Ever since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won an insurgent primary campaign in June against a well-established party elder, it hasn’t been clear whether she plans to push or pull the Democratic Party to the left. Will the former Bernie Sanders volunteer and self-identified democratic socialist try to push House leadership on policy while remaining well outside the party’s power structure? Or will the youngest woman ever elected to Congress opt to work inside the system, build alliances, and seek institutional power to pull the party toward her position?
At first, it seemed she would pursue the first route, endorsing a progressive group’s campaign to challenge incumbent Democrats, joining climate activists in a sit-in outside Nancy Pelosi’s office, and refusing to support Pelosi’s return as speaker of the House until late November.
But in a 60 Minutes interview that aired Sunday night, the new congresswoman downplayed her rebellious reputation. Yes, she wants Democrats to be more progressive, but it seems she plans to work within the party rather than launch public attacks from the left.
“We acknowledge that we are part of—and I am part of—a larger party,” she told the interviewer Anderson Cooper. “So a lot of that is going to do and deal with building relationships across the party, making sure that we are building consensus around these issues.
“There’s a lot of folks that I think sometimes want to brand me as a flamethrower,” she said. “I think the truth of what I am is I’m a consensus builder.” Breaking into a wide grin, she added, “And I like to think that I’m persuasive.”
Cooper asked her about centrist Democrats who worry that she and other progressives will push the party too far. “While I understand that concern, I think that I’m a much more reasonable person than people tend to make me out to be,” she said.
The 60 Minutes spot was Ocasio-Cortez’s first high-profile interview since taking the oath of office late last week and was likely her longest serious sit-down to date. It’s unusual for a freshman representative to land such a prominent interview, but since her improbable primary win over the summer, she’s been the subject of countless stories in both the mainstream and the right-wing press, fed in part by her unusually transparent approach to public relations. The frenzy has created a feedback loop, with Ocasio-Cortez winning media attention because of all the media attention she’s already received. Still, the 60 Minutes interview did provide some substantive details about how Ocasio-Cortez plans to work in Congress.
Ocasio-Cortez positioned herself as a principled insider rather than a purist outsider. She articulated goals that fall within the mainstream of the post-2016 Democratic Party: “I want to be able to tell my grandchildren that we established a single-payer [health-care] system, tuition-free universities, and that we saved our climate for their future, because we decided to be courageous in the moment and make it happen.”
Yet she also continued to promote progressive policies outside the Democratic comfort zone. For example, she affirmed her goal of reducing U.S. carbon emissions to zero by 2030. When Cooper asked how that unlikely scenario might be possible, she talked briefly and vaguely about “trying to push our technological capacities to the furthest extent possible.” To fund the “Green New Deal” she and other progressives demand, she suggested returning marginal tax rates for the highest earners to levels not seen since the 1970s. Such rates would mean a massive tax hike on what she called the “tippy tops” of personal income.
“What you are talking about, just big picture, is a radical agenda compared to the way politics is done right now,” Cooper said. Ocasio-Cortez didn’t run away from the label. “Well, I think that it only has ever been radicals that have changed this country,” she said, citing Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation and Franklin D. Roosevelt creating Social Security.
“Do you call yourself a radical?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she replied. “You know, if that’s what radical means, call me a radical.”
One moment in particular grabbed outsize press attention compared with other, more revealing exchanges: when Cooper asked whether Ocasio-Cortez believes President Donald Trump is a racist. Ocasio-Cortez said she doesn’t spend much time talking about the president, because she sees him as the symptom of a broader American problem. To her, there’s “no question” he is a racist.
“When you look at the words that he uses, which are historic dog whistles of white supremacy, when you look at how he reacted to the Charlottesville incident, where neo-Nazis murdered a woman, versus how he manufactures crises like immigrants seeking legal refuge on our borders, it’s—it’s night and day,” the congresswoman said.
All the press attention on Ocasio-Cortez means her missteps are amplified, too. Cooper asked about factual errors she’s made in policy discussions, such as her misinterpretation last month of a statistic about Pentagon spending, which earned her four Pinocchios from The Washington Post’s fact-checker. PolitiFact has documented several other mistakes she’s made, such as claiming that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement faces a legal requirement to fill 34,000 beds every night. In reality, the law has no such mandate; past versions required the agency to have that many beds available, but not filled.
The representative responded with an exasperated “Oh my goodness” and suggested that those focusing on her errors need to readjust their priorities. It sounded like she was asking to be taken seriously but not literally, as some observers have suggested about the factually challenged president. “If people want to really blow up one figure here or one word there, I would argue that they’re missing the forest for the trees,” she said. “I think that there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.”
While Ocasio-Cortez presents herself as an average citizen sent to Washington, she sometimes employed the rhetorical devices of a seasoned politician. When Cooper asked about conservative media outlets using her positions and statements to cast the Democratic Party as radically liberal, she offered a combative, almost whataboutist response that sought to change the topic. “Well, I can see why Fox would consider a living wage to be a radical far-left agenda when they’re supporting the incarceration of children at our border,” she said. “It is radically different from their point of view. But we’re not the ones that are advocating or defending the violation of human rights, and they are.”
With the biggest megaphone of all the House progressives, Ocasio-Cortez can help chart the course for the Bernie wing of the party in the House. It will have to decide whether it wants to be a thorn in Speaker Pelosi’s side, like the GOP’s hard-line Freedom Caucus under John Boehner and Paul Ryan, or play nice in public in the hope of influencing leadership behind closed doors. The new congresswoman’s interview suggests she’s got a plan, at least for herself: She’d rather become an influential insider than stay an outside agitator.