The new Netflix documentary, “Knock Down the House,” is pitched as an underdog story about outsider candidates upending the political establishment in the 2018 midterm elections. What it really is, however, is a kind of therapy, one that insists that how a politician makes you feel is more important than how they might govern.
And so it is fitting that the film opens on liberal darling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez applying makeup in her apartment before a public appearance while musing about the challenge of being a woman in politics. AOC’s rise from Bronx bartender to the star of the Democratic freshman class of 2018 in Congress is well-known. It will be even more so thanks to the Netflix camera crew that trailed her during her primary challenge of Joe Crowley, who was at the time the fourth-highest ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives.
AOC’s branding is on-point throughout the film, and the documentarians were more than happy to juxtapose her appealingly energetic youthfulness (and often forced naiveté) with her grouchy, older opponent. She’s a charismatic natural in front of the camera, aw-shucksing her way through scenes that show her shoveling ice into buckets at the bar and saying, “If I was a normal, rational person, I would have dropped out of this race a long time ago.” Amid frequent sun-dappled scenes of her walking around the Bronx, viewers hear voice-overs of AOC musing that people “feel like no one’s fighting for them and everyone’s just in it for themselves.”
The other candidates profiled in the film–all women–are older, less glamorous, and less telegenic than AOC, yet somehow end up coming across as more authentic. Paula Jean Swearengin, who challenged Senator Joe Manchin in the Democratic primary in West Virginia; Cori Bush, a nurse who was galvanized by the Black Lives Matter movement to primary a longtime African American incumbent in Missouri’s 1st district; and Amy Vilela, who campaigned on Medicare-for-all in Nevada’s 4th district.
None of these candidates, including AOC, were traditional underdogs who decided to run for office. They were the spawn of two national groups, Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, who actively recruit outsider candidates to mount primary challenges to established politicians. The documentary shows groups of eager Justice Democrats activists working on laptops emblazoned with “Bernie for President” stickers and railing against the “corrupting influence of money in politics,” as well as hosting multiple training sessions for AOC and her progressive fellow candidates.
Emotions sell, and Justice Democrats hand-picked women (and especially women of color) who could tell a particular kind of story to voters; the therapeutic approach is the through line in each of their narratives, one the Justice Democrats constantly reminded them to exploit. Backstage at a political conference, Swearengin—a mousy, middle-aged woman with a thick coal country accent and a no-nonsense style who is appealingly straightforward one-on-one—is told by a Justice Democrats adviser to ignore her prepared notes and “convey your emotions; inspire people!” Instead, she delivers her prepared speech a bit awkwardly but with a steely resolve. (By contrast, AOC admits that speaking to large groups is people is “way easier” for her than talking to voters one-on-one.) In another scene, we follow Vilela as she visits her daughter’s grave and talks about the girl’s untimely death.
But this is clearly AOC’s show. It features made-for-TV domestic scenes of her and her partner canoodling at home as well as footage from home movies of AOC’s childhood, complete with clichéd swelling violin music.
The bulk of the documentary is devoted to AOC, and not only because she’s the only one of the four who ended up winning her race (the others were soundly defeated). She’s the perfect creature for this therapeutic approach. Whether she’s discussing the issues at stake or her rival Crowley, she speaks in Manichean sound bites leavened with just the right amount of hipster sensibilities: “What political machines do is, they suppress democracy,” she says. When Crowley suggests a debate, AOC says portentously, “This is either a misstep or they have this really well planned.” When her campaign manager suggests putting “Abolish ICE” on all of AOC’s campaign flyers, AOC responds, “I mean, it’s kind of cool. I wouldn’t mind having posters that say ‘Abolish ICE’. . . That’s gangster!”
And she’s happy to perform her feelings for the filmmakers. In one scene, AOC recites a series of Stuart Smalley-like affirmations before a debate with Crowley: “I am prepared enough to do this. I am mature enough to do this . . . I am brave enough to do this,” she says, as her partner smiles encouragingly. Later, in the most meta moment of the film, AOC is filmed by the Netflix crew while filming herself posting a story about her day to her wildly popular Instagram account.
Of course, all these emotional moments would have taken on a different hue if AOC hadn’t won. Because she did, the film seems to have proven its point: as one of the other candidates remarked at a NetRoots conference in Atlanta before the election, “We’re not rich white dudes in suits!” And if you already think AOC walks on water, this documentary will only further that sensibility.
While the Justice Democrats want the world to see these candidates as ordinary people doing extraordinary things, there’s another way to view them. Throughout the documentary, the women profiled marvel that they never thought of themselves as activists; indeed, their transformation from regular people to activist superwomen is the core of the film’s emotional appeal. But activists don’t necessarily make the best elected representatives. Activism requires commitment and principle, yes, but politics demands horse-trading and compromise.
And you can only run as an outsider once. Despite the outsize attention AOC has garnered, her tenure as a legislator so far has been mixed. She’s been criticized for embracing the elite trappings of power—flying and Uber-ing around (in stark contrast to scenes of her taking the subway in “Knock Down the House”) and moving into a luxury apartment in D.C. The rollout of her Green New Deal was a disaster, and her penchant for issuing criticisms and policy statements via Twitter has not served her well. Nor has her eagerness to attack her own party’s leaders.
Yet the manufactured outsider approach to politics might be the future of the Democratic Party, whose generational battles have only begun (exhibit A: the AOC comic book’s (yes, there is one) portrayal of Nancy Pelosi.) As for the next battle the Justice Democrats and their ilk plan to fight, one need only look at their latest target: Joe Biden. Perhaps the sequel documentary can be called “Knock Down the Party (and Re-Elect Trump).”