On her first day in Washington as a soon-to-be member of Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took part in a sit-in protest on climate change in House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office.
On her second day in Washington, Ocasio-Cortez reportedly clashed with New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone, the incoming chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, over the best approach to addressing climate issues. (Ocasio-Cortez called the Politico report on her back-and-forth with Pallone “completely false,” adding: “I never even have a direct interaction with him today.”)
In those first 48 hours in Washington – and even before she is formally sworn in as a congresswoman – two things became readily apparent about Ocasio-Cortez:
1) Because of her national stardom derived from her stunning upset primary victory over Rep. Joe Crowley, D-New York, everything she does will be watched and scrutinized to death. (And apparently everything she wears too. On Thursday, a media reporter for the Washington Examiner tweeted a picture of Ocasio-Cortez in which she is wearing a business suit with the caption “that jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles.” His tweet provoked, um, quite the reaction on the Internet.)
2) Unlike most new members if Congress who quickly seek to adapt themselves to Washington’s ways in hopes of ingratiating themselves to leaders and climbing the leadership ladder, Ocasio-Cortez represents something very different: Her roots are in activism, not politics. And she seems to have very little concern as to how her willingness to buck the Way Things Are Done Around Here will have on her career in Congress.
“There’s so many people that know that we’re going into the lion’s den, even within the party,” Ocasio-Cortez told The New York Times’ Azi Paybarah in a insightful profile of her that ran earlier this month. She added, channeling messages that she gets from constituents: “We know how much pressure you’re going to be under even from within your own party. We know you’re going to be under pressure to fall in line. Just please don’t do it.”
See also: Her Twitter feed, which she’s used strategically to stir the pot ever since her election.
What’s fascinating about the arrival of Ocasio-Cortez in Washington is how it mimics what happened to the Republican Party following the 2010 election that put the GOP back into the House majority. When the new freshman class of Republicans arrived in Washington in late 2010/early 2011, it quickly became clear that this tea party-fueled group was not planning to play nice with the party leadership – most notably Speaker John Boehner. While Boehner started his speakership downplaying any potential problems from the rump group, it quickly became clear that he had badly underestimated his ability to control a bloc of legislators more loyal to the tea party activists who had propelled them to Congress than to the old leadership structure that awaited them once they got there. Boehner was eventually driven from the speakership in the fall of 2015, unable and unwilling to navigate the demands of a wing of his party that viewed any compromise as capitulation.
Ocasio-Cortez isn’t the first new-ish Democratic member of Congress who looks likely to make waves by aligning herself more closely with the party’s activist base than its establishment. Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal, elected in 2016, has repeatedly drawn headlines during her first term in the nation’s capital; she opposed the certification of the 2016 presidential vote in Georgia and was one of hundreds of people arrested in an immigration protest in the Hart Senate office building in June.
But there’s no question that Ocasio-Cortez is the highest-profile of this new generation of Democrats unwilling to simply go along to get along with the old guard within her party. As the coverage of Ocasio-Cortez’s first 48 hours in Washington suggests, she is no normal freshman member of Congress – whether by dint of her age (she’s the youngest woman ever elected to Congress at 29) or the nature of how she got to where she is (a historic upset over a member of the Democratic leadership.)
And so, Ocasio-Cortez represents both challenge and opportunity for Democrats in Washington. She has the capacity to become an even bigger national star for a party whose leaders in Congress are both a) old and b) not terribly popular. But Ocasio-Cortez is making clear – in word and deed – that she’s not content to play the Washington game – make as few waves as possible, ingratiate yourself to leadership and hope they reward you. She’s playing a different kind of game – and outside of Washington one – that, without question poses a very real threat to the staid status quo of the DC Democratic establishment.