Last year, after Joseph R. Biden Jr. won the Democratic presidential nomination, a group of progressive lawmakers rallied around him to project party unity at a critical time.
More than a year later, as the president seeks to pass a robust spending package of social policies that represent the bulk of his domestic agenda, many of the same leaders are looking for a return on their political investment.
In an interview with The New York Times, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, one of the country’s most prominent progressives, questioned whether Democratic leaders and the White House understood the scope of the demands coming from the party’s base.
The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Why do you feel this social policy bill has to pass as soon as possible, at the biggest scale possible?
I think the stakes are really, really high.
The entire reason that the Progressive Caucus gave their votes [for the infrastructure bill] was based on direct promises from the president, as well as direct promises from more conservative Democratic holdouts. And from House leadership as well. So if those promises don’t follow through, it’s going to be very, very difficult for them to get votes on anything moving forward, because the trust that was already so delicate will have been broken.
Do you think these extended negotiations and the stuff that was cut will have an electoral effect? Obviously the Senate will have its say, but if the spending bill largely looks like what the House passed this week, will Democrats say it fulfills the promise of Election Day?
I think that if we pass the Build Back Better Act as the House passed it, that we have a shot to go back to our communities and say we delivered. But that’s not to say that this process has not been demoralizing for a lot of folks, because there were enormous promises made. Not just at the beginning, and not just during the election, but that continued to be made.
And this is where I have sounded the alarm, because what really dampens turnout is when Democrats make promises that they don’t keep.
With the bipartisan infrastructure plan, there’s all of these headlines going around. And I understand the political importance of making a victory lap. But I think that the worst and most vulnerable position we could be in is to over-promise and under-deliver.
So let’s not go around and say, “We’re going to replace every lead pipe in this country,” because according to the bipartisan infrastructure plan, that is not going to happen. That has not been funded. And if the Build Back Better Act gets cut even further, then that’s definitely not going to happen.
You and other progressives backed Biden during the general election. Do you feel that this White House has continued to be open to the left?
And that created trust, because trust requires vulnerability from all parties.
There was some good faith with the American Rescue Plan [Democrats’ $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package, signed in March]. But after that, which was quite early, it’s been a bit of a slog.
I actually don’t direct this critique directly at the White House. I think, in general, the party doesn’t quite fully grasp what is happening in deep-blue communities.
What is it that you say they’re missing?
The talking points are not enough.
Yes, is child care great? Absolutely. Universal pre-K, this is something I’m deeply, deeply supportive of. But we also have too much of a top-down strategy when it comes to our base. We’re always giving them the medicine and telling them what they need to accept, as opposed to really monitoring where the energy is, and being responsive to it. And allowing that to shape our strategy.
And even with the infrastructure plan, this kind of investment is deeply needed in underserved communities like the Bronx. However, if we as a party are asking every single person in this party to take a victory lap, and do a news conference in front of a bridge or pothole, and we aren’t funding and actually fixing that pothole, I’m very concerned about how people are going to interpret that a year from now.
But doesn’t the White House agree — didn’t it propose a more robust package? The obvious response here is that the administration faces the reality of a 50-50 Senate.
There is an enormous amount of executive action that they’re sitting on that I think is underutilized. On student loans. We’ve got executive action on the table with respect to climate. There are certainly things that we can do with immigration.
So why are we taking this as a legislative compromise, when the opportunity is so much greater, or when Biden could do this stuff with a stroke of a pen, and is just reminding us that he’s choosing not to?
We always try to tell people why they need to settle for less, instead of being able to harness the energy of our grass roots and take political risks in service of them, the same way that we take political risks in service of swing voters. We can do both.
The Infrastructure Bill at a Glance
The bill receives final approval. The House passed the $1 trillion bill on Nov. 5 to rebuild the country’s aging public works system. The proposal is a central plank of President Biden’s economic agenda, which he signed into law on Nov. 15. Here’s what’s inside the bill:
Transportation. The proposal would see tens of billions of dollars in new federal spending going to roads, bridges and transportation programs. Amtrak would see its biggest infusion of money since its inception, and funds would be allocated to programs intended to provide safe commutes for pedestrians.
Climate. Funding would be provided to better prepare the country to face global warming. The Forest Service would get billions of dollars to reduce the effects of wildfires. The bill includes $73 billion to modernize the nation’s electricity grid to allow it to carry renewable energy.
Resources for underserved communities. A new $2 billion grant program is expected to expand transportation projects in rural areas. The bill would also increase support for Native American communities, allotting $216 million to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for climate-resilience and adaptation efforts.
Internet access. The bill includes $65 billion meant to connect hard-to-reach rural communities and low-income city dwellers to high-speed internet. Other provisions seek to stoke competition and transparency among service providers.
Is this frustration a growing sentiment in the Democratic congressional caucus? Or is this just you?
Frustration is there, and it’s part of why the Progressive Caucus was holding out on passing both of these two pieces of legislation together, because we’re like, listen, we’re not going to take these empty promises anymore.
We went from the American Rescue Plan to six months of watching us just hand the pen to Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. If you even look at the [infrastructure bill], it was drafted in the Senate, and they didn’t even allow conferencing with the House version. They said you just need to take this legislation as is — no compromises, no edits, nothing.
You’ve got to give me something to work with, with my communities. And if you’re not, how can I make the argument that they should turn out again? And this notion that saying “We’re not Trump” is enough — this is such a deeply demoralizing message.
Democrats have a trifecta and have been unable to pass voting-rights protections. And so people can wring their hands and say “but Manchin” all they want, or “but the filibuster” all they want, but at the end of the day, what people see are the results of their actions and the results of investing their time.
We are up against political nihilism. The idea that nothing we do matters, because as long as I live in the Bronx, the political reality of this country is that no one’s going to fight for me. That is why it’s so important that we take some of these risks for our base.
Your party is trying to project political victory at this moment — and pulling out all the stops to do so. You’re sounding the alarm.
Before the Virginia elections, it was very clear that our help and our participation was not wanted or asked for, which is fine. I’m not here to tell people how to run their races. But at the same time, to consider the members here that have some of the tightest relationships to our political base as just a uniform liability — and not something that can be selectively deployed, or consulted, or anything — I think it’s just sad. I think it was a mistake.
And we saw a big youth turnout collapse. Not a single person asked me to send an email, not even to my own list. And then they turn around and say, “It’s their fault.” When I think it was communicated quite expressly that we were unwelcome to pitch in.
The idea that we just accept a collapse in youth turnout — and essentially turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy — in times when races are decided by such narrow margin points: I think it’s ill advised.