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A panel of activists involved in supporting primary campaigns challenging establishment Democrats discuss key issues facing their work; with Alexandra Rojas of Justice Democrats, Eugene Puryear of D.C. Movement for Black Lives, and R.L. Stephens of Democratic Socialists of America with host Paul Jay

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PAUL JAY: Welcome to [the Real News Network]. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

All over the country, a struggle is taking place between the billionaires and grassroots movements fighting for change. The resistance against Trump, well, that too. But here I’m talking about the war within the Democratic Party. The progressive wing of the party, to a large extent, but not exclusively, associated with Bernie Sanders, is in a pitched battle with what they call corporate democrats. Of course, much of this fight is out in the open, in the current round of primaries that are being held.

Other fights get less attention. For example, as reported in the Intercept, a county Democrat committee in New York voted down a proposal on May 8 that would have required all members to pledge loyalty to candidates endorsed by state, local, or the national party. Progressives on the committee in Chemung County, which is on the Pennsylvania border, viewed the proposed loyalty pledge, which included what they might say on social media, as an attempt by establishment Democrats to silence their dissent. They spent the week leading up to the meeting organizing opposition to this resolution, lobbying the 20-person committee that was going to vote. And eventually the paragraph, in fact, was voted down, although it might be reintroduced with new language. Just an example of small fights that are part of a much bigger fight.

Now joining us to discuss the civil war inside the Democratic Party are three guests who are very involved in the fight. First of all, joining us from Knoxville, Tennessee, is Alexandra Rojas. Alexandra is the campaigns director for Justice Democrats, a progressive political action committee founded in January 2017.

Joining us from Washington, D.C. is Eugene Puryear. Eugene is a journalist, author, and activist. He’s co-founder of Stop Police Terror Project D.C., and a member of D.C.’s Movement for Black Lives steering committee.

And from Houston, Texas joining us is R.L. Stephens. R.L. is an elected member of the Democratic Socialists of America national political committee. Thanks very much for joining us, all of you.

So, Alexandra, let’s start with you. We wanted to use this session partly just to update viewers on some of the key fights that are taking place and this, what I’m calling struggle inside the Democratic Party. And then talk a little more generally about the character of this fight. So Alexandra, kick us off. What are, what are some races you think are important for people to follow and help us understand how this struggle is taking place?

ALEXANDRA ROJAS: Absolutely. So I’ll focus on some of the ones that are coming up. We just had this past Tuesday some elections where I think we did, we showed a lot of force. But for upcoming on May 15 there is a lot of progressive versus establishments, just like we’re seeing kind of all over the midterm cycles. In particular, Justice Democrats is supporting Greg Edwards, who’s running out in Pennsylvania’s 7th District. EMILY’s List has dumped in a bunch of money. National Democrats, I know Tom Styer has jumped in, too. And that’s really interesting with our candidate Greg Edwards being endorsed by Bernie Sanders. And sort of all these progressive groups, DFA, PCCC, amongst others. And the sort of EMILY’s List, the more DCCC establishment candidates that, that are, you know, kind of rushing in.

So it’s a very interesting dichotomy between those. And I would say also we have Kara Eastman, who is running out in Nebraska’s 2nd District against one of the only Democrats that actually lost their seat in 2016, who while they were in there voted for a 20-week abortion ban, was a member of the conservative Democrat Blue Dog caucus. And you know, clearly has a lot of name ID. And so we’re helping her try and, so we can actually get a progressive blue Democrat versus just any old blue.

PAUL JAY: Eugene, what are some of the fights you’re following? And also, this, this fight is more than just about they prefer one candidate or another. In many cases it’s this fight is, represents quite different interests in the party.

EUGENE PURYEAR: No, I think that’s a very good point. I mean, I think by far the most interesting primary race amongst Democrats this year is actually the Georgia gubernatorial primary, the two Stacies, as people are calling it. Stacey Abrams versus Stacey Evans. And I mean, obviously there is a sort of historic component there. If Stacey Abrams was ultimately to prevail at the end of the day, she would be the first black woman governor in the history of the country.

But you know, beyond that, I think that a lot of the issues that Ms. Abrams, who’s the minority leader in the Georgia House, is hitting on are vitally important. Her entire point, and a lot of points that she’s been making in her voter registration drives, are the only way for progressives to really win at the ballot box is to mobilize people who are in that 90 million people who didn’t vote in the 2016 election. People who, they skew younger, they skew more progressive, they certainly happen to be people of color. And they’re the people who are looking for the biggest, broadest change, and who are often the people who are the most disappointed when politicians don’t live up to the hype in the elections. And her whole conversation about how to push this forward, how Democrats can win in a Southern state like Georgia, but a state that’s very diverse, is hitting very heavily on what does it take to turn these folks out, especially black folks living in rural areas, which honestly, in many of these Democratic races, is the difference between who wins and who loses are the people who don’t show up who are in, quote-unquote, core Democratic base constituencies.

