“The choice isn’t what I’m breathing in, it’s what I’m exhaling,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez declared this Monday at an event organized by Blackout for Human Rights celebrating the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Day event in New York City. “Right now, I think with this administration, with the current circumstances, with the abdication of responsibility that we’ve seen from so many powerful people … I feel a need for all of us to breathe fire.”
In conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates at Riverside Church, Ocasio-Cortez was responding to his comments about the level of “toxicity and stupidity” the new congresswoman encounters on a near daily basis. In delivering this exhortation, Ocasio-Cortez not only galvanized audience members but also stirred their respect with her ability to let the intense scrutiny roll off her back.
It’s this ability to speak truth to power in a strong and forthright way that’s gained Ocasio-Cortez wide praise and admiration, and perhaps her assignment to the powerful House Oversight Committee. Meanwhile the media have lavished attention on her flair for blistering comebacks — such as her rapid rebuttal to bizarre comments from Aaron Sorkin, creator of “The West Wing,” who implored young freshman Democratic Congress members to “stop acting like young people,” and to focus instead on the “economic anxiety of the middle class.”
Though Sorkin later walked back his comments, his remarks betrayed the anxiety frequently exhibited by established public figures toward Ocasio-Cortez, and further underscored the disappointing failure by this class to acknowledge the deeper vision of justice that Ocasio-Cortez is already articulating.
A few days before the interview with Sorkin, Ocasio-Cortez made her first speech on the floor of the House. A video of her speech quickly became the most-viewed Twitter video of any remarks by a member of the House. Here she could step away from political sound bites to present the harm of the shutdown on workers as part of broader economic struggles and the “erosion of American democracy and the subversion of our most basic governmental norms.” She reminded her fellow representatives that “every member of this body has a responsibility to this nation and to everyone in the United States of America whether they voted for us or not, and this president shares in that responsibility as well.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s principled stance stands in stark contrast to the political language of bipartisanship in Washington that boils down to compromise rather than to agreement on common values.
She explained much of her position as listening to voices on social media as a “more honest pulse of what people are talking about.” But more than amplifying these views through her platform, Ocasio-Cortez has exposed our deeper poverty of political imagination, as she moves beyond legitimizing acceptable discourse to redefining what’s possible.
Drawing from King’s tradition of intersectional justice, she’s already done much to revamp and repair the relationship between Congress and an utterly demoralized civil society, especially by embracing the importance of social movements as a vital “moral compass” for those in public office.
Yet most mainstream media outlets, which should provide the public a channel for ideas, have ignored this impact, much as King’s systemic critiques were also ignored in favor of a more benign image. Ocasio-Cortez has restored truth to politics not just through facts but also through her stated intent to use her office to “translate public will into the law of the land.”
The traditional measure of her impact as a legislator will be to translate this into nuts and bolt policy. Yet, her political imagination remains her strongest tool in carving out a path for the Democratic Party to maintain the moral high ground while building a post-Trump agenda that addresses urgent issues for the future.