- Interview by
- David Sirota
Since her upset primary victory in 2018, congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has been an outspoken champion of progressive causes, from abolishing ICE to Medicare for All to a Green New Deal. Along with fellow members of the Squad and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the Biden administration has seen AOC attempt to balance support of the Biden administration and Democratic leadership against an increasingly extreme Republican Party, on the one hand, with criticism of Democrats’ disturbing record on immigration, health care, and much else on the other.
In a wide-ranging interview with Jacobin editor at large David Sirota, Ocasio-Cortez discussed the recent revelations about Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas seemingly accepting bribes, her disappointments with the Biden administration, how the Left can win against right-wing super PACs, and what’s next in the fights for action on climate change and Medicare for All. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
ProPublica just broke the story of Clarence Thomas accepting luxury private jet and yacht trips from a billionaire Republican donor. It sounds like something out of a cartoon caricature of corruption. It’s a story that seems to encapsulate all the Supreme Court corruption that everyone senses.
But now it’s right out in the open, and you’re calling for Clarence Thomas’s impeachment. Are you going to draft those articles of impeachment, and do you expect to have the support of many, if not most, of the House Democratic Caucus?
I think this is an emergency; I think that this is a crisis. I think we’ve had a crisis for some time on the Supreme Court. Congress is out of session for the next week, and that does give Democrats some time to strategize.
I do think articles need to be introduced; if we decide strategically that the actual author of those articles and who introduces them may not be me, that’s fine. I will support impeachment. But if no one’s going to introduce them, I would certainly be open to doing so and drafting them myself. I think this has gone far, far beyond any sort of acceptable standard in any democracy, let alone American democracy.
Let’s turn to the 2024 election. You won office through a contested Democratic primary, one in which very few pundits and party operatives said you even had a chance to win. With that history in mind, do you believe more House Democratic incumbents should face primaries? Do you believe that the primary process is healthy for the Democratic Party? There’s another school of thought that says it weakens Democratic candidates and the party should work to try to stop those primaries.
I do believe that primaries are healthy. When I first got to the House, not just through winning a primary, but when I was sworn in afterward — even just a public acknowledgment that a primary process involving incumbents is legitimate and healthy for the party — it was just completely taboo, and me supporting that, including supporting primary challengers . . . and afterward, the party declared war right back, and it declared war not just on my candidacy but also on progressives writ large. We really saw that last cycle, particularly with the overwhelming number of AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] funds that targeted progressives, including incumbents who had stances that were in alignment with respect for Palestinian human rights.
I understand that it goes both ways. My first reelection, the party establishment mounted a $5 million primary challenge against me. So I’m aware that saying that primaries are a good thing and healthy for the party also means that I may be on the receiving end of those things, but I still maintain that position.
AIPAC coordinated millions of dollars in super PAC spending against progressives, as you allude to, last election cycle, some early on in Pennsylvania, but their spending helped defeat folks like Jessica Cisneros, Donna Edwards, and Nina Turner. What can progressive candidates and incumbents do to overcome that kind of spending this cycle?
Not everyone can be as well-known as, for instance, you are. There’s this idea of, you go out and you do the best you can, but you’ve got to raise your profile to raise the money in order to be competitive. So for progressive candidates for the House in this election cycle, how would you advise them to deal with the possibility of huge money being spent against them in a primary?
First and foremost, money is not ultimately the end-all be-all of how a person can win an election. For a very long time, it has been the case that the person who raises the most money wins. However, I do believe that, in the technological and tactical evolution of campaigning, particularly in the progressive movement, we are starting to see more people win while being outspent.
We just had Brandon Johnson win the mayoralty in Chicago, and he was outspent two-to-one on television, and yet he won. We saw Karen Bass running for the mayoral seat in Los Angeles, and she was running against a billionaire, very well-funded. And she was still able to win it.
What this is about is building a very sophisticated infrastructure in the progressive movement that focuses on field operations and professionalizing how we can share that across the movement, because far too many campaigns start from scratch. That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot and working on. I have a PAC, Courage to Change, that focuses on down-ballot elections and supporting progressives who are in that boat where they aren’t able to tap into these high-net-worth fundraising circles to build a super-well-funded campaign.
