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Progressive Leaders Weigh in On Recent Victories; Exclusive Interview with Jeff Weaver

Politics Features Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
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For the Democratic Party leadership, last Tuesday was perhaps the most jarring wake up call since November 2016. In primary contests across the country, many progressives handily defeated their establishment challengers.

Of all the victories—Jared Polis for Colorado governor, Bernie Sanders-backed Emily Sirota for Colorado State House, Ben Jealous for Maryland governor, etc.—the outcome of the congressional primary in New York’s 14th District stood out among the rest. Rep. Joe Crowley, the number four Democrat in the House whose name had been floated as a possible speaker, was roundly defeated by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old Latina community organizer and democratic socialist who worked on Sanders’ presidential campaign. Cortez refused corporate money and was outspent 10-to-1, but nevertheless, emerged victorious.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was quick to downplay the accomplishment, but to observers, it was clear that the revolution promised in 2016 had finally landed.

One of those observers was Jeff Weaver, former campaign manager for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign and author of the new book, How Bernie Won. Paste was able to speak to Mr. Weaver for an exclusive interview the day after Tuesday’s victories.

The first question I wanted to ask you was “what was your reaction to last night?”

Oh, last night was a tremendous amount of celebration among progressives about—you know—just a series of victories. You know, we had victories in New York, we had victories in Maryland, we had victories in Colorado. It was like—It’s always better to win than to lose!

What role do you think the Bernie Sanders campaign—the campaign that you ran—played in the elections last night?

The last two weeks you’ve seen like a bunch of obituaries, right? ‘Oh the Bernie movement is dead,’ ‘there’s no progressive movement,’ ‘bla bla bla they can’t win elections bla bla bla,’ right? you’ve seen all of those—New York Times, Politico, it’s been everywhere. Well I think last night demonstrated that in fact the progressive movement is alive and well. And what has happened is—you know, and this is like, if you read my book How Bernie Won, this is one of the roles Bernie has played throughout his political career is that he has expanded the conversation.

He has expanded the scope of what is possible. And then you have, you know, folks like Ben Jealous, or you have Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or you have Emily Sirota…who pick up that mantle and use that opportunity to run for office and to win…That’s what he does: he creates space, not just in the Congress. What he does in the congress is he opens the debate so that a broader range of views are discussed and permitted and ultimately are successful. That’s the role he plays: he changes the ground rules so that progressives can win.

Why do you think we’re seeing the rise of these outsider candidates—and this has been a question that has existed since 2016, or 2015 even. Why is it that this message is so powerfully resonating with people?

Because once you get out of—and I travel around the country a lot—once you get out of DC and the coasts, you know there’s a lot of people hurting out there…frankly a lot of people on the coasts too—when I say the coasts I mean the elites on the coasts…When you talk to working people of all races across this country, what you find is…they’re not interested in macro numbers and all kinds of economic numbers, and this and that. They’re like “how’s my family doing? Like, am I getting ahead? Am I falling behind? Am I losing my house or do I have job? If I have a job, do I have three jobs because my job pays so little? What’s my health insurance like? Do I have to choose medicine for myself or my kids?

All of this is out there, and people in DC—the Beltway, I mean the sort of Beltway insiders—they just don’t get it. And they don’t understand it. And people are finally frustrated and fed up. I think the Great Recession we had that was brought on by George W. Bush’s economic policies—you know that Obama was forced to clean up—really for many people exposed just how vulnerable they are. Even people who thought they were economically secure because they owned a home, and they had a car and they had a job. They saw how easily that can be ripped all away from them. And they’re right: it can be ripped away from them very quickly. And so they’re looking for leaders who…look at the world a little differently, who are willing to pursue policies that provide them and their families more security.

You know it’s very diplomatic of you to pin it exclusively on George W. Bush…

I’m anything if not diplomatic.

(laughter)

I did want to get into a little more detail on something you brought up earlier, and that is people are not seeing the personal growth that they’re hearing about in the media. Do you think that that’s a problem with how media reports on the state of the economy—that we keep hearing that this is a robust, booming economy when most people can’t afford health care, they can’t afford to get sick, they can’t afford to retire, they’re struggling to make rent? Do you think that there is a fundamental problem?

This is the problem. It’s very easy to report on macro numbers, right? You get a number. Like, the Dow Jones is a number. The unemployment rate is a number. The GDP is a number. It’s a concrete number. It’s not really disputable—it is what it is. And it’s an easy thing to report on. And then…obviously, the Republicans—in this case—you know, spit it out as representing…a certain level of economic…success. And then, it’s a much harder story to go and talk to people and to reflect the real hurt people are feeling…who are struggling to get by. When I say struggling to get by I don’t just mean people who are homeless. I’m talking about people who do own houses, who do have cars, who do have jobs, and do aspire to have their kids go to college and what have you. I mean, these people are struggling…it’s not like, “Hey…I get a good union job and…I’ve got good security, and if I want to stay at this job…I can probably stay here a good part of my life…and that’s not the economy we live in, and that people experience.”

