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AOC on the Fight for Abortion Rights and Whether She’ll Ever Be President | GQ
AOC's Fight for the Future
By Wesley Lowery
For her first two years in Washington, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez walked the few blocks from her apartment to her congressional office nearly every morning, a routine she felt forced to change after a treasonous mob stormed the Capitol. Now she drives most days—a comically short commute she considers a necessary safety precaution. But for some reason—she’s not quite sure why—the congresswoman decided to walk to work on what would become Washington’s most tumultuous morning since the insurrection.
AOC covers the October 2022 issue of GQ.
As she reached the Capitol grounds on June 24, a group of men stopped her for a photo. “I said ‘Hello’ and ‘How are you all doing?’ ” she’d later recall. “They’re like, ‘Well, you know… We’ve definitely been a lot better, given this morning.’ ”
This was how the congresswoman learned that the Supreme Court had gutted the constitutional right to abortion established by Roe v. Wade. The ruling had been anticipated for weeks—after a draft opinion from the court’s conservative faction leaked—but somehow much of Washington still managed to appear blindsided. Democrats had expected to spend the afternoon celebrating the passage of a new gun control law. Now their day had morphed into a wake.
Out on the steps of the Capitol, a group of lawmakers gathered to sing “God Bless America,” a preplanned photo op that now read as hopelessly out of touch: Angry Americans were spilling into the streets and elected Democrats were singing campfire songs. Ocasio-Cortez knew where she needed to be. It wasn’t at a sing-along.
“Sometimes people ask, ‘Oh, what’s the point of protest?’ ” she told me later, recalling that day. The act of protest, she said, creates community. And participation by political leaders sends a message. “It’s really important for people to feel like their elected officials give a shit about them,” she said. “Not from on high, but from the same level.”
I’d arrived at the Supreme Court a few minutes before Ocasio-Cortez to interview protesters, and watched as she maneuvered in her plaid pink pantsuit past a small circle of antiabortion demonstrators and then waded into the sea of women and men who’d gathered to mourn.
Soon, she was speaking into a borrowed megaphone, helping to lead the call-and-response. “Into the streets!” Ocasio-Cortez shouted, pumping a clenched fist in the air. Within minutes, a sobbing young woman found the congresswoman and threw herself into her arms. “I’m so scared,” she wept. “I’m so scared.”
For a fleeting moment in front of the Supreme Court, it was possible to see the full, complicated public totality of the woman we’ve come to know as “AOC”: a 32-year-old second-term congresswoman representing one of the country’s most diverse districts. A certified celebrity. Arguably more famous than any other person in American politics without the last name Obama or Trump; beloved and loathed at competing ends of the political spectrum. Constitutionally opposed to sitting down, shutting up, and conforming to the patriotic play-theater of Washington. The right wing’s night terror in the flesh. To many foot soldiers of the fractured, contradictory coalition that is the progressive left, she represents something singular: the future. A revolutionary on the rise. The clear heir to an ascendant progressive movement. The best and possibly last—depending on how quickly some combination of fascism, religious fundamentalism, and climate change comes for us all—chance; a source of hope that things can get better in their lifetimes.
“A lot of that was about a human need,” Ocasio-Cortez said of why she took to the streets that day. “About providing just a very real position that this is not over and we’re not giving up.”
Ocasio-Cortez on the steps of the Capitol with the U.S. Supreme Court in the background.
Three weeks later I found myself sitting on the couch in her congressional office, beneath a wallful of framed photos and across from the small bed where her French bulldog, Deco, hangs out when he spends the day at work with Ocasio-Cortez. I sipped at the coffee she’d brewed for us as we began a series of wide-ranging conversations—about abortion, the upcoming midterms and 2024 presidential race, and the future: for the progressive movement she helps lead, the Democratic Party in which she is perhaps the most polarizing member, and for herself, both politically and personally. We discussed her three years in Washington, the hostile reception she says she still receives from colleagues, the misogyny and the abuse she endures. Days earlier, a conservative comedian had sexually harassed her on the steps of the Capitol Building, and as we spoke, his leering video of the confrontation was still bouncing around the internet.
