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A few weeks ago, almost no one knew her name.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the rising star of the progressive left, is here to discuss her ideas this week on ‘Firing Line.’
‘Firing Line with Margaret Hoover’ is made possible by… Corporate funding is provided by…
Look out, Bernie Sanders.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has arrived.
Ocasio-Cortez made waves two weeks ago for unseating a 10-term Democratic incumbent who was chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, winning with 57% of the vote.
Ocasio-Cortez ran to the left of her opponent, forcing him to join her there.
She even tweeted out a picture of the holes she wore through the sole of her shoes pounding the pavement of New York’s 14th Congressional District.
Her win was a political earthquake.
She was elected not by criticizing Donald Trump, but by making a positive case for democratic socialism and racial justice.
According to pundits, she is high-speed Wi-Fi in a system still impressed by dial-up, a social-media influencer who can sell policy and sell out lipstick with a single tweet.
There is no denying she is the progressive ‘it’ girl, as much for her ideas as for her sheer political talent.
A campaign worker wrote, ‘Ocasio-Cortez is as articulate as she is relatable, as charismatic as she is fierce.’
In the last two weeks, she has become the vanguard of the American progressive movement.
And should she be elected, she’ll also be the youngest woman ever to serve in the United States Congress.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, welcome to ‘Firing Line.’
Thank you for having me.
Your win was such a shock, and it was because you worked hard.
That’s the first point you always make is that you outworked your opponent.
It was all shoe leather.
The term ‘democratic socialist’ is a term that young people hear very differently than old people.
And I wonder if you could expand on what that term means to you.
You know, I often say that, to me, democratic socialism is the value that, in a modern, moral, and wealthy society, no person in America should be too poor to live.
And for me, what it really means is establishing a baseline level of economic and social dignity in the United States to say, no matter what happens, we’re not gonna go below this level, that we should aim for every person in this country to be covered by healthcare, to have access to a full college education, as well as trade school, and to make sure that people feel stable in their housing.
All the goals that you articulated I aspire to, as well.
So, what is it about democratic socialism that, to you, makes it the best vehicle for achieving those ends?
I come from a background as an organizer, and in this moment right now, this political moment, democratic social– or perhaps even DSA, in particular, is one of the only active organizing groups in the United States that is actively asserting that.
You know, I think that so many people tap into those values, and it’s not so much about selling an ism, a color, a party, an ideology as much as it is asserting and advancing the basic aspects of human dignity in 2018.
So, you mentioned DSA.
In case our viewers don’t know what DSA is, it’s Democratic Socialists of America.
And what’s really interesting is that it has increased its participation significantly in the last few years.
In 2016, there were only 6,500 members of the Democratic Socialists of America.
In 2017, there were 23,700.
And by July of 2018, there are 44,000 members of the Democratic Socialists of America, 216 chapters across the country, and particularly buoyed by young people.
So, explain in your view what it is about democratic socialism that appeals to Millennials and young people.
Well, I think that, for our generation, we kind of view the world through a very different lens.
In my life, for example, I was born in 1989, and so, at that point, I was growing up during the Clinton Era.
And, then, basically, when I was in middle school, 9/11 happened.
So, when you think about young people, it’s important to think about the general timeline, the world that we grew up in.
I was about, you know, 17, 18 years old when the financial crisis hit.
We never experienced, really, a time of true economic prosperity in the United States, you know?
And a lot of what we have witnessed is the unprecedented concentration of wealth at the very top, tippy-top of the 1%, and we’ve seen the consolidation of corporations start to really erode our wages, really erode access to healthcare.
And so, I think what — I think young people are very receptive to a very strong economic message of dignity for working-class Americans.
That was really your rallying cry in your campaign.
It was always about working-class Americans.
You talk about the top versus the bottom, not the left versus the right.
Now the economy is going pretty strong, right?
There’s roughly 4% unemployment, 3.9% unemployment.
Do you think that capitalism has failed to deliver for working-class Americans or is no longer the best vehicle for working-class Americans?
Well, I think the numbers that you just talked about is part of the problem, right?
Because we look at these figures, and we say, ‘Oh, unemployment is low.
Everything is fine,’ right?
Well, unemployment is low because everyone has two jobs.
Unemployment is low because people are working 60, 70, 80 hours a week and can barely feed their kids.
And so, I do think that, right now, when we have this no-holds-barred, Wild West hypercapitalism, what that means is profit at any cost.
Capitalism has not always existed in the world, and it will not always exist in the world.
When this country started, we were not a capitalist — we did not operate on a capitalist economy.
You know, the benefit of capitalism is that you engage in voluntary trade…
…and that, because it creates value, it is the system that, unlike all the others, has lifted more people out of poverty over the course of human history than any other system.
