Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the 2020 Presidential Race and Trump’s Crisis at the Border
It’s hard to recall a newly elected freshman representative to Congress who has made a bigger impact than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Her primary victory for New York’s Fourteenth District seat—as a young woman of color beating out a long-established white male incumbent—was big news, and Ocasio-Cortez has been generating headlines almost daily ever since.
Practically the day she took her seat in Congress, Ocasio-Cortez became the hero of the left wing of the Democrats and a favored villain of Fox News and the right. She battled Nancy Pelosi to make the Green New Deal a priority, and has been involved with a movement to launch primary challenges against centrist or right-leaning Democrats. Like Bernie Sanders, she embraces the label of democratic socialism and supports free college education for all Americans. She has called for the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Ocasio-Cortez joined David Remnick in the New Yorker Radio Hour studio on July 5th, just after her trip to the border to examine migrant-detention facilities. They spoke about why she courted controversy by referring to some facilities as concentration camps; why she thinks the Department of Homeland Security is irredeemable; and whether Joe Biden is qualified to be President, given his comments about colleagues who supported forms of segregation. “Issues of race and gender are not extra-credit points in being a good Democrat,” she says. “They are a core part of the . . . competencies that a President needs. . . . Where are you on understanding the people that live in this country?”
david remnick: I think it’s about a year ago that this all began. This big victory for you happened. And does the year seem like five minutes or twenty years?
alexandria ocasio-cortez: Um, a little of both. It’s hard, it kind of feels like both of those things at the same time. Sometimes it feels like forty-five years, because each week feels like a saga. But at the same time it’s hard to believe that it was just a year ago. So I guess it does, in some [way], feel longer than a year. But also it’s such a short period of time, and it went by so quickly, as well.
Well, what shocked you the most?
In this whole year?
Well, and holding this office, and the political life once you’re in office.
I think, when I first got into office, after getting sworn in, I struggled with a large deal of imposter syndrome. “Do I belong here? They’re going to find out! As soon as they find out, they’re gonna”—
Take it back?
Exactly! It’s gonna get taken back! And so I struggled with that a lot. But after acclimating to the actual functions of this job, and this role, I think one of the things that has been shocking to me is how normal it is.
Normal in what sense?
In how enormous decisions are made in ways that feel like a typical office.
So, there will be miscommunications, or there’ll be debates, or there’s that guy you don’t like on the second floor, or, you know, things like that. And they all have real dynamics, and real consequences in decision-making. For example, last week, with the border supplemental [bill], which was this big controversy, both within the Party but also nationally.
This is the conflict between the Senate Democrats and the House Democrats, as well as with the Republicans.
Right, right. And so the ways that this very flawed supplemental—which I’ve personally voted against, along with many other members—the way that it came to the floor was, like, What’s going on? Who’s saying what? And you’re hearing secondhand about what might be happening, and it kind of unfolds within thirty minutes, and then, before you know it, Congress has voted on $4.6 billion with no accountability to some agency.
So what you’re saying is governing is a mess, in a way?
Yeah, it’s a mess. [Laughs.] It’s a mess.
Well, when you came to Congress, did you have a plan? How you wanted to be? What you wanted to push forward? How you wanted to communicate?
I think in some parts—how I wanted to communicate, yes. And I think for me, over all, the plan was to try to expand our national debate and reframe our understanding of issues, because I felt as though that was something that wasn’t being done enough, especially on the Democratic side, for Democrats.
We don’t know how to talk about our own issues in ways that I think are convincing, so we fall into Republican frames all the time. And we’re too often on the defense, we’re too often afraid of our own values and sticking up for them. And I feel like we run away from our convictions too much. And so one of the things that I wanted to do was to hold a strong line, and redefine our values, and remind people that I think what we need to be doing right now is coming home as a party. I don’t think we should be afraid of being the party of F.D.R. I don’t think we should be afraid of being the party of working people. And it feels to me that at some point we did start becoming afraid of those things.
And became the party of what instead?
I think we became the party of hemming and hawing and trying to be all things to everybody. And it’s not to say that we need to exclude people, but it’s to say that we don’t have to be afraid of having a clear message. To say, we believe in the human dignity of all people. We believe that health care should be a right. We believe that all people should be paid a living wage. We believe that, as our economy evolves, it’s time to expand public education beyond K through twelve, to K through sixteen, K through college, or K through vocational. And what we call bold agendas, or Republicans call socialist, are things that they’ve always called socialist. And [we should] wear it, understand that that’s what they’re going to say, but don’t run away from the actual policies that can transform people’s lives.
