On Sept. 13, the annual Costume Institute Gala (colloquially better known as the Met Gala) took place at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. To onlookers, it perhaps seemed a little unusual to see a congresswoman at an event which is usually designated for the top designers, actors, singers, and models of the moment, but the 2021 Gala took on a different tone.
The dress worn by Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) at first glance seemed like a simple white dress from the front; as soon as she turned around, the dress was revealed to have the words “Tax the Rich” scrawled on the back in bold red lettering. This statement has been taken in two ways, with some people believing that it was performative and in bad taste to make this stance at a gala that costs a “reported $30,000 per ticket,” as Business Insider writes; others thought it was a bold and good choice to make against the backdrop of such wealth.
It’s important to discuss the Tax the Rich movement and what the aim of the movement is. On their website taxmarch.com, they write, “Tax March began in 2017 as a grassroots effort to demand accountability and tax fairness. Since then, the movement has grown into a nationwide fight for an economy that works for all of us, not just the wealthy few. For too long, our economic system has been rigged by the rich for their own benefit. Tax March organizers across the country are working to fix the broken system and ensure all people have access to economic tools that allow them to not only live but thrive.”
This movement started to gain traction in earnest after the 2008 recession, when big banks were bailed out by the federal government for their mistakes and the American people were left to fend for themselves through financial hardship. This event put a bad taste in many Americans’ mouths, questioning why those making less money annually pay the same amount of taxes as those who make hundreds of thousands, or even millions a year do. And why those banks and millionaires should get out of this situation scot-free while it lands on the working American’s back.
But who exactly are “the rich”? According to CNN, “It took $540,000 in adjusted gross income to get into the top 1 percent in 2018, according to the latest Internal Revenue Service data.” This means that the top 1 percent of this country may be a lot poorer than many perceive.
When it comes to concrete policy proposals for a wealth tax, USA Today explained, “The proposals, which would raise $2.9 trillion in revenue, increase the tax rate from 21 percent to 26.5 percent for corporations that have more than $5 million in annual revenue, while lowering it to 18 percent for companies that make less than $400,000 in revenue. However, these tax rates have historical precedent, “In 2017, the tax rate for some businesses was 39 percent and President Joe Biden has called for a 28 percent tax rate for corporations.” They also go on to explain that this tax increase would not affect most households. According to IRS filing data, this tax would only affect that 1 percent of households mentioned earlier, earning over $450,000 a year. Most of the country makes about $371,000 less than that a year.
So how was Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez’s gown perceived? This type of activism is nothing new for Americans; celebrities like those at the Met Gala are commonly associated with political movements; being an activist and making a statement as grand as this at a prestigious event is an effective form of protest. Outspoken critics of the move include those from the opposing party, such as Donald Trump, Jr. and Jim Banks (R-IN), disapproving of the dress, saying that it was in bad taste to do so at an event that signifies such wealth.
On the other hand, some left-leaning figures and self-described socialists, which the New York Democrat has identified with in the past, were averse to the dress and did not approve of her taking part in this event. The New York Times suggests that some supporters of AOC are reacting this way as a result of her being held to a higher standard than other politicians: “Briahna Gray, the former national press secretary for Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign and the co-host of the Bad Faith podcast, said that Ocasio-Cortez is ‘held to a unique standard exactly because people expect more of her.’ [Ocasio-Cortez] said some of the progressive backlash to the dress grew out of a more general disappointment with some of her policy stances.” People may have suspected an event like this from a Democrat who is more moderate and more timid when approaching the issues that Ocasio-Cortez has addressed in her time as a congresswoman.
Some Democrats are also defending her, though, such as progressive Maya Wiley, a former mayoral candidate for New York City. Wiley publicly explained, “To walk into a space that’s about art, fashion, luxury and wealth and say, ‘Here is the conversation we have to confront, but I’m going to confront it in the vernacular of the event,’ is brilliant.”
There seems to be no universal consensus for what most of the public feels about this dress and this statement, and it will be up to the court of public opinion whether this was in good or poor taste for the foreseeable future.