This week, social media darling Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez learned that being an influencer is not the same thing as having tangible influence in Congress.
This might come as a surprise to people who know of AOC only through the constant, flattering media coverage she receives from the mainstream press. Indeed, for the past several weeks, reporters have given space to AOC so that she could air her unsolicited recommendations for President-elect Biden’s staff and cabinet picks (“Rejecting [Bruce] Reed will be a major test for the soul of the Biden presidency”), and her belief that “we need new leadership in the Democratic Party,” a direct attack on Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Charles Schumer.
Alas, being an object of media adoration doesn’t win you points with the House Steering and Policy Committee, the body that determines plum committee assignments. AOC was battling New York Rep. Kathleen Rice, a centrist, for a post on the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee. According to Axios, Rice “worked the committee, tightly controlled by Speaker Pelosi, and was showered with seconding speeches,” unlike AOC, who got Rep. Jerold Nadler to sign off on her candidacy but otherwise neglected to win over many others.
AOC was perhaps too busy scolding fellow politicians for their “boring and bad” explanations and defending prostitution (“sex work is work”) on Twitter. So, when the steering committee cast a secret ballot to choose between Rice and Ocasio-Cortez, the decision was clear: Rice won decisively, 46-13.
Like the confessional booth, the internal party secret ballot allows individual members to express their true feelings about a colleague (as opposed to the forced enthusiasm they must display when yet another media outlet gushes about AOC’s incredible charisma). Instead, as Politico reported, during the debate in the steering committee over the two candidates, “several Democrats called out Ocasio-Cortez’s efforts to help liberal challengers take out their own incumbents, as well as her refusal to pay party campaign dues.”
As well, Democrats already on the Energy and Commerce Committee weren’t eager to have her join their ranks, given her support for radical and divisive ideas like the Green New Deal and Medicare-for-All. Democrats will have a slim majority in the next Congress, and bipartisanship, not radical progressivism, would seem to be the more pragmatic and effective approach going forward.
In a small way, AOC’s loss was a victory for institutionalism. If you want to be taken seriously and eventually achieve a leadership position in the House, you still have to do the actual job, particularly on important committees. That grind involves taking orders from leadership, whipping votes, and making sure coalitions stay on message and on schedule. It’s a lot less glamorous than staging photo ops at the border, taking a histrionic turn for the cameras at a hearing here and there, playing Animal Crossing with your followers, or live-streaming yourself drinking wine and playing humble while assembling IKEA furniture in your luxury Washington D.C. apartment.
Most importantly, it requires building trustworthy working relationships with your colleagues. As one member told Axios, AOC “doesn’t have enough relationships. She needs to learn from this.” Will she?
AOC’s narcissism is often on display—“The reason Republicans hate me so much is because I confront them directly on … their lack of moral grounding on so many issues,” she said during her tipsy livestream—but medias feeding of it has ultimately done her a disservice. The adoration in which she’s basked has led her to believe that attracting attention is the same thing as exercising authority. But politics is not fan-service; it’s really constituent service. To best serve your constituents, you have to address their concerns (not merely what’s trending on social justice Twitter), and you have to have some power within your caucus to get things done.
Threatening to support primary challenges to your colleagues; scolding them behind their backs to sympathetic reporters; mocking them on late-night comedy shows; and playing the radical on Twitter while failing to do the behind-the-scenes work of governing might win you Instagram followers and media sycophants. But, as this week showed, it’s not going to earn you a coveted committee assignment.