Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Wants the Country to Think Big
If Democrats had wanted to troll the GOP, they could hardly have cooked up a better legislator than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She, of course, is the Northeast-educated, Bernie-supporting, wall-protesting, community-organizing daughter of a working-class Puerto Rican family. Born in the Bronx, she was — until right around the time that she took the primary in New York’s 14th District from a 10-term incumbent — waiting tables and bartending at a taco joint called Flats Fix. Her striking features are almost impossibly symmetrical, her outlook millennial, and her answers pointed and well-constructed. Today, she wears a hot-pink pantsuit, which wouldn’t bear mentioning — this being 2019 and all — if it weren’t for the obvious fact that a hot-pink pantsuit intends to announce itself.
It’s barely lunchtime in Washington, D.C., and Ocasio-Cortez has already attended a rally to end the government shutdown and taken to Twitter to, among other things, call out the Daily Caller for its cozy relationship with white supremacists, call out Tucker Carlson for his cozy relationship with the Daily Caller, remind everyone to “#LegalizeIt” and “demand justice for communities ravaged by the War on Drugs,” and take media outlets to task for reporting on fake nudes of her with headlines that obscure whether they were fake (@DailyCaller, “This is not an apology”). When our conversation is interrupted by her need to hustle to the House floor for a vote, we continue it the next day in a gilded room in the Capitol, not far from Nancy Pelosi’s office — though far enough for Ocasio-Cortez to get momentarily lost and set on by tourists, who all wanted selfies with Congress’ social media star. True to form, she gave the people what they wanted.
When was the last time you experienced sexism?
[Mimes looking at watch] Um, 10 a.m.
Oh, no, really?
I mean, that [fake nude photo] tweet, you know? It’s so funny. I’m like, “Man, I do do a lot of Instagram stories, but I don’t remember doing that.” But it speaks so much to the work that we still have to do when it comes to women’s rights. When the president says that he has sexually assaulted women, they just shrug their shoulders, but when there’s a rumor that a woman may have had the audacity to take a photo of herself, they’re up in arms. I’d like to say ‘Don’t respond to it,’ but we cannot pretend that these far-right outlets are not driving some of the most subversive and destructive narratives, and we cannot pretend like those narratives have not gained steam. They have hijacked the presidency.
And the political conversation.
Exactly. And so I may not want to respond to it. We may not like the fact that these things that were not worth our time 10 years ago are worth our time now, given the subversive power they’ve built. But I think that they are worth a response.
In your ability to galvanize your supporters through social media, you have been compared to Donald Trump.
Well, I think that there’s this rush to make that comparison, but any time media fundamentally changes, the first movers to recognize that change — and to learn it and to adapt to it — tend to have that first-move advantage. So this is less about personality, less about Trump, and more about who has had the first-mover advantage. But there are similarities. People who succeed in social media follow similar tenets. In order to resonate with people, you have to tell them what you mean, you have to be willing to make mistakes, you have to be willing to be vulnerable and learn as you go.
You originally wanted to be an OB-GYN. Why did you make the switch?
I had spent time living in West Africa while I was an undergrad, helping midwives deliver babies in the Sahara, and I contracted malaria while I was there. In the developing world, malaria is an economic disease. It’s a disease that impacts so many people as to be actually impacting national GDP, so I started thinking about these health issues as more macro-economic public-policy issues.
But I was personally impacted when my father passed away in the heat of the financial crisis, and I graduated college and was waitressing. The thing that people don’t understand about restaurants is that they’re one of the most political environments. You’re shoulder-to-shoulder with immigrants. You’re at one of the nexuses of income inequality. Your hourly wage is even less than the minimum wage. You’re working for tips. You’re getting sexually harassed. You see how our food is processed and handled. You see how the prices of things change. It was a very galvanizing political experience for me.
When you quit your waitressing job, what did you tell your boss? Were you like, “I’m quitting because I’m gonna be in Congress”?
Yeah, I was keeping mum about my campaign for a long time but…
You were doing double duty.
Oh, yeah, probably a whole year, at least. Some of the people that I worked with knew because they were my friends, and one day the general manager of the restaurant overheard somebody talking about me running, and he came over and said, “Is it true?” I kinda nodded. And he just gave me this big hug and was like, “Let me know what you need.”
You’ve taken the mantle from Pelosi when it comes to absorbing the heat for the Democratic Party. Does it get to you?
I was cracking up because I was actually talking to a Republican House member on the floor, and he’s like, “Are you a communist?” And then he was like, “It’s OK if you are.” And I just started laughing because that is exactly how Fox News wants to go.
But do you court the controversy? Are you trying to engage in a dialogue where you are going toe-to-toe with Trump?
I do think that we’ve been taking it too much. I think we’ve been tolerating the intolerable. And I remember, you know, just being a constituent, like, “Where’s the fight back on some of these issues?” What the president is trying to do is undermine truth itself. Just because I’m pushing back on reporters calling women unlikable doesn’t mean that I think their outlet itself is “fake.” There’s a huge difference between checking a narrative and checking an actual institution. That’s how you get climate deniers being treated just as seriously as venerable scientists.