Our conversations came as the fallout from the Supreme Court decision and the looming likelihood of another Donald Trump presidential campaign had Democrats, including the congresswoman, wondering if they might actually find a way to hold onto Congress in November. In those weeks after Roe’s demise, Ocasio-Cortez was ubiquitous: at rallies and on television, demanding that her colleagues move with urgency to protect access to reproductive health services and calling on men in particular to share their stories of how they had benefited from decades of legally protected abortion. The battle for bodily autonomy and human dignity, she said, will only be won if men themselves join in the fight.
“For almost every woman that has gotten an abortion, there’s a man who has either been affected or liberated by that abortion too,” she told me. “In this moment it’s really only going to be the vulnerability of men, and men talking to other men, that gives us the greatest hope of shifting things the fastest, soonest.”
We’d agreed at the onset of our conversation that day to lean into difficult questions about gender—with a specific focus on what men need to be doing to combat misogyny—and so I asked the congresswoman why she believes men so often opt out. Certainly some guys are just jerks. But what about men who are more introspective? The call for men to step up and speak out is neither new nor novel, yet still seems unheard.
“I think there’s plenty of well-meaning reasons why men may feel like it’s not appropriate for them to talk about it,” she continued. “I think sometimes the way white folks don’t like to talk about race and they say, ‘We just want to center the person who’s most impacted, so it’s not my role to do anything or take a space and speak up.’ But we know that when white folks take up space and say the right thing in rooms of other white people, that is the most shifting activity that can happen, more sometimes than any protest or any person writing a letter to the editor or anything like that. And we need men to be speaking up in that way as well. But I think men, sometimes they think, I’m not a woman. This doesn’t affect me the most.”
But men also keep quiet, Ocasio-Cortez pointed out, because of the burdens and antiquated expectations of masculinity. Feminist writers and thinkers have raised this notion for decades, pointing out how men themselves are victimized by toxic societal constructs. “Men suffer from being under patriarchy,” the congresswoman said. “They don’t go to the doctor. They suffer from much higher rates of completed suicides. Even though they report lower levels of depression, that doesn’t mean that they suffer from it less. Just a couple years ago the American Psychological Association released a very deep paper and a campaign about how these traditional cultural markers of masculinity—stoicism, competition, domination, dominance—are leading to mental health issues for men. There’s a stigma around men being vulnerable.”
The key to combating that stigma, she said, is for men to talk directly with other men. “I think something that’s really powerful for men is to share their stories of growth.”
I asked her about men who may be angered by the conservative attacks on bodily autonomy and committed to personal change but carry shame about past behavior. They, too, should speak up, she replied. It’s not about men posturing in public as if they are perfect, she said, rather explicitly noting that they are not. “There are amazing men in this world, and not men as a final product. There are men on incredible journeys, internal journeys, journeys of transcending beyond just anger as the acceptable masculine emotion,” she would tell me in a subsequent conversation. “Men who dive into their compassion, into their sadness, into their insecurity and explore it and work through it.”
“The most powerful and persuasive things a person can say on any given issue,” she told me that first day we met in her office, “is sharing their personal experience and personal story.”
Ocasio-Cortez in the rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building.
Ocasio-Cortez knows well the power of personal testimony. She’s become the most talented political communicator of her generation by being frank and relatable—using her social media channels, for example, to explain policy in one moment and then share her struggles building Ikea furniture the next. Still, there are many aspects of her private life that she has historically guarded. When the insurrectionists stormed the Capitol, however, she says that something changed. She spent much of that day crouched in the corners of various congressional offices, convinced she was going to die. Weeks later, she took to Instagram to describe her experiences on January 6, explaining that the day had stirred the remnants of a past trauma. She publicly revealed for the first time that years earlier she had been sexually assaulted.
“I could not talk about that day without disclosing it, because it was such a central part of my experience,” Ocasio-Cortez explained to me. “I felt like I could not really adequately communicate what that experience was without giving people the context of what I had lived through and what was being echoed, because so much of it was about resonance and fear of a thing that was not theoretical but a fear of a thing that I had experienced.”