Well, let’s talk about the socialist issue—I certainly was going to talk about it later, but let’s get right to it. You were endorsed by D.S.A., Democratic Socialists of America. You identify that way, as does Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders recently gave a speech reaffirming this notion, and everything that he says sounds like, to me—and I know this is a constant debate—sounds to me like New Deal Democratic Party values. And F.D.R. always said, “I am a liberal. I am not a socialist.” So how do you—
Well, I think, to me, how you wrestle with that term is relatively inconsequential with respect to the policy, right. So if you want to support free college and you say “I’m not a socialist,” or if you say “I’m a democratic socialist” and you support free college, at the end of the day, we’re supporting free college. And that’s the thing that we should be focussing on. And I think, for me, particularly when it comes to democratic socialism, the key word is that small d-democratic, is democracy. And so it’s really about making sure that workers have democratic power in our economy.
And, for me, one of the reasons that I lean into it is because I think it helps people who understand those principles be able to understand our stances on issues across the spectrum, as opposed to saying, “What is your stance on health care? What’s your stance on education? What’s your stance on on wages?” In having people understand my general paradigm, and how I think about them, that my priority is for workers to have power in our economy, you can almost predict where I’ll land on an issue. And when I come out in favor of a position, it is within the context of that.
So when you came to Congress, Nancy Pelosi, particularly on this subject, the notion of democratic socialism, was—I would say the best phrase for it was—pretty dismissive. Were you very annoyed by that?
I wasn’t annoyed. I think, with a lot of the dismissiveness that I’ve encountered across the board, I’m not annoyed. I don’t have a chip on my shoulder about it. Because I feel like I’m going in with my eyes pretty open, or as open as they can be, given the context with the system that we’re encountering, right. Most Americans disapprove of how Washington, D.C., works. And they’ve disapproved of how D.C. functions for years.
And now you’re in the middle of it. You’re in the thick of it, and you see it up close in a way that even the best reporters can’t, much less citizens who are not spending all their day thinking about this. What have you discovered about the way Washington works that you didn’t know before? Good, bad, or indifferent.
I’ve been pretty shocked with the concentration of power internally—not just the influence that lobbyists have, which I think a lot of people kind of understand and see—but how the actual rules within Congress have changed over the years to put, I think, an insane amount of power in a handful of people within even just the House of Representatives.
Are we talking about the House Speaker? The majority leadership in the Senate?
The Speaker, leadership, committee chairs . . . Congress used to function in a way where each member used to have much more power as an individual than they do now. And over the years the rules have changed to kind of consolidate power, to a very large degree, with the Speaker, with the Minority Leader, et cetera. In fact, Justin Amash, who just resigned from the Republican Party, congressman from Michigan, made this same exact point when he decided to leave the Republican Party—the Republican caucus, rather.
What’s your relationship like with Nancy Pelosi? Tell me how that works, what are the dynamics of it.
I think sometimes people think that we have this, like, we have a relationship.
Are you saying you don’t?
Not particularly, not one that’s, I think, distinguished from anyone else. Like, if there is a legislative need—you know, the last time I spoke to her one-on-one was when she asked me to join the select committee on climate change.
What did you say?
I said no. [Laughs.]
Because I had made very specific requests, which I thought were rather reasonable, for the select committee on climate change. I asked that it have a mission to try to draft legislation by 2020, so that we essentially have a two-year mission to put together, whether it’s a Green New Deal or whether it’s some sweeping climate-change legislation, that the select committee have a legislative mission. I asked for it to have subpoena power, which most committees do. The last select committee had subpoena power, but now this one doesn’t. And I asked for the members who sit on the select committee to not take any fossil-fuel money. And none of those requests were accommodated. And so I didn’t join the committee.
Are you better on the outside looking in, or the inside looking out?
I think I’m better on the outside looking in on this issue.
Why is that?
Because, given that none of those standards were met, sitting on that committee, I would have to own anything—I would take responsibility for anything that comes out of that committee. And when the actual, in my opinion, the structure of it is compromised in very deep ways—I don’t think it was, like, I’m going to take my ball and going and go home. It’s, we have a select committee whose mission I was uncertain on whose members take fossil-fuel money. You know, that is beyond just a mere disagreement. I think there’s a structural problem with it. And there are plenty of other caucuses, as well, that work on climate issues.
So I think that, ultimately, I’m fine with the decision, especially given the committee assignments that I was ultimately given, which were very intense and very rigorous. I was assigned to two of some of the busiest committees and four subcommittees. So my hands are full. And sometimes I wonder if they’re trying to keep me busy. [Laughs.]
Well, how did Pelosi react when you turned her down on being on that?
She was fine with it. She said, “O.K.”
