Making America Think Again: Jiyon Chatterjee (8) interviews Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Jiyon Chatterjee

JC: Alexandria, how did you get involved in politics from a young age? Who influenced you as a student to take the political position that you now take and why?

AO-C: I worked for the late Senator Ted Kennedy years ago in his immigration office. I found it all to be incredibly fulfilling and satisfying work, but I never really saw myself running on my own. I counted out that possibility because I felt like the only way to effectively run for office is if you had access to a lot of wealth, high social influence, a lot of high dynastic power, and I knew that I didn’t have any of those things. The tipping point was when I was at Standing Rock in 2016, and I saw how all of the people there — particularly the Native people and the Lakota Sioux — were putting their whole lives and everything that they had on the line for the protection of their community. I saw how a corporation had literally militarized itself against the American people, and I just felt like we were at a point where we couldn’t afford to ignore politics anymore. We couldn’t afford to write off our collective power out of cynicism.

JC: Tell us the story of how you decided to stand in the Democratic primary against a big politician.

AO-C: I thought it was time that residents of the Bronx and Queens had a representative that was like them — that lives here, speaks their language, and has lived their working-class experience.

JC: What was the unique message of your campaign that you think won over voters in the Democratic primary?

AO-C: I think it’s the opposite of perceived political wisdom. The establishment thinks that running to the center, moderating our policies, being as close to a Saltine cracker as possible is what is going to make us win elections. And I don’t think that that’s the case.

I think what animates non-voters is feeling like someone is really fighting for them. I think there are a lot of folks that have felt as though the Democratic party hasn’t been fighting hard enough for them, in terms of being really clear about articulating our priorities, drawing a line in the sand, not just saying, We care about education, healthcare and housing, but, We believe in single payer healthcare. Just having a plan, an idea, instead of just reform. And so I think that in order to turn out non-voters we need to be really explicit in how we are fighting for them, and present a clear vision for better policy.

JC: Do you think your win was fueled by changing opinions amongst your constituents, or do you think you won because of a different demographic that came out to vote in the primary election?

AO-C: We expanded the electorate 68% over the last off-year midterm primary in order for us to win. And the under-40 electorate actually matched the over-60 electorate in our race, which is unheard of. But it’s because we talked about student loans, we talked about climate change, we talked about the things that our generation is going to have to deal with.

JC: As a young candidate backed only by small donors who won against a corporate-backed and established Democratic congressman, you proved that being an experienced politician with ties to big money lobbyists doesn’t guarantee power. What do you think political power means in this day and age?

AO-C: You create power by speaking to people where they’re at, about issues that affect their lives. I worked two jobs and struggled to help my family pay bills, so I know how much things like improved Medicare for All would mean to people’s lives. And fighting for working class people with progressive ideas is the key to political power right now.

JC: Do you believe that labels like “socialist” and “progressive” mattered in this election? Do you think that political labeling makes a difference in any election?

AO-C: I think that we draw a lot of artificial lines in the sand. Plenty of socialists would say I’m not a socialist. I don’t even think that that’s really what’s up for debate right now, and I just think that we make a lot of these conversations about -isms, but at the end of the day, a lot of these -isms are ultimately academic definitions. The world is so much bigger and messier than that. I’m happy to call myself a Democrat, but I also want to be more than that. I want to communicate very clearly that I believe in the United States, we should aspire to establish institutions that provide a minimum of guarantee, a minimum level of human dignity in the United States. And that means seeing housing and healthcare as human rights, not something to be “affordable”.

JC: How has your personal experience in your life influenced your policy and political positions?

AO-C: I support the growing movement to create postal banking, which is shaped by my own neighborhood, to give you an example. I live across the street from a check cashing place. I walk five minutes to my subway stop: there’s a payday lender, there’s a pawn shop. So my neighborhood, and countless others like mine would be enormously impacted by the idea of banking through the post office to protect people from predatory lending.  Postal banking would be hugely important to working class communities like mine around the country.

JC: Do you think that applying ideology is necessary when solving political issues, or do you think that one must objectively look at political issues on a case-by case basis?

AO-C: We need to start reframing our issues, instead of left and right, to top and down. And it’s not about whether my message resonates with Republicans. There are people who really want to feel like there’s an unapologetic working-class champion for them. So this is about fighting from the bottom up, and challenging entrenched power throughout our system.

JC: What do you think is the most important national issue that politicians must tackle?

AO-C: Medicare for All is supported by a majority of voters including more than 50% of Republicans and nearly 80% of Democrats. We are quickly approaching a time when improved and expanded Medicare for All can become a reality.

JC: Do you think it is important that the US is seen as a superpower in the world or not?

AO-C: I think it’s important that the US start to see the effects that our geopolitical dominance can have on countries throughout the world and start to hold ourselves accountable for the collateral damage. We need to end the funding and logistical support for the Saudi decimation of the people of Yemen, for example. Instead of spending more and more blood and money in overseas wars, we need to start focusing on the folks in our country, like the people of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico needs a Marshall Plan, debt forgiveness and a fully sustainable recovery, and that should take priority over war games abroad.

JC: What is your message to young students about how they can make a difference in politics at their age?

AO-C: My campaign has been filled with folks in middle school, high school and college who have seen the effect they can have on the political system. They knocked on doors, phone-banked and helped spread the word on social media. Once you organize people around progressive issues, you can’t un-organize those people. Our political system gets stronger with every young person who gets involved, and my campaign has showed the immediate effects that can have.