Until that point, Ocasio-Cortez had told only three or four people of the assault. Now friends, acquaintances, and strangers were sharing with her their own stories. She had no intention of offering additional details publicly. But the night after Roe fell, she was addressing protesters who’d gathered at New York’s Union Square, not far from the restaurant where she had worked at the time she was assaulted. She told the crowd of the incident. “When I was about 22 or 23 years old I was raped,” she said. “I was completely alone. I felt completely alone. In fact, I felt so alone that I had to take a pregnancy test in a public bathroom in midtown Manhattan. And when I sat there waiting for what the result would be, all I could think of was, Thank God I have at least a choice.”
Ocasio-Cortez told me later that she had carefully weighed her decision to talk more openly about her assault. Since entering public life, her opponents on both the left and right have gleefully dissected her every utterance, hunting for ways to dismiss and ridicule her. She had no expectation the disclosure of her assault would be treated any more kindly or fairly. “One major trauma that a lot of survivors of assault deal with is a struggle with being believed,” she told me, adding, “There are aspects of it that I may never share because of the trauma of having that experience litigated in public.”
Nevertheless, there was value, she felt, in sharing what she had endured. “It was someone that I was dating that I was not sexually active with, who forced themselves upon me,” she told me. When she later confronted him, the conversation did not go well. “The insistence on a denial of what happened that very, very clearly happened is also a through line with other women’s experiences, friends that I’ve had, or just a pretending that what very clearly happened, did not happen,” she said. “That, too, is also an assertion of power, and so this assertion of power and dominance over others is not limited to the actual physical fact, but how things are treated afterwards.”
Eventually she confided in two of her colleagues at the restaurant and learned that her experience had not been unique. “It was like everyone had been sexually assaulted that I had worked with,” she said.
Ocasio-Cortez never reported her assault, a choice she knows is familiar for many women and one she said she’d make the same way today. “If the vast majority of sexual assaults happen by a familiar person, the last thing you’re going to want to do is throw someone in jail,” she said. “There is an intersection with the work of abolition and healing and contending with the fact that we as people are capable of doing harm, but we are also capable of healing from harm.”
Part of that healing, though, is the acknowledgment and accountability that she was denied. “Whatever the given circumstances of a situation, if a person is hurt or harmed it’s important to hold space for it, and it’s very, very, very difficult to hold space for a hurt person when you are the one they are saying hurt them,” she replied when I asked how she’d advise a man in her life to respond were he confronted with an allegation of assault. “A lot of these people are not having these conversations with a pitchfork. These are people that very often are trying to heal, and they’re saying, ‘Did what happened, happen?’ It’s not How do we punish? but How do we process,andhow do we heal, and how do we change?”
Ocasio-Cortez didn’t register it at the moment, but looking back she realizes that the incident helped propel her into public service. “My sexual assault was a pivotal event in the trajectory that led me to run for office,” she told me. “I can say that in retrospect, but obviously I didn’t know that at the time.”
The story of the bartender who improbably swept into Congress is by now legend: how she spent her early adulthood navigating the financial downturn and the health care system as her father battled cancer; how she campaigned for Bernie Sanders and road-tripped to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline; and how she took service-worker shifts to support her family after college in the wake of her father’s death. Now we know about the personal trauma she was also navigating. “I didn’t grow up in an explicitly ideological household,” she said of her upbringing. “I grew up in a household that was very conscientious of the world, and cared about what was going on, and paid attention, and my parents voted, but we weren’t like, ‘We’re left,’ or ‘We’re right,’ or whatever that is. I grew up in a very socially conservative and very deeply religious household with very prescriptive messages about women. And it’s not even sometimes that they’re just handed down from your parents, but just from the culture that you live in. My experience with assault forced me to confront all of these things that I was taught about my self-worth as a woman.”
Like many young progressives, her politics fuse the movements of her time: the climate and antiwar efforts of the Bush years, the boisterous street protests against unchecked capitalism and racial injustice that dominated the Obama years, the insurgent Sanders campaign and its demand that we reconsider the limits of what government can do for its citizens, the revitalized women’s movement that followed Donald Trump’s election.