Did she think you were being one way or another? Was she annoyed?
I don’t think so.
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She doesn’t do annoyance.
Yeah, I mean, maybe she does do slight annoyance, but it’s not direct, or indirect, I don’t know. I think this is the thing, where it’s, like, first of all, I think leadership, their primary goal right now is making sure that everyone who won a swing seat comes back. So I think that that’s where a lot of their time—rightfully, I think, justifiably—is invested, in those relationships.
I think there’s one thing that everybody would agree on, including your most ardent opponents, is that in this year your voice has cut through. It’s cut through to supporters. It has certainly cut through to the Murdoch press. You are big business, for Fox News, and for the New York Post, and all the rest. How did it cut through, why did it cut through, and was that the plan?
It takes a lot to unseat an incumbent, whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican. It takes a lot because, when someone is used to voting for the same person for twenty years, it just becomes a challenge of changing habit, as well, which is very difficult. And so in order to make that argument, over a year, while I had no money to amplify my message, when I had very little resources, very little outside attention, I needed to, over the course of a year, year and a half, really hone in a very strong voice that cut through to the needs of my constituents. And so I think that after the primary, when a lot of people started to say “What’s going on here?” I continued in that same voice that still cut through to my constituents and to my district.
I think there’s a couple of things. One is that there is kind of an apologetic nature, I think, to a lot of Democratic messaging. It’s, like, This is wrong! But not all people! Or, But not all this!
And particularly freshmen, and particularly women, even? Do you think that’s the case? Because it seems the strongest voices by leaps in this freshman class are women, and women of color.
Yeah, yeah. Well, I think, over all with the Party, that has been the norm. But when it comes to women of color in Congress, particularly the freshmen, it’s that we both have encountered and represent communities that have been auctioned off and negotiated off for the last twenty years, and we’re over it. You know, if we’re gonna have a change election, it needs to—
What do you mean by auctioned off?
Well, we see in these negotiations all the time, it’s, like, fighting for black communities, or policies that help women—they’re bargaining chips. And they’re the first chips that are reached for in any legislative negotiation.
Now, you have just come back from the border, and this was an experience that, I think, was disturbing on a number of levels. Talk me through that trip. What did you see? Just in human terms. What did you see?
I mean, it was horrible. We went in to this facility, and, first of all—
What town are you in?
We’re in El Paso. El Paso, Texas. And our first stop, we stopped and we met with A.C.L.U. representatives. The second stop, we went to an actual shelter for children. And then our third stop, which I think was the worst, which is where we saw some of the most inhumane behavior, was the El Paso Customs and Border Patrol detention facility.
What are you seeing there?
So we walk in, and that morning the ProPublica piece had been released.
This is about the Facebook group of people who were working there, and all kinds of abusive comments, directed at you and others.
Yeah. And there were ninety-five hundred current and former C.B.P. officers engaged in a secret, violently racist and sexist Facebook group, where they mocked migrant deaths, where they actually discussed launching a GoFundMe for any officer that harmed myself or Veronica Escobar. And so we get there, we sit down in this boardroom, and all these C.B.P. officers are standing up around us. And another member kind of confronted them and said, “Well, what about this group. Are any of you all in it?” You know, there’s twenty thousand members in C.B.P., and this Facebook group had ninety-five hundred people in it. And so it immediately did not start off well. And their excuses for the group were automatically very disturbing.
What were they?
They’re saying, “We had no idea about this. We just found out about this.” Ten thousand members in this group, and management and superiors are saying they had no idea about it.
“A few bad apples,” I think, was the phrase by the leadership.
Right. And, first of all, if you did not know that there are ten thousand members in a violent Facebook group, you’re either being dishonest or your management is terrible that you don’t know about this. So it’s one of the two things. And then we find out later that they did know about it, that they have known about it for years. So we find out in retrospect that they weren’t being forthright with us. Then we leave it, you know, it was this whole argument, and then another member said, “You know, they’re trying to filibuster us in this conference room so that we don’t see what’s going on.”
So we go out, we step out, and we get into this main control room, and it’s basically, it’s kind of a circular room. And the center of the room was this little perch with screens and with surveillance feeds. And then the perch had a little wider sub-perch on the outside, and it was surrounded by glass, and that’s where—
This is where detainees are living?
This is where detainees are being kept. I wouldn’t even call it living. Because it was that inhumane. And then there were these cells all around.
Inhumane because it resembled a prison? Inhumane because of the crowding? What were the conditions that you saw?
