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Journalist and comedian Francesca Fiorentini joins Paul Jay to discuss how socialism has emerged as an issue in the midterm elections

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PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

Well, just a little bit of time before the midterm elections, rather momentous midterm elections given where the country and the world is headed. And we’re going to be soon talking to someone who is able to make us laugh. And she also creates some, I think, unique insights into the American politic. Her name is Francesca Fiorentini. She’s a comedian and journalist, and formerly host of the show Newsbroke on AJ+. Francesca takes on all kinds of issues very directly and very, what should I say, a very straight progressive politics, framed in a way that I think is quite unique. Here’s a little taste of it.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI: Socialism, the monster hiding under America’s bed. Our chupacabra, our Candy Man. Say it three times into a mirror and your kid goes to college for free.

Americans are so used to demonizing socialism that most don’t really know what it is, or they’re shy to admit that they’re curious about it, like most adults are afraid to watch the Twilight series because what if they discover they’re totally on Team Edward? But thanks to a 76-year-old self-described democratic socialist, and now a whole host of candidates running openly as socialists, maybe it’s time to understand it.

You can think about socialism as democracy for the economy; an economy that takes planning and forethought, and doesn’t just leave wealth distribution to the invisible hand of the market which, in case you were wondering, looks like this for the 99 percent of us.

You hear that? There is a political blue wave coming. But do Democrats know how to surf? With internal rifts between progressive and centrist candidates, the party is arguably at Point Break, and the stakes to take back Congress in this year’s midterms couldn’t be higher. So do the Democrats have a plan to win? And can they bring both the centrist narcs and the uncompromising idealists, the Johnny Utahs and the Bohdies, together in order to ride this wave? In other words, is it time to say to Nancy Pelosi vaya con Dios … si?

The Democratic Party is known as a ‘big tent party,’ not to be confused with its opponent, the circus tent party. That’s because the elephants, and the clowns. The Democrats’ tent is more of a bitterly contentious farmers market. You’ve got the corporate kombucha next to the socialist baked goods, and things get testy. We said sourdough, not Stalin, Jan.

In fact, this new crop of progressive congressional candidates includes a whole lot of people of color, young people, and women. And they’re challenging the more mainstream Democrats with proposals like publicly funded elections that remove corporate influence, tuition-free college, universal healthcare, and other radical schemes to join the rest of the developed world. Because in fact, stats show that Americans do want those kinds of policies. A majority of Americans think that money plays too big of a role in campaigns, that the government should provide healthcare coverage, and that public universities should be free. But you wouldn’t know that from asking some of the current Democratic leadership; especially when it comes to an idea like Medicare for All, which they are either openly against or are adept at skirting.

SPEAKER: Will you cosponsor Senator Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All bill?

Not at this stage.

SPEAKER: Look, Democrats believe that healthcare is a right for all. And there are many different bills out there.

SPEAKER: Do you feel like the move for Democrats now is to make single-payer a plank in the 2018 platform?

SPEAKER: No, I don’t. I was carrying around single-payer signs probably before you were born, so I, you know, I understand that aspiration.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI: And that aspiration comes from the heart ventricle, which I ripped out when I turned 35. I put it on my birthday cake with a candle, and made a wish for the status quo.

PAUL JAY: I’m always accused as someone who doesn’t smile enough in these interviews. Well, Francesca makes me smile and laugh. She now joins us from San Francisco. Thanks for joining us.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI: You’re welcome, Paul. That is a point for me. Now we can start this debate, but I won, making you laugh. Go.

PAUL JAY: You did. OK. I think Donald Trump is the one person that has really properly framed these elections in an open and overt way. He has said that these elections are about socialism. He’s in every stump speech- even at the United Nations he went on a tirade about socialism is the great enemy.

DONALD TRUMP: Virtually everywhere socialism or communism has been tried, it has produced suffering, corruption, and decay. Socialism’s thirst for power leads to expansion, incursion, and oppression. All nations of the world should resist socialism and the misery that it brings to everyone.

PAUL JAY: But the real fight that’s taking place, I think both in terms of the fight with Trump and the far right, but also as this last little clip we played from your show, the fight within the Democratic Party, it very much is about is the next step and are the real solutions socialism?

