Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez only became a national name recently, by winning an upset victory against Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary for New York’s 14th Congressional District, but it was only a matter of time before somebody got upset at something as pointless as her clothing.
It’s kind of unfortunate how unsurprising that is, but first, some background: Ocasio-Cortez is a bit of a lightning rod right now. And as a self-described Democratic Socialist who identifies herself with the same movement as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Ocasio-Cortez supports several policies that are popular with younger voting groups, such as prison reform, Medicare-for-All, and free public universities. She’s also bolstered that platform with a compelling life story: She describes her childhood growing up in the Bronx as working class and says her experiences are the foundations for her political beliefs.
Of course, the label of “Democratic Socialist” that Sanders and company have adopted so enthusiastically has encouraged a kind of mirror response on the right, where the people who have always worried about socialism will continue to do so. There’s little doubt that fear of socialism helped inspire the beginning to this whole suit snafu.
So, the story: On a Friday like any other, a canny Reddit user on a conservative page posted an image of Ocasio-Cortez posting on a graffitied New York stoop. Next to the photograph was a list of clothes, with their prices beneath: $600 shoes, $900 pants and a matching blazer worth almost $2,000. The user wittily captioned the image, “Expensive taste for a socialist.”
Conservative activist Charlie Kirk may have picked it up from there, because he’s the one who brought it to Twitter, framing it more explicitly as “hypocrisy” and challenging Ocasio-Cortez’s image as a champion of the working class. The morning after Kirk’s tweet, “Fox & Friends” picked it up and ran a studio piece where the hosts sarcastically quipped that that wealth ought to be “redistributed” and that none of them owned $600 shoes.
Except, of course, neither does Ocasio-Cortez. The origin of the photo is from a photoshoot she did for Interview magazine, and the outfit was picked out by a stylist. The blazer, pants and pumps were owned by the magazine, not Ocasio-Cortez. As she pointed out herself on Twitter in reply to Kirk, it’s not like she gets to keep the clothing. Besides, she added, the suit looked awesome.
So why did such a silly misunderstanding blow up like it did? Simply put, it was politically expedient. I can guarantee that right now, there are still conservatives out there who only heard part of the conversation and still aren’t aware that Ocasio-Cortez doesn’t actually own a suit worth several thousand dollars. But more to the point, tying the working-class Democratic Socialist candidate to an expensive outfit is perfect for the GOP’s response to the alleged Democratic Socialist insurgency.
There’s a worry in the Republican party that Democratic Socialists poll as well among working-class independent voters as Democratic Socialists claim they do. Ocasio-Cortez’s narrative is perfect for her cause: The pitch goes that she knows what it’s like to struggle in a working-class job and is willing, if elected, to promote policies that will make life easier for the lower classes. That approach could be seriously lethal to the GOP’s grasp on the working class, especially if the president’s tax reform remains to be seen as primarily benefiting the rich.
What’s a Republican to do? Challenge Ocasio-Cortez’s working-class bona fides. It would be lethal for them to let her claim her kid-from-the-Bronx narrative without challenge, which is exactly why early this July, conservatives claimed that she had misrepresented her early life. Critics claimed that she had actually gone to school in a suburb called Yorktown Heights, not the Bronx, and that she had gone from there to an Ivy League education at Brown University: The first claim was technically true, while the second one, bizarrely, was totally false.
In a follow-up tweet to one debunking the Brown University claim, Ocasio-Cortez said that the attempt to “strip” her of her family history was emblematic of how worried her opponents were of how powerful that narrative is, and she was totally right. Either by intentionally misconstruing the truth of how photoshoot stylists work, or by eliding the truth subtly by seeking to merely associate Ocasio-Cortez with the alarming price, her opponents are again trying to remove the threat they obviously detect from her background.
And there’s another dimension here, too, because this time, the focus of conversation is Ocasio-Cortez’s clothing. As a female politician, Ocasio-Cortez is under far more visual scrutiny than most male politicians. At least for me, the whole thing carries a boringly familiar echo of the jokes made about Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits.
As far as any hypocrisy in wearing an expensive suit to promote Democratic Socialism goes, though, there’s basically none. Considering that the whole photoshoot juxtaposed Ocasio-Cortez with lower-class workers and street-level settings, the optics of the piece aren’t even that bad. It’s essentially identical to any number of other pieces of political advertising out there. What’s really telling about this is just how strongly people responded to such a superficial detail of political advertising. My guess is that we’ll see more arguments like this, and they’re only going to get more intense as we steadily approach the November midterms.