It’s not even living. So, we walked in and in one of the cells, the cell is just all concrete. There were just women on a concrete floor, and then there were two concrete slabs where they could sit, and then in the back there was a toilet, and a concrete slab in front of the toilet, but no door. And these women were just in these sleeping bags on the floor over each other. There’s no way that they could all sleep at once. Almost no way. And . . . I mean . . . they were being—it was, it was the physical manifestation of Trump’s rhetoric in calling migrants animals. Because that’s how these women were being treated. Their hair was falling out, they had sores in their mouth due to the lack of nutrition in the food that they were being given.
What were they being fed?
They would wake up in the morning, and C.B.P. would wake them up between 5 and 7 a.m., they said, pretty much for no reason. They’re being woken up very early in the morning, but they wouldn’t take them anywhere, they weren’t allowed to go outside. They were just being woken up. In the morning they’d be given, like, this one woman took out a Nature Valley oat-and-honey bar. For breakfast. And then I saw two oranges on the floor. And they said that they would be given sometimes a sandwich, or a burrito, but no greens, no fresh food. And the lack of those nutrients develops canker sores. If you’re just eating bread for days and days—
How long have they been there?
One woman had been there for sixty days.
And these are people who had come from where?
The women in the first cell were from Cuba. They were all from Cuba. And so they’re being detained there, and they separated these women.
From their children?
Where are the kids?
I mean, this is when all the women started sobbing and breaking down. You know, I went in there, I just started asking questions, and when I was asking basic—we went in, in this cell was myself, Ayanna Pressley, Congresswoman Madeleine Dean, Joaquín Castro, Joe Kennedy came in.
So you and Castro are the Spanish speakers here, and communicate directly. And you’re asking them what?
So first I start asking them, “How long have you been here?” And I start asking these questions, and at first they didn’t know what was going on. And so then I was, like, “Hold up, rewind. This is who we are. We’re members of Congress. We know that there are issues in this facility and we need to find out what’s going on.” And that’s when they just started bursting. They were almost falling over each other trying to tell me everything. You know, “They took my kids over here,” “I have two children here,” “I’m trying to find out where they were,” “They took me here,” “They moved us there,” and so on. So first I started asking them what their day was like, to understand their conditions from their perspective. I asked them who had been separated from their children in that room. Two of the women had their children taken away.
But, meanwhile, it’s important to contextualize this, that family separation is more than just taking parents away from their children. What people are saying and what the Administration is saying and qualifies as an unaccompanied child, and quote-unquote fake families, or human trafficking—what they are talking about with respect to that are also children that come with their brothers and sisters, and children that come with their grandparents, children that come with their aunts and uncles. And in Latino culture, Latino culture is extremely familial. You know, I was raised with my cousins as my siblings. I was raised with my aunts and uncles as secondary parents. And it was not unusual at all for me to spend days with my aunt or uncle. And that’s pretty much like a parent. And so when the Administration comes and says that a child with their cousin or a child with their aunt or uncle is unaccompanied, it’s a violation of the actual spirit of what is happening.
And so, anyways, there were two women that were separated from their direct children nonetheless. And so I asked them where they went. And I also asked what some of the other facilities were. Because we saw all these empty tents. We went in, here and in Clint, there were all of these tents that almost look like dog kennels, and they were just empty. And I asked these women, “How many people are here?” And they’re, like, “There’s no one else here, there’s no one else here.” And I said, “Well, why is there no one else here? We’ve been hearing that there are hundreds of people in these facilities.” And they said, “They took them all away.” And I said, “When?” They said, “The day before yesterday.”
And I asked them where, and they said two places. They dumped a lot of them in Juárez. So they took hundreds of people and just dumped them in the streets in Juárez, Mexico. And then they also took them, some of them, to Arizona. To certain C.B.P. facilities in Arizona which also have been notorious for poor conditions.
Now, is that legal?
For C.B.P. to do that, it is.
You know, there’ve been a couple of articles lately saying, basically, that the cruelty of all this is the point of the policy. What does that mean?
It is, the cruelty is the point. And, you know, a lot of folks on the right tried to bring up Obama and say, “Obama did this, Obama did this, Obama did this.”
Do they have any point?
They have some points, but they don’t have others. Obama never separated children from their parents. That’s a violation of international human rights. Obama never took this into overdrive the same way that the Trump Administration has. But Obama did pursue policies, and he laid the groundwork on this whole idea of quote-unquote deterrence. And deterrence is what has evolved into where the cruelty is the point, because it’s this idea that you can get people who are seeking asylum in the United States to think twice, to prevent them, if you inflict a little pain on them when they come. So the idea is, if a family knows that they’re going to be detained when they get to the United States, maybe they won’t come to the United States. Maybe they won’t seek asylum here. Maybe they’ll seek asylum elsewhere. And this policy of deterrence started under Obama.
