Exclusive: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez explains what democratic socialism means to her

  • Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has described herself as a democratic socialist.
  • Critics of the Bronx native have used the often-misunderstood term "socialist" to describe her.
  • Socialism is defined as a "state-controlled economy in which private property and income distribution are subject to social control," but academics debate what the term actually means.
  • President Trump has tied Democrats to socialism, noting that a progressive agenda could cause the US to fall into a similar state of chaos as Venezuela, in his State of the Union address. 

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took the country by storm when she beat longtime Democratic incumbent Joseph Crowley in the New York primary.

The media and long-serving politicians in Washington are obsessed with her, monitoring every word she says, every step she takes, and even her wardrobe.

But how did this 29-year-old Latina, who has described herself as a democratic socialist, become the youngest woman ever elected to Congress?

In an exclusive interview with Business Insider in late December, Ocasio-Cortez broke down why the idea of democratic socialism isn’t so scary for her generation.

“So when millennials talk about concepts like democratic socialism, we're not talking about these kinds of ‘Red Scare’ boogeyman,” she said. “We're talking about countries and systems that already exist that have already been proven to be successful in the modern world."

Read more: 'I think he's scared': Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez celebrates Trump's criticism of socialism in the State of the Union

During the Cold War, animosity toward the Soviet Union manifested into anxiety over the term "socialist," which has since remained an often-misunderstood term in US politics. 

Ocasio-Cortez has likened her view of democratic socialism to Scandinavian social democracy. The congresswoman's progressive platform consists of a single-payer health care system that covers all forms of health care. 

"We're talking about single-payer health care that has already been successful in many different models, from Finland to Canada to the UK,” she said. 

Ocasio-Cortez, who is still paying off her student loans, also believes in tuition-free public colleges and universities. Her platform includes guaranteeing Americans a living wage that maintains "basic levels of dignity so that no person in America is too poor to live," Ocasio-Cortez said. "That's what democratic socialism means in 2018, and not this kind of McCarthyism Red Scare of a past era.”

Now the congresswoman makes headlines nearly every week, whether it’s because of her proposal to hike taxes on the wealthiest Americans or an old college video that surfaced.

But for Ocasio-Cortez, it all goes back to when Donald Trump became President of the United States.

“I think so many New Yorkers remember the morning after the election because the election, of course, was on a Tuesday, and most of us had to go to work the next day,” she recalls. "I remember taking the six train downtown the morning after the election, and it was quiet. It was so quiet on the subways, and we're talking about the train car was packed, absolutely packed with people, and you could just feel the heaviness on every single train car.”

At the time, she was working as a bartender at a taqueria called Flats Fix in Manhattan.

“Even in my experience, working in restaurants, so many of our immigrant coworkers decided to go back home to their home countries,” she said. “A lot of people started going back home feeling like they weren't welcome in America anymore. And it has a real impact on our communities. Businesses start to close. People start to struggle. Communities really struggled to kind of have to work extra hard to maintain that fabric.”

Ocasio-Cortez hasn’t let her political stardom get in the way of how she feels about her family. Her mother Blanca was at her swearing-in ceremony, holding the Bible as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi administered the oath of office.

Afterward, the congresswoman penned an emotional Instagram post thanking her mother for sacrificing everything to raise her after her father died.

What can I possibly say except thank you? So many people sacrificed so much for this to happen - my mother most of all. . My mamá was born + raised in Puerto Rico. She practically raised her siblings in poverty while her own mother worked nonstop to provide food and shelter. She met my father, a Bronx boy visiting isla family, at a young age. They married + moved to NYC - she didn’t even speak English. My parents started from scratch: new languages, new life, new everything. Then came me, and they moved to start over again so I could have an education. Mami mopped floors, drove school buses, + answered phones. She did whatever she needed to do, for me. When my father died, she was left a single mother of 2, and again she had to start over. After he passed we almost lost our home, so we sold it and started over. & over. & over. . It wasn’t long ago that we felt our lives were over; that there were only so many do-overs until it was just too late, or too much to take, or we were too spiritually spent. I was scrubbing tables + scooping candle wax after restaurant shifts & falling asleep on the subway ride home. I once got pickpocketed, & everything I earned that day was stolen. That day I locked myself in a room and cried deep: I had nothing left to give, or to be. And that’s when I started over. I honestly thought as a 28 year old waitress I was too late; that the train of my fulfilled potential had left the station. . This week I was sworn in as the youngest woman in American history to serve in the United States Congress. I hope that record is broken again soon. As I raised my hand for the oath, my mother held the holy book & looked into @SpeakerPelosi’s eyes. Afterwards, the Speaker said to her “you must be so proud,” and my mother began to cry. . It was not long ago that our family’s hope was so dim it was barely an ember. Darkness taught me transformation cannot solely be an individual pursuit,but also a community trust. We must lean on others to strive on our own. . Thank you all. Whether it was late nights, hard days, pocket change, emotional investment, hard & soft skills, door knocking in the heat or petitioning in the bitter cold - we did this together.

A post shared by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@ocasio2018) on Jan 5, 2019 at 9:34am PST

 

Ocasio-Cortez's father died of cancer when she was a sophomore in college.

“I think he'd be proud. I think he’d be laughing a lot,” she said. “My dad was a big jokester and he just saw the humor in a lot of things and I think he'd say, 'I told you so,' in that my dad always kind of told us and talked to us about how we're going to go through a lot of hardship.”

“Whether it’s going to be in fulfilling your skills or your potential, there’s always going to be a dawn after the dark," she added.

For the full interview with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, watch the full episode of Business Insider Today.