AE1. "It's just the suburbs, man"
A poem & a conversation with Ryan Grim, Washington D.C. Bureau Chief of The Intercept, both about the 2020 US Elections
& the asteroid / crashes unnoticed teasing the sequel / while we’re immersed in a game show / called “America’s Next Top Fossil”
On an unusually cold morning for the first week of November in the American Northeast, Ryan Grim had just left Vermont when we started talking, and was about to take his exit at New York City by the end of our conversation. Between his full-time role at The Intercept and his appearances on The Young Turks and The Hill’s news hours, Grim has been a difficult person to reach. But I was determined to talk to Grim to make sense of the election because he’s a bit of a politics junkie from a blue-collar part of Maryland, who authored We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement; from him, I knew I’d get a sense of what would unfold in the Presidential race, which would be a mix of folktale and people’s history, backed by a boy-scout commitment to factual reporting.
So, I asked Grim about what the election has in store for a left now that the Democratic party has found its new “grassroots base” in college-educated suburban voters whom it has fed an unhealthy diet of boogeymen aided by cable news, diverting attention away from policy, favoring coverage that reaffirms tribal affiliation.
For a man named Grim, Grim is optimistic. Below is a condensed version of me trying to figure out from where his hopefulness stems.
Thank you for doing this interview. Why are you driving to New York?
I’m going to spend the day with Jamaal Bowman. We’re going to go precinct to precinct for a podcast we’re going to be launching about Bowman’s journey from middle school principal to United States Congressman.
I feel like I’m talking to the TV because you’re a Twitter personality. The journalist as internet celebrity is a novel concept. What’s it like for you?
It’s interesting, because I was an on-air contributor to MSNBC officially for three years, but I get recognized a lot more from The Hill’s YouTube show Rising, and from Twitter. The Young Turks was also part of this phenomenon. I don’t think Washington and New York have picked up on the size of the audience that exists outside prestige channels. A teenager would come up to me and say, I loved seeing you on TYT or Rising. With MSNBC, it was always middle-aged or elderly people. After this election, it’s going to be a disaster particularly for cable, which has organized itself around Trump. CNN has this posture of being aggressively anti-Trump. MSNBC is the voice of the resistance. Fox News will transition into calling Democrats “Socialists,” but their audience is not “growing” other than Tucker Carlson’s, and it’s also shrinking because they have such an elderly audience that’s slowly dying off.
Cable news is trying to frame a Joe Biden win as affirming that America is a center-right country and that fringes of both sides are being rejected at the ballot box.
I think people have internalized the idea that this election is one thing and one thing only, and that’s a referendum on Donald Trump. If Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren were the nominee, it might be different. Joe Biden is the most generic Democrat you can imagine, which makes this a contest between “Yes Trump” and “No Trump.” So there’s going to be a lot of room for progressive democrats to say, candidates running this cycle in states that won Republican seats didn’t run as conservative Democrats but as down-the-line progressives. They’re not running as, “I’m almost as Republican as my opponent.” This means that the party itself has moved significantly to the left in the last ten years. All you have to see is what Joe Biden himself says he supports today compared to what he supported ten years ago.
What are those policies he’s supporting now, which he didn’t ten years ago?
He’s not quite there on legalizing marijuana, but I think he’s going to be pushed there. Criminal justice reform in general, police reform in general; spending and the deficit are big ones. When Obama came into office, the idea was we’ll do a quick stimulus, then rush back to caring about shrinking the budget deficit. That’s simply not part of the democratic agenda anymore. There’s going to be a lot more willingness to spend. Certainly on the issues of reproductive freedom, the party no longer has any significant element that’s hostile to abortion rights. On climate, it’s night and day. Biden’s plan would have been laughed out of the 2004 election as way too radical—just in terms of spending alone, saying that you would put trillions of dollars into trying to transform the entire energy sector, to move away from fossil fuels would have been too radical in 2004.
In Pennsylvania, a key state, fracking seems to be an important issue. How has Biden shifted left if he doesn’t ban fracking, or support the renewable sector jobs program, Green New Deal?
He’s not going to issue new federal fracking permits. He says he’s phasing it out what, 2035-2040? That’s a radical shift from where the Obama-Biden administration was. It’s hard to keep those changes in focus because Biden is out of step with Sunrise Movement, and AOC, and Bernie. But if you compare him with where Democrats were in 2010, you see some movement. That said, I don’t think local issues played a crucial role in this cycle. I recently interviewed John Fetterman, the Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania who had been raising alarms earlier about the Democrats’ position on fracking, who now tells me nobody’s voting on fracking this year. The literal existential nature of the pandemic has overwritten all of these more parochial concerns that might have driven votes in previous elections.
