The Intercept’s Senior Politics Editor Briahna Gray spoke with New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at SXSW about identity, race, and class, and how these debates are likely to play out in the years ahead.
Watch the full archived conversation here:
Briahna Gray: So this is quite the crowd.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: Yup.
BG: Nothing new for you, I presume.
AOC: Hi everyone.
BG: I heard that it set all kinds of records, that there was a huge queue going down the stairs and around the building. Is that true? Have you guys been waiting in line for a while?
BG: Well I hope it’s worth it. I know that I’m really excited to be here and to be able to have this conversation with you on one of my favorite topics. But first I just want to introduce to you, although you’re someone that needs no introduction, the youngest congresswoman in the House or the Senate — from the great state of New York, the 14th District, which encompasses parts of Bronx and Queens. Any locals in the house?
AOC: Any New Yorkers?
BG: And my name is Briahna Gray, I’m here from The Intercept, which not all of you might know, that is a nonprofit independent news organization that was founded about five years ago by Jeremy Scahill and Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, and today we focus on publishing independent news about corruption and the environment, criminal justice, surveillance, war, technology, all the interesting things. And I want to tell you up top, if you want to tweet about this event and follow along, you should use the hashtag #AOCintercept.
So the thing that makes you really stand out, I think, is the extent to which you’ve gotten so many people engaged about a subject, which frankly can be a little bit dry, and that is politics. And particularly the extent to which you’ve engaged a lot of younger people in the political process. I mean your Instagram feeds get an incredible amount of views. You set records on C-SPAN for the amount of times that people have watched these clips. It might not be a very high bar to beat, but you beat it.
So I want to ask you first and foremost, why do you think it is that you’ve engaged people in this way?
AOC: Well I think part of what happened last year was a little bit of a crack in the system, and even before the primary and everything else that happened, when I was part of the team and making the campaign video ahead of the win, it opened with this line that said, “Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office.” And it’s because young people, with the norms and the systems and an electoral system that is dominated by special interests and dark money, and rules of seniority and all of these things, young people aren’t supposed to run. Working class people aren’t supposed to run. People that have not been groomed for a very long time aren’t supposed to run, let alone win. And what we did yesterday — I mean yesterday. It feels like yesterday. When we did last year, I think it kind of created the shock in the system where suddenly a lot of other people said, “Wait a second. Maybe I can do this too.” I think that is what is behind this surge. It’s not like this top-down organizing apparatus, but it’s really this movement starting to translate into more of our electoral politics than we probably anticipated.
BG: Yeah. You know, what’s funny is that this might end up being the longest conversation that we’ve had, despite the fact that we’ve been kind of circling each other for a while. I actually started at The Intercept, I think, two days after it published it’s first article on you.
AOC: Oh wow.
BG: And The Intercept is one of the first publications to really start covering your race. Because it’s hard to remember that now — that you are such a trailblazer and such a popular political figure — but in the spring of 2018, this all seemed like a bit of a long shot. You were going up against one of the most powerful representatives in the state, one with a lot of influence and seniority, and it’s been quite the ride to be able to kind of start my career, and start covering your beat, the AOC beat, if you will, and be there for your amazing primary victory, and to see the look on your face that was a genuine registration of surprise.
BG: So now that you’re, you know, a few months in to your actual tenure, is there anything in particular that you think you’ve learned that you didn’t expect?
AOC: Oh man. What I’ve learned? There’s so much that you’re learning every single day, and every moment kind of represents a certain transition of sorts, so there was this crazy period — of course there was everything we were doing before the primary, and what we were learning up to that day, then there was this insane period between the primary election and the general election and then the general election and swearing in. Now it’s kind of about two months into our first term. And so each one of those things carries a huge lesson, but I think in the last two months, it’s been really fascinating to see, you know, we have this idea that D.C. is dominated by dark money, and that lobbyists are hiding in people’s closets or whatever, like, “Boo! Vote for oil!” Whatever it is, but it doesn’t work like that. So it’s been very fascinating to see how subtle these very powerful influences make their way. And that is what makes them powerful. Sometimes, it is very transactional, and it’s like, “Here’s a check, you know, we have a relationship now.” But a lot of times it’s much more subtle than that. And then the language and all of this stuff, all of these little pieces add up to the reality that people sense and feel, which is that the culture that is governing Washington, D.C., is extremely separated from the reality of what everyday people are experiencing and feeling.
BG: Does that awareness of how many subtle influences there are in the political process, undemocratic influences there are in the political process — I don’t want to — this isn’t a conversation about 2020, but I’m curious how much that influences your decision making, and how much you think voters should attend to that when they select candidates, and how you can start to tell or distinguish between candidates who may or may not have made efforts to distance themselves from those influences.
AOC: I think it’s really important, and there are some aspects to it that we should look for in terms of litmus tests, you know? Has a candidate rejected corporate PAC money, for example? But I think it also goes much deeper than that, and you really need to look at the overall coherence and consistency of a person’s policy positions. And when you see that they’re consistently voting, or they’re consistently acting or defending certain interests, you do have to ask yourself why. And sometimes that does go a little bit deeper than just, “Have they taken money from a corporate PAC?” But it has to do with a lot more influences as well. And so, I think that that’s something that’s really important to consider. But again, I think it’s really looking at the overall platform and picture that any one candidate or elected official presents. “What is the story that they tell?” I think is extremely important to ask and look for of people.
BG: So I think this is the good point to sort of start to pivot into the main subject of our marks here today, which is to talk about this race/class divide, or this alleged race/class divide that percolated up, I think, in the aftermath of 2016, when Donald Trump’s victory after a campaign that was so explicitly racist, I’ll say. Not racialized, which is the first thing that we’ve all been primed to say, right?
AOC: Racially flavored.
AOC: Like all this language, like “tinged.”
