On Monday, author Ta-Nehisi Coates interviewed Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on stage at MLK Now, at an event hosted by the organization Blackout for Human Rights. Coates and Ocasio-Cortez addressed far-ranging topics, from Ocasio-Cortez’s childhood and political awakening, to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy as a fighter for economic justice and against American imperialism.
The entire conversation is fascinating and extremely worth watching. But one of the highlights came when Coates asked Ocasio-Cortez to talk about her proposal for a 70% marginal tax rate on people who earn over $10 million a year. Her response spoke volumes about what separates her from almost every other politician today.
“The question of marginal tax rates is a policy question but it’s also a moral question,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “What kind of society do we want to live in? Are we comfortable with a society where someone can have a personal helipad while this city is experiencing the highest levels of poverty and homelessness since the Great Depression?”
Cutting right to the point, Coates asked if it’s possible to live in a moral society that includes billionaires.
“No, it’s not,” she responded. “I’m not saying that Bill Gates or Warren Buffet are immoral, but a system that allows billionaires to exist when there are parts of Alabama where people are still getting ringworm because they don’t have access to public health is wrong.”
She went on to list other moral travesties that can be traced to economic inequality.
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“I think it’s wrong that the majority of the country doesn’t make a living wage, I think it’s wrong that you can work 100 hours and not feed your kids. I think it’s wrong that corporations like Walmart and Amazon can get paid by the government, experiencing a wealth transfer from the public, for paying people less than a minimum wage.”
“It not only doesn’t make economic sense, it doesn’t make moral sense,” she added.
This kind of rhetoric that plainly lays out the struggle of regular Americans in an age of massive wealth inequality is so foreign to most political discourse today that hearing it feels like a revelation. We are so used to politicians dodging and weaving, carefully avoiding offending their donors, while spitting out platitudes like “freedom” and “hope.” Ocasio-Cortez, instead, is pointing to exactly where the problem lies: with the wealthy, and the politicians who cater to them.
Instead of talking about inequality as an abstract issue to be solved by tax cuts or stimulus packages, AOC frames it in terms that everyone can understand. The status quo is wrong, and it can not stand
Later, she took a sensible, middle of the road approach when it comes to the split on the left between identity politics and socialist economic policies, positing that we can make massive changes to structures that will help everyone while not erasing individual stories and struggles.
When Coates asked her whether she worries that she is getting in too deep on social media, she was defiant and clear.
“Right now, I feel a need for all of us to breathe fire,” Ocasio-Cortez said.