The best way to see how democracy plays out is live and in person. Tuesday’s House Financial Services Committee hearing on homelessness had a definite boys club atmosphere—at least that's how it started off. Male representative after male representative took to the mic to wax heroic about their deep revulsion to homelessness and even deeper commitment to doing something, anything, to fix the problem.
Representative Sean Duffy, a Wisconsin Republican claimed that legalizing marijuana would lead to higher addiction rates and, in turn, higher rates of homelessness—eventually exceeded his time by strawmanning about how the Green New Deal would “eliminate all cows.” David Kustoff, a Tennessee Republican, dozed while Steve Stivers, an Ohio Republican, cracked jokes on the top row, causing multiple speakers to ask him to pipe down as he flashed his lurid frat-boy grin to little effect. Ed Perlmutter, a Colorado Democrat, ate Doritos and stared at the floor.
Throughout the convivial banter that followed between Wall Street Democrats and their colleagues across the aisle, the star of the show remained stony-faced for much of the hearing, even as her Democratic colleagues laughed at one Republican’s hyperbolic exhortations about key tenets of the movie Reefer Madness, as if to say “we might disagree, but you loons are alright.”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was having none of it as usual. The freshman Democrat from New York turned the committee that rubber-stamped Wall Street deregulation all too often into a forum for eviscerating Republicans trying to block crucial discussion about the very real relationship between climate change and homelessness. "We talk about cost—we’re going to pay for this whether we pass a Green New Deal or not,” she said. “Because as towns and cities go underwater, as wildfires ravage our communities, we’re going to pay. And we have to decide whether we’re going to pay to react, or pay to be proactive."
All jibes aside, what is so striking about watching AOC live and in person is not her rhetorical prowess or gift for explicating complex measures in simple terms. Nor is it the conspicuous absence of aides whispering in her ear. What really sets her apart is the aura of urgency that she brings to discussions which cuts through everything else in the hearing room.
The CSPAN close ups and YouTube highlights fail to convey what happens when AOC takes over. The cursory glances and knowing chuckles; the boredom and lethargy; the snacking and napping; and the bipartisan snack and coffee breaks end in a New York minute. The cameras also don’t show is the fear on her colleagues’ faces. They have reason to be afraid: After years of ineptitude they are finally being forced to do their jobs.
What the new generation of progressive Democrats including AOC, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Katie Porter of California represent is not an unchecked populism as centrists and conservatives would have Americans believe. It is not the rise of a socialist dictator from the Bronx, nor is it the end of bipartisanship. In fact, it is just the opposite—because what is bipartisanship really when both sides are working for financial sector deregulation against the interests of their own constituents?
Put simply, the freshman bench of the Financial Services Committee shows the way democratic politics should be. Representatives should fight for their constituents, instead of corporations and banks, stay alert and awake during debates over policies that will affect millions, and hold others accountable to do the same. Perhaps members of Congress will soon heed the advice provided by Sean Casten, an Illinois Democrat, mid-hearing, “Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, especially not at people who don’t have houses to begin with.”