Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says she is “just the canary in the coal mine.” The twenty-eight-year-old activist and educator from the Bronx became a national phenomenon after she defeated Congressman Joe Crowley, the fourth-highest ranking House Democrat, in a June 26 New York primary.
Pundits and politicians raced to portray Ocasio-Cortez, whose proudly progressive campaign was backed by groups that seek to turn the Democratic Party to the left (including Democratic Socialists of America and Justice Democrats), as an outlier. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi was especially dismissive, saying, “The fact that in a very progressive district in New York, it went more progressive . . . is about that district. It is not to be viewed as something that stands for anything else.”
But, by the end of the summer, there had been many more primary upsets by progressives who challenged the party’s caution—including Ayanna Pressley’s defeat of entrenched Democratic Congressman Mike Capuano in Massachusetts and Florida gubernatorial contender Andrew Gillum’s win over establishment Democrats.
In a number of cases, the progressives who prevailed in those primaries had gotten a boost from Ocasio-Cortez, who hit the campaign trail nationwide following her primary win. Along the way, she made time to talk with me about how she believes movement politics can and will transform the Democratic Party. Here’s some of what she had to say.
Q: You see yourself as part of a movement. How do you describe it?
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: I have said that I really think that there is a hunger for an assertive, strong, ambitious, defined effort to establish and advance economic and social and racial justice for working-class Americans. There’s a hunger for it. Not just “Don’t be a racist,” but “What actions are we going to take to be a just society?”
There is a hunger for an assertive, strong, ambitious, defined effort to establish and advance economic and social and racial justice for working-class Americans.
That requires a plan. It requires ambitious ideas. People I think are searching for those champions, searching for that movement. I think [the way we do that is by] linking all of the individual movements that we see happening across the country and taking up those causes as our own. Taking up Ferguson as our own. Taking up Flint as our own. The Bronx as our own. Rikers as our own. Rural America as our own. I think that’s what it’s about, and that’s why it needs to be a movement.
Q: It’s fair to say you see this as a very broad-based movement?
Ocasio-Cortez: I don’t think the movement belongs to any one group. Politically speaking, in terms of endorsements, the group Justice Democrats has been a core part of that. But the movement itself, I don’t think, belongs to any one organization.
Q: What made you decide to hit the campaign trail on behalf of other candidates so quickly after your primary win?
Ocasio-Cortez: The way that I thought about it is, OK, I was blessed with an interestingly timed primary, in that it was on June 26. It was early, but not super early. I knew that we would have this crescendo of primary elections in August and September. So, for me, I felt like I had to campaign for another six weeks because, if we were really going to get things done, we have to elect a cohort. We need to elect a cohort that’s strong, that’s new.
Q: Is it right to say that you want to bring an organizer’s sensibility to party fights, and to Congress?
Ocasio-Cortez: I do feel like I’m coming with a different type of approach, in that I’m coming into it as an organizer. I don’t think we have a lot of organizers in Congress, people that really understand how to [build relationships with movements]. I don’t think we have a lot of that in the Democratic Party. I want to [do inside-outside work on] things that are strategically very accessible. Medicare for All now has over 100 co-sponsors and [should be thought of as] within reach, very doable. I think we also need a twenty-first century “New Deal” [to address climate change, technological change, job creation in a new economy].
Q: But part of this also involves backing candidates who may not win, and taking political risks.
Ocasio-Cortez: It’s about gaining ground, because what we are doing is multi-cycle. Every two years is a cycle. We have to gain ground in each cycle. Look at what [progressive Congressional candidate] James Thompson did in his district. [He lost a 2017 special election in Kansas, but by a much closer margin than had been thought possible.] We gained fourteen points of ground in a couple of months, which some people would think would have taken a decade to do—if it was possible at all. That’s a decade’s worth of work that he was able to accomplish in something like six months. If we are able to turn some of these districts more progressive and make them competitive in this cycle, then they are winnable in the next cycle.
Q: In what ways do you want to see the Democratic Party change?
