Whither Left Populism?
with Briahna Joy Gray
Since the rise of Donald Trump, the political right has claimed the mantle of populism for itself. The idea that elites in Washington, California, and New York are running roughshod over ordinary Americans is now perceived to be a winning message in the Republican Party. One need only look at the campaigns of J.D. Vance, Josh Mandel, and others in the Republican senatorial primary occurring today in Ohio to see how central this message has become in Trump’s wake.
But there is nothing inherently conservative about populism. The idea of “the 99%” that became a left-wing rallying cry after Occupy Wall Street is a populist appeal to a majority that, the thinking goes, has been ignored (or worse) by politicians who cater to the wealthiest of the wealthy. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020, with their attempts to forge a middle class-working class voting coalition and their reliance on small-dollar donations, could accurately be described as populist in nature.
One would think that, by definition, a populist message would be, well, popular. But the left has not had nearly as much success injecting populism into mainstream Democratic Party thinking as the right has had with the Republican Party. Why should that be?
My guest this week is Briahna Joy Gray, and she has an answer to this puzzling question. As the former National Press Secretary to Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign, she’s in a position to offer an incisive analysis of the Democratic Party’s reluctance to embrace progressive populism. Briahna is a committed woman of the left, and she is not happy at all with the way even the Congressional Progressive Caucus advocates for progressive causes. I’m quite interested to see what all of you make of her critique of the Democrats. Let me know in the comments.
[Note: We recorded this conversation at Brown’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, and there was no video equipment on hand. Instead, Nikita Petrov has created an animation version of me to provide some visual stimulation.]
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GLENN LOURY: I wanted to talk more generally about left and right, because you made a point that was really interesting, which is that people who are off the main beat sometimes have trouble getting their voices heard and worry about getting marginalized. For example, the Democratic Party did your man dirt. They really did dogged him out.
BRIAHNA JOY GRAY: Correct. And it’s still going. Have you heard about this latest with Senator Nina Turner in Ohio’s 11th District race?
Well, if I didn’t know who Nina Turner was, my wife would divorce me. She’s had her eye on her for years. But tell us about her.
The Democratic Party is no friend to the left. As you mentioned, they were roundly unfair to Bernie Sanders, both in 2016 and 2020. This is not leftist conspiracy to say that, when he won the first three primaries, which some people will dispute, if you’re one of the ten people in America that was a vociferous supporter of Pete Buttigieg.
After he won the first three primaries, including Nevada, which is a diverse state in which he won 70% of the Latino population, there was a mass dropout of all the other candidates. Obama is reported to have picked up the phone to call all the other candidates and say, “Let’s drop out. Let’s rally behind Joe Biden. Let’s do this.” And you have people like Soledad O’Brien saying, “Oh, he won Nevada? No big deal. Let’s see when he wins a diverse state.” As though the Latinos don’t live there, don’t matter. It’s a little bizarre, being Afro-Latina herself. But that’s the kind of framework we were in.
They tried to red scare Bernie after Nevada because they got so frightened. They said that Putin was helping him win the election. All of this stuff. It gets memory-holed, but all of this stuff happened. There was the whole Elizabeth Warren shivving. All of that happened. But it goes on.
So something happened this week that has caused a lot of leftists to say this is it, we’re done with the Democratic Party altogether. I don’t personally identify as a Democrat. Bernie Sanders was an independent, and that mattered to me. But Senator Turner, who was one of Bernie Sanders’s four campaign co-chairs, ran last year to replace Marcia Fudge’s seat in the district that’s basically Cleveland, Ohio. Marcia Fudge joined the [Biden] Administration and left a midterm vacancy. In that race, Senator Turner—we call her Senator Turner because she was a state senator some years back. She has a long history in the district, very well-liked in the district, was a professor at Cuyahoga Community College, a graduate of that college, has a real personal hard-knock story that a lot of people relate to.
She was ahead in the polls. Everything was going along swimmingly, when her opponent, which seems to have just been picked from the ether by the Democratic Party—you’re hard-pressed to find her speaking anywhere on the internet, saying anything, believing anything, has no real identity before any of this. Gets a huge influx of money that catches her up to Nina Turner, who had been leading in fundraising up to that point, from a variety of groups that historically donate to Republican candidates—no progressive allies here—and in the final stretch gets endorsements from all the favorite, favorite Democrats there are. People like Jim Clyburn and Hillary Clinton. And she narrowly squeaks out a victory over Nina Turner.
