Anyone following American politics can notice the increasing power and influence of up-and-coming political star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), a member of the Democratic party and the youngest congresswoman ever to be elected. This article analyses her media presence and "relatable" persona with regard to how it boosts her continuously growing support and influence.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s emergence from “the people”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was born in the Bronx and belongs to an everyday working-class family. Her mother was Puerto Rican and cleaned homes for a living – a family business in which all members would help occasionally. Growing up, AOC earned degrees in Economics and International Relations at Boston University and first worked as an Educational Director.
As the financial reality of her country caught up with her family, she had to work two jobs at the same time, which were also not relevant to her field of studies – she worked as a waitress, as she often mentions. Her personal journey is not a piece of information one has to dig deep to find: everything can be found on her website and most facts have been repeated ample times in her tweets and interviews. That is to say, her story, which she proudly defends and is fond of, has always been a part of her public image.
In her YouTube channel, along with clips supporting her campaign, her most popular video is one where she presents herself to her audience. In “The Courage to Change”, which currently has over 1 million views, she describes herself as an “educator, organizer, a working-class New Yorker”. In this short clip, she is seen taking the subway and changing her heels into flats, while she closes her ad with the phrase “it’s time for one of us”. Her journey as “being the girl next door that made it to congress”, besides being inspiring and moving for the average working class citizen, also makes her inevitably relatable. AOC embodies the discursive "weapon" of "relatability", which is constantly communicated in her message, creating an effective and fully developed political persona (Silverstein, 2003).
Ocasio-Cortez always being “on message”
Of course, AOC's website does not only feature her personal story, but also presents the key issues she advocates for and brings up in debates: Medicare for All, housing as a human right, gun control, immigration justice, mobilizing against climate change, women's and LGBTQIA+ rights, and more. Hence, one of the ways in which her persona is acquired and understood by the public is through the issues she identifies with (Lempert & Silverstein, 2012).
Ocasio-Cortez’s image has been well-crafted, both through her own social media and through the way traditional and digital media portray her. Anyone who follows her social media accounts and has watched some of her speeches can easily point out certain characteristics that describe and distinguish her: shutting down any accusations coming her way, being “one of” the Americans of New York, but also being Latina and, of course, a woman. All the above are elements that constitute and send out her own message.
AOC has been remarkably consistent concerning her message and her profile of being with “the people” while also being one of "the people".
Message, according to Lempert and Silverstein (2012) is "[t]he politician's publicly imaginable ‘character’ presented to an electorate, with a biography and a moral profile crafted out of issues rendered of interest in the public sphere". AOC has been remarkably consistent concerning her message and her profile of being with “the people” while also being one of "the people". Even during her congress orientation week, she joined a group of protestors, providing her support and encouraging congresswoman Nancy Pelosi to listen to them. Of course, this action also brought coverage to the protest, and aligned with one of her agenda's key issues, climate change.
Further, one's image is also embodied and, thereby, has to do with one’s whole appearance, including the clothes one wears and the gestures one uses (Silverstein, 2003). AOC reinforces her image through her public appearances, complementing it through her style. One of her most remarkable moves was her joining female lawmakers in wearing all white on February 8th's 2019 State of the Union address in honor of the work of suffragists. However, AOC didn’t just follow the dress code; she also added her own touch by wearing a white cape instead of a suit. That move of hers was mentioned positively on many platforms, while Harper’s Bazaar commented on it saying that “some heroes do wear capes”.
As her moves align with the issues she communicates, AOC is inevitably a politician that is “on message” - that is, she presents a “consistent image” of her, “her party and their standpoint through time”, whilst also “aligning with the spirit of the times” (Silverstein, 2003). Her message is spread equally offline and online, but one of the main vehicles that facilitate this consistency is the new hybrid media system and the way she makes use of it to her advantage.
Utilizing the hybrid media system for relatability
Part of Ocasio Cortez's power is in how she communicates directly with the people through her social media. AOC quickly came off as a social media “expert”, with many of her posts going viral and steering numerous reactions. She became known for responding to negative and positive commentary about her and boldly expressing her opinion about current events without sugar-coating – with a witty sense of humor, too, when needed. As a result, by mid-July 2018, she reportedly had attracted 4.8 million media interactions, according to NewsWhip, while all of the Democrats running for president had reached a combined 6.5 million. Today, she has more than 6 million Twitter followers and continues gaining more and more.
