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The unwarranted controversy over AOC’s nomination of Bernie Sanders, explained

Her symbolic nomination was part of standard procedure at the convention.

Democrats Hold Unprecedented Virtual Convention From Milwaukee
US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) addresses the second night of the virtual 2020 Democratic National Convention as she seconds the nomination of Sen. Bernie Sanders on August 18, 2020. 
Brian Snyder/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

As part of standard Democratic National Convention protocol on Tuesday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez nominated Sen. Bernie Sanders for the Democratic ticket, a routine move that happens for any candidate who reaches a specific threshold of delegates.

Because Sanders had won more than 300 delegates, he was eligible to be formally nominated for the Democratic ticket. For his two nominators, Sanders had invited former United Auto Workers union president Bob King and Ocasio-Cortez. In her remarks seconding his nomination, Ocasio-Cortez made a sweeping call for systemic change, outlining goals including “guaranteed health care, higher education, living wages” as ones that progressives will continue championing.

It was a strong (albeit brief) speech, and part of fulfilling routine convention procedure.

The reaction online, however, was anything but routine.

Due in part to misleading tweets and articles from some media outlets like NBC News and the New York Post, people began accusing Ocasio-Cortez of snubbing Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in her speech. (She did not mention his name in her remarks, but she’s made clear in the past that she supports his candidacy.) Fox News panelists as well as other conservative sites ran with this narrative. And as Mother Jones’s Inae Oh reported, social media blew up:

“Did she really just do this? WTF.” Another tweet chided, “Bad, bad move. She just lost me as a follower and supporter.”

The entire unwarranted fracas was a product of several media outlets’ poor framing, which highlighted Democratic divides to advance an inaccurate narrative. It was also an example of the unique scrutiny and backlash Ocasio-Cortez faces as an outspoken progressive leader and young woman of color.

AOC’s speech, and the very normal convention role she was fulfilling, briefly explained

Ocasio-Cortez’s nomination at the convention, which had been announced by the Democratic National Committee beforehand, was entirely symbolic.

Former Vice President Joe Biden surpassed the 1,991 delegates needed for the nomination earlier this year, and Ocasio-Cortez had already said in April she would be voting for him.

But in the course of the primary, Sanders won 1,073 delegates, which meant he could be symbolically nominated, too. That nomination was part of the Democratic National Convention procedure that is used to kick off the roll call vote every four years — though it does not mean this person is still contesting the ticket. In 2016, for example, Sanders was nominated by Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and his Massachusetts campaign director Paul Feeney, after he had already endorsed Hillary Clinton.

Ocasio-Cortez filled that role in 2020, seconding King’s nomination and honoring the “mass people’s movement” that powered Sanders’s campaign:

“In a time when millions of people in the United States are looking for deep systemic solutions to our crises of mass evictions, unemployment, and lack of health care, and ​espíritu del pueblo​ and out of a love for all people, I hereby second the nomination of Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont for president of the United States of America.”

Because of the framing of Ocasio-Cortez’s speech by some media outlets, including a misleading tweet from NBC News, there was confusion over whether she was endorsing Sanders instead of Biden for the nomination. “In one of the shortest speeches of the DNC, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez did not endorse Joe Biden,” the original NBC News tweet read.

Ocasio-Cortez took to Twitter shortly after her remarks to clear this up and explain that her actions were part of the normal convention process. “Convention rules require roll call & nominations for every candidate that passes the delegate threshold,” she wrote, adding her congratulations to Biden.

By implying that her nomination was a divisive snub to Biden, however, NBC News and MSNBC were among the outlets that had already fueled backlash to her remarks. Both ultimately posted clarifications and deleted their original posts, but at that point, these tweets had generated “an enormous amount of hatred and vitriol,” Ocasio-Cortez noted.

The DNC’s handling of Ocasio-Cortez’s speech was surprising to begin with

The faulty framing of Ocasio-Cortez’s nomination of Sanders also followed questions regarding how limited her role was at the convention, a move that many progressives considered a slight.

Like other nominators, Ocasio-Cortez was allocated about a minute to speak on Tuesday evening.

But the DNC’s decision to limit her to that role was surprising since she’s established herself as a star within the Democratic Party, and a charismatic communicator who has effectively connected with younger voters and progressives more broadly. Including her in a more expansive way at the DNC could have been a pivotal opportunity for Democrats to reach out to these voters and energize the party’s base.

For context, former Ohio Gov. John Kasich (a Republican) spoke for about four minutes on Monday, while former President Bill Clinton spoke for five on Tuesday. According to a DNC aide, the average speaking time at the event is two minutes.

Per a CBS News poll, many Democrats were eager to hear from Ocasio-Cortez. The survey, fielded among Democratic voters between August 12 to 14, found that 63 percent of people were interested in hearing her speak at the convention, compared to 56 percent who felt the same about Bill Clinton and 38 percent who did about Kasich, one of multiple Republicans who made an appearance. Former President Barack Obama was the person Democrats were interested in seeing most, with 92 percent saying they’d like to hear his remarks.

Even as Democrats have pushed a message of unity at the convention, the decision to give Ocasio-Cortez such a narrow time slot seemed to suggest that the Democratic National Committee didn’t see progressive leaders as central to the party.

It’s possible that Democrats handled Ocasio-Cortez’s speech in this way because she’s become one of the figures that Republicans often cite as an example of the “radical left,” in an attempt to fearmonger with swing voters and moderates — and they worry that this association could deter voters. Not only would such thinking be playing into Republican talking points, however, it’s become clear that the GOP will use this strategy with just about any Democrat (Biden, for example, has been labeled this way), and sacrificing an opportunity to connect with the base because of such fears seemed like the wrong trade-off.

“She is reflective of the future of the Democratic Party,” Alliance for Youth Action executive director Sarah Audelo previously told Vox of Ocasio-Cortez. “If you’re looking at the Democratic Party overall, there’s a short-term problem as it relates to November, but there’s a long-term problem as it relates to [its future].”

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