Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Self-Limiting Revolution

Knock Down the House set out to show an inspiring political movement—but instead revealed its boundaries.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Jeenah Moon / Reuters

The final image of Knock Down the House, the hit documentary about a quartet of 2018 congressional primary candidates, shows Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her boyfriend newly arrived at the east plaza of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. She has just been elected to Congress, but not yet taken office. They both start to cry; the waterworks run at a low gurgle throughout the movie, and at this point the viewer won’t be alarmed by another eruption.

Suddenly scooters appear, and the couple, with infectious delight, takes off in zigzags across the plaza, which is usually closed to tourists. The image thus combines three elements—Millennials, scooters, and trespassing—that seem designed to make a certain kind of conservative Republican’s head explode. The poor fellow will probably view the film as an exercise in trolling, a giddy, unapologetic version of his worst nightmare.

But it takes two to troll. Most viewers will be intrigued rather than annoyed by Knock Down the House; some will be inspired. The filmmakers, the wife-and-husband team of Rachel Lears and Robin Blotnick, set out to record a political movement at the moment of its creation, and there’s no mistaking the uplift implied by their final shot: Let the word go forth, from this time and content provider (Netflix), that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, come of age in this century, tempered by two wars, disciplined by piles of student-loan debt, proud of their multicultural heritages. And they will be arriving on scooters.

That’s the message of the movie, anyway, and it’s perfectly tailored to invigorate a political culture dazed with Trump fatigue. Whether Lears and Blotnick make a persuasive case is another question.

Along with Ocasio-Cortez, the movie follows three other political newcomers. All were recruited by two loosely organized groups, Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, made up of veterans of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign.

Paula Jean Swearengin of West Virginia was persuaded to undertake a primary challenge to an incumbent Democratic senator, Joe Manchin, in hopes of making West Virginia into something a little less like West Virginia—less coal and more jobs, for starters. Cori Bush, a nurse in St. Louis whose work schedule sometimes forced her to campaign in scrubs, tried to unseat her local representative, also a Democrat, after the police shooting of Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson. And Amy Vilela, who blames the untimely death of her daughter on the health-care industry, quit her job as a business executive to run for an open congressional seat in Las Vegas.

Only Ocasio-Cortez made it past the primaries. Batting .250 is middling in baseball and even less impressive in politics. The survival rate suggests that the movement may not be quite as robust as the candidates and the activists who enlisted them hope.

“It’s not about any of us individually,” Vilela says on the night of her defeat, tearful but still game. “It’s about the whole movement.” Ocasio-Cortez replies that it may take a hundred women running against the establishment for each one who breaks through into the halls of power—easy for her to say, of course, since she’s the one and not the hypothetical 99. Still, politics, like baseball, is an enterprise for unbending optimists, and you can’t help but be impressed by the energy and pluck the candidates summon in fighting their uphill battles.

The viewers’ simple admiration for the tenacity and optimism that politics requires might extend to the candidates’ entrenched opponents, too, but we never really get a good look at them. The exception is Ocasio-Cortez’s target, Representative Joseph Crowley. At the time of his gibbeting, Crowley was the fourth-ranking member of the House Democratic leadership. Pink and fleshy, with a toothy perma-grin, he could have been drawn by Thomas Nast to represent the Machine Hack, the very symbol of complacent incumbent. He saw Ocasio-Cortez coming too late and never knew what hit him.

The film leaves it unclear what Crowley’s offense was, why he deserved his unhorsing—beyond being one of the world’s seemingly bottomless supply of “white dudes in suits,” to use the phrase of one activist in Knock Down the House. (It’s the filmmakers’ bad luck that they never caught him wearing a suit.) As a liberal Democrat, he sat in the middle of his caucus ideologically—no Barbara Lee or Jamie Raskin, but a reliable “yes” vote on whatever enthusiasm public-employee unions and environmentalists placed before him.

Crowley initially avoided a debate with Ocasio-Cortez but at last relented. She tagged him for living in suburban Virginia rather than his district, as so many congressional lifers do, and for sending his children to school in their neighborhood rather than to the diploma mills back home (ditto). Crowley, she charged, helped defeat an obscure amendment to the Dodd-Frank bank-regulation bill; the amendment would have helped “working families,” Ocasio-Cortez assures us. And although Crowley did his duty and called Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “fascist,” he refused to join Ocasio-Cortez in her demand that the agency be abolished.

“If you think this system is fascist,” she said to Crowley, “then why don’t you vote to eliminate it?”

He had no answer. That’s how you know when a congressman has been in Washington too long: He loses the courage of his own demagoguery.

In all this, Ocasio-Cortez demonstrates campaign skills of a high order. She walks away with the movie, and not only because she’s the only winner. She’s quick on her feet, strategically alert, and absolutely sure of what she thinks, with an eye for her opponent’s jugular and a circulatory system that by all indications functions on pure ice water. A brief interlude in which she dissects one of Crowley’s multipage, full-color mailers—“this Victoria’s Secret catalog,” she calls it—is a master class in how incumbents like Crowley misread their own voters while still managing to make political consultants fabulously rich. Her use of social media shows perfect demographic pitch: agitprop, recipes, civics lessons, life affirmations like “You can grow through your imperfections,” jumbled together and running nonstop, make her Instagram and Twitter feeds endlessly informative and enjoyable. She’s Tony Robbins, Suze Orman, and Saul Alinsky, all in one.

Another hundred iterations of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, working as both candidate and consultant, and her movement would be an irresistible electoral force—assuming the nation at large suddenly took on the political characteristics of her district in the Bronx and Queens. You’d never know it from the movie, but 2018 was a banner year for Democrats. They took back the House of Representatives by winning swing districts much redder than the solidly Democratic areas in which the Knock Down the House candidates ran (and mostly lost). Of the three congressional districts, only Vilela’s is home to a substantial number of Republicans.

As a piece of filmmaking, Knock Down the House is kind of a mess. In trying to track four different candidates in four different districts on four different timelines, Lears and Blotnick set themselves a high bar for narrative coherence that they are unable to clear. Important turning points come and go, on camera and off, without much explanation. Who, you sometimes wonder, is recruiting whom? The muddle works to confuse the larger themes. We never learn what this new movement exists to do, aside from offering liberal Democrats the chance to end the careers of slightly less liberal Democrats.

“We don’t care about party,” one activist says at the beginning of the movie. “We just want to get stuff done.” But political parties exist precisely because, according to 200 years of experience, they are the most efficient way to get stuff done. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Republican or Democrat,” says another. Well, yes, it does, actually. There is much talk of diversity in Knock Down the House, and the candidates and activists are indeed diverse in the predictable ways: They run the gamut of body type, from endo- to ectomorph, of regional accent, of ethnicity, of class background. But when it comes to politics—Medicare for All or a universal job guarantee—they are ideologically uniform. You’ll find more diversity of views in the locker room of the Burning Tree Club than in a recruiting session for Justice Democrats.

That’s why it’s a movement. But movements only succeed when they transcend themselves. “It’s time for everyday Americans to be represented by everyday Americans,” declares Ocasio-Cortez, the world’s most famous ex-bartender, not realizing that the minute she beat Joe Crowley she ceased to be an everyday American. The sooner she recognizes that she has now taken a place in the larger, much-loathed system, with all its demands of moderation and compromise, the greater the chances that she and her colleagues will become something more effective than a movement batting .250.

Until then, those Republicans whose heads explode at the mere sight of Ocasio-Cortez—and there are lots of them—can glue the skull fragments back in place. They have less to worry about than they think.