The right’s single-minded fixation on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is often credited as the reason for her high profile. If so, conservatives were responsible for the interminable lines of people who wanted to see her speak at the South by Southwest Conference, landing her on the couch at Seth Meyers’s late night show, and her transformation into a figure more recognizable to Wisconsin’s Democratic voters than most of the Democrats running for president in 2020; and that’s just in the last two weeks. The GOP’s hegemony over the commanding heights of American culture knows no limits.
Somehow, we monomaniacal conservatives with our unhealthy obsession have even made sure AOC hit the cover of Time! Reporter Charlotte Alter’s profile is a valuable addition to a marketplace oversaturated with soft-focus hagiography, in part, because it reveals some of the conceits animating the Democratic Socialist movement.
Ocasio-Cortez grew up in the 1990s—a time of unparalleled American security and comfort, innovation and “financial prosperity.” But then, as the congresswoman was entering adulthood, the collapse of the mortgage market took it all away. “An entire generation, which is now becoming one of the largest electorates in America, came of age and never saw American prosperity,” Ocasio-Cortez confessed. “I have never seen that, or experienced it, really, in my adult life.”
This is a revealing admission. Even if your frame of reference for measuring the breadth of American prosperity begins in 2007, 21st Century America is not a point on the space-time continuum into which anyone should regret having been born. In a 2016 study measuring “welfare” across the spectrum of data points that contribute to that subjective condition, Charles Jones and Peter Klenow conclude that long-term trends in America are positive. American living standards are comparable to those of the wealthiest nations in Western Europe and far surpass those in the developing world. The rate of growth in U.S. economic welfare declined after the onset of the pronounced recession that began in 2007, but that slowdown was attributable to a reduction in per capita consumer spending. Their metrics, which account for data points broader than GDP and household income, indicate that economic welfare in America has increased at 2.3 percent between 1995 and 2015, for a cumulative across the board increase of 60 percent.
The unemployment rate in February, 3.8 percent, pretty much means America is at full employment. It has held roughly steady for nearly a year and is the near lowest it has been in a half-century. Wages are on the rise, increasing at 3.1 percent in 2018. Construction and manufacturing job growth is better than it has been in 30 years. Radical technological innovations have rendered the United States all but energy independent and a leader in the field of global communications. The housing market has recovered from the Great Recession; millennials, in particular, have double the median equity in their homes than they did in 2010. This particular generation faces obstacles on their paths to generating an income equivalent to that of their parents—namely, the substantial number of millennials who are unmarried or single parents, not student loan debt. But that does not render America’s favorable macroeconomic conditions moot. The United States is richer than any peer industrial economy. Indeed, by some measurements, the American millennial is a member of the wealthiest and most comfortable generation of human beings to have ever lived on this planet.
This reality is not reflected in perception, though. According to the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index, which has measured how Americans feel about their overall well-being since 2008, 2017 was the worst year on record. But unlike 2009, when financial worries put significant downward pressure on the average American’s self-assessment, the factors driving down happiness are emotional and psychological today. Americans are lonelier. They are more political, and both of Americas two major parties feel like they are losing cultural and electoral ground relative to their adversaries. They are economically insecure, even though more Americans are employed and the number of Americans in the labor market is stable—defying the expectation that labor force participation rates would decline as the Baby Boomer generation retires. In the aggregate, Americans are not worse off than they were a decade ago, but many of them think they are.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the perfect avatar for this uniquely American malady. She depicts life in the five boroughs of New York City and Washington D.C. as a Dickensian nightmare, despite their wealth relative not only to the rest of the country but the world. Alter’s profile subversively highlights the contradictions nicely in the paragraph that follows AOC’s lament about how she had never experienced the American dream. You see, as a child, Ocasio-Cortez’s “family moved to the prosperous Westchester County suburb of Yorktown Heights when she was about 5 so that she and her brother could go to better schools.” Ocasio-Cortez is the face of a generation that doesn’t know how good they have it.