BG: Right. I think he’s one of the few that you can kind of say the term “dog-whistling” is too subtle.
AOC: Yeah. It’s just a whistle.
BG: It gives him too much credit, right? All right. So following his win, there were all of these diagnostics about what actually caused it, and the fact that he was so express, where other people have been subtle made one camp kind of form to say it was predominately, primarily, and sometimes even exclusively about racism. And another camp emerged that said, “Well he was also speaking to a lot of populist things. He really talked about trade a lot, and activated people’s resentment around the TPP.” For some reason, these have kind of been painted as mutually exclusive rationale. What do you make of that?
AOC: Well, I think that the effort to divide race and class has always been the tool of the powerful to prevent everyday working people from taking control of the government that is supposed to work for them. And so you see this — and so I think you actually see the beginnings of this. You know, 2016, I think, was a really stark example of this, but you actually see some of the roots of this, and you see a lot of the roots of the issues that we have right now, really start to take hold in the late 70s and during the 80s. And one perfect example, I think a perfect example of how special interests and the powerful have pitted white working-class Americans against brown and black working-class Americans in order to just screw over all working-class Americans, is Reagan-ism in the 80s, when you started talking about welfare queens. So you think about this image, welfare queens, and what he was really trying to talk about was, he was painting this photo, he was painting this really resentful vision of essentially black women who were doing nothing, that were sucks on our country, right? And it’s this whole tragedy of the commons type of thinking, where it’s like, because this one specific group of people that you were already kind of subconsciously primed to resent, you give them a different reason, that’s not explicit racism, but still rooted in a racist caricature, it gives people a logical — a “logical” reason to say, “Oh yeah, no toss out the whole social safety net.” And then as a result we are all devastated. And what we’re dealing with in 2016, I think, was the reckoning of that again. Which is, “Yup, wages have stayed flat for 30 years. Our nation is being more productive and more wealthy as a whole than ever before, but that wealth is being enjoyed by a very small amount of people. And the reason for it is not systemic inequality of runaway hyper-capitalism, or the fact that we’ve taken away all the guardrails of a responsible society. The reason is Mexicans.” You know? “That’s the reason.” This is an old trope, but we’re getting conned. We can start fighting over each other, and this, that, and the other, and the wall and whatever, but this is why I say we need to be really zeroing in on the malpractice of governance, and how special interests have captured the only tool that we have to govern ourselves fairly, and not at a profit.
BG: So how then, do we redirect? Or let me ask this first, I think that your point about the fact that it seems as though Republicans generally, but Trump has been able to fill a void, right? To kind of speak to these economic needs, so called “economic anxiety” whatever you want to call it — precarity, the stagnation of wages, et cetera — that have been felt across the board, of course, not just among the white working class — and that he’s able to speak to those interests almost in a vacuum. Nobody else is speaking to them. I think that something that’s so interesting is that you ran a campaign, and we have seen many popular politicians now running campaigns, that highlight issues which are characterized as fringe and on the left, but which have a plurality of support among not even just Democratic voters, but Republican voters as well. So why do you think it’s taken so long to get candidates who are pushing issues like Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, $15 minimum wage to the foreground?
AOC: I think it’s because, you know — So I’ll kind of go back with a story, because even though people, they try to characterize my district as far left and, “Oh my God, every socialist in America lives in East Bronx and Queens or whatever.” But there are a lot of Trump voting pockets of my district, and I talked to these folks and I’ll never forget — there are parts of my district that look like the middle of the country, believe it or not — and I’ll never forget this one older woman who came to me and said, “You know, I always voted Democrat because growing up, my dad told me that Democrats were the people that fight for the working man.” And we stopped. And the working man and woman and people is the majority of this country. So what I think we saw, was now both parties, frankly, abdicated their responsibility and it was just no one was fighting for working people who were struggling. And so as a result, it almost created this opportunity, and you can take all of this anger and direct it to a negative and destructive end that allows a small group of people to benefit a great amount, or you have to take a really bold stances to bring it the other way and direct it to the possibility of what we can accomplish together. And I think the thing that is really hard for people to sometimes see, is that we are on this path of a slow erosion, and a slow, slow, slow move away from what we’ve always been. We’ll be 100 miles — you won’t even realize that you’ve drifted 100 miles. So when someone is talking about our core, it’s like, “Oh this is radical.” But this isn’t radical, this is what we’ve always been. It’s just that now we’ve strayed so far away from what has really made us powerful and just and good and equitable and productive. And so, I think all of these things sound radical compared to where we are. But where we are is not a good thing. This idea of 10 percent better from garbage shouldn’t be what we settle for. It feels like moderate is not a stance, it’s just an attitude toward life of like, “meh.”
BG: Well don’t hold back. Tell me how you really feel about incrementalism.
AOC: But here’s the thing that upsets me is that we’ve become so cynical that we view “meh” or “eh” — we view cynicism as an intellectually superior attitude, and we view ambition as youthful naivete. When we think about the greatest things we have ever accomplished as a society have been ambitious acts of vision, and the “meh” is like worship now, for what? For what?
BG: I like to joke that incrementalism has ruined my dating life, because I have been on several dates now, where people have argued with me, not any ideological measure per se, but the pure merits of incrementalism. And what I find myself doing in response is often evoking some of the themes that I think make your approach so powerful, which is to foreground the moral question, and to ask, if we say that X, Y, and Z is going to take so many years — climate change is a great example, because we’ve now been told we don’t have but 12 years, right — who actually is hurt by kicking the can down the road?
AOC: That’s right.