To stick with the border here, Vice-President Pence and Nancy Pelosi reportedly have some kind of handshake agreement about conditions within the detention facilities that you visited—the amount of time children could be held there, and that Congress will be notified within twenty-four hours if a child in detention dies. Do you trust the Administration to honor that agreement?
Absolutely not. Absolutely not. I don’t trust them at all.
Probably on anything, on most things, but definitely not on immigration. I mean, this agreement is being struck at the same time that D.H.S. is ignoring congressional requests for documents. We have been asking for documents about the whereabouts of separated children for months. We’ve been asking, where are these kids, where are their parents, what are the conditions in these facilities, how are we accountable? We’ve been asking the Department of Homeland Security for troves and troves of documents to help figure out the situation, and they have been completely noncompliant. They won’t give us a shred of paper that helps us find these kids.
My experience with you is that you don’t say anything just by chance. You think things through when you tweet, unlike some other government officials and other human beings. You used the phrase “concentration camp” to describe these facilities along the border, and I’m sure you didn’t do it mindlessly. You have a sense of history, certainly, where the Second World War is concerned, and Auschwitz, and all the rest. Why use that phrase knowing that it would be incendiary, even to people who might be inclined to agree with you?
I think one of the reasons why I found it important to use this term is because this whole crisis, and the treatment of migrants at the border, has been this low-grade, static, background-noise torture that has been happening in our country, and has been getting worse and worse and worse. Then more accounts started coming out recently. Court documents. Very disturbing accounts from lawyers, from interviews, and then academics started to say, “These are concentration camps.” There was an academic consensus on this.
In fact, there was a petition that was sent to me, and many others, of I think a hundred-plus historians who objected to the Holocaust Museum objecting to your use of the words “concentration camp,” [saying] that you should be able to use such a metaphor.
And that number is now up to—it started with a hundred and forty, now it’s at almost three hundred since. I think. And so this was not a term that I made up. We now had academic and historical support for using this term. And the way I felt was, well, if we have academics, historians, and people who study concentration camps saying these are concentration camps, then I believe them, I believe in academic consensus.
You’re not comparing Auschwitz to a detention center.
Absolutely not. And that, of course, is where the right has gone with it. But, no, concentration camps are a dehumanizing tool that have been used from authoritarian regime to authoritarian regime.
One of the things that you’ve been saying, I think for quite a while now, certainly every couple of years, is that ice should be abolished. The answer to you often is, well, why not reform ice? The F.B.I. and the C.I.A. came under tremendous fire, for example, in the seventies—there were the Church hearings, held in the Senate under Frank Church—no one’s suggesting the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. are remotely perfect since then, but there were a lot of changes in those institutions. There’s not a country on earth who doesn’t have an intelligence operative, good, bad, or indifferent. Why can’t that be done with ice?
Because the core structure of ice, I believe—and, frankly, the entire Department of Homeland Security—you know, this was established by George Bush, in the wake of 9/11, right. As the Patriot Act and all of these different institutions that were, frankly, very large threats to American civil liberties, started to get established. And people sounded the alarm back then that these agencies are extrajudicial, that they lack effective oversight, and it is baked into the core foundational structure of these agencies.
What does that mean?
And so, I think what it means is, for example, ice is not under D.O.J. It’s under the Department of Homeland Security. And so we have now—
Would you get rid of Homeland Security, too?
I think so. I think so. I think we need to undo a lot of the egregious mistakes that the Bush Administration did. I feel like it is a very qualified and supported position, at least in terms of evidence and in terms of being able to make the argument that we never should have created D.H.S., in the early two-thousands.
In the absence of a sane immigration policy.
In the absence of a Democratic majority, what is the answer?
So there’s a few. One is, we have, I think, as a country, a misunderstanding of the issue of immigration. We think of it as a stand-alone issue. It’s like asking, what are you gonna do about homelessness. But these are systemic issues. Once you’re at the point where you are mitigating what is happening at the border, you are already dealing with the symptoms of a large amount of other U.S. policies. So, for example, a large contributing factor to the surge on the border is the fact that President Trump withdrew U.S. humanitarian aid to Northern Triangle countries, to Central America. The United States, in my opinion, has completely abdicated its responsibility and role in Latin America, in that we are not acting like an equal partner or neighbor in the Western Hemisphere at all. We just think of everything as south of Mexico, and we treat it that way. And because of that, our largest interaction with Latin America is what happens at our border. And so that’s how it manifests in our country.