Because of the pandemic, the process itself has changed; there has been a record number of mailed-in ballots. Trump has begun (update: “been”) saying that the election is going to be stolen from him. Are his claims in step with the fairness of elections in American history?
There certainly hasn’t been this much jockeying around the question of whether or not the election will be stolen since Reconstruction post-Civil War, where you have a ton of proxy battles over the ballot down in the South where the former confederates were reorganized into guerrilla fighters and slaughtered former slaves as they came to the polling places. What Trump’s saying is unprecedented in modern times. He’s being clear how specific his strategy is. He says that as soon as the polls close, he’s going to try to shut everything down, stop votes from being counted, and stop legal and accurately postmarked military and other absentee ballots that come in after election day. Trump’s statements leave a margin for theft. A close election is going to get thrown into the courts, which are now run by partisan Republicans.
“If I drop you in a suburb in Connecticut or New York or Texas or Arizona or Montana, you’re going to find the same businesses, similarly designed houses, the same cars, the same Netflix shows, the same everything except for the weather, to some degree. Half the people there are going to be from somewhere else. You certainly have people from Texas who cling to the idea of the Lone Star state, and the shit-kicking boots with the cowboy hats, but you drive around and it’s just the suburbs, man.”
So, turnout is an important factor for a Democrat win. Returned absentee ballots in some states seem already to be surpassing 2016 numbers.
Oh yeah, I think it’s projected to be the highest turnout since 1840, which was the first ever modern campaign in the sense that it had actual campaign rallies. William Henry Harrison, the Whig candidate, was running against Martin Van Buren, who was this Karl Rove-type political operative who really created the Democratic party. He was a cynical New York politician who recognized that slavery was dividing the North and the South, and if you could get enough Northerners who didn’t care about slavery to ally with the Southerners, then that would be the strongest national party. He sold that idea to the Southern slave powers. He proposed Andrew Jackson as the guy who would stitch together that coalition. Jackson lost the first time to Quincy Adams, but came back and won, and served two terms. Van Buren, who was his second-term VP because he had kicked Calhoun out, was next elected President after Jackson and served one term. Jackson was very Trumpian, to the point that there were all these anti-Jacksonians who had no ideology other than hostility towards Jackson, like these “Never-Trump Republicans” who don’t have anything else in common with Democrats. The anti-Jacksonians all organized behind William Henry Harrison, this general who was a generic guy without a whole lot of politics, but who turned out to be fairly progressive on some issues.
It’s no coincidence you make that comparison because this is a similar scenario: generic candidate v polarizing figure who brings out anti-voters. But the turnout has to be connected to progressives running grassroots campaigns even in Republican states. Is Biden riding the coattails of such local and congressional races?
I think in some cases, like Texas in particular, where there’s an effort to flip the Texas House of Representatives, galvanized by Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 Senate run, until which point people thought Texas was this hopeless Republican state, why bother, but Beto O’Rourke showed them the state’s changing. O’Rourke ran a pretty progressive campaign. Now you have people running at every level across Texas because they are convinced that it’s actually doable. Each one of those campaigns has volunteers out organizing people, registering them to vote, and turning them out. Those people are all voting for Biden.
Biden also outraised Trump in “small-dollar donations.” We saw breakdowns of donors by age, work, etc. when Bernie ran, but now we don’t get a sense of which people are donating to whom anymore. Who are Biden’s “grassroots” donors?
That’s a good question. I’m sure there’s overlap between the people who donated to Bernie and the people who are donating to Biden. There were plenty of people who liked Bernie because they thought he was legitimately the best shot at beating Trump. Now, the phenomenon of small-dollar-giving has spread through the party. Democrats have picked up more of the upper middle class suburban residents. A lot of Bernie supporters were really giving until it hurt, tapping themselves out with monthly contributions, whereas these newer donors have more disposable income who, when they hear news they don’t like, go on a rage-giving spree. But it’s certainly better getting it from them than getting it from a corporate PAC or Koch Industries, and what gets them to give can shape the Democratic agenda.
Many progressive congressional reps have become fundraising machines in a good way, because they can raise this kind of money at a national level, outside their districts. How does that speak to the idea of the Congressperson as a local representative?