What type of politics does it take to animate those people, to bring them to the polls, and to get them involved in progressive politics in a way that is potentially game changing from the point of view of red states versus blue states? And I think that’s where that fight is really being had in a way that is, is the most significant. And I think it speaks very heavily to the point you’re making, Paul, which is that this really isn’t just an issue of one candidate versus another candidate. But I think it’s an issue, and I’ve said this before on the Real News, of how we’re going to live our future in this country. Is it going to be one where we’re willing to take more things out of the private domain that shouldn’t be profiteered on, and put them in the public domain so we’re focusing on people’s needs? Or are we going to keep some version of the status quo that isn’t working for so many people?

And I think that’s why this is such an intractable issue, because I don’t really think this is just sort of papered-over policy difference, or a shade here or a shade there. I think it’s a fundamental difference in the direction the country could potentially go.

PAUL JAY: Well, one of the main arguments that the pro-Sanders, pro-progressive camp has been making since the election of Trump, and maybe in the lead up, too, that it’s only this kind of Sanders-esque progressive candidacy that can actually excite people enough who normally don’t vote to go vote, and even win over some Trump voters who won’t ever entertain the idea of voting corporate Democrat, or normal party Democratic machine. Is there any evidence in Georgia that this is actually happening?

EUGENE PURYEAR: Well, we’re going to have to see. I think that Georgia has been a state where Democrats have mainly had near misses because they primarily are aiming at, looking at sort of more upper middle class white voters in the suburbs. One thing I will say, just a couple of points I think are relevant to this. You know, in McDowell County in West Virginia, Bernie got more votes in the primary in 2016 than Trump did in the general election. So I think there’s at least some evidence.

But I think there’s at least some evidence that these are the types of programs, certainly if we look at who backed Bernie, from the point of view of the election. And also, even though these candidates are more, sort of, center of the road candidates, I think it’s worth noting that if you look at someone like a Doug Jones, who was able to succeed, his campaign was pretty meat and potatoes, but it was very core working class base, speaking to the voters. It was about the need for quality education and having equal access to it, the need for retaining the Affordable Care Act and also expanding Medicaid and pushing more health care for more people, and also about jobs and employment and wages and poverty.

PAUL JAY: R.L., what are you following?

R.L. STEPHENS: Yeah, I actually wanted to continue on what Eugene was talking about with Doug Jones. I think that race actually is almost like a poison pill, in a sense, where the interpretation the Democratic establishment could make from that is that Doug Jones, which was described by many people who reluctantly voted for him, was a Republican – light, in a sense. And was part of, the motivation for voters to turn out, particularly black voters, was that they rejected Roy Moore more than they were gung-ho for Doug Jones. And I think that’s been borne out by his performance post-election, which has been not exactly a progressive record.

And so I think what the issue here is, and I think what’s interesting about that race in particular and it’s exemplary of the moment that we’re in, in which I believe that so much of not just the electoral sphere but the society is up for grabs. I think there was, there was a man who was at the polling places, he was a white man who was an evangelical, who held a picture of his daughter, who was a lesbian who killed herself, and he was saying, I refuse to let Roy Moore be elected today. And this was in Alabama where this was happening, where you’re seeing this kind of a fracture around the convention, around what has been the routine or the tradition, traditional. And you’re seeing all of these splits, and all of this tension, and all of this conflict emerge. And I think that’s happening across the board and at multiple points in the society.

And so I think the conflict between Democratic establishment candidates and the insurgent grassroots candidates, or what you’re seeing with Roy Moore, where even evangelicals really have a, dare I say, line struggle dealing with what politics they were willing to swallow. And it reflected, I think, some real tensions in society. And so I think we have to have a strong message here that’s not just a utilitarian one saying that, well, it increases the likelihood that these people will be elected, and we can depend on this particular strategy. But actually we need to have a broader vision, too, as to what is, what does this tell us about this society and what kind of politics are legitimate and are up for discussion?

