David Remnick: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is such a familiar figure by now in national politics, and yet four years ago, almost no one knew her name. It was in June of 2018 in the Democratic primary that Ocasio-Cortez pulled off a tremendous political upset in a district that takes in parts of Queens and the Bronx.
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: This victory belongs to every single grassroots organizer, every working parent, every mom, every member of the LGBTQ community.
David: She defeated Joe Crowley, the third most powerful member of the Democratic Caucus. Ocasio-Cortez, a former campaign worker for Bernie Sanders, won support from the Democratic Socialists of America and many other left-wing groups as she advocated for the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. Unlike others in the Progressive Caucus, she argued that the Democrats could only reassert national power by pushing very hard for working people.
Among that group, she stood out. Her questions during committee hearings often went viral and she became a master, an uncanny master of social media. When criticized or taunted, she snaps back hard and, often as not, gets the upper hand. Ocasio-Cortez became a lightning rod for Fox News and other conservative outlets to such a degree that it seems almost weird and obsessive.
With her party's razor-thin majorities in Congress now in real jeopardy, many of her domestic priorities seem well out of reach. I spoke with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez earlier this month. Much of the Biden administration's agenda in Congress has pretty much stalled and there are razor-thin majorities in the House and the Senate. A term that began with at least lofty FDR-like ambitions is now at a standstill. How would you rate the President's performance after a year?
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez: Well, I think there are some things that are outside of the President's control and there's very little one can say about that with Joe Manchin and Senator Sinema. I think there are some things within the President's control. His hesitancy around them have also contributed to a situation that isn't as optimal as it could be politically in terms of policy as well. My concern is that we're getting a bit into analysis paralysis and we don't have much time. I think that we should really not take this present political moment for granted and do everything that we can.
David: Biden at White House would obviously argue, "Look, the margins are the margins and Manchin's politics are what they are. He is in a state that is dominated by a much more conservative vote. Sinema is unpredictable." They would argue that they tried and they made concession after concession and still got nowhere and you have to have their votes.
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez: The presidency is so much larger than just the votes in the legislature. I think that this is something that we saw a little bit with President Obama. I think we're seeing this dynamic perhaps extend a little bit into the Biden administration with a reluctance to use executive power.
David: Where would you move first? Where would you move most forcefully and effectively, do you think, in terms of executive power?
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez: I think that one of the single most impactful things President Biden can do is pursue student loan cancellation. I think that it's very much a keystone action politically and I think it's a keystone action economically as well. I can't underscore how much the hesitancy of the Biden administration to pursue student loan cancellation has demoralized a very critical voting block that both the President, the House, and the Senate need in order to have any chance at preserving any of our majorities.
David: I've got all kinds of policy questions to ask you to be sure, but I can't help rushing to the fore and asking this question. You came into office again with a great deal of attention. You had some political experience before, but it's always from a distance. You weren't a member of Congress. You weren't inside. You weren't in the room. I have to think that in a first term that there's a lot of shock involved. What do you see in the room? What is it like day-to-day being a member of this institution from which I have to say, from outside, looks like a shitshow.
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez: It is a shitshow. [laughs] I think that's the thing like it's scandalizing every single day. I think that what is surprising to me is how it never stops being scandalizing. I think some folks, they perhaps get used to or desensitized to the many different things that may be broken, but there is so much reliance on this idea that there are adults in the room. In some respect, there are. Sometimes to be in a room with some of the most powerful people in the country and see the ways that they make decisions, and sometimes it's just as susceptible to groupthink. It's just as susceptible to self-delusion. It's just as susceptible--
David: Illustrate it. Sketch it out for us. What does it look like? If you can be specific, I think that would be a great service.
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez: For example, the infrastructure plan is, by and large, when it does what it's intended to do, politicians will take credit for if we even have a democracy 10 years from now. The thing that's important is that the Build Back Better Act is the vast majority of Biden's agenda. The infrastructure plan, again, as important as it is, the scope and the scale of these investments is much smaller.
We're talking about pairing these two things together. The Progressive Caucus puts up a fight. Then I'd say somewhere around October, there comes a critical juncture. The President is then under enormous pressure from the media. There's this idea that the President "can't get things done" and that his presidency is at risk. It's just all of this, what I thought to be just a lot of sensationalism.
However, the ramifications of that were being very deeply felt and you have people running tough races. It's just, "He needs a win. He needs a win." I'm sitting here in a group with some of the most powerful people in the country talking about how-- If we pass the infrastructure bill right now, then this will be what the President can campaign on. The American people will give him credit for it. He can win his presidency on it. If we don't pass it now, then we risk democracy itself.