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Ocasio-Cortez: I think we need to be a party that is first and foremost accountable to working-class people again, and to marginalized people. I don’t want that to be something that we just talk about, but something that we are about. I want us to be that party again. I want us to be the party that wired, and electrified, literally, the nation. I want us to be the party that said it would go to the moon, and did. Because it’s not over. We did that. And now we have a lot more to do.
Q: What kind of candidates are needed for this transformation to happen?
Ocasio-Cortez: A really key part of a progressive movement is having dynamite, inspiring candidates who make you say: “Oh, my God, how is this human being possible?” It’s possible because this country is amazing. It produces people like [Michigan Congressional nominee] Rashida [Tlaib]. Those people are everywhere. I think they are a really critical component.
Q: You use moral language frequently in your speeches. That seems to be something that many Democrats avoid. Why do you embrace it?
Ocasio-Cortez: For me, a moral framework informs my political views. If you are really committed to a moral framework, you have to work at it. If you’re serious about justice, if you’re serious about what is good and what is right, you can’t just sit in a church pew or in the middle of a library, or wherever you are, and just engage with it privately. You have to live it publicly.
So, for me, a lot of politics is about moral questions—especially in this time and in this age. I can understand why someone would say something like, “Oh, trade is not a moral issue.” I could see how someone could try to make that argument. But this political moment is so stark and so obviously moral that to shy away from that language is cowardice.
How do you not talk about a moral framework when children are being ripped from their parents? How do you not talk about a moral framework when people die because they are too poor to afford medicine? How do you not talk about a moral framework when we’re literally refusing to act and consciously leaving a world that we may drown in? How are those not moral questions? This conversation right now, this political moment, is a moral moment for our country. That’s where I come from.
Q: Can you trace the roots of your politics?
Ocasio-Cortez: I don’t think I learned them. I think I lived them. I got it through lived experience. It’s interesting because I grew up in a household that really intensely debated politics, but it wasn’t a political household. There wasn’t an ideology that governed my household. It wasn’t conversations about overarching thematic ideas. It was a Bronx Puerto Rican household so it was like: “What did you think of Dinkins?” “What did you think of Giuliani?” “This guy’s a schmuck.”
My more formative texts were moral texts. My foundations were reading [African American author, philosopher, theologian, and civil rights leader] Howard Thurman and Dr. King. It was reading those kinds of writings. That’s what informs a lot of my framework. So it was like political but not in the way we think of a political canon.
Q: What made you become a political activist?
Ocasio-Cortez: I think it was the pain my family went through [in the late 2000s]. My father dying as the financial crisis happened. My mom on the brink of losing her home. Me working three jobs. The trauma of that experience but also knowing that this wasn’t a unique situation. I knew that this was a systemic outcome.
When I saw how people put everything they had on the line, not just for themselves but for others, I felt called to do more.
Q: What influenced you to run for Congress?
Ocasio-Cortez: After the 2016 election—when I had organized for Senator Sanders in the Bronx—I drove across the country. A friend of mine and I packed all of our stuff in a twenty-year-old station wagon. We were driving to Standing Rock [where anti-pipeline protests were taking place]. We had stopped in Flint and Ohio and all of these places. We were talking to just everyday people, figuring things out, picking up the pieces after the election. It was so obvious that people were in this rage, and frustration, but I didn’t sense it was at any other person so much as it was at our government. They were like: “[The government] is supposed to do something.” They were so mad, so frustrated, that no one was fighting for them that they just put a stick of dynamite to it.
But when I got to Standing Rock and I saw what was happening, that was very transformative. It was transformative largely in what I bore witness to there. When I saw how a corporation had literally militarized itself to hurt people, to protect a profit margin—and that the support for this was bipartisan in Congress—I mean it was an outrage. It was a total outrage. And then when I saw how people put everything they had on the line, not just for themselves but for others, I felt called to do more. For me, that was it. I feel like I was taking steps, but that was the biggest step.