AOC's career is starting in the age of digital media, which seems to be working in her favor. AOC isn’t just very active on social media, but aims to be present along the entire spectrum of available media, thereby utilizing the full potential of the entire hybrid media system. According to Chadwick (2017: xi), the hybrid media system is "built upon interactions among older and newer media logics in the reflexively connected social fields of media and politics". In it, "[a]ctors create, tap, or steer information flows in ways that suit their goals and in ways that modify, enable, or disable the agency of others, across and between a range of older and newer media settings" (ibid.).
Thus, taking into account that new media do not replace the old, traditional ones, AOC is a master in dual screening to control her message. In a hybrid media system, different actors engage in dual screening for different reasons. Some of the main reasons for politicians' dual screening practices can be the need to react to opponents, to correct mistakes made during debates, to complement their "mainstream media" performance or to steer online reactions. For example, when the third Democratic debate was aired by ABC on September 12, an ad was played in which Elizabeth Heng compared AOC to the Cambodian genocide. AOC immediately replied with a tweet, shutting down the opposition.
AOC's career is starting in the age of digital media, which seems to be working in her favor.
Another good example of AOC making use of multiple media simultaneously is her involvement in a Twitch stream aiming to raise money for Mermaids, a charity for gender-diverse and transgender children. After first Tweeting about the livestream to create awareness, she didn’t hesitate to call into the stream herself, using both media to enforce the debate and, of course, support her political agenda on LGBTQIA+ rights This act, of course, also got her mentions in traditional and "new" media too, keeping her relevant.
This successful use of the hybrid media system would not surprise anyone who follows her. AOC is familiar with communicating through social media, unlike other politicians – for her, social media presence seems, at least, to come naturally. She has even been seen “teaching” other politicians the social media game. In a popular tweet by Ted Lieu, she appears taking a selfie with him and other politicians while he uses the caption “the below pic is called a selfie”, implying he has just been "taught" what a selfie is.
AOC as an Instagram phenomenon
Besides acing Twitter, AOC is quite big on Instagram as well. Instagram is where she mainly promotes her image of "relatability” using a quite casual and informal communication style. As the average citizen is traditionally clueless about what is next after being elected as a congresswoman, AOC knew just how to satisfy the public's hunger for answers. During her congress orientation week, Ocasio-Cortez took her followers (and anyone else who would click on her profile) behind the scenes of her journey there. In other words, she documented and shared all the spaces and events she was allowed into.
Her followers would watch her as she visited monuments, met with other incoming freshers and attended events. Not only that, but with her sense of humour, the whole process was made to appear friendly and relatable to the average follower. AOC joked about her experience, comparing it to a high school field trip, or having a yearbook. She also made Harry Potter references ("Welcome to Hogwarts") and highlighted the importance of getting snacks. Her thoughts appear very common, almost identical to anyone else’s instead of more serious or sophisticated. She wants snacks and makes movie references... she could be you!
Of course, AOC has been keeping up the close contact with her followers ever since. Soon after being elected, she also streamed an Instagram Live, answering questions submitted through the live chat feature as she grated cheese and sang along to Janelle Monáe.
Ocasio-Cortez's digital populism
AOC's behavior on and use of social media creates food for thought as it can be seen as facilitating her populist discourse. Populism as a concept can mean various things depending on the prism under which one examines it. First of all, populism can be perceived as a "chronotropic mediatized communicative and discursive relation" (Maly, 2018) where a communicator mobilizes "an anti-elite discourse in the name of the sovereign people" (Aslanidis, 2015: 96). To put it simply, a populist is somebody who can be labeled or labels him/herself as a populist, or claims to speak in the name of the people. To speak in the name of the people, one of course needs some knowledge about the needs and experiences of the people (Maly, 2018). If someone can claim to have that knowledge, that someone is AOC. The “working-class New Yorker”, who worked as a waitress, educator and now congresswoman, has seen both sides of the coin.
