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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, The Rising Star in American Politics
European Straits #104
The rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the desolate landscape that is today’s American politics is rapidly becoming the stuff of legend. Last year, in June, she unexpectedly beat a 10-term incumbent in a safe Democratic district while proudly calling herself a “socialist” (her NY district includes large parts of the poorest boroughs in New York: Queens and the Bronx). Lifted by the 2018 blue wave, she cruised to an all-but-guaranteed victory while becoming a national sensation. Today she’s the youngest member of the 116th Congress, and at 28 the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. More importantly, she’s become the most powerful ideological force in the Democratic Party.
The rising star in American politics
Ocasio-Cortez’s rise happened in large part online. From the start, she’s been an Internet sensation, masterfully using Twitter and Instagram to bond with her followers, quip at her opponents, and bring her ideas forward. Today, with 2.4M followers, she drives as much Twitter conversation as pretty much the rest of Congress combined. And she’s gotten there in barely more than six months! Back in June she was virtually unknown, a long-shot candidate in a primary election no one thought was competitive.
As pointed out by Kara Swisher, there’s another politician who's a master at using Twitter to advance his political agenda, and it’s Donald Trump. Like Ocasio-Cortez, Trump stormed the political world in an unexpected manner. And like her, he made the most of the digital world. This world, if you remember, is one in which there’s more power outside than inside organizations. That means those who win are the ones who excel at harnessing the power of the outside, not least by using social media. This might be the only thing Trump and Ocasio-Cortez have in common, but it’s definitely what makes or breaks political careers in the Entrepreneurial Age.
There are many angles to that discussion. One is Swisher’s: how come the Internet can be used both for the worst and for the best? Indeed on the one hand there’s Trump publicly calling Jeff Bezos “Jeff Bozo” while mocking his likely painful divorce proceedings; and on the other hand you’ll find Ocasio-Cortez drumming up support for a Green New Deal and making it one of the central political ideas in the run-up to the next presidential election (watch this INCREDIBLE video on Twitter). Well, I think that it’s always the same with technology: the bad guys are usually the first to figure that it can be used to shift power, and then eventually the good guys rally and end up using the same tools and methods. It happened with radio and television; it was bound to happen with the Internet.
Another angle is Ocasio-Cortez’s self-proclaimed “socialism”, and how she’s using that label as a weapon. A lot of Americans are freaking out at the idea that their country is succumbing to the historically non-American ideology that is socialism. But I think all should keep a clear head. Socialism can be understood in many different ways. It’s a political theory that focuses on helping the working class and labeling democracy as a lever of bourgeois oppression: clearly the latter is not what Ocasio-Cortez has in mind. Socialism is also a label attached to a collection of policies, some of them successes and others failures, and in that case I think what we should discuss are the policies themselves, such as universal healthcare, rent control, or workers being represented on corporate boards.
The most interesting way of understanding Ocasio-Cortez’s “socialism” is to realize that it effectively made her popular among younger voters. Those are suffering in the US: think about the burden of student loans, the now-impossible path to homeownership, the grim state of the job market. And so whenever a politician utters a word that pundits and the political establishment receive as a synonym for “f*** you”, it makes them happy: finally someone voicing strong words that echo their pain and anger! For Trump it was all the talk about migrants and restoring the country to some mythical past. For Ocasio-Cortez it’s “socialism”, reverberating around the Twitter echo chamber. And how delightful it is to see all those old cranks shaking and screaming whenever she utters that word, isn't it?
Yet another angle on all that derives from a simple question: Why are there so few politicians who can play that game? The answer is that most of them learned their trade in a different era, in which it was literally impossible to directly interact with voters on a daily basis. So when that new feature appeared with the Internet, their reaction has been to use the new tools to do what they were already doing with other media, usually delegating it all to their staff. Comparatively, both Trump and Ocasio-Cortez are tweeting themselves, frequently, in an interactive manner that aims at specific people rather than addressing a generic audience. Their raw spontaneity makes it possible for voters to relate to them. And the frequency with which they post makes it possible to iterate fast, making mistakes and errors (and, in Trump’s case, insults) a passing norm rather than the unforgivable exception.
In short, those two are almost alone playing this game because they both come from outside politics: Trump because he was an entertainer and publicity-hungry real estate developer before he ran for president, and Ocasio-Cortez because she’s so young and just got started. Seasoned politicians, on the other hand, are proving incapable of upping their game. They’re moving toward that new playing field, but they’re pale imitations, their language wooden, their words not resonating because they’re still crafted in the old way that voters have long learned to tune out.
And that’s likely the reason why most people seem to react to these troubled times with apathy (to Brexit or to Trump wrecking America): nobody, expect for a few pioneers, is here to inspire them with the right words, voiced through the most effective media. Passionate voters, like consumers, are early adopters. They have a hard time relating to all those politicians stuck in the old paradigm; and they love the few, chief among them Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, that are doing politics the Internet way.
What should be on your map
🇮🇹 Next week is the next step of the tour to talk about my book Hedge! This time I’m headed to Italy. Here are details about the talks you can attend:
Milan: January 21 at 6.30pm at Copernico Centrale Milano. Details here (in Italian).
Rome: January 22 at 6.30pm at Clubhouse Barberini. Details here (in Italian).
Naples: January 23, details to be confirmed—send me an email if you’re around!
📕 If you need to know more about what’s in the book, read this very recent overview of my main argument: Hedge: Inventing a New Safety Net.
⛪ There's now a stand-alone version of my recent essay for the Royal Society of Arts's Field Guide to the Future of Work (on Medium): The fall of the cathedrals.
Finally, might I point out this article by Sarah J. Robbins for the magazine Hacking Finance, launched by our friends at the investment firm Anthemis. It’s about my firm The Family, our pan-European strategy, and my work 😊. Sarah did a great job discussing our vision and what it takes to build a thriving ecosystem at the pan-European level! Here it is ➡️ Jazz is discipline, food is dignity, and content is king.
Further readings on the shift to a new political era
Hillary’s Problem, Explained by Technology (me, The Family Papers, July 2016)
Trying Not to Try (video—Edward Slingerland, Talk at Google, March 2017)
Back in 2016, Naval Ravikant predicted Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (thread—@CryptoSeneca, November 2018)
A Brief History of Leverage and Power (my cofounder Oussama Ammar, The Family, December 2018)
How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Shapes a New Political Reality (Antonio García Martínez, Wired, January 2019)
Trump vs. Ocasio-Cortez: Who Will Win the Internet? (Kara Swisher, The New York Times, January 2019)
Exasperated Democrats try to rein in Ocasio-Cortez (Rachael Bade, Heather Caygle, Politico, January 2019)
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Takes the Democrats Back to the Future: An Interview with the Historian Rick Perlstein (Isaac Chotiner, The New Yorker, January 2019)
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has more Twitter power than media, establishment (Neal Rothschild, Mike Allen, Axios, January 2019)
Warm regards (from London, UK),