There were a lot of hot tickets at South by Southwest this year, as you could expect. Us, Booksmart, and Long Shot were all huge deals, and the red carpets for those premieres were packed. Outside of the realm of film, though, the figure that everyone seemed to be talking about, as is so often the case these days, was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, freshman U.S. representative for New York’s 14th district, the woman leading the way for change in the Democratic Party, whom our very dear Petr adores.
Everyone at SXSW seemed to adore her, too, if her talk with Briahna Joy Gray from The Intercept on Saturday evening was any indication. Thousands of people favorited the event in the SXSW app, marking their interest in attending; I waited in line for two hours for that event with other people who were guaranteed inside, and there was another huge line wrapping around the inside of the Austin Convention Center of people who just had the off-chance of entry. When we got into the massive conference room where the event was held, the place was already two-thirds full—people had attended the preceding session and stayed in their seats for AOC. In the next 15 minutes or so, every seat was taken, and people lingered in the back, and over her hour-plus talk with Gray and following Q+A session, people intermittently clapped, cheered, and got to their feet. (Please see my janky photo of the very back of the ballroom, where I was able to grab a seat, to gauge how packed the place was.)
And, well, you’ve seen the soundbite that went viral since then: AOC accurately stating that former President Ronald Reagan advocated for policies that were racist and classist, and Republicans losing their absolute shit. I’m not sure how this is news to people, but conservatives love pretending that Reagan was a Good Man when he didn’t give a fuck about people dying from HIV/AIDS or from crack, so, this is all pretty on brand for 2019.
As is her custom, AOC went hard in her replies to people online:
Ok great, now talk about Reagan and:— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) March 11, 2019
- Iran-Contra +
- The gutting of our mental health system +
- The explosion of homelessness under his watch +
- The crack epidemic
Maybe instead of insinuating I’ve never read a book, be open to the idea that we’ve read different ones. https://t.co/aP96oCCBwm
And I appreciate that! I really do. But what is frustrating about this whole situation is that AOC devoted a lot of her time onstage during SXSW to talk about things that weren’t Ronald Reagan. She brought her customary brand of optimism, fieriness, and razor-sharp analysis, and although she hit most of her talking points, she also allowed herself some flexibility while answering audience members’ questions—including surprise attendee Bill Nye, who waited in line like everybody else and earned a standing ovation from the crowd.
The talk was framed with the title “The Progressive Surge: How Did It Happen?”, but Gray’s questions focused more on what AOC is experiencing now that she is in Congress, and how she sees the progressive agenda moving forward. The comments about Reagan came in response to Gray’s question about the divides between race and class, which AOC noted has “always been the tool of the powerful” to turn white working-class individuals against people who were black and brown. Instead of considering systemic inequality and “runaway hyper-capitalism,” it’s easier to use racist caricatures—like “The reason is Mexicans,” AOC deadpanned—than to realize that most politicians don’t actually work for the people they represent.
AOC followed up on this by talking about how other representatives that she’s met so far in Congress don’t explain their voting practices by admitting that they are beholden to certain special interests or donors, but by consistently blaming their constituents and saying they’re not interested in certain policies. “[That] our biggest obstacle is political will should be the most embarrassing thing for us right now,” AOC said. “The malpractice of governance” came up often in AOC’s talk, and she talked about the pushback she’s received for wanting to push for ambitious change, not only from Republicans but also from fellow Democrats—as we see in news coverage that quite often tries to sensationalize AOC’s very existence.
Overall, though, AOC was at SXSW to share a message of measured optimism. She talked often about rejecting the idea that “cynicism [is] an intellectually superior attitude”; about how “fear is not a plan, courage is a plan” (a sentiment that was excerpted for a SXSW promo video that aired before screenings the next day, and that got cheers in every theater I was in); and about the importance of rejecting power structures built for white men (campaign contributions from lobbyists and corporations, for example) and building your own methods and networks. That answer came to a question from the Radical Monarchs of East Oakland, a group of tween girls of color who are interested in political activism. They were at SXSW to represent their own documentary, We Are the Radical Monarchs, and AOC’s smile when she saw them was unbelievably genuine and affectionate.
Some other thoughts: AOC thinks we can be welcoming of increased automation because most jobs that can be replaced by automation aren’t providing a living wage, and perhaps increased taxes for profits based off automation would create opportunities for individuals who want to pursue other means of creativity or artistic expression (“not all creativity needs to be bounded by wage”). That there needs to be increased education regarding socialism so that people aren’t immediately scared away by the idea, and instead learn more about how European models can be scaled up and adapted to American needs. And that striking and standing up for your rights in solidarity with others is an important tactic for political change; as she noted, the 40-hour workweek didn’t just happen. It required union organization and human sacrifice, but it’s why we currently enjoy weekends.
And then there was the talk about the Green New Deal. To be fair, AOC didn’t offer many details about how to pay for the deal or how things are going in terms of gathering party support, but those questions weren’t asked. She did explain that priorities in the deal include clean water for Flint, a replaced electrical grid for Puerto Rico, and funding the pensions of coal workers in West Virginia. And her response to Nye, who asked about how to get skeptical older individuals (ahem, Boomers) on board for the Green New Deal, circled back to a previous question AOC answered about how to persuade people to your side in an argument. The key, AOC said, is asking questions that allow people to dig their own graves, to realize that their justifications don’t make sense, to acknowledge the foolishness of their actions—unless it’s a bad faith argument, and then walk away—or troll them back on Twitter, which we all know AOC is great at.
What was the final idea AOC left thousands of attendees with? “I don’t think we should belittle our beliefs anymore … Choose to be the person that is courageous,” AOC said, and although that’s very on-brand, it was still incredibly inspirational. I stood at a bathroom sink next to a couple of the girls from the Radical Monarchs on Monday and they were still excitedly talking about the experience. That’s the good shit, and that’s why AOC was as big of a story at SXSW as the films we were there to see.
You can watch AOC’s SXSW talk here, and Dustin will have a review of the documentary Knock Down the House, which featured AOC and also screened at SXSW, later on; keep an eye out for that.
Header Image Source: Getty Images