The campaign office of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sits deep in the Bronx, across the street from a Chinese takeaway and 99-cent discount store, near enough to a railway bridge to hear the rumble of passing trains. The front window of the plain redbrick building is dominated by a big, smiling photo of the US congresswoman and notices that say: “We welcome all races, all sexual orientations, all gender identities, all religions, all abilities,” and “We say gay in the Bronx”. Inside, the words “¡AOC! ORGANIZING BASE” are printed in giant purple letters on a wall.
Ocasio-Cortez, who at 29 became the youngest woman and youngest Latina to serve in the House of Representatives, is now 33, twice re-elected and comfortable in her political skin. She could hardly be described as an old hand but nor does she channel the shock of the new. She deploys social media with enviable authenticity; she grills congressional witnesses like a seasoned interrogator; she is an object of perverse fascination for Fox News and rightwing trolls; she has been around Washington long enough to draw charges of “co-option” and “selling out”.
“AOC Is Just a Regular Old Democrat Now,” ran a headline on New York magazine’s Intelligencer website in July. The article’s author, Freddie deBoer, argued that Ocasio-Cortez’s appearance on the Pod Save America podcast to announce her endorsement of Joe Biden for president in the 2024 election was her “last kiss-off to the radicals who had supported her, voted for her, donated to her campaign, and made her unusually famous in American politics”.
The Ocasio-Cortez who sits for an interview with the Guardian is clearly aware of the leftist’s eternal dilemma – purity versus pragmatism – and determined to navigate it with care. She makes clear that Biden cannot take progressives for granted next year but urges Democrats to unite against the bigger threat of “fascism” in America. She condemns the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, but wants the US to be clear about its aims there and acknowledge “the anxieties of our history”.
And after a summer of extreme heat and wild weather, she evidently worries that incrementalism will not be enough to address a climate crisis that is crying out for revolution.
Ocasio-Cortez’s first legislative proposal after arriving on Capitol Hill was a Green New Deal that envisions a 10-year national mobilisation in the spirit of President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1930s New Deal. That went nowhere, but last year Biden did sign the Inflation Reduction Act into law, touting its $369bn investment in clean energy and climate action as the biggest of any nation in history.
However, the president also approved more oil and gas drilling permits in his first two years in office than his predecessor, Donald Trump, according to the Bureau of Land Management.
It is, Ocasio-Cortez acknowledges, a mixed picture. “What is difficult is that the climate crisis does not really care about the political complexities that we very much have to grapple with in our work,” she says, wearing a blue dress with floral shoulder pattern and sitting on a long wooden seat dotted with black and yellow cushions.
“We can celebrate all of these policies that result in reductions but we also can’t erase them with increased oil and gas production. I’m very concerned about where our net math is on that because we can calculate, yes, we had an enormous amount of reductions that are represented in the Inflation Reduction Act, but this is not something that can be measured necessarily in dollars and cents.
“It’s measured in carbon tonnes and in emissions and there’s a lot of funny math that happens in emissions when people talk about clean coal and how fracking somehow reduces our carbon emissions, when we know that it increases methane, which is far more powerful than CO2. While on one hand we can applaud the progress, on the other hand that in no way erases the the setbacks that we’ve had.”
Ocasio-Cortez has joined Congressman Earl Blumenauer and Senator Bernie Sanders in introducing a bill calling on the president to declare a national climate emergency to unleash every resource available. In early August, Biden claimed that he had “practically” declared such an emergency, but in reality he has not.
Even so, the congresswoman says: “I believe he understands the scale of the crisis. I think what we are up against, which perhaps should be discussed more for those of us in the climate movement, is the geopolitics of this.”
She goes on to describe a challenge that is bigger than one man or one nation. “The shift in energy represents a real threat to traditional power globally. As we shift away from non-renewables, we are talking about threatening power among some of the most influential institutions in the United States, in Latin America and globally. That is something that is going to have profound ramifications, all of which I don’t even believe we can fully appreciate yet.
