Of all the new members of Congress who were victorious in the 2018 midterms and seated in January, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the one who far-right Republicans appear to hate the most. The right-wing media, from Fox News to AM talk radio to Breitbart News, is obsessed with the 29-year-old congresswoman — and not in a good way. Anyone who consumes right-wing media is inundated with anti-AOC conversations and articles, many of which try to attack her credibility by mentioning the fact that she was once a bartender. And the more Republicans use the word “bartender” as an insult in connection with Ocasio-Cortez, the more they show the ugly classism that characterizes their party in 2019.
Liberals and progressives will also note that Ocasio-Cortez tended bar in the past, but their message is totally different. For the left, her transition from bartender to congresswoman is a story of upward mobility—a demonstration that a working class family from Puerto Rico can move to New York City and advance economically. But when Republicans use the word “bartender” in connection with Ocasio-Cortez, it becomes an epithet and an assertion that she doesn’t know her place.
Greatly influenced by fellow Republican Patrick Buchanan, President Donald Trump has campaigned on a faux-populism and proclaimed his love of blue-collar workers (at least the white ones). Yet when he mentions the fact that Ocasio-Cortez once tended bar, he does so with condescension—and the message is that someone with that background isn’t qualified to discuss economic policy or offer ideas on infrastructure and energy in the form of a Green New Deal.
Similarly, Fox News’ buffoonish Tucker Carlson recently attacked the Green New Deal by sneering that “a 29-year-old former bartender” is being used by MSNBC “to teach you about science.” As Carlson sees it, the fact that Ocasio-Cortez once tended bar and waited tables invalidates anything she has to say about the economy, infrastructure or climate change. But to AOC (who was tending bar in New York City as recently as late 2017), Carlson only made himself look silly with the attack.
“You know we’re winning when the GOP resort to vapid personal insults,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted on April 2. And she mocked Carlson in another tweet that same day, posting, “You mad, bro?”
Ocasio-Cortez has responded to the anti-bartender rhetoric by stressing that she takes pride in that part of her history. The congresswoman recently asserted, “I’m proud to be a bartender. Ain’t nothing wrong with that. There is nothing wrong with being a working person in the United States of America, and there is everything dignified about it.”
Some centrist Democrats will criticize Ocasio-Cortez from a policy standpoint, but they don’t mention her years as a bartender and waitress—certainly not in an insulting way—because they don’t see it as relevant. And they don’t view it as something she should be ashamed of.
Ocasio-Cortez obviously has a very thick skin. And during an interview with the Hollywood Reporter in January, she asserted that tending bar was good preparation for the cutthroat world of politics. “When you work in the service industry as a woman, you are harassed all the time,” she stressed. “It’s just part of your job.”
In a sense, Republicans are doing U.S. voters a favor whenever they demean Ocasio-Cortez for having tended bar and waited tables. They are showing their true colors and revealing their classism—and demonstrating that they aren’t about upward mobility, but catering to the affluent and the privileged at every turn.