As a longtime reporter in Washington, Ryan Grim saw the promise of the Obama administration for progressives soon turn to bitter disappointment.
So, Grim—who has covered the Democratic Party for over a decade, first at Politico and the Huffington Post and now as the DC bureau chief for the Intercept—was in a position to call bullshit on the Democratic establishment. And over the course of the 2018 cycle, Grim and the Intercept doggedly covered the Democratic Party, putting a spotlight on its players and those who challenged the existing structure. Along with this site and others, it was among the first to cover the then-longshot campaign of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and was on the ground floor of several insurgent progressive campaigns—some which succeeded, and others that didn’t.
Grim turned these experiences, both in the pre-Trump era and the one we’re living in now, into a book released last week called We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement. In it, Grim marks the trajectory of the progressive movement through the uncertainty after the breakdown of the New Deal coalition, the right-wing hegemony of the Clinton and Bush years, the successes and failures of the Obama administration, the pure dismay of Trump’s election and everything that’s followed. It’s a vital history of the left flank of the modern Democratic Party, and provides valuable insight into where its soul comes from and what it hopes to accomplish.
I spoke to Grim over the phone about the book this week.
This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.
You start your history with Jesse Jackson’s 1988 campaign and Harold Washington’s mayoral campaign in Chicago in 1983. These are years that are generally perceived as the beginning of the wilderness for progressives. Why do you mark this as the start of the left’s resurgence?
You can always go back another year or another week or another few months, because all the work that people are doing at any particular time is building on work that was done before them. But I liked Harold Washington and Jesse Jackson because it’s when the parties are going through their realignment, so they’re thinking about what their new coalition is going to look like in the wake of the New Deal coalition coming apart at the seams.
The Washington and Jackson element consciously saw themselves in conflict with the establishment of the party. The moment for Jackson was joining the Washington campaign when [Walter] Mondale and [Ted] Kennedy decided to come into the primary and endorse [Richard M.] Daley. All they were asking for was neutrality and a fair fight in the primary, and they couldn’t get that. So they thought, “OK, if they want a fight, let’s give them a real fight and let’s win.” And in Chicago they did. And then out of that came Jackson’s ‘84 and ‘88 presidential bids.
You could go to [George] McGovern, or even back further than that, but you don’t find a platform that’s really as similar to Bernie’s or Warren’s as you do with Jackson’s. That’s really the most overlap you’re going to find. You could even look at Fred Harris if you want, who was sort of an insurgent Bernie before Bernie candidate in ‘76 and did surprisingly well in Iowa. In today’s era of online small donors, he might’ve taken off.
Do you think the fact that Bernie doing so well with those small donors is just a product of the year he ran in, or was there something else that set him apart from Jackson or Fred Harris?
It’s the technology. Fred Harris and Jesse Jackson simply had no way to turn it around that fast. Mail requires a lot more upfront investment in infrastructure and takes much longer. The Pony Express is never going to be tapping a button on your phone, so that is a huge transformation. Obviously there have been organized movements for centuries and you don’t need the internet to organize, but in a campaign where you have to move at a moment’s notice, right after Iowa you’ve got New Hampshire and then in a couple of weeks you’re into Super Tuesday. Sometime that takes a month instead of a day.
You debunk a lot of the myths Democrats tell themselves about the Reagan years and after that. One of those is that Carter, Mondale ‘84, Dukakis ‘88, etc. were too liberal. Why do you think that this view has persisted and gave such momentum to the Clinton campaign in 1992?
There’s self-interest in people who want to peddle that narrative, because you don’t want to discredit your own ideology. If they were going to admit that Mondale was actually this deficit hawk who came off as a scolding moderate, and Carter was anti-union and a leader in the push for deregulation, then the answer would be “let’s do something different than that. Let’s run a liberal.” But if you’re on the [Democratic Leadership Conference] side, you don’t want to run a liberal, so you say, “We already tried liberals. These guys, Dukakis, Carter, they were all liberals.” Dukakis proudly called himself a neoliberal, that’s before it became a total slur.
Another big myth you spend a lot of time debunking is about Rahm Emanuel’s strategy in 2006, and how this has become common wisdom among Democratic political figures that the only way to win a swing district in a congressional election is to nominate a prosecutor veteran small business owner. Other than self-interest, why do you think that’s stuck as the only way to win an election in a swing or conservative district?
