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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says ‘call me a radical,’ a loaded word with a long history

Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez during a November visit to Washington. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) was sworn into the House of Representatives last week as the youngest congresswoman in history, which is one way of looking at her extraordinary rise.

Another is this: In a recent “60 Minutes” interview with Anderson Cooper, the freshman lawmaker unabashedly embraced the label “radical” — a move that political experts say is uncharacteristically palatable in today’s mainstream because of a mounting dissatisfaction with the political establishment.

During the segment, Cooper spoke of Ocasio-Cortez’s plans for a Green New Deal, and the tax increases on high earners to fund it, as a “radical agenda compared to the way politics is done right now.”

“Well, I think it only has been radicals who have changed this country,” she said. “Abraham Lincoln made the radical decision to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Franklin Delano Roosevelt made the radical decision to embark on establishing programs like Social Security.”

To that, Cooper asked: “Do you call yourself a radical?”

“Yeah,” she replied. “If that’s what radical means, call me a radical.”

Pejorative and badge of honor

The word, used throughout history as both a pejorative and a badge of honor, has deep roots in American political rhetoric. There were radical abolitionists, such as John Brown, who believed slavery amounted to a national sin. Similarly, radical Christians joined with former slaves to lead the anti-slavery movement. Liberals toss around the term “radical right,” and on Twitter this week the president used the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.”

The National Woman Suffrage Association distanced itself from the “radical” label because of concern it would hamper its efforts to get the vote, while other suffragists at the turn of the century embraced the term — much like radical feminists of the 1960s, who focused their energy on addressing patriarchy as the root of inequality.

And of course there’s the framing, and reframing, of the radicalism of the civil rights movement.

“The term becomes an insult or a political tactic of abuse when it gets equated with being extremist,” said Craig Calhoun, a professor of social sciences at Arizona State University. “It’s a virtue when it gets claimed [as meaning] very committed.”

Historians say it is most advantageous for elected officials to own a radical agenda when American voters are frustrated or desperate and looking for alternatives to the political establishment.

A cautious hope emerges among Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s constituents

“It’s no accident Lincoln and FDR come amidst a sense of broken politics,” Calhoun said. “Saying ‘I stand for continuity in the mainstream’ didn’t sound as good, and there was an opening for a more radical position.”

Where Ocasio-Cortez’s relationship with radicalism differs from those political predecessors is that she is embracing the “radical” label in real-time. Lincoln and Roosevelt never did, said Eric Foner, a professor emeritus of history at Columbia University.

“Those were not radical people,” Foner said. “They were mainstream political leaders, but they were pushed by radicals.”

Lincoln and Roosevelt

While Lincoln’s decision to free enslaved people has earned him a “radical” distinction today, the 16th president campaigned on a more moderate slate of policies. It was the self-proclaimed “radical Republicans,” perhaps the first significant group in American history to use the term, who owned the issue of emancipation, according to Foner. They operated within the political system, serving as members of Congress and governors. They were not a majority but a significant factor.

“People had to listen to them,” he said. “Lincoln understood that they were putting forward ideas worth listening to.”

In fact, Foner argues, radicals are the agenda-setters who help moderates accomplish political change.

“The really good politicians understand there is a really symbiotic relationship between radicals and political leaders,” he said. “The radical makes Lincoln possible.”

Lincoln moved to end slavery on New Year’s Day 1863. It went on for three more years.

Similarly, FDR did not embrace a “radical” label in the midst of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. The American political establishment was failing, Calhoun said, and so the president framed his New Deal as a necessary package of social programs to rescue the country’s economy. He was trying to save American society within the framework of capitalism, according to Calhoun.

There were actual socialists at the time who were getting a lot of votes, Calhoun said. They were the true radicals of the day, and right-wing sympathizers labeled them as such — and said FDR was just like them. But FDR said he was not.

“There are people who get retrospectively classified as radicals because we recognize how deep the change they brought about was,” Calhoun said. “Like FDR.”

What Ocasio-Cortez’s claim says about today’s politics

What Ocasio-Cortez did in her “60 Minutes” interview was take a label that her opponents lob as an insult and turn it into a virtue.

“When AOC claims radicalism, like claiming dancing, she is trying to do jujitsu with something her opponents are using as an insult,” Calhoun said. “She is claiming it, and giving it her own meaning — which is a really good tactic if you can pull it off.”

The term radical is not a partisan one, though it has been used to sow political division. Most simply, the word “radical” is defined as addressing the root of a problem rather than treating the symptoms, said Dana Cloud, a communication and rhetorical studies professor at Syracuse University. “In that sense, the word radical should not have a pejorative connotation like it does in modern politics,” she said.

But it does, largely because it has historically been associated with those who seek big change too quickly.

Conservatives pegged Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as a radical during his bid for the White House in the 2016 presidential primaries. On the campaign trail, he worked to explain and normalize the idea of a democratic socialist in the Oval Office.

That he was taken seriously as a candidate in 2016, and that Ocasio-Cortez is so openly claiming the title of radical in 2019, say something about the emerging political era, Cloud said.

“The fact that she could say that and invoke that history and own it and not fail automatically is kind of a signal of coming change,” she said.

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