In the age of digital media, "populism always exists in the synchrony between digital media and politics" (Maly, 2018). Uptake in different media is a crucial ingrediënt in the process of becoming a populist. In this case, the person has to be framed as a populist and a supporter of the peoplel. Populists do not only use media to articulate "the voice of the people", or to criticize the media or the establishment, but they are also labeled as populists in those same media by journalists, academics or other politicians. Within this framework, one could (and many already have done so) label AOC as a populist. Important to realize here, is that 'the people' in AOC's discourse refer to the common man and women in all their diversity. AOC's 'the people' is constructed in a social-democratic tradition. Her people is about 'class', contrary to the ethno-cultural nationalist conceptualization of the people in right-wing populist discourses. This class perspective is also clear in her definition of the 'elite' as an objective class of people.
Being quite young and a rather new face in politics, AOC doesn't mince her words for better or for worse, and appears as "her original self", bringing a refreshing touch to political speeches.
Her rhetoric is meant to inspire the common person, the man (or woman!) next door. In her key speeches, as well as the ones that have gone viral, AOC always addresses issues that refer to everyday people, such as healthcare – even in cases in which she didn't originally plan to advocate on that issue in that specific speech. Anyone who keeps up with American politics remembers her speech in which she made an analogy between basic healthcare and environmental issues in order to prove her point in a simple yet effective way:
“When we talk about the concern for the environment as an elitist concern, one year ago I was waitressing in a taco shop in downtown Manhattan. I just got health insurance for the first time a month ago. This is not an elitist issue. This is a quality of life issue. You want to tell people that their concern and their desire for clean air and clean water is elitist? Tell that to the kids in the South Bronx which are suffering from the highest rates of childhood asthma in the country."
Being quite young and a rather new face in politics, AOC doesn't mince her words for better or for worse, and appears as "her original self", bringing a refreshing touch to political speeches. These observations can potentially make her fit under more definitions of populism found in scholarship. Jan-Werner Müller (2016), for example, describes populism as “a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and fully unified—but, I shall argue, ultimately fictional—people against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some other way morally inferior. (…) ”. It is clear that AOC definition of 'the people' is very different. She does not construct a homogenous people, but a enormous diverse group of people connected together by their position on the social ladder, by their class (see the second tweet below).
AOC doesn't hesitate to target 'the elites'. In one of her most famous Tweets, she pointed a finger to the very same institution she is part of and its policies as being in stark contrast to the lack of privilege that the average citizen has, complementing her aforementioned speech on the matter. The elite is again constructed on their position vis à vis the class interests of the common people. Her 'populism' is thus very different then the populism Müller describes.
Thoughts and conclusions
On one hand, social and digital media have established the regime of a “society of self-disclosure” (Thomson, 2005), meaning that political figures now often share trivial aspects of their personal life with their audiences. This is, of course, a powerful tool for the construction and spreading of one's message and for crafting one's political persona. Especially in the case of a politician who stands by "the people", social media are the ideal platforms to create a relatable image and gain support, creating also the illusion of closeness with one's followers.
Figures who adopt this relatable persona are usually characterized as populists, and AOC definitely conforms to many of the proposed definitions of the term. In her case, populism is constructed and used in a social democratic tradition, fighting for the working-class people. They are the agenda, according to her message. AOC is especially effective in communicating this as she is consistent in her message as well as able to "clap back" to any accusations or tweets suggesting that she is not one of the people. As Maly (2019) has claimed, "[i]n mainstream media, a rise in likes and followers on the social media (...) is frequently being understood as a rise in popularity and support for the movement " – or, in this case, support for the person and what she stands for. With this, one can conclude that when populist tactics are used effectively, they pass as "relatability" inspired by the person – something that has certainly happened for AOC. This relatability works to her advantage, judging from her continuously growing number of supporters.
As a final note, it's important to highlight the key role of media in this era of doing politics. Changes in the media field have concrete effects on how politics are now constructed. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is an examplary case of this dynamic new reality.
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Maly, I. (2019). New right metapolitics and the algorithmic activism of Schild en Vrienden. Social media + Society.
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