On Monday night, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez mentioned on Instagram that she’d be going dark for a while to get ready for Congress in January, then — just minutes later, but long enough for the thought “What about the Instagram cooking lives?” to enter your mind — followed up to say: Don’t worry, I’ll still be on Instagram and Twitter.
That’s how good the Instagram is. And that’s how big Ocasio-Cortez has gotten, possibly bigger than we even realize. In the space of six months, she’s become a dominant presence in American politics, the kind of person for whom the mere suggestion she might exit Instagram for a month apparently inspires people to say, Don’t go, don’t leave, please stay.
There’s this “lightning strikes” quality with Ocasio-Cortez, like for so long, each day, we prayed for something to fight about that isn’t Trump, and something that is fun, and when both finally came along in one personage, nobody knew what to do or how to explain her prominence. There are ongoing intra-right, intra-left, and generational arguments flaring up about her all the time on Twitter. If it’s not about her worth as a political figure, it’s what it means to grandstand, or what out-of-touch criticism looks like, whether she was right about Amazon, her economics, her civics, how class works in America, if whatever she’s doing will ruin something for someone else.
But the molten core of this chaos is simple: She’s acting like a regular person. She embodies this surrealist thing of, like, “WHAT IF…you were elected to Congress? What would happen next? What would you do?”
Over the last two weeks, her Instagram has been a primer in what they tell you and where they take you when you win a seat in Congress. If Cory Booker is pretty good at Instagram as far as politicians go, the vibe’s still sometimes like your Bible study leader is giving you a college campus tour. Ocasio-Cortez uses Instagram like the rest of us do — reflexively, incidentally, the way you would if you were inside the United States Capitol at night, commenting on stuff in front of you (Jefferson’s copy of Plato, the Hogwarts vibe, the bus ride back being like a high school field trip). Check out this photo of her posing with a portrait of Shirley Chisholm. She looks like a tourist! It’s not a cool pose or even a selfie; it looks like she asked someone to take this photo and is slightly embarrassed that she did.
On Twitter, the approach is more internet Mortal Kombat, where you’re like, oh, here we go, choose your fighter. She argues in threads, dunks on semi-randos, and is ready to mock the attempted sick own, harvesting and redirecting its power. (This dynamic probably can’t continue forever, but it’s holding for now.)
Even if it’s driving you nuts, that this socialist is subsuming the energy directed at her into ever-expanding power, it’s sort of…fun. It’s like one of us is joining Congress. “She’s the only member of Congress,” someone recently noted to me over text, “I actually relate to on any level.”
Ocasio-Cortez lives and breathes within Twitter and especially Instagram, and fluidly reacts to whatever is happening around her and whatever it is you’re saying about her. Here’s someone native to the way we use phones integrating politics into that, rather than the other way around. And it’s fun. It’s interesting. It’s a good time.
This is probably why a lot of the (failed) efforts to cut her off at the knees have involved trying to catch her in a lie — to prove that she actually grew up well off, or that she actually has more resources now than she’s letting on. Then there’s the running line of commentary that Ocasio-Cortez is actually A Fool, blowing her up on what she’s said about Israel or our branches of government. Then there’s the critique about whether she’ll, essentially, be counterproductive for Democrats, either ideologically or functionally. Everyone implicitly understands that she is the real show here.
This is a hall of knives, though. Ocasio-Cortez wants to transform the Democratic Party and the government; she is antiestablishment and ideological in ways that progressives and conservatives understand. Her successes and failures will mean more, if the last few months have taught us anything, because people want her to prove or disprove something about American politics. Maybe it’ll get old, and she’ll flame out or fade away — or maybe she won’t, and this is the beginning of something unusual. Everyone’s got something tied up in Ocasio-Cortez, and the more powerful she might become, if she is the first of many or the real inheritor of the new left, the more will need to change about the Democratic Party, and the higher the imperative will be for opponents of democratic socialism to undercut that. More conflict is coming!
And maybe it’s that dissonance — the one between watching an incoming member of Congress take live requests and talk politics while she makes something in an Instant Pot, and knowing that this likely cannot last, and everyone is playing with combustible materials — that produces the impulse to say: Don’t go! Can’t it be fun for a while longer?