Part of it is because it confirms a bias that generation internalized in the 1980s, that the country is conservative, that the country is center-right. But then also because Rahm was and is such a gifted propagandist—and there wasn’t much alternative media to counter his narrative—so he was able to say, “I’m the brash, ruthless pragmatist, and look how we won. We’re in the majority.” It’s not hard for somebody to be like, “Well, it must have worked then,” even though lots of the races he thought he’d win he lost, and a lot of the races he thought were lost the Democrats actually won, and the voters seemed to be voting for things completely independent of what Rahm was trying to sell. The best example being anger at the Iraq war, but Rahm wouldn’t even say he opposed the Iraq War and told candidates not to oppose it and to call for a “new direction.”
Yeah! He was like “The war was terrible.” It’s like, “Even in ‘06 you wouldn’t say that.”
Jesus. So more on Rahm—there’s an anecdote in this book of Rahm threatening a Congressional Hispanic Caucus member with withholding DCCC funds for wanting to vote against a hardline anti-immigration bill, and his play on that was that it would mobilize Latinx voters in 2006 even though 36 Democrats voted for it. I’m not trying to ask you to get into a counterfactual or anything, but what do you think the accomplishments of an Obama-era Democratic Party looked like without Rahm?
It’s an interesting question because Obama, his impulse was towards Emanuel-type people. The room was filled with Rahms. Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, Jim Messina...if you look at the future chiefs of staffs, there’s a similar type. So the problem with that question is that he probably would have wound up with a Rahm-lite. And he had already set the strategy that he was going to be a uniter, he was going to reach out to Republicans, shelve Organizing for America, wasn’t going to pressure Blue Dogs or moderates, he was going to sit down and reason with them.
If Obama had basically had done what Sanders says he’s going to do, which is bring the political revolution and his massive base to Washington doing Indivisible-style campaigns or what we saw in the summer of 2009 with the Tea Party, you can move members of Congress with grassroots pressure. So if he had done that he could have changed the political trajectory, but h would never do that with Rahm as chief of staff.
But if he had that inclination in the first place, he wouldn’t have hired Rahm.
You talk about Harry Reid and the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee’s strategy in 2006 as opposed to Rahm’s, and how he recruited populists like Jon Tester and Sherrod Brown, both of whom just won their third terms in the Senate in Trump states, whereas a significant number of Rahm’s recruits got wiped out in 2010 and 2014. Do you think the party organizations like the DCCC just need the right leadership in order to evolve into something that’s an ally too progressive, or are they just structurally resistant to that kind of shift in strategy?
I don’t think they’re structurally bound to that strategy. I do think they could take a different direction, particularly if they shifted how they did fundraising, because that would open them up to populists and progressivism. Now, they are in many ways a member-funded organization, every member of Congress pays dues to the DCCC, so they’re never really going to be a part of the insurgency. And that’s structural. What’s interesting is that [Congressman Dan] Lipinski doesn’t pay dues.
Yeah, there are particular members who don’t pay dues, and he doesn’t pay dues because he doesn’t want his money going to support pro-choice Democrats. So when Lipinski had a challenge in 2018 from Marie Newman, the DCCC didn’t lift a finger to help him because he had never helped the DCCC. So that’s what’s so wild seeing them go to the mat for this guy who’s never done anything for them.
It’s only been a few months, but the DCCC under Cheri Bustos appears to be as openly hostile to progressives as it was under Rahm. How do you see this fight playing out between Bustos and the Ocasio-Cortez wing of the party?
It’s certainly fascinating that she’s willing to go to battle like this. She’s had a kind of halting response to it. To agree to speak at a fundraiser for Lipinski, but then to back out shows real weakness both tactically and strategically. If you’re going to do it, stick to it. So she’s trying to have it all different ways. She personally backs away from the fundraiser, but anyone helps Newman is blacklisted? But her backing out of that fundraiser helps Newman. So is she going to blacklist herself?