With the 2018 midterms approaching, a team of Sanders devotees launched an effort to recruit like-minded progressives to run for Congress. Though hesitant at first, Ocasio-Cortez ultimately decided to become a candidate. The impetus for her run was largely frustration.
For nearly 20 years her district had been represented by Joe Crowley, a Wall Street–friendly congressman who served in the House leadership and was a presumed Speaker of the House–in–waiting. Crowley, she said, was out of touch with the needs of his district. “I think I can get a lot of Trump voters to vote for me,” Waleed Shahid, a progressive operative who worked with Ocasio-Cortez early in her primary campaign remembers Ocasio-Cortez describing as a path to victory—at once a spot-on assessment of the depths of antiestablishment discontent across the political spectrum and also an insane electoral strategy for a Democratic primary in the Bronx and Queens.
She called for fundamental changes to immigration enforcement, a higher minimum wage, Medicare for all, and urgent action on climate. Her message was electrifying even as her chances seemed nonexistent. “I felt so sad at those fundraisers. She is firing up all of these people. All of these young people, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Colombians,” recalled Shahid. “There’s something kind of dangerous and sad about giving people false hope.”
Of course, we know what happened next. The bartender turned candidate pulled off a stunning 13.5 percentage-point victory in the primary and instantly became one of the most prominent people in American politics: a democratic-socialist David standing atop her Establishment Goliath, hoop earrings and a bold red lip in place of a shepherd’s sling. Crowley’s longtime colleague Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the House, reportedly “sounded distraught” that night after hearing the news, according to Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer’s book The Hill to Die On. “Holy shit!” Sanders exclaimed across town, according to a recent book by one of his aides. “Can you get me her number?”
Ocasio-Cortez beneath the dome of the Capitol.
In one of the few interviews she’s ever done about her daughter, Blanca Ocasio-Cortez told the Daily Mail about how her daughter got her name. It had been her husband’s suggestion they call her Alexandria. “I thought about it for a while and I said, ‘Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,’ ” she recalled. “ ‘That sounds very powerful. That’ll be her name.’ ”
Three decades later, I asked the congresswoman whom that newborn grew into whether she currently believes that she is powerful. “That’s a good question,” Ocasio-Cortez replied, pausing to consider her response. She said she doesn’t define power as dominance over others, but that she does feel power over her own choices. “Sometimes I don’t feel powerful. Sometimes I feel very diminished, and sometimes I feel the least powerful here.” I asked differently. Does she feel politically powerful?
“There’s the political power of public opinion,” she told me. “There’s the political power of social movements. There’s a political power of platform, and in those ways I feel powerful. But since I got here, literally day one, even before day one, I’ve experienced a lot of targeting diminishment from my party. And the pervasiveness of that diminishment, it was all-encompassing at times. I feel a little more steady on my own two feet now. But would I say that I have the power to shift the elected federal Democratic Party? No.”
Indeed, upon her arrival, the response from parts of the Democratic Party establishment was undiluted spite. “It was open hostility, open hostility to my presence, my existence,” Ocasio-Cortez recalled.
Her first days in Congress were destined to be awkward. Crowley still chaired the Democratic caucus, meaning he was present for new-member orientation. Each newly elected Democrat was presented to their colleagues with music and a stadium-style introduction. “From the first district of this state and that state,” the congresswoman said, mimicking a booming announcer’s voice. “It would just be like these huge claps and whatnot. And then it came to me. And it was very clear that the reception was not the same, just a smattering of applause.”
At one point when Crowley was onstage, Ocasio-Cortez recalled that an older male member of Congress sat down next to her, gestured up at Crowley, and, apparently not aware of who he was talking to, said, It’s a real shame that that girl won. “I turned and I said, ‘You know that’s me, right?’ ” she recalled. “And obviously, his face turns pale.”
Crowley had been a revered figure, and his defeat amounted to a traumatic event for many elected Democrats. If he could be beaten, by a mouthy bartender no less, were any of them safe? Ocasio-Cortez soon became a symbol—a proxy, more than a fully realized person—whose every utterance could be mined for implications about the Democratic Party’s ideological divides and the state of politics during the tumultuous Trump era.