And Nina Turner’s running again, because it was a special election, now there’s the real election this year, it’s coming up on May 3rd. The Congressional Progressive Caucus, led by Pramila Jayapal, who was for Bernie Sanders, all of the Squad members and the CPC for Bernie Sanders, Bernie Sanders surrogates, all of that. Ro Khanna was another co-chair: CPC. They just endorsed Shontel Brown, Nina Turner’s opponent, over Nina Turner. Now, Shontel Brown wasn’t even a member of the CPC until they grandfathered her in like a month ago, just to validate now, it seems in retrospect, the choice for them doing so. Shontel Brown didn’t believe in $15 minimum wage, Medicare for All—any of this stuff—last year.
Okay, she was Congressional Black Caucus, but not …
She wasn’t in Congress before she won. But she is a member of another caucus group whose name escapes me right now that is antithetical ideologically to the CPC. Something that’s a conservative, business-minded caucus.
But she’s a Democrat.
She’s a Democrat.
She’s an electable Democrat.
Well, anybody in Cleveland’s electable. It’s a blue city, it’s a blue district. That’s not the issue. They can’t claim electability.
What accounts to the antipathy to Nina Turner’s candidacy in the mainstream Democratic Party?
She’s a progressive.
Why are they against progressives?
She’s outspoken against the failures of the Democratic Party. She’s outspoken against the failures of Joe Biden. Because she’s advocating sincerely for the interests of working people, non-ideologically working people. People who’ve listened to my podcast have heard me say this a million times before, but I can chart to you a series of events that demonstrates that Joe Biden had no investment, actually, in passing a $15 minimum wage. And in fact, Pramila Jayapal advocated for progressives to stand down in the fight to get the $15 minimum wage included in the COVID relief bill last year.
There is one party. The reason I feel such ideological kinship to so many people across the spectrum is because my first and foremost sense of identity is with those people who have identified that there's a one-party system that's rooted in neoliberalism and maintaining a corporatized status quo that makes life very, very difficult for the majority of people living in this country.
We live in the richest country in the world, and 40% of Americans could not respond to a $400 emergency. Really think about what that means. A $400 emergency. People couldn't come up with 400 bucks. 40% of the country. That was a stat from before the pandemic. God knows what it is now. And we have the longest period in American history without raising the minimum wage. It hasn't been raised since Bush.
And we're fighting over what, exactly? You turn on CNN or Tucker Carlson, they're all talking about the same dumb stuff, distracting us from the substantive issues that should be uniting us all.
Okay. In a way you're not answering my question. I want to know why is it that the party, the Democratic Party, which is the relative left party in mainstream American politics, is against these progressive ideas. They're not for the $15 minimum wage. Are they afraid they're gonna lose some close selections if they don't hew to the center? By the way, I'm not for the $15 minimum wage, I should declare that and we should talk about it. Anyway.
It's because Joe Biden took more money from billionaires and corporate donors than anybody else in the huge Democratic primary field, 26 candidates or whatever it was. And money talks. And I think normal people get that. Normal people don't think that people are giving away money for free. There's no free lunch. And Joe Biden admitted this, and there’s this kind of fabulous clip of him saying, “Well, of course. If you give me $20,000 and you call me, I'm going to pick up your call first before other people's.” I appreciate the honesty.
Okay. So what would be wrong with this? And then this is not a partisan critique. This is more like a pragmatic assessment. So like applying game theory to the political scene. How can you win?
You know probably about the median voter theorem in political science. There's this idea that the parties tend to move into the center because if I'm on the left and you're on the right—or, better, I'm on the right and you're on the left—if I move in your direction, I'll get half of the people in between the two of us and that'll expand my thing. And you want to move toward me to catch that marginal person. And we end up in the middle. And the money kind of ends up in the middle, too, because they're trying to buy both sides.
They're trying to influence the people who are going to be the decision makers. This swings back and forth. The committee chairs and the this and the that. If you're on the fringe of that, and you want to change it, just the decrying the fact that most of the political weight is in the center, because water runs downhill, because the center is the place where you get the most votes, the center is how you win close elections. Decrying that sounds almost like a grandstanding move. I mean, the insiders are going to say, “Okay, help me get control of the majority in Congress. Tell me how I'm going to do that.”
