How AOC "Emotionally Manipulated" The Entire Democratic Party To Do Her Bidding
Back in February of this year, a minor frenzy erupted online when I made an observation which in the ensuing months has proven ever-more obviously true: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, commonly known as “AOC,” is a highly skilled practitioner of “emotional manipulation” in service of advancing her political interests.
Now, I can’t get in her head (thankfully). So I’ve never claimed that AOC deploys these tactics cynically, or that she would even consciously recognize the tactics as constituting “emotional manipulation.” To the contrary, what seems far more plausible is that for the most part, she is sincerely motivated. Of the many things one might call AOC, I wouldn’t call her a phony.
And by “emotional manipulation,” I don't mean that she calculates her words and actions with deliberate malice. Nor am I really accusing her of being duplicitous: In fact, I generally take AOC at her word, and assume she genuinely believes in what she says and does, including the manner in which she advances her political interests. There’s really not a whole lot of reason to disbelieve that AOC’s rhetoric and behavior is an authentic expression of her true convictions.
This presumption of sincerity might seem counter-intuitive — aren’t I gearing up to be super critical of AOC here? Why would I take her at her word?
Well, number one, taking shots at AOC has become trivially easy. So if you’re going to bother making the effort, you might as well engage on a bit of a deeper level than the bog-standard stuff found in any GOP meme.
Number two, the brand of punditry in which one tries to clinically diagnose the psychological maladies of politicians is extremely tedious, and almost entirely useless — whether it’s Donald Trump or AOC. Just very boring and un-illuminating, and reliant on speculative hunches that have no basis in anything tangible.
But number three, and most importantly, presuming sincerity on AOC’s part is actually a necessary prerequisite to grasp why she is so successful at deploying these methods of emotional manipulation in the political arena.
Note that I am not purporting to clinically diagnose AOC — as previously mentioned, delving deeply into the recesses of her psyche doesn’t sound like a very fruitful exercise. I also don’t have access to her psyche, sadly. All I can do is draw conclusions from what she’s chosen to put in the public record.
Granting AOC the presumption of sincerity will keep things from getting muddled, and also aid you in discovering why she’s had such a major influence on US politics — as illustrated again last week when the House of Representatives issued a censure resolution on her behalf. For only the 24th time in US history, the House went through the formal process of censuring a Member, and it was done at the behest of AOC.
Now, when I say “AOC is having a major influence on American politics,” I’m not saying that AOC is some kind of electoral juggernaut. She did win a low-turnout primary election in NYC three years ago against a complacent incumbent. This was an impressive feat, enough to skyrocket her overnight into national stardom.
But ever since, it would appear that her electoral influence may do more harm than good, depending on the constituency of course. This fall, she was one of the external campaigners invited into Buffalo, NY for electioneering activity on behalf of mayoral candidate India Walton. An avowed “socialist” like AOC, Walton ended up losing the election to a candidate who was not even on the ballot. Granted, the winner was longtime incumbent mayor Byron Brown, who ran a write-in campaign. Still, such a fantastically rare result raises the obvious question: was AOC a net benefit or net detriment to Walton in that race? It’s hard to say with certainty, but there’s a plausible case to be made that her presence roused more opposition than it did support.
In the run-up to the make-or-break Michigan Democratic presidential primary in March 2020, the marquee surrogate chosen by the Bernie Sanders campaign to help him make his last stand against Joe Biden was none other than AOC. Subsequently, Bernie lost to Biden by 17 points, and his support particularly among rural voters — a critical constituency for him in the 2016 primaries against Hillary Clinton — collapsed. Did AOC provide a net benefit, or a net detriment, in that election? It’s hard to say with certainty, but there’s a plausible case to be made that… you get the idea.
Lately she’s complaining that she was asked not to offer her political talents in the Virginia gubernatorial race. We’re left only to imagine how that would’ve worked out.