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI: No, and I think that is a great question, and it is an important framing, and I’m sorry that we have to credit Donald Trump with that. But I think what we know that Trump does all the time is he co-opts talking points from the left. When Bernie Sanders lost the primary, or when he was no longer in the running, Trump said the system was rigged. That was obviously a Bernie Sanders quote. So he’s doing it again. Even though he demonizes people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, he knows and he’s taking cues, rightly so, from the left’s clamoring for real systemic change. And he’s using that, obviously, to scare up support from his base and basically use red scare tactics. But he’s not wrong.

And so I think what would be wonderful and some of the things that we point out in the Newsboke piece about centrist Democrats is if Democrats, those in power and sort of so-called establishment Dems, also understood that when it comes to young people, when it comes to what is actually energizing a lot of people, and people of color, and women in the electorate and in the base, it is these pretty so-called radical ideas like being able to pay for your medical bills, and being able to get an education without being in debt for the rest of your life.

So he’s not wrong. Man, I can’t believe I said he’s not wrong.

PAUL JAY: You made a point in the segment you did on socialism that some countries can have socialist policies. That doesn’t make them socialist countries. What do you mean?

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI: Well, I mean, I think that the word in and of itself, like a lot of isms, it’s up to interpretation. And so you know, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela used to call his socialism, you know, like, 21st century Bolivarian socialism, which was still largely based on extraction capitalism of oil. It’s just that instead of only for export, it was redirected into social services. Is it socialism? You know, we could debate that forever. I think what’s interesting to me is the ways that young people, especially, who’ve been energized by socialist candidates and organizations like the DSA, and just socialist ideas, Bernie Sanders’ campaign generally, they’re not concerned about whether or not the label fits. And they don’t have the same kinds of Cold War, you know, memories of duck and cover, or any of the baggage that comes along with the word socialism that let’s say, you know, baby boomers do.

And so for them it’s like they think of socialism as universal healthcare. They think of it as free college tuition. They think of it as affordable housing. And that all sounds good. They think of it as, as you understand that capitalism actually doesn’t work for the majority of people, they’re like, oh, we’ve got to rein this in. So again, the debates about what is and isn’t socialism, especially in the dire time that we’re in now, I’m not sure if it’s super relevant.

I’ve done a lot of pieces about socialism for AJ+. It’s kind of my beat, I’m sorry. One of the first pieces I did was about how- five ways America is already socialist. And I talked about, hey, the military. We’ve got basically a publicly-funded military. You know, what is it, 51 percent of every dollar, tax dollar, goes to the military. It fluctuates, but around there. How come that’s not socialism? You know, we fund a lot of things. And you know people that took issue with that, like, oh, America’s not socialist, but if you think about putting our tax dollars into the so-called public good, more or less, that could be construed as socialism. So yeah, that’s, I think we shouldn’t get all wrapped up in the labels.

PAUL JAY: Well, I don’t think we should get wrapped up in the labels. But I think we should talk about what the real nature of the problem is today, just how serious and dire the moment, historical moment we’re in, whether it’s climate change- which is barely being talked about in the midterm elections. Whether it’s- I mentioned to you earlier, we’re running this series of interviews I just did with Daniel Ellsberg, who scared the crap out of me. The danger, the possibility of accidental nuclear war is just as dangerous now as it was in the 1950s, 1960s. Perhaps even more, given that Russia and the United States are going to spend so much more money on upgrading their nuclear weapons facilities. Financialization and the extent and how parasitical Wall Street has become, and how another massive meltdown is due, I hope not sooner than later.

That that some of the kinds of measures are being talked about I think are all good, in my opinion, and you know, whether it’s minimum wage, or whether it’s Medicare for All, or some of the other reforms. And they are kind of socialistic in their character. But Germany has all those things. Canada has most of those things. Not free education, but they have Medicare for All, if you want to use those words. And so the issue of confronting the billionaire class, who have the real power, and confronting them because their power comes because they own stuff, and so if we- I think we also need to be talking about, you know, what real socialism is, which is, you know, public ownership in one form or another.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI: For sure. And I think, you know, you see that locally in measures- I know, I believe Prop B in LA, they’re trying to get a publicly-funded bank. So beyond a credit union, essentially having a bank that is owned by the people. And measures like that are incredibly heartening and important. And yeah, you could call that socialism or not.

