Knock Down the House: Make America Great Again, by David Bax
It’s only been a few months since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was sworn in as the United States Representative for New York’s 14th congressional district but her legacy as a steely, determined optimist who went from bartending to CSPAN has already calcified into the stuff of myth. So it’s almost shocking when, early in Rachel Lears’ Knock Down the House, we actually see a pre-primary winning Ocasio-Cortez actually reporting to work, hauling ice, prepping the bar and mixing a drink. It’s like footage surfaced of Jesus Christ doing carpentry. That analogy is obviously an overstatement but, given the fervor of the young representative’s fanbase, it’s to Lears’ credit that she doesn’t present it in those terms. Ocasio-Cortez is just one of four women Lears chose to follow, all of whom were challenging incumbent Democrats, and all of whom are similarly depicted in their daily lives. Often these scenes are inextricably and ironically linked to the gender roles these women are defying; a candidate seeking to represent the Las Vegas area who has to chastise her own campaign staff to keep their offices clean says to them, “I’m Amy Vilela and I do not approve of this mess.”
In the interest of fairness, I will make clear that my politics are generally in line with those of Knock Down the House‘s subjects. And, unless I miss my guess, the same goes for Lears; there’s little skepticism on display. But nor is there much propaganda. Unless you’re too far to the right to even stand to be in these women’s company for 100 minutes, you’ll find that the movie’s appeal lies mostly in the fascination of how a campaign is mounted, run and won (or lost) from within the incumbent’s own party. In the film’s most satisfyingly politics-nerdy moment, Ocasio-Cortez breaks down for the camera her simple, direct, eye-catching, informative campaign mailer versus the oversized, over-designed, mostly meaningless one of her opponent. We are given to understand that his experience fails to translate because his entrenched position has clouded his vision. We are led to infer, for instance, that he didn’t think to include the primary date on the front of his pamphlet because he’s unaware that most of his constituents don’t know it by heart like he and his cohorts do.
It’s no coincidence that a large percentage of Knock Down the House‘s most memorable moments involve Ocasio-Cortez. Lears allots her the lion’s share of the screentime. It’s hard to blame her since–spoilers for the news–Ocasio-Cortez is the only subject here who actually won her race. It’s tempting to imagine how much good footage of the other three women was left out but my task is to review the movie I saw and, as assembled, it works. It also eases the imbalance when Lears shows a good eye for lyrical transitions, like the one from casinos as seen from Las Vegas Boulevard to the apartment buildings of the Bronx as seen from an elevated train.
Other moments, like the one mentioned earlier, illustrating the appeal of new blood over the establishment, carry with them the only hint of a critique, if not offered directly by Lears, at least baked into the situation itself. Ocasio-Cortez and the other members of 2018’s “blue wave” freshman representatives certainly won, in large part, due to the strength of their policy positions. But they also represent a surge of populism, a trait that, on the political right, has led to a rise of, at best, nationalism and, at worst, outright racism that has elevated dangerous, imbecilic world leaders like Donald Trump and Brazilian president Javier Bolsonaro as well as increased the support and power of parties like Germany’s anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ AfD and France’s authoritarian, Islamophobic Rassemblement National. In the cases documented in Knock Down the House, my gut tells me to cheer but we should always be wary of appeals to the gut and not to the heart and mind.
That’s just a caution to keep in mind when considering that Knock Down the House is almost guaranteed to inspire more people like these women to run for office, a scenario I support. Even the parade of losses that makes up 75% of the final act doesn’t dampen the sentiment expressed by Ocasio-Cortez: “We’re not running to pressure the incumbent to the left. We’re running to win.”
It induces both hope and terror that, after the 2016 presidential election, nothing in American politics seems quite so predictable anymore. In another decade or so, Ocasio-Cortez and her compatriots may themselves be the establishment. Knock Down the House‘s legacy may be as an inspiration to the next wave of disrupters, the one that unseats them. As long as we can keep our heads, that will be a good thing.