Dubious electoral track record aside, AOC is having a major influence on US politics for other reasons altogether. This influence derives from her status as the undisputed pioneer of a species of emotionally manipulative rhetoric that has since become the lingua franca of the left/liberal activist and media class. If any one individual is most responsible for injecting the newfangled jargon of therapeutic moralism squarely into the bloodstream of the national Democratic Party — and especially into Congress — it’s AOC.
To follow the journey of AOC is to join her on a never-ending, first-person adventure-style melodrama. One day she’s appearing at a fancy-schmancy Gala with a garish slogan emblazoned ridiculously on her dress. The next day she’s on the floor of the House crying — in front of the cameras, naturally — over a vote regarding military aid to Israel. Whether it’s claiming that Ted Cruz attempted to have her murdered, or having a photographer tag along to capture her sobbing hysterically outside one of the immigrant detention centers that she’d labeled “concentration camps” — the drama never ends! You might even argue that the drama is the point. Maybe I should popularize that as a solemn mantra on Twitter.
AOC’s emotional state is always being profusely exhibited, by her, as an integral facet of her entire public persona — and therefore her political philosophy. Sometimes her staff even get in on the action, such as the time her Communications Director DM’d me out of the blue to tell me to “go fuck myself.” (That’s certainly one type of “communication.”) Lots of people are very enthralled by this continuous cascade of drama, and lots of people absolutely despise it. Either way it seems to guarantee AOC is always at the center of political attention.
What prompted my original “emotional manipulation” comment last February, the one which provoked the minor frenzy, was AOC’s decision to appear on Instagram Live to recount the “trauma” she said she endured on January 6. That was the date on which AOC spent some time huddling in an office building rioters never entered, and apparently this experience altered the course of her entire life. In the telling of the tale for IG fans, she also chose to reveal that she identifies as a “survivor” of sexual assault — expressly tying her survivorship of the purported sexual assault to her “survivorship” of January 6. She then suggested that anyone who took a different view on the significance of January 6 was committing an abusive act upon her, akin to those who commit sexual assault and then blame the victim. “The reason I'm getting emotional in this moment is because these folks who tell us to move on, these are the same tactics of abusers,” she said on the stream.
Here is a portion of what I wrote shortly after for the New York Post:
AOC is a highly skilled political communicator. So when she invoked what she said was a past sexual assault during the telling of this tale, the point was to connect the “trauma” from that alleged incident to the “trauma” she incurred on January 6.
This heightens the emotional salience of her demands for extreme remedial action — everything from the expulsion of members of Congress to censorship purges.
Her appeals to Apple and Google shortly after the riot were swiftly accommodated, as the mega-corporations moved to boot the alternate social media site Parler from their app services. And now, questioning anything to do with AOC’s “lived experience” on January 6, or her proposed policy remedies, is denounced as compounding her apparent lifetime of trauma. Disputing what she has to say is suddenly tantamount to “abuse.”
In other words, AOC was invoking her alleged sexual assault in this context to tarnish as “abusers” anyone who declined to uncritically affirm her histrionic account of what occurred at the Capitol on January 6 (such as that Ted Cruz tried to have her murdered). By extension, declining to affirm the political prescriptions that she was advocating at the time (such as expelling members from the body and censoring social media) would also constitute abuse toward her. This, to my mind, was a clear-cut example of emotional manipulation: leveraging the perceived emotional resonance of sexual assault to imbue her January 6 tale with additional moral weight, thereby enhancing her ability to advocate for her political priorities.
In noting the tacticianship at play here, I went out of my way to give AOC credit. “From the standpoint of political strategy,” I wrote in the Post column, “this is a brilliant rhetorical maneuver.” I predicted the rhetoric would have a major effect on the rest of the Democratic Party, and bolster AOC’s stature within it.