And I think if we start looking at that, especially considering that what we’re experiencing right now is a global surge in reactionary nationalism, not just in the form of Trump, but you have Modi, you have what’s happening in Japan, you have what’s surging in Europe, particularly in Germany. I think we need to pay attention to the need, the urgent need, to stand for more than just this bread and butter kind of orientation, but to understand that, like, this society is up for grabs, and there are new , it’s about the people. And that the people of this society, both in this country and around the world, really have some hard decisions to make about whether we’re going to move towards socialism or continue the slide to barbarism. And I think reaching out beyond just the bread and butter, but focusing on the people is a crucial thing that we need do.

PAUL JAY: There’s a piece of this which you could say is educational, the way you’re talking about, in terms of raising the bigger questions for people to think about, learn about. But what, what it clearly is going to be the message from corporate Democrats is that, I don’t know how extreme the language they’re going to want to use, but that the Trump presidency is so reactionary, and is undoing everything, any vestige that’s left of the New Deal. Of course, Democratic presidents did a very good job at that themselves.

But, but this is a moment that’s so alarming, the only issue is to win these races, and to talk about even purer, better policy is a distraction. The only issue is to win. Alexandra, what are you hearing when you’re out, you know you’re out there knocking on doors and talking to people? How are people reacting that do want to get rid of Trump? How willing are they to discuss policy?

ALEXANDRA ROJAS: I think right now people are hurting, and they’re definitely willing to have the discussion. I think ultimately people, yes, they want to resist Trump, but they also have foresight. They know what they’ve been experiencing for the past decade. Wages haven’t been going up, they’ve continued to go down. And so working families all over the country want to address these serious issues right now, I think, facing them, but also have, have a party that isn’t reactionary.

And you mentioned the Republicans being reactionary. I actually think the Democrats are doing the same thing by not having the foresight to think about policy proposals of the future. It sets us back, and I think the same thing can be said with the progressive movement. We’re building a progressive bench, and we might not be able to win every single race, but we have the foresight to think of policy initiatives, like a jobs guarantee that’s even getting support amongst Republicans, because people just want these things now. Same thing with Medicare for All. It’s becoming vastly much more popular than, than our current health care system, because people are suffering right now.

So I think that voters are a lot smarter than the parties let them be. Like, they are experiencing these things right now and want actual bold proposals that are going to motivate them to not only get out the vote, but also have some hope for the future. And I think that’s what progressives and people that are running on their values right now are offering.

PAUL JAY: So in some of these cases, some of these races, progressives will win. In some of them, I don’t know, that’s hard to say, some are, they’re going to lose. And then as we head towards the general election, the situation is going to, in 2018, the November election. What are, what’s the left going to do when you’re in or dealing with a district or a race where it is a corporate Democrat versus a Trumpian Republican? Is there a point where there is a kind of broad front politics, as Sanders endorsed Clinton against Trump, that type of politics? What view do you, three of you, are you going to take towards races where you’re talking about the kind of corporate Dem that you’re fighting against now? Let me start with Alexandra.

ALEXANDRA ROJAS: So in general I think we’re on the side of continuing to go against a lot of these corporate Democrats, because we know that we push them farther to the left. We advance the policy initiatives that we want. We give voters a choice to actually vote for somebody else, because in a lot of cases these people have not been challenged in decades at this point. And I think we need to absolutely send a critical message to the establishment.

And I commend Bernie for supporting Clinton afterwards, But I would argue, again, that we need to paint those differences. And as you say right now, and why we’re having this discussion, there is this ideological battle going on within the Democratic Party. And I think primaries are a great way for us to show the American people what the real differences are while also saying hey, we need to go after Trump. But we need to be more than just an opposition party. We need to be a proposition party.

PAUL JAY: R.L., same question. And there’s fights going on now, but it won’t be long before there’ll be many districts where there’ll be essentially a centrist right-wing Democrat. Do you take the kind of view that Sanders did with Clinton, or not?

R.L. STEPHENS: Well, I think, I think Sanders played a very interesting game, though. I don’t think he merely liquidated back into the Clinton machine, I think he continued the war. That much is clear, that’s why we have the Unity Reform Commission dealing with the question of superdelegates, and why entities such as the nurses’ union did not turn over their contact lists. So a lot of the Bernie delegates were not easily absorbed back into the machine. And that, that fissure within the Democratic Party that emanated from that election is continuing today.

One of my teammates on the national political committee was a Bernie delegate that went to the convention. And this has been a big part of her continued development as a leader, this question of what is the Democratic Party, really. And so they’re reducing the conflict to being a Democrat, if you will, rather-. And people like [Allie], who is my teammate at Democratic Socialists of America, who is in the Democratic Party and fighting for society. She’s not fighting to be a Democrat.

