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