Her every move prompted a breaking--news banner. President Trump soon seized on Ocasio-Cortez and the rest of “The Squad”—then an alliance of four progressive congresswomen of color all elected in 2018—as a foil, leveling racist attacks against them in tweets and at his rallies. The women were all inundated with death threats.
A month after her election, in December 2018, Ocasio-Cortez had a two-hour lunch in the Senate Dining Room with Ed Markey, the Massachusetts senator involved in nearly every significant effort at climate and environmental legislation for decades. His then most recent attempt, in 2010, had passed the House but not the Senate. That bill had been 1,400 pages. Now, together, they wanted to try again—and with legislation that was just 14 pages long. Markey was instantly impressed. “It was clear to me that her knowledge was matched only by her clarity of purpose,” Markey told me. “We needed a movement. She was the generational leader to spark a revolution that would change the political dynamic of how climate change was viewed in Washington.”
Ocasio-Cortez took eight pages of notes that day, and for the next two months worked with Markey and his team as well as advocates to craft legislation they would call the Green New Deal. They would deploy an inside-outside strategy—using protests and activists to force the Democratic leadership to push climate to the top of the priorities list.
Days after her election, the congresswoman had joined a climate protest outside of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office. Now, on the day Ocasio-Cortez and Markey introduced their Green New Deal, Pelosi seemingly decided to remind the young congresswoman of her place. “The green dream, or whatever they call it,” she quipped, dismissing the plan. “Nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?”
Little during Ocasio-Cortez’s time in Washington has prompted as much media flurry as a series of perceived clashes early in her first term between her and Pelosi. Ocasio-Cortez says it was overblown—the media’s obsession with pitting successful women against each other—and described their relationship as professional. “I wouldn’t say it’s personal,” she said.
Various lawmakers and aides reminded me that clashes between leadership and factions of the caucus are commonplace. And Pelosi, it needs to be acknowledged, directly paved the path for someone like Ocasio-Cortez. Yet that history makes it even more difficult not to note that the first woman Speaker—to date the most consequential woman in the history of American politics—chose, repeatedly, to publicly diminish the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.
As we discussed generational splits across movements—specifically the now geriatric women and Black officials who, decades after being elected as historic firsts, can’t seem to stop throwing themselves in front of television cameras to undermine the aims of the younger activists attempting to ascend behind them—Ocasio-Cortez recalled the story of women’s suffrage, as depicted in Suffs, a play she’d seen recently. The movement was rife with tension between more seasoned suffragists who advocated a state-by-state strategy and younger activists uninterested in moving so slowly. “The 19th Amendment was passed by that younger guard,” Ocasio-Cortez noted. “It wasn’t out of defiance of the older guard, but it was in incorporation of those gains in an attempt to accelerate them.”
“This generational tension has existed among virtually every single social movement in American history, in labor, in suffrage, in civil rights, in marriage equality,” the congresswoman said. “And it is a tension between history and the present moment. It’s a tension between inside and outside. It’s a tension between what we can learn and what we don’t know. Any sort of criticism of the Democratic Party is immediately cast as helping the right or ‘You’re disrespectful’ or ‘Don’t you know everything that these people have done?’ And we do, but we are also allowed to learn from the outcomes of those victories and the unique dynamics of the present moment, to also say that we have to change tack and we can’t just do the same thing for 30 years.”
Though she may wonder how much power she really has, Ocasio-Cortez unquestionably has influence. “I have always felt that the true power, and true power in the United States, relies in mass movements and social movements,” Ocasio-Cortez told me. “And there are many people who will not do something until they are forced, until their hand is absolutely and utterly forced, whether that be for decisions of self-preservation or otherwise. And so there have been moments where I feel like I have been part of influencing an outcome or a decision by the party.”