And I think- you know, I think strategically, right, do you say the S-word, do you not? And what’s great about a lot of people who are being more, or who are attracted to socialist ideas, is that, again, they don’t really care what you want to call it. They’re not there to sort of, you know, either, either run away or embrace the term. But if you want to call them socialist, sure, go ahead, it’s socialist. Let’s talk about it. What does it mean? Well, it means that you believe that a democracy should function for the people, and not just for a select few, or the people who have money. It means you believe that capitalism has utterly failed the majority of people, and it needs to be restrained. And it doesn’t actually create the wealth that it promises.

So I think you’re right that running away from this conversation, especially in 2020, is only going to demobilise more people. And I remember one of the most disheartening moments of many disheartening moments of the Clinton campaign, let’s be honest, was when she couched a retort in this idea that yes, we have the most inequality in this country that we’ve had since before the Great Depression. But- and it was like, whoa, stop, stop there. Like, there is no ‘but’ after we have the most amount of inequality in this country since before the Great Depression. That’s, there’s no, there’s no after that. It’s that. That is what we need to address. Like, the center doesn’t hold anymore.

And we see that with this right-wing populism which I believe that for sure is rearing its head in this midterms, that not only is it a vote for or against socialist ideas, but also white supremacy. And we need to absolutely leave that in the past.

The best line, let’s be honest, of this entire midterm campaigning has been from Donald Trump himself, of course, who said that the Democrats want to gut Medicare in order to pay for socialism. Which is just a word- just a word salad that, you know, is just so beautiful. Like, he gets lost in his own metaphors. He has no idea what socialism is, or that socialized medicine is essentially Medicare. But this is the bogeyman, right. So it’s all the scare tactics that we’ve seen, and maybe they will die a beautiful death come November 6.

PAUL JAY: You said come 2020, and this whole midterm really is the prelude to the real war that’s going to break out. And one of the fronts of that war is going to be the Democratic Party. Some of this broke out in primaries leading up to these midterms. But once the midterms are over and the 2020 campaign begins, I guess about six and a half seconds after the midterms are over- in fact it’s kind of already began, I suppose.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI: Everyone’s hands are on the buzzer, like who’s going to announce first?

PAUL JAY: And then the war really breaks out. And this is going to be a serious civil war in the Democratic Party, because not just obvious that’s so much at stake. But the if another corporate Dem does win the nomination, and does beat Trump, which I would guess they would, although who knows what the hell’s going on.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI: I would not guess- I mean, I disagree. I, yeah. I wouldn’t guess that even if a corporate Dem ran that we would defeat Trump. I do not believe that at all. But I mean, I’d like to think that. But I think if you put up someone who is as neo liberal and/or not strong enough on real reform- not reform, but an overhaul of our current system, whether they’re talking about money in politics, whether they’re talking about, you know, lack of, you know, minimum wage, whether they- if they don’t put those, what I would say socialist values or principles and progressive ideas first, I think the right-wing populism has a very good shot of winning again.

PAUL JAY: It’s very possible. I mean, I’m beyond any capability of making a prediction. The only thing, the only thing I would say is that Hillary, in spite of everything, did win the majority of votes outside of those key swing states. And if she’d actually-

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI: Not according to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, but I will give you that.

PAUL JAY: And if she actually had bothered to campaign in the swing states, and spend money in the swing states, and do the most ABC fundamental stuff that election campaigns do in swing states, I don’t see how she may not have won those, too. I mean, just a walk away from them. So I doubt that’s going to repeat itself.

What I’m concerned about is that if a progressive Sanders-esque, or Sanders himself, that type of candidate isn’t the candidate for the Democratic Party in [2020] and it’s another Obama-esque candidate, then whether it’s four years or eight years later, we’re going to be looking at this again, but the next Trump ain’t going to be a clown.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI: For sure. I mean, I think the thing that Trump proved, and we’ll see how this bears out, because there will be many, many trumps in the wake of Trump. Whether or not he is reelected in 2020, people will- he broke the seal on open racism and open contempt for people of color, and women, and minorities, and all kinds of people, right. Mostly the Republican Party has gotten along with lightweight dogwhistling. They’ve gotten with lightweight conspiracy theories; you know, some on Fox News, some relegated to, you know, the subreddits of the internet, et cetera. But this is the first time that we’ve seen him win on a platform- and the stats show this, that compared to McCain and compared to Romney, openly discussing and exhibiting hate for the other side, no matter what that side is, has won him the election. So you’re, you’re definitely going to see other people try to double down on that. The problem is, do they have the je ne sais quoi ignorant strong strongman idiot reality show celebrity status that Donald Trump has? I don’t know.

