This should sound familiar: A progressive woman and political outsider shocks the world by defeating a powerful, establishment-backed incumbent Congressman in a New York Democratic primary. She becomes the youngest woman ever elected to Congress and secures a position on a powerful congressional committee. Something of a celebrity already, she gains fame by castigating a corrupt Republican president, at one point calling him out as well as his administration for what she sees as “a seamless web of misconduct so serious that it leaves me shaken.”
But this isn’t the story of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It’s the story of Elizabeth Holtzman, a 30-year-old lawyer elected to Congress in 1972, just in time to sit on the House Judiciary Committee during Richard Nixon’s impeachment hearings. She went on to co-found the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, champion gender equality legislation, and criticize runaway military spending. By 1980, she’d accrued enough clout that she could launch a promising Senate campaign—a true rising left-wing star.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may be a lighting rod for controversy and one of the most prominent freshman members of Congress in years, but as Holtzman’s story shows, nothing is ever wholly new. Although elements of her story are unique, Ocasio-Cortez is not the first legislator to become a figure of national fascination overnight. And a brief look at the long history of her political-wunderkind predecessors can show us how her career might accelerate—or sputter, as some of her Democratic colleagues might be hoping.
She’s got some presidential qualities
Many have argued that Ocasio-Cortez is nothing more than a flavor of the week who will fade away as fickle political tastes change. However, most of the historians and political analysts VICE spoke to about her career noted that there are plenty of examples of politicians who started out as young, energetic, sometimes polarizing newcomers and ended up becoming president. Nixon himself was an anti-Communist firebrand when he became a controversial congressman in 1947. Bill Clinton was Arkansas’s “boy governor” in the late 70s—though, like Nixon, he went through electoral defeats before finding his way to the White House. Barack Obama’s path was smoother, winding from the Illinois State Senate to the country’s top job in a mere half-decade.
Those comparisons may not be perfect—for one thing, it’s not clear that Ocasio-Cortez harbors presidential ambitions. (Though her team did not reply to a request for comment for this article, she has openly slapped down at least one suggestion that she consider a presidential run.) But these men all show, at the very least, that a young political phenom who jumps to rapid national fame isn’t doomed to flame out.
The “Watergate Babies”—Democrats, some of them with relatively little prior political experience, elected in 1974 in the wake of the scandals that brought down Nixon—offer a close comparison to Ocasio-Cortez. Congressional historian Julian Zelizer called them, as a group, “media savvy and willing to put forward big ideas,” and they flung themselves into wide-ranging government transparency, accountability, and oversight projects. Arguably the most famous among them, the Colorado junior Senator Gary Hart, made a name for himself pushing progressive ideas like large-scale government programs to expand access to education, retrain workers, and help minority groups and women gain greater access to economic prosperity. All of that sounds familiar.
Avoiding scandal—and the Hubert Humphrey trap—will be key
Unlike Hart, Ocasio-Cortez hasn’t succumbed to embarrassing scandal. She’s at times confessed to screwups—like when she stumbled in an interview while discussing Israel and Palestine—but has also turned her lack of knowledge into endearing aw-shucks moments. (As she did recently when she admitted to not knowing what a garbage disposal was.)
Even the ethics complaint filed against her and her campaign manager by a right-wing group for allegedly mishandling money hasn’t managed to stick. But as media analyst Martin Gurri argued, even if no big, career-ending scandals about her emerge, “the charges and counter-charges never end. The effect can be death by a thousand cuts.”
Even if Ocasio-Cortez remains scandal-free, history has shown us again and again that rising stars have to be extremely cautious about how they try to advance up the political ladder. Moving too fast opens a candidate up to accusations of being too greedy—especially women, argued political communications and social media specialist Shannon McGregor, whose careers are judged much more ruthlessly than men’s. “That’s garbage, by the way,” she said, “but it happens.”
The problem is, none of the natural incremental upward steps Ocasio-Cortez could take—a Senate seat or the New York mayorship or governorship—look viable anytime soon. Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand probably aren’t going anywhere in the near future (unless Gillibrand’s longshot presidential bid catches fire). Governor Andrew Cuomo seems likely to seek a fourth term as well and would be similarly hard to unseat. (Multiple progressive Democrats have tried, most recently Cynthia Nixon, and all have failed.) The most attractive race for her, political analyst and media affairs advisor John Celock believes, would be the 2021 New York City mayoral elections, but they could prove unpredictably competitive.
And when insurgent politicians win higher offices, they often temper their images to appeal to a wider electorate, becoming part of the establishment in the process. A historical precedent for Ocasio-Cortez her fans might recoil from is Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon B. Johnson’s vice president. Humphrey, started out as “a true maverick and ‘bomb-thrower’ shaking up the system,” Zelizer explained. An academic and political radio commentator in Minnesota, Humphrey made his name in the 1940s by demanding the national Democratic Party put civil rights legislation on its platform. He then made his way into the Senate in 1948 thanks in large part to a populist coalition of farmers and union workers. While there, he earned a reputation as an outspoken proponent for welfare expansion, employee protections, and denuclearization. But he lost his 1968 presidential bid against Nixon—partly because by that time leftists regarded him as LBJ’s pro-war lackey. He remained a prominent political figure until he died a decade later, but without the progressive bona fides of his earlier career. That is surely a fate Ocasio-Cortez’s supporters wouldn’t wish for her.