BG: Because there was a lot of conversation in 2016 about how irresponsible or naïve it was to pursue some of these big ticket items, and not a lot of conversation about the privilege that it takes to say, “Well we’ll deal with this in the next generation.” You know? So I do want to connect this back a little bit more to the issues involving race. Because while I think that there is a great deal of popularity — yhese programs are, poll after poll show, overwhelmingly popular — there is this emergent narrative that these kind of New Deal-style universal programs are not for diverse communities and that there is a lot of skepticism, that I think is understandable, among certain nonwhite communities that says, “Well these programs were floated before. They did a lot to help a lot of people in America, but they systemically cut out us. We weren’t able to take advantage of them in the same way, and they had the effect of widening the wealth gap and other kinds of gaps.” So how do we connect the utility of these kind of New Deal programs to communities that feel like they have been insufficiently served by them in the past?
AOC: That’s an excellent question, because it’s one of the founding questions with which we started approaching the draft of the Green New Deal resolution. Because one of the things about history is that it is often revisionist. You know, Martin Luther King is cast as this angelic person that never made anyone mad and just asked for civil rights and got it. Unions were always just seen as this great powerful thing that nobody died for a 40 hour work week and a weekend. It’s a similar thing the other way with the New Deal, is that we act as though the New Deal wasn’t racist. The New Deal was an extremely economically racist policy that drew literal red lines around black and brown communities. Basically, it invested in white America. What it did was that it allowed white Americans to have access to home loans that black and brown Americans did not have access to, giving them the largest form of inter-generational wealth, which is real estate. So this really accelerated many parts of an already horrific racial wealth gap that continues to persist today. So how do we turn this around? What we did with the Green New Deal is, this is why the intersectional frontline community aspect of the Green New Deal is so important, because it allows indigenous communities to lead, black and brown communities to have a certain determination that has not existed in public policy for these communities before. And so one of the ways that we do that is we say: We fix the pipes in Flint first. We clean the air in the Bronx first. We rebuild the electrical grids in Puerto Rico, and we fully fund — And, we fully fund the pensions of coal miners in West Virginia at the same time. Because — and the reason that we do these things is because the truth of the matter is that economically, civically, and beyond, our destinies and out prosperity and our well-being is tied. It’s inextricably linked. When we pursue public policy in a way that unlinks us from each other, it is not sustainable. It’s not sustainable. Eventually it catches up to you. It catches up to you in racial resentment, and that racial resentment is a political tool to dismantle the economic advocacy that we need to have for ourselves.
BG: So I think your point about how important intersectionality is, and the design of these New Deal programs is really well made. But I think that there’s this interesting debate that’s happening where, instead of arguing that programs like the New Deal, these so-called universal programs, should be designed to avoid the mistakes of the past, so that they should be more intersectional. There is a rising skepticism of them on the whole, and a feeling that instead of those programs, marginalized communities would be better served by programs that are racially specific — like racially targeted programs that would put resolving race gaps first. I think that that raises a very obvious political conundrum, even if the kind of ethical concerns are … One would have empathy for them, right? So the political conundrum is that we live in a country that’s still 70% white, which is a number that I think shocks a lot of people. But if you include white Hispanics, it actually is that big, who often vote similarly to non-Hispanic whites. What, as a political cost, let’s say, of saying we’re going to throw your hat in with a program like reparations, how much do you think those considerations should be made?
AOC: Well, you know, it’s a good question. I think one of the things we’ve seen from early polling, actually, is that I think that we should distance ourselves, and start getting away from this idea that we should only care about ourselves. Because when we really do start to assert, and believe, and understand, and see how our destinies are tied, we kind of get away from this idea that only people of color care about other people of color, and only white people care about other white people and so on. There are a lot of systems that we have to dismantle, but also it does get into this interesting area of where we are as a country about identity. Because, what does it mean to be black? Who is black, and who isn’t? Especially as our country becomes more biracial and multiracial. Same thing with being Latino, same thing — it brings up all these questions of passing, and things like that. But I do think it is important that we have to have substantive conversations about race beyond like, “What is racist, and what is not? And if someone says something racist, does that make them racist?” We need to get away from talking — well not that we need to get away from talking about racism. It’s important that we talk about racism, but because we talk about racism so much, we actually aren’t talking about race itself, and we aren’t educating ourselves about our own history to come to the conclusions that I think we need to come to.
BG: One of the frustrations — those of you that are familiar with my Twitter feed know that I’m very online, and one of the recurring frustrations that I have is the way in which the idea of a race/class divide erases the extent to which the biggest concerns, in my view anyway — when we talk about racism, the negative effects of racism, what we’re really talking about are one: the kind of interpersonal sleight, the feeling of marginalization and those kind of psychic harms. But more significantly, more often, we’re talking about the effects, which are often economic, and how kind of absurd it feels to say that a conversation about closing the wealth gap, the racial wealth gap, is somehow a conversation that falls into one category, either race or class. Or that if we’re talking about housing integration, that somehow that isn’t also a class issue. You know, it feels like not a lot of people are doing a particularly good job of connecting the extent to which kind of class equality efforts are in fact inextricably entwined with racial equality efforts, no matter what. Like as a matter of course, definitionally. You know, what kind of — do you have any sense of what kind of messaging is effective there?
AOC: I actually think that it goes beyond messaging and it’s really just about education. So a lot of people don’t know this story about the New Deal, a lot of people don’t know what redlining is and because of that, it’s just like, “I don’t know why there is a racial wealth gap.” And because when people are not educated about the tools and the systems that created racial wealth-gap disparities or other wealth-gap disparities, it’s just like, “This is the reality. I don’t know.” And you create this gaping maw in which someone can tell a racist story that kind of tells people why a certain community is poor. “They’re poor because they’re lazy. They’re poor because they’re uneducated. They’re poor because this.”
AOC: But no one’s saying they’re poor because they’re redlining and everyone else inherited a house except for people of color.
BG: Yeah. I’ve got no house.
