There’s a moment in Knock Down The House when pre- fame Alexandria Ocasio Cortez plunges her gloved arms into an ice bin, upends an avalanche of ice into a bucket, and pushes it across the floor into a waiting service elevator. You can be sure that the scraping, the jarring loudness of it, is a total contrast to the hushed, hallowed workplace of her opponent. ‘I’m used to being on my feet 18 hours a day’, she says later, explaining why this makes her uniquely suited to politics. ‘I’m used to receiving a lot of heat. I’m used to people trying to make me feel bad. They call it ‘working class’ for a reason, because you are working non-stop.’ That sense of realism and optimism, cheek- by- jowl, is what defines the AOC brand today.
So how does a 28 year old bartender- waitress whose mother cleaned homes become such a force of nature? How does she convince a roomful of people to look past her youth and her class disadvantages, and several bigger roomfuls later, make political history?
Netflix’s Knock Down The House, which began as a Kickstarter project for directors Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick could well be Hollywood fiction about the audacity of the upstart- a popular theme- except it isn’t. The documentary profiles four women who hope to effect a major upset in the Democratic primaries of 2018, notwithstanding the inconvenient facts of their debut candidatures, relative/ perceived inexperience and entrenched competition. It is the anatomy of three dashed hopes and one landslide victory connected by themes of community, personal hardship and hopes for shaking the complacent establishment out of their stupor. The organizers and strategists backing these new hopefuls are two grassroots outfits called Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, working to introduce a radically principled, urgency- driven, more responsive brand of liberal politics to a complacent and lacklustre Democratic party. For instance, AOC, who was nominated by her brother to join a pool of several thousand names vetted for moral clarity and ability to lead and inspire and organize, rejected corporate donations entirely for her campaign. Nearly 70% of her campaign funds came from individual contributions under 200 USD. Thus, the working class background of the candidates is both essential qualifier and badge of pride.
What is common to all these women is their belief that the personal and the political are one and the same. ‘Men often ask me, Why are your female characters so paranoid?’, says writer Margaret Atwood in an interview with The Paris Review. ‘It’s not paranoia. It’s recognition of their situation.’ It is easy to dismiss these womens’ emotional pitches as hysteria, but what they really are is a heightened awareness of their place in society, and a truthful telling of society’s failure to acknowledge their struggles. Personal grief becomes battle cry, family and community rallying points. So there’s Laura Jean Swearengin of Virginia, grimly determined to expose the powerful mining lobby for their role in the deaths and sicknesses of her people- including her father. There’s disillusioned nurse and mother Cori Bush, a black woman running from Missouri, clearly still reeling from the Ferguson riots. There’s gritty, grieving Amy Vilela of Nevada who lost her teenage daughter to a no-insurance clause that denied her emergency medical treatment, advocating for insurance for all. And there’s AOC, struggling to make ends meet in a tough economy. It’s proof that unlike men, women don’t and shouldn’t hesitate to use their hurt to legitimize their ambition. That feelings- stormy, frightened, frustrated, angry, sorrowful- can empower instead of weakening or discrediting- and also challenge the notion that even when power expresses as fist- pumping wood- slamming rhetoric, it is essentially stoic and coolly distant. That powerful white male politicians with their regulation khakis and rolled up white sleeves and their casual cheery entitlement perpetuate the political equivalent of manspreading- taking up too much space to the point of cultural inevitability, to the point that questioning it seems like asking for too much, to the point of it boomeranging doubt and apprehension on the asker. Individually and as a group, these women reframe power as collaborative, feelings as valid reasons to run. ‘For one of us to make it through, 100 of us have to try.’ says AOC. Since her win, she’s been widely praised for constantly highlighting the achievements of her fellow- Congress debutantes, forcing the spotlight on female leadership and showing us how fundamentally different it is from its male version.
On the show or off it, AOC inspires. She’s courteously assertive, a tough rope to walk especially when being baited or slammed, which she often is. She’s never patronizing, never rudely dismissive or combative. A cautiously thrilled American media has called her ‘earnestly nerdy’ and praised her refreshing candour and her refusal to allow cynicism or jadedness to take over.
Today she’s championing an improbable- sounding legislation that aims at a full transition to renewable energy countrywide by 2030 plus an immediate moratorium on the mining of and investment in fossil fuel. Her insistence on seeing the Green New Deal fructify has earned her eye rolls from the old guard, who are appalled at her apparent naïveté. But people have been hauled over the coals for far less. This disdain for ‘lack of experience’ is exactly what the documentary explores. What does the ‘experience’ in the phrase ‘lack of experience’ entail? Who decides whose experience matters? Is one kind of experience inferior or less valuable than another? Is the predominantly white male notion of experience- usually bookended by an expensive Ivy League graduation/ celebratory donation the only kind of experience that counts? Is the premature experience of adversity, of daily working class grind, of lived financial deprivation and near-homelessness and sicknesses left untreated because there’s no insurance, of being denied opportunity and agency because of class or ethnicity not enough to qualify an educated, well- intentioned candidate who wants to make a difference? In a bizarre plot twist, AOC slams the incumbent, who’s been unchallenged 14 years as representative for the New York burroughs of the Queens and the Bronx. He doesn’t live here, she says. He lives in Virginia. ‘If we elect working people, working people can have representation in Congress.’ she reasons later in the show.
For me this was a fantasy- watch. The Indian political scenario is not very different; we have a consolidation of power by an elite determined to exclude and suppress fresh talent. Caste and class privileges are directly proportional to wealth, and wealth joined with muscle dictates political outcomes. The Arvind Kejriwal- led Aam Aadmi Party movement, premised on the right of every ordinary citizen to influence said outcomes has played out to mixed results. In an attempt to change the language of power, governance and political discourse, the leaders of the party adopted unconventional methods. Theatrical displays of resistance, protest- based negotiation and threats to unveil a paper trail of systemic corruption pitted them against the old ways. Their electoral success was stymied by infighting, poorly set priorities and expected backlash from establishment politicians. Still, they made their point; ordinary working class citizens, when empowered, can and do accomplish the one good thing no one can deny- representation. What then will it take to have our own KDTH moment?
Against the disapproving murmurs growing only louder by the day, it’s easy to forget that AOC and her kind don’t have to be perfect. They just have to be. ‘He leaned down next to me, and he pointed at the Washington Monument, and he pointed at the reflecting pool, and he pointed at everything,’ says an emotional post- win AOC of her dead father, crying for a memory from when she was five. ‘…And he said, ’You know, this all belongs to us.’ He said, ‘This is our government. It belongs to us. So all of this stuff is yours.’
It’s easy to be a critic, far more difficult to allow ourselves to be seduced by hope. KDTH quietly, unobtrusively asks that you suspend your scepticism and allow this moment its rightful, shining place in history.