Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat representing parts of Queens and the Bronx (including Rikers Island), quickly became the most prominent progressive voice in the House of Representatives after she defeated a twenty-year incumbent, Joe Crowley, and went to Capitol Hill in January, 2019. In Congress, she is hardly alone in her advocacy for issues ranging from Medicare for All to the Green New Deal; she belongs to the Bernie Sanders wing of the Party. But few in the history of the institution have so quickly become a focus of attention, admiration, and derision.
Elected when she was twenty-nine, the youngest woman ever to serve in the House, Ocasio-Cortez has proved herself an effective examiner in committee hearings and a master of social media. In other words, she offers both substance and flair, and this combination seems to drive her critics to the point of frenzied distraction. Fox News, the Post, and the Daily Mail, along with a collection of right-wing Republican foes in Congress, obsess over her left-wing politics and her celebrity. In November, Paul Gosar, a Republican representative from Arizona who has spoken up for white-nationalist leaders and voted against awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to police officers who defended the Capitol on January 6, 2021, posted an anime sequence that depicted him killing Ocasio-Cortez with a sword. More recently, a former Trump campaign adviser, Steve Cortes, went online to mock Ocasio-Cortez’s boyfriend, Riley Roberts, for his sandalled feet, prompting her to fire back, “If Republicans are mad they can’t date me they can just say that instead of projecting their frustrations onto my boyfriend’s feet. Ya creepy weirdos.”
When we spoke earlier this month, by Zoom, Ocasio-Cortez talked at length not only about the impasse the Democrats now face but also the general atmosphere of working in Congress. “Honestly, it is a shit show,” she said. “It’s scandalizing, every single day. What is surprising to me is how it never stops being scandalizing.”
The interview, which was prepared with assistance from Mengfei Chen and Steven Valentino, took place on February 1st, and has been edited for length and clarity.
Much of the Biden Administration’s agenda in Congress has pretty much stalled. A term that began with lofty F.D.R.-like ambitions is now at a standstill. How would you rate the President’s performance after a year?
There are some things that are outside of the President’s control, and there’s very little one can say about that, with Joe Manchin and [Kyrsten] Sinema. But I think there are some things within the President’s control, and his hesitancy around them has contributed to a situation that isn’t as optimal.
My concern is that we’re getting into analysis paralysis, and we don’t have much time. We should really not take this present political moment for granted, and do everything that we can. At the beginning of last year, many of us in the progressive wing—but not just the progressive wing—were saying we don’t want to repeat a lot of the hand-wringing that happened in 2010, when there was this very precious opportunity in the Senate for things to happen.
People in the Biden White House would argue that the margins are the margins and Manchin’s politics are what they are. He comes from a state that is dominated by a much more conservative vote. And Sinema is . . . unpredictable. They would argue that they made concession after concession and still got nowhere.
The Presidency is so much larger than just the votes in the legislature. This is something that we saw with President Obama. I think we’re seeing this dynamic perhaps extend a little bit into the Biden Administration, with a reluctance to use executive power. The President has not been using his executive power to the extent that some would say is necessary.
Where would you move first?
One of the single most impactful things President Biden can do is pursue student-loan cancellation. It’s entirely within his power. This really isn’t a conversation about providing relief to a small, niche group of people. It’s very much a keystone action politically. I think it’s a keystone action economically as well. And I can’t underscore how much the hesitancy of the Biden Administration to pursue student-loan cancellation has demoralized a very critical voting block that the President, the House, and the Senate need in order to have any chance at preserving any of our majority.
What is in the realm of the achievable, the realm of the possible, between now and the election?
That’s why I kind of started off by talking about the executive powers of the President, because I don’t think that there’s any guarantee of getting something through that Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema will approve of that will significantly and materially improve the lives of working people. It’s a bit of a dismal assessment, but I think that, given an analysis of their past behavior, it is a fair one. The President has a responsibility to look at the tools that he has.
You had some political experience before you were elected, but it was from some distance. You weren’t a member of Congress. You weren’t “in the room.” What do you see in the room? What is it like, day to day, being a member of this institution, which, I have to say, from outside, looks like a shit show?
Honestly, it is a shit show. It’s scandalizing, every single day. What is surprising to me is how it never stops being scandalizing. Some folks perhaps get used to it, or desensitized to the many different things that may be broken, but there is so much reliance on this idea that there are adults in the room, and, in some respect, there are. But sometimes to be in a room with some of the most powerful people in the country and see the ways that they make decisions—sometimes they’re just susceptible to groupthink, susceptible to self-delusion.
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