AOC: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. So I think a lot of it is part of our personal responsibility to educate ourselves and to get past the revisionist history that we’re taught in the fourth grade. I think that’s an important part, but also the messaging is important as well, and it doesn’t feel good to live in an unequal society. It doesn’t feel good. I walk through New York City, which has the highest rate of people who are homeless, today, than in any other time since the Great Depression. And at the same time, there are penthouses galore, 50% of which are vacant, because they’re people’s like second or third or fourth home. It doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t feel good walking down New York City and, you know, and walking and seeing so many veterans who are homeless, so many elderly who are homeless and so on. People with mental illnesses that are homeless. It doesn’t feel good to live in a society like that. So part of it, I think, does go back to the moral question. And that’s where you’re also able to combat that incrementalism. Because it’s like we’re talking — like for example with ICE. I’ve stated very clearly, “I don’t believe that an agency that systematically and repeatedly violates human rights can be reformed. I think it must be abolished.” I got a lot of heat recently in the party because I was really furious when this Republican amendment was able to slip through on a gun safety bill that gave more power to ICE. It allowed gun vendors to report information about undocumented people to ICE. And I was furious about it, and I got a lot of heat for being furious about it, because whatever reason. But the thing is, the reason that I was so upset is because we have an agency that is separating children from their parents and putting them in cages, and CNN was reporting a year ago, a year ago CNN had reports of ICE agents pinning down children and forcible injecting them with anti-psychotic drugs. And the thing that makes me furious is this idea of like, “Let’s just cage a few less. Let’s just inject a few less. Let’s just — it’s too politically complicated.” And for me, what is just so upsetting and heartbreaking about this moment is, since when did it become the moderate position in America to continue caging children? And that’s why I — we’re not talking about the difference between a 7 and a 10 percent tax rate. We’re not talking about percentage points. We’re talking about human rights. We’re talking about children. We’re talking about what kind of nation we want to be, and this idea that it’s electorally complicated because we have allowed racial resentment to become legitimized as a political tool is a very difficult thing to grapple with.
BG: Right. So you mentioned, one of the things about ICE is, if something is structurally irredeemable, then we shouldn’t be having conversations about redeeming it. Majorities of Americans, I think for the first time, more Americans feel favorably about socialism than capitalism. Increasingly there are these kind of systemic critiques of capitalism. Do you feel similarly that our system of government is irredeemable? I mean you’ve said in the past you don’t think it’s ethical to have a country with billionaires where there were so many people struggling to get their basic health care needs met. At what point does that translate into a broader systemic critique of the country, and a critique of what kind of leaders we should be electing going forward?
AOC: I don’t think that our government is irredeemable. If I did, I wouldn’t have run for office.
BG: But capitalism in particular, right? Because it could be different.
AOC: So I think the tough part about this, about, “Is capitalism redeemable?” et cetera, is that it’s hard to have these conversations, I think, as a society, because we all have different ideas of what — just in the public imagination, there are different ideas of, “What does capitalism mean? What does socialism mean?” et cetera. But for me, when I think about what those definitions are, capitalism, to me, it’s an ideology of capital. It puts capital — the most important thing is the concentration of capital, and it means that we seek and prioritize profit and the accumulation of money above all else, and we seek it at any human and environmental cost. That is what that means. And to me, that ideology is not sustainable, and cannot be redeemed.
But when we talk about ideas, for example, like democratic socialism, it means putting democracy and society first, instead of capital first. It doesn’t mean that you put other things last. It doesn’t mean that the actual concept of capital as a society should be abolished or anything like that. But it’s a question of our priorities. Right now, I think what we are reckoning with are the consequences of putting profit above everything else in society. Because what it means is, people getting paid less than what it takes to live. What it means is people that need insulin die because they can’t afford it, even though us as a society can afford it, and also because insulin was originally made free because the idea of having to pay to live seemed crazy, even to the people who discovered it.
And so for me, it’s a question of priorities, and right now I don’t think our priorities are sustainable. But there’s also, again, in the public imagination a lot of fear mongering about what democratic socialism means, that government is going to take over the private sector, and in fact, in my opinion, those two things need to be separate, and what we’re actually experiencing right now is the opposite. What we are experiencing is — just as there is all this fearmongering that government is going to take over every corporation, and government is going to take over every business, or every form of production, we should be scared right now, because corporations have taken over our government.
In my opinion, we should be wary of any entity in which both of those things are combined, whether it’s through one way or the other. That’s why the emphasis in democratic socialism, is on democracy. It’s not about, you know — it’s just as much a transformation about bringing democracy to the workplace, so that we have a say, and we don’t check all of our rights at the door every time we cross the threshold into our workplace. Because at the end of the day, as workers and as people of society, we’re the ones creating wealth, not a corporate CEO. It’s not a CEO that’s actually creating 4 billion dollars a year. It is the millions of workers in this country that’s creating billions of dollars of economic productivity a year. Our system should reflect that.
BG: So I think, as controversial as — debated, rather — the definition of democratic socialism, I think is probably also the definition of identity politics. In these last few minutes, I do really want to get to this, because you did an interview with Glenn Greenwald for The Intercept last summer in which you gave, perhaps, the most eloquent description of identity politics that I’ve ever heard, as someone who is 100 percent on the identity politics beat. So, I want to, if we can, play a short part of that —
AOC: Oh this got memed so often haha.
BG: — that clip.
AOC (in clip): At the end of the day, I’m a candidate that doesn’t take corporate money, that champions Medicare for All, a federal jobs guarantee, the abolishment of ICE, and a Green New Deal. But I approach those issues with the lenses of the community that I live in. That is not as easy to say as identity politics, but I think it’s something that our constituents understand on a very deep level.
BG: So what I love about that definition — and there was a lot before, but I would rather you talk about it here live than go back to a year-old clip — is that you, I think, united two kind of different definitions that I’ve been percolating, that I think caused a lot of the debate. There is a critique of identity politics from the right, right? Which says identity doesn’t matter. It’s all about kind of rugged individualism, and to say that there are experiences that people have because of what they look like, how they identify, how the world interacts with them, is silly or wrong. Despite the fact that I think that is the core of most people’s lived experiences, right? You know when you walk through the world wearing a space helmet on, that people are going to react to you like you’re wearing a space helmet, and the same comes from other kinds of more substantive identities.
