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Democrats Need to Learn From Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's '60 Minutes' Interview

By Petr Knava | Politics | January 7, 2019 |

By Petr Knava | Politics | January 7, 2019 |


What happens when a real challenger appears?

Someone young, brave. An outsider not pre-approved by or already enmeshed in the bubble of professional politics.

Someone who tells us that forty years of a political model that is increasingly weighted towards the wealthiest and most powerful in society and progressively more hostile towards those poorest and weakest has not been a fait accompli, or some sort of divine or natural occurrence, but instead a series of choices made by a political class captured by and cross-pollinated with those same wealthy and powerful individuals and organisations that benefit from those choices.

Someone who says that the mindset epitomised by one of the progenitors of that political model, Margaret Thatcher, summarised by her famous repeated utterance—‘There Is No Alternative’—is a self-serving lie, a smoke screen designed to obscure the fact that the model is anything but the neutral, ‘common-sense’ view of the world that its champions like to paint it as, but instead a violent, extremist ideology that has sent the world spiralling into a crisis of wealth inequality and incoming climate apocalypse.

Someone who isn’t afraid to say what needs saying: The United States is an oligarchy-in-all-but-name (PDF link) that psychopathically abuses its citizens and murders innocents around the world.

But also someone who says that, no, actually, another world is possible.

How does the status quo react when someone dares to stand up and speak against it? How do the people who have been subjected to the rule of that status quo react when it finally gets challenged? How do the explicit and implicit defenders of that status quo react?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, newly elected Democratic Representative from New York and the youngest woman to ever serve in Congress in the country’s history, appeared on 60 Minutes last night with Anderson Cooper. The interview was a perfect example of how she has managed, in her very short time in the public eye so far, to already do more work towards shifting the national political conversation than an entire generation of establishment Democrat politicians.

The interview was also a snapshot of how the implicit defenders of the status quo operate.

‘Unrealistic’ is the buzzword. The anguished cry of the centrist. You hear it over and over again. Raised at first by the Right as one of the means of blocking any progress, many parts of what we would call the Left have internalised this heinous, self-defeating mantra.

‘Universal healthcare is unrealistic!’

‘Progressive taxation is unrealistic!’

‘More public investment? Unrealistic!’

The excitement in progressive circles over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s meteoric rise to national and international attention has to be tempered of course with the knowledge that she is only just getting started. But we have to be careful here, because there is a subtle distinction between excitement and hope. Excitement should be tempered, but hope should not be dampened. Ocasio-Cortez has barely moved to Washington, and already those hopeful about this and the implications that will have are being painted as starry-eyed idealists who are heralding her as some sort of leftist saviour. She is not a saviour, but she is a much needed shot in the arm. Ocasio-Cortez may be young, relatively inexperienced, and only one of a number of (often female, often POC) progressive politicians who are beginning their terms in Washington, but for a number of reasons she has become a symbolic beacon of hope for progressives, as well as a lightning rod for attacks from other quarters. While the Right viciously attack Ocasio-Cortez with increasingly desperate and flailing incoherence, more liberal sections of the commentariat join in with the denigration, albeit in the more subtle ways in keeping with their position.

This is the section of the 60 Minutes interview that comes just before the one embedded above. It leads into it, and even on this micro-scale you can see the tactic of repetition:

‘How are you going to pay for it?’

‘It’s unrealistic.’

‘People are worried about going too far to the left.’

These are empty talking points presented as axiomatic truths and repeated ad nauseam by pretty much the entire spectrum of the mainstream media. The cumulative effect is one of a positive feedback loop of received wisdom that ensures that the landscape of collective political imagination remains friendly to establishment policy platforms and hostile to any debate around a break from those platforms. Anything that might question the neoliberal orthodoxy is seen as beyond the pale. The Right get to dictate the terms of debate. The Left—such as it is—is left to play pathetic catch-up. That is when it tries at all, as the past few decades have shown both the Democratic Party in America and the Labour Party in Britain (that is until the recent rise of Jeremy Corbyn and a resurgent Labour Left) to have been as complicit with the ascendancy of this orthodoxy as the Right.

The mainstream media plays an incredibly important role in this system. It sets the limits of debate. It rarely dares—or even thinks—to question the fundamental assumptions of the system we live under. It cannot possibly fathom that its bourgeois liberal conception of democracy, shepherded by an enlightened, educated middle class and centred around private property and profit-seeking business, might have some limitations or deleterious effects. It frames the discussion as one of common sense versus loopy radicalism. And ostensibly ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ outlets like the New York Times or The Washington Post or individuals like Anderson Cooper—an actual, literal aristocrat—are in many ways an even more dangerous part of this system than the outright obviously partisan Right wing outlets like Fox News et al. With those cartoonishly biased organisations you at least know exactly where you stand. They make no secret of their agenda. It is plain to see. The reactionary bent of the ‘reasonable’, ‘centrist’ wing is far more insidious, and it has the effect of inculcating a great amount of internalised fear in politicians, even in some of the more progressive ones.

But Ocasio-Cortez is not afraid. She refuses to play by the rules of the system that have damned us. ‘What’s the worst that could happen’ if her bold agenda does not succeed, she asks? She serves her term and that’s it, at least she tried. What an incredibly refreshing, necessary attitude in an elected official. It’s what inspires the kind of hope that could be a game changer.

Look at this exchange from the 60 Minutes interview:

Anderson Cooper: One of the criticisms of you is that— that your math is fuzzy. The Washington Post recently awarded you four Pinocchios—

Ocasio-Cortez: Oh my goodness—

Anderson Cooper: —for misstating some statistics about Pentagon spending?

