A sold-out house for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in San Francisco proves she's touched a national nerve

Whether or not you call her "radical," her popularity shows how millennial politics are now everyone's politics

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published August 2, 2018 7:10PM (EDT)

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Getty/Bill Pugliano)
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Getty/Bill Pugliano)

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is not from California, nor has she officially secured a seat in Congress, but that does not mean she won’t sell out a rally in San Francisco.

When word first got out that the 28-year-old who defeated 10-term Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley in a New York primary added San Francisco to her rally trail, hundreds flocked to buy tickets. The event sold out in hours, leading the organizers at the San Francisco Progressive Alliance to seek out a bigger venue to accommodate the high demand. An estimated 800 people attended. A self-identified democratic socialist and member of the Democratic Socialists of America, Ocasio-Cortez has become a political celebrity of sorts since her win—and on July 31, she did not shy away from remarking on how her life changed overnight.

“There is no, like, normal way to prepare as a human being for what is happening,” Ocasio-Cortez told the crowd in San Francisco’s Mission district, hosted by the San Francisco Progressive Alliance. “Literally, just imagine you just wake up one morning and CNN’s writing articles about you — that’s kind of my life right now.”

“Literally, a couple of months ago, I was bartending in Union Square,” she added.

Her story has been described as a “Cinderella story of dazzling triumph.” But truthfully, she also represents the vanguard of unapologetically leftist women whose ideas are resonating — or at the very least piquing curiosity — on a national scale. She is also among the first Millennial politicians to bring forth her generation’s issues in a pragmatic and accessible tone.

“We are convinced that we are more marginalized and alone than we are,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “We are ashamed into not talking about twenty, thirty, fifty, one hundred thousand-dollar student loan debts. We are ashamed to say that we can barely afford our rent. We are ashamed to say that we don’t have health insurance because we can’t afford it.”

“And that lack of talking about it contributes to a lack of power,” she added. “So we’re going to talk about it. Because too many Americans make less than $30,000 or $40,000 a year."

Since Millennials have graduated college, these issues that Ocasio-Cortez champions — student loan debt, unlivable salaries, no access to healthcare—have been at the forefront for Millennials, meaning those those born between 1981 and 1996, according to Pew Research Center. In 2016, the average income for someone who was 29 was reportedly around $35,000 in the United States. According to the Federal Reserve, the amount of student debt owed by Americans has more than tripled from 2001 to 2016, accumulating to more than $1.3 trillion. And in 2015, 24 million American between the ages of 18 to 34 reported to have lived under their parents’ roof.

Millennial politicians are the future of America, and Ocasio-Cortez's popularity is an indication of what they very well may look like. According to Pew Research Center, there is a wide generational divide in partisanship among Millennials. Despite the adage that people get more conservative as they age, the Millennial generation has only tilted more to the left as they’ve come of age.

Many Millennials are not buying real estate, saving for retirement, getting married or having kids — and it is not because they are lazy or narcissistic or can’t grow up, but because the government and economy has failed them. Millennials came of age in an era of outrageous income inequality, staggering student debt, static wages, and a decaying social safety net unable to catch them. Millennial gripes have often been dismissed by older generations and entitled conservatives who mock our generation as punchlines — but in truth, a quarter of Americans are millennials, while these struggles extend far beyond the bounds of those born in that aforementioned 15-year span.

While many attendees of Ocasio-Cortez's Tuesday night rally in San Francisco appeared to be Millennials, there were many older folks in the crowd, too, who arrived curious to hear what Ocasio-Cortez had to say — highlighting how Ocasio-Cortez's appeal transcends generations.

“I’m very excited about this very young woman who was able to win in the Bronx, she’s part of this wave of progressive young people,” Brigid Acuña, of Albany, Calif., told Salon at the event. “She’s young, she’s really cool... I have a 13-year-old and I’m from a bicultural family and it’s really inspiring, she’s very articulate and very passionate.”

When asked if Acuña identifies as a democratic socialist, a political identity Ocasio-Cortez represents, she said the language is “interesting.”

“I grew up as a democratic socialist but I was always registered Democrat, and what Democrats used to represent is democratic socialism, so now we are having to take back that part of what we’ve always been,” she explained, adding that her enthusiasm for Ocasio-Cortez is not about “identity politics, it’s what she’s talking about.”

Diallo McLinn, a Gen X-er, said he attended the event because he liked what Ocasio-Cortez represented, too.

“Nobody saw her coming, which I find interesting because we keep seeing the issues as Republicans versus Democrats — maybe versus socialism — but in reality I think there is something in the country going on that none of the news agencies are really talking about right now. So many people want change, so many of our younger generation want housing."

"We really need as a society to change for the better,” McLinn added.

When asked what he thinks about democratic socialism being in the national spotlight, he said it is “fad.”

“It doesn’t matter if it’s about Democratic or Republican socialism, it should be human rights to have housing, medical, all of of that, it is not a social agenda, that’s a humanist agenda,” he said.

Some San Francisco progressives found it refreshing to see Ocasio-Cortez bringing such an agenda to the national spotlight.

“Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is building upon Bernie Sanders' persistent message that American workers and families are united in every city and state throughout the country — from the Bronx to Flint, Michigan, to San Francisco — with the same needs for quality and affordable education, housing, child care, health care, living wages, and a healthy ecosystem,” said Amy Farah Weiss, the founder of the Saint Francis Homelessness Challenge, activist, and two-time San Francisco mayoral candidate. “Whether or not San Francisco's elected representatives and voters personally identify with the term ‘democratic socialist,’ we have recently demonstrated our support for a fair share economy at the ballot, with big wins for free community college, universal childcare, the right to legal counsel for tenants facing evictions, and revenue bonds to build up our local green power infrastructure," Weiss added.

To be clear, Ocasio-Cortez has not self-described herself as a "millennial" — because, as she has said, her platform is “about a movement,” one fighting for everyone wanting to live in a more dignified society, rather than focused on a specific generation's concerns. While Ocasio-Cortez's platform appears to touch very much on Millennial grievances, it turns out they are not only specific to that generation — and they are not divided by party lines, either.

“We need to be really honest with ourselves, injustice is not a partisan issue,” she said on Tuesday night. “Injustice exists everywhere.”

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By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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