“I think that is what drives an enormous amount of blowback and resistance. When you look at, for example, the influence of the Koch brothers in US democracy, they basically have historically purchased enormous amounts of influence over the United States Senate. They are oil barons. These are fossil fuel companies that have exerted huge amounts of influence both in US democracy and in global interests.”
Ocasio-Cortez also points to the power and influence of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) and Middle Eastern nations such as the United Arab Emirates. “When we talk about the transition to renewable energies, wrapped inside that is a profound challenge to the current global order and that, I believe, is something that we’re going to have to contend with in our time.”
For the left, the war in Ukraine is potentially more complicated. Putin’s invasion is by any measure an affront to morality. But US support for Ukraine has put critics of the military-industrial complex (the government spends about $900bn a year on defence, around 15% of the federal budget or 3.3% of the gross domestic product) in the uncomfortable position of rooting for the Pentagon and endorsing a windfall for defence contractors. Longtime sceptics of US imperialism suddenly find themselves aligned with Republican hawks.
Ocasio-Cortez articulates the uneasy accommodation: “It’s a legitimate conversation. I think on one hand, it is important for us to underscore what a dramatic threat to global order Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is and continues to be. We must defend democracy. We cannot allow this reversion into almost a late 19th-century imperial invasion order – it is so incredibly destabilising and dangerous. We must fight against that precedent. We must protect the democracy of Ukraine and the sovereignty of Ukraine 100%.
“I think it’s also relevant to acknowledge that this is happening on the heels of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and how many of us were raised growing up saying this was going to be temporary, and it became a forever war. I believe that acknowledging the anxieties of our history of that is relevant.
“Indicating to the people of this country what are we looking for, what are the levels of accountability, is not something that I think is an affront to democracy. I think the American people understandably want clarity about what our commitments are, to what extent they are. I think that is absolutely fair. We do not want a forever war and we also don’t want a return to a 19th-century imperial order either.”
A self-described democratic socialist, Ocasio-Cortez has not been afraid to buck Democratic leadership, including by voting against a deal that Biden negotiated with Republicans in May to raise the debt ceiling. In 2020 she made the provocative comment that, in any other country, she and Biden would not be in the same party. Yet she has endorsed his re-election in 2024. Does that mean she has travelled towards him or he towards her?
“I think it means that we have a US political system that’s not parliamentary, to my envy of many other countries,” she replies deftly. “There were so many people that were so up in arms about that comment, which I likely maintain to this day. But I find that parliamentary systems allow for a larger degree of honesty about the political coalitions that we must make. It’s not anything negative towards the president or towards anybody else.
“It’s just a reality that we have very different political coalitions that constitute the Democratic party and being able to define that, I actually think grants us much power. It’s to say, listen, I am not defined by nor do I agree with all of the stances of this president, and I’m sure neither does he with mine.
“But that does not mean that we are not in this together against the greater forces and questions of our time, and I think being able to demonstrate that ability to coalesce puts us in a position of far greater strength than, say, the Republican party who are at each other’s necks to the extent that they can’t even fund the government.”
There has been no greater rallying point for Democrats of all stripes than Trump. As Paul Begala, a former White House adviser, has observed: “Nothing unites the people of Earth like a threat from Mars.” Ocasio-Cortez, a celebrated member of “the Squad” of House progressives, regards continued solidarity as imperative for as long as the quadruple-indicted former president menaces US democracy.
She warns: “We should be candid about the fact that his chances as the nominee are still the strongest, probably out of the entire [Republican] field, and what that means. There’s very real danger here because with our electoral college, we know it doesn’t matter how many millions more votes you get. It’s about the smattering of states who just represent a few thousand votes’ difference between Trump and Biden.
“We are not in 2020, and seeing what that turnout may look like is something that I’m sure keeps many of us up at night. But that being said, I know that this is why, to me, support of President Biden has been very important, because this question is larger than any policy differences. This is truly about having a strong front against fascism in the United States.”