In addition to greater foreign aid to Central America and abolishing ice, what else would constitute a sane American immigration system? If, in fact, we’re not saying, we don’t really need one, all we do is just let in anybody who wants to come—which you don’t seem to be saying at all—what constitutes a sane immigration policy?
So I think, one, a sane immigration policy, we should not be using detention for people who have harmed no one. One of the big things that I saw when I was at the border was needless bottlenecks. And this is where it really seemed very much so that the cruelty is the point. This is not a lack-of-resource issue whatsoever. There is a lack of desire to allow refugees in. There were plenty of American citizens that are trying to step up to the plate, American citizens that are saying, “We’ll take a family in, we’ll take children in.” Most of these children that come to the border already have sponsors. They come with phone numbers and they come with people in the country that are willing to take them in and give them refuge. And we have a system that deliberately blocks those families from seeking and taking up Americans who want to give them refuge.
Did you watch the Democratic Party debates, the two nights?
I watched the first one and I watched parts of the second one, I wasn’t able to catch the second one.
I’m sure you watched the relevant parts.
What did you make of them?
You know, I thought they were good. I think the structure, the very structure of the debates are flawed.
Because they’re so gigantic.
Because they’re gigantic, they’re unfocussed. And so as a result it seems like they are kind of intended to be a clash of personality.
Besides Marianne Williamson, who impressed you the most?
[Laughs.] I think the debates offered really good performances from—I think there’s a large consensus on this—I think on the first night Elizabeth Warrenand Julián Castro really distinguished themselves. I think on the second night, of course, Kamala Harris had a very large moment, confronting Joe Biden.
Was she fair?
I think she was. I think she was fair. I absolutely think she was fair. And I think this is also part of a larger discussion, and that issues of race and gender are not extra-credit points in being a good Democrat. They are a core part of the competencies that a President needs. We have to understand that our country is one of the biggest experiments in a multiracial democracy in the history of humanity. And if you don’t understand the multiracial, or the multi-identity, part of a multiracial democracy, it can severely hamper your capacity to govern.
You worked for Bernie Sanders. How do you think he did? Is he too old?
I don’t think that! I don’t think it’s about being too old.
You can’t be too old in this situation? I mean, let’s face it, we’re looking at two guys who, going in, going in to the Presidency—Biden and Sanders—they’d be older than Ronald Reagan coming out.
Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. I think that, when it comes to age, I think age gets used as a proxy for capacity. And so I think there are some folks that are of a certain age where you can kind of question their capacity.
Who are you talking about?
I think Donald Trump is a perfect example. [Laughs.] I don’t think he’s all there.
I think Joe Biden, his performance on the stage kind of raised some questions with respect to that. But I don’t want to say, just because someone is seventy-nine, they can’t or shouldn’t run for President. I don’t want to use those proxies, a number as a proxy for capacity. I think you have to assess a person’s capacity on a case-by-case basis.
What makes Joe Biden “not there” for you? And if he were to get the nomination—or a centrist of any kind, center-left, however he’s defining himself, but certainly a center figure in the Democratic Party—how should progressives behave?
Well, it’s not just about being centrist, per se. It’s, when you are struggling to talk about segregationists, and you err on the side of discussing them in glowing terms, that is a big problem. I think struggling in talking about women’s rights is a big issue. Struggling to convey respect for women in this day and age is a big issue, I think those are systemic issues. Like, those are very deep. Those are not gaffes. They are problems. And so it’s before you even get to, where are you on public college and where are you on a living wage, I think, just, like, where are you on understanding the people that live in this country?
I guess what his supporters would say—and even you could make this argument—is, when you take somebody who’s had a long career, and they were living in times of old standards of speech, political reference, mistakes, when are they disqualified? And when is that just part of the package? Because you’re twenty-nine, and, let’s say we’re sitting here, or somebody’s sitting here with you, in twenty years, and you’re running for President. It’s possible that you’ll do everything perfectly for the next twenty years and make no mistakes. But maybe not likely. How do we hold people accountable for old standards of the way people addressed each other, and the way they were physically with each other? In Joe Biden’s case. Busing itself was certainly an incredibly complicated issue at the time.
So I think the No. 1 indicator on this is, does the person know how to apologize? And if you don’t know how to apologize for praising segregationists, then that’s a red flag already, because I think people are very forgiving on that. I think people understand that over the course of a career, as the country evolves, our politics will evolve.
But if we approach past mistakes with defensiveness, then that, I think, is indicative of a problem. Because if you’re defending a past position that the country has moved on from, then it calls into question your judgment for the present.
I totally hear you, but you know one politician who never apologizes for anything and seems to succeed and thrive on that? Donald Trump.
Never apologize, never explain.
But do we want that?
