Returning home after Congress’s new-member orientation last week, Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) discovered a glass storage container of week-old macaroni and cheese sitting in her fridge. The newly elected congresswoman created a poll on Instagram: Throw it out, or roll the dice?
“Question here,” she asked her 800,000-plus followers. “How long are leftovers good for?”
A majority of voters urged her not to take any chances, and Ocasio-Cortez opted for ramen noodles instead.
Relatable posts like these, which would seem mundane coming from the average Instagram user, have made Ocasio-Cortez wildly popular on the photo-sharing app, where, as Politico recently noted, she has more followers than House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) combined. In the past, high-ranking politicians have primarily used Instagram for posting pictures of staged photo-ops — or, in the case of outgoing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, sad-looking ham-and-cheese sandwiches. Ocasio-Cortez uses hers like President Trump uses Twitter — a way to speak directly to the public instead of relying on the media to get her message across.
On Sunday night, nearly 4,000 people watched Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, make black bean soup on Instagram Live. Casually dressed in a navy Teamsters T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up, she fielded questions about a federal jobs guarantee and marijuana legalization as she chopped up chipotle peppers. While she waited for her instant pot dinner to cook, she explained why she planned to back Pelosi for House speaker. “Right now, out of the field, I would say that she is the most progressive candidate,” she told her viewers.
Quite a few members of the audience indicated that they had tuned in the weekend before to watch Ocasio-Cortez talk politics while making the macaroni and cheese that she would later throw out. On Twitter, activist Wardah Khalid made a comparison to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s radio addresses, calling Ocasio-Cortez’s live streams “the 2018 version of fireside chats.” Others on the left were equally effusive in their praise. “I wish more politicians were real like this,” tweeted activist Renee Bracey Sherman.
Unlike Trump, who can be belligerent on social media, Ocasio-Cortez takes a laid-back approach similar to the one favored by Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.), who famously live-streamed his 2017 bipartisan road trip with Rep. Will Hurd (R-Tex.) when weather grounded both their flights and they drove to Washington together. During his unsuccessful Senate run against Sen. Ted Cruz, O’Rourke frequently popped up on Facebook Live, skateboarding outside Whataburger or air-drumming to the Who.
Ocasio-Cortez used Instagram Stories — a Snapchat-inspired feature in which users post photos and short videos that disappear after 24 hours unless they are “pinned,” or saved, to that user’s profile — to connect with voters throughout her campaign. But her following has continued to grow substantially since she was elected to Congress this month. Upon arriving on Capitol Hill for new-member orientation last week, she showed her Instagram followers everything from the “secret underground tunnels” that connect congressional buildings — which, as she noted, are not actually secret — to the coin laundry machines. (“Congressional life getting off to a glamorous start,” she commented.) One day at orientation saw her gain nearly 20,000 new followers, Politico noted. Six days later, she’s added over 200,000 more.
Part of the appeal, theorized Quartz writer Hanna Kozlowska, is that Ocasio-Cortez’s Instagram stories haven’t been polished by staffers. “These are sincere, sometimes intimate glimpses into the life of a 29-year-old, who shares her experiences on social media just like any other person her age,” Kozlowska wrote.
In addition to the civics-class trivia — Congress has its own attending physician, she informed her followers — Ocasio-Cortez’s Instagram stories have also provided behind-the-scenes looks at what newly elected members of Congress do during their transition period. On Thursday, while riding Amtrak back to New York, she ordered peanut M&M’s from the cafe car and shared the cover of the book she was reading, “Setting Course: A Congressional Management Guide.” Before being sworn in, she explained, she would need to come up with a budget and a strategic plan that would reflect her priorities.
“With limited resources, these decisions aren’t always easy,” she wrote. “For example: would you rather have a Congressmember with an amazing local services office, or one that leads nationally on issues?” People viewing her Instagram story were invited to weigh in by clicking on a poll.
Talking to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes on Monday night, Ocasio-Cortez acknowledged that she didn’t “go in with some grand strategy” for using Instagram. But she did want to make the political process feel more accessible, she explained: “I think it’s so important that we humanize our government.”
She hasn’t even been assigned an office yet, but Ocasio-Cortez has already been praised for making Congress seem less distant and daunting. “By showing so much, Ocasio-Cortez is completely demystifying a process that had once been thought of only as the provenance of those old, white men,” wrote Madison Feller at Elle. “She makes politics seem relatable, doable, possible for any young person watching.” Even the conservative blog RedState, where a recent headline declared “Mocking Alexandria Ocasio Cortez Is Not Only Fun But It Is The Right Thing To Do,” gave the incoming congresswoman credit for using an app that captions her live videos so that people who are deaf or hard of hearing can follow along.
Though Ocasio-Cortez has been celebrated for her transparency, there’s one major wrinkle: Both Instagram stories and Instagram Live videos are designed to automatically disappear, leaving no permanent record of what was said. Lawmakers' use of this technology, noted Fast Company, “will inevitably raise questions about accountability and archival records for our public representatives.” While Ocasio-Cortez has “pinned” many of her Instagram stories to her profile, preserving them for the time being, there’s no publicly available video from Sunday night’s live stream.
If you’re looking for her black bean soup recipe, though, you can find that on Bon Appétit.
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