Sometime in the past few months, four members of Congress came to be referred to in mainstream media outlets as “the Squad.”
The story of how that happened says a lot about politics in America today.
Back in November, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, then a representative-elect from New York, posted a photo of herself with three progressive women of color who, like her, were soon to be members of Congress — Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI). The caption: “Squad.”
The photo went viral, with a raft of positive media coverage. But the term “the Squad” became more widespread in media earlier this month when New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd used it in an interview with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in which Pelosi took the four to task for voting against a border funding bill.
Then President Trump got involved, with racist tweets that didn’t name the four congresswomen of color specifically but seemed clearly directed at them, telling them to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
Ever since then, “the Squad” has been cropping up in headlines. And critics on the right have begun using the term in a pejorative way, with White House counselor Kellyanne Conway saying “these four people in the so-called squad that have done squat in Congress.”
At this point, “the Squad” has become a term whose meaning depends on who’s using it. For some critics, it can be a way of targeting and demeaning female politicians of color who “represent everything that stands against the status quo,” as Kelly Dittmar, an assistant political science professor and scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics, told Vox.
But for the representatives themselves, using the term can be a way to express solidarity not just with each other but with supporters around the country, Dittmar said. As Pressley put it on Monday, “our squad is big.”
The media started using “the Squad” more widely after Trump’s racist tweets
The idea of Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Pressley, and Tlaib as a “squad” unto themselves emerged slowly. When she Instagrammed a picture of herself with her four future colleagues shortly after the 2018 midterm elections, Ocasio-Cortez was using a common social media expression of friendship and solidarity that has its roots in hip-hop.
A squad is “a self-chosen group of people that you want to identify with,” whether you’re just going to the pool or doing civic activism, said Nadia Brown, an assistant professor of political science and African American studies who studies black women in politics.
For Ocasio-Cortez, using the term “squad” showed the common language she shared with her younger constituents. As a millennial herself, Brown said she found the use of the term “spot-on.”
“You understand the terminology and you’re using it in the correct way,” she said. “It’s a shorthand,” showing that “you might be someone who sees the world the way that I do.”
Others didn’t necessarily use the word “squad” to refer to the congresswomen right away. But opponents have been singling out the four from the beginning — Fox News host Laura Ingraham called them “the four horsewomen of the apocalypse” in a segment last November. And criticism of them as a group kicked into a higher gear in June after the four broke with Pelosi and the rest of their party to vote against a bill providing $4.5 billion in border funding.
Pelosi had cast the bill as the best way to improve conditions for children and other migrants at the border. But opponents on the left argued that giving the administration more money for the border would make the problems worse. “Throwing more money at the very organizations committing human rights abuses — and the very Administration directing these human rights abuses — is not a solution,” Omar said.
Then in early July, Pelosi called out the four to Dowd in the Times for voting against “our bill.” “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” Pelosi told Dowd. “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.”
In her column, Dowd referred to “the Squad, as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts are known.”
Trump soon joined the conflict, issuing a series of racist tweets that seemed clearly directed at the four. “So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run,” Trump wrote.
Coverage of those tweets and their aftermath typically referred to the congresswomen as “the Squad.” A headline in USA Today read, “‘The Squad’: These are the four congresswomen Trump told to ‘go back’ to other countries.” One in CNN read, “Here are the 4 congresswomen known as ‘The Squad’ targeted by Trump’s racist tweets.” Vox referred to “the Squad” as well.
The congresswomen are expanding the definition of their “squad”
Today, what “the Squad” means varies based on who’s using the term. Opponents of the congresswomen, like Kellyanne Conway, have begun using “the Squad” in a dismissive way.
“Because this is a sort of term that has come from social media and pop culture,” Dittmar, the Center for American Women and Politics scholar, explained, “those who are in opposition try to use it to demean the seriousness of not only these women but also what they’re doing.”
That kind of demeaning language is part of a longstanding pattern on the right of targeting the four congresswomen. They are a convenient target for Trump and his supporters because they are young, progressive women of color representing progressive districts, Dittmar said. Trump and others are trying to send the message that “these people who are trying to change everything, and who are different, are dangerous,” she said.
Some have criticized media use of “the squad” as infantilizing or sexist. It can also feel appropriative. “It’s just like, we’re going to take something that people of color have been using and try to claim it or use it as our own without understanding where it comes from,” Brown said.
It’s also worth noting that just because Ocasio-Cortez once captioned a picture “Squad” doesn’t mean that the four congresswomen see themselves as a separate group from others in Congress, or in America. That’s a separation that’s been imposed upon them, by Pelosi and then by Trump.
In fact, the four have pushed back against the notion that “squad” is an exclusive term. “Our squad is big,” Pressley said at a press conference Monday. “Our squad includes any person committed to creating a more equitable and just world.”
When Vox asked Pressley how she felt about the use of the term, a spokesperson pointed to an interview with the Boston Globe in which the lawmaker made a similar statement: “If you share the values and believe in creating a more equitable and just world, you are part of ‘the squad.’” Ocasio-Cortez declined to comment for this story, and Omar and Tlaib have not yet responded to Vox’s inquiry.
“We are more than four people. We ran on a mandate to advocate for and to represent those ignored, left out, and left behind. Our squad is big. Our squad includes any person committed to creating a more equitable and just world.” -@AyannaPressley pic.twitter.com/gBtzatOjWS— Justice Democrats (@justicedems) July 15, 2019
Meanwhile, Ocasio-Cortez got into a joking back-and-forth with 82-year-old Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ), inspired by an Onion article, and granted him membership in the squad.
You’re in, @BillPascrell! ☺️ ♀️ ♂️ https://t.co/iuYJfCyWng— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) July 16, 2019
She also conducted an open roll call:
Who’s in the Squad? Check in! ⬇️ ♂️ ♀️ ♂️ ♀️ ♀️ https://t.co/G48rsQMqk6— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) July 16, 2019
For the four congresswomen, defining the squad as something inclusive and expansive may be a way to push back against efforts — whether they’re by Trump or Pelosi — to paint them as a small group that isn’t representative of America.
The way they’re using the term “squad” now is drawing support on social media and elsewhere, which in turn puts pressure on Democratic Party leaders to take them and their message seriously, Dittmar said. Voters, she explained, are saying, “that’s the squad I want to be a part of.”