With her unapologetic progressivism and remarkable social-media savvy, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has captured the national spotlight — and already helped shape the image of her party — to an extent unheard of in recent history for a rank-and-file Democrat, much less a 29-year-old. To draw a more appropriate parallel to past trailblazers, it’s useful to go farther back. Last week, the historian Rick Perlstein compared Ocasio-Cortez — or at least her tactics — to none other than Newt Gingrich. We asked three more experts a simple question: Who does Ocasio-Cortez remind you of most strongly in American political history?
Kevin Kruse, Professor of History, Princeton
I think she has a lot of echoes of Shirley Chisholm. Chisholm was in her 40s when she got elected — older than Ocasio-Cortez, which was more usual for that period. But they do come from similar places. Chisholm was from Brooklyn, and Ocasio-Cortez the Bronx. They represent some of the same kinds of communities.
The thing that really stands out is the attitude. In 1968, Chisholm was the first African-American woman ever elected to Congress, and really came in guns blazing. She took a committee assignment that wasn’t her dream: agriculture, which is a weird spot for a woman who represents Brooklyn. But she used it to help boost the food-stamp program, reaching across the aisle to work with Bob Dole, and that benefited a lot of people in a working-class district.
At the same time, she was really unapologetic. Her motto was “Unbought, Unbossed.” She really didn’t take any guff from anyone. She’s also someone who really was nationally known, partially because of the fact that she was a black woman during a time when there were no other black women in Congress, but also I think because of force of her personality. She was a very smart, very shrewd political player, and was an important figure in the Democratic Party throughout the ’70s and into the ’80s.
So, Ocasio-Cortez really does call to mind Chisholm in a lot of ways for me, which is, at least in my mind, a very positive and powerful comparison. I think Chisholm is tragically underrecognized because of her importance in American political history; people should pay more attention to her.
Alexis Coe, presidential and women’s historian:
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has created a bipartisan panic among, primarily, white men, but signals what transformative figures in history always have, from JFK to Barack Obama: a changing of the old guard. When I heard them complain about her, it reeks of jealousy and fear. There’s an oft-used joke among women, that we should channel the confidence of a mediocre white man; that Ocasio-Cortez is authentically confident scares mediocre white men, no matter their political affiliation. Just look at Fox News and other mediocre conservative media outlets obsession with her.
She reminds me of Shirley Chisholm’s slogan: “Unbought, Unbossed.” Ocasio-Cortez has not changed her tune since arriving in Washington. What she says to voters, to Americans, is what she says to lawmakers and pundits; she is wildly consistent, and it terrifies those who capitulate to the “realities” of Washington, which often means money and power.
Is she accessible on social media? Sure. So was FDR in the 1930s, with his fireside chats. He had radio. Ocasio-Cortez has Twitter.
The tendency is to suggest she’s naïve, through words like “idealistic” or “inexperienced,” but I’d turn that around and say she isn’t beaten down or scarred by major historical shake-ups. She doesn’t have PTSD from the “Contract with America” era, but all indications suggest she’s well aware of it. She’s got historic examples at the ready, instead of being defensive in the moment; when she’s called “radical,” she reminds people that Abraham Lincoln was “radical” for signing the Emancipation Proclamation.
Matthew Karp, Assistant Professor of History, Princeton
Ocasio-Cortez is a member of the Democratic Party, but her relationship to the party is really ambiguous. These analogies are always slippery, but during the antebellum period in Congress, you had a two-party system not totally dissimilar to today’s, which had arisen around the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Pretty much the entire country was evenly divided between Democrats and Whigs. And abolitionists, the Northerners who put the opposition to slavery at the top of their political agenda, were really frozen out of power and even representation in federal politics across the 1830s.
At the same time, there were a lot of Northerners who were personally opposed to slavery, but because of the nature of that two-party system, their personal animosity to slavery didn’t really develop into any kind of public politics. So it was really only a tiny handful of isolated members: first John Quincy Adams in Massachusetts in the 1830s, and then Joshua Giddings from Ohio, who was elected late in that decade. And they became these very lonely voices, denouncing the way that slavery had a stranglehold on all national politics.
Giddings and John Quincy Adams became the chief figures in Congress who were paying attention to the Slave Power, and how it manipulated and controlled the national government in both domestic and foreign policy.
Later, Giddings co-wrote, along with Salmon Chase and others, one of the most influential propaganda documents in American history — the “Appeal of the Independent Democrats” against the Kansas-Nebraska Act — which was a galvanizing document for the emergence of the new Republican Party in 1854. And it’s this group of radicals like Giddings, Chase, Charles Sumner, that became the ideological core of that party. There were tensions among Republicans, but the fundamental commitment to the opposition of slavery — the rejection of property of man as something that’s constitutional, and the opposition to all expansion of slavery with the belief in slavery’s ultimate extinction — became the new center of gravity for this dominant party in the North.
I do think there are some parallels to today. Ocasio-Cortez exists in this kind of uncomfortable tension with the Democratic Party. She has allies in the party, but at the same time, she does represent a brand of politics that wants to reorient the axis of debate in a fundamental way. In some sense, I think this threatens the ideological priorities of the party and its establishment.