At a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day event at Riverside Church in Harlem, New York Monday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez urged her audience to recognize the Democratic Party is closer to “a center-conservative party” than a progressive one—something that must change if the civil rights icon’s legacy is truly to be honored.
Speaking to author Ta-Nehisi Coates at the annual MLK Now event, Ocasio-Cortez took issue with Coates calling the Democrats the United States’ “left party.”
“We don’t have a ‘left party’ in the United States,” the first-term New York Democrat, who is a democratic socialist, said, to applause. “We can’t even get a floor vote on Medicare for All. Not even a floor vote that gets voted down, we can’t even get a vote on it. So this is not a left party.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks came just two weeks after she said in an interview with New York magazine that “In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party.”
The congresswoman was referring to many democratic countries where voters can support any one of a multitude of major parties, choosing whichever aligns with their values instead of picking between only a conservative party and one that is more liberal on social issues but still largely pro-business and backed by corporate interests.
“If we want to honor [Martin Luther King, Jr.], we have to be dangerous too.”
—Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)
At Riverside Church on Monday, Ocasio-Cortez added, “There are left members inside the Democratic Party that are working to try to make that shift happen”—including other progressive first-term Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and veterans of Congress like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who the three progressives have endorsed in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.
Coates also asked Ocasio-Cortez about an issue she has fought against since launching her long-shot congressional campaign in 2017—massive economic inequality and the current political system’s support of corporations and a tiny minority of Americans who hold more wealth than 90% of the country.
Coates offered a hypothetical scenario in which he was a billionaire who had amassed his wealth creating and selling “widgets.”
“I made billions of dollars selling those widgets, making those widgets, therefore those billions of dollars are mine,” Coates said. “Why am I the enemy?”
“Well, you didn’t make those widgets did you? Because you employed thousands of people and paid them less than a living wage to make those widgets for you,” replied Ocasio-Cortez, again drawing loud applause.
“You made that money off the backs of undocumented people,” she continued, “You made that money off the backs of black and brown people being paid under a living wage. You made that money off the backs of single mothers. And all these people who are literally dying because they can’t afford to live. And so no one ever makes a billion dollars. You take a billion dollars.”
Ocasio-Cortez added that with its adherence to centrism over progressivism, the Democratic Party is run by “true believers” in the notion that “we can capitalism our way out of poverty” by rejecting bold, far-reaching initiatives like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal in favor of incremental changes to the healthcare and economic systems.
“And that’s an area where I agree with Dr. King, that that assessment is flawed,” Ocasio-Cortez said, tying the discussion back to the man being honored by the MLK Now event.
“We can’t sit around and use the high school history version of Dr. King,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “King’s life did not end because he said ‘I have a dream.’ It ended because he was dangerous to the core injustices of this nation…If we want to honor him, we have to be dangerous too.”