No! But look at the success of it.
And there’s success in it, but there’s demagoguery in it, as well. You know, just because demagogues have come into power doesn’t mean we should model ourselves off of them.
Now, you worked for Bernie Sanders. Can we assume that you are pro-Sanders in this race? Or are you hanging back?
Well, I’m definitely pro-Sanders in that I want him to do well. I want him to succeed. But there are other candidates as well, you know, I think Elizabeth Warren is doing a great job, too.
Did Kamala Harris surprise you? A lot of people on the left side of the Democratic Party were very tough on Kamala Harris, particularly because of her role as a prosecutor in California. A number of issues, one of them is her going on California television saying, essentially, we should use the law against parents of kids who were delinquent and didn’t show up to school, maybe even imprison them. There’s a lot of criticism of her on that and other issues. How do you feel about Kamala Harris now?
Well, with respect to her debate performance, I mean, she came at it like a prosecutor. You know, she drew on that experience.
But could you see yourself supporting her?
You know, I think it’s still so early—this is one of my gripes about the debates, as well, is that there was a push for there to be a climate-change debate. And, frankly, I think, you know, there was this essay in Jacobin about how all the Democratic debates should be themed. And I think—
Jacobin, the socialist quarterly, or monthly—I think it’s a quarterly, but it’s online.
And it’s a daily on Twitter, so. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Fair enough.
So I agree with that position, because you learned so little about a candidate’s world view when you tried to address all the issues in one debate, and in ten different debates. So my thing with some of these candidates is that I feel like I know certain candidates’ world views, whether you agree with them or not. I understand Joe Biden’s world view. I feel like I have an understanding of that. I feel like I understand Elizabeth Warren’s world view. I understand Bernie Sanders’s world view. There are a lot of candidates where I feel the jury’s still out, where I don’t quite understand their world view. And some of them, I think, can they do the job, right? Like, Donald Trump cannot do this job. He cannot even just keep the trains running on time. There are plenty of people who can do that.
But I think, for me, I want to understand more of these candidates’ world views. And when it comes to a candidate’s past, when you can’t quite understand it, or when it’s not quite articulated yet—and it is very early—you draw on a candidate’s past to try to get a glimpse of what their world view is. And, you know, I think that people were right to criticize that.
In Kamala Harris?
I think so, I think that is a past action that should be criticized. But I want to learn more about some of these candidates’ world views.
Would you get behind Joe Biden—if Joe Biden were nominated, would you campaign for him?
Well, we need to defeat this President. And so, to the extent that I could be helpful in that, you know, I will do what I can. But I also know that, and what I hope people really get from me, whether they agree with me or disagree with me, is that I’m going to give it to you straight, in terms of how I see and assess an issue. And so I think sometimes where people struggle is when other candidates endorse a Democratic nominee, and everybody knows what the deal is, and so it seems like a farce. And so I would never want to do that. So I would organize in the best way that I know how without trying to communicate to people something that I don’t feel.
Are Warren and Bernie courting you, essentially? What are those conversations like?
Well, what we talk about and what we work on the most together is our legislative priorities. We don’t really discuss—
There’s no direct sense, in those conversations, of, “Endorse me”?
I think I’ve had one or two—and with other candidates, as well, not just those two—but it’s not like this constant pressure. It’s probably come up once—
I say, “I’m not endorsing anybody for some time.”
You’re going to wait till the nomination is locked in?
I don’t know if I’d wait that long, either, but I certainly don’t want to endorse anyone this year. You know, I think we need to have debates. I think we need to have a national conversation. And also, I need to do my job. [Laughs.] And so I’ve been working with both Senator Warren and Senator Sanders. Senator Sanders and I just introduced legislation to cap credit-card and all interest rates at fifteen per cent nationally. Elizabeth Warren and I are working on legislation. We’ve gone after Steve Mnuchin and the Sears board for not giving people the severance and the pay that they need. And so I’m trying to work with them on tangible wins for people.
We’re talking within a very short period of time after a credible charge of rape was levelled at the President of the United States. What do you make of that? And what should Congress’s role be in pushing this? Or discussing it.
I haven’t dug into what legal avenues we have in Congress with respect to that. But I think we should look into it. I think, if there are legal tools we should use, I think we should consider using them. I mean, it’s just, it’s disappointing that the reason the President seems so immune from things that would have killed any other President’s career is because we expect so little of him. And we have accustomed ourselves to expecting so little of him that it’s normal to have someone who’s an accused rapist in the White House.
You are in many ways a social-media politician. You communicate well on social media, people follow you—how many followers do you have now, on Twitter? Seven trillion, I think it is.