People really just talk themselves into thinking that passing the infrastructure plan on that day in that week is the most singular important decision of the presidency. The thing that's unfortunate that I think a lot of people have yet to recognize is that the motivations and the sense of investment and faith in our democracy and governance from people in communities like mine also determine majorities. They also determine the outcomes of statewide races and presidential races.
When you have a gerrymandered house, when you have the Senate constructed the way that it is, when you have a presidency that relies on the electoral college and the fashion that it does, you're in this room and you see that all of these people who are elected really are truly representative of our current political system. Our current political system is designed to revolve around a very narrow band of people who are overall materially okay. It does not revolve around the majority.
David: You used a phrase earlier in the midst of this, "If we have a democracy 10 years from now." Do you think we won't?
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez: I think there's a very real risk that we will not.
David: What's going to bring us to that point? You hear talk now about being on the brink of civil war. That's the latest phrase and series of books that have come. What will happen to bring us to that degraded point if, in fact, it happens?
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez: We've already seen the opening silos of this where you have a very targeted, specific attack on the right to vote across the United States but, in particular, in areas where Republican power is threatened over both changing electorates and demographics. You have white nationalist, reactionary politics starting to grow into a critical mass. What we have is the continued sophistication and takeover of our democratic systems in order to turn them into undemocratic systems, in order to overturn results that a party in power may not like.
David: Your concern is that we will look like any nation in particular?
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez: I think we will look like ourselves. I think we will return to Jim Crow. I think that's what we risk.
David: You think we'll return to Jim Crow. What's the scenario for that happening?
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez: Well, you have it already happening in Texas, where Jim Crow-style disenfranchisement laws have already been proposed. You had members of the state legislature, just a few months ago, flee the state in order to prevent voting laws from being passed. We're talking about Florida, where you had the entire state vote to allow people who were released from prison to be re-enfranchised after they have served their debt to society. Now, that's essentially being replaced with poll taxes, with intimidation at the polls.
You have the complete erasure and attack on our own understanding of history to replace history with institutionalized propaganda from white nationalist perspectives in our schools. This is what the scaffolding of what Jim Crow was. There are certainly plenty of comparisons to make with the rise of fascism in post-World War I Germany. People often try to make these types of comparisons, but you really don't have to look much further than our own history because what we have, I think, is a uniquely complex path that we have walked.
The question that we're really facing was the last 50 to 60 years after the Civil Rights Act. Just a mere flirtation that the United States had with a multiracial democracy that we will then decide that was inconvenient for those in power. We will revert to what we had before, which, by the way, wasn't just Jim Crow, but also the extraordinary economic oppression as well.
David: Do you think many Republicans share your concern about the fate of democracy and do you have those kinds of conversations?
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez: It's a complex question because there are so many different kinds of Republicans. I also am reluctant to get into the navel-gazing of it because, at the end of the day, they all make the same decisions. Who cares if they're true believers or if they're just complicit? They're still voting to overturn the results of our election.
David: We're told constantly if you could only hear in the cloakrooms that a lot of Republicans find Donald Trump repulsive, but they know that they're going to lose their seats if they say so, which leads me to think, is being in Congress such a great job that you will trade your principles and soul for that job?
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez: Well, what I think some Republicans struggle with, the very few that are in that position, is that there is a concern that they will be replaced by someone even worse. Externally, I might look like a good soldier. I might look like I'm falling in line. If I lose my primary and I get replaced with 10 more Marjorie Taylor Greenes, we'll be in an even worse situation. I think that's perhaps where they may be coming from. To a certain extent, you do have these critical moments. You have January 6th. If Mike Pence made a different split-second decision that day and did what President Trump was asking of him, we would be in a very different place right now.
David: I'm talking with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and we'll continue in a moment.
David: I'm talking today with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents New York's 14th district in the House of Representatives. She's one of the most influential Democrats on the left-wing of the party. Ocasio-Cortez came to Washington as a real firebrand, even challenging at times the leadership in the House, including Nancy Pelosi. She's often criticized or put pressure on fellow Democrats who, in her terms, fail to back a progressive agenda that she sees as necessary for fighting the climate emergency and rebuilding the economy, particularly for working people.
Along with some fellow members of the House, she represents generational change. When you are asked questions about whether or not Nancy Pelosi should stay as speaker, when you're asked questions about the rather advanced ages of Steny Hoyer, Jim Clyburn, or Chuck Schumer, does it make a real difference? You're saying it's structural. It's not generational.
