In the second half of 2018 and into 2019, a fresh, young, and (often) divisive woman simultaneously became a hero, a threat, a meme, and a household name. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also known as AOC, captured the attention of politically attuned Americans when, at age 29, she became the youngest woman ever to serve in the United States Congress. Although outspoken and far left on the political spectrum, AOC has not been written off as the odd extremist, but appears to be considered a substantial threat to Republicans and moderate Democrats alike. Meanwhile, within the conservative evangelical circle I grew up in, people with no connection to her Bronx-Queens, NY district have suddenly displayed a near obsession with disparaging her appearance, intelligence, ethnicity, personal finances, and job as a waitress/bartender. Rarely are the critiques political.
Despite orchestrated social media campaigns, incumbents with millions of dollars, and a system built to be resistant to change, there are candidates who believe that the American system, despite its flaws, can still be used for good.Netflix’s 2019 documentary Knock Down the House, directed by Rachel Lears, turns back the clock to look at the journeys of Ocasio-Cortez, along with three other women as they challenged entrenched Democrats in their Party primaries in an effort to provide better representation for everyday Americans. Although the film focuses on Ocasio-Cortez for location and budgetary reasons, it also chronicles the primary campaigns of Cori Bush, who was running in the St. Louis/Ferguson area of Missouri; Amy Vilela, who was running in Las Vegas, Nevada; and, Paula Jean Swearengin, who was challenging Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Each of these women embraced a grassroots campaign where they lacked funding, name recognition, and most everything else that makes a 21st century politician successful. Yet, they were each also propelled by a deep commitment to the stories of their families and communities.
The film is inherently political, and the characters advocate for liberal positions on several issues. The candidates featured take issue with the large corporate campaign donations funding their opponents. They espouse their support for Medicare-for-all and abortion rights and criticize U.S. foreign policy decisions, including the Iraq War. And while the positions of these women—especially regarding abortion—may run counter to conservative Christian viewpoints, the film and the stories of women who viewed themselves as part of, rather than above, their communities point us toward what we all hope our representatives, and ourselves, would be: empathetic, humble, and decidedly human.
Much of the discussions with the candidates revolves around why they, despite having little to no political experience, decided to challenge candidates with extensive tenure in government, major endorsements, and large donor bases. Their empathy for their communities, for people close to them who have suffered under policies that failed to represent their family and friends’ interests, was a common factor. In St. Louis, Cori Bush was a nurse and mom who first ventured to the protests in Ferguson because she believed that she could offer her medical skills to those who were being injured in altercations between police and protesters. Amy Vilela told the heartwrenching story of her daughter’s untimely death from a blood clot after being denied tests at a hospital when she revealed she didn’t have health insurance. Paula Jean Swearengin drove through her community in West Virginia pointing out home after home of those who were diagnosed with cancers caused by irresponsible coal mining practices championed by their current representatives. Perhaps less dramatic, but more relatable, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shared her experience trying to support her family after the death of her father during the financial crisis of the late 2000s while also trying to make student loan payments.
These women saw, and shared, the struggles of their communities. Moreover, they felt that their current representatives, though they were members of the same political party, were not doing enough to serve their neighbors. Unlike most, however, when they were done mourning with their community, they did not become apathetic toward suffering or its causes; instead, they stood up and fought for the least of those—for the orphans and widows lost to inadequate healthcare and gun violence and toxic corporate practices. They shared, as Ocasio-Cortez said to a group of skeptical supporters, a “courage to say we can do better.” They believed that their families and neighbors and coworkers deserved access to clean water and healthcare and living wages. However, there was no lofty self-confidence that they were the best person to represent their communities, but rather a conviction that someone had to stand up for those who could not.
Striking was the humility of Vilela, Bush, Swearengin, and Ocasio-Cortez as they entered these primary campaigns, even lower than underdogs. Paula Jean Swearengin recognized the national public perception of West Virginia, stating: “People have seen West Virginians as … we don’t have no teeth, no shoes, no brains. I just think they underestimate us. At the end of the day, we’re going to fight for each other. They need to know that.” However, despite her confidence in the people of her state, she also recognized the sobering truth that West Virginia is one of the poorest and sickest states in the nation–desperately in need of assistance. When AOC’s opponent Joe Crowley didn’t even show up for their first debate but sent a surrogate, she spoke with an angry audience made up of immigrants. Although it would have been an ideal time to ask for their vote over her absent opponent, she instead emphasized that she hoped to earn the various immigrant communities’ support through her actions. Especially in AOC’s case, each of these women sacrificed any sense of privacy. Some may say that is to be expected; however, the humility and lack of conceit that each showed when they agreed to be publicly attacked and mocked day after day for characteristics completely devoid of political value showed a deep-held faith in the American political system and the American people.
Knock Down the House reveals the endearing, relatable human aspects of these politicians as well. Of course, none of us believes that our politicians lack humanity in certain senses, as so many fall prey to sins on our television screens. However, they often seem impervious to emotional connection, anxiety, or self-doubt. As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez begins canvassing, she has a moment of panic ringing a doorbell: she doesn’t know what to say! In her modest apartment, where she studies for her only true debate against incumbent Joe Crowley, her very human insecurities are exposed as she gives herself the pep talk that so many young women give themselves as they prepare for an interview or new job: “I can do this. I am experienced enough to do this. I am knowledgeable enough to do this. I am prepared enough to do this. I am mature enough to do this. I am brave enough to do this.”
The primary campaigns of Ocasio-Cortez, Vilela, Bush, and Swearengin in Knock Down the House provide real-life glimpses of what we love most about our favorite political dramas. Despite orchestrated social media campaigns, incumbents with millions of dollars, and a system built to be resistant to change, there are candidates who believe that the American system, despite its flaws, can still be used for good. These women stepped up when no one else would. And while many conservatives critiqued Ocasio-Cortez’s working-class, bartending job, perhaps she is the one who best emulates Paul’s admonishment to “not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position” (Romans 12:16 NIV).
No matter your political leanings, Knock Down the House is a powerful jolt from our polluted and pragmatic political attitudes. It is a reminder that our love for others and our desire to defend the weakest of those can so easily be clouded by talk of strategies, alliances, and compromises. Of course, many critique AOC and her cohorts as being overly idealistic, young and inexperienced. But also, perhaps there’s something to be said for cheering on the people who see injustice and as James 1:27 says, remain unpolluted by the world, but instead “have the courage to say we can do better.”