First, we were warned her avowed socialism and calls for economic justice wouldn’t play in the Midwest. When that didn’t seem to take, John Cardillo, the host of the Newsmax show “America Talks Live” stepped forward on Sunday to brand Ocasio-Cortez a phony. Never mind that hard-luck story about almost losing a home to foreclosure after her father died; never mind the fact that her mom worked as a housekeeper; and never mind the fact Ocasio-Cortez needed student loans to get through college.
Ocasio-Cortez, you see, claimed to be a native of the Bronx despite the fact that her parents, like many seekers of the American Dream, moved to suburban Westchester County before their daughter began kindergarten, so they could take advantage of the better schools. The horror!
Ocasio-Cortez was having no part of it, and punched back hard and fast:
And, with that, Ocasio-Cortez showed how to change a conversation that’s been with us for decades.
Republicans like to claim that Democrats are hypocrites when they talk about the struggles of working Americans. Ocasio-Cortez, refusing to apologize for growing up in a home her family owned, found herself the recipient of some surprising support, with people such as former tea-party-Republican congressman Joe Walsh quickly stepping forward to tweet support for her. “She & I probably disagree on every single policy issue. But I respect the hell out of her. Those attacking her personally are making a mistake. Debate her ideas.”
But they don’t do that for a reason: The “hypocrisy” attack is easier.
The limousine liberal attack is long-established in the Republican playbook. Wealthy Republicans born on third base or home plate can claim working-class credit because like, say, President Trump, they enjoy fast food. But Democrats are forever branded as hypocrites for expressing concern about poverty or middle-income woes if they didn’t grow up in a log cabin.
People fall for the hypocrisy card time and time again. George W. Bush understood average folk because he liked to hunt and owned a ranch, but John Kerry, though a Vietnam vet, liked to windsurf, so he didn’t have a clue. Trump, the real estate billionaire son of a real estate multimillionaire dad, who has stiffed numerous small business people and contractors, ripped off financially desperate pensioners via his faux Trump University, and is so greedy he once cashed a check for 13 cents sent to him as a joke, speaks for middle America, but Hillary Clinton, who sometimes wears designer clothes, grew up in suburban Chicago and whose father owned a small business, is a fake. See how this works?
In fact, there is another way Cardillo could have told this story: Ocasio-Cortez’s family did everything “right” in the way we traditionally think they should do it in the United States. Yet they still almost financially cratered when they encountered a bad patch. That’s not uncommon in a country with an inadequate safety net, where 40 percent of the population says they could not come up with $400 in an emergency.
Moreover, while it is true that Westchester County is affluent overall, with a median household income of slightly above $86,000, that’s not the whole story. Its poverty rate is 10 percent. While there are extremely wealthy towns such as Scarsdale and Bronxville, there are also more middle class communities such as Yorktown Heights. Foreclosure, while less common than in other New York suburban counties, is certainly far from unheard of. “There’s this false perception of affluence,” a corporate executive for the Stop & Shop supermarket chain said last year at a government-sponsored forum on hunger in Westchester County. “You might be living next door to someone who is food insecure, and not even know it.”
And then there’s something Ocasio-Cortez didn’t mention in her response: Latino and African American families are more vulnerable to the sorts of financial troubles her family experienced. Since Hispanics and African Americans generally have lower net worth than whites, they pass on less wealth to their families. It’s a cumulative effect over generations. Not only are Latinos less likely to own their residence, and not only are they more likely to live in states that were hard hit by the foreclosure crisis, both African Americans and Latinos were more likely to be offered riskier subprime mortgages, even when their finances indicated they could qualify for better terms. This is hardly the only financial area where they experience discriminatory treatment. It also happens when they go shopping for cars, or attempt to get a job.
There is a valuable lesson in Ocasio-Cortez’s response for the many Democrats who melt like the witch in “The Wizard of Oz” when someone points out they enjoy some privilege. In fact, if anything, people such as Ocasio-Cortez, with one foot in the working-class district she was born in and now resides in, and the other in the middle to upper middle-class suburban community of her childhood, is perfectly positioned to understand the strains in the financial lives of Americans. As wealth inequality continues to grow, all but the richest among us will sometimes feel we are falling behind, no matter where we live. No one needs to wear sackcloth when they discuss poverty, even if they are to the manor born.