Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the dangerous allure of ego

It was certainly a stunning victory by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as this unknown 28 year old defeated one of the leaders of the U.S. House Democratic caucus. Hers has been characterized as a rags-to-riches story of a former waitress with no political experience overcoming the local political machine.

The actual story is actually somewhat different. Ocasio-Cortez is actually a child of privilege, the daughter of an architect who grew up in Westchester and graduated at the top of her class from Boston University. She interned in Ted Kennedy’s office. She did suffer a tragedy when her father died and she and her mother had to work to save their home from foreclosure. But after college, she started a successful business and was a well-regarded educator when she ran for Congress.

In fact, Ocasio-Cortez is a very impressive person on a number of levels. It says something about our political culture that this impressive background has been ignored in favor of the narrative of her as a “local girl makes good,” as Maureen Dowd in The New York Times called her.

What’s more is that Ocasio-Cortez owes her victory, more than anything, to low turnout. She won the election with less than 16,000 votes. Joseph Crowley, the incumbent got less than 12,000. By contrast, Nancy Pelosi won over 118,000 votes in her recent contested primary victory. The percentage of her victory sounds astounding — 57.5% against a powerful incumbent member of Congress. But in reality, Ocasio-Cortez was elected because Crowley was asleep at the switch. He just failed to get his supporters out to vote.

In reality, then, Ocasio-Cortez’s victory does not represent the start of a revolutionary movement, as she has characterized it. And her election does not suggest that Democrats need to shift their strategy, as some have suggested. She is really an old story: an aggressive, impressive challenger defeats a long-time incumbent who took the race for granted. Much more shocking was Conor Lamb’s special election victory for Congress just a few hundred miles away from Ocasio-Cortez’s district. He won, by the way, with over 113,000 votes. Nobody would characterize Lamb as a revolutionary.

All this notwithstanding, Ocasio-Cortez’s victory was certainly big news, and the media treated it as such. For her part, Ocasio-Cortez has allowed the victory to go to her head. She is already proclaiming herself the leader of a revolution and is campaigning in Kansas. Kansas, by the way, is a long way from New York.

I’ve seen this story before. Back when I was a young political organizer, in 1990, I worked for a young, aggressive, articulate Democratic candidate for Congress in New Hampshire called Dick Swett. He had never held office before. Back in those days, it was hard to imagine a Democrat winning anything in New Hampshire. Times sure were different. Anyway, he won. It was an impressive victory for sure, and one that got national attention, but in truth, he defeated an incumbent who had not been paying attention, just like Ocasio-Cortez.

After the election, I went to work in Swett’s Washington office, and I got to see first-hand how the system takes over outsiders. Dick was a humble, kind, down-to-earth person from northern New Hampshire when he was elected. Within months, he had allowed the ego-stroking provided by lobbyists and the fawning media to take over his life.

I remember walking with Dick from one building to another at the Capitol. He had us follow him through the “Members-only” entrance into the building. When a security guard stopped him and asked for his ID, rather than simply complying, Dick turned to him and yelled “don’t you know who I am?” The guard, well-aware of the fact that members of Congress have fired security guards and other Hill staff on the spot, cowered and apologized. Dick laughed. His other staffer and I, both of us who had worked on his campaign, were horrified.

As it turned out, Dick didn’t last long in Washington. He was defeated after only two terms in office. He ran for Senate two years later and lost, and served as the U.S. ambassador to Denmark. I hope he is happy and doing well, but his brief tenure in Washington was informative.

It may sound cliche, but the most successful members of Congress always remember where they came from and they work hard to stay in touch with their constituents. They never let the acclaim of the press coverage or the flattery of the lobbyists and staff go to their heads. Ocasio-Cortez is getting deserved attention right now, but believing what the press says about her is the first step to forgetting who she really is. I hope she doesn’t fall prey to ego’s allure.

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Mike is an Assistant Professor of Management for Legal and Ethical Studies at Oakland U. Mike combines his scholarship with practical experience in politics.

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