Nonetheless, the comments got me bombarded with a torrent of online rage for a few days. It was fine; I can handle online criticism, including online criticism that would be regarded by many as extremely crude — and perhaps even “threatening,” as some of it inevitably is. (Yes, I do get death threats, but I also don’t construct a self-pitying worldview around my receipt of death threats.) AOC herself even jumped in:
The blowback I got was unpleasant at times, but it came with the territory: as an autonomous adult, I made the choice to comment publicly on a contentious political issue. The thing with AOC, though, is she still seems to think that occupying this same “territory” (albeit on a grander scale) shouldn’t require her to have to endure unpleasant attacks. Theoretically, the attacks she undoubtedly does endure could be recognized as unpleasant and even wrongheaded, but also not necessarily a problem of apocalyptic magnitude.
Fortunately for her though, the “apocalyptic” interpretation she’s spearheaded has thoroughly won out within the House Democratic caucus. This was confirmed with last week’s censure vote against Rep. Paul Gosar — a censure executed at the behest of AOC. It was an action which might be seen as a culmination of the rhetorical/behavioral revolution AOC has brought about in the Democratic Party, particularly among its elite segments — the elected officials and the connected activist/media groups.
If you were conspiratorially-minded, you’d have to be forgiven for theorizing that the actual video posted by Gosar — the item which supposedly was of such profound life-threatening consequence that it necessitated a censure resolution — was intentionally not displayed in most media coverage surrounding the issue. Because the video is just so outlandishly stupid. So stupid, in fact, one almost cannot believe it could’ve possibly become the subject of a censure resolution. Here’s a screenshot:
A few frames later, the cartoon version of Gosar “slays” the cartoon version of AOC. This was the grave affront to democracy with which the full House of Representatives preoccupied itself on AOC’s behalf for nearly two hours last week. To clarify: I am not defending the stupidity of Paul Gosar. Congresspeople who routinely do stupid things and don’t seem particularly bright, like Gosar, could be reasonably opposed on those grounds the next time they’re up for re-election.
Gosar apparently thinks it’s super cool to hire dum-dums from the dregs of the right-wing internet to make “meme” videos stylistically depicting him vanquishing his political enemies (as though making memes like this is still considered some impressively edgy innovation). So by all means: criticize Gosar for posting an incredibly dumb video, found amusing only by sad online anime guys who continue to be titillated by cameos of Pepe the Frog.
But whether this warranted cries of “inciting violence,” much less a formal censure resolution, is another matter altogether. The entire House Democratic caucus, plus Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger of course, voted for a resolution which claimed the Gosar video functioned to “further violence against elected officials.” In doing so, the caucus endorsed and codified the emotionally manipulative logic of AOC, who proclaimed: “When we incite violence with depictions against our colleagues, that trickles down into violence in this country.” I would love for someone to explicate the exact causal chain by which they’re contending that this cartoon video will produce real-life violence. Because otherwise they’re just spouting cliches and, worse, popularizing a specious line of argument that does nothing to prevent actual violence — but does stifle political speech.
“These depictions are part of a larger trend of misogyny, and racist misogyny,” AOC added, underscoring her belief in why a rarely-invoked censure resolution was necessary. (Never mind that Gosar’s stupid video climaxed with his “slaying” a cartoon depiction of Joe Biden, but I guess that could also somehow be described as misogynist/racist given the ever-expanding elasticity of this whole paradigm.)
So that was the logic co-signed by the entire Democratic caucus last week via censure resolution. It again demonstrates the increasing political efficacy of AOC, which I think should be best understood as the outgrowth of her sincerely-held views. With the passage of the resolution, the sensibility exhibited by AOC back in February has indeed taken over the party in short order, as predicted. This was already in the works when Nancy Pelosi authorized a group therapy session on the floor of the House at AOC’s request:
Fast forward to November, and Pelosi is shepherding through a censure resolution against a Member for only the seventh time in the last century, predicated on the AOC paradigm.
