Socialists Will Need to Be 10 Times Smarter Than Republicans to Get Taken Seriously in Washington

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez surrounded by people outside of Wall Street office buildings
Congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

During a recent interview with PBS, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez flubbed a question about the economy, claiming that unemployment was only low at the moment because “everyone has two jobs.” The comment seemed to suggest that she either did not know how the unemployment rate was calculated, or did not understand why it had fallen in recent years. Were it just a typical politician talking, the stumble might have elicited a few snickers on Twitter and not much more. But because the surprise Democratic nominee for Congress is the new face of America’s socialist left, her mistake led to a media pile on from conservatives, who are hungry for any excuse to dismiss the woman as a lightweight.

Even the bobble-heads at Fox & Friends got in on the act Wednesday morning, bringing on Tomi Lahren to do some dunking. “Isn’t it disturbing that the ‘future of the Democratic party’ doesn’t know how the unemployment rate is calculated?” she said.

This was all pretty funny coming from a horde of Donald Trump boosters. After all, the president spent his presidential campaign repeating a bogus claim that the real unemployment rate was 42 percent and has since turned willful ignorance into a sort of governing philosophy.

But conservatives weren’t the only critics to seize on the comments. For instance, the American Enterprise Institute’s Norm Ornstein—who more or less speaks for the fading establishment of respectable D.C. moderates—proclaimed that Ocasio-Cortez’s mistake was a sign she was “certainly not ready for Congress.”

What’s interesting about Ornstein’s comment is that it implicitly assumes members of Congress are generally good at talking about economics in the first place. In fact, much of what passes for policy discussion on Capitol Hill, especially among conservatives, is a jambalaya of nonsense far more absurd and consequential than Ocasio-Cortez’s mistake. This, I think, speaks to a double standard that self-identified socialists will face in certain parts of Washington. Because they are new and considered fringey, they will have to be twice as smart as your typical Democrat and about 10 times smarter than your typical Republican to be taken seriously.

Let’s take a look at the exchange that got Ocasio-Cortez in trouble, which took place during a chat with Margaret Hoover on PBS’s Firing Line:

Margaret Hoover: The economy is going pretty strong. There’s roughly 3.9 percent unemployment, 4 percent unemployment. Do you think that capitalism has failed to deliver for working-class Americans or is no longer the best vehicle for working-class Americans? 

Ocasio-Cortez: Well, I think that the numbers you just talked about is part of the problem, right? Because we look at these figures and say unemployment is low, everything is fine, right? Well, unemployment is low because everyone has two jobs. Unemployment is low because people are working 60, 70, 80 hours a week and can barely feed their kids. And so, I do think that right now, we do have this no-holds-barred, wild-west hypercapitalism; what that means is profit at any cost. Capitalism has not always existed in the world, and it will not always exist in the world.

These comments were odd and, pretty much any way you interpreted them, incorrect. Did she mean to say that the unemployment rate falls faster when people take second jobs? That would be wrong, full stop. (Even if someone juggles five jobs, the Department of Labor still only counts that person once when it tallies up the number of Americans who are working.) Did she mean that unemployment was only falling because Americans were taking bad jobs that required them to work side gigs to survive? While that assertion would have been less bizarre, it would also have been incorrect, at least if you go by government survey data. The percentage of workers with multiple jobs is actually down since the recession.

Multiple job holders

After her comments began to catch fire online, Ocasio-Cortez played cleanup on Twitter. There, she made the entirely reasonable point that the low unemployment rate obscures real and deep problems in the economy, and that some people are driven to take second jobs because their pay is so low.

It’s possible that this is what she meant all along: Unemployment is low, but everybody has two jobs. An exaggeration, perhaps, though not an outlandish one.

But let’s say Ocasio-Cortez really made a sincere mistake during her PBS appearance. So what?

On the one hand, it’s entirely reasonable for good-faith critics to call out her error. No matter how debased our politics become, we should expect people who run for office to get facts right. Given that she’s a far-left politician who wants to hasten the end of modern capitalism, it’s especially fair to ask that Ocasio-Cortez understand basic concepts about the economy, like the unemployment rate (doubly so given that she has an economics degree, and likes to tout it).

On the other hand, the mistake also deserves its proper context, which is that the comment would barely be news if it were uttered by a Republican. GOP orthodoxy of course includes a series of big lies—climate change isn’t real, tax cuts will pay themselves, Obamacare is collapsing by itself, and so forth. Sometimes this turns Capitol Hill into a platform for dark, surrealist performance art, like when Oklahoma’s Jim Inhofe toted a snowball onto the floor of Congress to prove that the globe wasn’t warming. But it also leads to a daily torrent of misstatements, convenient errors, and outright lies by supposedly respectable political figures. Paul Ryan spent much of the Obamacare-repeal push claiming that the Affordable Care Act’s marketplaces were facing an actuarial death spiral, which they were not. He made his name touting implausible austerity budgets that balanced with magic asterisks, yet nobody claimed he wasn’t “ready for prime time.” And this doesn’t even touch the febrile lunacy of the truly hard right, which has taken over the oversight committees. I mean, did you see Louie Gohmert’s rant the other day?

Ornstein argues that we shouldn’t hold leftists to the same “abysmally low” standards as Congress’ most ignorant members. But that’s just the point. A mere mistake about how unemployment is measured would barely register if it came from a Republican. Meanwhile, the most disastrously wrongheaded beliefs treasured by moderates on both sides of the aisle—such as the idea that the national debt poses an imminent threat to the nation’s economy—are still considered respectable in the Capitol. (Ocasio-Cortez, by the way, seems to have a much better grasp of how sovereign debt actually works than most D.C. grandees.) The problem for democratic socialists is that they’re still new and novel, and they represent a budding force in American electoral politics, so their foibles are going to be considered newsworthy. If they make a relatively small mistake, it’s going to be picked out and magnified.

In the end, it may not matter much whether establishment types actually respect young leftist politicians. Even if Democratic leaders like Chuck Schumer or Nancy Pelosi may crave approval from moderates, they also have to contend with the desires of their base. But it seems worth noting that people aren’t just asking socialists to be as good as typical politicians on policy. They’re asking them to be a whole lot better.