Scrolling through Twitter the night of the MET Gala is always great content. This gathering of the world’s most elite personalities and celebrity superstars from all forms of media produces some ridiculous fashion statements and meme-worthy antics. Why is Kim Kardashian wearing a black bodysuit with her face completely covered? Is Grimes really carrying around a sword made of a melted-down assault rifle? For me, this event embodies the superficial lifestyles of the world’s richest, so I had to do a double-take when I saw New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), perhaps the most vocal and recognizable champion of progressive policies in all of congress, on my timeline posting for the cameras at this exclusive event. Perhaps, even more eye-catching, was her dress which featured the phrase “Tax the Rich” sprawled across the back in a blood-red font.
My initial reaction was a wave of confusion. How could AOC, a politician who seems to hold views completely antithetical to the values and lifestyles that saturate the MET Gala, be rubbing elbows with the very people she wants to see pay their fair share? My next thoughts were about the political optics of this move: Did AOC and her staff recognize that criticism would surely be thrown her way from progressives, centrist Democrats, and conservatives alike as a result of this seemingly blatantly hypocritical act? The irony of AOC rubbing elbows with rich folks wearing Balenciaga gowns and Gucci with “Tax the Rich” sprawled on her back seemed almost comical. Tucker Carlson’s monologue tomorrow is going to write itself as a result of this, I thought. “Eat the Rich?”(a snarky remark used by some in the progressive movement). It looks like you’re “Eating with the Rich” AOC (Tucker that is my line I don’t want you taking that). I just couldn’t believe one of my most respected politicians would attend this event.
I will be fully transparent and admit that my personal political beliefs lean left. AOC has been one of my political idols ever since she broke onto the scene after her shocking win in the NY-14 Congressional race. Her charismatic, persuasive speeches on progressive causes coupled with her deft command of social media were unlike anything I had ever seen while following politics, and I loved it. Her talk of income inequality and raising taxes on the rich aligned well with my personal beliefs, making her one of my favorite politicians in the U.S. government. However, as her career pressed on, her actions relating to her progressive beliefs began to waver ever so slightly. As a result of her seemingly performative politics at the border, her failure to “Force the Vote” and bring a Medicare for All proposal to the House floor, and more recently her complacent vote on the arms sale to Isreal, she has come under fire from some in the progressive movement. As these actions (or inactions) have piled up, AOC’s wavering stances have made her status as my personal politician begin to falter incrementally as well.
So, on the night of the MET Gala, I thought this dress incident may have dealt a major blow to her credibility in my eyes. How could the most vocal progressive in the House attend the most elitist event of them all? This is “Bernie has 3 houses” on steroids. Yet, as that Tuesday night wore on and the social media discourse heated up, I began to wonder whether there was more than what meets the eye about this dress and AOC’s attendance at the Gala.
The main defense of her attendance would be this: her “Tax the Rich” dress would be an uncomfortable message for the other attendees of this star-studded event. Not only that, but the dress would also create buzz and perhaps up the attention for the idea that the rich would be expanded to those who are not as tapped into the world of progressive politics. To her credit, the Google search history for “Tax the Rich” spiked significantly after the Gala (however this was only a temporary bump). Another complaint from both the left and right about the Gala trip was that tickets to the MET cost approximately 35,000 dollars. How can AOC even afford this if she is supposedly fighting for the working class? “Shouldn’t she be living within her means?”, the criticism went. However, fact-checking yielded that AOC did not pay at all to go to the event, and instead was “sponsored” by a prominent woman of color in the fashion world who designed the dress. A dress designed by a woman of color would be welcome in a night dominated by prominent and wealthy designers. These facts muddy the waters of the situation. Is AOC stirring up attention for her progressive ideas or undermining them?
For me, the positives of the MET Gala visit outweigh the benefits of the progressive movement. I struggle to envision the voter who sees the dress and thinks, “Well, AOC wore this dress! I’m going to start researching progressive ideas!” The negative optics of a leading progressive voice hanging out with the world’s wealthiest gives too much ammo to conservative pundits and Democratic centrists to hurl at AOC, shifting the focus from hard policy to unproductive “fantasy politics” that dominate CNN and Fox News nighttime shows. Wouldn’t organized and hardline action in Washington along with creative and effective use of social media further the progressive cause more efficiently than a stunt that serves critics up the chance to rip the de-facto leader of ‘The Squad’ (and by extension the whole progressive movement). Despite the good intentions, the bad optics overshadow any positive impact the dress could have had.
The entire dress saga shines a spotlight on a troubling phenomenon that pervades current-day America: performative politics. Whether it is Joe Biden visiting a mom-and-pop small business for a staged photo-op, Ted Cruz’s visit to the Mexican border to cross his arms disapprovingly at the disarray, or any given senator vying to see who can ask the most outrageous question, searching for a soundbite that will make the rounds on social media. Donald Trump’s performative nature goes without saying. Not a day went by during his administration where there weren’t some crazy antics that stirred the pot in Washington strictly for the cameras. I’d argue that Trump is the best to ever do it in terms of drumming up free publicity for him and his agenda, however ludicrous that agenda may have been. That being said, it is frustrating to see one of my political idols, who champions the issues I care about (climate action, income inequality, and healthcare), fall into the tactics of putting on a show for the cameras rather than shaking up Washington with serious and effective advocacy. If I had it my way, AOC would focus more on devising a plan to do whatever she can to pass legislation to battle income inequality, rather than chumming up with the richest of the rich at the MET Gala.