My Twitter feed is regularly flooded with right-wing criticism of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Yet seldom do these disapproving opinions contain critical policy analysis. Instead, they’re rife with attacks on trivialities like the congresswoman’s choice of clothes, coffee chain, or credit score. If political history is doomed to repeat itself, then these cheap shots will eventually end up backfiring. I watched as British pundits used similar tactics against the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn, and the mud-slinging didn’t land. In fact, all it did was further his bad ideas.
Five weeks before the 2017 UK general election, Labour was more than 20 points behind the Conservative Party in the polls. Then the right-wing British media began to really ratchet up the criticism of Labour leader Corbyn. Much of this engagement was petty, even if the socialist manifesto Corbyn stood on was heavily flawed. A London School of Economics (LSE) report on the media representation of Corbyn found that 30 percent of news stories about him were mocking or scoffing at his ideas, policies, history, personal life, and looks. For The Sun, the UK’s most circulated newspaper, this number sat at 62 percent.
A similar trend is evident with stateside conservatives. Fox News darling Katie Pavlich has described AOC’s expensive suits as “hypocrisy at its best,” while the Daily Caller has had to apologize for a misleading headline claiming to have a nude photo of her. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway couldn’t resist knocking Ocasio-Cortez’s youth, describing her as “a 29-year-old congresswoman who doesn’t seem to know much about anything.” Rather than judging her ideas on their merits, conservatives have been picking the low-hanging fruit and failing to land punches. AOC seems to easily brush aside their criticisms on Twitter, appearing stronger with every bold statement she makes.
The media also make a mistake when they equate Corbyn, Sanders, and AOC with the likes of Stalinist Russia. The comparisons between Corbyn and communism even led to some weird accusations that the Labour leader was a communist spy. The British public were also told that a Corbyn government would lead to the rampant hyperinflation and starvation that’s gripping Venezuela, allegations they saw right through. In 2016, a YouGov poll found that 51 percent of Brits thought that media coverage of Corbyn had been deliberately biased. Corbyn soon bounced back, clinching 40 percent of the 2017 vote, a resounding comeuppance for the Conservatives given how wide their margin of victory was expected to be.
His surprise comeback has contributed much to the Brexit impasse. The Conservatives now command such a tiny majority in Parliament that even the faintest of party rebellions puts parliamentary motions at risk of being defeated.
If American conservatives keep up their own heated rhetoric—like comparing the Green New Deal to a “Revamped Communist Manifesto”—they’ll end up damaging their own movement. It’s ludicrous to suggest that Bernie Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez are calling for the abolition of property rights. Indeed, many socialists say that Sanders’ failure to call for the nationalization of utilities means he isn’t left-wing enough.
It’s also ridiculous to say that government-subsidized health care, something almost all developed nations have, is going to lead to the conditions seen in Venezuela. That kind of rhetoric won’t wash with voters. Far too many commentators are also focusing on which key Democrats support which proposals rather than the actual details of the ideas themselves. These initiatives should be taken seriously and judged on their merits—or lack thereof. The Green New Deal is littered with blue sky thinking, uncosted proposals, and poor economics—plenty of fodder for real, important critique.
Only now are the British media beginning to take the ideas of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell seriously, and it might be too late. America’s voters have real reasons to shift left, and focusing on trite complaints will only push them further into Ocasio-Cortez’s welcoming arms. American conservatives would be wise to look across the pond and notice what happened to British politicians when they tried the same dismissive tactic.
Tom Westgarth is a Young Voices contributor who studies philosophy, politics, and economics at Warwick University.