There’s a marvelous scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” where an advertising executive, played by Cary Grant, swipes a taxi from another man by claiming that his secretary is ill. When she chides him for the lie, Grant unblinkingly replies: “In the world of advertising, there’s no such thing as a lie. There’s only expedient exaggeration.”
Being a politician is rather like starring in a 24/7 infomercial for yourself and your pet policy nostrums. So it’s unsurprising that expedient exaggeration is a venerable Washington tradition. You don’t succeed as a pitchman for anything by pointing out that your product costs an awful lot of money, for at best middling results.
In the town that produced such memorable sales campaigns as “If you like your health-care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health-care plan” and “We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators” by the Iraqi people, the much-discussed flights of fancy taken by the newly arrived Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) aren’t even really all that wild. They are merely exceedingly clumsy.
Her famous claim that the United States could save $21 trillion by keeping tighter controls on Pentagon budgets was instantly, obviously ludicrous to everyone in Washington; as one Pentagon spokesman dryly noted, that’s more than we’ve spent on the Defense Department since the nation’s founding. But Ocasio-Cortez isn’t (yet) a policy wonk; she’s an activist. And activist communities of all stripes tend to accumulate a corpus of folk factoids, mangled “data” from too-rapid skims of complex articles. We might call them “policy spoonerisms,” and they persist because it’s so pleasant to believe self-justifying untruths, and so easy to do, when everyone around you “knows” the same things that ain’t so.
Predictably, however, things got less pleasant when that in-group activist-speak reached outsiders. Conservatives branded Ocasio-Cortez a dunce, or else a peculiarly shameless liar. Fact-checkers flocked to confirm her errors, as moths to a dumpster fire. Progressives, who regard these screw-ups with the genial boredom bred by long familiarity, couldn’t understand why everyone was making such a fuss.
People wouldn’t be piling on if she weren’t such a bold and visionary progressive, defenders complained, or if she were male, or if she were … someone other than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Which is, in some sense, true. If she weren’t a comely and personable young woman with a flair for left-wing organizing, Ocasio-Cortez wouldn’t be a member of Congress, and no one would care whether she spouted nonsense.
But seasoned members of Congress generally try not to repeat policy spoonerisms on camera, because such “facts” tend to explode when exposed to the less rarefied air outside an ideological bubble. Instead they craft talking points that strenuously imply everything the base wants to believe, without being specific enough to check.
Ocasio-Cortez’s problem isn’t that she’s stupid, or that she’s a compulsive liar; she just got famous before she got wise. But neither is she being oppressed by the power structure — subjected to heightened scrutiny because she’s a woman, or browbeaten by ignorant slaves to neoliberalism who ought to study up on Modern Monetary Theory so they can grasp the revolutionary brilliance of her fiscal ideas.
Intellectually, this is about on par with … well, with believing the United States spends more than $2 trillion a year on defense. Some of her critics are female, after all, and we’re not all victims of patriarchal false consciousness. Rather, we have some familiarity with the federal budget, and with monetary economics, and after careful consideration, have concluded that the parts of the Modern Monetary Theory that are true aren’t interesting, while the bits that are interesting aren’t true. And thus, that Ocasio-Cortez’s fiscal prescriptions are reckless bunkum.
Professional women do frequently get undeserved flak because of their gender, but everything Ocasio-Cortez does, and not just her dumber utterances, gets more attention than is usually granted a freshman member of Congress. If you want to be famous, you have to take the good with the bad.
That said, I confess to rather liking Ocasio-Cortez, who seems sincere and well intentioned — qualities that are hardly a substitute for viable policy ideas, but at least a good place to start. Over time, I assume she’ll figure out what exaggerations she can get away with, and will leave the more extravagant, self-detonating variety behind. I suspect she’s destined to become a pretty skillful politician.
Though I also suspect that neither fans nor critics will find that Ocasio-Cortez, with her ready-for-prime-time agenda, quite as attention-grabbing as the woman of the moment.