This week, the purveyors of political pelology found themselves a new concern with which to muddy the already plenty murky waters of our public discourse: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her tenuous grasp of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Last month, the 28-year-old Democratic Socialist activist pulled off a major upset when she won the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th congressional district, defeating the entrenched incumbent, Joe Crowley. Ours being a breathless sort of culture, she was immediately crowned the future of her party, and invited to share her thoughts with a parade of TV hosts. One of them, PBS Firing Line’s Margaret Hoover, asked Ocasio-Cortez to explain a tweet she had written during her campaign and which referred to the actions of the Israel Defense Forces on the Gaza border as a “massacre.” Ocasio-Cortez fumbled her way through some platitudes, and when pressed for specifics smiled and said, “I am not the expert on geopolitics on this issue.” It was the admission that launched a thousand angry Facebook posts, all positing that Ocasio-Cortez’s utterly bland statements—she repeatedly identified herself as a supporter of the two-state solution and a believer in Israel’s right to exist—portended a new torrent of anti-Israeli intolerance on the left.
We have much bigger problems.
What was overshadowed by Ocasio-Cortez’s unremarkable comments on the Jewish state—she sounded no different than most mainstream Democrats these days—were her thoughts on a subject much closer to home. When Hoover asked the young candidate to address the unemployment rates—currently at a 17-year low—Ocasio-Cortez took issue with the facts. “The numbers you just talked about is part of the problem,” she said. “You look at the figure and say oh, unemployment is low, everything is fine. 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.”
You hardly have to be an economist to understand just how wrong Ocasio-Cortez’s statement truly is. First, as Noah Smith of Bloomberg pointed out, the number of Americans working two jobs is around 5 percent of the workforce, another historic low. But, much more importantly, the candidate’s claim suggests she has no idea what unemployment actually means. “The unemployment rate,” as Robby Soave helpfully explained in Reason, “is calculated by taking the number of unemployed people and dividing it by the number of people in the labor force. The raw number of jobs being worked by Americans has no bearing on these numbers.”
You may be inclined to forgive a young and inexperienced candidate her unfamiliarity with facts, even crucial ones. There’s something deeply moving about watching the young daughter of hard-working parents go from serving tacos at Flats Fix in New York’s Union Square to becoming one of a very small cadre of Americans elected to make and amend laws. What’s much harder to ignore is Ocasio-Cortez’s utter lack of understanding as to how very basic concepts actually work. In his profile of the candidate this week, New Yorker editor David Remnick praised her for being on “the left wing of the possible,” a phrase borrowed from the Queens College professor Michael Harrington, a self-professed radical and a founder of the Democratic Socialists of America. But the possible, on the left and on the right, depends on a firm understanding of how reality actually works, not on a fairy tale in which wishful thinking, long-held grudges, and simmering passions all somehow cohere into a better, nicer world. And people who do not yet possess said firm understanding may want to think long and hard before putting themselves up as candidates for leadership.
I realize, of course, that the previous sentence runs counter to a far cheerier American tale, one in which anyone at all could be anything at all. Ocasio-Cortez herself told Remnick a beautiful variation on this theme, regaling him with a memory of visiting Washington, D.C., as a child with her father and putting her feet in the reflecting pool by the Washington Monument. “‘You know, this is our government. All of this belongs to us. It belongs to you,’” she remembered her father telling her. “And so, when I went to the Capitol, I thought about that. I feel like it’s supposed to belong to us. Not all of it belongs to all of us. Not yet. But that’s the whole point of going to Congress, isn’t it?”
Strictly speaking, the point of going to Congress is to pass legislation that improves the lives of Americans. To do that successfully, good intentions and an anecdotal familiarity with your constituents’ problems aren’t enough. Now more than ever, the job calls for serious people, and serious people can be expected to familiarize themselves with very basic concepts before taking to Twitter, going on TV, and declaring themselves the voice of a generation.
Sadly, Ocasio-Cortez is hardly alone in putting her passions above observable reality and in punting on any sense of personal responsibility. Again and again, members of her generation, already much maligned, opt for the toddler’s tantrum rather than the adult’s reasoned and unglamorous exchange. The sniveling simpletons who, in two highly publicized instances, abused the generous gift of a free Birthright trip to Israel by walking out and saying they demanded to visit Palestinians are another example of what happens when politics is understood as performance art. These children felt very strongly that their opinions mattered. That their opinions were based on very little fact; that they hadn’t bothered sipping from the endless stream of information available on the subject about which they claimed to be so passionate; that their proclamations are likely to have real consequences for real people in the real world—all that mattered not at all to the brats on the bus. They feel like everything is supposed to belong to them, an entitlement that is not predicated on knowing or doing or sacrificing anything.
Whether we like it or not, it’s going to be people like the Birthright walkers-out or Ocasio-Cortez who are likely to soon find themselves in the corridors of power. It’s a demographic inevitability. Rather than holler at them for saying this or that about Israel, we should focus on the larger issue at hand and demand that these young crusaders show as much gravity as they do gall. Those who want the spotlight, whether on the Birthright bus or in Congress or anywhere else, should first prove worthy of its light and its heat.
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Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.