Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: how she succumbed to political pressure but might defend basic income again, someday

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Picture credit to: Fox News

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also known as AOC, is a fighter. Ever since she was elected to the United States (US) House of Representatives, she has been doing much “ass kicking”. She made clear that energy transition in America was in dire urgency, and made a few headlines with her Green New Deal. Interestingly enough, a first draft of this Green New Deal also included the outline of some bold social policies, among which a few measures to curb the racial inequalities that still plague contemporary US, and universal basic income (UBI). Apparently, that wasn’t even the first time AOC had mentioned UBI publicly. On this particular occasion, at a Netroots event, she refers that this type of policy (UBI) was not even new, or strange in American politics, citing Democrats initiatives in the past.

All this, at the very least, is ground breaking in contemporary politics in the US, where things are very much conditioned by corporate interests, and so a fearlessly saying-things-as-they-are kind of conduct can feel so refreshing to the general public, and so infuriating to some special interest groups. AOC, then, is very critical even about her fellow Democratic Party colleagues, with their “moderation” and submission to corporate donors. She says, within that context, that we, as a society, have deviated so far astray from where we collectively think we should be, that speaking up for what we believe and feel is right can actually be considered “radical”.

However, there is a difference between speaking at a general public event before being elected to the House of Representatives, and speaking in that same House after being burdened with a formal political responsibility.

What happened, concretely, was that the Green New Deal first bill presented to the House included the idea that, under the program, the US government would take care of anyone who could be “unwilling to work”. That didn’t go well among AOC colleagues, Republican or Democrat. This event has been documented, and it showed very clearly that for most politicians and political pundits, Republican or Democratic leaned, “unwilling to work” is simply translated as “lazy”. And that was fatal. From that point of view, helping those “unwilling to work” simply doesn’t make sense. That materialized into open ridicule from Republicans, targeted at AOC and her Green New Deal, and silence plus detachment from fellow Democrats. AOC was trying to say that people may want to refuse degrading working conditions, starvation wages and/or several other abuses from the marketplace, and, in that case, the government would ease their transition into something else, implementing a social policy in the line of a UBI. Basically, AOC was deserted. And that must be hard to take in.

Also, as documented, AOC and her colleagues tried to amend, and erased any mention to basic income in the Green New Deal final proposed bill, plus took a step back about referring it at public events. That can be clearly observed when listening to AOC, for example at this SXSW 2019 event. Firstly, she now defends a “jobs guarantee”, a policy more in line with the Democrats outspoken line of political thought, explicitly backed by Dem “heavy-weights” such as Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Secondly, she doesn’t mention basic income anymore, not even when questioned about social solutions to things like overwhelming automation and human rights issues such as racism, sexism and inequality in a general sense. In other circumstances it would be obvious the reference to basic income, from someone who had already defended the principle on previous occasions.

We are left to watching her, in despair, going around the basic income issue, without touching it. This can be exasperating, knowing how enthusiastically she had already spoken about it. To me, this is the product of fear. She is afraid of being ostracized, particularly by her Democrat peers, within a political party she is so proud to be a member of. The result is hypocrisy. That is because her belief has remained unchanged: it would make no sense to assume that she, in a couple of weeks-time, had U-turned completely from a UBI onto the direct competitor Federal Jobs Guarantee — a social policy which hasn’t brought significant results in other places. She only orbited back to a more front-and-centre endorsement of a Federal Jobs Guarantee because that is the “official” position of the Democrats.

And so, it goes down the drain her professed rebellion and voicing of “courage” and uncompromising talk. At least in part, it goes. My view, however, and in her defence, is that her behaviour is understandable: deep down, no one likes to be abandoned. On the other hand, it is also disappointing for someone, like me, that saw in her the possibility of radical change in American politics and the establishment of an “anti-establishment” discourse in that country’s political landscape. Courage, for me, would mean to be able to handle the isolation and the criticism from other politicians and pundits, and continue to defend what she believes in. It may be a strategic pull-back, but the message that comes through is one of cowardness and submission to the “moderation” she so often criticizes in her colleague Democrats.

All this does not imply I lost my interest in AOC, or that she is now politically dead to me. It just means that no one is exempt from weakness and that there are moments when the pressure is just too much to bear. I’m sure the support for basic income from AOC’s mouth and pen we have already seen will not be her last. She is young, intelligent and restless, so I’m sure that, in the long political career in front of her, basic income will still play an important role in her life. Just as it is already playing in the life of Andrew Yang, a not-much-older Democrat colleague of hers, and rising-star presidential candidate.

More information at:

André Coelho, “United States: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: uncompromising, intelligent and courageously, she is driving progressive values in the US like we haven’t seen in a long time”, Basic Income News, January 23rd 2019

André Coelho, “United States: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez mentions basic income at a Netroots Nation event”, Basic Income News, December 29th 2018

André Coelho, “United States: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gets to the point of what it means to be “unwilling to work””, Basic Income News, February 22nd 2019

André Coelho, “UNITED STATES: Joe Biden believes that jobs are the future, rather than basic income”, Basic Income News, September 27th 2017

Karl Widerquist, “Obama speaks favourably about UBI but stops short of endorsing it (for the second time)”, Basic Income News, July 18th 2018

André Coelho, “Germany: The HartzPlus experiment is starting, and the basic income discussion is there to stay”, Basic Income News, March 3rd 2019

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