This Is How We Do It

Mainstream politicians and media are losing their minds over Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They're terrified of how her approach could transform American politics.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stands with supporters during her during her victory celebration at La Boom night club in Queens on November 6, 2018 in New York City. Rick Loomis / Getty Images

Anyone who hoped Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would step out of the spotlight following her swearing in would be disappointed this past week.

First, after a very public dispute, Ocasio-Cortez was one of just three House Democrats to vote against the rules package proposed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The main point of contention was a provision called PAYGO, which requires many pieces of proposed legislation that would increase the federal deficit to be offset by equivalent cuts to other programs.

PAYGO could prevent the Left’s priorities like Medicare for All or a Green New Deal from making it to the House floor for a vote, despite a Democratic majority. Such a move would enable House Democrats to avoid going on the record about these proposed bills.

“PAYGO isn’t only bad economics, as @RoKhanna explains; it’s also a dark political maneuver designed to hamstring progress on healthcare+other leg. We shouldn’t hinder ourselves from the start,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a tweet.

But in the end, virtually the entire Democratic caucus voted for the measure, including nearly every member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Rashida Tlaib, the other self-identified socialist in the House.

Then, following a bizarre episode in which conservatives attacked her for dancing in a video during college and formerly going by the nickname “Sandy,” Ocasio-Cortez made headlines by calling for a 70 percent marginal tax rate on the highest incomes in an interview on 60 Minutes. Though much of the media has portrayed this as a radical proposal, in fact the United States had a top marginal tax rate above 70 percent for much of its history, as do other countries with advanced economies today.

But with a current top tax rate of just 37 percent on income above $500,000 per year in the United States, drastically increasing the top marginal tax rate would be an important step toward funding social reforms like Medicare for All that the country desperately needs.

In the same interview on 60 Minutes, Ocasio-Cortez pushed back on the common refrain that such programs are too expensive. In response to interviewer Anderson Cooper’s question about how she would pay for her Green New Deal proposals, she said, “No one asks how we’re gonna pay for this Space Force. No one asked how we paid for a $2 trillion tax cut. We only ask how we pay for it on issues of housing, health care, and education.”

But PAYGO passed overwhelmingly and the Democratic leadership successfully undermined Ocasio-Cortez’s bid for a radical Green New Deal congressional committee by creating a more moderate — and surely less effective — one in its place. It’s difficult to imagine the House agreeing to raise taxes at all, let alone to 70 percent on top earners. So if Ocasio-Cortez is losing these key battles, why does she keep dominating every news cycle?

Ocasio-Cortez and Donald Trump have nothing in common politically. But in important ways, the reception Ocasio-Cortez has received from her own party and the media mirror Trump’s treatment in the runup to the 2016 election. The press and the majority of both parties tried to discredit Trump as outside the mainstream; they have done the same, for different reasons, with Ocasio-Cortez. But they both received disproportionate media attention precisely because of their novelty, even before their electoral upsets.

And with 30 percent or less of Americans saying they have confidence in most of the country’s institutions — just 11 percent of Americans said they had confidence in Congress in 2018—it seems that being painted as hostile to the country’s center-right establishment makes politicians more popular, not less.

Like New York’s last radical congressperson, Vito Marcantonio, Ocasio-Cortez has used the attention to keep pressing for issues long considered taboo using simple and elegant language. Each time she makes such a proposal, she is met with outrage from the Right and proverbial furrowed brows from liberals and centrists, creating a new cycle of press attention that she puts to use by doubling down or making a new proposal. Thus she is able to shape the political conversation to a striking degree despite having no concrete power in Congress.

And as Corey Robin argued recently, at this stage in history, the Left’s biggest priority “not just in the next two years but in the next two decades, is to change the language of politics: to push for our ideology, our policies, and our program.”

For now, it is much more important that Ocasio-Cortez excels at this agitational, transformational role than anything else.

The question that remains is whether Ocasio-Cortez will find some accomodation with the centrists who control the Democratic Party and their friends in the national media. In many ways, such a path would be far easier for her personally.

But right now she is playing the role of left opposition. When Cooper asked her about her decision to stand in solidarity with protestors occupying Nancy Pelosi’s office in late 2018, Ocasio-Cortez replied, “I was so nervous. But — I kept […] coming back to the idea that what they’re fighting for wasn’t wrong.”