But will that be enough to motivate the progressive base in 2024? Trump has no serious primary challenger, but his approval rating remains mired in the 40s. A recent Emerson College polling survey found the Green party candidate Cornel West drawing support from 7% of independents, 8% of Black voters and 7% of Hispanics – key parts of the Biden coalition. In a hypothetical presidential election, the survey found 44% support Trump, 39% Biden, 4% West and 13% undecided.
Ocasio-Cortez acknowledges that, after defeating Sanders in the 2020 primary, Biden made welcome efforts to include progressives on joint policy taskforces and in his administration. But she cautions that he must now make his case to the left all over again.
“In 2020 the Biden campaign, after the nomination, did work very hard to unite the party. We’re very early still in the 2024 election cycle, but I do believe that it will be very important for President Biden’s team to once again engage in that coalition-building because it is not one and done.”
Likewise, she continues, Latino voters must not be taken for granted. “Republicans have been very aggressive about building presence in Latino communities, and I believe that we as Democrats can double and triple down in our efforts to communicate in a way that’s not just translations of English material, but for us to manoeuvre ourselves almost as a separate, distinct campaign that occurs in Spanish or in many of the languages and communities that constitute the base of the Democratic party.”
Ocasio-Cortez was part of an all-Latino congressional delegation that recently visited Brazil, Chile and Colombia to begin redefining US relations with Latin America after decades of interventions and distrust. The group met landless workers and homeless workers who have organised popular movements while also becoming a formidable force at the ballot box.
She reflects: “I think sometimes in the US, especially on the left but even across the political spectrum, there is a struggle between more grassroots movements feeling as though engaging in electoralism is a form of selling out, or the compromises required in being part of a legislative system are somehow delegitimising to an authentic relationship to advancing the working class.
“I think what we’ve seen from MST [Landless Workers Movement] and MTST [Homeless Workers Movement] is that there’s actually a way to do both, that you can preserve your integrity but also understand the importance of taking a pragmatic approach and being in the game when it comes to having electoral representation.”
It takes one to know one. Ocasio-Cortez, a former restaurant server and bartender who in 2018 defeated 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley for a seat that represents parts of the Bronx and Queens, faces the accusation from some that she has gone from outsider to insider, that she has become just a little too comfortable toeing the party line.
She laughs. “I think I would be remiss to not mention that I’ve absolutely been subject to part of that. But just as we hear from some of these folks in Brazil, we are so underserved without having that presence in governance. To sacrifice all of that to a historically neoliberal order has not served us.
“I think that when you see how even the Democratic party of the United States has changed in just the last five years alone, we’ve seen the fruits of being able to have a seat at the table … I believe that we would not have the legislation that we have today if it were not for that progressive representation in government.”
Her commitment to the system, whatever its flaws, invites the question of whether Ocasio-Cortez, one of the most gifted communicators in politics today, will run for president herself some day. She does not say no. “For me personally, I’m very much just motivated by what the conditions of the present moment are and what we can do to help advance that cause.
“I am not interested in running for anything – president or anything else including for re-election in my own seat – just running for running’s sake. It always comes down to the conditions of that moment and the possibilities of our time.”
The first woman nominated for president by the Democratic party was Hillary Clinton in 2016. In Trump, she lost to a rival who gloried in shameless misogyny. But Ocasio-Cortez, whose gender, race, age and ideology make her as antithetical to Trump as can be imagined, refuses to be discouraged.
“I do believe that the power of misogyny is very real and very potent in American politics,” she says. “But I’m very encouraged by what has happened since then. I believe women have emerged as a profound electoral force, especially with the overturning of Roe v Wade. Young women especially I think have been very animated and organised in this moment. I think we are in a moment of generational change.
“We are absolutely contending with an extraordinary misogyny in our politics. The United States can go around and say what it says, but many, many, many other countries have elected female heads of state, whereas the United States has gone well over 200 years without one. Those barriers are very real, but I think the change of this time is also giving a lot of us a lot of hope.”
Before getting back to work in an office of greens, purples, whites and yellows – and hundreds of colourful backpacks for constituents entering the new school year – she sums up: “Certainly the conditions have been such and the misogyny in our politics has been such that we’ve never been able to elect a woman president. But that doesn’t mean we never will.”