If you’re going to be a successful viral small-dollar candidate, you’re going to get money from all over the country. Maybe half of it will come from California, and California is a boogeyman in a lot of places for Republicans. But that’s not exactly how our communities are anymore. The idea of local culture has been eviscerated by the proliferation of chain stores and a monoculture that now blankets the United States. If I drop you in a suburb in Connecticut or New York or Texas or Arizona or Montana, you’re going to find the same businesses, the same similarly designed houses, the same cars, the same Netflix shows, the same everything except for the weather, to some degree. Half the people there are going to be from somewhere else. You certainly have people from Texas who cling to the idea of the Lone Star state, and the shit-kicking boots with the cowboy hats, but you drive around and it’s just the suburbs, man.
With these demographics contributing to political campaigns, is this the emergence of a new American bourgeoisie, primarily focused on discursive rather than material solutions?
It is going to be interesting what a coalition that is financed by that type of voter is willing to fight for. These voters are pro-gay rights, pro-reproductive rights, and pro-immigrant rights, so that gives Democrats a lot of leeway to push forward on immigration reform or criminal justice reform. They are broadly in favor of a strong welfare state. They are in favor of a higher minimum wage. They are strongly in favor of climate action, more so than working class people who have more immediate material concerns in the disrepair of their homes, cars, dental care and healthcare. They don’t want the planet to go up in flames, but first they have to make rent.
Would they be interested in single-payer health insurance, or the Green New Deal?
Big chunks of the Green New Deal are definitely on the table. If you take Medicare for All, you run into the problem Elizabeth Warren had during the Democratic primary. She had the support of a lot of these professional types who had good health insurance and were nervous about what giving that up meant. So, I do think on that particular question, Democrats might trim their sails to abide this element of the coalition. It’s true that “nobody likes their insurer,” but what people do like is having access to a restricted network. They would think of it as cruel and callous to admit, but what it means is, if they call to make an appointment with their doctor, they know that they are going to get their appointments quickly. They know they’ll have top quality doctors at the practice. It’s going to be a nice office, clean and well-lit in a nice part of town. But they also don’t want to articulate that because it cuts against their notions of equity.
The thesis of We’ve Got People—your book on American left movements leading up to Bernie and AOC—is that there are enough small donors to bring the electoral success to the left, but as these suburban voters for whom “socialized” anything might be a problem participate more, does your thesis still stand?
Let’s take the issue of healthcare. Because we’re a two-party system, and one party is an ethnonationalist collection of super-rich and white working class, a significant portion of the white working class, as a matter of partisan politics, is opposed to single-payer healthcare. Within the other party, you can get to a majority, but when you combine the two parties, you’re pushed back down. When you bring in the coalition that has private insurance—even though tens of millions have lost it during the pandemic—and the propaganda campaigns funded by the incumbent industries that are stoking fears, it does become difficult to get to a place where you have the legislative will to create such a strong single-payer system that private insurance is banned. I think it would be possible to continue to expand Medicare in ways that will gradually drive private insurance out of business. I don’t think this undermines the thesis, which is that there are enough small-dollar donors that you can significantly remove corporate influence from the elections so that you can get a cleaner shot at enacting the public will. But at the same time, corporate interests are always going to have the ability to produce and distort the public will through its propaganda campaigns.
Speaking of which, Russia has become a fundraising juggernaut for the Democratic party, aided and abetted by cable news. Then, I get these emails from the DNC guilt-tripping people like, You’re not giving any money even though Obama asked. Both parties are resorting to full-on emotional abuse building from propaganda campaigns facilitated by cable news, to trigger donations and turnout. In such circumstances, how optimistic are you about the future of progressive politics?
What you’re describing is in some way, the power of big money exerting itself in the small money world. These powerful interests are figuring out ways to squeeze every last drop that they can out of these inboxes. The problem is that the incentives go in the wrong direction for these reactionary elements that are taking advantage of small donors in the parasitic way you’re talking about. They wouldn’t keep doing those things if they weren’t making a ton of money doing them in the short term. On the other hand, at worse, it scorches the earth of small donors. People say, you know what, forget it. This is ridiculous. I’m cleaning out my inbox and not answering any of these requests. That’s a perfectly fine outcome for some of these powerful elements of the party who can go back to the way they used to do it. Now, I think that people are giving because they want to give, and they want to do good. A lot are well-educated. Ethical fundraising operations will ultimately find ways to outpace unethical ones.