She has said, and I know this to be true, that when she was rounding up votes for DCCC chair—this is why it’s maybe not a great idea, it’s a recent reform that the chair is elected by the caucus rather than appointed by the leader—when she was rounding up votes, that was one of the things she pledged. The demand was particularly coming from the Congressional Black Caucus, a lot of whose members have seen their districts change a lot, and a lot of them are getting up there in age and they don’t want to go the way of [Joe] Crowley. So as long as you have pressure from members, the DCCC is going to be in a tight spot between the left and the caucus.
Regarding the “don’t ask, don’t tell” fight, you cite the “anonymous heroes” Obama spoke of as the real champion of that. What lessons can activists for Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, immigrant rights, criminal justice reform, etc. learn from the Obama-era campaign for LGBTQ rights and the White House’s resistance to it?
It’s a good one to study because it’s one of the few that actually succeeded. You see a parallel between what GetEQUAL and others did and what the Sunrise Movement is doing, and you see a parallel between the big LGBTQ groups who were in Washington and who were counseling caution. “Look, Obama’s with us, the Democrats are with us, don’t push them too hard, you’re going to hurt them electorally and make them angry at us.” And a lot of the activists said, “No, we’re done waiting.” And you also see that in the climate space, particularly because the clock is running. There literally is no time to wait.
You see the same—[they] certainly haven’t rescued the planet yet—but occupying [Speaker Nancy] Pelosi’s office turned out to be a real breakthrough. It shifted the conversation in a way that I don’t know if I’ve ever seen before. So that’s perhaps the best lesson, that patience is not a virtue.
The resistance that Pelosi and other Democratic leaders have had towards the Green New Deal, calling it the “Green Dream” and stuff like that, has that surprised you?
Yeah, the last line in the book is Pelosi saying, “We need to do something about the environment because the teenagers want us to do something.”
Yes and no. The hostility is a little bit surprising, because it betrays a weakness. It’s not a sign of strength if you’re name-calling like that, it’s not a sign of confidence, and usually she’s a little bit more of a confident operator. So that part surprised me, but the resistance hasn’t. She truly believes that these frontline districts are just never going to be there for anything that progressive. And if the party is seen as standing for something like that, they’ll lose in those districts. She feels that to her core.
You discuss the mistakes not only of the Obama administration in 2009-2010, but of the left as well, particularly the CPC, which at one point threatened with the CBC to not vote for the ACA if there wasn’t a public option and then they caved in the end anyway. Do you see the CPC as a stronger entity these days and in a better position to make that change that it wasn’t ten years ago?
It’s much stronger now and much more well-organized now, and the leadership [CPC co-chairs Pramila Jayapal and Mark Pocan] is united. [Former CPC chairs Raúl] Grijalva and [Lynn] Woolsey hated each other.
Because there’s a left flank now—AOC, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar—the CPC ends up appearing more reasonable to the leadership and has some more credible threats to make. They can credibly say that there’s this insurgent energy.
The account of the Kavanaugh allegations is infuriating for a bunch of reasons. One of them is that Chuck Schumer and Dianne Feinstein’s fear that a sustained effort from the left to kill the nomination would piss off Republicans enough to drive them to the polls, or in Feinstein’s case, keep them away from the polls. When you take that with Nancy Pelosi’s repeated insistence against impeachment, do you get the sense that Democratic leaders have learned anything over the past few years about what they’re up against, or if they’ve changed their thinking at all?
They’re just kind of running scared from Trump’s base. Someone said that “Republican leaders are afraid of the GOP base and Democratic leaders are afraid of the GOP base,” and that’s really airing out now, this preoccupation with Trump voters. They’re just anxious about the wrong things. What was Reagan’s famous line, “It’s not that liberals don’t know anything, it’s that all of the things they know aren’t true.” That’s accurate strategically with Schumer and Pelosi.
You start the book with a brief rundown of all of the good things that Congress and the federal government was able to accomplish during Reconstruction, and how that period proves that a people-driven left-wing movement can actually make some change in this country. Obviously there were a lot of white former slaveowners who weren’t able to vote at the time—
Yeah, entire states weren’t able to send delegations to Congress.
Yeah, exactly. What needs to happen for the left to have that level of power again, and do you envision this generation of the progressive movement being able to pull off that sort of once-in-a-century kind of change?
I mean, probably only in the face of a huge crisis that is exploited deftly. Just on a flat terrain, it’s hard to see. But they’re putting the pieces in place for that possibility.