Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez On 60 Minutes: “Push Our Technological Capacities To The Furthest Extent Possible”

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Zero carbon emissions. No use of fossil fuels. All within 12 years. It was politics and climate change action that Anderson Cooper used to frame his interview with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) on a January 6, 2019 segment of 60 Minutes. “That is the goal,” she responded. “It is ambitious.”

She’s been called “irrepressible” (Maureen Dowd), “young, articulate, telegenic” (Paul Krugman), “impressive” (Irina Aleksander), having “political brilliance” (Lawrence Lessig), and “the thing… a bright shiny new object” (Claire McCaskill). Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been denigrated as “America’s favorite commie” (anonymously) and the “dream of half the country and a nightmare of another half!” (Noah Trevor). She’s been critiqued — as it seems are all US female politicians — for her wardrobe and her decorum— but negative reactions seem only to fire her up.

Ocasio-Cortez describes herself as a Puerto Rican “girl from the Bronx.” A Boston University graduate with a major in economics and international relations, Ocasio-Cortez worked for Senator Ted Kennedy’s office, where she focused on immigration issues.

An active member of the Democratic Socialists of America, an organizer for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in 2016, and a progressive, Ocasio-Cortez won her Congressional seat by pledging to abolish ICE, pursue criminal justice reform, promote tuition-free college, and enact universal healthcare. She carried out a smart and organized grassroots campaign, along with a powerful viral video ad that confronted her opposition head-on: “Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office.”

Her political savvy is only surpassed by ability to relate to her constituents. Have you seen her make mac & cheese live on Instagram, or her “Pep Talk,” in which she acknowledges the reality of a working class candidacy?

During the 60 Minutes interview, Cooper suggested to Ocasio-Cortez that she and her agenda are “radical.” Media reduction in such language reflects a contemporary failure to transcend the social and attitudinal changes necessary for climate action to become an everyday reality.

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The commercial that aired during the afternoon NFL AFC Wild Card game previewed “the bartender turned Congresswoman.” Really? Why did CBS choose such condescending language? As a social phenomenon, language is closely related to social attitudes. The CBS encapsulation of Ocasio-Cortez as working class requires reading between the lines. Ocasio-Cortez, already a college graduate, helped her family financially by working in restaurants after her father died in 2008. Stereotyped images of women and underrepresented groups like this are based on oversimplified generalizations of what these groups should be and the status they should obtain in society.

Know your place, in other words. The preview commercial’s embedded message about working class individuals being lesser than the typical ‘born with a silver spoon in their mouths’ politicians was evident throughout the Ocasio-Cortez interview.

60 Minutes as a Filter for the Political Status Quo

In a well-publicized segment released ahead of the 60 Minutes airing, Ocasio-Cortez discussed a few economic elements of the Green New Deal, which has seen increasing approval from members of Congress. In 2019, a group known as the Sunrise Movement will build consensus for a plan that looks to transform the economy and society at the scale needed to stop the climate crisis. 45 Congresspeople support Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ proposal for a Select Committee for a #GreenNewDeal. The Select Committee could have authority to develop a detailed national, industrial, economic mobilization plan, called the “Plan for a Green New Deal,” It seeks to embark on the transition of the US economy to become greenhouse gas emissions neutral, to significantly draw down greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and oceans, and to promote economic and environmental justice and equality.

Let’s zoom into one segment from the interview to examine the issues that were aired and some of the ways that Cooper described Ocasio-Cortez in the first few days after she was sworn into Congress in Washington, DC.

Cooper in voiceover: “She paid a visit to climate change activists who were occupying her party leader Nancy Pelosi’s office. She was the only newly elected member of Congress who decided to drop by during the sit-in, and she called on Pelosi to create a select committee on climate change without any members of Congress who accept money from the fossil fuel industry.”

The “climate change activists” were making visible the importance of the Green New Deal to soon-to-be House majority leader Pelosi and others in the Democratic party. Cooper positions Ocasio-Cortez in this segment as a bit of a revolutionary, stepping up to “create a select committee on climate change.” He notes that members of such a committee must not be indebted to “the fossil fuel industry,” letting us know that many members of Congress continue to be pawns for the fossil fuel industry, but Ocasio-Cortez has not accepted those campaign donations.

Cooper in voiceover: “Ocasio-Cortez and her allies managed to get more than 40 members of Congress to support the climate committee. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi agreed to create it, but it’s not nearly what Ocasio-Cortez had in mind. Pelosi granted the committee limited powers and did not ban members who take money from the fossil fuel industry.”

Here, Cooper puts Pelosi as veteran in juxtaposition to Ocasio-Cortez, the political neophyte. The latter achieves some success, in that the select committee to promote a Green New Deal will convene, but it will not have the reach or power that Ocasio-Cortez envisioned. Pelosi and the old guard Democratic party will retain jurisdiction on how politicians get to office and how climate change legislation is enacted in the House.

The Green New Deal: A “Highly Ambitious” and “Unrealistic” Proposal?

The Green New Deal is a proposal to move the US to 100% of national power demand through renewable sources and a smart grid, promote energy efficient buildings, eliminate industrial greenhouse gas emissions, and other elements. In the interview, Ocasio-Cortez was discussing how Pelosi had a activist background herself and “would absolutely understand how advocacy can change the needle on really important issues.”