Among those moments, she said, was early 2019 when she was one of the first elected Democrats to call for Trump’s impeachment. Then, in 2020, Ocasio-Cortez and Representative Rashida Tlaib, from Michigan, voiced criticism of the COVID economic stimulus. The legislation had provided for $600 checks to some Americans. But the congresswomen said the payouts should be even bigger—introducing legislation to send out $2,000 checks. “The whole party kind of chastised us and said that we were being wrong, and unproductive, and bad children, all that,” Ocasio-Cortez recalled. “And then the next morning, Trump came out in favor of it. And then the Democratic Party at that point, in that moment, found themselves to the right of Trump on this issue. And so they took the drafted legislation that Rashida Tlaib and I had introduced, they took it, they made it part of the American Rescue Plan. Of course, without credit.”
There is nowhere in which Ocasio-Cortez’s influence has been more apparent than in the urgency with which large swaths of the party now treat the need to address climate change. During the 2016 presidential campaign, climate change was barely discussed in the debates. By 2020, every single Democratic campaign put out its own version of the Green New Deal, even if some of them called it something else.
After backing Sanders in the primary, the congresswoman became an outspoken surrogate for Biden, helping unite the party in its efforts to oust Trump. Even so, party elders gave more time at the party’s convention to literal Republicans than they did to Ocasio-Cortez. The slight was no surprise to the congresswoman, who had spent much of the year defending herself against a primary challenger who had behind-the-scenes support from parts of the Democratic establishment in both Washington and New York, according to someone with direct knowledge of the campaign’s inner workings.
“I feel like everybody treated me like a one-term member of Congress, and they worked to make me a one-term member of Congress.” Ocasio-Cortez said. “There was a very concerted effort from the Democratic side to unseat me. And I felt a shift after my primary election, and it felt like after that election was the first time that more broadly the party started treating me like a member of Congress and not an accident.”
Once she’d been reelected, the congresswoman began enjoying the fruits of her labor in Washington. Biden named her co-chair of his climate task force, along with John Kerry. Both Kerry, whom Biden would ultimately name his climate czar, and another White House official described her as a solutions-oriented team player. In just two years, she’d gone from a sit-in at the House Speaker’s office to charting the climate blueprint for a Democratic Party that now controlled both the White House and Congress.
The congresswoman recalled a “bittersweet moment” last year when President Biden visited her district with Senator Chuck Schumer after Hurricane Ida and the two gave speeches about climate change. “Here were these two very powerful individuals, very powerful men, delivering speeches that were basically in their content and in their substance just complete Green New Deal framing,” she said. “I’m listening and I literally know that if I say and read that same exact speech, it is treated not just by the right but by my own party as radical, impossible, flippant, uninformed. But now the president of the United States is saying it. And so it feels very powerful because I wrote a lot of those words. That he wouldn’t be invoking these frames if it wasn’t for the work of movements and what we pushed.”
The biggest win came in early August when Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act, an omnibus budget bill that included $369 billion toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions. “The only reason this is happening,” said Lori Lodes, a longtime progressive operative and executive director of Climate Power, “is directly because of AOC and young people rising up and speaking out and demanding.”
None of that is to say that the political establishment has become any more fair or her existence in Washington any more fun. In July 2020, Republican Representative Ted Yoho passed the congresswoman on the Capitol steps and reportedly told her she was “disgusting” while later referring to her as a “fucking bitch.” (Yoho apologized but denied that he ever said the “offensive name-calling words.”) In May 2021, Ocasio-Cortez was confronted outside of the House Chamber by Marjorie Taylor Greene, a far-right member of the Republican caucus, who ran up to her and demanded she explain why she supports “terrorist groups” like Black Lives Matter and insisted Ocasio-Cortez debate her “radical socialist beliefs” with her, according to two Washington Post reporters who were present. Last November, Arizona Republican Paul Gosar posted an online anime video that depicted him using swords to kill Ocasio-Cortez.
“Others may see a person who is admired, but my everyday lived experience here is as a person who is despised,” she told me during my second visit to her office. “Imagine working a job and your bosses don’t like you and folks on your team are suspicious of you. And then the competing company is trying to kill you.”