So I think that’s the key issue here, is that they want to try to limit the nature of the conflict into this kind of internal fight, when really what’s happening is, as people have discussed, there’s real interests at stake, and that this is merely one friction point where they’re being expressed. And I think the key thing for us to keep in mind is that these problems are also structural. It’s not merely just bad people in positions or within the party or in elected offices, but rather this is a global phenomenon and that we’re going to have to engage that at multiple points. And I think we’re the really interesting thing that’s happening right now is that we’re doing that in the electoral sphere. We’re taking a multi-dimensional approach.

So in DSA we have, in Houston, we have Franklin Bynum, who’s running for judge. And this opens up a way to have a frontal political fight with the Democratic Party establishment, and ultimately with the Republicans, that puts issues like mass incarceration, and ones that aren’t necessarily bound up in the legislative domain but allows us to have these frontal political challenges to to deal with things in other, in other arenas. And allows us to continue to escalate this conflict, because it’s that friction that’s allowing people like [Allie], millions of people who are both Democrats and in the broader society, to develop and to see political options we put before them.

So I don’t think that we should abandon this, this friction, this conflict. I don’t think that’s what Bernie Sanders has done. And I think that’s a model that we should look to insofar as it’s relevant to how we should engage the electoral sphere, because the problems are largely structural.

PAUL JAY: Eugene, final question. It took a while for sections of the black left to warm up to Bernie Sanders. And much of the electorate, to a large extent in the South, a lot of the black voters didn’t, never warmed up to Bernie Sanders. What’s the situation now, and how is that reflecting itself in the 2018 vote?

EUGENE PURYEAR: Well, you know, I think that’s a good point. I mean, I think that in the 2018 vote the biggest overall issue for Democrats with the, with the black vote, period, regardless left right or center, is will black people show up and vote. Because there’s a huge amount of disillusionment. It’s also certainly showed up, if you look at the gap between who showed up to vote for Obama and majority black precincts in 2012, and didn’t show up for Clinton in 2016. I think there’s a tremendous amount of disaffection. And rightfully so, quite frankly, by, from black voters towards the Democrats, because despite being the most reliable voting block for Democrats, it doesn’t really seem like the issues of black America are heavily on the agenda.

You know, I think the Bernie Sanders thing has been very interesting. You know, if you look at the CNN exit polls from, like, Mississippi, South Carolina, a couple other places like that where Bernie pretty much got completely trumped in that vote, the most interesting thing to me is that in the exit poll they, and kudos to CNN for asking this question, they asked people if the person you voted for didn’t win, would you feel happy with the other person? And in all those states, these deep South states were Bernie’s getting killed, like 72, 73, 74, 75 percent of people said they’d be fine with him as the candidate. I think we saw in Memphis at the 50th anniversary celebration as well that there’s a lot of black folks who really appreciate Bernie and appreciate what he brings. He may not have been preferred, but I don’t know, I think this sort of narrative that was put out there was maybe a little bit off base.

Now, what I will say is I do think that he has work to do, if he wants to do the work, in terms of understanding the relationship between, I think, class issues and race issues, how they interplay together, and how they oftentimes are sort of codependent in the way they play out in a practical way, especially in urban America and in different places like that. So I think there’s a lot of serious issues on the table for the Democrats as it concerns black America. I think one, why is it the Democratic establishment never really supports black candidates on a statewide level in almost any state? Why, why is it that black progressive candidates, more Bernie-style candidates can almost never get support from the party in any sort of different way? And more broadly, why issues like mass incarceration, policing, and so on and so forth really back burner issues from the point of view of the Democratic Party, when that is the constituency that is the most shamed, quite frankly, in the popular discourse to go out and vote for Democrats on a regular basis?

I think all those questions are all coming home to roost. I think that was the true cause of Hillary Clinton losing the election in 2016, even though people didn’t really want to say it. But I think that that’s something that still has yet to be dealt with, and I certainly haven’t seen anything from the DNC or the congressional Democrats that seems to show that they really understand the broader issues at stake here.

PAUL JAY: All right. We’ll wrap it up for now. This will be a continuing conversation, and we’re going to keep doing these panel discussions, maybe forever, because I don’t think this struggle’s going to be over very soon. Thank you all for joining us.

And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

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Paul Jay was the founder, CEO and senior editor of The Real News Network, where he oversaw the production of over 7,000 news stories. Previously, he was executive producer of CBC Newsworld's independent flagship debate show CounterSpin for its 10 years on air. He is an award-winning documentary filmmaker with over 20 films under his belt, including Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows; Return to Kandahar; and Never-Endum-Referendum. He was the founding chair of Hot Docs!, the Canadian International Documentary Film Festival and now the largest such festival in North America.