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  • Teresa Turkheimer

"You're too young to understand" - Lessons From The Rise Of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

The pale, male, and stale demographic is, by now, exhausted and overdone, and current politics no longer has a reason to support such an ancient tradition of stuffing political systems full of them. For that reason, the new era of so-called ‘young politicians’ are here to jazz up political systems, rejuvenate the state for the better and challenge the stigma surrounding political participation amongst young people. This fresh generation has had a particularly notable impact within the US, hence within this article, I’ll be looking at one of the States’ rising young political game-changers.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Representative for New York’s 14th district (commonly known as AOC), ran a successful grassroots campaign in 2018 against Joe Crawley, Democratic representative for the district since 1999. She is currently the youngest representative in the United States House of Representatives (over 25 years younger than the chamber’s average age of 57.8), is the youngest congresswoman in history, and is also a Latin-American woman (what would be classified as an uppercut to the ‘pale, male and stale’). However, more importantly, she defeated an esteemed and long-time incumbent Democrat who was set to become the next Democratic Speaker of the House. For these reasons and more, AOC involuntarily became the face of the new generation of young politicians within the US.

Not only did she single-handedly tackle the brick wall of incumbency and establishment politics, but she did so without the support of Political Action Committees (PACs). PACs in US elections eliminated caps on the number and size of campaign donations, meaning younger and more unseasoned politicians struggle to compete with representatives who have already established their network of big donors. AOC’s electoral campaign successfully challenged expectations and was able to confront the issue of campaign funding that has long divided the nation. This feat, married with her young perspective and outlook, brought her to the forefront of US media and newspapers.

All in all, Ocasio-Cortez came to be a political phenomenon as a consequence of the important lesson she taught the American political system: that age and wisdom are mutually exclusive. As obvious as this may seem, society seems to promote against this idea. There is a tendency across both voters and representatives to position age within a hierarchy of knowledge, and an assumption that young people do not have an interest in political participation. These norms cause younger voices to either get lost or ignored within the representative system, creating problems like low youth voter turnout which undermine democracy today. As is evident from AOC’s electoral success, when the option to vote for a younger (competent) candidate is provided on the electoral ballot, younger people are more likely to support them. Although age can get lost when political parties and groups seek to achieve diversity across elements such as gender, ethnicity and social class, its significance cannot be understated.

What will a younger generation of representatives do that an older one cannot? They can challenge the more traditional values and policy preferences of older citizens. This is not to say that traditionalism is bad, but it is to say that there are always two sides to an argument, and that both sides should be balanced. So far, the debate inevitably leans towards an older perspective. Moreover, younger politicians can bring issues such as education, abortion, drugs and the environment to the forefront of their country’s respective agenda. While it is an important question, it is crucial that the issue of low youth political participation does not turn into a debate of old people versus young people, and thus add fuel to the ageist fire. It is important to highlight that it is not what one generation can do better than the other, but what they can do to complement one another.

Just as a quick reminder, young people do have an interest in political participation. There is a particular and increasing interest lying within grass-roots campaigns and groups, as well as single-issue politics. The evolution of social media has also been a helping hand in enhancing their participation by giving young people the opportunity to express their needs and worries in a way political parties and the government cannot. Previous forms of political participation systematically excluded the younger generation, hence it is no surprise that young people have blossomed within the newer political platforms.

To say that the youth are disinterested and too ill-experienced is a terrible exaggeration which, when ingrained in society and politics, can have detrimental effects. Young politicians like AOC make sure the younger generation gain the respect they deserve and the representation they have long desired.

Image - Flickr (Dimitri Rodriguez)

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