It was Monday night in Washington DC, orientation eve for incoming members of Congress, and Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was doing laundry at a coin-operated wash machine. How do we know? She posted an Instagram story about it.
Something no one tells you about running for Congress, Ocasio-Cortez said to her front-facing camera conspiratorially, is that "your clothes are stinky" because you're always on the go. She pushed a row of quarters into the machine, and it got to work on her load.
"Watching Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Instagram doing coin laundry has made me feel more human than anything has in the last two+ years," a young woman named Emily Devereaux later wrote on Twitter.
Devereaux is hardly alone in that feeling. Since Ocasio-Cortez landed in DC earlier this week, the 29-year-old has provided her 606,000 Instagram followers with a constant stream of unfiltered dispatches about her new life in the Capitol, and what one can only assume is a large share of them have logged on every day to watch with rapt attention—the more mundane the better.
Ocasio-Cortez has so far given her followers an inside look at congressional orientation (which she joked was just like a college freshman orientation); the underground passageways connecting buildings in the Capitol; the congressional "swag bag" she received, containing the approved devices she's to use as a US representative; and her congressional handbook, which is filled with advice for how to staff her office and plan for her first term—the handbook, she adds, is available for anyone to see online.
"Because she hasn't been groomed in a … political machine, her lack of familiarity with political/government rigamarole is extremely relatable," Cristian Uriostegui, a 23-year-old constituent of Ocasio-Cortez's, told me in an email. "So her natural curiosities as a normal person make for content that's informational, compelling, and very, very sweet."
Uriostegui said he's "truly addicted" to Ocasio-Cortez's Instagram stories in a way he isn't with other people's on the platform, especially politicians, who he says seem like they have "a whole team in the room with them" when they post to social media. But Ocasio-Cortez's Instagram stories makes him feel like he knows the 29-year-old congresswoman personally.
"Watching her stories feels like having a friend who ran for Congress, won, and is now joining the US Congress and sharing posts that not only demystify her job, but show how she's taking it all in and engaging with the giant political machine lying before her," Uriostegui added.
Scott Talan, an assistant professor at American University's School of Communication, said it doesn't seem so much that Ocasio-Cortez is "demystifying" the inner-workings of Congress—which he said presumes some level of knowledge—rather than showing people for the first time.
"People need to know enough to be mystified," Talan said Thursday. "It’s not just 'demystifying' but revealing, sharing, and literally educating people about what it’s like to be a first-term member of the US Congress." And by giving people a window into the more quotidian aspects of her new life in Washington, Talan said, Ocasio-Cortez has made "the personal political"—something older elected officials have rarely thought to approach the way she does.
Talan said Ocasio-Cortez's Instagram presence, especially as of late, has proven she's more or less cracked the nut on how to come across as authentic, a perennial problem for political candidates and officeholders. Unlike other members of Congress, Talan said, Ocasio-Cortez doesn't have to try to be authentic—the telltale sign, in his opinion, of inauthenticity—she just is.
"She's speaking to people in ways that politicians don’t usually speak because they’re trying to be scripted, trying to be perfect, well coiffed, and well manicured," Talan continued. "But even if you didn't know who she was, you might look at her feed and think, man, she seems cool, she seems smart, she seems real, and I want to meet her. You get that effect by what she's posting .. she's not scripting anything or making sure every hair is in place."
As Talan suggests, Instagram users seem eager to follow Ocasio-Cortez's ascent to Capitol Hill because they can see themselves in her. That means Ocasio-Cortez is engaging a younger and more diverse swatch of the country in the political process, something that proved crucial for her June primary upset.
"As a Puerto Rican woman in her 20s from [New York City] who sees and wants to change the disparity of WOC representation in office, I keep coming back to her Instagram every day because she symbolizes someone like me," Wandy Felicita Ortiz, a 23-year-old based in New Jersey, told me in an email. "She makes politics digestible for everyday people."
Ortiz pointed out that in a Thursday Instagram story, the one showcasing her new congressional handbook, Ocasio-Cortez included a poll, asking her followers how they'd like to see her govern.
"One of the most rigorous aspects of planning is decided early what our priorities are in how we want to lead," Ocasio-Cortez wrote in text superimposed on a screenshot of the handbook. "With limited resources, these decisions aren't always easy. For example: would you rather have a Congressmember with an amazing local services office, or one that leads on national issues?" Below the text, Ocasio-Cortez let Instagram users sound off. "What would you rather your Congressmember do better?" she asked, offering two options: "provide services" and "introduce legislation."
"I love how she has Instagram viewers take polls on what they want to see from her once in office and what their preferences are regarding her leadership style," Ortiz said. "It shows, to me at least, she cares about doing right by others and wants to be held accountable."