When I ran the first time, it was the same thing. You’ve got to know how to run a street fight in a really professional way, and it needs to be down to precincts. It needs to be down to blocks. You need to know your path to victory. This can’t just be a “post and pray” approach. We need to know what we are doing, and thankfully, I think that there’s been a lot of progress in that in that respect. But it is something that must be an ongoing commitment and project.
In the last few months, President Joe Biden and his administration have broken a railworkers’ strike. They’ve repealed Washington DC’s criminal justice reforms. They’ve rejected a petition to lower the price of a major cancer drug and authorized a huge fossil fuel drilling project in Alaska.
What are you and other progressives in the House planning to do about this move to the right? And speaking of primaries, do you believe it would be healthy for Biden in his reelection bid to face a primary?
I have always stated that I will never be a person who says there should not be a primary. Because of the way that I got to Congress, it would be deeply hypocritical for me to ever be against the existence of a primary process for a candidacy. Just on principle, that is where I stand.
I do believe that some of the latest developments coming from the Biden administration are highly concerning — increasingly concerning — and not just from an ideological perspective, not just from a substance perspective, which is the most important, but also from a political perspective.
I think it is extremely risky and very perilous should the Biden administration forget who it was that put him over the top. When you look at the places — not just abstract levels of turnout, not just where numbers came from, but these swing places that gave Joe Biden the edge on an [Electoral College] victory — it was young people that that won him this election, communities of color, high turnout areas. This lurch to the right at a time when the Right is scrambling and lost in the desert on how to even win an election after these stunning losses — I think it’s a profound miscalculation. And it is quite dangerous.
The pushback on the Biden administration’s authorization of the Willow Project has been very encouraging. It is important. We saw Biden’s approval ratings dip for the first time in a significant way recently, and I believe that it was after the approval of the Willow Project, and that some of these decisions to lurch to the right have contributed to that.
So what we really need right now is having that continued, outside vocal organizing that allows us, when we are approaching the administration, to say, “This is why this is happening,” so we can pull and point to grassroots movements that are telling that story as our evidence. Because if we just come up with that abstract claim, they’re just going to think that it’s conjecture: “Of course you’re going to say that; this is what you already believe.”
I think it emphasizes the importance of that grassroots organizing, because it gives us the ammunition and the evidence to tell the story about why this is important. I do believe that the Biden administration historically, particularly under chief of staff Ron Klain, understood that. I do believe that they that they do not take for granted the role of young people and the role of progressive turnout in their 2020 victory. The key is maintaining the boundary and letting them know that this is not something to be taken for granted.
The Squad has been billed as a bloc of votes that holds the Democratic caucus and the Biden administration accountable and create that boundary. At one point, you had said, “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party,” which I think is a commentary on the way our country’s politics are set up.
However, you, for instance, have voted 91 percent of the time with the Biden administration. That includes votes on the railworkers’ strike, spending $40 billion on the Ukraine war, and billions of dollars for microchip companies that have been criticized for using the cash to do buybacks. You and a group of progressives also didn’t withhold your vote on the American Rescue Plan when the Biden administration abandoned the minimum wage.
So the question is, how can you hold your party accountable or create that boundary with the Biden administration when you and progressives in the Congress are oftentimes voting for what the party leadership wants, and very rarely — sometimes, but rarely — holding out your vote when the party really needs it?
I want to address the two parts of that question. I want to emphasize that there are times where we do break with the party, for example, on Build Back Better. That was a yearlong war we had inside our party.
There were moments in the lead-up to that Build Back Better and bipartisan infrastructure vote where the president of the United States was on the speaker phone with us saying, “You need to do this.” The pretense that the president had on this was, “Vote for BIF [the bipartisan infrastructure bill], and trust me, I will get Build Back Better across the line.” The framing here, to give a window into how the internal politics and party works is, “Do you trust us or not? Do you trust this leadership?” This is Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the president of United States, the vice president, members of the cabinet. They use a collective environment; this is not a private conversation.
It’s almost like an invitation, to try to say in front of everybody and to stand up to the Speaker and to the president and say, “This is not a matter of trust at all. This is a matter of votes. And it’s not that I don’t trust you — it’s that I don’t trust Joe Manchin. And I don’t know if I trust anybody to be able to bring consistency out of a person who does not have any.”
