Last night, the Columbia University Democrats and the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) co-hosted an event featuring Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old Democratic nominee for Congress in New York’s 14th Congressional District, in Riverside Church. Joining her onstage were Nobel Laureate and SIPA professor Joseph Stiglitz and Anya Schiffrin, the director of the Technologies Specialization at SIPA and wife to Stiglitz. Staff Writer Elizabeth Burton and Social Media Editor Zack Abrams attended.
After a last-minute room change to off-campus, the Columbia University Democrats hosted a conversation with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic Party’s nominee for Congress in New York’s 14th District. Joined by Columbia professors Joseph Stiglitz and Anya Schiffrin, Ocasio-Cortez answered questions regarding her campaign and her platform.
Prior to beginning her campaign, Ocasio-Cortez started a publishing house for children’s books, worked as an education researcher, assisted on Bernie Sanders’ 2016 Presidential campaign, and held a job as a bartender to make ends meet. She went on to launch her own congressional campaign in 2017 as a Democratic Socialist, highlighting issues related to human rights, healthcare, immigration, and capitalism. In a surprise upset, she unseated ten-term incumbent Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th Congressional District in order to win the Democratic primary, and is heavily favored to win the race this November.
The event was similar to what one would expect from a conversation with a Congressional candidate. Ocasio-Cortez adhered to much of what the audience already knew about her policies – that she is a socialist, wishes to abolish ICE, and that she is strongly anti-Trump. She highlighted the disproportional impacts that gerrymandering has had on Democratic voters, the current state of the economy, and the media.
“People don’t really know what is true anymore and that is profoundly dangerous in a democracy” – Ocasio-Cortez
The event was billed as a conversation between Stiglitz and Ocasio-Cortez; however, Schiffrin also joined the pair for the entire event. Though the three seemed to agree on most issues, there were several times where they appeared to disagree but failed to communicate the differences in their positions.
For example, Ocasio-Cortez claimed that the media is not covering enough issues that affect low-income Americans, such as income inequality and low minimum wage. The technology platforms which amplify low-income voices also serve misleading information (like opinions labelled as facts), which is hard to discern from the real thing. Schiffrin defended the media by talking up the reporting that is being done on those issues and instead blaming partisanship and the “killing-off” of local news for the current lack of agreement on factual information. On this issue, they mostly talked past each other; Ocasio-Cortez was speaking to why an economic message would appeal to low-income Americans, while Schiffrin was more concerned with the “post-truth” nature of our discourse.
The discussion often turned to Puerto Rico, which suffered widespread devastation after Hurricane Maria made landfall over a year ago. Ocasio-Cortez blamed a variety of reasons for the island’s continued challenges in getting back on track, from the $72 billion debt (“Most of the debt is contested as illegal, anyway,” she said) to its status as “a colony” and the racism of American citizens towards Latinx people.
However, she took care to emphasize the benefits of U.S. investment in Puerto Rico: “This is not an isolated incident — it represents at once some of the worst aspects of what is happening in society right now but also the best opportunity to help our future.” Her ideas: a “binding demand for self-determination for the Puerto Rican people,” a “Marshall Plan for Puerto Rico,” and a pilot test for a transition to 100% renewable energy for the island. She emphasized the need for Democrats to focus on policies which support people of color instead of assuming that they’re entitled to the votes from ethnic communities.
“The only way we’re going to be able to turn the tide on economic policies is to turn the tide on cultural attitudes.” – Ocasio-Cortez
Though the event was enjoyable overall, the lack of on-stage chemistry sometimes interrupted the flow of the conversation. In addition, several students complained to us afterwards of microaggressions from Stiglitz and Schiffrin, like overcorrecting Ocasio-Cortez on economic policy, Schiffrin referring to her as “Andrea” and some dubious questions, like “You’re someone who’s become famous because of the media, in part, do you feel grateful for that?” Asking such inconsequential and patronizing questions only detracts from time that could have been better used explaining Ocasio-Cortez’s personal experience or fleshing out points of disagreement.
Overall, the event served its purpose — raising important political issues, hosting a rising star Congressional candidate, and boosting excitement for the upcoming midterm elections. But while the event was certainly enjoyable, it missed a chance to flesh out more interesting ideological questions about socialist policies, the future of the Democratic Party, and where professional economists, journalists, and politicians tend to disagree.