I would agree with you, if either party were aiming for the center.
You would agree if ...?
If either party were aiming for the center. Or not the center, but the majority of voters, where the bulk of voters are. But that is not the case. There is this 2014 Princeton study which gets cited a lot for the proposition that there is absolutely no connection—like nil, none, zero, zip—no connection between the desires of the electorate and what gets enacted in Congress. Like, if you see a graph of what the preferences are and what the bulk of people want here and there, there's no relationship between that and what legislation actually gets passed.
It matters because, to win elections, to get the number of voters you need to turn out, it's not about convincing and persuading anybody anymore. It's about how much you can spend on these races and how much you can protect incumbents, which is why the Democratic Party is so old, which is not a problem if you're with it and happening and you're actually representing the interests of your constituents. But it is a problem when you're being grandfathered in and protected by a party so that they never have to be responsive to their constituents. And you have instances like Diane Feinstein, who, it's being reported on this week, is like wandering around and bumping into walls. No disrespect, but she has an obligation.
You mean being compos mentis?
Yes. And there was reporting of her not being cognitively there before the last election. The woman, I think she was 84 during her last run. You know, I know Bernie, I've obviously spent some time with Bernie. There's no cognitive deficit there. And Noam Chomsky's still kicking it and doing great at 94. This is not about ageism. This is about being so invested in protecting the status quo that you let someone who's obviously suffering from symptoms of dementia continue to run multiple new reelection races in that condition.
I've gone a little astray. So let me give you an example of how they're not aiming for the middle. When it became clear that working people who were the traditional base of the Democratic Party—unions, laborers, assembly line people, this kind of a thing—coming out of the New Deal. That's what happened. FDR—people loved him, they would have made him a dictator if he hadn't died, and they had to change term limits after him—gave us all the social safety net. After the depression, everybody was obviously in dire straights. Set up the basic infrastructure of contemporary American life, set a minimum wage, certain hours a week, outlawed sending little kids into fire pits to mine for coal. I dunno, whatever. Did all of those thing. Social security, still the most popular program in America. Social security, Medicare, Medicaid.
And unions then became huge fans of Democrats. They were Democrats, because he set up the National Labor Relations Board and protected all of these labor rights. At some point, Democrats were losing and decided to go neoliberal, to throw all of that away and say, “We're not going to aim for that voter. What we can do is do what Republicans have been doing for some years now: use this newly founded thing called the television to influence people through ads. And we know that a certain amount of funding dollars translates into a certain amount of ad dollars and can influence the public in a way that we don't need the support of all those other people.” And if both parties have abandoned unions, well, the union has had to deal with it and go with the better of the two parties, which is still the Democrats, and we still maintain power.
So you get people like I think it was Chuck Schumer, who said for every working class Democrat we lose in 2016, we'll pick up some soccer mom in Connecticut. And there's this idea that by targeting more affluent people—both parties are going to do this—targeting more affluent people who are guaranteed voters, because rich people vote and poor people don't, that they can still maintain a status quo. And that's what's been going on. And that's how you get a scenario where, even though a $15 minimum wage was on the ballot in Florida and Trump won Florida, the $15 minimum wage won with 60% of the vote in deep red Florida. 60% of the vote as a ballot initiative. These are popular programs.
They are populist programs. I'm a left populist. Absolutely. And I think it's a disaster and so shortsighted of Democrats to leave populism to the likes of Tucker Carlson, who I don't think has a good faith investment in it.
Okay. So do you think Bernie could have won if he had been nominated in 2016 or in 2020?
Oh, 100%. Polls in 2016 showed that he was the most electable against Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton had an unprecedented level of unfavorables in the race. Hillary Clinton. They all knew this and said it was more important to elect Hillary Clinton than to actually beat Donald Trump, who they claimed was this existential threat, yada yada yada. Moreover, Hillary Clinton, the Podesta leak demonstrated to us in the emails, intentionally elevated Donald Trump as a Pied Piper candidate because she, in all of her hubris, believed that he was the easiest person for her to beat. So this entire thing is a creation of the Democratic Party. The entire Trump phenomenon was a creation of the Democratic Party.