by Keaton Weiss
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stole the show at Monday night’s Met Gala when she appeared in a white dress with bright red lettering that read “Tax the Rich.” Immediately, “Tax the Rich” was trending on Twitter (at this writing, it still is), as well as – of course – AOC herself.
The backlash from the Right was predictable. They honed in on the irony of wearing a “Tax the Rich” dress to a gala which is itself an embarrassment of riches, as if said irony was lost on AOC herself – as if that obvious contradiction wasn’t in fact the very inspiration for her outfit in the first place.
But many in online Left circles were also quick to criticize her for her attendance at the gala, and dismissed her wardrobe design as “performative.”
Though AOC has deserved criticism at various points throughout her brief career (most recently, not leveraging her vote for Pelosi as Speaker, and benignly agreeing to support the American Rescue Plan even after eight Senate Democrats shot down Bernie Sanders’ minimum wage provision), the Left’s objection to her attendance at the Met is misguided.
For starters, I think we can all agree the point of electing AOC in 2018 – an effort borne of Bernie’s historic presidential run two years prior – was to send one of our own to Congress.
The 2016 Sanders campaign fell short of its ultimate goal, but was nonetheless hugely successful in helping to destigmatize Leftist political ideology. Suddenly, large swaths of the population were no longer afraid or ashamed to call themselves socialists. This was itself a major victory which made AOC’s candidacy possible.
Then, upon her unlikely triumph over Joe Crowley, we were poised to permeate the mainstream in a way we hadn’t been able to do before. We had sent a democratic socialist to Washington who was bound to become a bona fide star – yes, a “celebrity,” if you will – and we would finally have someone representing our interests not only in the halls of Congress, but on television shows, social media, and, indeed, the occasional red carpet at extravagant soirees like the Met Gala.
In this sense, AOC’s celebrity status as the most famous member of Congress is itself a boon to Left politics, because it creates an opportunity for Leftists to puncture elite bubbles that were long considered impenetrable by ordinary people.
The fact that Leftist politicians are now on invite lists to events like the Met Gala ought to be seen as a good sign – a sign that the Left is gaining influence among elite cultural circles from which we’ve always been deliberately excluded. Those who lament AOC’s legitimization of elite institutions like the Met Gala should have probably thought twice about electing her to Congress, because guess what: Congress is itself an elite institution.
The entire point of electing progressives to Congress is so that ordinary people can finally have representation in echelons of society formerly reserved for elites. This is the premise of representative democracy – that regular folks can have a seat at the fat cats’ table if they garner enough popular support.
To say that her attendance at the gala wasn’t “revolutionary” is fair enough, but it also misunderstands her role in the progressive movement. Elected officials, almost by definition, are not revolutionary figures. Notice, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X never ran for political office. AOC, on the other hand, is not a revolutionary, she’s a representative. As such, her job is to “represent” working class people in places where working class people rarely gain access.
In other words, the main point of electing Left politicians is to infiltrate elite circles with people we feel will use their esteemed position to do our bidding. In the context of the Met Gala, this is precisely what AOC did. She accepted the invitation, and then used her participation to “break the fourth wall,” as she puts it, and to “have a conversation” about the very nature of the event she’s attending.
To begrudge her appearance at the gala is to take the position that she ought not take advantage of this access to the elites which we granted her in the first place by sending her to Congress.
If that’s our attitude, then why did we bother voting her in? Why bother with electoral politics at all? Why not just be activists? There are many on the Left who feel that electoral politics is a waste of time and energy. This is a legitimate position. What’s not a legitimate position is to espouse the importance of electing Leftists to Congress, and then lambast them when they participate in the very bourgeois pageantry that defines much of what being a Congressperson definitionally entails.
After all, a gathering of elites in an opulent building with too many stairs describes both the Met Gala and a House committee hearing. Why is it acceptable for AOC to attend one but not the other?
To the extent that AOC has failed to live up to her obligations to represent the working class, she has attracted some much deserved blowback from her base. If she and her fellow squad members cave on the $3.5 trillion infrastructure package currently being negotiated (so far, there’s no indication that they will), progressives will be rightfully furious. But trolling the 1% at their own party, calling out the elites in their own house, is a big part of what she was elected to do, and not a bad use of time on what would otherwise be an unremarkable Monday evening in New York.