On AOC and Social Answers to Complex Problems

In the wake of shocking defeats in 2016, the Democratic Party rebounded in 2018 with a host of fresh faces and inspiring rhetoric to win a majority in the House. Even political contenders who lost their elections — including but not limited to Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum, and Beto O’Rourke — made powerful statements on the nature of our current political discourse, and they are likely to go on to prominent political careers in the future. But even as Democratic voters celebrate their success, we have to consider whether the new champions of the progressive movement are capable of enacting the change for which they’ve pledged to fight or if they might be a threat to that very cause.

While 2018 was surely a promising year for liberals, the problems facing our government have grown increasingly nuanced and complex. From foreign concerns such as Russian influence and ramping tensions with North Korea, to economic ones including the minimum wage and the surprisingly complicated (who knew!) healthcare system, to the science behind rising temperatures and the acidification of our oceans, there’s no questioning that both Congress and the President have a lot on their plates. But in the face of all these issues, we’ve largely received the same socially-driven non-answers.

Social problems, while definitely controversial, generally can be much more simply characterized and their solutions more vaguely offered than, say, those for balancing the federal budget or revitalizing American industry. Racism exists, and it’s a bad thing. There aren’t enough women in Congress, so let’s elect more. College is expensive, so let’s make it free.

The problem with these arguments isn’t that they’re incorrect or unimportant, but rather that they distract from the more pragmatic and immediate obstacles we face in achieving real progress through  meaningful legislation. In a time of political impasse, particularly without a supportive figure in the Oval Office, it’s highly unlikely that any dramatic, radical social reforms will make it through Congress, and even less likely that they will be signed into law. Realistically, issues like race and inequality do not lend themselves to the incremental progressions through which Congress tends to function. Arguing about the social aspects of complex problems is often the easiest, most superficial part of a problem-solving discussion, but consistently the most attention-getting. And nobody does this better than Democratic rising star Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose entire campaign strategy was centered on social talking points rather than substance.

AOC is one of the most prominent members of the Democratic Socialist movement, which leans into the most progressive parts of the Democratic party and repurposes what had been considered an anti-American sentiment up until recently. The Democratic Socialist platform advocates for unionization, heavy taxes on the rich, tuition-free higher education, universal healthcare, and comprehensive social welfare programs. AOC has also supported massive overhauls of our infrastructure, as well as guaranteed housing. And while this all might seem like music to leftist ears, her plans to reach this socialized paradise are tenuous at best. AOC’s budgetary concerns are generally relegated to cutting military spending, and her numbers are highly suspect.

When appearing on “The Daily Show” last July, AOC made the following statement regarding the defense budget:

“Just last year we gave the military a $700 billion budget increase, which they didn’t even ask for.”

The entire budget of the U.S. military was $612 billion last year, and $606 billion the year before. Even if a viewer agreed about her arguments on military budget cuts, such a blatantly false statistic erodes the entire foundation of her case. And in supporting Medicare for All on Twitter, AOC again drew upon the military budget to make a point:

“$21 TRILLION of Pentagon financial transactions ‘could not be traced, documented, or explained.’ $21T in Pentagon accounting errors. Medicare for All costs ~$32T. That means 66% of Medicare for All could have been funded already by the Pentagon. And that’s before our premiums.”

Considering the U.S. military budget has totaled under $20 trillion cumulatively since 1940, it’s unlikely that an extra $21 trillion got away somewhere. And indeed, numerous news agencies and fact checkers have pointed out the misleading nature of AOC’s assertion; the article she cites is in reference to errors in documenting transactions, not some huge stockpile of missing cash. The author of that very article clarified, “[AOC] is wrong… It would be wrong to suggest that that is real money that could have been used to fund something else more useful to society.”

Politifact rated both of AOC’s above statements as false. In my research, I have not seen AOC make any form of retraction, or even delete the Pentagon funding tweet. In an offhanded reference, she calls the tweet as “confusing.”