Well, so, I think that those things that you talk about, that you discuss, are part of the course of human evolution.
And so, I would hope that the most recent economic system, our current economic system, is the one that is most beneficial for everyday people.
But what we’re also starting to see is that, first of all, I think that, when we talk about socialist — or especially democratically socialist economies — first of all, they’re done with the full input of everybody.
So if something is not a good idea, it doesn’t get voted for, ideally.
And the other thing, too, is that we’re starting to see that the people who create value in society are not experiencing any portion of the value that they are creating.
And so I do think that, absolutely, capitalism was the most efficient and best economy, perhaps, for the time that it was at, perhaps.
But as we evolve, as automation begins to really take out extremely large industries, we need to say that we’re not going to throw those people away.
So, in the context of democratic socialism, then, do you think it calls for an end to capitalism?
Ultimately, we are marching towards progress on this issue.
I do think that we are going to see an evolution in our economic system of an unprecedented degree.
And it’s hard to say what direction that that takes.
You know, I joke that –.
So, then, it sounds like you’re skeptical that capitalism is gonna continue to be the right answer.
Yeah. I think it’s — I think it’s — I think it’s at least a question.
I think it’s absolutely a question.
One of the first guests ever to appear on ‘Firing Line’ was a gentleman by the name of Michael Harrington…
Oh, my goodness.
…who was the man who was behind Lyndon Baines Johnson’s War on Poverty, and he wrote ‘The Other America,’ and he was also the initial organizer of Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, which preceded the Democratic Socialists of America.
So I have a really fun clip from that show that I’d like to show us.
And then, we’ll comment on it on the back side.
Let’s take a look.
I don’t like capitalism.
I think it’s much less than — Well, I think it’s a mythological system in that we talk of free enterprise, but we have gigantic, concentrated corporations.
But I agree that it is exactly the magnificent accomplishments of American enterprise and capitalism and business and the kind of dog-eat-dog misery that we went through that now makes it possible for us to be decent.
And I think that, when we finally do get a modicum of justice in the society, we should revere those dog-eat-doggers who did make it possible.
Well, perhaps ‘contempt’ was too strong a word to describe your feelings on capitalism.
I was struck by that sentence of yours that goes, ‘Practically every ethical, moral, and cultural justification for the capitalist system has now been destroyed by capitalism,’ which some people would find contemptuous, indeed.
You can see Buckley and Harrington mixing it up…
…50 years ago — more than 52 years ago about the values that you and I are still trading back and forth.
I’d love to shift this conversation towards higher education and your plans for higher education.
So, I am a really firm believer that the next step in our education system is opening up colleges and trade schools to be tuition-free in the United States.
About every hundred or so years, we extend our public-education system.
When we first started in the United States, people, if you were lucky, you got a grade-school education.
And then, we, as a society, decided that wasn’t enough, and we made universal middle school.
And it wasn’t until — a lot of people don’t realize — it wasn’t until about 1950 or 1960 that we truly achieved tuition-free universal high school in the United States.
And you know what?
We’re now out another 70 years, and I think that, as our economy evolves, our education needs to evolve — our publicly available education needs to evolve.
So I believe in tuition-free public colleges and trade schools.
In addition, we have an amazing opportunity to, at the same time — that’s how these policies work — they have to be interlinked — perusing a program of federal student-loan debt forgiveness.
There’s definitely a couple of theories about how encumbering student debt is and university student debt is on individuals and whether it’s preventing them from participating in the economy.
And there are some studies — there’s one from the Brookings Institution and others — that suggest that, actually, the larger deterrent to people participating in the economy is the demarcation point of whether one has a college education or not having a college education, rather than college debt.
I think about in 2015, there was one study I read that said the amount that people are spending — the average family is spending on student debt is roughly equivalent to the amount the average family spends on entertainment costs per year.
In other words, it’s not always so crippling, but that the worse, the more crippling factor is whether you have a college education or not, because your earnings are so much higher if you do have a college education.
Yeah. I would — You know, I would counter because, first of all, when you look at the rising amount of student debt and then the fact that wages are largely remaining flat in the — real wages are remaining flat in the United States — some families may cost — you know, some families may be spending as much on entertainment as they are on student-loan debt, but you look at inequality and generational inequality.
Some folks have parents that are able to support them.
And one of the largest drivers of wealth inequality in the United States is inherited wealth.
So, especially — really, what we need to talk about is this question of social mobility.
And that’s, as somebody who comes from the center right, one of my major concerns, as well, is…
You know, I’m less concerned when you have a lot of wealthy people as long as you have individuals who are at the bottom part of the economic ladder that have access and ability to move up…
…to become part of that upper echelon.
There’s one other piece about education that strikes me because it’s so biographical about you.