There’s also this critique, weaponized identity though, which is, I think, the critique that more often comes from the left, which says the fact of somebody’s identity might be a proxy for their beliefs or their politics, but is not determinative. That one, particularly when we’re looking at politicians and kind of picking our leadership, that it’s important to keep both of those things in mind, to say, “OK representation has value. The lens has value,” but the lens is a lens, as opposed to kind of, I don’t know, an eye patch or a blinder. Something that completely cuts off vision. I mean how do you negotiate the balance between I think a genuine desire for representation and a desire also to have substantive politics that don’t always map on to politicians who possess marginalized identities?
AOC: Yeah. You know, and I feel like my perspective on this was really shaped by where I came from in the Bronx, because it took so much effort in my community to get people to even vote, because they have been burned so many times. They’ve been burned by politicians that look like them. And so in the Bronx there’s just this idea, there’s really this idea that it really doesn’t matter. There’s all of this cynicism that resulted from electing people that ethnically matched the community, but once they got into power, advanced the same agenda that was marginalizing the community to begin with. So there was a lot of cynicism about that.
The thing that creates hope about the situation is the joining of the two things, is that you can have someone from the community that understands the experience actually advocate for the policies and the positions that can change our future. So they’re not separable things. I don’t think that — I truly do not believe that if I ran on a platform that was more moderate, I would not have won my election. I wouldn’t have. Because, it has to be not just a superficial alternative, or something that looks different, it has to be something that actually is different. It has to be different on many levels. So yes, it’s different in my identity, and my identity and my experiences with my community inform and add a different perspective to the positions that I hold and to the policy that I hold. Because it goes the other way. Because you can’t have just a progressive position like Medicare for All, without an understanding of race. Because then you do get back to that position that you were talking about earlier where communities say, “Oh this isn’t for me. This is for somebody else. People aren’t thinking about me when you’re drafting this plan and because you aren’t thinking about me, when it gets implemented we’re going to get left behind again. It’s going to be a benefit for somebody else.”
And so to be able to articulate both of these things, both of these arguments at once, to be able to talk about how criminal justice reform — rather like the war on drugs was an economic agenda — it educates people and that’s really what we need. We really need to just be educating ourselves right now about how we’ve gotten to this place.
BG: Well I would love to keep asking you a lot more questions, but I think I’ve been told to reserve 15 minutes for the audience. So does anybody have a question?
BG: Yes? Down in front?
Alex: Hi. my name is Alex.
AOC: Hi. Same.
Alex: How do you have conversations [inaudibl] How do you talk to someone who is [inaudible] identity politics, for example have conversations about racism, feminism and misogyny. All of these big concepts and make it [inaudibl]
BG: So the question is, for anybody that didn’t hear, “How do you talk to people with kind of different beliefs about racism and feminism and broader political beliefs?”
AOC: So the way I have conversations with people of opposing beliefs is I don’t try to convince them of anything. So that’s the first thing. Stop trying to win people over. Stop trying to enter a conversation thinking that you’re going to “a-ha” them into changing their mind. And so I think that we’ve kind of lost the art of conversation. So when I enter a conversation with someone, I actually try to learn more about where they’re coming from. I actually use it as an experience to — let’s say I’m talking to someone who’s saying something really racist, and they don’t even realize that they’re saying something really racist, I ask them questions because I’m interested. I’m fascinated by that. How does that work? You know?
But really, so I don’t do it in a way that’s like mocking, but I ask questions to kind of dig. Like when someone says, “Oh this isn’t racist.” “Why?” But we have to learn to really disarm ourselves in these conversations first of all, because we approach them with so much hostility. They get mad and we get mad and all of these things. And so part of it is emotional work. The second part of it is intention. What are you trying to get out of this conversation? If you’re just trying to argue with someone, it’s not going to work. You believe what you believe, they believe what they believe, so I think the thing that we have to do is try to have a good faith interaction of trying to learn more about where the other person comes from.
Because often what I find, is that when I do win people over, it’s almost never in the conversation itself that I’ve won someone over, it’s that I have a conversation with someone, I ask them some critical questions, and I pretty calmly explain to them, “Well this is where I’m coming from, and this is why I believe what I believe. Why do you believe what you believe?” And you kind of leave the conversation, but very often, that person will sit on what you said. And they will sit on the fact that you respected them and gave them space. Then, very often, I’ve had interactions like that and I’ll run into that person again, a week later, a month later, et cetera and they said, “You know what? You said something that I really thought about, and I changed my mind.”
But no one ever changes their mind in the actual acute situation of a conversation. It’s like afterwards when it kind of sits with them. But if you rush in fully armored up, attacking them and making them feel defensive, they will never listen to anything that you have to say. So it’s really about learning how we can have a conversation again, and also there’s a really important conversation about good faith and bad faith conversations. When I sense that someone is engaging in me in bad faith, I just don’t engage the conversation at all. It’s not worth my time and my energy.
If someone is trying to put you down, or belittle you, or approach a conversation as though they are more intelligent than you, because like, “Oh no. There’s no way that someone can disagree with me and still be smart.” There’s a very condescending tone that we have in a lot of our conversations, and I think it’s important to really approach those kinds of disagreements with a lot of compassion. Because when they see — people really look at not just the logic of your argument, but how you make them feel. As much as people hate to say that, and admit it, it’s true.
BG: And that’s good advice, and really hard advice. Because I think there’s a lot of talk about emotional labor — yeah. Yeah. The idea of having to putout emotional labor is controversial, right? Because nobody should have to, but I think the reality is that if you don’t approach these conversations in a certain kind of way, you don’t get the results that you’d like.
