Radical Romance: Examining Our Disruptive Affection for AOC

The right loves to hate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In a Wall Street Journal editorial, Gerard Baker compared her lack of experience to Donald Trump’s. Bret Stephens linked her to the catastrophe in Venezuela in the New York Times. But their ire has no effect on me and millions of other people—because Ocasio-Cortez has cast a spell on us. 

In fact, as someone who writes about romance as an ideology, I am rather surprised by just how much people across the country fallen for the woman known casually as “AOC.” Of course, we’ve fallen in love with young and beautiful politicians before. (JFK and Obama come to mind.) It’s just that AOC is outside the romantic narrative that so structures American life, both personal and political.

For one, she’s a woman. Our romantic fantasies about politicians tend to be similar to Disney fairytales: a handsome prince comes in and saves us from our woes and we ride off into our own happily ever after. That was the hope we had with Obama and the Camelot of JFK’s Whitehouse. Even on the right, the romance of politics is always male, although more a daddy figure than a prince—think Daddy Reagan or Papa Trump.

But Ocasio-Cortez also doesn’t offer us a fairytale ending the way romance does. Romance promises that we will see our prince/ss across the room, fireworks will go off and we will ride off safe and secure into our own private happily ever after.

That is the promise of romance: that love is all we need to be happy. It is also the trap of romance, since our own individual love stories, as encompassing and powerful as they feel, don’t take away from our need for shelter, food, clothing, health care and drinkable water. It’s surprising, then, that AOC is able to disrupt romance—because killing romance is a bit like killing capitalism.

Romance is a kind of ideology that developed alongside capitalism. Intense and erotic love existed before then, of course, but it didn’t promise us a happily ever after, or a safe and secure future through marriage. Pre-modern ideas about romance usually ended badly, like Romeo and Juliet; or involved a threesome between the Lady, her Knight and his Lord. But sometime in the nineteenth century, probably about the same time that Esther Howland started the first Valentine’s Day card factory, romantic love got tied up with fairytale endings that promised heaven on earth—once we found “the one” and bought them all the right stuff.

Fast-forward a few centuries. For the past couple of decades, even as marriage rates have gone down, Americans have embraced the promise of a happy and secure future through marriage with a vengeance. We privatized our futures. And why not? Everything else, from health insurance to education, was being privatized. Collective solutions to a better future, like Communism, had shown themselves to be not knights in shining armor, but drunken louts who left us in rags and without one of our shoes at midnight.

We started to spend more and more on white weddings, with the average cost now  more than $33,000, and more than twice this much in big cities. We even started to spend more and more on our wedding proposals, making them spectacular with marching bands and flash mobs and professionally edited YouTube videos with millions of likes. We read more romances than any other genre of fiction. Even gays and lesbians got in on the act, spending most of our political and economic resources on securing marriage rights rather than, say, universal healthcare for all families.

Yet when Ocasio-Cortez proposed a 70 percent tax on the super-rich, the vast majority of Americans also agreed with her. And most Americans think she’s right that we need “Medicare for All.”  

“Capitalism has not always existed in the world,” AOC said, “and will not always exist in the world.” If we can imagine that world, maybe we can also imagine one without romance—an ideology that blinds us with fairy dust to what we really need to build a safe and secure future for everyone.

Love is blind. Love is all you need. Love will find a way. Love trumps hate. In the muck of 2019, the propaganda slogans of the romance-ideological complex sound as empty as the Leninisms that littered Soviet streets. Slogans that signal a far more communal sense of the future, though, suddenly ring less hollow and sound more urgent—among them Green New Deal, Universal Healthcare and Livable Wage.

I felt a heart-warming spark of hope as I stamped my frozen feet this January in New York City, awaiting my beloved Ocasio Cortez at the 2019 Women’s March. Maybe we have finally wiped the fairy dust out of our eyes. Maybe we have started building a future that is not about our own individual love stories, but our love for humanity and our love for the Earth.


Laurie Essig is a professor of gender studies at Middlebury College and the author of several books, including Queer in Russia: A Story of Sex, Self, and the Other.