A month ago I watched Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez post a live video on Instagram explaining exactly what it felt like for her during the Capital riots on January 6th. It was a deeply brave and moving video, but I couldn’t fully appreciate it at the time. I was too busy imagining the backlash that would inevitably come.
When she started getting emotional, I knew conservatives would call her hysterical. When she mentioned being a sexual assault survivor, I knew they would accuse her of lying, of manipulatively using sexual assault as a shameless political tactic. I knew, watching her video, how conservatives would misrepresent her words, exaggerating her claims and then bashing her for exaggerating. I knew that her mention of sexual assault would be the big focus when mainstream news covered this, just as I knew these media organizations would completely fail to push back against the bad-faith conservative smears in any meaningful way.
I knew, as she gave this powerful, heartbreaking speech to her Instagram followers, that she was in for yet another round of vicious attacks from conservatives, along with the usual wave of smug dismissal from moderates and establishment liberals. I know that as a young, latina congresswoman who is upfront about her left-wing political beliefs and wears her heart on her sleeve, this country is going to try its hardest to eat her alive.
The exciting and scary thing about Ocasio-Cortez is that her career in politics is only just beginning. I hope she runs for a Senate seat the next time there’s an opening and runs for President sometime after that. Or maybe she’ll gradually grow enough influence within the party to eventually become Speaker of the House. She’s so young, by congressional standards, that she can spend the next twenty years padding up her resume before running for president and she’d still only be fifty years old. Imagine a candidate about as young as Obama in 2008, but with over fifteen years more congressional experience on her resume.
If the response in conservative circles is any indication, I’m not the only one who is picking up on this. Fox News has been obsessed with AOC since the moment she won her primary in 2018, and conservative pundits like Ben Shapiro and Matt Walsh have spent the past few years obsessing over her, frothing at the mouth at even her most mild of statements.
For her first few months in congress, Ocasio-Cortez had a terrible approval rating, and not because Democrats didn’t like her. Most Democrats were either positive, or said they didn’t know enough about her yet to form an opinion. Her national favorability was in the tanks because conservative news outlets, desperate for a new female villain after Hillary’s loss in 2016, had so effectively demonized her to their audience.
Hillary and AOC are very different political figures, but not when it comes to the way the right depicts them. From the moment Hillary ran for Senate in 2000, it was clear to everyone that she had presidential ambitions of her own. The two figures are both somehow evil and conniving, while also stupid and hysterical. And much like Hillary, the reason they go after Ocasio-Cortez so hard is because they know she’s a legitimate threat.
There’s a lot to learn from looking at Hillary’s approval ratings, and how gender affected it. She’s pointed out herself that whenever she had a job — be it Senator, First Lady, Secretary of State — her approval ratings were fairly decent. It was only when she was campaigning, when she was attempting to rise to a higher position, that she became the widely hated figure she’s now remembered as.
Another way to interpret the polling data is that her favorability went down whenever it benefited Republicans for her to be disliked, and went up whenever she was no longer a threat. One of her favorability high points was during the Clinton impeachment scandal in 1998, because by portraying her in a positive light, Republicans could more effectively attack her husband for cheating. Her approval rating went up again in the mid-2000s, when the post-9/11 Bush administration seemed invincible and she made no signs of running for President yet. Her approval rating as Secretary of State, when Obama was the main conservative target, reached 66% in 2009, and stayed around 60% the whole way through.
It was only after 2013, when she stepped down and showed clear signs of another presidential run, that the conservative hate machine went back into high gear. The Benghazi incident, which was used to attack Obama in 2012, suddenly became entirely Hillary’s responsibility in late 2014. Both Benghazi and the email scandal —coverage for both of which were immediately dropped by major news outlets after the 2016 election — were treated as two of most important issues in modern history.
Hillary had plenty of issues — she was nowhere near as bold or inspiring a candidate as Ocasio-Cortez has been in these past few years — but the conservative media campaign against her, as blatantly dishonest and politically motivated as it was, was strikingly effective, and there’s little reason to think it won’t be as effective against Ocasio-Cortez. Considering Hillary was a fairly pro-establishment candidate and Ocasio-Cortez isn’t, I worry that the hate aimed at Hillary is going to seem light compared to what gets thrown Ocasio-Cortez’s way.
There’s one source of hope I have, when considering Ocasio-Cortez’s future, that she will be able to weather the attacks against her better than Hillary could. It occurred to me when listening to Howard Stern’s interview of Hillary back in 2019, when she talked about how she felt she had to be extra cautious during her debates with Donald Trump. When Howard brought up how Trump was leering at her during the second debate, this is what was said:
Hillary: “I was certainly very careful, and look, the reason is, I grew up in a time when, if you were going to get through a door as a woman, you were not going to react to anything. I remember taking the law school exam, at a huge hall at Harvard, and there were hundreds of men and maybe fifty women. We were in this room, waiting for the test to start, and I was sitting with some of my women friends who were sitting with me, and all of a sudden these young men start harassing us, like, ‘What are you doing here? You have no right to be here!’ And it was during the Vietnam War, so they were saying things like, ‘If you get a slot I’m gonna get sent to Vietnam, I’m gonna die, it’s gonna be your fault.’
Howard: “Guys were saying that to you?”
Hillary: “They were saying it, they were saying it to us, so what did we all do? We just put our heads down like, ‘okay, you take you the test, you show you can do it.’ And so throughout a lot of my professional and public career … part of it was that training. Like, okay, ‘you’re a woman trying to do something that not many other women or any women have ever done, you’ve gotta stay focused, don’t get distracted. Guys are gonna say this and do that — you just keep going.’”
Howard: “I understand that, and in a way it works to your detriment because you have to be reverential to this guy who’s looming behind you on the stage…”
Hillary: “Yeah, because — and I’ve thought a lot about this afterwards — suppose if I had turned around and said, ‘back up, you creep. You’re not gonna intimidate me,’ the headlines would’ve been, ‘lost her calm,’ you know, ‘she switches into being angry.’ It would’ve worked against me.”
This was the root of so much of Hillary’s political troubles: when people lied about her, for the most part her response was to politely ignore them. She didn’t “clap back” because as a female politician, she didn’t feel like that was allowed for her. It certainly wasn’t allowed for women in her position in the 70s and 80s, even the 90s and 2000s.
But as we’ve seen with AOC, this may no longer be the case. Perhaps it’s because she’s had more examples of prominent female politicians to learn from, but Ocasio-Cortez has no qualms about calling out lies when she sees them. When people make bad faith attacks, she responds. She publicly sets the record straight and criticizes the criticizer right back. It’s hard to imagine Hillary responding to Ted Cruz with the same level of tough, surgical precision in which Ocasio-Cortez responded to him after he failed to take responsibility for his role in the insurrection.
This isn’t meant as a critique of Hillary; if she’d responded to bad faith attacks like Ocasio-Cortez has back in the 2000s, it probably would’ve hurt more than it helped. The fact that Ocasio-Cortez is able to be self-assertive today shows that times pop are changing, at least a little bit.
When it comes to the idea of her running for President, it still gives me anxiety. As one of the few people in Congress who genuinely cares about the working class, an AOC Presidency would be a dream come true. But as intense as I imagine the conservative backlash to be, the reality will likely be even worse. She’d have to overcome the attacks of the entire Republican Party, establishment Democrats, Wall Street, mainstream news outlets, in addition to the racism and sexism that still permeates American culture.
Still, there’s a lot to be optimistic about: the country is gradually moving left, and Ocasio-Cortez gains more experience and influence with each passing day. She’s got a hard road ahead, but if anyone could handle it, it’s her.