BG: And I do find, I found myself in those conversations a lot when I’m doing reporting trips around the country, and was once in a car with a bunch of other not white reporters, where the Uber driver started saying some things that were a little less than kosher, and everyone jumped in kind of in my defense, is what it was about. And I was like, “We’ve got 44 minutes til we get to Des Moines, and I need this not to escalate.” And what ended up happening was giving the drive a little bit more space, he basically talked himself out of his own racism using — you know, I needed to give him enough rope, you know?
AOC: That’s right. That’s right. I was just — Austin is a very special place for me, because this is one of the first places where I actually organized young people and I have this mentor. And one of the best pieces of advice that he gave me is, “always give someone the golden gate of retreat,” which is: Give someone enough rope, give someone enough compassion, enough opportunity in a conversation for them to look good changing their mind. And it’s a really important thing to be able to do, because if you’re just like, “Oh you said this thing! You’re racist!” And now you’re forcing that person to say, “No I’m not.” Et cetera. There’s no golden gate of retreat there. The only retreat there is to just barrel right through the opposing opinion.
BG: Yeah. Yeah. I’m sorry I missed the line over there at the mic.
Speaker: Because it’s brand new.
AOC: Yeah. Yay.
Speaker: I count the days that Donald Trump will not be my president, which will hopefully be tomorrow, but I think it’s not. Sorry. I think it’s not going to be until 2020. My problem is I look at everyone and I have a hard time choosing someone I believe in, versus just choosing someone that will win. At what point will we have a candidate we all believe in versus just getting ahead and getting that win so he’s not president?
AOC: That’s an excellent question. A lot of — I think the person we believe in is the person who will win. So, I think that even if who we believe in is different, I think that in this first initial stage, we have a responsibility to find and really fight for who we believe in. Because what people — my opinion, and I think we’ve seen, what people think will win is wrong. Almost always. What people think, they’ll say, “Oh I believe XYZ, but I think the thing that will win is something other than what I believe.” And so everyone starts triangulating what they think will win, away from what they actually believe, and compromising all of the things that make them passionate about participating in our political system until we have this weird compromise. Like this weird amalgamation.
Which is how we’ve gotten a lot of the politicians that we’ve gotten, and a lot of the complaints about politicians that we’ve gotten today. How everyone talks like a robot, that everything is pre-scripted, that they’re either super out of touch — this is how we got this. We take responsibility because we voted for these people. They didn’t come out of nowhere. We voted for these people that we don’t like. So if you’re complaining about the system, it’s because we’re not fighting hard enough for what we actually believe in because we do idolize cynicism as an intellectually superior position, and we’re like, “Oh, you know, it’s small of me. Or it’s the child in me that believes we can have health care as a human right.” And I don’t think we should belittle our beliefs anymore. We are capable of so much as a country.
We are capable of so much than what we’re doing right now. We are capable of everything in the world. We are capable of saving the planet, of guaranteeing health care as a right, of educating our children through college. We are capable of establishing all work as dignified, of respecting people’s cultures, of having an economy that not only welcomes immigrants, but needs immigrants because we are being so productive. We are capable of all of these things. We’re capable of that. Don’t get duped by this person that’s like, “Oh I blah, blah, blah, the technocratic.” No. We are capable of them, and the position should be not, “Let’s not do it because we haven’t figured out all the details yet.” How about the goal is, “Let’s figure out all the details because we’ve decided we’re going to the moon and we’re going to get there before the end of the decade, and then we’re going to do it.”? You know?
This is the thing. It’s like, when Kennedy said, “We’re going to go to the moon by the end of 10 years,” people thought that he was crazy. He didn’t have a plan. So many of the technologies that required us to get there weren’t even invented yet, but it was taken seriously enough as a mission. We need to think of platform positions as well as our mission. It should be our mission right now to make sure that all people have health care. It should be our mission right now. Our mission should be to make sure that all jobs are paid a dignified living wage and then — our mission should be to save our freaking planet and this idea — the New York Times said, and I quote, they said in a headline, “The Green New Deal is technologically possible, but is it politically possible?” And so, that to me is the biggest condemnation of where we’re at. Because there is an admission, an actual admission, that we can do it and just the idea that our biggest obstacle is political will should be the most embarrassing thing for us right now.
Yael: Hi. First of all, I saw you at Foley’s Square on Women’s March, that was really awesome. My name is Yael. I am a first generation immigrant. I wasn’t even going to say that, but cool. As a tech entrepreneur as well, I do think every day about automation and the millions of jobs that are going to be replaced by machines in the coming decades. How will we as a society be able to ensure that everyone can still earn a living, or even find a purpose in an economy that will not be able to support as many jobs?
AOC: Mm-hmm. It’s a great question, and I think when we talk about automation, it’s not just automating people out of work, but it’s automating every system that we have right now. What is also means is automating injustice. So when we talk about the trend of economic inequality, it’s only going to accelerate with the advancement of technology if we don’t fix our underlying systems. So if we don’t fix our actual systems and how we handle the production of wealth — you know, we should be — everybody should be feeling the fact that we are at our most prosperous point than we’ve ever been. Everybody in the country should be feeling the extent of our national prosperity. But the majority of us aren’t. And so when we talk about the job automation, one of the things that’s difficult is people should not necessarily — we should not be haunted by the specter of being automated out of work, right? We should not feel nervous about the tollbooth collector not having to collect tolls anymore. We should be excited by that. But the reason we’re not excited by it, is because we live in a society where if you don’t have a job, you are left to die. That is at its core, a problem. And so there are a lot of different solutions, or a lot of different proposed ideas, about how we go about that.