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez: Well, it is both. The reason we have this generational situation that we do is also in part due to our structures. The generational aspect of things is absolutely pertinent to the kind of decision-making. There is just this worldview that's an appeal of a time passed that, I think, sometimes guides decision-making. I legitimately believed that President Biden thought that he could talk with Manchin like an old pal and bring him along.
Frankly, that was what the White House's strategy was in terms of what they communicated to us. That's how they tried to sell passage of not even half a loaf, a 10th of the loaf. We promise we'll be able to bring him along. I really do believe that there is this idea that this is just a temporary thing and we'll get back to that. I grew up my entire life in this mess. There's no nostalgia for a time when Washington worked in my life.
David: Let me be blunter then. Is it healthier or not healthier for the Democratic Party for her to remain in place as the speaker or leader of the caucus?
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez: I think it's really all about a specific moment that we're in. We are in such a delicate moment of the day-to-day, particularly with the threats to our democracy. At the end of the day, there's going to be a generational change in our leadership. That is just a simple fact. Now, like when that particular moment happens or precipitates, I think, is a larger question of conditions and circumstance.
David: You don't want to go near this one, I sense.
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez: It's a tough question. It's not even just a question of the speaker. It's like a question of our caucus. I wish the Democratic Party had more stones. I wish our party was capable of truly supporting bold leadership that can address root causes.
David: Is it representatives that don't have the stones or do you want a different public opinion as it were? For example, take "Defund the Police" as a policy demand. Suddenly, in New York City, no one is talking about that at the center of politics. Certainly, as a matter of protest, yes. Activists, yes, but we now have a new mayor who is anything but "Defund the Police" in New York City. Who are you disappointed in?
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez: Well, I still am disappointed in leadership and in my colleagues because, ultimately, these conversations about defund or this, that, and the other, that is what is happening in public and popular conversation. Our job is to be able to engage in that conversation, to read what is happening, and to be able to develop a vision and translate it into a course of action.
All too often, I believe a lot of our decisions are reactive and to public discourse instead of responsive to public discourse. Just because there was this large conversation about "Defund the Police" coming from the streets, the response was to immediately respond to it with fear, with pooh-poohing, with, "This isn't us," with arm's distance. Then what is the vision? That's where I think the party struggles.
David: Aren't you seeing it in city hall now in the shape of Eric Adams?
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez: In some ways. Well, I think you also see it in the shape of the city council that was elected. You have a record number of progressives. People often bring up the mayor as evidence of some sort of decision around policing and I disagree with that assessment, I think, that representing a community that is very victimized by a rise in violence. I represent Rikers Island, where oftentimes people look over is that the same communities that supported Mayor Adams also elected Tiffany Cabán.
I think what the public wants is a strong sense of direction. I don't think that an election of Mayor Adams meant that everyone in the city supports bringing back torture to Rikers Island in the form of solitary confinement. I think what people want is a strong vision about how we establish public safety in our communities. For example, one of the ways that we engage is supporting some of the only policies that are actually supported by evidence to reduce incidents of violent crime, violence interruption programs, summer youth employment.
When we talk about the surge of violence happening right now, when I engage in our hospitals, doctors, social workers, everyone's telling me, there are so many things we're not discussing. One, this surge in violence is being driven by young people and particularly young men. We allow discourse to make it sound as though it's like these shady figures in the bush jumping out from a corner. These are boys.
Then, secondly, we're also not discussing writ large, is the mass mental health crisis that we are experiencing as a country as a result of the pandemic. Because we run away from substantive discussions about this, we don't want to say some of the things that are obvious like, "Gee, the child tax credit just ran out on December 31st." Now, people are stealing baby formula. We don't want to have that discussion. We want to say these people are criminals. We want to talk about people that are violent instead of environments of violence and what we are doing to either contribute or to dismantle that.
David: I've never seen anybody, at least more quickly, become a lightning rod for right-wing, not just criticism but obsession. What's with that? Why do you think there's such a fixation on you personally?
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez: I think there's just some surface-level stuff. To be honest, it's not just the right-wing. I was laughing because a couple of months ago, someone showed me some of the news footage and coverage from the night that I was elected. Obviously, I didn't see any of it because I was losing my mind, but there was this footage. I think it was like Brian Williams and it's like, "Breaking news, the third most powerful Democrat in the House of Representatives seems to have been unseated by this radical socialist." All the buzzwords that the right-wing uses now were also completely legitimized by mainstream media the night of the election.
