Underestimated: The Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Effect
‘Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office’
The voiceover speaks as a hazy screen cuts to a woman getting ready in a distinctly average apartment. Women like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Latina from the Bronx who just beat a white billionaire double her age, and with 10% less money. This is the opening of Ocasio-Cortez’s viral campaign video, the video that put her on the map. Ocasio-Cortez has shaken the Democratic Party to the core and hers is the name on the lips of every New Yorker this summer.
It was expected to be a normal New York primary, to choose who will run in the November midterms against the Republican candidate, for a seat in congress. Like all the other times it would be a shoe-in for the Crowley camp, given the fact that no one had challenged him in ten terms. He thought he had it locked down, but he didn’t account for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Born in the Bronx to a Puerto-Rican mother and Bronx-born father, Ocasio-Cortez comes from working-class roots. After graduating from Boston University, she spent time working as a non-profit community education project director and was forced to take on a second job waitressing, following the death of her father. Starting to take interest in politics, she had helped out on the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign and linked arms with protestors at Standing Rock, against the construction of a natural gas pipeline on Native American land. It was then that she was approached by activists to run as an outsider candidate, in the Queens and Bronx primaries, and decided to take up the unlikely offer.
Why shouldn’t a woman like Ocasio-Cortez run? Women of colour are still vastly underrepresented in political life, both here and across the pond. The barriers to their success continue to be so high, that even their opponents don’t see them as the competition they so clearly are. It’s just over 30 years since the election of Diane Abbott, the first ever Black female Member of Parliament, in the UK. It still feels as though representation in political life has not really shifted, with one in thirteen MPs classified as ‘non-white’ and the numbers pale into single figures for female MPs.
Black and Asian female MPs in the UK are entering a space that’s not used to having them in it. Ocasio-Cortez’s win is just as intersectionally important, as a young woman of colour striking out in a white male-dominated domain. Ocasio-Cortez has been described as an ‘insurgent, ‘ a political interloper with barely any experience. In the UK it is much the same as MP for Brent Central, Dawn Butler, choosing to speak publicly about an incident in 2016 when she was mistaken for a cleaner whilst travelling in a lift in parliament. It was assumed by her white contemporary, that she could only be there for one reason. Butler has never named the MP in question, those in power have difficulty equating a Black woman with being a Member of Parliament. It is clear that simply providing access to previously closed-off spaces is not enough to affect broader change.
The struggles by Black women to represent their communities and society at large and to be heard on a larger stage are all too real. Like Ocasio-Cortez, every black woman in parliament in the UK has to prove her doubters wrong and oppose every micro-aggression and outright challenge with grace, power and sheer force of personality.
Diane Abbott has become a figure in which others seek to find fault and yet she still fights for her causes. Amnesty International recently released a study showing that Black and Asian MPs received the most online abuse in the run up to the 2017 election. Abbott tops the list with 51 abusive tweets a day directed at her, over a 151-day period. She must be totally without flaw in order to continually justify her place. Abbott has openly discussed her difficulties, but continues to fly in the face of doubters and focus on her important work as an outspoken advocate for her most disadvantaged constituents. She has tirelessly campaigned on initiatives such as, the London Schools and the Black Child initiative, working for the attainment of sidelined pupils, and she currently holds the position of Shadow Home Secretary.
However, moves are being made and the 2017 general election saw more Black and ethnic minority MPs elected than ever before. This includes the election of the first ever female Sikh MP, Preet Gill, as the representative for Slough. With firsts coming thick and fast and a steady rise in the number of black and ethnic minority female candidates, the hallways of power may be beginning to open up at a slow pace. After all, a democracy that works for all has to be representation of the public it serves.
Ocasio-Cortez has taken full advantage of the ever-present underestimation factor. She reflects the shock of the new, in a political party desperately in need of a shake-up however, she is also a glimmer of hope for the marginalized. She courted the young, black and Latino voters, who are largely ignored by the establishment, pointing out ‘we’ve got people, they’ve got money.’ Her viral campaign video on YouTube, which clocked up an incredible 300,000 hits on day one alone, is a master class in digital political promotion. She embodies a compelling blend of youth and determination, which is proving to be a killer combination. It also helps that she is sub-30, firmly in the millennial camp.
Ocasio-Cortez has been publicly endorsed by Progressive Democrat organisations and civil rights movements, such as the Justice Democrats and Black Lives Matter. She is a Democratic Socialist with distinctly working-class policies, centering on immigration issues by calling for the abolition of the controversial Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE); healthcare for all; prison and housing reform. She calls for free university tuition and firmly declares herself a feminist on her Instagram page.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as a bright, switched-on young politician with grit and ambition, has proven by tapping into an abandoned voter community and presenting policies to those with an appetite for difference, she is more than capable of agitating the moneyed establishment. She has sounded the alarm for women everywhere, not to accept what has gone before. The barriers remain to be broken down and more positive action is needed to encourage women of colour, into positions of influence. But we might just have to do some of the breaking ourselves because if Ocasio-Cortez wins a seat later this year, she will be the youngest ever female to enter Congress and who knows what else can be achieved.
Whilst it remains to be seen if Ocasio-Cortez will reach Congress, she’s caught them all on the run and shown what is possible. Although it will take more than one victory like this to start a political revolution, who’s to say this won’t ignite an already stoked fire in the heart of a disenfranchised nation? The shock of Trump’s victory and continued discontentment, with the enactment of his policies could be galvanized into action by these sorts of political turning points. There is still much work to be done in the UK too, but if Diane Abbott hadn’t made her brave inaugural move way back in 1987, we would be even further away from the beginnings of true representation.