Sanders is out of the race, but the fight over the future of the Democratic part continues, says Ryan Grim, author of We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Jaisal Noor: Welcome to the Real News. I’m Jaisal Noor. The Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been nothing short of catastrophic. Instead of using the Defense Production Act to create badly needed personal protective equipment, Trump is using it to reopen meat plants shuttered due to outbreaks of COVID-19. Meanwhile, Congress has passed an unprecedented stimulus package that will give up to $6 trillion of corporations, but the vast majority of its benefits don’t go into the pockets of ordinary Americans, including the over 26 million or one in seven workers who have filed for unemployment thus far.
Instead, this bailout represents one of the biggest transfers of wealth to those who need it least this country has ever seen. This begs the question, where are the Democrats? Well, our next guest has some insight into this vital question. Ryan Grim is the D.C. Bureau Chief for the Intercept, author of, We’ve Got People from Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio Cortez: The End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement. So Ryan, thanks for joining us for part two of this conversation. I thought your book is really helpful in this moment because it sort of gives insight into where the Democratic Party is right now and it seems a lot of people feel like have not really addressed the needs of working Americans. And the cracks in this stimulus’ response have been massive and they just announced they’re going to be recessed. They’re not coming back next week, they’re going to be recessed even further. What are your thoughts on this current moment we’re at?
Ryan Grim: Yeah, so a lot of people note when they look at the Democratic leadership on TV how geriatric they are, but what they don’t think about is, well, what does that mean about those people’s life experiences? And in my book I go into detail about who these people are and what kind of politics they experienced in the 1970s and 1980s that formed their politics today. Because whether we like to admit it or not, a lot of our view of the world is really shaped as we’re coming into our own. We all try hard to continue to learn throughout our lives and to continue to incorporate new information, new experiences, and evolve our way of thinking, but that isn’t in practice that easy to do. And so, millennials for instance, no matter what, are going to be deeply shaped by the financial crisis that they lived through as they’re emerging into adulthood. And now shaped by this crisis again, as they’re emerging just from the last one.
Gen Xers have their own series of things that helped shape their worldview. People like Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer really came of political age in the late 1970s, early 1980s amid the kind of right wing backlash and the Reagan revolution. In 1978 there was a huge midterm wave that brought people like Newt Gingrich to Congress which presaged Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980. It’s hard to overstate how crushing that 1980 election was for Democrats, in particular ones who are just getting into politics like the current leadership was. Because you didn’t just have the incumbent Democratic president thrown out of office, you have him thrown out of office by what they saw as a rodeo clown, this actor from California who wasn’t running like the moderate Republicans that they had come to understand.
Richard Nixon, as a lot of people now know, he signed the Environmental Protection Act into law, that sort of thing. This was not your grandfather’s Republican. This was much more of a Newt Gingrich revolutionary type of class that came in. Not only did he win, but they lost 12 seats in the Senate. It was just an absolutely extraordinary trouncing. And they didn’t just lose a massive number, they lost Senators who’d been, in some cases, for four decades, people who had been the pillars of what it meant to be a Liberal throughout the 20th century, leaders in the fields of environmentalism and consumer rights and anti-war. Frank Church, for instance, loses his race in 1980. Mike Ravel actually lost a primary in 1980. An entire generation wiped out. Birch Bayh, who had been kind of a Liberal lion who had been a front runner for President in 1976, by 1980 he’s losing his race.
And so Democrats feel like they’ve just been thoroughly rejected by the American people and that the American people are a center-right people, that any hint of kind of Progressivism or Liberalism is going to be tossed out. And so, they retrench and they reorient themselves around a strategy to raise tons of corporate money so that they can hire good consultants to win back these swing districts and these middle of the road voters that are so elusive to them. Any hint of a tick to the Left begins to scare them that there’s going to be another backlash and when they finally get back into the White House with Bill Clinton thanks to Ross Perot cleaving off 19% of the vote in the general election, two years later, their worst fears. Another backlash, boom. 2008, they get back into the White House again and two years later, boom, a huge, huge backlash.
And so, over and over again, the Democratic leaders have lived through these backlashes against any Democratic advances and so they’ve just internalized the idea that if they do anything, they’re going to get hammered for it. And so Nancy Pelosi has now taken that to its logical extreme and has adjourned the House, scattered it to the wind, and preventing it from actually doing anything other than responding to whatever the Republican Senate sends its way and then having to do it through some version of unanimous consent because the members aren’t even in the House floor. The virtue of that strategy would be there can’t be a backlash to it theoretically because there’s nothing to backlash against if you’re not doing anything. They also are hoping in this context that Donald Trump will so set himself on fire politically that Democrats will just kind of walk backwards into controlling the House, Senate, and the White House in 2021. And nobody at this point can tell them that they’re actually wrong about that.