I never had a chance. People act as though there are things I can do [laughs] or that there was something I could have done. There really wasn't. There truly wasn't. It was just baked in from the beginning. My choice was how to respond to that. I think because I respond to it differently, that increases a certain level of novelty, which then increases interest, but then there's also just the basic stuff. I'm young. I'm a woman. I'm a woman of color. I'm not liberal in a traditional sense. I'm willing to buck against my own party in a real way. I'm everything that they need. I am the red meat for their base.
David: Last month, an ex-staffer of New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand told the New York Post that you could mount a very, very credible challenge and, quite likely, beat her. How do you feel about that? How do you view your political future and would you like to make an announcement right here and now?
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez: [laughs] I'm not trying to be like, "I'm not like the other girls."
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez: I'm not trying to posit myself in that way, but I don't think that I make these kinds of decisions with some sort of 10 to 15-year plan like a lot of people do or I mean--
David: [unintelligible 00:27:00] domination?
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez: Yes, or like half this town, if not more, has been to a fancy Ivy League school. As a consequence, everyone is like, "Okay, what chess pieces are being put down for what specific aspiration?" I make decisions based on where I think people are and what we're ready for, particularly as a movement. I think a lot of people sometimes make these decisions based on what they want, right? What I want is a lot more decentralized. I think it's a lot more rooted in mass movements that is going to be necessary.
David: Can you see yourself walking away from public office entirely and going to a life as it were mass movements?
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez: Absolutely. I think about it all the time. [laughs]
David: You wake up sometimes in your Capitol Hill apartment and say, "What the hell am I doing here? I'm one representative out of hundreds."
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez: Yes, of course.
David: "I'm in a gridlock situation. I'm not affecting the change I want to and I'd rather join or lead or help lead a movement outside of government"?
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez: Have I had those thoughts? Absolutely. We all have different options in front of us. The choice of what option we take at any given point is a reflection of all of those conditions or motivations, all of those things. There are times when I'm cynical and I sometimes fall into that. I'm just like, "Man, maybe I should just learn to grow my own food and teach other people how to do that," but I also reject the total cynicism that what's happening here is fruitless.
David: The social media folks at The New Yorker have invited people to propose questions for you via Instagram. I have to say hope is the theme that is the center of almost all of these. If I can distill them, the most basic question is, what would you say to people, particularly young people, who've lost hope?
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez: I've been there and here's what I can say is that when you're feeling like you've lost hope, it's a very passive experience, which is part of what makes it so depressing. There was all this hope when Obama was elected in 2008. At the end of the day, a lot of people that had hope in our whole country had those hope stashed. I graduated. My dad died. My family had medical debt because we live in the jankiest medical system in the developed world.
My childhood home was on the precipice of being taken away by big banks. I'd be home and there'd be bankers in cars parked in front of my house taking pictures for the inevitable day that they were going to kick us out. I was supposed to be the great first-generation to go to college and graduated into a recession, where bartending and waitressing legitimately paid more than any college-level entry job that was available to me. I decided this is bullshit and no one, absolutely no one, cares about people like me and this is hopeless. I lost hope.
David: What is it that lead you to? You lost hope. How did that manifest itself?
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez: It manifested in depression. I would really say what is really important for people to understand is that to change that tide and to actually have this well of hope, you have to operate on your direct level of human experience. If more people start to truly cherish and value the engagement and the work in their own backyard, it will precipitate a much larger change.
There is no unionizing. There is no fight for the vote. There is no resistance to draconian abortion laws if people think that the future is baked in and nothing is possible and that we're doomed even on climate, especially on climate. The day-to-day of my day job is frustrating, so is everyone else's. I ate shit when I was a waitress and a bartender and I eat shit as a member of Congress. It's called a job.
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez: Yes, I deal with the wheeling and dealing or whatever it is, that insider stuff. I advance amendments that some people would criticize as too little and too small and et cetera. I also advance big things that people say is unrealistic and naive. That is always the great fear when it comes to work or pursuing anything. You want to write something. In your head, it's this big, beautiful Nobel Prize-winning concept, and then you are humbled by the words that you actually put on paper. That is the work of movement. That is the work of organizing. That is the work of elections. That is the work of legislation. That's the work of theory of concepts. That is what it means to be in the arena.
David: Congresswoman, thank you so much. It's always a pleasure talking with you.
Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez: Of course. Thank you so much.
David: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez represents New York's 14th District in the House of Representatives. You can read and hear a longer version of our conversation at newyorker.com.
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