The mission of the Reflective Democracy Campaign is a nation where women and people of color hold a fair share of power, and all Americans are represented in government. To this end, we mine the data and issue groundbreaking reports about the astonishing overrepresentation of white men in politics and criminal justice. We fund grassroots projects that chip away at the barriers to reflective democracy and empower candidates who represent communities of color and women. And we scrutinize the coverage of politicians, candidates, and voters, honing our understanding of how the media shapes — and is shaped by — America’s relationship to racism, white supremacy, patriarchy, racial justice, and gender equity.
Our media analysis probes the depictions, distortions, biases, and insights generated about reflective politicians by journalists and pundits whose industry — over 80% white and two-thirds male — is itself deeply unreflective of the American population.
This month, we allow ourselves a glint of optimism as we survey critical reactions to the explosion of coverage about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and sample the more insightful assessments of the recently-elected women of the 116th Congress as they break precedent in their self-presentation and their assertive solidarity.
I. Reflectiveness 2.0
The Campaign’s raison d’etre has never been simply to add headcount. Our founding assumption was that changing who leads us would change how we are led. Judging by the extreme bipartisan anxiety Ocasio-Cortez and her cohort are causing, their election marks an inflection point, an assertion of reflective leadership that declines to mimic the status quo, and aims to reset the table rather than pull up a chair.
As Jill Filipovic observes in the Times, “the women of the 116th Congress are redefining what it means to be powerful and reshaping some of the most dearly held American fables in the process.” Sweeping aside the toxic myth of meritocracy — “perhaps the dearth of women and people of color in office meant they hadn’t worked hard enough for it?” — Tlaib, Pressley, Haaland, Ocasio-Cortez and others are sending a different message:
Their strength comes from collaborative, generational efforts to move toward the good. The promise of America is not the possibility of individuals going at it alone and achieving in a high-profile way as a result, and the purpose of politics is not personal empowerment.
Equally visible is the signal this squad sends by standing together — literally — before the camera. Solidarity, collective action, sisterhood — words usually reserved for people marching on Washington, not those we petition when we march. “I got your back,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted to Tlaib after skewering the Right for its fake outrage over her use of profanity. “The Bronx and Detroit ride together.”
Impeach the motherfucker underscores how these women reflect the greatest American majority of all: nonpoliticians. Like Sanders and Trump, they say what they think — and what a sizeable portion of their base thinks — without the myriad tactical calculations we’ve come to take for granted from our politicians. Behind closed doors, Chuck and Nancy would likely say the same thing, but if reflective leadership means walking your talk, the women of the 116th aren’t just walking — they’re strutting.
II. Jane Bond, never Jane Doe/and I Django, never Sambo — Janelle Monae
This is not your mother’s intersectionality. Effortless, unapologetic, framed as much by joy as by struggle, the rich, complex identities projected by the women of the 116th reflect the lived reality of millions of Americans. Ocasio-Cortez poses with Trekkie icon Kate Mulgrew; Ayanna Pressley vamps with Puerto Rican Red Sox manager Alex Cora; Sharice Davids takes out “a rising star of the Republican Party” by celebrating her mixed martial arts, Native, and queer identities all at once. These women contain a multitude, and gladly assert as much.
As Filipovic tells it, reflective politicians of the past mostly had to “fold themselves into the existing story” of individual exceptionalism and adopt the postures of power modeled by white men. The 116th squad instead embraces attitudes and aesthetics rooted in their own communities, flavored with the intricacies and contradictions inherent to a 21st century existence in multicultural America, where queer women and feminists lead the modern equivalent of the Black Power movement, and an African American Jewish chef is the first Black recipient of the James Beard Book of the Year award.
For Matthew Yglesias at Vox, the persistent attempts to expose Ocasio-Cortez as phony only underscore right wing pundits’ remove from contemporary reality.
[I]f someone can’t understand why Alexandria from the Bronx may have preferred to go by Sandy as a suburban teen, only to reclaim ethnic pride in college, then that says a lot more about their lack of understanding of young people’s lives than anything else.
What’s the possible impact of reflective politicians who reject both the politics of respectability and the imperative to conform to conventional narratives about winning and holding office? For Filipovic, “[c]hanging the way we tell the stories of how people achieve political power is much bigger than… triumphant Instagram captions. It has the power to change the outcome of what those in power do.”
Will the women of the 116th make substantive change the way they make headlines? Their opponents, at least, seem to fear it. “It would be convenient,” Yglesias observes, “for conservatives if [Ocasio-Cortez] were in some sense a fraud rather than simply someone with crossover political appeal. But it just isn’t true.”
Cross-over appeal is the gold at the end of the reflective rainbow: a possible remedy to the GOP’s half-century reliance on the Southern Strategy to rally white voters around policies that serve only their corporate masters. Of the compulsion to poke holes in Ocasio-Cortez’s biography, Adam Serwer writes in The Atlanticthat she “has joined Barack Obama as a focus of the very same fear and anger that elected Trump in the first place [and that]… is not an incidental element of modern Republican politics; it is crucial to the GOP’s electoral strategy of dividing working-class voters along racial lines.”
