Lessons I Learned from Watching "Knock Down the House"

Before I watched Knock Down the House, I joked on Instagram that the movie would eventually have me thinking about running for office.  If the United States political system was truly equitable and actually worked, more everyday Americans would be representing us in office and advocating for issues that benefit all citizens. As someone who is a sap for emotional and uplifting storylines, the trailer had me in my bag. For a moment, I felt compelled to believe that filling political seats with untraditional candidates would truly transform the United States’ political framework. Then, the credits rolled and I snapped out of my politicized stupor.

The film heavily focuses on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s triumph, so much so that the other three women who ran alongside Ocasio-Cortez seem to be merely footnotes in Ocasio-Cortez’s growing political career. Ocasio-Cortez is framed as the winner of the typical American relay race; the one where countless people build upon their successes and continue to pass along the baton until one person, deemed to be exceptional, crosses the finish line. The film did a great job of highlighting the team that transpired to carry Ocasio-Cortez to the finish line, but if all the women who ran had similar campaigns, stories of struggle and triumph, and arguably the same amount of zeal, why is Ocasio-Cortez the only candidate who won  a Congressional seat?

“Why me?” is a sentiment echoed by all the women featured in the film. Rightly so. In all the years that the United States’ politics have wreaked havoc upon the world, never before had a young bartender from the Bronx, a coal miner's daughter from West Virginia, a grieving mother from Nevada, and a registered nurse from Missouri garnered enough audacity to challenge powerful incumbents in Congress. Yet, these stories are the archetypes of American propaganda. From the moment that the original downtrodden colonizers stepped foot on this land and managed to declare freedom from what was one the biggest superpowers in the world, what has been able to be repackaged and sold in this country is the story of the underdog who manages to overcome their plight and become successful.

Amongst all the other women who ran for office, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the embodiment of that narrative. Despite her fears regarding her bid for office, Ocasio-Cortez brought her full self to the race; she was vulnerable, honest, and angry as hell. What Ocasio-Cortez demonstrates is that a willingness to show up as your full self is a competitive advantage. Aside from the obvious notion that most people choose to be dishonest about their lives, being transparent about your identity and personhood allows us to build communities that are sustainable and to some extent, healing. When we show up as our full selves, we are giving our community members permission to do the same. And as much as the story of the relentless underdog has been repackaged to finance the dreadful American Dream, it can also be used to bring our communities together not with the hope of being exactly like us, but with the permission to show up authentically as themselves.

It can also be argued that, amongst the other candidates, Ocasio-Cortez was the outlier. As a candidate running for a Congressional seat to represent the Bronx and Queens districts of New York, as a loud mouthed New Yorker advocating for the abolishment of ICE, as a young woman who had the audacity to  run against one of the most powerful Democrats in the nation, Ocasio-Cortez’s bid for office was ambitious, but not as ambitious as the other candidates who were doing the exact same thing in Southern states. Based on the film, it seems that despite running for offices in states that had unique plights and political cultures, the same strategy was being used for all four candidates. With that in mind, what the film demonstrates is that sometimes, regardless of the end goal - which was to increase the amount of women in Congress - strategy is just as important as audacity. And if you don’t have the strategy, you might only end up with one winner, if any.

After watching Knock Down the House, I can guarantee that you won’t see me running for political office. But, in regards to orchestrating ambitious political plans, the film did reinforce some important truths. Any political campaign, whether it involves a bid for a political seat, establishing a community-based venture, or making attempts to radicalize your family and friends, requires community building. And community cannot be built without a commitment to authenticity and a strategy that takes into account the peculiarity of your constituency.