Ocasio-Cortez: If people want to really blow up one figure here or one word there, I would argue that they’re missing the forest for the trees. I think that there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.

Anderson Cooper: But being factually correct is important—

Ocasio-Cortez: It’s absolutely important. And whenever I make a mistake. I say, “Okay, this was clumsy.” and then I restate what my point was. But it’s— it’s not the same thing as— as the president lying about immigrants. It’s not the same thing, at all.

Anderson Cooper: You don’t talk about President Trump very much.

Ocasio-Cortez: No.

Anderson Cooper: Why?

Ocasio-Cortez: No. Because I think he’s a symptom of a problem.

Anderson Cooper: What do you mean?

Ocasio-Cortez: The president certainly didn’t invent racism. But he’s certainly given a voice to it and expanded it and created a platform for those things.

Anderson Cooper: Do you believe President Trump is a racist?

Ocasio-Cortez: Yeah. Yeah. No question.

Anderson Cooper: How can you say that?

Ocasio-Cortez: (Laughs) When you look at the words that he uses, which are historic dog whistles of white supremacy. When you look at how he reacted to the Charlottesville incident, where neo-Nazis murdered a woman, versus how he manufactures crises like immigrants seeking legal refuge on our borders, it’s— it’s night and day.

That short segment is powerfully revealing. In a short space of time, Ocasio-Cortez:

1) Refuses to be drawn on diversionary nitpicking,

2) Uses direct, honest language to describe Trump’s racism, and

3) Doesn’t try to whitewash the path that led to Trump.

Unafraid, unequivocal, direct. This is a template for how Democrat politicians need to communicate going forward.

There are quite striking similarities between Ocasio-Cortez and another insurgent political outsider whose ‘unlikely’ success was built on the foundations of a clear moral vision and a refusal to play by established rules. Jeremy Corbyn’s rise in Britain is one of the most remarkable stories in modern politics. If you wish to read the full ins and outs I refer you to my previous piece on the topic, but the crux of the matter is that Corbyn campaigned—and has won great victories—on the rejection of a corrupt economic model that has been used for decades to transfer wealth from the poorest to the richest under the guise of ‘fiscal responsibility,’ and on the championing of a progressive alternative one that seeks to stimulate public investment, promote equality, invest in green energy, and redistribute wealth.

Naturally, at every step of the way of Corbyn’s journey, the mainstream media has sought to delegitimise him and the movement he represents. It has tried to do so through personal attack, mockery, mis-representation, and under-reporting. It has been a quite remarkable, unprecedented campaign of disinformation. Notably it was often the ostensibly ‘liberal’ wing of the press that seemed most invested in making sure the socialist rebirth of Labour would be smothered before it could learn to walk.

The scale of the campaign can be explained rather simply: Corbyn’s Labour represents an unacceptable threat to the establishment. Despite the ceaseless tide of obloquy, Corbyn has remained steadfast and his message has resonated with an electorate that had otherwise given up hope on a credible alternative to the prevailing political orthodoxy.

It is likely that the further Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez goes in her political career, the more she will be subjected to the same tactics that Jeremy Corbyn has been. We saw a similar effect happening with another left-wing U.S. politician who genuinely threatened to upset the status quo recently. I won’t bother naming names for fear of inviting a storm of angry comments, but suffice it to say that this time the calumny may well be even more powerful due to Ocasio-Cortez actually being a member of the Democratic Party.

The radical change is coming from inside the party!


But of course ‘radical’ is a relative term. Ocasio-Cortez recently floated a 70% tax rate. This caused a wave of golden monocles dropping into glasses of peasant’s tears all across the nation and an epidemic of jowly old men turning beet red from gripping their crusty copies of ‘Atlas Shrugged’ too hard, but the fact is that the U.S. operated with these kinds of tax rates—and higher—for decades. During that era of relatively restrained capital it saw remarkable growth and more equitable wealth share. In the last few decades however the financial sector has successfully captured policy to an immense degree and it has used that leverage to remove vast swathes of the regulation that once protected the public sphere from its rapacity. It sold the lie that this was all for the common good. Even after the catastrophic near-collapse of the international financial order ten years ago it has refused to budge from this dogma. In this perverted reality, a tax rate that was once seen as common sense is painted as an absurdity. That’s how low we have sunk. The establishment Democratic Party—from Obama to Clinton—aided and abetted this, as did the media establishment.

But there is a new generation of Democrats rising. Many of them are women of colour and on the relatively radical left of the party. Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Deb Haaland, Lauren Underwood, Sharice Davids are just a few of them. Some are more radical than others, but they are proving that there is a real, urgent need and desire for change.

This is the time for radicals. There is no time left for anything else. Yes, climate change will soon bring untold devastation if we don’t act, but for a vast proportion of the world’s poor and otherwise disadvantaged, devastation is already an everyday reality. Whether it is the millions barely surviving on subsistence wages, without healthcare, or the communities ravaged by opioid addiction or racialised police violence, or the countries destroyed by foreign or domestic bombs—for vast segments of the country and the world, the end times are now.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s political career may well only be just beginning, but already the young woman from the Bronx has achieved a lot. A significant portion of the battle is dictating the terms of debate, of putting issues on the map. In her drawing attention to the twisted world of Washington; her tireless campaigning for an existentially necessary Green New Deal; in her fearless dance of defiance in the face of feeble attempts at Republican intimidation and in her harnessing of the power of new media, Ocasio-Cortez has managed to dictate terms like a motherfu**er right out of the gate. She is forcing the debate onto the terrain of ideas. Of policies. And as much as that shouldn’t be something special to remark upon dammit, it is.

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Petr is a staff contributor. You can follow him on Twitter.

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