But some of these votes also speak to that progressive infrastructure that we’re talking about. When it comes to the rail vote, for example, we worked very closely with all elements of the railworkers; not just the Teamsters, not just some of the other formal unions, but also those members of the unions that were rebelling against the initial round of agreements. It was in tandem with these organizations, RWU [Railroad Workers United] and some of those folks that were leading the fight on opposing that initial agreement to a terrible contract. Those were the folks that we were working with in developing our organizing strategy around this.
It was following the actual railworkers’ lead in both camps. This was not just about traditional union leadership, but also rank-and-file grassroots leadership that we tried to determine our strategy with. We worked with Senator Bernie Sanders, and we worked with many others, saying, “How do you all want us to proceed?”
The initial push was to rubber-stamp this agreement with no attempt at getting paid leave. Procedurally, what we were asked to do by the rank and file is, “Get us a paid leave vote.” That was the determination. That was the organizing leading up to that vote. That was the request that was made of me, and that is what I agreed to deliver on.
There is a difference between the spontaneous digital response versus the actual organizing rooms and people that are directly impacted by this. When you look after the vote, folks like RWU were saying, “This is what we asked them to do.” I think that got drowned out by the noise of people operating more on the theory of the situation.
But ultimately, there are moments when there are going to be internal disagreements about strategy. It is so important, especially among the Left, that we develop a discernment between when there are differences in strategy — sometimes they are intense, and sometimes they are rigorous and vigorous disagreements — versus equating that difference in strategy with a 180-degree change in commitment to our vision and our principles.
There is so much money and so much interest invested in sowing chaos on the Left. We have to realize that the same tools that are good for us, and the way that we can use the internet to bypass some of the traditional structures that have gate-kept our media, gate-kept our political organizing, etc. — these are still algorithms owned by billionaires who want to incentivize internal conflict. And they do. I believe there are times when we have fallen for it.
That being said, criticism is fair, and it’s okay. But if I were to ask for something . . . A lot of times this organizing and reaction happens after a vote. Before and in the lead-up to a vote, we are often asking some of our grassroots partners for a position. A lot of times, and I think that this is often for resource reasons, that organizing doesn’t happen until after the flash point has already occurred. What is most useful or beneficial is for that engagement to happen prior to a vote. Because, for example, with the rail vote, the only partners that I had leading up to that were railworkers. And if that’s what they asked us to do, then that’s what we did.
Your point about differences in tactics being interpreted as a difference in values is a huge issue. I think there are a lot of people who look out at politics and see so much money invested in so many different outcomes that aren’t good for people. They perceive both parties selling them out in different ways: the Republicans being super extremist, the Democrats maybe saying the right thing but oftentimes not delivering.
Just as a follow-up: When people are, from your perspective, misinterpreting a difference in tactics and strategy for a difference in values, do you blame them? Why shouldn’t they see it that way, if they feel like the political system has been selling them out for ten, twenty, thirty years?
I don’t blame a lot of people for that. I do blame some, because I believe that there are folks and leaders in the space that know better and they fan flames that they know are disingenuous for personal gain. There is a lot of incentive in that when there is an economy that has developed that is based on clicks, views, and attention. And we know the thing that attracts that more than anything else is conflict. So there are financial incentives for certain people, I believe, whose income revenue relies on that to stoke conflict.
It’s a re-creation of a lot of what we see in mass media. Mass media is so Left-Right heavy. It’s so Republican-versus-Democrat heavy, precisely because it drives viewership. When you get into more niche audiences, it’s the same thing: similar conflicts can be driven by amplifying those sometimes-disingenuous takes to fan intraleft conflict.
I want to also be thoughtful, because I don’t want to equate that with saying any criticism of our decisions is just playing into the hands of someone else. There are multiple things that can be true at the same time. This is something that we need to really develop and talk out, because a lot of these decisions are not last minute. They may happen last minute, but we can often see that they’re coming from a long way out. We just don’t know exactly when.
Not just me as a member, but I believe that as movements, you see certain tensions happening. This scale up to the rail vote was months in the making. So we had been in communication with workers for months about, how do we want to see this unfold? And the number-one thing that emerged from those conversations, the thing that was most important, was securing paid leave and also, tactically, what we were materially capable of.