That’s a much harder thing to report on because…it’s all individualized, it’s a lot of anecdotes. But you know, there are a lot of other statistics. They’re just not trumpeted around. I mean, obviously there are the statistics about poverty in America…about income inequality. So these macro numbers are great, but of course, unless you qualify them by saying you know this is a great number in the aggregate but…the wildly disproportionate amount of the benefit of this is going to a very few people, you don’t really capture the reality of the economy.

Most Americans feel that the economy is improving, but they don’t feel their overall well-being is following suit. That, to me, feels dangerous. Would you agree that that empowers Donald Trump when he talks about, you know, the liberal elites—“they don’t care,” “they’re disconnected”—

It absolutely empowers him because what happens is, people lose faith in the media when they don’t see the reality of their lives reflected in the reporting and in the coverage. And so they say well those people aren’t talking about me, they aren’t not talking about my life, what they’re talking about is not reflected in my life, and so why do they matter? And at some point it’s very easy to ridicule them, and pigeon hole them as, you know, liberal media elite and bla bla bla.

And that’s a reality: The media needs to do a better job of reflecting the reality in people’s lives. And sometimes they rise to the occasion—I think…by and large the coverage of this inhumane, barbaric treatment of immigrant families, and…ripping..toddlers away from their mothers at the border. I think that that was effective at reflecting not only the real experience of immigrants in this country, but also was shocking to what you would call “middle America”...who, whatever their views are on immigration, don’t think that that’s what you do, right? You know, folks coming over the border are committing a misdemeanor at worst. Other people commit misdemeanors all the time…No one’s going to say: You know what the penalty for that is? We’re taking your kids. And we’re going to take them far away. And you may never see them again…

So I did think like, the coverage of that issue has been good, and I think it has really reached people because people can’t conceive of that as being a justifiable penalty for whatever transgression they view an undocumented person coming over the border has done. It’s just so disproportionate, you know what I mean?

It seems to me that the issues people are voting on have completely changed since Sanders’ candidacy. I mean, you guys really did change the national conversation—or move it forward from where it was after Occupy. You must feel a sense of pride in that?

I do. I wrote a book on how Bernie won! This is part of how Bernie won..I always get the kneejerk neoliberals: Oh well you didn’t win; Hillary got more votes. Like, that’s not the point. Okay,I got it, Hillary got more votes. No doubt about that. She won in the strict sense of like, she won the nomination. I acknowledge that too—I’m not trying to take that away from her. But on the other hand…I heard this statistic: half the Democratic candidates for Congress who raised $1000 or more in this election cycle in their literature had “Medicare For All.” Half of them. Half of Democratic candidates who raised $1000 or more for Congress. That number four years ago would have been three percent, or two percent, or maybe one percent—I don’t know. It might have been point something percent.

But what is permissible to discuss—the options that are available, the policy options, the progressive policy options that are available in the political discourse and the legislative bodies across the country—is just so much broader. I mean, Ben Jealous won last night in Maryland, you know, talking about “Medicare For All.” I mean like unabashedly talking about “Medicare For All.” It’s not like it’s coded with “universal healthcare” and “universal access,” and all this other kind of verbage that’s used to say nothing, right? I mean, guy says I’m for “Medicare For All—that’s what we’re going to do. Health care is a right, not a privilege. We’re gonna have “Medicare For All.” Not shy about it…Steny Hoyer…backs his opponent; Martin O’Malley backs his opponent, and he wins anyway.

Now, do you think—this is something that I’ve been thinking a lot about, and I don’t want to suggest that Sanders is going to run in 2020. It seems that by 2020, his platform from 2016 will be the moderate choice for Democrats.

Did you say the “moderate choice?” laughs How about we say the “mainstream choice” for Democrats—that I think is probably a better way to put it. Because the grassroots was already there. It’s not like grassroots Democrats have moved—they were there already. That’s what Hillary Clinton discovered when started running against Bernie. It takes longer for the party hierarchy to respond. But they are responding. You know, not as fast as some people want, and not as radically as some people want—or even that I want, frankly, because I would like it to move a little faster. But they are being forced to respond because they are a political party which tries to elect people to office. At some point if you become misaligned with your base, you have trouble doing that. Because even your most dedicated base—it’s not that they’ll run to the other side—they just won’t come out.

Now do you think that last night’s election results across the country are necessary to reinvigorate the party? I mean, because we’ve heard polling indicating that the Democrats are viewed as of “out of touch.” Do you think that victories like last night will change that perception over time?