And one of the things that you say as you talk about education is that no child’s destiny or set of opportunities should be determined because of the zip code they were born in.
I’ve heard you say that a lot.
And your parents actually made the choice to vote with their feet…
…and to move outside of the district that you were born in, or the zip code you were born in, in order to afford you better educational opportunities.
To many people in this country, that would make you the poster child for education reform…
…especially because that terminology, the zip-code terminology, is one that I first heard by Michelle Rhee, who is the Chancellor…
…of the District of Columbia’s Public Education Schools, who became a little bit controversial for challenging some of the union wages in education reform.
Where do you stand on K-through-12 education reform?
Well, I think there’s a lot of aspects to K through 12 that we need to reassess.
You know, things like No Child Left Behind has left a wake of lessons for us.
We have to strike a balance between not kind of watering down every child to a bubble on a test and a test score.
Sometimes, an overreliance on that can hurt our educational outcomes.
I think that, honestly, one of the things that we really need to reassess when we talk about economic inequality and reducing economic inequality is our basic system of funding schools, the basic idea that the immediate property taxes of a certain zip code funds that local public schools, ’cause then, what it does — it creates this mad dash.
I think, by kind of re-examining how we even fund schools — it’s one of the basic things that we take for granted, but it could actually be one of the strongest keys in unlocking the opportunities of children in the United States.
Another area where you’ve been really outspoken, and you went — you went on a visit to Texas before your election…
…is immigration control, immigration reform, and the horrific incidences of separating children and their parents at the border.
And one of the things you’ve called for is the abolition of ICE.
And as you’ve talked about it, I’ve noticed that you have said, ‘What it would afford us is an opportunity to really rethink our immigration system.’
And one of the things I’ve also really appreciated about how you’ve approached immigration is that you’ve noticed that Republicans haven’t always been anti-immigration reform.
That is absolutely correct.
And I worked for — in the Bush administration around the time that you were working for Ted Kennedy…
Mm. Oh, wow.
…on comprehensive immigration reform.
If you had the opportunity to really reimagine it, right, beyond the conversations about ICE, what would be your priorities?
I think we have to look at it in the context of greater policies — what our foreign policy is, what our local criminal-justice policies are, to have a very large impact on who’s coming in and who’s coming out.
We have always legislated from a place of how do we exclude, and who do we exclude?
And I just think that that’s the wrong question.
I think what we need to do, as we look at our foreign policy, for example — when we decide to intervene militarily in a place abroad, I think, in that same conversation, we need to say, ‘How many refugees are we willing to accept as a consequence of our involvement?’
We need to have those conversations right there in the same time and place, because I think it will force us to recognize the consequences of our decisions, the potential consequences of our decisions.
When we talk about, you know, foreign trade or when we talk about regime change abroad, I think that we need to have discussions about what that would mean on our shores and what that would mean for the potential human migration.
It seems to me there is this debate on the far left or the progressive left about whether low-skilled immigration is acceptable.
And so, I wonder, if you had the ability to really start from scratch, would you do it — would you — you know, Bernie Sanders has even laughed at sort of open borders…
…as being like a Koch brothers program, which — and, yeah, Bernie Sanders — right? — who is a person that you organized for, but who was vehemently opposed to the 2007 immigration reform bill that was passing through the Senate.
So, which side of the sort of fence do you fall on?
Yeah. So, I think this is — this is a really good question.
When it comes to low — ‘low-skilled immigration,’ I think that the problem with taking that approach is the assumption that people coming in are only weight or only have, like, some kind of parasitic relationship to the U.S. economy, and that’s not true.
Every single person is a source of economic activity, I think.
And what we see is that immigrants are one of the most entrepreneurial populations in the United States.
You — I mean, my district alone is 50% immigrant.
You will not find more vendors in New York City…
…than you will find here.
And so this idea that something is low-skill and that it’s going to be a weight, I think, is probably a false lens.
Do you think that when people say ‘low-skilled,’ though, they think it’s a weight on the economy?
‘Cause I think of it as sort of the robust driver of the economy.
I would hope more people would take your — would take your perspective, but I think, especially now, with this current administration, the narrative is the amount of jobs in America are finite and that it’s zero sum and someone that’s low-skill is going to take my job, which is false.
You have not really needed, so far, to take many foreign-policy positions…
…because you were unseating a Democratic incumbent.
But now you are very likely going to be going to Washington, and you’ll have to sort of build out some of those foreign-policy positions.
You, in the campaign, made one tweet or made one statement…
…that referred to a killing by Israeli soldiers of civilians in Gaza…
…and called it a massacre, which became a little bit controversial.
But I haven’t seen anywhere — what is your position on Israel?
Well, I believe absolutely in Israel’s right to exist.
I am a proponent of a two-state solution.