Theoretically, in talking about the strike, I understand why someone would have [a different] position, but we need to be honest with ourselves about what something like a wildcat strike takes. Are we ready for that? Are the seeds sown for that? Sometimes they are. We’ve seen that with the teachers’ unions and what happened in West Virginia and what’s happened in Los Angeles. But sometimes a workforce may not be prepared for that. And if a movement isn’t, then we have to decide what other tactics we’re going to use.
Health care seems to have completely fallen off the Democratic Party’s agenda. President Joe Biden hasn’t even mentioned the public option that he promised during the campaign. The health care crisis is getting worse, and it seems like the best that the Democratic Party can agree on is to promise to throw more money at health insurance companies through the Affordable Care Act exchanges, while the Biden administration is also continuing to privatize Medicare through Medicare Advantage.
All of this is only a few years after Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign seemed to galvanize the real prospect for a Medicare for All push. Why do you believe the Medicare for All push, at least right now, seems to have stalled? Why does it feel like health care isn’t even really an issue for the Democratic Party right now?
The insurance lobby is so incredibly powerful. If I had to think about the top, it would probably be fossil fuels, but pharma and insurance are way up there. I also believe that Big Pharma and the insurance companies have a broader number of members that can be influenced by that. With Big Oil, it’s predominantly Republicans and then a chunk of certain Democrats. But with insurance, it’s much broader across both parties.
When Bernie ran on Medicare for All in 2016, it created an enormous amount of electoral fervor that led a lot of members to cosponsor Medicare for All. But I believe that when push comes shove, the number of people who are willing to fight for Medicare for All is probably less than the number of cosponsors on that bill. And frankly, even if we had a floor vote on it, because of the lack of prospects in the Senate, I also think there would be a lot of disingenuous votes for it when people know that it’s going to a graveyard.
I do believe that we are approaching an interesting political window. We just saw an unprecedented, once-in-a-generation shift in leadership of the Democratic Party, particularly in the House. It was pretty well known what Pelosi’s position on this was; she has a very strong record about trying to strengthen the ACA, but through expanding what ultimately are subsidies to insurance.
Going back and putting that pressure on, whether it’s through primaries or whether it’s through putting that pressure on every member of the Democratic caucus to go on record on Medicare for All, that I think is where we are at. Also, this is an issue where perhaps, among many elected Democrats, they just think it’s too pie in the sky right now.
I also think a lot of this has to do with the Senate filibuster. There are so many things that people take positions on but they don’t really put energy into, because as long as the filibuster exists . . . it’s this idea of, “If we can’t even get basic gun safety past a filibuster, what can we do for universal health care?” So providing and mounting a really strong fight to dismantle the filibuster in the Senate has to be a precursor to any fight for universal health care and for guaranteed health care.
Now, I don’t think that it’s this or that; I think we need to be building both of these things at the same time. But we also need to be real about the tactical reality of how we make it happen. We can’t make anything happen unless we can dismantle the filibuster, or elect ten more Democrats to the Senate [who support] more Medicare for All and keep the entire caucus. . . . That, to me, seems far less realistic than pressuring the party to dismantle the filibuster.
Scientists are warning that climate change poses an existential threat for all life on Earth, telling us we’ve got to halt all new fossil fuel development. And in response, Congress did the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes both lots of subsidies for green energy but also a big potential to expand fossil fuel development. And as we discussed, the Biden administration just approved this Willow Project in Alaska.
Looking back on the last two years, on the whole, has the Democratic Party helped the fight against climate change, or has it made the problem worse? Has it taken the problem as seriously enough as it deserves to be taken?
I’m a major critic of the party. I think the Biden administration has been very disappointing on climate. In the first twenty-five months of the Trump presidency versus the first twenty-five months of the Biden presidency, Biden has authorized more fossil fuel permits. This is a serious issue. The Biden administration is failing on immigration as well, but that’s a separate conversation.
However, it’s this duality of multiple things being true at the same time. The IRA, the Inflation Reduction Act and the climate provisions in it, is the biggest action in American history with these substantive and structural shifts that will, I believe, unlock significant developments on climate, clean energy, and other types of infrastructure.
But compared to the science of the situation, it is both the biggest thing we’ve ever done and also still not enough. That being said, I don’t think that this fight is going to happen in one fell swoop, in one piece of legislation. I think it’s going to take, say, several major knockout victories, but we have accomplished one of them. We’re going to see a lot of the benefits of that. But this is an infrastructure investment that takes time to build out and create those jobs.