What might politics look like if elected officials — instead of being what too often seems like a collection of dead-eyed, factory-made automatons who speak from the same snooze-inducing, flavorless script — actually appeared passionate, engaged, and interested in looking after the interests of the people they represent?
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may be showing us.
One of the refreshing things about Ocasio-Cortez’s time in the national spotlight has been not just the fact that she talks about the issues facing the US in a direct, easy to understand, even entertaining way, but that she does it in the service of taking on the rigid power structures that control people’s lives.
She did this before she was even sworn in to Congress, famously tweeting about the way she and other freshmen are marched around during their orientation to be lectured by lobbyists and CEOs. What was apparently an unseemly but accepted norm in Washington’s political culture was suddenly outed to the rest of us because someone in the political class finally realized how creepy the whole thing was.
Ocasio-Cortez appears to be doing something similar with her newly won position on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which yesterday held a hearing on H.R.1, the House Democrats’ expansive anti-corruption and voting rights package. Watch this clip from yesterday’s session, in which Ocasio-Cortez plays a “lightning-round game” with the witnesses, in which she pretends to be a “bad guy” (“which I’m sure half the room would agree with anyway,” she adds with a smile) who’s trying to “get away with as much bad things as possible, ideally to enrich myself and advance my interests.”
— NowThis (@nowthisnews) February 8, 2019
In less than five minutes, and with the witnesses replying with barely more than a “yes” or “no,” Ocasio-Cortez gets across to the viewer:
- just how openly corrupt the current political system is (“you’re going to help me legally get away with all of this”);
- the lack of meaningful safeguards against corporate capture (“Is there any hard limit that I have in terms of what legislation I’m allowed to touch … based on the special interest funds that I accepted?” “There’s no limits”)
- how vulnerable the office of the president is in particular to moneyed influence (“Every person in this body is being held to a higher ethical standard than the president of the United States”)
- and that the very people serving with her on this august committee are most probably compromised by these interests too (“We have these influences existing in this body, which means that these influences are here in this committee shaping the questions that being asked of you all”)
That she does it all through the medium of a classroom game and with a sense of fun makes the whole thing even more remarkable to watch.
There are many reasons behind today’s widespread political disengagement, not least the suspicion that most of the people the public votes for aren’t really fighting for them. But even when politicians genuinely are fighting for their voters’ interests, they do so in the same, deathly boring, “serious” fashion that one can appreciate in the abstract, but few would willingly subject themselves to. Televising congressional proceedings was an important democratizing victory, but it was undercut by the fact that, short of salacious events like the Kavanaugh hearings, no one really wants to watch most of these people do their jobs. There’s a reason the public has gravitated to figures like Trump, despite the terrible goods they sell; meanwhile, even a charismatic figure like Obama was dull as chalk when he wasn’t giving a major speech.
Ocasio-Cortez has shown she can bring the style that’s made her a force of nature on social media to a committee hearing and, more importantly, do it in a way that makes clear to the public just how easy it is for the rich — or “bad guys,” to use her words — to control the political system. Here’s hoping someday she’ll get a chance to do the same on an issue like climate change, too.