With the 2024 presidential election fast approaching and the question of whether or not President Joe Biden will run again looming, progressives are weighing the future of their movement. Sanders has signaled he’d support Biden for reelection but hasn’t ruled out another run in the event of an open race. Still, operatives across the movement have suggested that the 81-year-old Sanders is ready to hand off the reins. The top adviser to another leading progressive official told me that Ocasio-Cortez seems “destined to inherit the leadership of the movement.”
Whatever Ocasio-Cortez decides to do, another top progressive operative added, will be “consequential for every single person who cares about the future of the country.” All of the progressive political operatives that I spoke with said they were heartened by the number of leaders their movement has produced in recent years. Yet they all agree, when granted the ability to speak freely, that there is something special about the congresswoman.
When I spoke with John Kerry, one of a handful of people with experience as a major party nominee, he wouldn’t speculate about Ocasio-Cortez’s political future but was unequivocal that he believed someone like her—an outspoken progressive woman of color—could be elected nationally. “In America, anybody can grow up to be president,” Kerry told me. “I do believe that.”
Ocasio-Cortez used to believe that too. Then she became a congresswoman.
“Sometimes little girls will say, ‘Oh, I want you to be president,’ or things like that,” she told me when I asked about whether she believed that she or someone like her could ever lead our country. “It’s very difficult for me to talk about because it provokes a lot of inner conflict in that I never want to tell a little girl what she can’t do. And I don’t want to tell young people what is not possible. I’ve never been in the business of doing that. But at the same time…”
Over the course of our conversations, the congresswoman typically answered in a confident, fast-paced patter—each sentence closely chasing the tail of the last. But now her speech slowed to a crawl and, for the first time in the hours we had spent speaking, she broke eye contact, burying her gaze in the arm of her chair. Tears pooled in the corners of her eyes.
“I hold two contradictory things [in mind] at the same time. One is just the relentless belief that anything is possible,” she said. “But at the same time, my experience here has given me a front-row seat to how deeply and unconsciously, as well as consciously, so many people in this country hate women. And they hate women of color. People ask me questions about the future. And realistically, I can’t even tell you if I’m going to be alive in September. And that weighs very heavily on me. And it’s not just the right wing. Misogyny transcends political ideology: left, right, center. This grip of patriarchy affects all of us, not just women; men, as I mentioned before, but also, ideologically, there’s an extraordinary lack of self-awareness in so many places. And so those are two very conflicting things. I admit to sometimes believing that I live in a country that would never let that happen.”
There would be other impediments—obstacles about which Ocasio-Cortez is practical, if not exactly optimistic. “Could Obama have gotten elected without the kind of financial support that he had?” she asked, noting that her opposition to Wall Street would be a major hurdle to any further rise. “I don’t know.” Even were she theoretically to become president, then what? She’d face a system—from the Senate to the Supreme Court—both empowered and inclined to thwart her most sweeping ambitions. “There are still plenty of limitations,” she said, playing out the hypothetical. “It’s tough, it’s really tough.”
But so, too, is the current gig—serving in an institution loaded with structural and dispositional limitations. “Congress does not move first, it does not move early, it moves last. That is why we have never codified the right to bodily autonomy. It’s why we have never legislatively codified same-sex marriage or marriage equality, and a whole bunch of other things, contraception, none of that. Because it’s easier to just let the courts do it,” she said. “We’re going to need robust mass movements that have already started. We’ve seen it in the labor movement, we’ve seen it in racial justice, and we’re going to need to continue to build that while also ensuring that we are staving off the very real threat of fascism in losing the House or Senate.”
I pointed out to her that she had just made an excellent argument for why she shouldn’t be in Congress at all and could possibly accomplish more elsewhere—in a different elected office, or as an outside movement leader. “I try to think about how I can be most effective and, honestly, to this point, I have not come up with an alternative that I have found more effective than what I’m doing at the present moment,” she told me. “But this is something that I routinely revisit.”