You know, Bill Gates has talked about taxing robots at 90 percent and what that means, what he’s really talking about is taxing corporations at 90 percent, but it’s easier to say “tax a robot.” So I think that what we do, is when we actually decouple ourselves from this idea — we should get to a point and we should structure our systems, whether it’s a tax rate, whether it’s distributing wealth that is created by automation. If we approach our solutions to our system and start entertaining ideas like that, then we should be excited about automation because what it could potentially mean is more time educating ourselves, more time creating art, more time investing and investigating in the sciences, more time focused on invention, more time going to space, more time enjoying the world that we live in. Because not all creativity needs to be bonded by wage.
I think that, actually, one of the reasons that this ideology or questions of whether you want to call it democratic socialism or techno-futurism or whatever it is, it is because our technological advancement as a society has outpaced our system for handling finite resources, because now we are approaching infinite resources. Capitalism is based on scarcity, and what happens when there is enough for everyone to eat? What happens when there is enough for everyone to be clothed? Then you have to make scarcity artificial and that is what has happened. We have created artificial scarcity, and that is why we are driven to work 80 hours a work when we are at our most productive at any point in American history. We should be working the least amount we’ve ever worked if we were actually paid based on how much wealth we were producing. But we’re not. We’re paid on how little we’re desperate enough to accept and then the rest is skimmed off and given to a billionaire.
BG: I know that you grew up with Star Trek as well. I like to think of it as full Star Trek socialism is the goal. I want to get through a few more of these questions quickly, if we can.
Lupita: Hi. My name is Lupita.
Amia: Hi. I’m Amia. We’re the Radical Monarchs from East Oakland.
AOC: Hey! Woo! Are you wearing Girl Scout vests?
AOC: Oh nice. Cool.
Amia: Our question is what advice would you give to young girls of color who want to get into politics?
AOC: The advice that I give is stop trying to navigate systems of power, and start building your own power. So I represent Queens and I was recently doing a town hall with Girls Who Code, and what I told them was that there are so many subconscious forces that make us try to act like somebody else, and that’s why it was important — and I’ve discussed this — that’s why it was important for me to wear hoop earrings to my swearing in, because we’re taught that, you know, when you’re a woman of color, there are just so many things about you that is just like nonconforming, you know? You know? That’s what I’m saying? I happen to have been born with straight hair, but my nieces have like fros, right? So down to that, there are places where you have to make more space. We’re taught to put our hair back and be small and articulate in a certain way, and be square, and essentially try to do an impression of power — which, really, our subconscious signals to try to act like white men.
AOC: So it’s down to how you are kind of forced or encouraged to speak. The idea that some ways of speaking are less legitimate. The idea that some ways of dressing are less legitimate or — instead, we don’t say legitimate, we say “unprofessional.” So that if you say “ain’t” or you say “my mama” or whatever, it’s unprofessional. But, even if you’re producing the same results or same quality of work, you are somehow seen as less than. And so stop trying to navigate those systems because they weren’t built for you. We need to build our own systems and recognize the other.
BG: So, we’re out of time, but in light of how long the line is, I want to do a rapid fire, so keep your questions short.
AOC: Yeah. I’ll try to keep my answers short.
BG: Just a little bit shorter, and we can get through a few more people. So?
Mike: Hi. My name is Mike. I own a software company here in Austin. The majority of my staff are women, about 15, and last election a couple months ago, I noticed a lot of them didn’t actually go to vote, and it really annoys me as someone who is actually from Iran. From a country that is not easy to go find a good candidate to vote for. So as an American, I want to tell you guys to please go vote. It matters. Every single one of them matters. How do I encourage my own staff, the majority of them, again, younger recent grads. How do I encourage them to go vote?
AOC: Tell them to run.
Mike: Thank you.
AOC: You gotta tell them to run. You need to tell them to start participating, even in small things like school boards and city councils and things like that, because I had elections where I didn’t want to vote. I didn’t want to vote, because I was like, “This is not a good set of options.” So the answer is to get them to run.
Speaker: My name is [inaudible] I’m from Norway, and it’s very interesting to have a European perspective, even seeing from afar what your country is going through. I’m writing about — I’m working down in Alabama in a diner. What has changed Europe in the last century was more unions, labor unions, than tax policies. Here in the U.S. there’s a lot of focus on tax policies. These women in my diner, they are not organized, they are on minimum pay, they work by the hours, and they don’t even think about organizing. They just hope they will get an extra hour work.
How are you going to help people like them who don’t really — they don’t really fight for themselves? I’m surprised by the submissiveness. Second question here, when you hear the word socialism in the U.S., people would say — his morning Howard Schulz — socialism, what you talk about, is Venezuela. In Europe when we hear the word socialism it’s what Scandinavia is built on, even though you might call it social democracy. I’m just wondering why don’t candidates on the left here talk more forcefully about, “Yes there is a model. There’s the Nordic model in Europe. There’s the Scandinavian model, Norwegian model, Swedish model.” Instead of letting FOX News teach the people that what you’re talking about, that’s Venezuela?
AOC: So I’ll start with the first half of your question, which has to do with organizing. One of those things is because we have been taught that we don’t matter in a lot of different subconscious ways. We’ve been taught that if you make $15 an hour, you don’t matter. We’ve been taught that if you’re poor, you don’t matter. Taught if you’re a person of color living in a community you don’t matter. And when you internalize and feel like you don’t matter, you don’t do anything to change your lot, because you don’t matter, because who cares? So the core is really changing our idea of ourselves. That we matter and that our worthiness is not based on an external condition. Our worthiness is intrinsic to being a human being on this planet.
And if you are alive and a human, than you are worth dignity. And that is, I think, the core tenet of organizing that needs to — and is starting to — in my belief, awaken across the country. That’s what we saw with teachers in West Virginia. That’s what we saw in teachers in LA, that’s what we’re starting to see. That’s why this is becoming the year of the strike. Because people are starting to say, “Wait a second. I matter and my dignity is not up for negotiation.”
