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AOC masters the art of performative politics

As much as the New York representative denies it, getting arrested over abortion access does nothing compared to legislating for that access.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is escorted away
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is escorted away from the Supreme Court during a protest with the Center for Popular Democracy Action in Washington on July 19.Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file

These days, members of Congress find it advantageous to be show horses rather than work horses. Perhaps nothing better demonstrates that preference than demonstrations themselves — namely the fracas outside the Supreme Court last week that saw 17 House Democrats arrested for blocking traffic while expressing their support for abortion rights

Protests, even civil disobedience, are an important part of free speech and our broader First Amendment culture. The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and with it the constitutional right to an abortion has recently galvanized millions of Americans who disagree passionately to express their views via this venerated democratic tradition. Demonstrations such as these can serve as an important tool to influence the government and persuade the powerful.

Demonstrations such as these can serve as an important tool to influence the government and persuade the powerful. But members of Congress are the government. They are the powerful.

But members of Congress are the government. They are the powerful. As much as the protesting lawmakers deny it — including the event’s star performer, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. — this was a publicity stunt more than an activity designed to alter any outcome. The justices are supposed to be impervious to this kind of political influence, after all. And members of Congress are the only Americans able to legislate on a national level to achieve their policy goals.

Not even everyone in the target audience was entertained by the theatrics. New York State Sen. Jessica Ramos, a fellow progressive Democrat, chastised Ocasio-Cortez after the event for not devoting enough attention to her district. Another activist dismissed Ocasio-Cortez’s maneuver as “performative resistance art.”

Indeed, the viral images from the abortion protest were dominated by Ocasio-Cortez mugging for the cameras. She tweeted out video of herself being escorted away by police with a smile on her face. She and several other members of “the Squad,” a nickname for a group of liberal lawmakers, seemed pleased with themselves in a photo together in the aftermath of the event. 

The greatest showboating might have come when Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., folded their hands behind their backs as if they were being handcuffed during the demonstration. It first became clear they weren’t when Ocasio-Cortez thrust her fist in the air as she was being led away. (The Queens lawmaker denied she was trying to be deceitful or pantomime being cuffed but rather said that she was following best practices to avoid escalating a police encounter.)

Either way, it was clear that getting arrested was the whole point of the episode. The exercise was carried out in coordination with a progressive organization that Ocasio-Cortez described as asking her colleagues to “submit themselves for arrest in front of the Supreme Court” and that livestreamed the protest at the time. Within hours of her arrest, Ocasio-Cortez was using the incident to raise money for like-minded groups. 

Nothing in the Dobbs decision prevents lawmakers from protecting that access by statute if that’s what these 17 lawmakers were to dedicate themselves to, rather than wasting the Capitol Police’s time during one of the last few days before the House’s August recess. But the progressive members would rather dawdle at the Supreme Court and make maximalist demands than forge consensus and broaden the coalition for abortion protections.

Though Ocasio-Cortez has called for legislation, saying, “Congress needs to exercise our legal authority to the fullest extent,” she hasn’t translated this sense of urgency into supporting bills that can actually pass. There are at least three senators who would be open to a narrowly tailored bill codifying Roe but believe the Squad’s preferred measure would go well beyond it in terms of nullifying abortion restrictions that the court had permitted before Dobbs.

To be fair, it’s not just progressives who have replaced persuasion and policymaking with performance art, nor is this practice limited to the abortion issue. 

Many conservative are fanning the flames of outrage among supporters and opponents alike, getting into petty feuds and engaging in perpetual college student-style activism in what can be an emotionally satisfying and electorally successful exercise. Statecraft, however, it is not.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., was explicitly pandering to those college students when he hurled his latest dish of red meat at Turning Point USA’s annual Student Action Summit on Friday, declaring, “my pronoun is ‘kiss my ass.’” Not exactly the stuff of the Gettysburg Address.

But politicians have discovered over the years that inflammatory messages are often the best for bringing in campaign cash. Now it can become their entire personae. This is as true of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., as Ocasio-Cortez, who has found social media a more important platform than any official role in Congress. There is a new generation of conservative politicians who chase attention by “owning the libs” and other means of generating publicity that don’t involve policymaking. 

When members of Congress prioritize social media clout or cable news hits over legislating, when getting kicked off all your committees is less of an impediment to your political ambitions than the prospect of getting kicked off of Twitter, governing is not the objective.  

Capitol Hill has become a place where attention-seeking personalities can become entrenched or only be dislodged at great cost. None of this is conducive to doing the hard work of collaborating, compromising and writing prudent laws, even if the entertainers involved admire each other’s performances.

In this climate, even well-meaning members of Congress can confuse their roles with those of their activist allies. But they weren’t sent to Washington by their constituents merely to agitate; they were sent to legislate. The failure to understand the difference places something closely resembling handcuffs on congressional action, no matter how good it may look on camera.