Columns » Autumn Tolbert

Of the people

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COREY TORPIE - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Corey Torpie - Wikimedia Commons

In a recent video posted to Instagram, U.S. Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who ran as a Democrat in New York's 14th Congressional District and is also a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, walks in front of the United States Capitol. The camera pans from her face to the building as she says, "Here it is. Where the community sent me to advocate for them." She isn't wearing a fancy suit or accompanied by a camera crew or group of staffers. She is alone, wearing headphones, her hair blowing, and filming on her cellphone.

Her simple acknowledgement, "Where the community sent me to advocate for them," is so refreshing in its difference from the smugness and paternalism from so many in Congress. Compared to the usual canned, calculated drivel we often hear from politicians, her willingness to talk candidly about the financial difficulties of running for office and renting an apartment in D.C. while waiting on her salary to kick in resonates with those of us who have ever been worried about making ends meet, especially when moving from job to job. I cannot get enough of her openness and her willingness to share her excitement to be elected as the youngest member of Congress. She films and photographs seemingly insignificant things like her bag with her new secure phone and tablet, the folder containing orientation materials, and the room where she had her photo ID made. Other videos show her doing laundry and in another she compares the Library of Congress to Harry Potter's Hogwarts. It is as if she is talking directly to me and pulling away the curtain of secretive government institutions. Apparently, many across the country feel the same way. Ocasio has almost a million followers on Instagram and, despite Fox News' obsession with making fun of her, her reach grows every day.

We've seen similar glimpses of normalcy from politicians here and there. When Hillary Clinton was photographed after the 2016 election walking her dog in the woods while wearing leggings and a fleece coat, the internet went nuts. Clinton played the only game she knew when running for office: polished and guarded. To see her with that guard down, comfortable and smiling, and in casual clothing was a rare treat. It immediately made her seem more approachable and relatable. The next woman who runs for president will be better served by being more like Ocasio-Cortez than Clinton. Rather than expensive high heels a la Sarah Palin, working women would rather see the worn-out canvassing shoes Ocasio-Cortez posted after winning the primary. The past two years have seemed like a lifetime in politics and the increased involvement by women and younger people has rapidly changed what is desirable and effective in a candidate. More Beto O'Rourke skateboarding in Whataburger parking lots would be a good start.

None of this "normal" behavior will cheapen the institutions of government. What it will do is make the institutions more accessible to those who have previously been shut out. Instead of old men concerned with decorum who tend to answer to their large, corporate donors and avoid town halls unless the attendees and questions are carefully vetted, maybe we will soon have a Senate and House full of women and people of color who interact directly with their constituents through social media during breaks between meetings and votes. Turns out former presidential candidate Ross Perot wasn't too far off with his idea for "electronic town halls" in 1992. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are making easy communication between politicians and constituents a reality. As more millennial candidates run, I expect we will see social media used more to connect with constituents and less use of it to convey a politician's carefully crafted image.

Another trend being ushered in by Ocasio-Cortez is the influence of the Democratic Socialists of America and other progressives on the Democratic Party. I recently attended a local meeting of the DSA and was relieved to hear the conversation center around student loan debt, health care and how to clothe and feed the homeless in our community rather than which values we need to abandon to try to reach the ever elusive "centrist" voter. But first, the country needs to be convinced that "socialism" is not a dirty word. Maybe wider exposure to Democratic Socialism through people like Ocasio-Cortez will help do the trick. I encourage you to seek her out on Instagram or Facebook and watch her journey as a newly elected member of Congress. Judging from a recent video, she not only is poised to be the voice of young progressives in the federal government, she can also make a mean macaroni and cheese..

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