Jaisal Noor: And what was always interesting from attending some of the Sanders rallies, we covered them in Iowa and New Hampshire and some other states, is that that was exactly the point that people like AOC were making. They were saying, “We don’t want to go back to what it was like before Trump. We’re trying to build a new vision for society and have a different relationship, have a social contract like we haven’t seen in this country. I think one of the most interesting parts of your book, one of the most relevant to this moment is how you covered the recovery from the 2008 economic crash when you talk about the role that not only corporations and lobbyists played in shaping the recovery, but also that Progressive lawmakers and Progressive groups played. You talk about groups like Indivisible, which were prominent later, but groups that actually were able to help change laws and help sway the President or sway Congress one way or the other.
And so you have those lessons, but you also have Joe Biden appointing someone like Larry Summers to be an unofficial advisor at this point, an advisor outside of his campaign. Talk about where we are today compared to this previous crash.
Ryan Grim: Right. The Left has been battling with the Democratic establishment trying to push it to be more aggressive for decades and it really did flame up in the first couple of years of the Obama administration, but what Robert Gibbs, who was the Press Secretary at the time called the professional Left. We’re often handicapped by the fact that a lot of these Liberal groups rely on the same donor network, and Rahm Emanuel was making calls to that network, telling them if they criticize blue dog Democrats or if they criticize Obama, I want you to cut off your funding. And so it required the Left to build an independent grassroots structure that could challenge the White House and push it in a more Progressive direction.
But in a lot of ways it was a desert. The Congressional Progressive Caucus was meek, wasn’t able to extract many concessions from Pelosi who’s an adept tactician and parliamentary infighter and also has a lot of experience fighting the Left. She often says, “Look, I understand Progressives, I’m a Progressive. I represent San Francisco. It’s one of the most Progressive cities in the world.” But as I write in the book, she got to office in a contested primary where she was the kind of establishment business friendly candidate against the Vice Chair of the Local Democratic Socialists of America against an insurgent grassroots campaign. And it was a race that she only won by a few thousand votes. And so when she says she understands the Left, she understands them in conflict with them, not as somebody who kind of led an insurgent movement to come to the House of Representatives. And so the Left has been losing these fights internally for years and they’re still struggling to gain much purchase in the House today.
Jaisal Noor: And I guess, in your book, your title is The End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement and I think it sort of can give hope at this time for Progressives who’ve had a really tough year to really put it in the context of where things were when you talk about the campaign of Jackson in the eighties and how he was totally shut down by the Democratic establishment and just to see how Sanders’ campaign was so different and him being front runner for several weeks in this election, what are your thoughts about how far the Progressive movement is coming and the work that really remains?
Ryan Grim: And so The End of Big Money, that’s kind of an aspirational subtitle. Obviously, big money is still here and continues to play a major role in our politics, but the rise of small money has changed the playing field and it has enabled someone like Sanders and other insurgent to compete in a way that at least puts them on a footing where they have a shot at winning. Doesn’t guarantee victory and they’re very rarely going to outspend their opponents, but it gets them to a threshold place where they’re at least viable and where their ideas have to be considered as part of the conversation and when they are, voters tend to react favorably to them. The next step is continuing to professionalize it and to persuade voters away from the idea that they’ve been inculcated with, that Liberalism and Progressivism equals losing, that if you have a left wing candidate, therefore they’re going to be rejected by the population.
A lot of voters, particularly baby boomers, have very much internalized that idea, you saw it play out after South Carolina and into Super Tuesday. Part of this is demographics. The party is getting younger as baby boomers gradually age out of it, though there’s kind of a ticking clock as the world confronts these different thresholds when it comes to cataclysmic climate change. But at the same time, the world is not going to end, there’s still going to have to be some forms of government even in a post climate apocalyptic scenario. And so that’s what makes the organizing today, building community and building social bases, that much more important.
Jaisal Noor: All right, Ryan Grim. Thanks so much for joining us. Author of We’ve Got People from Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio Cortez: The End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement. Thanks so much for joining us.
Ryan Grim: Great to talk with you.
Jaisal Noor: And make sure to catch both parts of our interview at therealnews.com. Thanks so much for watching.
General Assignment Reporter
Jaisal is a host, producer, and reporter for TRNN. With his expertise in education policy and systemic inequity, he focuses on Baltimore, Maryland. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio News, Democracy Now! and The Indypendent.
Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years.