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The AOC Dress Freakout Isn’t Really About AOC

It's about the enraging limitations of our current political moment.

AOC shows off her 'tax the rich' dress.

Lord help me, I’m doing AOC discourse. I tried mightily to resist but I am very interested in the Met Gala and also quite interested in lefty goings-on, so here we are. Sorry!!!

In case you somehow missed it, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore a fancy dress that said “Tax the Rich” on it to the Met Gala on Monday night. This has prompted the usual discussions that arise whenever a politician—especially a young glamorous female leftist politician like AOC—engages with high society and popular culture. AOC’s a sellout! AOC’s a subversive genius! AOC’s a hypocrite! AOC is using her fame for good! You know the drill.

I fall somewhere in the middle here. I don’t think AOC’s a sellout for going to a hyper-elite event—this is the kind of thing that famous people do, even if they are also politicians, and to the extent that she’s another person talking about objectively good things while there are a lot of cameras around, that’s a net positive. But we shouldn’t pretend like this was a revolutionary act, or even something that particularly threatens the sensibilities of the other Met Gala attendees. Corporate pop culture has never been more suffused with social justice rhetoric than it is these days; these are not people who will run in terror from a slogan like “tax the rich.”

Ultimately, though, the freakout over AOC’s choices is not really about her. Some of it is about the basic problem of critiquing capitalism while benefiting from the pleasures and privileges that it provides. (This is not an AOC problem, it’s an “existing in the world” problem. I think capitalism sucks, I also love the Met Gala, hey I’m part of the problem!) But a lot of it is about the inevitable dissonance of a society in which basic leftist ideas appear to have such a steadily growing foothold in our culture while being so repeatedly stymied in our politics.

Right now, the country is watching Congress chip away at an already-chipped-away reconciliation bill. The existence of the bill is a testament to the increased strength of Democratic Party leftists, but what is happening to it is a testament to the limits of that strength. On the same day that AOC went to the Met Gala, the lead story on the New York Times began this way:

House Democrats on Monday presented a plan to pay for their expansive social policy and climate change package by raising taxes by more than $2 trillion, largely on wealthy individuals and profitable corporations.

But the proposal, while substantial in scope, stopped well short of changes needed to dent the vast fortunes of tycoons like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, or to thoroughly close the most egregious loopholes exploited by high-flying captains of finance. It aimed to go after the merely rich more than the fabulously rich.

So while you can find the phrase “tax the rich” everywhere in the culture today thanks to AOC and the Met Gala, the actual work of taxing the robber barons laying such waste to this country is being watered down by AOC’s own colleagues—and that’s before this bill gets to Joe Manchin in the Senate. It seems likely that some rich people will be taxed more in some way, which is all to the good, but the worst actors in society will, once again, get away without a hitch. 

That’s just one example of how this bill is being slowly strangled. Provisions on climate change, healthcare, and child poverty potentially face a similar fate. And thanks to the Democratic Party’s inability to tackle fundamental democratic reform, this bill is likely to be the only one of its kind for a very long time, meaning that whatever winds up in the final package is all we can expect to get. Meanwhile, Republicans are busy figuring out how to rig things for themselves and ensure that, when they get back into power, they can stay there no matter what.

It is in part because of this level of political despair—and because leftism finds itself in a highly electoralist moment, meaning that mass movements wind up being yoked to the fate of the deeply inadequate Democratic Party—that there is so much brainpower being spent on cultural discourse. Leftists find avenue after avenue for fundamental political change cut off, but all that energy has to go somewhere, and a lot of it winds up in popular culture. I’m not saying it’s not important or meaningful—culture matters a great deal—but truly revolutionary change requires culture and politics. Without both elements working, you get what we have today, where AOC’s goals have a heartening amount of mainstream purchase but are constantly frustrated in the halls of power.

This is all, in its way, a triumph of modern capitalism, which has opened the door as widely as ever to seemingly radical movements without once facing the kinds of dangers that the real victory of those movements would inevitably entail. Until that changes—until people are able to build political power that truly threatens the system and cannot be accommodated by that system—we will find ourselves thinking a lot of very intense things about a person’s decision to wear a dress.