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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ocasio-Cortez Has Lessons for Dems

Democratic candidates, campaigns and office-holders would do well to read “What Democrats Can Learn From Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Her communication style is worth emulating, not dismissing” by Aaron Huertas at medium.com. Some insights from Huertas:

Attention is a limited resource in politics, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., commands a lot of it. She has almost 2.4 million Twitter followers, and media outlets breathlessly cover her statements and policy proposals as well as feckless attempts by Republicans to throw her off her game.

For a lot of Democrats in Washington, this is disruptive. Normally, a freshman member of Congress would command little if any public attention and would quietly sit in the back benches, slowly building seniority over time with the hopes of one day running a powerful committee.

Huertas notes AOC ‘s unique appeal to millennials, who “grew up with a political system that has proven incapable of addressing student debt, income inequality, or climate change. We aren’t waiting for change; we don’t have the time. And there are more of us voting every single year.” Further,

That’s why it’s a mistake for Democrats to try to “rein in” the party’s biggest rising star, as this Politico article put it. Instead, the party should be looking to Ocasio-Cortez for guidance on how to effectively speak to working people, collaborate with activists, and beat Republicans soundly in 2020 and beyond.

Huertas cites  an article on Politico, dissing NY-14’s new congresswoman for being popular on Twitter, and argues that “This idea is so backward. Twitter stars can be great legislators, and having nearly 2.4 million Twitter followers is a very effective way to get out the message about legislation.”

Activists, like Ocasio-Cortez and John Lewis, who have a genuine grass-roots connection to their constituents, have an advantage in educating them and mobilizing volunteers. Huertas adds, for example,

Ocasio-Cortez’s advocacy for a Green New Deal is a great example of combing inside and outside influence from activists to advance an agenda. Several progressive House candidates campaigned on a Green New Deal last year, but the topic received little interest during the campaign. It only grabbed public attention after Ocasio-Cortez joined Sunrise Movement protesters in Nancy Pelosi’s office who were demanding a special committee create a Green New Deal…Did the Sunrise Movement and other Green New Deal advocates get exactly what they wanted right away? No, definitely not. But now the Green New Deal is a new standard for what serious climate policy looks like, and presidential candidates are starting to line up behind them.

AOC’s experience knocking on doors as a Bernie Sanders campaigner and her participation in the Standing Rock protests also served her well. It’s not a bad thing for elected officials to have had significant face time with grass-roots activists. “The simple truth,” says Huertas, “is that there is nothing preventing a lawmaker from actively working with protesters, dissidents, and activists to achieve serious political change. In fact, doing so is smart politics.”

Huertas argues that some of Ocasio-Cortez’s critics are more judgemental about women of color than they are about male office-holders, ignoring the reality that “A big reason Ocasio-Cortez resonates is that millennials actually have members of Congress who represent our generational interests now: eliminating student loan debt, income inequality, gun violence, and climate change…pundits and columnists should be asking themselves how they can market their own ideas more effectively. Because there is a zero-percent chance any leftist politician is going to take their free advice and hand the spotlight back to them.”

In addition, “In many midterm races, the youth vote was decisive as young people broke two-to-one for Democrats. Splits like that are a once in a generation opportunity to build lasting power,” as this chart illustrates:

Partisan breakdown of the 18–29 vote in midterm elections. Chart: The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement

Ocasio-Cortez “dunks on right-wingers who make stupid arguments with abandon,” notes Huertas. “While other Democrats ignore them or respond in somber, serious tones, Ocasio-Cortez rejects the premise that bad faith arguments should be taken seriously” — and boldly discredited.

This has created an incredible attention cycle online. Every time a prominent Republican takes the bait and attacks Ocasio-Cortez, they simply empower her more by giving her the opportunity to spend a few minutes composing a trenchant tweet, which then gets covered with short posts on dozens of media outlets.

When Republicans tried to bash Ocasio-Cortez for advocating higher taxes for the wealthy, “Instead of taking this argument seriously or posting charts and graphs, Ocasio-Cortez responded by debunking a powerful GOP legislator, questioning his knowledge about policy, and then pointing out why the GOP routinely lies about tax rates.”

It’s about getting engaged with adversaries, being confident and unafraid to confront them with well-informed refutations of their flawed defenses. She understands that “Politicians hate talking about their most unpopular policy positions, such as low taxes for wealthy people,” and denies them any wiggle room. Also, notes Huertas,

Calling out bad faith arguments has also extended to what Republicans call “working the refs.” In Ocasio-Cortez’s case, that means taking on fact-checkers who have rewarded her with four Pinocchios/Pants on Fire ratings for relatively mild errors. For instance, what’s worse: denying the scientific reality of climate change or not precisely representing budget figures from a media story about Pentagon accounting? How about scapegoating immigrants with hateful, dishonest rhetoric or talking about people who aren’t unemployed but are working multiple jobs to keep ahead of the cost of living?

tenIf you’re a fact-checker, it’s perhaps not something you’ve thought about because that’s a value-laden, moral question. But in challenging fact-checkers over what they choose to scrutinize, Ocasio-Cortez has exposed how an overly precise focus on facts can obscure the deeper moral questions at the heart of politics…When debates are broken, challenge the premise of the debate. Don’t obscure the real-world impact policy has. Confront it.

In addition, AOC “has helped foster more debate about the ways “how do you pay for it” rhetoric is selectively deployed for health, education, and environmental protection but not military spending, tax cuts, and other deficit drivers” — a good, and often overlooked point that adds needed perspective on spending debates that can help Democrats.

Huertas highlights the difference in communication styles between traditional liberal Democrats and Ocasio Cortez:

…Prominent Democratic Twitter users like Rep. Adam Schiff and Rep. Ted Lieu, both D-Cal., and Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, tend to strike a more serious tone and often point out their political opponents’ hypocrisy. These arguments have a lot of reach, but Donald Trump and other Republicans can’t really be hypocrisy shamed any more, so these messages don’t quite have the same reach or impact they had a few years ago.

They’ll also dabble in memes, leetspeak, and slang, but playing along with internet culture is distinct from being born into it, and as a younger person, Ocasio-Cortez’s use of these tropes resonates, is consistent with her bio, and is stickier for audiences.

Finding one’s online voice is different for every politician, but emulating Ocasio-Cortez in this regard means finding novel, deeply personal ways to talk about the news of the day and a progressive policy agenda. That means effective communicators don’t just play along with how social media works. They embody it. Finding ways to be authentic online is incredibly hard, especially for politicians, but that’s the difference between being good on social media and being great.

Huertas distills her debate strategy as, “When debates are broken, challenge the premise of the debate. Don’t obscure the real world impact policy has. Confront it. And speak to people’s moral values and the type of world we want to live in.”

No doubt the nit-pickers will continue to needle Ocasio-Cortez at every opportunity. But there is zero chance that they are going to distract the new Rep from NY-14. Democrats would do well to study and emulate her energetic engagement and refusal to give them the last word.

In his conclusion, Huertas advises Dems to “Embrace that change, including change from the outside, and don’t be afraid to compromise with the next generation.” Good advice, right on time.

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