry has made me feel more human than anything has in the last two+ years,” one woman tweeted last week. In the laundry video, her supporters see a promise that she won’t reshape her identity to fit the congressional archetype. She’ll reshape the congressional archetype instead.
During the Obama era, millennials had the most trust in government of any age group; today, they have the least. Ocasio-Cortez and her fellow legislative newcomers could help reverse that trend. This year’s freshmen are 10 years younger on average than sitting members of Congress. Twenty newcomers, including 14 Democrats, are millennials, more than tripling the generation’s representation in the legislative body. Ocasio-Cortez’s Instagram Stories feel like a harbinger of one possible political future, one in which digital-native elected officials take full advantage of the unmediated access to constituents and fans afforded by social media. Millennials and Gen Zers prize a curated sort of authenticity in the celebrities they follow and expect constant documentation of their friends’ lives. In the near future, they may come to demand the same Instant Pot intimacy from the politicians they send to Washington, too.
Ocasio-Cortez’s Stories allow younger voters to watch in real time as a legislator their own age discovers the idiosyncrasies of Congress. The new congresswoman presents herself as a wide-eyed but skeptical newbie, stoked about free snacks in the new-member lounge one minute, then joining an activist protest outside Nancy Pelosi’s office, then comparing the ornate architecture of the Capitol to something out of Hogwarts. Conventional political strategy would dictate that the newly elected project confidence to their constituents, who are counting on them to show up on Day 1 ready to govern. For Ocasio-Cortez, whose brand and appeal are wrapped up in her identity as a young populist who has more in common with her fellow former bartenders than her fellow members of Congress, being honest about her knowledge gaps (“Congress gets an attending physician they can opt into w/ their paycheck, the more you know,” she writes in one Story) and her insecurities (“The thing that’s hard is, ugh, you’re supposed to be perfect all the time on every issue and every thing,” she says in another) will yield far greater dividends.
Ocasio-Cortez’s critics on the right will inevitably use her informal Instagram persona to color in their caricature of her as an unprepared idealist. The kinds of trolls liable to drag a woman who calls herself working class for daring to wear a skirt suit to the Capitol instead of a pair of patched overalls will surely find things to hate about the Stories, too. (Her nice-looking kitchen, maybe? The elitism inherent in a recipe from Bon Appétit?) But none of Ocasio-Cortez’s detractors can criticize her communications instincts. She hasn’t even been sworn in yet, and she’s already attained the kind of normal-person likability that most politicians can never hope to achieve.
Her demystification of Congress could also energize would-be activists and candidates far outside her district. In between answering questions about policy priorities and the results of the midterms, Ocasio-Cortez fits in lessons about how legislators legislate. “One of the most rigorous aspects of planning is deciding EARLY what our priorities are in *how* we want to lead,” she writes in one Story. “Would you rather have a Congressmember with an amazing local services office, or one that leads nationally on issues?” Users could then vote in a poll: “provide services” vs. “introduce legislation.” These kinds of polls won’t necessarily guide her own work—she’s already signaled her intent to play a vocal role in national legislative leadership, and the vast majority of her followers probably live outside her district. But Ocasio-Cortez got thousands of Instagram users thinking about what it means to be an accountable leader and what they might ask of their own representatives in Congress. That’s good for the future of American democracy, not just her own future in politics.
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