With your second question about why we don’t defend social democracy from these bad faith attacks, I think it’s because there’s a lot of people that don’t want us to have a social democracy, and they are in government, and they are also in the Democratic Party. I’m not allowed to say that. I’m going to get in a lot of trouble when I go back to work. But I think that there are parts of it that are true. There’s a lot of people, it’s no secret in government, that go on this rotating door. You would think that when someone leaves government, they would go and go back into a different form of public service. That they would become a professor or they would organize a community, or they would work with unions. But now, when politicians leave government, they go and work for lobbyists. And that tells you everything about the coordinated interests that are in cahoots all over, regardless of party. It’s just, you know, I guess the industries tend to be a little more partisan. So I think that there’s just some people that don’t want to defend it. There’s some people that want to quiet down this idea, even within the Democratic Party, and then blame it on their constituents, and say, “Oh they won’t vote for that.” Well it’s because we don’t fight for it.
BG: I think this has to be the last one as we’ve gone over. But I think I recognize this one.
AOC: Oh my Gosh!
Bill Nye: Greetings!
BN: Science! Oh wow! Wow! Wow! Greetings everyone.
AOC: Oh my goodness! This is amazing.
BN: Greetings. This is so nice. It’s good to see you all. I can’t take selfies with everyone. Keep in mind — but here’s what I thinks going on. I want to ask the question in two ways. As you may know, I’m a white guy. I belong to two unions.
BN: But I think the problem on both sides is fear.
BN: People are afraid. People of my ancestry are afraid of having to pay for everything as immigrants come into this country. People who are coming, the people who work at the diner in Alabama are afraid to try to ask for what is reasonable. So do you have a plan to work with people in Congress that are afraid? And I think that’s what’s going on with many of the conservatives, especially when it comes to climate change. People are just afraid of what will happen if we try to make these big changes. And I remind everyone, Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution refers to the progress of science and useful arts. So when we address climate change, we’re going to have clean water, access to the internet, and renewable electricity for everyone on Earth. Let’s go!
AOC: Yes! Woo woo!
BN: Thank you.
AOC: Bill, Bill, Bill, Bill! This is amazing. So I think one of the keys to dismantling fear is dismantling a zero-sum mentality. So that, I think, is a really important part of dismantling fear. So what does that mean? It means the rejection outright of the logic that says someone else’s gain necessitates my loss. And that my gain must necessitate someone else’s loss. That my gain must come at the cost of another person. We are increasing our capacities for productivity. And so there is — we can give without a take is where we’re going through technologically. And when we say this idea of how you’re going to pay for it. This idea that there is a person that pays for it, instead of — we’re viewing progress as a cost instead of as an investment. And investments, the difference between a cost and an investment, is that an investment yields returns. When we choose to invest in our systems, we are choosing to create wealth. We are choosing to create wealth, and when we all invest in them, then the wealth is for all of us too. And so I think part of dismantling the fear is dismantling a zero-sum mentality, but it’s not just about this idea of, “Who are our decision makers?” It’s that we, like this is us, this is about voting, this is about the conversations that we’re having with our elected officials. Because I go there and whether it’s true or not, they blame all of it on you guys. They do. I go and I’m frustrated and I’ll say, “Why did you weaken this environmental thing?” And they say, “My community doesn’t want that. It’s my district, you know man? It’s my district.”
And no one else knows what anyone else’s community is like, so they’re like, “Oh wow. That’s weird. Okay.” To this day, I’ve never heard a person actually level with me and be like, “Listen, my main donors are fossil fuel people and I just can’t.” No. But even in the candor of an honest conversation, no one has said that to me. No one has ever said to me, “Listen. I’ve got these really big donors, and to be really honest with you, this is why I can’t do that.” But we all know that’s what’s happening and everyone blames it on their electorate. And when our electorate isn’t speaking up, then they’re allowed to get away with that.
But when we decide to participate in this system, and what I talk about is not just in the on season, which is election time, but when we raucously participate in our system in the off system, in the governance time, when we participate in our own self-governance, not just our own elections, but our own governance — when we see what bills are coming to the floor and we show up to the gallery in D.C., when we pick up the phone and call our congressman as much as we call our local Chinese spot for takeout, that’s the kind of relationship we need to have because once we start getting vocal, they can’t get away with the excuse of, “My district doesn’t want that,” anymore. That’s what we need to do.
One last thing about fear is I want to talk — one thing in contrast of fear is to tell you something about courage. Because the thing about courage is that courage is self-propagating. Courage begets courage. So the first person who stands up has to encounter the most amount of fear and discomfort, but once that one person stands up, it becomes immensely easier for the second person and the third and the fourth, until it doesn’t take any courage at all to stand up for something or to do something. So what I would say is that the biggest antidote to fear is to when you see someone that is being fearful is to choose to be the person that is courageous. To show other people what courage looks like, to be the first person in the room to say, “that’s not right.” Or to be the person in the room where there’s this conversation and the conversation starts to get taken over with fearmongering, with like, “Venezuela this. And this. And whatever.”
It’s to say, “You know what? The thing about fear is it’s all designed to get you to run away from something. It’s not a plan.” Fear is not a plan. But courage is a plan. Courage is, “This is what we’re going to do. This is where we’re going to go. This is where I’m going to stand up and this is the action that I’m going to take.” Courage is about our future. Fear is just about anxiety. If you’re sick and tired of being an anxious nation, then you have to just be rejecting fear outright.
We can’t allow ourselves to be governed by fear anymore. We can’t allow ourselves to be governed by that kind of rationale, to say, “I’m not going to allow fear to control me anymore. I’m going to stand up and do the courageous thing.”
BG: Well I think that’s a great note to go out on.
AOC: Of course.
BG: Thank you so much. Thank you for staying late.
AOC: Thank you.