Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, and author, with Kevin Kruse, of the forthcoming “Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles at CNN.
The right is going all in with their attacks on US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
In another new low for American politics, someone on Twitter pounced on a video of her as student at Boston University dancing on a rooftop. In a “smoking gun” of absolutely nothing, the anonymous poster suggested that the clip showed something untoward about one of America’s newest members of Congress. “Here is America’s favorite commie know-it-all acting like the clueless nitwit she is,” explained the person who posted the clip.
This followed a long line of attacks that the New York Democrat has faced in the right-wing social media vortex since her surprise victory in the primary and her general election win. Soon after her victory, Republican Ron DeSantis, the new governor of Florida, dismissed her as “this girl.” Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity called her policy views “downright scary.” Washington Examiner writer Eddie Scarry tweeted out a screenshot of her walking down a hallway to say she was not wearing the clothes of a “girl who struggles.”
Republicans took solace when some Democrats dismissed Ocasio-Cortez as a flash-in-the-pan who will not be a long-term force in party politics once her 15 minutes of fame is over.
Claire McCaskill, the former Missouri Democratic senator, described her in a CNN interview as a “shiny object” for Democrats. She took a shot at Ocasio-Cortez in her exit interview with The Daily podcast, when she warned, “I hope she listens to people who defeated Republicans, because it’s the people who defeated Republicans, in this election, that we need to be emulating, not the people who defeated Democrats in primaries.”
But all of these attacks will likely backfire. They will only help to accelerate her rise to power, making her one of the most prominent voices on the national scene.
Perhaps one of the most pointed moments in the opening of Congress occurred when the congresswoman stood up to vote for Nancy Pelosi as House speaker. Since the November election there had been endless speculation about whether she and other incoming members would vote against the speaker. When Republicans booed her, she turned to them with the cameras covering the action and mouthed: “Sorry.” With Republicans hoping that Ocasio-Cortez and other first-termers would cause problems for the incoming speaker, it turned out that the party is pretty united on one thing: the need to stop President Trump’s dangerous agenda and style of governance.
By vilifying Ocasio-Cortez, the GOP is helping to turn her into one of the political superstars of 2019. They are giving her more time in the spotlight and unifying Democrats around someone who does come from a left-of-center perspective. Extraordinarily savvy in her use of social media, Ocasio-Cortez is seizing the chance to make a name for herself as a Democrat with a strongly progressive point of view who will not remain passive about the right-wing extremism that now shapes her opponents.
Ironically, the ongoing attacks might overshadow real points of division that exist between her and Pelosi, such as the pushback that the speaker has given on her approach to achieving a Green New Deal.
Ocasio-Cortez has a massive opportunity to emerge as one of the most important figures in the Democratic Party. When the congresswoman voted for Pelosi she made an important statement. She intends to serve as a bridge between House Speaker Pelosi and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party despite their disagreements.. Rather than being an obstructionist who will do anything to defend her particular views — the Tea Party model of legislating — Ocasio-Cortez wants to use her clout to ensure that her generation maintains a place at the table.
Of course, it’s not inevitable that such an alliance will work.
But there is a precedent for this kind of intraparty bridge-building. During the 1950s, US Sen. Hubert Humphrey – the Minnesota Democrat who was elected as a committed liberal in 1948 and a contrast to the anti-civil rights southern Democrats – forged an important relationship with Senator Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, the Texas Democrat.
Though Johnson thought that Humphrey and his cohort of young northern liberals were too extreme for the party and that they were forcing him to deal with divisive issues, the two ended up working closely together in the latter half of the 1950s.
Johnson depended on Humphrey to serve as his point of communication with younger Democrats who wanted the party to deal with issues like civil rights, health care and urban renewal. Humphrey was willing to work with Johnson — who many younger liberals didn’t trust — because he made sure their concerns were being heard by the leadership. The relationship paved a path to the great Democratic landslide of 1964, the passage of civil rights legislation and the Great Society social innovations.
Though it is true that there are many Democrats in middle America who would never support Ocasio-Cortez’s basic agenda, Republicans and moderate Democrats should not underestimate what she brings to the table.
Besides the important function she can serve for Pelosi as a bridge to the left, her biography — her youth, her ethnicity, her economic background – embodies why Democrats now represent the party of the future as Republicans are doubling down on championing a narrowing portion of the population in white, rural America.
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Her assertive and confrontational posture to the Republicans, grounded in a sophisticated reliance on social media tools like Instagram and Twitter, offers a refreshing antidote to the previous generation of Democrats who were terrified to take on their opponents for fear of looking too extreme. She has enabled her supporters to follow her activities almost every day, “bringing Congress fully into the age of Instagram,” according to Jessica Mendoza of The Christian Science Monitor.
At the same time, if there is anyone who can figure out how to negotiate the different factions within their party it is Pelosi, who has repeatedly proven herself to be one of the most formidable legislative leaders in recent political history.
Republicans can attack Ocasio-Cortez all they want, dismissing her and mocking her as a lightweight, but they might very well be looking at a major power broker in the new era of Capitol Hill.