U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was the target of widespread scrutiny and criticism, mostly from right-leaning commentators, towards the end of 2018 and during the early months of 2019, after she became the youngest female member ever elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
In particular, some conservatives took aim at comments the New York Democrat made about income tax and wealth distribution, especially her proposal for a 70 percent marginal tax rate on high-income earners.
Against that background, in February the conservative Turning Point USA group posted a meme that included a partial quotation attributed to Ocasio-Cortez: “‘A society that allows billionaires to exist…is wrong.’ — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez”:
In reality, that quotation was a grossly misleading representation of remarks Ocasio-Cortez made on 21 January 2019 during a wide-ranging interview with the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates as part of the 2019 “MLK Now” event in Harlem, New York.
In one section of that interview, Coates and Ocasio-Cortez discussed issues around taxation, income inequality, and economic justice. Ocasio-Cortez framed the issue of the marginal tax rate in the following way:
“It’s an economic question but it’s also a moral question. [The 70 percent marginal tax rate] is the policy translation of a proposed answer to ‘What kind of society do we want to live in?’ Are we comfortable with a society where someone can have a personal helipad while this city [New York] is experiencing the highest rates of people experiencing homelessness since the Great Depression? Should those two things coexist at the same time?”
Here is a transcript of a later section of that discussion, the one most relevant to the Turning Point USA meme:
Coates: “Do you think it is moral for individuals to, for instance — do we live in a moral world that allows for billionaires? Is that a moral outcome —
Ocasio-Cortez: No —
Coates: — in and of itself?
Ocasio-Cortez: — it’s not. It’s not. And I think it’s important to say that — I don’t think that necessarily means that all billionaires are immoral. It is not to say that someone like Bill Gates, for example, or Warren Buffet, are immoral people. I do not believe that. I’m not saying that, but I do think a system that allows billionaires to exist when there are parts of Alabama where people are still getting ringworm because they don’t have access to public health, is wrong. And I think it’s wrong that a vast majority of the country does not make a living wage, I think it’s wrong that you can work 100 hours and not feed your kids, I think it’s wrong that corporations like Walmart and Amazon can get paid by the government, essentially — experience a wealth transfer from the public for paying people less than a minimum wage. It not only doesn’t make economic sense but it doesn’t make moral sense and it doesn’t make societal sense.
So it’s true that Ocasio-Cortez did say “a system that allows billionaires to exist … is wrong,” but what that selective quotation left out — the section in the middle — was crucial. She said, infull: “I do think a system that allows billionaires to exist when there are parts of Alabama where people are still getting ringworm because they don’t have access to public health, is wrong.”
So although the Turning Point USA meme alluded to the fact that Ocasio-Cortez had provided context in her remarks, by including an ellipsis (…) in the middle of the quotation, the meme still deliberately left out that crucial context, and the net result of the quotation was to present a grossly misleading impression of what the Congresswoman actually said.
Ocasio-Cortez was making a point about wealth inequality and economic injustice, rather than simply about wealth. She was articulating the view that the existence of vast personal wealth among a small number of people in the United States was morally insupportable if it coincided with dire poverty and depravation among a greater number of people — an age-old piece of progressive and left-wing orthodoxy.
In other words, it was not the existence of billionaires, as such, that the Congresswoman said was “wrong” (as the meme misleadingly suggested), but the existence of billionaires under the socioeconomic conditions currently prevailing in the United States, some examples of which Ocasio-Cortez went on to list.
Whether or not one agrees with the Congresswoman’s viewpoint or analysis, that distinction — between what she said in its proper context and what the meme presented her as saying — was far from trivial. For that reason, we issue a rating of “Mostly False.”