But I think that you’re, you’re right that it has to … We are in a … 2020 is going to be insane. And I think we’re going to see a lot of- we’ve got to gird ourselves. The left has to gird ourselves. We’re going to have a lot of debates with friends. We’re going to disagree. We’re going to- there’ll be nuances. I don’t disagree with you. I think that if … I’m someone who believes that if Hillary Clinton had assumed the presidency- she won, but if she had assumed- there would have been more room for social movements to push her to the left, which I think is really important to remember. I think that it’s important to remember that Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter and the DACA movement all happened under a Democratic president. And it’s important to know that Democrats do make more space for people farther to the left of them to push them, and they’re not immune to that kind of pressure, unlike Republicans. But I do think that in eight years, the so-called underdog of Trump would have been a lot stronger. And so now we have this sort of failed quasi-fascist regime. But if he hadn’t been president, in eight years we might have seen something a little more thought through. And our job is to make sure that they don’t have time to think it through.

PAUL JAY: Well, there’s a ton to talk about, and I hope we get many opportunities to do it. But because the election’s really soon, let me just ask one final question. We’ve been doing some work in Lancaster where Jess King is running against the Republican, Lloyd Smucker. And she’s been running on a very progressive campaign. In fact, she’s not been running against Trump as much. She’s just been running for a very progressive campaign. And they think they’re winning over about 30 percent of the Republican vote, based simply on the progress of the, just the content and ideas of a progressive campaign. She’s closed the gap from- she was down, I think, around at least 14 points down when the campaign began, and she’s now within the margin of error, around four points behind. But that margin of error means it’s a virtual tie. Are you getting a sense of this yet? This is one of the big tests this midterms, whether progressives will do better against Trumpian Republicans than corporate Dems would.

FRANCESCA FIORENTINI: Against Trumpian Republicans, absolutely. Because the thing that Trump, I think, the reason he hoodwinked so many people is because he made promises- if you really listen to what he said, he made promises around healthcare. And he made promises around Social Security. Of course he’s, I call him a Trojan horse, a populist Trojan horse for, you know, corporate America, and for Republicans, and for the Koch brothers. And he is. So all of those promises have been broken. And that’s the one thing that I think for those of us who make calls and are trying to get out the vote for this midterms, we always have to keep coming back to, is that these promises have been broken. The stage has been set for Medicare and Social Security to be gutted.

But I think that anything … Number one, this is a vote for decency. So any candidate who is like, we need to be decent and pull our heads out of this sort of, out of the gutter here. But there has to be a vision. There has to be some sort of vision. And unfortunately, corporate Democrats- the vision of just not being Trump, it’s not really selling anyone. I mean, yes, we saw Cuomo, Governor Cuomo, win against Cynthia Nixon. And he mostly won against a, well, I’m not Trump, and Trump is a bad guy. But ultimately, I don’t see that playing out on a national stage. I saw that Cynthia Nixon was challenging him from the left. And I think that the, you know, the wool is off of our, of many people’s eyes in terms of the limitations of Democratic politics, which- let’s say you don’t, let’s say you’re fine with neoliberalism. Let’s say you’re down with, you know, global capitalism sort of calling the shots. That’s fine. Just the bipartisanship, just the way that to them bipartisan means just bending over and allowing whatever to take place to take place, llike, that alone should say that we need a party that actually can stick to its guns- i.e., you know, gun reform laws. But can stick to its guns a little bit more than the Democratic Party has thus far.

So just on some attitude, I think that absolutely, you need bold ideas. Because these are, these are dangerous times. Nobody wants incremental change right now we want to turn this ship around 180 degrees. Young people, especially, faced with debt, climate change- oh, 12 years? 12 years, I’m sorry, to to rein in fossil fuel emissions? We don’t have, we don’t have time to wait. People are like, oh, Bernie Sanders is too old. Can he live for 12 years? I’m gonna say yeah, he’s going to, he’s going to live for 12 years. Let’s pick a running mate. How about Warren? Elizabeth Warren could be a running mate. And if Sanders kicks the bucket, God rest his soul, we’ve got Elizabeth Warren as a vice president. This is great. We’ve got 12 years, though. Let’s do it.

PAUL JAY: All right. Thanks for joining us, Francesca.


PAUL JAY: 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.