Whatever else you may think of her, first-time Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) is a great American success story. Hers is a classic “triumph of the underdog” tale. Nobody expected her to upset 10-term incumbent Congressman and Chair of the House Democratic Caucus, Joe Crowley, in last June’s Democratic primary in her New York City congressional district, but she did. Using her apartment as her campaign headquarters and going door to door in her district, AOC proved once again that a motivated, hard-working American can succeed against long odds.
AOC is clever and shrewd in some ways, embarrassingly clueless in others. On the positive side, she is media-savvy and shows astute political instincts. On the negative side, to put it mildly, her understanding of American government is deficient (she didn’t even know what the three branches of government are), her grasp of economic and history is minimal (she espouses the ideology of socialism despite its inherent flaws e.g., no economic calculation or coordination is possible without private property, market-based prices, and a profit-and-loss calculus), and she seems oblivious to elementary arithmetic, as evidenced by her proposals for Uncle Sam to spend tens of trillions of dollars more than exist in spendable form.
Conservatives seem to think AOC will self-destruct by repeatedly showing her economic obtuseness, but they are wrong. They are underestimating her ability to exploit media and her political acumen. Last summer after her primary victory, AOC was a guest on “The View.” Channeling King David’s son Absalom—the prototype for using flattery and charm to further one’s political ambitions—she effusively hugged each of the five hostesses, gushing and giving them her best “Oh, I’m so privileged to meet you” greeting.
In her interview on “60 Minutes,” she alternately voiced clever, quotable sound bites at the expense of Republicans and responded to questions about her apparent factual inaccuracies by playing the role of a disarmingly innocent political neophyte who admittedly hadn’t mastered all the details, but whose heart is in the right place.
On Twitter, she drops the innocent act and reveals herself to be a rough-and-tumble street fighter. Examples: She rallied to the support of fellow freshman congresswoman Rashida Tlaib after Tlaib publicly referred to President Trump as a “motherf*****,” tweeting, “I got your back.” She also isn’t bashful about disrespecting non-Republicans. Advised by one-time Democratic vice presidential nominee Joseph Lieberman to take a more moderate approach, she caustically tweeted, “New party, who dis?”
Like it or not, AOC, by virtue of her two-million-plus Twitter followers and as the fresh new face alongside Bernie Sanders at the forefront of America’s democratic socialist movement, has established herself as a force to be reckoned with on the national stage. Her fund-raising clout is bound to be considerable. This will enable her to chart an independent course, much to the frustration of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Expect AOC to drag Democrats even further to the left whether they really want to go that way or not.
Politically, her proposals—no matter how over-the-top, ridiculous, or unviable—will actually enhance rather than hurt her popularity. As the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises wrote nearly six decades ago, it no longer matters, politically, “whether a measure is fit to produce the ends aimed at. What alone counts for [the politician] is whether the majority of voters favor or reject it.” Sadly, wisdom and knowledge are not nearly as important in democratic politics as impassioned promises for a Santa Claus government to give voters free goods. Voters believe in the Santa Claus fantasy, and AOC is playing Santa to the hilt, promising free health care, free college, etc.
Another factor enhancing AOC’s popularity is her public stance that she would rather lose her seat in Congress than compromise her principles. In this day and age when few politicians are known for sticking to their principles, AOC stands out from the crowd.
She may know precious little about sound economics, but she has a keen nose for power. That is why she advocates the abolition of the Electoral College—because it is an obstacle to the mighty (and mighty dangerous) power of unbridled majoritarianism which our wise founders rightly understood to be one of the greatest threats to rights and liberty.
The important question going forward will not be the mind of AOC, but what kind of heart she has. Like most prominent leaders of socialist movements, she has a knack for taking care of Number One. I am referring to her reported unwillingness to divide the wealth equally when her own financial interest is involved. A larger concern is her refusal, so far, to condemn the murderous regime (murder by bullets and starvation) of Venezuela’s socialist president, Nicolas Maduro. This raises the question of whether her support for socialism is that of a naive enthusiast or a convicted fanatic. Let’s hope that her mind isn’t so blinded by the imagined glory of her “grand plan” for a more humane world that she lacks the compassion to disavow socialist policies when they hurt the very people whom they were supposed to help.
-Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.