Over the weekend, the New York Post published a story about Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s extensive use of Uber and Lyft and her penchant for flying over taking the train. The article raised the question of whether the sponsor of the Green New Deal, which calls for “a full transition off fossil fuels and zero greenhouse gases” in the next decade as well as plans to “totally overhaul transportation by massively expanding electric vehicle manufacturing, build charging stations everywhere, build out high-speed rail,” is a hypocrite.
AOC responded as she usually does to criticism: with childish Twitter sarcasm and victimology. She told The New Yorker’s David Remnick that she is the target of “ravenous hysteria” on the part of her critics, who, she argued, have no substantive rebuttal to her environmental vision. “Apparently, I am a cow dictator,” she said. “What’s humorous to me is that we’re finally proposing a clear, ambitious, but necessary and grounded policy on the scale of the problem. And so it’s hard for the Republicans to refute the actual policy on its substance. They resort to mythologizing it on a ludicrous level. Ted Cruz says we want to ‘kill all the cows.’ How far have we slid in our discourse? But that’s what half our political representation is up to.”
But the question of her hypocrisy—as well as the public’s interest in it—is legitimate, not humorous, as AOC suggests. And her particular style of politics—sanctimonious, hyper-personalized—is precisely why it is being raised (and why her Green New Deal co-sponsor, Sen. Ed Markey, hasn’t received similar criticism).
AOC is adding a new gloss on the classic behavior of the limousine liberal by openly mocking the idea that someone like her could ever be guilty of hypocrisy. But what she’s learning is that if you make your case for policy in incendiary moral terms (the earth is doomed, maybe you shouldn’t have kids, Uber is driving cabbies to suicide, etc.), you are likely to be judged by the same terms. And by personalizing your policy-making (via social media), you embrace a tool that cuts both ways. Social media has given AOC a platform far larger than her experience warrants, but it has also opened her up to legitimate criticism of her personal choices (and those of her congressional staffers and campaign workers).
The problem isn’t, as AOC argued in defense of her choices, that she has to live in the world as it is and so must make use of Uber and airplanes. It’s that there are legitimate critiques of her environmental policies that she refuses to engage; instead, she makes the fights personal while belittling her critics. Sound familiar?
AOC might laughingly refer to herself as a “cow dictator” and revel in her status as right-wing bogeyman. But, in pointing out her use of non-green transportation options, the public is forcing her to answer a legitimate question: is our environmental situation the looming apocalypse she has claimed (one that justifies the extensive, intrusive government action she has proposed)? Or is AOC simply doing her job as a legislator, trying to gradually improve what she can, as many of her supporters have said, and calling her a hypocrite is an unfair overreaction? It can’t be both.
It’s not a big deal for a politician to use Uber and fly rather than take the train or mass transit. I suspect AOC and her staff made the perfectly reasonable calculation that their time and money was better spent on pricier, less environmentally friendly but more time-efficient methods of transportation.
But this kind of individual, free-market calculation is precisely what the Green New Deal would eliminate in the name of stopping the environmental apocalypse (remember: we only have 12 years left!). As Megan McArdle pointed out, “while AOC is preaching that the world is shortly going to end, her staffers are prioritizing personal convenience over environmental benefit. . . If your argument is ‘Yeah, but it would be really time-consuming for them to try to do all their business on public transit,’ you are yourself providing the best argument against the Green New Deal.”
Even if AOC’s entire wish list were passed into law, these transportation dilemmas would remain. As even the New Yorker had to concede of the Green New Deal, “At this point, the most salient feature of the proposal is a sense of urgency, its conversation-changing radicalism.”
It is AOC, not the public, who chose to make her personality (on Instagram, Twitter, in her many media interviews) the centerpiece of her campaign and now her policy ideas. It’s AOC who told schoolchildren in Queens to “skip disposable razors” and “skip meat/dairy for a meal” and lamented the existence of plastic bags while live-streaming herself cooking dinner. If she wants to take an Uber, so be it; if she wants to lecture others about their personal choices, she has every right to do so. But she doesn’t get to complain when the public points out that her personal story clashes with her policy narrative, such as when she moves into a luxury apartment building in D.C. or takes cars to events when the subway is a few hundred feet from her office in New York.
As Yale University psychology researchers who have studied hypocrisy found, “The reason people dislike hypocrites is that their outspoken moralizing falsely signals their own virtue. People object, in other words, to the misleading implication—not to a failure of will or a weakness of character.” People are willing to tolerate a certain amount of hypocrisy in others so long as it is acknowledged. Coincidentally, the researchers used as their example an overzealous work colleague who is always hectoring others to be environmentally responsible but is an energy hog in his private life (ahem, Al Gore).
Researchers found that, if the person said, “I think it’s morally wrong to waste energy, but I sometimes do it anyway,” they were judged far less harshly than if they continued their traditional virtue signaling. As well, “hypocrites were rated as less trustworthy, less likable, and less morally upright than those who openly lied: e.g., characters who wasted energy after explicitly stating that they never wasted energy.”
Their conclusions could double as political advice for AOC: “His outspoken moralizing falsely conveys his own virtue, earning him undue reputational benefits—and at the expense of the individuals whom he publicly shames. He would be better off if he simply admitted that he sometimes falls short of these ideals himself.”
This more modest approach is unlikely to be embraced by AOC, however, who clearly enjoys both the negative and positive attention she’s receiving. As she told the New Yorker, “It feels like an extra job. . . I’ve got a full-time job in Congress, and then I moonlight as America’s greatest villain, or as the new hope. And it’s pretty tiring.” Lest anyone need more evidence that she believes her own hype, she ends the interview by comparing herself to a hero who runs into a burning building.
Unfortunately for AOC, the fire she needs to put out is the one she started with her own hypocritical behavior.