Yet the big question as Ocasio-Cortez prepares to take office is whether the leaders charting the Democratic Party’s message and course for the next two years—including Nancy Pelosi in the House and Chuck Schumer in the Senate—have anything to fear from her. She is already strategizing with Justice Democrats, the activist group that gave early backing to her campaign, to recruit candidates to take on more Democratic incumbents in 2020. In mid-July, she briefly floated the idea of creating a “sub-caucus” of progressives who could vote together as a bloc. That raised the specter that the Democratic Party could have its own version of the House Freedom Caucus—the conservative group that moderates in both parties blame for making Congress nearly ungovernable.
“Oh, that whole thing,” she laughed when I brought it up during our interview. She described the kerfuffle that ensued as “one of those learning lessons” that have occurred in the months since her primary win. “That whole thing literally came from a podcast,” Ocasio-Cortez explained. “So it's a casual conversational thing, and I was basically saying one option is that we actually have a real bloc vote. I don’t think it’s about counting any options out. Do I have a drafted plan to have some kind of Tea Party–esque movement? No.”
But Ocasio-Cortez is entering Congress alongside a group of fellow progressive women—Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan—who have grown close over the past several months and share a goal of moving House Democrats to the left. “I don’t know. Are friends a caucus?” Ocasio-Cortez asked rhetorically.
She’s also adopted a more measured approach on the question of Pelosi’s bid to become speaker for a second time. “I want to support leadership that is going to prioritize ‘Medicare for all,’ that has hard commitments on progressive issues. That’s what I’m looking for,” she told me. But she added: “I do think that the lack of generational diversity in Congress is a huge and existential problem.”
The focus on policy commitments rather than leadership is consistent with Ocasio-Cortez’s philosophy, Uwilingiyimana said. “She'll always be uncompromising on the vision,” he said. “The tactics which get the party to that vision, she's pragmatic on.”
For her part, Ocasio-Cortez put it a bit differently during our discussion about how she would reconcile her desire to build relationships in Congress with her instinct to speak out and use her powerful new voice. “I do want my priority, especially as a freshman, to be listening and learning, paying a lot of attention to dynamics, navigating, building relationships,” she told me in October.
“But,” she continued, “I don’t have the luxury, nor does any member of Congress have the luxury, of waiting to govern. So even now, before the election, I’m asked to make decisions every single day. And choosing not to speak is taken and read just as deliberately as choosing to speak. It doesn’t mean that there’s some probationary period. I have to be making decisions from day one.
“But, I don't want to be obnoxious either,” Ocasio-Cortez insisted. “Let's just get things done. I'll be really quiet if we get things done. If we pass Medicare for all, I'm going to be silent as a lamb.”