And for me, it’s not — this is not a referendum, I think, on the state of Israel.
For me, the lens through which I saw this incident, as an activist, as an organizer — if 60 people were killed in Ferguson, Missouri, if 60 people were killed in the South Bronx, unarmed, if 60 people were killed in Puerto Rico, I just looked at that incident more through — through just as an incident.
And to me, it would just be completely unacceptable if that happened on our shores.
But I am…
Of course, the dynamic there, in terms of geopolitics…
…in the Middle East is very different than people expressing their First Amendment right to protest.
But I also think that what people are starting to see, at least in the occupation of Palestine, is just an increasing crisis of humanitarian condition.
And that, to me, is just where I tend to come from on this issue.
You used the term ‘the occupation of Palestine.’
What did you mean by that?
I think what I meant is, like, the settlements that are increasing in some of these areas and in places where Palestinians are experiencing difficulty in access to their housing and homes.
Do you think you can expand on that?
Yeah. I mean, I think I’d also just — I am not the expert [Laughing] at geopolitics on this issue.
You know, for me, I’m a firm believer in finding a two-state solution in this issue, and I’m happy to sit down with leaders on both of this — on both of these — for me, I just look at things through a human-rights lens.
And I may not use the right words.
[ Laughs ] I know this is a very intense issue.
That’s very honest, and you’re going to — I mean, it’s very honest, and when you, you know, get to Washington and you’re an elected member of Congress, you’ll have the opportunity to talk to people on all sides…
…and visit Israel and visit the West Bank.
And I think that’s one of those things that’s important, too, is that, you know, especially with the district that I represent — I come from the South Bronx.
I come from a Puerto Rican background.
And Middle Eastern politics is not exactly what was at my kitchen table every night.
But I also recognize that this is an intensely important issue for people in my district, for Americans across the country.
And I think what’s at least important to communicate is that I’m willing to listen and that I’m willing to learn and evolve on this issue, like I think many Americans are.
As a Millennial progressive, how do you reflect on President Obama’s legacy?
[ Sighs ] You know, it’s — I think it’s — I think, for me, I just look at — I try to look through President Obama’s legacy through as clear eyes as I possibly can.
You know, I think that he mobilized — I certainly phone-banked for him in 2008 as a young college student.
And I think that — I acknowledge that he came in and his administration came in at a very difficult time.
You know, he came in in the pitch of a financial crisis.
He came in to just, I think, unprecedented obstructionism from the Republican Party.
He came at a time when I believe that the Republican Party started putting party over people, and that has created just a very destabilizing dynamic.
I think that he tried.
You know, I think he did his best.
I do have my critiques.
You know, I think that we got a little bit too friendly, corporate friendly, in terms of policies, in terms of how we recovered from the financial crisis.
I don’t agree with all of our foreign policy and drone strikes.
But I also acknowledge that we did make progress during his presidency, and I do think that it’s my responsibility and our generation’s responsibility to build on that.
Well, with any luck, you’ll be going to Congress and you’ll be able to do that, hopefully, when you get to Washington.
The set of skills that it took for you to canvass the district, the 14th District of New York, to identify who your voters could be, to get them registered and to the polls was an extraordinary feat.
And it’s a set of skills that got you to the point now where you’re gonna go to Washington, and now you have a whole new set of challenges, in terms of integrating the ideas that you’ve espoused and been elected on into a Democratic establishment that is preexisting.
So, have you thought about how you’re going to be effective as a spokesperson for a new set of ideas?
I actually don’t think that, once you win an election, you put down your clipboards and you just head to Washington and you use a totally different set of skills.
There are, certainly, additional skills that you need when you get there.
But I’m a firm believer in the fact that organizing never stops and organizing never ends.
And I actually believe that there’s a profound amount of power, persuasion, and influence that’s possible when you organize outside that chamber to impact — to really impact what’s going on inside that chamber.
And one of the things that we kind of talked about on our campaign was people versus money.
And I think that, when you can organize a mass amount of people, you can create a lot of pressure on incumbents to change.
And so, for me, it’s not — I don’t intend to put down my bullhorn.
And I think that, if anything, we’ve been trusted with a much larger one.
And my constituents have hired me.
They have voted for me to be a very fierce and unapologetic voice in Washington.
And I don’t think that that necessarily means antagonistic.
I don’t think that it means that you fight for the sake of fighting.
But I do think it means that you don’t compromise your values and your message.
And I hope to at least be that kind of voice of clarity in Washington in a time when there seems to be so much discord.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, we here at ‘Firing Line’ wish you much luck and success in your endeavors…
…and hope that you’ll return to the ‘Firing Line’ to discuss the ideas that you continue to be a proponent of when you get to Washington.
Oh, thank you so very much.
All right. Thanks very much.
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