A lot bigger than your constituency, let’s put it that way. And yet, and yet, and yet. It’s a tough place to exist. Do you ever shut down from it? Do you ever say, “I’m taking three days off, I’m not looking at any of this”?
Yeah, I do. I do. And also I have guardrails, like, while I’m using it.
What are they?
So I really try not to look at my mentions a lot. That’s, like, a huge zone. Also, I understand how these platforms work, which helps me and my mental health a lot.
Give me a hint.
So, for example, Twitter does not prioritize what is most popular. They prioritize what is most controversial. So the first thing that you’re going to see is probably racist, because that’s the most controversial thing that you can lob. So they reward—not just Twitter, but all these platforms, all these algorithms—reward controversy, they reward racism, they reward sexism. And so I already have a set expectation of what I’m going to see. I already know that political parties, the right, dark-money groups pay for troll farms. Russia, as well.
Do you ever get hurt by what you see or read about yourself on social media?
Um, I get hurt when I read something from a person I respect.
When has that ever happened?
So, once in a while, like, if I read something from a journalist that I feel just, like, doesn’t understand the full context of the situation. Sometimes I’ll be hurt, or I’ll be disappointed if I expected something better. But for me being hurt is about disappointment. And so you only get hurt if you’re expecting things that you don’t get. And so, like, I expect some people to be racist, I expect some people to try to hurt my feelings, so when they do, it doesn’t—I don’t mind at all. But when I expect something better of someone and they kind of go another way, sometimes it does hurt me.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in the last year?
Biggest? I’m trying to think. I mean, I’ve made a lot, but—
What are they?
I think, you know, right after the primary I was kind of, like, lunged into this world that I was not expecting at all. And it was really emotionally difficult. And so I kind of came to this understanding that I had to make mistakes to learn how to deal with this issue. So I remember, right after the primary, I had this interview on this show, “Firing Line,” and I talked about Israel-Palestine, and I kind of got coaxed into talking about this issue that I knew at the time I was uncomfortable discussing, because I hadn’t organized in my community, I hadn’t met, I hadn’t convened people, and I started speaking about it when I didn’t feel confident speaking about it.
And so, you know, I got pilloried, and dragged, and all this stuff, about it. And I learned a really big lesson in how to handle issues, particularly policy issues, that I haven’t sunk my teeth into yet. Especially then, it was, like, four weeks after I won my primary, or something super early, and I didn’t have the time nor the resources to learn everything about every issue yet. And now that I’m in Congress there’s a lot more resources and time to do that, especially when you’re not fund-raising all the time. So I think I’m learning how to talk about certain issues.
Do you have time to think? I don’t say that—I say that in the best sense. So much is coming at you. You are the initiator of a lot. You’ve decided not to be a low-profile freshman, by any stretch of the imagination. And it just doesn’t stop. It’s coming at you, it’s coming at you, it’s coming at you, through whatever means—texting, speeches, appointments, meetings, God knows what else. How do you organize your thoughts? How do you make priorities of one, two, and three, and say, “You know what? I can’t concentrate on five, six, seven, and eight”?
Yeah. So, in terms of that time—and this is one of the reasons why I really relish my time in committee so much, and I relish being a lowly freshman on committee, too. I’m very fortunate to have built my campaign in a way where I’m not dialling for dollars for hours every day.
But why should you be dialling for dollars? You’re not going to lose that seat in a year.
I mean, in a year—I feel confident in our reëlection, but we have a census and gerrymandering coming up. And when you are critical of people in your own party, it’s entirely possible that, in ’22, I could get a spaghetti noodle of a district—
And you’re going to be in Staten Island Sunday.
Yeah, exactly. And so I think about that, too. I don’t think that I’m here forever. I don’t take my seat for granted. But, you know, kind of going back to the question, when I’m in committee, because I don’t have to dial for dollars, I spend hours in committee. And a lot of times it’s thinking and learning about a specific issue. But I use it as a jumping point to think about other things, too.
And do you give yourself a break-break? Is there something that you do for yourself so that you can, um—what do the kids say? Self-heal? [Laughs.]
Yeah, self-care! I garden, I’ve discovered gardening, which has been really rewarding. I won a little community-plot lottery—and I didn’t use my name, I used my partner’s name, so I didn’t get any special treatment. Or, I don’t think I did.
What are you growing?
So, I’ve got dahlias, I’ve got collard greens, I had spinach, but now it’s too hot for the spinach, so I might plant some peppers. I had Swiss chard, which is really good, sage, basil . . . and it’s really healing. It is. It really is, to just forget everything and just have your hands in the dirt. That’s, you know, it’s one of the best parts of my day.
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