This censure resolution was unusually significant in its precedent-setting. On the rare occasions when censure resolutions have been passed in recent decades, they’ve typically been a disciplinary measure against a Congressperson who got caught in some ethics scandal. As mentioned, Gosar is now only the 24th member of the House in history to be censured; the most recent was longtime Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel in 2010 for ethics violations. You’d have to go all the way back to 1921 to find the last time a censure was issued on the basis of allegedly objectionable speech.
That year, Democratic Rep. Thomas Blanton was censured for “unparliamentary language” because he inserted a letter into the Congressional record that was said to contain “indecent and obscene” words. The letter was considered so vile that Frank Wheeler Mondell, the Republican floor leader, denounced Blanton for publishing words that in non-legislative contexts would make the utterer “subject to fine and imprisonment under the laws of the land.” The Congressional record even outright censored the offending words, which are as follows:
G__d D___n your black heart, you ought to have it torn out of you, you u____ s_____ of a b_____. You and the Public Printer has no sense. You k_____ his a____ and he is a d_____d fool for letting you do it.
It’s possible to surmise that phrases like “son of a bitch” and “damned fool” were the offending material in this episode.
The resolution last week, therefore, was precedent-setting because for the first time in 100 years, the House censured a member on the basis of speech — speech that was deemed objectionable thanks to the mass-adoption of the “emotional manipulation” paradigm pioneered by AOC. As of last week, this is officially the paradigm which dictates what is defined as “indecent and obscene” in Congress.
In 1921, it was “son of a bitch.”
In 2021, it’s a cartoon video that — in the words of Pelosi — set out to “target a woman of color,” had the wider effect of “silencing women,” and also constituted “workplace harassment.”
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), who introduced the resolution, said expeditious action was required in this circumstance because “silence normalizes violence.” Apparently, Speier believes the intent of the doofy cartoon video was to “silence” AOC. Nobody ever really spells out the precise means by which this “silencing” could possibly occur, because it sure seems like AOC would still have a gigantic platform regardless of any rude cartoon video. But it ultimately doesn’t matter — what they’re really doing is constructing and codifying the new definition of “indecent and obscene” using concepts popularized by AOC.
“[Republicans] have cultivated a hostile work environment,” said Veronica Escobar (D-TX.) “I would ask all of my colleagues to support safety,” said Ted Deutsch (D-FL.) And on and on.
These are offshoots of the AOC-style emotional manipulation rhetoric I identified back in February — the rhetoric she’s had a singular role importing into the national political arena. Per this paradigm, criticism can be tantamount to literal “abuse” which directly inflicts harm upon her. Completing the through-line of thematic continuity from earlier this year, the text of the censure resolution asserts that “depictions of violence can foment actual violence and jeopardize the safety of elected officials, as witnessed in this chamber on January 6, 2021.”
If you mention this issue on the internet, you’ll be inundated with people expressing their view that in “any other workplace,” a “threat” such as the kind allegedly made by Gosar would be grounds for immediate disciplinary action or dismissal. It’s probably true that if you work at some consulting firm or foundation-funded nonprofit, off-kilter internet humor could result in severe repercussions; however, it’s unclear why anyone should pine for that dynamic to be replicated in Congress. Which is unlike “other workplaces” in that each “colleague” is independently elected to represent their constituencies, and in the course of that representation often choose to directly work against the professional and personal interests of their “co-workers,” such as by campaigning against them or even in some cases publishing doofy videos designed to ridicule them.
The censure of Gosar might not be directly cited to justify more concrete censorship, but the resolution was borne of the same AOC-inspired mentality that is being invoked to justify rampant censorship elsewhere throughout society. Now that the House of Representatives has adopted a new standard for “incitement to violence,” it’s not a huge leap to see why speech is increasingly being constricted in other venues. And that owes in large part to the outsized influence of AOC — who is so effective because she says and does things that, I think it’s fair to conclude, reflect her genuine values. And that’s exactly the problem.