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Putting Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Popularity Into Historical Context


Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may be a freshman representative, but she is already making an impact. She has a bigger Twitter following than the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. And she has policy positions to the left of many of her peers in Congress.


ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: It's time to remember that universal college education, trade school, a federal jobs guarantee, exploration of a universal basic income were not proposed in 2016. They were proposed in 1940 by the president of the United States.

GREENE: Now, her commitment to ideology over process and party have put her at odds at times with some veteran Democrats who have encouraged her to take some time to learn the way things work. Rick Perlstein has studied the rise of the American conservative movement, and he is calling Ocasio-Cortez's rise a moment of change for the Democratic Party.

RICK PERLSTEIN: I think, in a word, it set the party - or at least the activist faction of this party that's really kind of driving the energy - is much more unapologetic than it has been in the recent past.

GREENE: What would you say has been apologetic in the Democratic Party, and why do you think the party had gone in that direction?

PERLSTEIN: Sure. Let me give you an example. In the middle of the 1970s, the Senator Edmund Muskie, who was basically the Senate's No. 1 environmentalist, introduced amendments to basically require the car industry to have fuel economy standards. And the car industry said, we can't do that; we scientifically and literally cannot do that. And Muskie said, I don't care; do it anyway. And they came back with kind of a counteroffer on a piece of paper. You know, this is our next negotiating position. And one of Muskie's aides folded that piece of paper into a paper airplane and sailed it over the heads of the lobbyists.

GREENE: (Laughter).

PERLSTEIN: And basically, he called the bluff. And, you know, he used the power of the environmental movement and the enthusiasm that it had, and he passed fuel economy standards. That kind of lack of apology was something that you really saw kind of receding into the background with the Reagan victory. Immediately, they started becoming, you know, afraid of their own shadow and stopped advancing those kinds of policy gains - not just policy consolidations. You know, the kind of things she's talking about - free college, like we had in the '50s and '60s, you know, postal banking, raising the top marginal tax rates. And, you know, these are opening bargaining positions, and they're going to change the conversation.

GREENE: But isn't she saying some of the same things as people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and other Democrats? Is what she is presenting that brand new in the party?

PERLSTEIN: Well, she's part of a movement, right? I mean, she was recruited by veterans of the Bernie Sanders campaign, the Justice Democrats. And the fact is, she's part of a critical mass. You know, a party needs all kinds of people. It needs show horses. It needs work horses. It needs legislative technicians. It needs communicators. And, you know, the fact that she isn't the answer to the alpha and the omega of what the Democratic Party needs - I suspect she'd be the first person to admit that.

GREENE: So if you put her in a category of people like Elizabeth Warren, like, say, Bernie Sanders, why is she - I mean, have such a following right now?

PERLSTEIN: That's a great question.

GREENE: I mean, a lot of Americans...

PERLSTEIN: That's right.

GREENE: A lot of Democrats seem - I mean, just they're following her on social media. They seem totally fascinated.

PERLSTEIN: That's right. I think every transformative politician in America that I'm aware of has been able to communicate with the public in fresh, new and exciting ways. And her ability to educate people on Twitter, on Instagram about politics in a way that's not just, you know, kind of chewy but actually funny and entertaining - it reminds me of what someone like FDR did on the radio. You know, when he was trying to convince the American public that we needed to pass a lend-lease program - that we basically needed to provide weapons to England so they could defend themselves against the Nazis, he would say things like when your neighbor's house is on fire, you know, you're going to let him run the garden hose from your water supply so your house doesn't catch on fire, right? And everyone's like, oh, that sounds good; that's perfectly reasonable; that's - yeah, I'm for the Lend-Lease Act. That's the kind of communicating that AOC, as she's been known, has been doing on Twitter.

GREENE: I just want to pause for a second because you are comparing a 29-year-old member of Congress who has literally just started her career in Congress to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

PERLSTEIN: Well, you know, there's a wait-and-see element definitely. But when it comes to communication and the ability to kind of drive people to a message, I think it's very similar to a Roosevelt. It's very similar to a Reagan. It's very similar to a Winston Churchill. Whether she can convert that into a career of accomplishment, you know, that's going to be very exciting for us to watch.

GREENE: I guess there's a lot to see as her career plays out.

PERLSTEIN: Yeah, wait and see.

GREENE: That was historian Rick Perlstein talking about Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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