So when it comes to welcoming [controversy], I think it’s fine. Frankly, part of change is conflict. And I told this to other members too: If they want to direct their firepower to me, then whatever. I’m in a very blue district. Better me than someone else. For the most part, it doesn’t bother me. The last 24 hours have gotten to me because their hysteria is now getting manifested in sexism and bigotry. That’s where I will fight back.
Would you vote to impeach Trump?
Yeah. No question. No question. I don’t even know why it’s controversial. I mean, OK, it’s not that I don’t know why it’s controversial. I understand that some people come from very tough districts where their constituents are torn. But for me and my community in the Bronx and Queens, it’s easy.
Everyone wants it.
Yeah, everyone wants it.
You have only been here about a week or so, but have you had any conversations with Republicans about why they stick by him?
Well, in the Republican Party, there’s a hostage situation going on. There are a lot of Republicans that know what the right thing to do is — not just on impeachment but on a wide range of issues — and they refuse to speak up.
Because it would be political suicide.
Because to them, yeah, they can’t do it. To me, it’s an unacceptable position, because we’re not in the realm of politics anymore. These are not questions of politics. These are questions of society. These are questions of equal treatment. These are questions of civil rights.
Wouldn’t you rather have Republicans in office who know what the right thing is behind closed doors versus those people speaking up and losing their seats to people who are truly in agreement with Trump?
The problem is that if they vote the same way, what does it matter? I don’t care what’s in your heart if how you are voting is the same as someone who is actually racist. At the end of the day, they think that their intentions are gonna save them, but the actual decisions you make matter. I am tired of people saying, “I’m gonna vote the same way as bigots, but I don’t share the ideology of bigots.” Well, you share the action and the agenda of bigots. We need to hold that accountable.
How much of what you’re talking about is trying to move the Overton window [the range of ideas accepted in public discourse] so that Democrats can compete with the way Republicans have moved it?
A huge part of my agenda is to move the Overton window, because it’s a strategic position. I’m a first-term freshman in an institution that works by seniority. Procedurally, it is kind of like high school. You’re the new kid on the block. So, as a freshman, you have to look at the tools available to you, and in my first term, if we have the opportunity to frame the debate, then that is one of the ways to have the most power. If I’m here for four days, then the most powerful thing I can do is to create a national debate on marginal tax rates on the rich.
How much have you hung out with Bernie Sanders since you’ve been here? Have you gone out to get a beer?
Well, we haven’t gotten a beer since I’ve gotten here, but [during my campaign] I was able to pick his brain and ask him for advice.
What was his advice?
One of the functional pieces of advice was just that you spend a lot of time in your committee, so it’s really important to pick a subject that you’re passionate about.
And you just got named to the Financial Services Committee.
Yeah, it’s not official yet, but it’s looking pretty good. That was in my top three picks. It’s a pretty powerful committee in terms of what it can regulate. I’m excited about it.
What would you like to see accomplished in 2019?
What we have to do is redefine what the climate movement is about, and we have to re-define it in the scope of environmental justice. For so long, people have thought of climate-change legislation as saving polar bears, but they don’t think of the pipes in Flint. They don’t think of the air in the Bronx. They don’t think of coal miners getting cancer in West Virginia. When we talk about defining the scope, we have to talk about climate as a social-justice issue, as an economic-justice issue and as an environ-mental issue. We really want to lay some stakes in the ground that say, “If your legislation is not dealing with jobs, if it’s not dealing with infrastructure, if it’s not dealing with bringing justice to frontline communities, then it’s not a Green New Deal.” And we have a majority in the House, so why not swing for the fences?
I hope that works.
I know, me too. Call your representative.
You are my representative! [Laughs]
Yeah, that’s right!
Don’t worry, I’ll be calling. You initially said that you wanted to see more options when it came to House leadership. When and how did that change?
Well, no real options came up. And then I started to see a resistance to then-leader, now-Speaker [Pelosi] coming from the more conservative flank of her party, trying to take this narrative of “Oh, yeah, we need change,” but trying to take this change into a more kind of corporate-sponsored direction. Nancy Pelosi was the most progressive candidate in that field. That, first and foremost, is what I’m going to support.
Do you see common ground?
Absolutely. One thing that is notable about the speaker is that she does believe that the Democratic Party should be a progressive party. She is in the difficult position of having to juggle all of these different wings within the party, but her personal politics are very progressive. I have not found an issue where we are really opposed.
Have you had some one-on-one interactions with her?
Yeah, I have sat down with her several times and emphasized how important climate is to the agenda. She was one of the first Democrats to really push this issue years ago.
Do you worry that she’s been in politics so long that she will be too quick to compromise?