Holtzman was careful about choosing her battles. Yet when she ran for Senate in 1980, she lost—partly because the liberal Republican incumbent Jacob Javits ran as a third-party spoiler, splitting the left-leaning vote. “She picked probably the best opportunity,” stressed Celock, but even then, “circumstances beyond her control cost her the race.” (She still had a good career by any standard, later serving as Brooklyn’s district attorney and New York City’s comptroller; more recently, she’s become a commentator who specializes in comparing the Trump era to the Watergate era.)
AOC is more than a politician: She’s an #influencer
Perhaps the one thing that really sets Ocasio-Cortez apart from her historical predecessors is the way she turns social media into political power—though she is certainly not the first political figure to leverage new media into fame and influence. “Television," said venerable political pollster and strategist John Zogby, "enabled Martin Luther King to rise to national consequence just as TV news was coming into its own in the late 1950s. The same can perhaps be said for how radio in the 1930s helped create the racist demagogue priest Father Coughlin." John F. Kennedy also famously drew power from his mastery of television, and Franklin D. Roosevelt from radio.
It’s hard to draw comparisons between older figures who mastered other forms of media, but clearly Ocasio-Cortez has utilized social media as effectively as anyone in the county. As Celock pointed out, she is now “one of two elected officials in America who can, with one tweet, change the entire line of public discourse for the day.” The other is Donald Trump, which gives you an idea of her stature.
So maybe she doesn’t actually need the formal authority that comes with a Senate seat or a governor’s mansion. “Her future will be determined by whether she can retain influence over her millions of followers,” argued Gurri, “not by her success in climbing the Washington, DC, hierarchy.”
However, Gurri added, digital fame is fickle and a shift in social media norms or priorities could rapidly erode that political power base. And no matter how much hype people put on the power of social media to reach people directly, Ocasio-Cortez would have much less political power if mainstream media outlets stopped covering her. Right now, argued Zogby, she is the avatar of a media meta narrative about “the coming of age of millennials, young women, and young Hispanics all rolled into one,” and of young voters’ general leftward lean and “impatience with establishment stasis.”
She is also, added American political historian Mark Jendrysik, the right wing media’s preferred, and much promoted, antagonist. If the press moves on to a fresher embodiment of those narratives, or a new narrative altogether, she could lose her independent political capital rather quickly.
OK, so where does this leave us?
Several analysts VICE spoke to for this piece said that, for now, Ocasio-Cortez’s best career move might be to stay where she is: a likely safe seat from which she can build political connections, a legislative reputation, and ultimately an arguably more stable from of fame and influence. “Many people start out with a lot of expectations as a boy or girl wonder in Congress,” added Jendrysik, “then settle down and realize this can be a good career—that they can gain a lot of influence and change a lot of things just by staying in their seat in the House for a long time.”
However, to do that, she needs to make sure she tends to her district’s needs; there are already murmurs, said Celock, that her staff isn’t visible enough “in handling local concerns like mail delivery, or having a presence in local community board meetings.” Ironically, electoral politics expert Kyle Kondik noted, grievances about focusing on national politics over the needs of constituents were one set of factors in her unseating of former Congressman Joseph Crowley.
And while Ocasio-Cortez can position herself as a thought leader more than a hardcore legislator, she will probably need to get her name on some noteworthy legislation, said Jendrysik, to bolster her fame by satisfying at least baseline expectations for her from her fans. That could be difficult: Freshman representatives always have a hard time passing big bills. Ocasio-Cortez has also positioned herself as a thorn in the side of the Democratic establishment with whom she’ll need to form coalitions to get anything meaningful done.
Too much compromise, Gurri cautioned, could alienate her most stringently populist supporters. Too little could eventually prompt the establishment to try to oust her. There are already whispers that centrists and old-guard members of her district’s Democratic machine want to run a primary challenger against her soon.
While it is entirely possible that Ocasio-Cortez will find a way of effectively navigating those political challenges and retaining her digital fame. But it is worth remembering that she is a political neophyte who openly acknowledges how jarring her rise to prominence has been and how tiring it is to play the great hope or villain while just trying to do her job as a legislator. And all it takes is one slip to upset that balancing act and take a major career turn.
As historian Gil Troy noted, proof of such political staying power, “an agility and a rootedness,” only emerges with time. So it is entirely possible that Ocasio-Cortez “may yet rise, in time, to spectacular heights,” as Gurri put it, “or plunge into the abyss and be forgotten” within months or years. “No one can say at this point.”