Earlier in the day, during a conversation with presidential hopeful Howard Schultz, NBC News’ Dylan Byers hypothesized that more people would line up to see Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s SXSW event than those who had staked out a spot for Schultz. In keeping with that prediction, AOC enthusiasts were advised that their best bet at seeing the congresswoman speak would be to sit through the 3:30 pm talk that preceded her 5:00 pm sit-down. Once the doors opened, festival-goers flooded the huge ballroom searching for seats, with VIPs like Bill Nye occupying the front row (To Ocasio-Cortez’s apparent delight, Nye asked the last question of the Q&A, about climate change and dealing with craven conservative politicians).
Ahead of the Sunday SXSW screening of the campaign doc Knock Down The House, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez sat down with The Intercept’s Briahna Gray for a conversation spanning identity politics, the inhumanity of ICE, and the perils of incrementalism. Gray began the sit-down by acknowledging the size and fervor of the crowd, and her belief that the line—which reportedly went around the building—“set all kinds of records.”
The wide-ranging discussion returned often to critics that have accused Ocasio-Cortez and her proposed policies, like the Green New Deal, of being “radical” or unfeasible. “The position should not be, let’s not do it because we haven’t figured out all the details yet,” she emphasized, recalling that The New York Times had stated in a recent headline that the Green New Deal is “technologically possible,” but questioned if it was politically possible. “That to me is the biggest condemnation of where we’re at, because there's an actual admission that we can do it. And just the idea that our biggest obstacle is political will should be the most embarrassing thing for us right now,” she bemoaned.
“We do idolize cynicism as an intellectually superior position. We’re like, ‘The child in me that believes we can have healthcare as a human right’—and I don’t think we should belittle our beliefs anymore! We’re capable of so much as a country and we’re capable of so much more than what we’re doing right now.”
To illustrate her points about incrementalism, Ocasio-Cortez referenced her position on ICE—namely that, “I don’t believe that an agency that systematically and repeatedly violates human rights can be reformed.” She talked about a Republican amendment giving more power to ICE that recently “slipped through,” and how she “got a lot of heat [in the party] for being furious about it.”
“The reason that I was so upset is because we have an agency that is separating children from their parents and putting them in cages. And CNN was reporting a year ago, a year ago CNN had reports of ICE agents pinning down children and forcibly injecting them with antipsychotic drugs. And the thing that makes me furious is this idea of like, let’s just cage a few less. Let’s just inject a few less. ‘It’s too politically complicated.’ And for me, what is just so upsetting and heartbreaking about this moment is like, since when did it become the moderate position in America to continue caging children?”
“And so I think all of these things sound radical compared to where we are, but where we are is not a good thing!” She exclaimed. “And this idea of like 10 percent better than garbage…It shouldn’t be what we settle for.”
That wasn’t the only time Ocasio-Cortez referenced censure from her own party. Towards the end of the conversation, she posited that, “There’s a lot of people that don’t want us to have a social democracy, and they’re in the government, and they’re even in the Democratic party.”
“And I’m not allowed to say that, I’m going to get into a lot of trouble when I go back to work,” she continued, to laughter and applause from the audience. “But you know, I think that there are parts of it that are true. You would think that when someone leaves government, they would go and go back into a different form of public service, that they would become a professor or they would organize a community or they would work with unions. But now when politicians leave government, they go and work for lobbyists. And that tells you everything about the coordinated interests that are in cahoots all over, regardless of party.”
When an audience member voiced an internal conflict between backing a presidential candidate who might beat Trump in 2020 versus a politician that they truly believed in, Ocasio-Cortez responded that, “I think the person that we believe in is the person who will win.”
“I think that in this first initial stage we have a responsibility to find and really fight for who we believe in,” she continued. “Because what people—in my opinion, and I think we’ve seen this—what people think will win is wrong.”
“Everyone starts like triangulating what they think will win, away from what they actually believe…Until we have this weird compromise, this weird amalgamation, which is how we’ve gotten a lot of the politicians that we’ve gotten and a lot of the complaints about politicians that we have today: that everyone talks like a robot, that everything is pre-scripted, that they’re super out of touch.”
Ocasio-Cortez didn’t go so far as to say the current system of governance is irredeemable: “If I did, I wouldn’t have run for office.” But she did posit that the ideology of capitalism, when defined as the prioritization of profit above all else, “is not sustainable and cannot be redeemed.”
“What we are reckoning with are the consequences of putting profit above everything else in society,” she continued. “And right now I don’t think our priorities are sustainable, but there’s also in the public imagination a lot of fear-mongering about what democratic socialism means.”
“There’s all this fear-mongering that government is going to take over every corporation and government is going to take over every business or every form of production. We should be scared right now because corporations have taken over our government,” Ocasio-Cortez put forth, to thunderous applause.
“We are approaching infinite resources,” she explained, “And capitalism is based on scarcity. What happens when there is enough for everyone to eat, what happens when there is enough for everyone to be clothed? Then you have to make scarcity artificially. And that is what has happened. We have created artificial scarcity and that is why we are driven to work 80 hours a week…We should be working the least amount you’ve ever worked, if [we] were actually paid based on how much wealth we’re producing. But we’re not, we’re paid on how little we’re desperate enough to accept—and then the rest is skimmed off and given to a billionaire.”
At the close of the extended Q&A, the congresswoman exited to a ballroom-wide standing ovation.