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22 August 2018updated 11 Sep 2018 7:49pm

A democratic socialist in America: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s mission

The 28-year-old Democrat is set to become the youngest woman ever elected to Congress - and is determined to tilt US politics leftwards. 

By Sophie McBain

In the speech that followed her stunning victory in New York’s Democratic congressional primary on 26 June, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez promised her supporters: “This is only the beginning.” The 28-year-old left-wing activist had just defeated 56-year-old Joe Crowley, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives.

Since then, Ocasio-Cortez has travelled across the US to campaign for other candidates who share her commitment to universal health-care coverage, a living wage, free university tuition and comprehensive criminal justice and immigration reform.

The self-described democratic socialist and Catholic, who was waiting tables at a taco and tequila bar in Union Square less than a year ago, has given innumerable interviews to TV news and late-night talk shows and was recently profiled by the New Yorker. Her sudden fame has been accompanied by intense public scrutiny.

The Republican National Committee has called her a “mini Maduro” (in reference to the Venezuelan president) and Fox News’s Sean Hannity declared that she was “downright scary”. Earlier this month, Ocasio-Cortez was denounced for barring the press from two of her public events in Queens, a borough that falls within her congressional district. The right-wing media is obsessed with Ocasio-Cortez’s real or imagined missteps, but on this occasion she attracted opprobrium from mainstream journalists, too. Seung Min Kim, a Washington Post reporter, tweeted that Ocasio-Cortez “is in for a rough time on Capitol Hill – where reporters roam freely at all hours of the day and night – if this is her attitude toward the press”. The same week, more than 300 news organisations published co-ordinated editorials condemning the Trump administration’s attacks on the press and highlighting the importance of media freedom for American democracy. There is no good time to exclude journalists from public events, but the timing made matters worse.

On Twitter, Ocasio-Cortez dismissed the furore as a “non-story” and said the press was kept out to ensure that vulnerable populations such as immigrants and victims of domestic violence “feel safe discussing sensitive issues in a threatening political time”. She suggested the problem was partly semantic: wealthy Americans pay thousands of dollars to meet political candidates at private events; if voters in her district meet her free of charge, should the event be listed as public or private? She confirmed, however, that future events would be open to the press.

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Having been propelled so rapidly into the political spotlight, Ocasio-Cortez and her team are now learning on the job. “We’re still adjusting our logistics to fit Alexandria’s national profile,” her campaign spokesman told the Queens Chronicle, the local newspaper that first reported the story.

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“Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office,” Ocasio-Cortez said in her campaign video, which went viral. “I wasn’t born to a wealthy or powerful family. Mother from Puerto Rico, dad from the South Bronx. I was born in a place [the Bronx] where your zip code determines your destiny.”

Ocasio-Cortez won a scholarship to Boston University, where she studied economics and international relations and interned for the senator Ted Kennedy. She later returned to the Bronx, the working-class, majority-black and Hispanic neighbourhood she is running to represent, and where she lives in a small apartment with her boyfriend. Her father, an architect, died of lung cancer in 2008 and Ocasio-Cortez fought to save the family home from foreclosure. She also established Brook Avenue Press, a publishing firm, and became an organiser in 2016 for Bernie Sanders, the left-leaning Vermont senator and former candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“It’s time we acknowledged that not all Democrats are the same. That a Democrat who takes corporate money, profits off foreclosure, doesn’t live here, doesn’t send his kids to our schools, doesn’t drink our water or breathe our air cannot possibly represent us,” Ocasio-Cortez said in her campaign video. She has repeatedly excoriated the Democratic leadership as disconnected from ordinary voters and beholden to corporate money.

In November, Ocasio-Cortez will almost certainly become the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. Until then, she is using her public profile to aid insurgent progressives around the US. The Justice Democrats, a political action committee supporting left-wing candidates, say that 23 have won their primaries so far.

Ocasio-Cortez isn’t winning every race she backs, but that’s not the only way she’s measuring success. Outlining her “movement strategy” on Twitter, she said she plans to “make unlikely races flippable for the next cycle” and “advance the front lines for economic and social justice everywhere”. She wants her victory to shift America’s political conversation, and even her most vituperative critics might be forced to concede that she’s succeeding.

This article appears in the 22 Aug 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Will Labour split?