Yet while Obama hewed to the neoliberal embrace of capital, the 116th squad ranges from openly socialist to economically left of center. Whether this tanks or improves their party’s appeal to young voters, swing voters, infrequent voters, etc., will be debated ad nauseum in the months to come. Here at the Campaign we’ll be sure to track all interesting trends.
III. Black to the Future?
Throughout the 90s and early 2000s, when people were baffled by the timid Democratic response to the ascendant GOP, our minds would turn to who had skin in the game. In clashes over policy and national priorities, the old white men of the GOP were representing their own interests, while the old white male Democrats were… purporting to represent ours. Imagine if they were women of color, we’d say.
Historian Rick Perlstein diagnoses Democratic skittishness differently — to him it’s a neurotic response to the traumatic victories of Reagan, Gingrich, and the Bushes — but celebrates more or less the same remedy. In a recent New Yorker interview, Perlstein positions Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as heir to FDR and JFK, with an authenticity that hearkens back to a muscular, pre-Reagan Democratic Party.
….Anderson Cooper throws a question to her that for just about any traditional, old-generation Democrat is a stumper — Oh, the other side says you’re radical. And she had this ready-made answer… deploy[ing] these very powerful symbols from the American civic religion, and I’m going to quote: “Abraham Lincoln made the radical decision to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Franklin Delano Roosevelt made the radical decision to embark on establishing programs like social security. . . . If that’s what radical means, call me a radical.”
“Finally, someone who gets it,” Sophie Weiner proclaims in Splinter News. Describing Schumer and Pelosi as “our leading Democratic crypt keepers,” Weiner contrasts their perspective on the border wars — “a way to fight Trump” — with that of Ocasio-Cortez. To a “young Latinx woman with family and friends in the most diverse city in the country, immigration policy isn’t abstract. It’s a matter of life or death.”
Jezebel’s Ashley Reese similarly views Ocasio-Cortez as a remedy for old guard myopia, specifically the Democratic Party’s anxiety about white working class votes coupled with its refusal to aggressively confront the crushing burdens faced by the working class. “I hope she… realizes,” Claire McCaskill chided Ocasio-Cortez, “that the parts of the country that are rejecting the Democratic Party, like a whole lot of white working class voters, need to hear about how their work is going to be respected, and the dignity of their jobs….”
We know where this is going: stop waving your “identity politics” banner, Alexandria (and Ayanna, and Rashida, and Sharice). Yet, as Reese points out, Ocasio-Cortez ran on a platform of “increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, the endorsement of a Federal Job Guarantee, tuition-free trade schools, and access to healthcare and sick leave. This doesn’t appeal to everyone, but it’s far from ignorant of the needs of the working class.”
Is the racial imagination of the McCaskills too constrained to hear the appeal of economic populism when it comes from people of color? Or are they so deeply affiliated with the 1% that they can’t hear it at all? Either way, their suitability to lead a party whose constituents are not rich white men faces new scrutiny as a younger generation of reflective leaders steps to the plate.
IV. Who Will Win The Robot Wars?
Reflective leadership takes on particular urgency in light of the impending “second industrial revolution” driven by the high tech take-over of work. Massive social and economic disruptions are likely to result from up to 50% of American jobs being absorbed by automation, and the bold policy responses needed to stave off disaster are unlikely to come from leaders deeply invested in the status quo. The ability to collaborate, to generate radical reforms, and to respond productively to populations in crisis — these are skillsets common to outsiders, with varied life experiences and a sense of accountability to affected communities.
Notably, the Green New Deal — Ocasio-Cortes’s Marshall Plan-like proposal for ending the country’s use of fossil fuels — responds to automation’s twin global crisis, climate change. As Benjamin Wallace-Wells observes in The New Yorker, its drafters represent:
the next generation of the progressive élite: Waleed Shahid… was the policy director on Cynthia Nixon’s campaign for governor of New York; Rhiana Gunn-Wright…played the same role for the progressive gubernatorial campaign of Abdul El-Sayed, in Michigan. The leaders of the Sunrise Movement are younger still, in their twenties, with at least as great a sense of urgency. “If you look at the latest United Nations I.P.C.C. report, we need a massive transformation of our economy, unlike any we’ve seen in recent history,” Stephen O’Hanlon, a co-founder of the group, told me.
Sunrise, which spearheaded the call for a total green overhaul of America’s infrastructure, is the group that staged a sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office — joined by Ocasio-Cortes in a headline-grabbing moment. “If put forward, [the Green New Deal] would be the most ambitious climate policy the Democratic Party has ever endorsed,” tackling the issue “as the integrated social, scientific, and economic challenge that it is.”
Intersectional problems; intersectional solutions. The best possible spin on our current situation is that the leaders we most need are breaking through the barriers erected to thwart them, wielding an array of innovative tools forged by lives experienced on the outside.