How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made all sides mad — and got her point across

How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made all sides mad — and got her point across
Staff of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

New York's Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's recent Met Gala dress caused a stir for sporting the bold message "Tax the Rich." The progressive lawmaker, who is known for being media-savvy, donned a simple white gown with the blood-red wording emblazoned across the back, designed by a Brooklyn-based brand called Brother Vellies.

Attending the gala on a free ticket (wealthy elites usually pay tens of thousands of dollars to be seen at the annual event known for its outrageous and eye-catching fashion), Ocasio-Cortez seized the opportunity to amplify her simple, yet powerful, political message. She explained to the press, "When we talk about supporting working families and when we talk about having a fair tax code, oftentimes this conversation is happening among working and middle class people (on) the senate floor."

She added, "I think it's time we bring all classes into the conversation." In other words, she was aiming her message of higher taxation of the wealthy directly at the faces of those elites, with the press as witness.

The congresswoman's dress, however, was criticized not just by the right—Donald Trump Jr. called her a "fraud" because she wore, "[t]he 'tax the rich' dress while she's hanging out with a bunch of wealthy leftwing elites"—but by liberals too.

CNN host Chris Cuomo bizarrely ranted that because "she is a member of Congress for a poor district," she should "be fighting their fight all the time." He added, "I think she was having it both ways. I think there's a poser aspect because she likes to be with those people," implying that Ocasio-Cortez likes to hobnob with wealthy elites while ignoring the fact that it took courage for her to confront those same elites with a bold call to tax them.

Some on the left balked at the dress for similar reasons, such as John Ganz writing for Gawker. Ganz, who called Ocasio-Cortez a "working-class hero" and ostensibly supports her, critiqued her Met Gala dress as "lame. And juvenile. And sad."

His appraisal, which appears to reflect much of the liberal and left-wing critique of the congresswoman, is based on the question of "whether it makes sense to demand taxation of the rich while evidently enjoying the celebration of glamour and wealth."

Had Ocasio-Cortez showed up at the Met Gala with her complimentary ticket making a fashion statement based purely on apolitical theatrics (like other celebrity attendees), she likely would have received even more criticism from all sides. Perhaps her critics would have been happier with her forsaking the opportunity to make a political statement altogether by refusing to attend.

If Ocasio-Cortez's Met Gala stunt was performative, it was by design and at the very least consistent with her political persuasion as a democratic socialist and her support of bills and proposals to levy hefty tax rates on millionaires and billionaires.

Recall the Kente cloth scarves that liberal Democrats wore while they knelt for cameras at the Capitol to mark a moment of silence for George Floyd whose police killing sparked a national uprising. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who were among those kneeling, subsequently failed to introduce or even support the BREATHE Act championed by the Movement for Black Lives that was meant to hold law enforcement accountable for racist police brutality. Instead, Schumer, Pelosi, and other Democrats backed the reformist Justice in Policing Act, indicating that their support for Black Lives Matter has been largely performative.

Meanwhile, for an example of right-wing performative fashion that was just as sincere as Ocasio-Cortez's (albeit appallingly callous), one need look no further than former First Lady Melania Trump. Her infamous green jacket worn during a 2018 visit to an immigrant child detention center sported the sentence, "I really don't care, do u?" The message on her jacket, clear as day, was an intentional performance that reflected her lack of concern about the optics of family separation.

Regardless of whether or not Ocasio-Cortez's dress was appropriate, she provoked a strong reaction, which in turn sparked a discussion of the words adorning her dress. Coming at the same time that Congress is considering a massive $3.5 trillion spending bill that includes a modest rewriting of the U.S. tax code to garner more revenues from the top earning tiers, the message on the dress was apropos.

It was also fitting that Ocasio-Cortez donned the controversial dress right around the 10th anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, which aimed a razor-sharp focus on the world's wealthy. That movement sparked a new level of class consciousness among the American public using language such as "we are the 99 percent" to identify the obscenely rich as the source of unequal power and wealth and put them on the defensive.

The right-wing pushback against taxation of the rich has been relentless, eager to cast the wealthy as benevolent caretakers of the economy. Fox Business echoed a popular statistic, saying, "The richest households paid 40.1% of all federal income taxes in 2018," adding that, "[t]he share of taxes shouldered by the nation's richest individuals has climbed over time," as if to suggest that wealthy Americans are becoming more generous.

That assessment conveniently plays down the critical fact that the rich suck up a disproportionate (and increasing) percentage of all earnings. The mistaken notion of the wealthy as generous revenue generators, as Jonathan Chait explains, "turns the fact that rich people account for a massive share of the income pool into a reason to see them as mistreated." Chait also reminds us that the statistic that Fox Business cited focuses only on federal taxes, not all taxes. When accounting for all taxes, the rich pay a much lower percentage of revenues.

Increasingly, higher taxation of the rich is a very popular proposal, rejected by only the very wealthy and their allies, which is why the reactionary responses to Ocasio-Cortez's dress are so puzzling.

When put into the context of the modest proposals to restore the tax code to pre-2017 levels, the message is hardly radical, and indeed, some on the left have used the "tax the rich" message as a jumping-off point to pithily demand it's time to "eat the rich."

Others have expanded the conversation to remind us that the Met Gala is an opportunity for wealthy Americans to write off donations, suggesting that Ocasio-Cortez's dress could have sported the (somewhat less catchy) slogan, "This Event Is a Tax Loophole for the Rich."

USA Today used the story of Ocasio-Cortez's dress as a jumping-off point to identify who qualifies as wealthy enough to face higher taxation and to clarify that "[m]ost U.S. households will not see a tax increase." This is an important counterpoint to head off the standard right-wing argument against higher taxes, which plays on fears that taxes will rise for all Americans.

The dress also sparked a conversation around the fact that the U.S. tax system has become regressive over time and that the Democrats' modest proposal to increase the top marginal income tax rate and add a surcharge on incomes of over $5 million, "will barely dent America's long slide from progressive taxation."

Ocasio-Cortez herself has continued the conversation, explaining in her Twitter post about the dress that the increased tax revenues are necessary for funding bread-and-butter progressive policies. She wrote, "The time is now for childcare, healthcare, and climate action for all. Tax the Rich."

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