On “60 Minutes,” AOC was asked about her tweet, and this was her response: “If people want to really blow up one figure here or one word there, I would argue that they’re missing the forest for the trees. I think that there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.”

The claim here appears to be that when you have the moral high ground, facts are not as important as the moral implication. The economic concerns are irrelevant in the face of social ones. But when an argument is based on finding a budget for Medicare, budget statistics can hardly be put down as “semantics” or pointless nitpicking. More significantly, it’s dangerous to claim that being correct is less of a concern when you’re morally in the right, and demonstrative of the entire dilemma plaguing AOC’s rhetoric. Few politicians operate with the understanding that they are morally wrong. Congress is not made up of evil mustache-twirling villains secretly plotting to impoverish minorities or drive single mothers out of their homes. To make a compelling moral argument, to actually change minds and achieve her goals, she’s going to need far more than questionable numbers and a sense of righteousness on her side.

Of course, it’s hardly unusual for a member of Congress to casually misrepresent a statistic or issue a flat-out lie every once in a while. But AOC’s behavior is naturally highly noticeable. Her ambitious agenda requires far more clarification than the classic voting issues many politicians so regularly repurpose as their own. And given her large media presence, from late night talk show appearances to Twitter feuds publicized to her vast following, AOC isn’t just any member of Congress. She’s come to represent a new generation of activists, a beacon of hope for the future of the progressive movement, and she has to be held to a higher standard as a result, as pioneers often are.

One of AOC’s trademark talking points is the Green New Deal, a plan she promises to push through to fight the growing dangers of climate change. In a statement to the press, AOC said, “There is no justice, and there is no combating climate change, without addressing what has happened to indigenous communities. That means that there is no fixing our economy without addressing the racial wealth gap. That means that we are not going to transition to renewable energies, without also transitioning front line communities, and coal communities, into economic opportunity as well. That is what [the Green New Deal] is about. It is comprehensive. It is thoughtful. It is compassionate, and it is extremely economically strategic as well.”

Linking issues so closely, claiming that one can’t be fixed without the other, is often counter-constructive in so polarized a political climate. The role of indigenous communities in the U.S. is a conversation that is long overdue, but linking it to climate change will only serve to inhibit either from progressing. There are only two real cases in which such an association is advantageous: when one issue directly derives from the solution to the other, or when one issue is compelling enough that it is likely to pass even with a rider attached. It’s worth noting that a direct association like transitioning front-line and coal communities is in fact a relevant connection, since those communities’ economic viability will be directly put in jeopardy if fossil fuels are phased out. In almost all other instances, combining legislative goals either reduces any possible middle ground — with controversial problems like climate change and minority rights, those who may have voted in favor of one issue may be reluctant to lend their allegiance to both — or allows the opposition to distort the narrative, condemning the resulting package as “radical and unfeasible.”

If the passage of effective legislation is the goal, the Green New Deal would be far more effective as a straightforward referendum on our commitment to repairing the environment. Instead, it covers in 14 pages everything from systemic inequality to access to higher education, and it ends up a symbolic resolution with so little chance of making it through the Senate that Mitch McConnell is actually trying to push it to a vote sooner. The benefit of such a sweeping, multifaceted proposal? AOC gets to claim the moral high ground on the otherwise somewhat ambiguous problem of climate change, which is much more a question of evidence and implementation than it is of right and wrong. Instead of talking about the means by which we transition to renewable energy, she turns the issue into a social one and offers the social answer. As for economic strategy: any clever tactics on that front are yet to be revealed.

Social stances are the ones that win votes. They’re the ones that draw newspaper headlines and applause breaks, and chances are slim that we ever see politicians campaigning on the granular details of their economic policies. But we need to recognize what our politicians can deliver and what is simply wishful thinking. We need to know what it is we’re really voting for and recognize when we’re just being sold a pipe dream. And when we’re offered social rhetoric in the face of real problems requiring smart solutions, we need to be informed and prepared to hold our representatives accountable.

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