In the whirlwind of the past three years, as she’s grown from being a well-recognized politician to a bona fide culture celebrity, Ocasio-Cortez, who friends say has always been more introverted than she lets on, has, in understandable ways, grown even more. These days, she told me, she avoids appearing in places where she’s forced to play her part; where she can’t just be herself. She’s adopted a rule that she says her father deployed, back when they lived in rougher parts of New York City: Once she’s home for the night, she’s in for the night. She leans most heavily on the relationships she’s had the longest, the people who knew her before she became AOC.
“I work very hard at trying to cultivate a nonattachment to all of this,” she said. “I try to nurture nonattachment, so that—I think a lot of it is accepting that if all of this goes away tomorrow, I will not have an identity crisis [over the idea] that who I am to me is separate from the material trappings of this work.”
She met her partner, Riley Roberts, when they were both 19 and undergrads at Boston University. When they started dating later in their 20s, neither of them suspected what they’d eventually be swept up in. “For him to experience us dating when I was still working as a waitress and a bartender through now and seeing how the world responds [to me], I think has been a very eye-opening experience for him as well,” she said.
Roberts has largely avoided the public eye as he and Ocasio-Cortez have adjusted to shuttling, these past few years, between New York and Washington, D.C. Just prior to the pandemic, after a long lobbying campaign from Ocasio-Cortez, the pair added Deco, the aforementioned French bulldog, to the mix. “I have very few dreams—like straight-up dreams—in my life,” she told me. “Since I was a child, I dreamed about having my very own dog.” When she spoke of Deco, she displayed more earnest excitement than at any other point in our conversations. “Dogs have a way of evening out the lows. It’s kind of like a hard floor, and I definitely felt like my lows would be lower before him.”
Late last year, Ocasio-Cortez and Roberts found themselves discussing their New Year’s resolutions. Riley had a particular priority in mind. “It’s my resolution that perhaps we can be engaged by the end of the year,” she recalled him telling her. “And I said, ‘Oh, really? Well, you’re going to have to woo me. You’re going to have to convince me, after all this time, why I should.’ ” Ocasio-Cortez told me that she never considered marriage inevitable. Her relationship with Roberts, who is white, raised its own particular questions about identity and belonging: She wasn’t positive that an intercultural, interracial relationship would be the right fit for her. And then there was the fact that their lives had changed so much, so fast. A lot of men, she told me, only believe that they want to be with an independent, successful woman. “The moment you start being yourself, they kind of freak out,” she said. “I think it causes a conflict within them that they didn’t even anticipate. It’s not even a deception. It’s just, they uncover insecurities that they didn’t know were there.”
When she first ran for office, Ocasio-Cortez wondered if that was destined to become the story of herself and Riley. “In fact, the opposite happened,” she said. “He has been so supportive and willing and deeply engaging. He’s not a witness to this. He dives into the fray for himself in that he uses what we go through as opportunities for personal growth. And it’s incredible.”
In April they got engaged while on a vacation in Puerto Rico. “I feel like I won the men lottery in my life,” she went on, answering a question I hadn’t asked, listing off men in her life whose examples she admires: the father who set the gold standard; the cousins she grew up with in the South Bronx, who overcame a lifetime’s worth of adversity and are now raising children of their own; and even her chief of staff, Gerardo Bonilla Chavez, who leads her team with grace. “It is the presence of good men that has shown me what kind of men are possible in this world,” she told me at the end of one of our conversations.
It was hard not to hear in these remarks an expression of the core belief at the base of her broader political ideology and outlook: The reality we wish for may be closer than we think.
Sure, Ocasio-Cortez’s political project would see us fundamentally restructure our society. But is that any less realistic than the hope that we’ll one day eradicate misogyny, racism, or homophobia? Are progressive fantasies about replacing our nation’s guns and capitalistic greed with guaranteed jobs and health care any more far-fetched than the abolitionist’s vision of an America without slavery or the suffragist’s dream of a democracy in which her vote is counted? The fight always seems less impossible, the congresswoman reminded me, once you realize that we’re not starting from scratch.
“The world that we’re fighting for is already here,” Ocasio-Cortez told me. “It may not be all here, it may not be the majority of what’s here, but it is undeniably here.”
Wesley Loweryis a GQ correspondent and a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter."