Features; Op-Ed; Opinion

AOC buckled under pressure over basic income

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 imminently necessary, and made a few headlines with her Green New Deal. A first draft of the Green New Deal also included the outline of some bold social policies, including a few measures to curb the racial inequalities that still plague the United States as well as a universal basic income (UBI).

This was not the first time AOC had mentioned UBI publicly. On one particular occasion at a Netroots event, she mentioned that a UBI was not a new idea in American politics, citing initiatives from Democrats in the past.

This is ground-breaking in contemporary U.S. politics, where things are often dominated by corporate interests. AOC’s fearlessness can feel refreshing to the general public, which also infuriates some special interest groups. Even as a Democrat, AOC is often critical of her Democratic Party colleagues for their “moderation” and submission to corporate donors. She says that American society has deviated far from where we collectively think we should be. Therefore, speaking up for what we believe is right can 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.

The Green New Deal draft bill presented to the House included the idea that the US government would take care of anyone who may be “unwilling to work.” That did not go well among AOC’s colleagues, Republican or Democrat.

This backlash has been documented, and it showed very clearly that for most politicians and political pundits, “unwilling to work” is simply translated as “lazy,” which was fatal for the program.

From that point of view, helping those “unwilling to work” simply does not make sense. That materialized into open ridicule from Republicans targeted at AOC and her Green New Deal, as well as silence from fellow Democrats. AOC was trying to demonstrate that people may wish to refuse degrading working conditions, starvation wages and other abuses from the marketplace. In that case, the government could ease their transition into something better by implementing a social policy similar to UBI.

AOC was deserted. And that must be hard to take in.

AOC and her colleagues tried to amend the Green New Deal. In the process, they erased any mention of basic income in the Green New Deal’s final proposed bill, while declining to reference this aspect of the program at public events. One example is AOC’s speech at this SXSW 2019 event.

First, she now defends a “jobs guarantee,” a policy more in line with the Democrats’ mainstream political thought, explicitly backed by Dem “heavy-weights” such as Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Second, she does not mention basic income anymore, not even when questioned about social solutions to things like automation and human rights issues such as racism, sexism, and inequality. In other circumstances, it would be obvious to reference basic income as someone who had already defended the principle on previous occasions.

We are left to watch her avoid the basic income issue. 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 Democratic peers.

The result is hypocrisy. That is because her belief has remained unchanged. It would make no sense to assume that in a couple of weeks she had completely abandoned UBI in favour of its political competitor, the Federal Jobs Guarantee. A jobs guarantee has not 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.

Her professed courageous rebellion and uncompromising talk have gone down the drain, at least in part. In her defence, this behaviour is understandable. Deep down, no one likes to be abandoned. On the other hand, it is also disappointing for those who saw in her the possibility of radical change in American politics and the rise of “anti-establishment” discourse in America’s political landscape.

Courage includes managing the isolation and the criticism from other politicians and pundits while continuing 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 fellow Democrats.

This does not imply I lost interest in AOC or that she is now politically dead to me. It means that no one is exempt from weakness and that there are moments when the pressure is just too much to bear. I am sure AOC will return to her formal vocal support for basic income. She is young, intelligent and restless, so I am sure that basic income will still play an important role in her political career. Perhaps she will follow in the footsteps of Andrew Yang, a not-much-older Democratic 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

About Andre Coelho

André Coelho has written 281 articles.

Activist. Engineer. Musician. For the more beautiful world our hearts know it's possible.

The views expressed in this Op-Ed piece are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of Basic Income News or BIEN. BIEN and Basic Income News do not endorse any particular policy, but Basic Income News welcomes discussion from all points of view in its Op-Ed section.

12 comments

  • I find this criticism of Ocasio-Cortez mystifying and an example of the “circular firing squad” for which the left is often derided. Ocasio-Cortez is one of the most progressive members of the US Congress and she has an unprecedented platform for a first-term representative. Are we to condemn her because, after considering the idea of a basic income and encouraging its broader exploration she is no longer pushing it at the forefront of her platform? Would we be more supportive of her progressive platform if she had never brought up basic income in the first place?

    I too believe that a basic income will accomplish more of the progressive goals Ocasio-Cortez has articulated than a guaranteed jobs program. Headlines like this one, however, are unlikely to convince her that she can continue to explore the idea of a basic income without being attacked if, either for principled or political reasons–she is a politician, after all–she determines that other progressive measures are more effective or more likely to be enacted.

    Let’s keep the dialogue open with those who agree with our goals but see a different path. I don’t speak here on USBIG’s behalf, but as a longtime member and conference participant I know that we have always welcomed opportunities to debate the relative merits of the jobs guarantee and basic income with those committed to the goal of economic security for all, and I hope we, and BIEN, continue to do so.

    • DH Fabian

      Much of the anger is over the false portrayals of AOC as a democratic socialist, etc., which AOC chose not to correct. Yes the idea of a “jobs guarantee” is fine, but what should we do with the jobless until those jobs come along? In the real world, not everyone can work, and viable jobs aren’t available for all. Under the best of circumstances (which the US certainly doesn’t have), it would take years and a massive investment to create all the jobs that are needed. I want some candidates to say what we should do with all those who are left jobless, with $0 incomes today.

    • André Coelho

      Hi Almaz,

      The article is not BIEN’s opinion, in any way. It is only mine, and mine alone. The article was not written as a way to convince AOC of anything (I even doubt she will even read this article, since BI News is not, by any standard, a large news outlet). She, of course, is free to think and endorse whatever policy she sees fit; I only elaborated some thoughts around what could have caused her latest pull-back from recent basic income voicing.

      Everything’s open, in these times of great transformations and opportunities.

      Best regards,

      André Coelho

  • DH Fabian

    AOC is a standard Democrat who continues to be marketed as a democratic socialist. Democratic socialism is a system that ensures modest incomes even for those who can’t work, and those for whom no viable jobs are available. AOC does not support this. She defined herself as representing, very specifically, “working people of color.” All of these things are solid indications of her position on the idea of a basic income guarantee.

  • Andre, I understand you are presenting your own opinion, I accept your concerns, and I support your right to express them. But you are presenting your opinion on the BIEN website, and it was highlighted in the email blast sent out by USBIG with a headline that suggests an uncompromising position on behalf of US BI advocates. This is my concern–that comments like this make us look like we’re not interested in dialogue or coalition-building with others on the left who believe in a different path to the same goal of economic security for all. We need Democratic Socialists and “standard Democrats” to join with us to achieve a basic income, so let’s continue to pose questions like the one DH asks, about how jobs will help those who can’t work, to bring them along with us, rather than berating them for “mentioning” BI and then not “mentioning” it.

  • I don’t see how a job guarantee is an alternative to a UBI or why there are considered linked.

    UBI gives people the freedom to find their own ways to contribute. A job guarantee forces people to do meaningless busy work decided by bureaucrats.

    Someone working a guaranteed job will not have time to work a real job and will probably be penalized for doing so. UBI in contrast doesn’t discourage working.

    UBI can reduce the need for other social support mechanisms, like welfare or minimum wage. A job guarantee doesn’t do that; you need to support people who can’t or won’t work just like we do now.

  • Devin, let me be clear–I agree *completely* about the superiority of BI to a jobs guarantee. What I am disagreeing with here is the wisdom of BI advocates criticizing one of the most progressive politicians in the US Congress–someone who has expressed interest in exploring BI but chose not to include it in the first piece of legislation she proposed as a junior member of the House of Representatives–on the BIEN website, for not agreeing with everything we at BIEN believe in despite the fact that she clearly shares our larger goals of economic security for all. I don’t think that’s the way to win potential allies–especially someone like Ocasio-Cortez who has become a lightning rod for criticism–to the BI cause.

    Webmaster: Can we block John Pozzi from spamming the comments?

  • SJosh

    This article is 1000% on the money and correct. The concept of a federal jobs guarantee is moronic vs basic income and I’m glad people are like Andrew Yang are calling out it’s issues and the fact its not been tested as well

    The Green New deal was not well received or thought out correctly. You need to reform the banking system for it to work and that the status quo Democrats and Repubs want to keep it in place as its a source of their wealth. The justice democrats along with Sanders are focused on a job guarantee which has no basis in reality as outlined by others in this comment section. “The unwilling to work” is a childish amateur, likely deliberative mistake and as AC mention in article sealed BI out of the final bill.

    They were better off focusing on Basic Income with changes in working conditions. Acting like AOC is going solve all these problems is foolhardy and other countries are latching on to GND and FJG and dismissing basic Income because she has the media coverage but Andrew Yang is far more competent on that subject and many others. Luckily, he is around to keep the issue alive and put to rest this flawed notion of a FJG.

  • The article didn’t seem hostile to AOC at all, and by the end of the article, it expresses understanding, empathy for her position, and hope for the future. The article importantly points out the immense pressure people are under when they take position on something that is, for most people, totally new and totally misrepresented. This is why I think many traditional progressive organizations are reluctant to come out openly in favour of a UBI. It would mean a massive undertaking to educate their members. They would face huge criticism from conservatives and would also get lambasted by many progressives at the same time. Not a comfortable position to be in. Andrew Yang is making it his main platform. He choose to take on the issue of a universal income for all and has become familiar with all the arguments and how to respond to them. AOC probably does not want to alienate many of her traditional left supporters because it would mean having to respond to intense criticisms from all sides. At a MSNBC townhall, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RrsQVEk__Hc and during part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoFaQ9foV8I ) she stated something like ‘dignified unionized jobs’ as a goal. The conservative on the panel (near the end of part 2 min.41) tried to badger her about basic income but she wasn’t able to answer due audience interruptions. That said, she is a stellar speaker about the Green New Deal (it’s about “shifting our political, economic and social paradigms on every issue. We don’t have time to wait… this is urgent”). Like all other politicians, (with rare exceptions like Andrew Yang) the democrats in the U.S. will move on an issue when they feel the public is on board with something. She even states this in part 2, when she accurately describes how when the electorate demands something, they create the political will for politicians to pass things like the Green New Deal. This is where the UBI activists come in. To shift that paradigm when it comes to talking about jobs, work, and income (being a silent supporter of UBI doesn’t help shift anything). Unfortunately, many progressives are still stuck on the idea of ‘good jobs’ being the only solution to everything. The mythological job, or “jobism”, is the biggest obstacle to a guaranteed livable income for all aka UBI. But things are changing. When I first got on twitter 10 years ago to promote the idea of universal income, any mention of basic income was extremely rare. I would search every week and maybe find 5 people who had tweeted about it. Now it is a huge and growing topic. The paradigm is shifting, even though there are some set backs as described in the article above.

  • Thank you Andre Coelho for a balanced and thoughtful article, which helps me to understand why AOC suddenly stopped mentioning the UBI. But I wish I understood how she made such a crass mistake using that one unnecessary and misleading expression ‘unwilling to work’. Trying to make sense of such a gaffe, I think she must still be hindered by approaching this as a socialist ‘everybody ought to work, therefore a job will be found’. It will be quite difficult to get back to where she could have been.
    http://www.clivelord.wordpress.com

  • Dan

    Great article. Very astute calculations of the balancing act and the pro’s-and-con:s and real politics involved in such a monumental economic/political matter.

  • Andrew

    I think she is simply prioritizing the Green aspect for the UBI aspect. She’ll come back around to it, when she can.

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