I do. Because when you elect more people like we elected last night and they get into positions of power, they can use the levers of government to affect progressive change that’ll have real impact on people’s lives. It take a while because electing one person to congress doesn’t change the congress it’s a body of 435. But as the center of gravity moves, you know, you’ll get more people elected like that. But also, some of the people who were there who did not really understand or believe that this was an effective or acceptable frame of discussion will suddenly realize that it is, and then they’ll move on their own. You know what I mean? And so you create this momentum—this move—in a certain direction…that’s what happened to the Republican Party.

What would be your ideal platform for 2020?

I talk about this in my book…In my view you need to articulate a platform of what I call “common aspirations.” When do polling of people across the country—regardless of race, regardless of geography—like, and you ask them what they want, the answers are shockingly similar, right? They want like, economic security, they want health care, you know they want their family to live in like, social dignity, they want opportunities, they don’t want to be old and poor and sick without resources and want to worry about their own parents who are getting older, or about their kids college.

So all these things. So you have to articulate and fight for a bold set of what I call “common aspirations.” And at the same time, you have to address the various barriers and inhibitors that exist in all the communities to achieving that. And those are not common. Those are different. So, in African American communities you’ve got police violence. In some communities you face environmental hazards. How you get everybody to the set of common aspirations requires some different solutions in different places, but it all has to be framed in terms of we’re all trying to get everybody get to the same place and people just face different barriers. If people understand that you’re trying to help their family get to this ideal place, they’re not going to be upset that you’re trying to help somebody else’s family get their too.

The game the Republicans play is, Oh, look they’re helping those people at your expense. We all know it’s true. Those people are taking your social services benefits. Those people are taking your job. These people are doing bla bla bla bla bla. So we’ve got to get beyond that frame, and get to a frame where people understand that when we’re addressing a particular concern—that’s a concern in a certain community, that we are doing that because it is part of a larger effort to get everybody to be able to achieve these common aspirations. So that is the challenge. It’s easier said than done, but that I think is like, the frame in which you have to operate.

And to the extent that you disengage your fights around certain barriers from a set of common aspirations, you open up places for Trump and those people to create these wedges between communities. I think one of the problems with Hillary Clinton’s campaign is that…she articulated very well the barriers that various communities face without tying it into a set of common aspirations. It was just like Oh I’m going to help these people. I’m going to help these people. And people were just like, well what about me?

The last question I want to ask you: There are a lot of people who have left the Democratic Party and have sworn it off forever. In light of last night’s victories, what is your message to those people?

It’s probably going to be the same message it was the day before those wins which is like, that’s defeatism and I reject that, frankly. And anybody who thinks that transforming the economy and the politics of the greatest empire ever to exist in the history of humanity is going to happen like, overnight or with a few marches or a couple of local elections, is delusional.

So, this is a hard fight. There are a lot of people who benefit from the current structure, and they’d like to keep it that way, and they are going to resist you at every turn. And unless you are committed to engaging with your eyes wide open about the extent of the struggle required…it’s just dilettante politics…I find it to be unsatisfying…There’s a lot of opportunities for the nation, but…we’re on the edge of a knife, and we could fall the wrong way, and you could have Trump for four more years, and you could have an emboldened extreme right. I mean the kind of right that we’re seeing now is not anything that we have seen before.

And people do not understand the severity of the challenge in front of us, or the danger in front of us…that means working with people who aren’t exactly on your wavelength but who are gonna help you fight this, right? That doesn’t mean you don’t hold to your principles, and you don’t try to move your coalition in the direction you want to go. That’s what Bernie does, right? Bernie is a coalition builder. You know, he brought in all kinds of new people into the Democratic Party and into the process, he created—certainly among millennials—this interracial coalition that’s really formidable…but at the same time, at the end of the day, when he did not win the nomination, he endorsed Hillary Clinton and campaigned extremely hard for her across the country because…the test at the end of the day is, is what you’re doing going to hurt working people? It’s not about purity points, it’s not about this, it’s not about that, it’s what is the impact on real people? Let’s not lose sight of that.

Our Revolution President Nina Turner also provided Paste with a statement which we have included in full below:

We are proud of the victories of all our progressive champions tonight. In states all across the country, Our Revolution is empowering people where they are to get organized and have a real, lasting effect in their communities. In an atmosphere where the largest checks get the most say, it’s people power that will truly transform this nation and return it to a democracy of, by, and for working families. Our Revolution is nearly 600 groups strong in 49 states, empowered and backed by hundreds of thousands of members — and the political revolution is just getting started.

Our Revolution supports progressive champions at every level of government. By supporting candidates backed by people, not corporations, we are aiming to transform American politics to make our political and economic systems responsive to the needs of working families.

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