I do think that as a party we compromise too much. I don’t think it’s necessarily all on her, because she can only push as much as she can coalition-build. That’s why I see a special responsibility in my role in kind of shifting the conversation, so that all the members feel a little bit more pressure, because we’re amplifying what voters already feel. I was running in a district that was deep blue, and the representation that we were getting was not as progressive as the actual electorate. When [congresspeople] start feeling more of that conversation coming from their districts, they’ll have more liberty to move, which will then give the speaker more liberty to compromise less and push harder. Especially when it comes to the environment, but also on a wide range of issues.
What would you be willing to compromise on?
I don’t want to compromise where we’re going, but I’m willing to compromise on how we get there. I believe in single-payer health care, so that every American is covered with physical, mental and dental health care that is free of cost. That’s my vision. If I lobby the caucus enough so that our most conservative members fight for a public option, that’s a huge win.
Do you worry about splintering the party, this idea that you’re not just trolling Republicans, you’re also trolling Democrats? You’re doing all kinds of trolling! [Laughs]
Well, I don’t worry about splintering the party, but as I’ve said in the past, we can’t just be a party of the most basic rights. It shouldn’t be a political statement to say we should all be treated equally. The fact that that is partisan upsets me. I believe that both parties need to be on the same page when it comes to racial justice, queer rights, marriage equality, all of it. These should not be partisan issues, they should be universal rights. And so we need to champion those things, but we need to go a lot further. Especially when it comes to expanding our rights to economic dignity.
Many Americans are really worried about the economic state of this country, where people working full-time jobs cannot support their families. It’s astounding to me that this is not seen as a national crisis.
Well, we have never gotten out of desperate situations in this country with a scarcity mindset. We have never austerity’d our way to prosperity, ever. It’s never happened. The only way we got out of the Great Depression is through a massive injection of public investment, and also a massive expansion in public ambition and the idea of what is possible in America. We’re not gonna get out of this through incrementalism. We need moonshots.
What do you think you know that the old guard doesn’t?
One of the things that I bring to the table is a visceral understanding that people under 40 have been shaped by an entirely different set of events. We’ve literally grown up in different Americas. They were shaped by a Cold War America, a post-World War II America; and we are an Iraq War America, a 9/11 America, a hyper-capitalism-has-never-worked-for-us, Great Recession America. People are used to talking about millennials as if we’re teenagers. We’re in our thirties now. We’re raising kids and getting married and having families, and we have mortgages and student-loan debt. It’s important that [Congress is] in touch. People tend to interpret this as me railing against older people and being ageist. But that’s not what this is about. It’s a problem of representation. We don’t have enough intergenerational representation. We largely have one generation. That’s not to say that one generation should be out of power, it’s that others should be here as well.
Do you still have student-loan debt?
Of course I do, yeah! I’m 29 years old.
What’s the last thing that made you really angry? And how do people harness that anger so that we can make it productive?
Especially women. Because we’re not allowed to be angry.
Exactly. Or ugly or fat or opinionated.
Yep. You’re just allowed to be pretty and quiet. And then as a woman of color, too, it’s even more of a stereotype. Where even if you’re not being angry, they’ll attribute anger to you.
The last time I was pissed was the president’s bullshit border address, watching this guy just be racist from the Oval Office. I saw it as a defilement. In terms of how we channel it, we just take that anger and that energy and use it to say, “This is why we need the moonshot.”
Do you worry that in pushing the Democratic Party more left, you’re only going to polarize the country more?
I think it’s wrong to say that what I’m proposing is polarizing the country. What we are seeing now is a ruling class of corporations and a very small elite that have captured government. The Koch brothers own every Republican in the Senate. They own ’em. They don’t cast a vote unless their sugar daddies tell ’em what to do. But 70 percent of Americans believe in Medicare for all. Ninety percent of Americans believe we need to get money out of politics. Eighty-something [percent] believe that climate change is a real, systemic and urgent problem. Sixty-seven percent of Americans believe that immigrants are a positive force in the United States of America. I believe that I’m fighting for the American consensus.
You told Anderson Cooper you want people to underestimate you because that’s how you won your primary. When is it safe to let that go and unabashedly take charge?
People like to make these disparaging statements, like, “Oh, she’s good at Twitter. Is she gonna be an actual legislator?” I think it’s fine at the outset to be underestimated in that capacity. Where I do tell people to come correct is when they try to paint me as unintelligent, as unsubstantive. That’s when you see me fire back. When you call Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris “unlikable,” that’s an unsubstantial, unsubstantive, fluff, bullshit, misogynistic word to use. Unlikable? What is that? It’s not a policy critique. Paul Ryan was a con man for 10 years, and he was called a wunderkind for policies that were designed to just gut working families dry. But I’m the charlatan. So . . .
You’re 29, and you’re in Congress. Where do you go from here?
I have no idea. I mean, I go where people tell me to go, and I mean, like, the People.
Not just any people.
Not just anyone. As long as I’m effective, I’ll be here.