To hear American progressives talk in 2021 is to imagine the Democratic party as Luke Skywalker battling the overwhelming force of the Death Star.
Despite liberals dominating American culture in the media, entertainment, bureaucracy and education (as Shadi Hamid recently pointed out in the Deseret News), the David vs. Goliath narrative is so entrenched in their identity that it would be difficult for them to ever truly grapple with the reality of the status quo.
Which brings us to the strange saga of the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dress at the Met Gala.
The New York representative wore a dress emblazoned with the words “Tax the Rich” to the most glamorous American cultural event. Ocasio-Cortez, perhaps the savviest politician-influencer working today, obviously understood the hypocrisy and likely calculated it for maximum coverage. And she did so with great success. (Here I am still talking about it.)
But perhaps unexpectedly she was met with backlash not just from conservatives, but also from many on the left.
This criticism from the left might come as a surprise for some. Having a New York City congressional representative appear at a fundraiser for their local art museum is hardly controversial. And sharing the message “Tax the Rich” at an event with many of those same rich attendees could be framed as speaking truth to power, which was the tact taken by a few progressive commentators.
Had the left been interested in defending Ocasio-Cortez’s dress, they certainly had the ballast to do so. So why didn’t they? Because the dress revealed not hypocrisy (which was practically the point) but the fragility at the heart of the progressive underdog narrative.
The reason why Democrats have pushed back against the dress isn’t the hypocrisy per se, but because the stunt revealed that there is indeed a humbug pulling the levers behind the curtain, and that humbug is a Democrat.
Democrats can’t reasonably describe themselves as cultural outsiders when the political messages at the country’s premier cultural events are “Tax the Rich” and “Equal Rights for Women.” And one can’t argue this is a message to the rich and powerful when those same leaders run organizations toeing the progressive party line.
Actually a twofer: a celebration of the conjunction of both extreme richness and social exclusivity that wields cultural power as a weapon to both reify and reinforce its privilege. https://t.co/weRDllGYoh— Megan McArdle (@asymmetricinfo) September 14, 2021
No, this dress was most clearly a message from the rich and powerful, all too happy to line up for pictures with the capitalistically prudent virtue signaling on the dress.
The rich want you to see them next to a “Tax the Rich” billboard or dress because it’s good for their brand. But while it’s good for the elite’s image, it’s poison for the progressive narrative that they are freedom fighters locked out from an oppressive culture.
Ocasio-Cortez experienced her political ascendancy in a cultural environment so obviously owned by progressives that perhaps she missed the cues that this was one of the quiet parts you weren’t supposed to say out loud.
So as you try and understand the pushback she is receiving from the left, just know it likely has little to do with the obvious hypocrisy and much more to do with undermining a core, but untrue, narrative at the heart of progressive identity.
Christopher D. Cunningham is the managing editor of Public Square Magazine.