“How is that possible?” Cooper interrupted. “Are you talking about everybody having to drive an electric car?”

“It’s going to require a lot of rapid change that we don’t even conceive as possible right now,” Ocasio-Cortez responded. “What is the problem with trying to push our technological capacities to the furthest extent possible?” The Green New Deal proposal includes the goal to make green technology, industry, expertise, products, and services a major export of the US.

He scowled. “But this would require that — raising taxes?”

“There’s an element where, yeah, people are going to have to start to pay their fair share in taxes,” she agreed.

“Do you have a specific on the tax rate?” he pushed.

Ocasio-Cortez pointed out that, in a progressive tax rate system, not all income for a high earner is taxed at the same high rate but, instead, rise with each additional level of income. “You know, you look at our tax rates back in the ’60s. And when you have a progressive tax rate system,” she flexed her palm in an upward motion, “you know, your tax rate from, say, $0 to $75,000. Your tax rate may be 10% or 15%. Etc. But once you get to the tippy-tops,” she looks Cooper in the eyes and smiles, “on your 10th million dollar, sometimes you see tax rates as high as 60 or 70%. That doesn’t mean all $10 million are taxed at an extremely high rate. But it means as you climb up this ladder, you should be contributing,” she paused, “more.”

“What you are talking about in this big picture is a radical agenda compared to the way that politics is done right now,” Cooper noted.

“Well,” she inhaled as the camera zoomed in on her face, “I think that it only has only ever been ‘radicals’ that have changed this country. Abraham Lincoln made the radical decision to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Franklin Delano Roosevelt made the radical decision to embark on establishing programs like the Social Security.” The camera moves back to capture her full torso.

“Do you call yourself a ‘radical’?” he asked, revisiting the adjective that he used to frame her positioning in his previous question.

“Yeah, you know, if that’s what radical means, call me a ‘radical’.”

The Green New Deal

Paul Krugman, New York Times opinion columnist and winner of the 2008 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his work on international trade and economic geography, asks and answers, “What does Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez know about tax policy? A lot.” He affirms Ocasio-Cortez’ contention that a dramatic increase in taxes for the uber wealthy could support the Green New Deal.

“You see, Republicans almost universally advocate low taxes on the wealthy, based on the claim that tax cuts at the top will have huge beneficial effects on the economy. This claim rests on research by … well, nobody. There isn’t any body of serious work supporting GOP tax ideas, because the evidence is overwhelmingly against those ideas.”

He also acknowledges that the the constant effort to portray Ocasio-Cortez as flaky and ignorant belies her knowledge of tax issues. “She’s just saying what good economists say; and she definitely knows more economics than almost everyone in the GOP caucus.”

The tax changes to which Ocasio-Cortez is referring, Krugman says, “makes the rich a bit poorer” and “will affect only a handful of people, and will barely affect their life satisfaction, since they will still be able to buy whatever they want.”

Final Thoughts

The Plan for a Green New Deal (and the draft legislation) recognizes that a national, industrial, economic mobilization of this scope and scale is a historic opportunity to virtually eliminate poverty in the US and to make prosperity, wealth, and economic security available to everyone participating in the transformation. Such a shift in the way that the US conducts its energy business is shocking to the fossil fuel industry. In the past few years, divestments from fossil fuels to reduce carbon in play have created an existential crisis for the fossil fuel industry.

The “green paradox” hypothesizes that near-term CO2 emissions will rise above the ‘well below’ 2 °C baseline of the Paris agreement on climate, as fossil fuel owners frontload supply from their endowments. They’ll do so to evade the negative consequences of future fossil fuel price drops due to planned climate policies. But are they ready to dump their assets quite yet?

It seems not. The morning after the Cooper/Ocasio-Cortez 60 Minutes interview, Fox News was arguing that the Green New Deal has a hidden “radical” agenda that Ocasio-Cortez “doesn’t want you to know.” (Note that Fox News reproduced the same descriptor of “radical” that Cooper used to position Ocasio-Cortez as an outsider).

Fox, as mouthpiece for the fossil fuel industry, claimed that Ocasio-Cortez’ “socialist vision for America” (in the interview, she says her policies “most closely resemble what we see in the UK, in Norway, in Finland, in Sweden”) would:

  • force families to pay more to heat, cool and provide electricity to their homes
  • raise the same costs for businesses, farmers, government and organizations
  • drive up their operating costs
  • raise the prices for just about all the good and services Americans buy
  • require Americans to power their homes with renewable energy, such as wind and solar power
  • make every home and business in the US “upgraded” for “state-of-the-art energy efficiency, comfort and safety”
  • add a slew of massive government social programs and mandates

I gotta tell ya: as I look through that Fox List of Fears, it seems that the technological times in which we live are ripe for just such social changes. If we don’t enact a Green New Deal in the US, we’ll be in real trouble. As Bill McKibben has said, climate change is “different from every other problem our political systems have faced.” It’s time to call out the fossil fuel industry for exactly who they are: corporations who have “used the review process of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to stress “uncertainty,” which became Big Oil’s byword.”

The Green New Deal makes it clear that, given the magnitude of the current challenge, the tools of regulation and taxation, used in isolation, will not be enough to quickly and smoothly accomplish the transformation that we need to see. We need more politicians to step up to the crisis of climate change, as has Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Life as we know it on earth depends on it.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

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