As the underdog upstart of the 2018 midterms, everything Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez does seems up for debate.
Does she have too much money? Eagle-eyed reporters snap photographs of her jacket as evidence that she’s faking her socialist credentials. Or does she have too little? The 29-year-old dares to have less than a year’s salary in savings, sending financial experts into a tizzy. Ocasio-Cortez livestreams dinner recipes on her Instagram Story and is hailed as a social media revolutionary. But wait — is she on Instagram too often? Opinions differ. Fox News even convened a panel to discuss whether her shoes should be in a museum — at which point the congresswoman-elect rightfully described them as “obsessed.”
The political establishment seems to find Ocasio-Cortez disconcertingly real: She exhibits contradictions that suggest an actual personality. She makes mistakes that a real human might make. The average person seems to find such relatability compelling, while the bafflement of the professional politicos shows how poorly they understand the preferences of most Americans.
Attempting to make her outspokenness seem threatening, Republican opponents deride her for her "radical" socialist ideas. They don't seem to grasp she's offering things that appeal to much of their own constituency. Displaying a list of Ocasio-Cortez's policy proposals that included "supporting seniors," "women's rights" and "clean campaign finance," Fox News host Sean Hannity described her platform as "downright scary" following her out-of-nowhere primary victory over a top House Democrat.
Medicare-for-all? Get behind me, Stalin!
But the Democrats are confused, too. While they're less inclined to attack one of their own, their nonplussed stance seems itself a mild rebuke. Ocasio-Cortez is marching on party leader Nancy Pelosi's office like a common constituent to push a "Green New Deal"? Doesn't she realize that this isn't how things are done?
It’s possible that the newly elected congresswoman from New York’s 14th District does not, in fact, realize that — after all, she’s green in two senses of the word. But I suspect that she does, and that she just doesn’t care. And it’s this blatant disregard for traditional politics that explains her current popularity better than anything else. I think it also increases the likelihood that her appeal will persist as her newness wears off.
Ocasio-Cortez seems to take a particular delight in being herself, in contrast to the average politician who is constantly calibrating his or her personality to remain acceptable to all sides. Discarding Capitol Hill protocol allows her to embrace opportunities that others can't, on every platform available to her.
On social media, that means being a millennial clapback queen, as combative in persona as one might expect a fed-up former bartender to be. She gleefully burns Sarah Palin in one tweet (her posts "look like the FWD:RE:FWD:WATCH THIS grandpa emails from the '08 election [she] lost") and quotes Bronx-born rap sensation Cardi B as a "MOOD" in the next. It's obvious that she's running her own accounts.
And in serious policy discussions, Ocasio-Cortez champions far-fetched ideas with starry-eyed abandon. Why isn’t Medicare-for-all an obvious possibility? Why not a Green New Deal? She exhibits the happy unjadedness that you would hope to see from an idealistic political newcomer — except we have been conditioned to believe that those no longer exist.
There’s an analogue here, though at first glance it seems like an exact opposite. In 2016, America elected Donald Trump because he seemed authentically different. He was extremely willing to bypass the old ways of doing things, or at least to burn them all down. Ocasio-Cortez is harnessing much of that same outsider energy, except in a far more uplifting mode — and many Americans find it similarly attractive. It’s refreshing to watch someone who seems comfortable operating outside of the system, who seems both able to imagine a new approach to political action and also to genuinely believe that it could work.
Of course, we don't yet know that it will. The new Congress is not yet in session, and the blunt force of Ocasio-Cortez's personality has not yet been placed face-to-face with the larger machine. It's entirely possible she will be whittled into conformity, as many such hopeful independents have been.
But in a way we haven’t seen in some time, it also seems possible that she won’t. What if she retains her idealism, and some of her unconventional proposals actually come to pass? Now that would be something new. And it’s that novel prospect that keeps us watching.
Christine Emba is an opinion columnist and editor for The Washington Post. Before coming to The Post in 2015, Christine was the Hilton Kramer Fellow in Criticism at the New Criterion and a deputy editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit.