Rebecca talks to Dorian Warren & Angela Hanks about the work ahead now that the Biden/Harris transition team has been formed; some of the most exciting new members of Congress to watch; why Jan 5 matters so much; how Democrats can avoid falling into another austerity trap, and more. Subscribe to Off-Kilter on iTunes.
Transitions from one party to another often result in significant shifts in approach, particularly when it comes to economic policy and the rights of everyone who isn’t a wealthy white man in the U.S. But the extreme nature of the contrast on pretty much every social and economic issue under the sun in this particular transition truly can’t be overstated, in large part due to how unprecedented the Trump administration’s extreme (and in many cases illegal) policymaking has been for the past four years — and the task of restoring basic competence to not only the White House but so many components of the federal government that will need to be resurrected and rebuilt following the chaos and upheaval of this now-finally-closing chapter.
We at Off-Kilter are of course nerdily excited to get past the horse race and start talking about what’s on the docket as the transition gets underway… So, this week, to get that started, we’re joined by Angela Hanks, deputy executive director of the Groundwork Collaborative, and Dorian Warren, President of Community Change & cohost of the System Check podcast.
This week’s guests:
- Angela Hanks, deputy ED of the Groundwork Collaborative (@AngelaHanks)
- Dorian Warren, president of Community Change and cohost of the System Check podcast (@DorianWarren)
♪ I work and get paid like minimum wage
Sights to hit the clock by the end of the day
Hot from downtown into the hood where I slave
The only place I can afford ’cause my block ain’t safe
I spend most of my time working, tryna bring in the dough…. ♪
REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality, and everything they intersect with, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m Rebecca Vallas.
Well, we all are still taking deep breaths after surviving the lives we all lived last week. But in so many ways now is when the work begins. Transitions from one party to another often result in significant shifts in approach, particularly when it comes to economic policy and, you know, the rights of pretty much everyone who isn’t a wealthy white man in this country. But the extreme nature of the contrast on pretty much every social and economic issue under [the] sun in this particular transition truly cannot be overstated, in large part due to how unprecedented the Trump administration’s extreme (and in many cases, of course, illegal) policymaking has been for the past four years. And the task of restoring basic competence to not only the White House but to so many components of the federal government that will need to be resurrected and rebuilt, quite literally, following the chaos and upheaval of the past four years.
We at Off-Kilter are, of course, nerdily excited to get past the horse race that dominated most election coverage for the past long, long period of our lives and to start talking about what’s on the docket as the transition gets underway. So, with me to get some of that started — I’m sure we’ll be doing this for weeks to come — are two of my very favorite political analysts and humans: Angela Hanks, Deputy Executive Director of the Groundwork Collaborative and someone CAP is very proud to call an alumna, and Dorian Warren, President of Community Change and also co-host of the System Check podcast.
Thanks to you both for taking time in a pretty zany frickin’ week.
DORIAN WARREN: [laughs] Thanks for having us.
ANGELA HANKS: Thanks for having us.
VALLAS: Well, I have to say, reading some of the post-election coverage — and I say this sort of on a personal note, right — we’re nine months into a pandemic that has put what already were incredibly shameful and completely avoidable levels of hunger and poverty on steroids. But it’s hard to overstate how refreshing post-election pieces that are laying out this sea change we’re about to see on a whole bunch of issues, but in particular, and especially given the topics that this show focuses on, when it comes to the White House’s approach to, say, anti-poverty policy, how refreshing that really is right now. We’ve got on the way out an administration so freaking hostile to low-income people, it actually had to be forcibly stopped more than once from stripping millions of workers of food assistance in the middle of a pandemic. And on its way in, we have an administration whose campaign platform actually included a serious proposal to expand SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), the largest federal food assistance program, the same food assistance program that Trump spent four years trying to tear apart brick by brick.
We could go through all of the issues and talk about the contrasts, but I feel like it’s sort of worth saying this wasn’t exactly a policy election. So, in a lot of ways, the policies that are about to come may not be front and center in people’s minds in the ways that maybe other elections, more ordinary elections might have allowed. So, I’m really grateful to both of you for making time to really help us focus our minds, not just on the horse race, not just on what happened last week, but really on what the agenda will be and should be moving forward. And in a lot of ways, as we start to get our heads around that agenda starting January 20th, January 21st, you kind of have to start with what needs to be reversed from the Trump years to undo some of the damage. So, guys, talk nerdy to me. What do we have to get reversed? Where do we even start? And I’ll see who wants to take that one first. I know you both have pretty long wish lists.
WARREN: I defer to you, Angela! [chuckles]
HANKS: I’m happy to get started. Yes, it is a long list. So, I think even the two of us going, will probably leave out a bunch of things. But honestly, I mean, I think, Rebecca, you mentioned at the beginning, we’re in the middle of a pandemic that’s only getting worse by the day and an economic crisis that also is still quite acute. We need money, [chuckles] to put it really simply. I think we had the CARES Act that passed in March that did some good things, including stimulus checks and extended unemployment insurance. Many of the things that were included in there that have actually been keeping people in the economy writ large afloat are about to expire. We’ve spent the last several months sort of watching the White House pretend to negotiate, all the while knowing that Mitch McConnell wasn’t really going to be willing to pass anything in the end. And in the meantime, people have been really hurting.
And so, there’s like the long-standing harm that this administration has inflicted over the last four years. But then there’s the really sort of acute harm of the last eight months or so that we’re suffering under that really, to be honest, without additional relief, there’s just no end in sight. And so, I think that is sort of on my mind, as number one is like, how do we get more tax? How do we extend UI? How do we extend the eviction moratorium? How do we extend the relief for student loan payments? People are really feeling the hurt in so many ways right now. And frankly, I think it’s a little alarming that this administration has basically been, this current administration has been, content to not provide any relief because they don’t think it’s necessary or important to help people or the economy. So, that’s kind of the main thing I’m focused on. But I think to your point, and I’m sure Dorian will talk a bunch about this as well, there is a lot of sort of long-standing harm that will have to be reversed right away.
VALLAS: Well, Dorian, do you want to pick up there? As Angela said, the list is probably longer than we could even get through in just the whole podcast if we were to spend our whole time doing that. And there are other things we’re going to get to. But there’s a pretty significant list of policy harms that have been done through executive action, administrative action, many of which were overreach, but all of which need to go.
WARREN: All of which need to go. And I would lift up in agreement with everything Angela said about what needs to come first. So, let me start there actually, in terms of immediate relief for people sick, harmed, suffering, right, in terms of this pandemic that this administration has been incompetent at best. That’s a generous reading of it. You know, essentially what we’ve witnessed the last eight months is a president in the White House that has seen over 200,000 people die, and they basically have shrugged their shoulders. And someone wrote earlier in the summer that this was a policy of the fact of mass death. And that’s what we’ve been experiencing just to make it real. So, yes, immediate relief and recovery around everything that Angela said.
People need cash. People need economic relief, eviction moratoriums. We also have to make sure that everyone is included. And by that, I mean specifically lifting up Black, brown, Indigenous, immigrant folk who’ve been disproportionately harmed by the economic downturn and by COVID itself. So, making sure there’s a racial and gender justice lens throughout all of the policy making that needs to come.
But Rebecca, you asked a question about all the things that need to be reversed. And there, there is so much. It’s going to take at least two years just to reverse all the bad stuff. So, I would lift up here the deportation machine and the separation of children from their families, particularly their mothers in terms of immigrants that are in this country or have come to this country. We have to reverse all the bad that the very white nationalist, evil Stephen Miller has enacted the last four years. Let me just name check him in particular. So, thinking about how do we actually end the deportation machine and return or actually reinvision a different path forward on immigration?
The other thing I would add is, what are the executive actions and policies that this new administration can put forth that will be a down payment on building long-term power for an increasingly progressive Democratic majority? So, what are the ways to not just do good policy, but to also do good politics that allows especially grassroots organizers to leverage those new policies to bring more people into the electorate?
VALLAS: Well, talk a little bit about that. Make that real, right? I mean, we’re going to get into what’s coming up on January 5th and why that matters to what a Biden/Harris administration is able to do. But there is a tremendous amount that can be done through the powers of the White House, as we’ve seen for the past four years! Also, a lot of the things that were exceeding that power, and I think that’s a point that needs to be made over and again. But there is a lot that this White House is going to be able to do. Talk a little bit about what we can expect to be the top priorities. You both mentioned that getting the pandemic under control has to be top of that list, as well as broad, broad, broad economic recovery, the likes of which we have not even started to see drops in the bucket, right, compared to what we need to see, what economists are telling us we need to see in terms of a federal fiscal response to some kind of a lost decade economically on top of the tremendous mass death, as you put it, Dorian, that we have seen.
Much is typically made of the first hundred days of an incoming president’s new administration. What are we hearing? What can we expect from the president-elect and vice president-elect — much as it cheers me to be able to say those words — when it comes to first hundred day priorities, Angela?
HANKS: Yeah. So, it’s sort of I think, you mentioned January 5th as being this pivotal moment. And of course, that really does matter for the first hundred days, although I think there are things that the administration could do without knowing the outcome in the Senate. But the landscape really does change if Democrats hold the Senate or if they don’t. If they do, then I think you can expect to see some push for a really transformative economic package that both tries to stem the health crisis that we’re in right now and the economic crisis and put us on more resilient footing. I think one of the things that we’ve been thinking a lot about over the last eight months is obviously, none of us could’ve predicted a global pandemic. But the fact that we got here so quickly says a lot about the strength of our economy and the health of our economy prior to coronavirus. And so, I think it’s both important, and I think the administration, the incoming administration understands this, that it’s not just about getting back to where we were a year ago. It really is about building a more resilient economy where it doesn’t take sort of like one big spike for people to lose their jobs and their homes and their savings, healthcare during a pandemic, all of these things that we saw happen almost overnight back in March. So, I think that is what we can expect to see if Democrats do gain the Senate.
If they don’t, I think it will be more difficult, extremely difficult, for the new administration to pass that transformative legislation. I think in the last couple of weeks, especially, you’ve already seen Senate Republicans sort of gearing up to become advocates for reducing the deficit again. Advocates that they only become when the Democrats are in power! They cared very little about that back when they were passing the massive tax cuts for rich people a couple of years ago. But you sort of already see that brewing. And so, I think they will be a really strong oppositional force to providing relief to people during the critical time.
But there are still things that can happen under executive action. And I think this administration seems to understand that there is probably a path where most of what they get done is through executive action. And there, I think the guiding force is like, what is going to improve people’s lives? What is going to improve people’s material conditions in this moment? And there is a lot there. I mean, one thing that’s been interesting about this administration is they’ve been able to inflict so much harm through executive action. There certainly is a flip side of this where we can actually improve people’s lives using executive authority. And I think and hope this administration will take that path.
VALLAS: And Dorian, I’ll let you get in on that as well. I mean, obviously, a lot of the work that happens at community change is around these kinds of issues, as you said, kind of bringing people power to bear and bringing some of the kinds of issues and pushes that we know are incredibly popular and which enjoy incredible popularity when they come up at the state and local level, pushing those up to the federal level. Do you expect action on things like overtime, on things like Affordable, the Affirmatively Fair Furthering — I’m going to get this acronym wrong. I always do!
VALLAS: AFFH! But it’s Affirmatively Further Fair Housing — there, I did it — which was rolled back under Trump. Just offering a couple of examples here. What are you thinking is most likely?
WARREN: I think there are a number of things, including all the things you and Angela have just mentioned. So, I think there are a lot of things at the executive administrative level that will provide immediate, or could provide immediate, relief for millions of people and lay the groundwork, plant the seeds for the bigger, broader recovery needed legislatively.
So, a couple of the other I would just add to Angela’s list. The care infrastructure and investing in a care infrastructure, whether it’s child care or long-term care. People can’t get back to work unless they have actual child care. And the president-elect has actually signaled that he is going to go hard around a care infrastructure. Racial justice, racial justice, racial justice. The President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris have also signaled very strongly that they will not only infuse a racial justice lens in all they do, but really take action to, as you mentioned, Rebecca, reverse some of the very harmful executive orders from this past administration around issues of racial justice and racial equity in housing, but in other areas, too. And then I would also add state and local relief has to be a legislative priority because of this economic downturn and what we might think of as a deep recession, if not a depression. State and local governments are still bleeding jobs because they have budget constraints the federal government does not have. And so, they need, desperately need, federal government support.
All of these things, though, what really matters to push through progressive executive actions or administrative actions or new bold legislation that could be transformative, this is all in interaction with movements. We’re in a movement moment in this country. They don’t come along often. But this summer, of course, as we know in response to the killings of Black people, particularly George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Brianna Taylor. The names, unfortunately, are very long. There’s a long list. But there is the largest social movement in American history that has been active. And I think we saw a lot of that energy poured into the election, and now it’s time for people to stay engaged. And so, a lot of what we’ll see coming out of the administration will depend on how people organize to demand relief, to demand justice, to demand equity. We have to make sure from a movement perspective that folks stay engaged and that the administration is held accountable, including those in Congress.
VALLAS: There’s a lot of talk right now, especially in kind of inside-the-Beltway circles around not just transition, but in particular, that the Biden/Harris team has now selected and announced their transition team. I have to say, my heart goes out to all of them because it’s hard to think there’s been another transition team that had a greater challenge ahead given that task one, as we’ve already mentioned, is restoring basic competence and functionality to huge swaths of the federal government, given what’s quite literally been torn apart in many cases. But I’m going to put you both on the spot as we have this moment of transition, as we think about what that means to have a little bit of fun with this and to actually have a little bit of a sendoff for some of the people that we are gladdest and most excited to say goodbye to, from the Trump team on their way out as this transition team selects people who are going to be coming in and replacing them.
But then also to offer some of your dream team: who are some of the folks that you’d like to see come in, particularly for key cabinet picks? Angela, one of your tweets is actually echoing in my head as I’m asking this question. I think I might know one of the people that you’re gladdest to say goodbye to, given that you are looking forward to only remembering her name when you’re shopping at Marshalls. But I’ll put you both on the spot to name some of the folks you’re gladdest to see go and to name some of the folks that you’re most hopeful that their names might be in consideration as the transition team starts to think about who might be the new team in charge. And Dorian, I’m going to put you on the spot first.
WARREN: [laughs] Look, I have three that need to go right now. Stephen Miller, bye. Bye. Bye. [laughing] Bye. He has been singularly destructive in this administration, this previous administration, especially by advancing a white supremacist and white nationalist vision of who belongs in this country in terms of our immigration and refugee policies. He has done so much damage, singularly, that he has to go first, frankly. And I hope [chuckles] that the folks that’ve enabled him the last four years, if not decade, we have to keep pressure on them, too, because I actually think he should never work in this town again.
The second person I would say is Betsy DeVos. She needs to go. She bought that seat, Secretary of Education, and has done so much damage there. And one of the demands for the new Biden/Harris administration is student debt relief immediately. She has blocked that. She has done incredible damage to our education system at all levels, so she needs to go.
Then the third, it’s not exactly a person. But I would just say nepotism has to go. There is so much incompetence of these last four years in terms of people in the administration because they bought their way in or they knew somebody and were not qualified for their jobs. And it’s been, for me, let me just say it very bluntly, it is the height of white, [chuckles] mostly male mediocrity that we have been living through and incompetence. And enough already. America, this is, we can do better. And we have lived through better times, particularly under the Obama administration that was the most diverse and the most competent, at least in my lifetime.
So, I’m very, very hopeful about who will be on the list to come in. And so, let me offer some names. I would love Representative Karen Bass to be on that list. I would love Keith Ellison to be on that list. I would love Darrick Hamilton, a great economist, to be on that list. I would love Joe Stiglitz to be on that list. I would love Representative Pramila Jayapal to be on that list. There are so many champions, progressive champions, who have done the work for decades, who are experts, and who know how to advance the levers of government to provide equity and justice for the communities that need it most. So, that would be my little short list of people that need to go and people that should be on a wish list for going inside.
VALLAS: I’m getting chills from your wish list, even just thinking about some of those folks in positions with power. Angela, obviously, I was referring to Ivanka Trump when I referenced your tweet saying you hope you never hear from her again except when you’re shopping the clearance rack at Marshalls. Who are you looking forward saying goodbye to, and who are you hoping to get to see on some lists for the incoming dream team?
HANKS: Yeah. So, Ivanka is definitely on the list for the nepotism reasons that Dorian mentioned. And I think that’s true of many of the folks who are serving in the Trump administration right now. My list actually very closely mirrors Dorian’s. I think Stephen Miller and just the racism and white supremacy that he sort of prioritizes is so emblematic of what this administration has tried to do and successfully done over the last four years. And I just think that he couldn’t be sort of gone soon enough. And it’s really, I think, in many ways, I think I have a pretty sober analysis of racism in this country. And the fact that someone like that was in such a position of power for a long time really is even still deeply unsettling. Again, I agree with Betsy DeVos as well. I think another person who, again, mostly used her position of power to inflict harm on students and make their lives harder, especially Black and brown folks, especially low-income folks. And so, I’m also eager to see her go. And then, yes, I maybe would lastly say, just the entire Trump family.
I think one thing that I’m very…I hope we don’t forget after this moment is that this is not a problem of Donald Trump. You know, there are millions of people across the country who voted for Donald Trump. There are hundreds if not thousands of people who willingly stepped up to serve in his administration. And there are people who will be here long after he’s gone, who are maybe with a gentler tone, but very willing to carry out the agenda that he put forward. And so, I think while I’m very glad to see many of these really most egregious folks go, I don’t think that we should ever forget their enablers who are still in power. And I know I certainly won’t.
In terms of dream team for the cabinet: I mean, I think I will echo Dorian again in that I think having some strong progressives who understand the landscape and understand power will be incredibly important, especially if Democrats don’t have the Senate. And we really need to be thinking more about executive action. So, I mean, obviously, there are many wish lists out there. I would be remiss if I didn’t say that Elizabeth Warren would be a great Treasury Secretary!
HANKS: I’ll say it! [laughs]
VALLAS: Yup, yup!
HANKS: I think we could use a progressive at HUD. That agency is often ignored for a whole variety of reasons. But, Rebecca, to your point about the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, we’re still trying to desegregate housing in this country. And having someone at the helm who is prepared to do that and understands how to do that is incredibly important.
I think we should be looking more to some of the folks Dorian mentioned, like Darrick Hamilton and economists who’ve been doing sort of this progressive work for a long time and have a deep understanding of how the economy works. Bill Spriggs is another person who’s come up for Labor. I think that we have a lot of great options for folks who really understand this concept of both power and the power that these positions hold for policy action. So, there’s a bunch of folks. But I think we can’t go wrong if we really think deeply about who’s prepared to make material change in people’s lives for the better.
VALLAS: And I —
WARREN: Rebecca, I failed to mention, there are two —
VALLAS: Oh, go for it!
WARREN: Yeah, two other folks I just want to name check, I happen to be talking to them right now, that I think would be amazing inside of a Biden/Harris administration.
WARREN: Their last names are Vallas and Hanks.
VALLAS: Oh, good lord. Angela, you and I, it’s too early as we’re taping for us to take the shot or the drink or whatever we need to for that moment. Thanks, Dorian. I have to say, though, in terms of things I’m excited to see go — and I’m going to use a little bit of sort of symbolism here — I’m excited to, I mean, there are so many names you guys didn’t even mention, right, of the people who are going who it’s sort of telling that we didn’t even name them, right? People who have been in really important cabinet jobs, who in prior lives were named The Foreclosure King, right, and whatnot. But I think that the rule, the litmus test that I would like to see applied to incoming cabinet secretaries is that no one who has velvet monogrammed slippers with their initials on them that have cost like $1,000 or more is allowed to be a cabinet secretary. I don’t know how you guys feel about that.
WARREN: Here, here.
HANKS: No more [audio drops]. Laughs
VALLAS: Yeah. Bye bye, Wilbur Ross.
So, we were talking just a little bit before about January 5th. Of course, that is the date of a couple really critical runoffs for Senate elections. It will be determinative of control of the Senate in the next Congress. And hearing you both talk about dream cabinet picks feels like kind of the right segue into talking just a little bit more about what’s at stake on January 5th, why it matters so much. It isn’t just about what legislation can move. Obviously, it also will have a lot to do with who is able to get confirmed to the key posts. Now, we can’t and won’t get into the specifics of those runoff elections and name those candidates. I’m sure folks who are listening are very familiar, given the national spotlight on Georgia right now. But I really would love to give both of you a chance to talk just a little bit about what’s at stake and why control of the Senate, whether or not in particular Mitch McConnell is in control of the Senate, matters so much to determining the path on the other side of the fork in the road that we’re currently at politically. And Angela, I don’t know if you want to start with that. I’ve been seeing you hate tweeting about it quite a bit.
HANKS: [laughs] Yeah. So, I’ll throw out a couple of things that I’m eager for Dorian to explain in more detail, since he knows much more about this than I do. But I think a couple of things. One, I just don’t think that there is a sufficient amount of sort of admiration and respect that I can express, that any of us can express for Black women organizers in Georgia who have made Georgia a purple, if not blue state. I think that there is a ton of work that’s happened to organize people around issues around racial justice, around economic justice. And those things will last far beyond any political campaign, right? And so, I just am in total awe of so much of the deep work that’s happening in Georgia to really think transformatively about what this country could look like, what our economy could look like, what a just society that centered Black women could look like. So, just very grateful for that.
But I think in terms of what it means for those races specifically, [sighs] I mean, again, this kind of goes back to my point in the beginning that it really does mean the difference between having the legislative agenda or not. I am…somehow continuously shocked by Senator McConnell’s willingness to sort of hold up anything…done by a Democratic president as illegitimate, right? Whether that’s blocking judges in the last administration. He’s signaled for this administration that he might block cabinet appointments. It’s sort of tradition that the president gets to choose their own team, right? And he’s suggested that he’s potentially unwilling to do that. So, I think it really does mean he will be an obstacle. He will be the thing that is standing in the way of millions of Americans across this country, millions of people living in this country, and economic relief, racial justice, economic justice. And I think we’ll be able to point to one person and say, “He did it. [laughs] He’s the one who’s hurting our families and our communities.” And unfortunately, I don’t think he really minds being in that position, which makes it really tough.
And then I’m sure, Dorian will talk about the nonsense of our electoral process that means that frankly, popularity doesn’t matter as much as it should. That makes it really hard to pass an agenda and puts us in this position where we’re sort of beholden to someone who, again, is perfectly happy to see millions of people suffer.
WARREN: Yeah. Go ahead.
VALLAS: Is it fair to describe it, Dorian, as tyranny by the minority?
WARREN: Oh, yes.
VALLAS: I mean, that’s sort of what Angela is describing, but it feels like it’s fair to slap that term on it.
WARREN: Yeah. Yes, I would call it white oligarchic minority rule. White oligarchic rule. Mitch McConnell is the emblem of that in the sense of only responding to the richest and wealthiest Americans and donors over the political will the majority. And let me back up and say, Angela is so right that it’s one thing to defeat Trump. It’s another thing to defeat Trumpism, which we did the former. We haven’t done the latter yet. And because there are lots of enablers, like Trump didn’t come out of anywhere, out of nowhere. This was a 40-year manifestation of the conservative movement and the Republican Party strategy of minority rule. And if you think about what are the sources of Republican conservative power, I’m struck by a piece by Corey Robin written a couple weeks ago in the New York Review of Books where he argues that to understand the power of the right, it’s a three legged stool. And the three legs of the stool are basically counter majoritarian institutions: so, the courts, the Electoral College, and the Senate. And in the case of the Senate, for sure, McConnell, as we know, does not play by the rules or norms. It’s one set of rules for when the Republicans are in power. It’s another set for when Democrats are in power.
And we know that he has said during the Obama administration that it was his sole focus to ensure, frankly, the failure of that administration, right? It’s not about governing for the majority of the American people. It’s about ensuring that the other tribe, so to speak, the other party tribe, fails at all cost. And so, that is a function of minority power and minority rule in the sense of blocking, right, all of the policies, whether it’s healthcare or racial justice or gender justice or minimum wage, all the things that the majority of Americans, or immigration reform, actually, there is a majority or super majority of agreement around, McConnell has already said he will try to block.
There’s also his role in confirmations of important positions of government and judges, judges, judges that are, of course, on the bench for many, many years, outlasting most elected officials. And so, we have to be thinking strategically about what are those sources of power on the right that block a progressive agenda that would affect the majority of Americans and make their lives better. So, the Electoral College, which, as you both know, was designed to protect slaveholders’ interests in our Constitution. The Senate, where voters of California have less representation than voters in South Dakota. It is inherently unfair geographically and in terms of over-representation of rural areas in this country. And then, of course, the courts, which the right has had a strategy to take over for a long time. And progressives and Democrats in particular are slowly, slowly catching up.
And to tie this all together, the strategy — because Angela mentioned this — is to learn the lessons from places like Georgia and I would add Arizona, but particularly Georgia. Yes, I won’t name check any of the candidates running there. But that is the strategy: the intense, invisible grassroots organizing, particularly by Black women in that state over a decade to transform that state. That is the strategy for Democrats going forward. I know we’ll get to this later. Instead of the blame game around, like who’s saying defund the police or whatever, why doesn’t the party actually have organization? Why can’t they figure out how to invest and win elections? That is, Georgia is the strategy for defeating Trumpism, not just Trump.
VALLAS: And I appreciate both of you for minding the lines of where we can go legally on this show, but a lot obviously wrapped up with January 5th. A lot more to keep following, not just on this show, but on other programs. Programs like System Check, I would guess, where you guys have also been having conversations about, say, the inherent and intentional white supremacy baked into the Electoral College and whatnot.
So, control of the Senate, obviously still uncertain until that date. But moving over to the House of Representatives, there has been outsized attention given to the fact that Democrats lost some ground rather than gaining it, as many were expecting heading into this election. But there is also a lot to be excited about in terms of a House Democratic caucus that has some new faces that is slowly but surely starting to be more representative of the diversity in this country. And I mean that across the House. Who are the new members of Congress that you guys are most excited to see sworn in, in January? And Angela, you first.
HANKS: Yeah, I mean, I think there’s been a lot of talk about The Squad growing. I couldn’t be more excited that we’re about to have Congresswoman Cori Bush, Congressman Jamaal Bowman, Congressman Mondaire Jones, and many more progressive folks who are winning races, running on unabashed progressive policy agendas. I think that it’s indicative of a real shift that these folks are coming to power. And frankly, I think that we’re getting to a point now where they’ll be able to wield some of that power in their caucus, which I think is a good thing for our policy future in the House. Also, there’ve been some changes in the progressive caucus side, so it seems like they’ll be sort of ready to flex some new muscles come January, which again, I think is only a positive thing in terms of sort of shifting the way that we think about the boldness of our economic policies. But yeah, I think there’s a lot of good news there.
And I’m sure we’ll get into some of the [laughs] bad takes that we’ve all seen over the last couple of weeks. But to me, a huge story coming out of this election is that come January, there will be a bunch more progressives in Congress who are fighting for economic justice, fighting for racial justice, and doing so sort of unapologetically. I think that’s really exciting and frankly, overdue in any moment, but especially now.
VALLAS: Dorian, same question to you: who should we be watching?
WARREN: Yeah, I mean, I love Angela’s list! So, yes, Jamaal Bowman. I would add Ritchie Torres and Mondaire Jones, and just say very bluntly and transparently, they’re two openly gay Black men who are progressive. Who are progressive. And that’s important because let’s not get confused by descriptive representation only. We have to always demand substantive representation. And so, all of those candidates and winners represent both, right? They are new faces, they are different faces than what our Congress is used to, but they share progressive values. And in particular, those three — Bowman, Torres, and Jones — come out of a context where there has been building infrastructure. You’re going to hear a theme in what I say. Shout out to the Working Families Party for building for 20 years in New York City and State to change the dynamics and composition of who they’re sending to Congress from that state. So, they are true progressives. They have a base, they will be held accountable, and they will be champions.
And also shout out to other folks. I’m real excited about Cori Bush out of Missouri. She was an organizer and activist on the ground after Ferguson and in Ferguson and was doing the work before she decided to run and was recruited to run for Congress. And so, I’m excited to have yet another organizer. I think of Pramila Jayapal here, for instance, Representative Jayapal of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who was a [audio drops] organizer for many years before she became sort of an organizer in Congress. Same with Representative Karen Bass. So, it’s great to have another organizer like Cori Bush. And then I have to shout out from my home state of Illinois, I’m so happy Lauren Underwood won reelection. Really tough district. But she shows how you can maintain progressive values in a swing district that leans conservative and win reelection and not start a little blame game around [chuckles] what works and what doesn’t work. So, I’ll be watching Lauren Underwood as well, in addition to Cori Bush.
VALLAS: Well, let’s get into it, right? You both referenced and — boy have a lot of us, I’m sure — been feeling bad takes, right, in some of the post-election post-morts. And there is definitely some debate that is going on, not just on Twitter — which often feels like real life, but we have to remind ourselves, is not actually real life — but also within the left more broadly regarding why some folks won, why some folks didn’t, why some races were closer maybe than others expected. There was a little bit of media attention that followed a meeting of the House Democratic Caucus where this was apparently discussed: what was the impact of calls to defund the police and policies that the right love to call socialist, but which broadly are extremely popular, like universal healthcare, what the impact those kinds of calls from the movement had on close races. Dorian, what would you say? And Angela, trust me, you will get a chance to weigh in on this, too. But just because Dorian was just going there, what would you say to those who are currently blaming progressivism for Democrats seeing less than maybe the blowout they had hoped for in this election?
WARREN: [chuckling] I have all the words. I have all the words! First of all, man and woman up. Stop it. It is a Trumpian tactic to blame others for your losses, period. How about you tell us, what did those campaigns do wrong in South Carolina, for instance? A lot of money went into South Carolina, but apparently, Democratic Party folks don’t know how to build organization. They don’t know how to build infrastructure. And we can go all the way back to 2004! Remember after 2004, there was a 50-state strategy? And then I don’t know what happened. Yeah, we had a big election in 2008, and then what happened in 2010? Almost 1,000 seats lost in state legislatures in that midterm election. And so, the Democratic Party has had a decade to rebuild from those losses. And has the party done that? Absolutely not. So, how about the Democrats focus on what they have been doing wrong? They’ve been putting up really bad candidates: looking at you, Kentucky Senate race against Mitch McConnell. They don’t know how to run good campaigns. All they think is if we have some money for ads, that’s going to somehow convince voters that it’s all wrong.
And if you think of the counterfactual in this election, would Biden/Harris had won, would there have been Senate pickups without independent grassroots groups doing the work in Georgia, in Arizona, in Wisconsin, in Michigan, [chuckles] in Nevada, in Pennsylvania? I can go on. Those aren’t Democratic Party wins. Those are independent, grassroots, progressive group wins. And so, the party would be nowhere without progressives right now. They would be [laughing], you know, they would be in the wilderness right now without independent political power and folks that have invested in grassroots organizing to expand the electorate, get people to the polls, and turn people out for victories. So, the blame game is such a Trumpian thing. I’m so disappointed at all of the top leadership in the Democratic Party who are trying to cast blame immediately on movement politics. On movement politics! That has majoritarian support in this country. The fact that you would blame the Movement for Black Lives for your losses tells me you’re not equipped to be a leader anymore.
VALLAS: Strong words from Dorian. Angela, I know you’ve got a lot of words on this, too.
HANKS: Yeah, I mean, I’m over here just nodding furiously. [laughs] I couldn’t agree more with everything Dorian said. I think they are kind of a couple of frustrations that I’ve had over the last couple of days, just to add to what Dorian said. I think the blame game is just sort of nonsense for a whole variety of reasons. But one thing that sort of stuck with me is it seems to conflate movements with electoral politics, right? Like the defund the police movement’s borne out of the reality that police are murdering Black people across this country in a systemic way. That is a fact. That is the reality for many of us in this country.
And the idea that the folks who are building that movement, who are growing that movement, who are pursuing justice across a whole number of things, not just defunding the police, but investing in communities, investing in creating thriving economies where Black and brown folks can have enough, the fact that they’re sort of the targets of ire seems to me to be totally wrong-headed. Again, those folks are not pursuing an electoral win. They’re pursuing justice and peace for themselves, their families, their communities. And to sort of tell them that that’s not worth it is, I think, an interesting political strategy that I don’t quite understand! But fundamentally, I just don’t think it is the place of any politician to tell people who are marginalized what they can or should fight for or what they deserve, especially if it’s less. And so, I think that’s one challenge that I’m having in this moment.
And then, you know, I think the second thing is, to Dorian’s point about running good candidates, I think a real challenge is that there seems to be this assumption that we can’t, [chuckles] we can’t run on our ideas! Even though they’re incredibly popular. Like Trump won in Florida, and voters overwhelmingly voted for a $15 minimum wage. It’s important to present some contrast on the policy front. And if you’re just running candidates who are sort of only willing to be slightly to the left of the extreme right-wing person who’s their opponent, you’re not drawing a sharp contrast. And I think that people understand their own economic conditions. They understand oppression. They understand marginalization. They understand what it’s like to not have enough, to have a weaker economy, to have their communities struggling because no one’s fighting for them when it comes to things like higher wages and universal healthcare.
And so, I think I worry a lot about the conclusion being, oh, we’re offering too much, or we’re being too extreme in our vision. I think a vision of abundance, a vision of a society where we are all thriving is one that people can get behind. And I just really don’t understand the instinct to sort of move in the opposite direction.
VALLAS: I would also, just I want to invoke Daniel Nichanian who folks should listen to the conversation with him from earlier this week. He’s the founder of The Appeal’s Political Report. And he goes into a whole, whole, whole rich set of very detailed analysis of all the down-ballot results from last week, the stuff that gets a lot less attention than the top-of-the-ticket that gets so much kind of more outsized coverage. And a big part of what Daniel talks about is how criminal justice in particular and policing and all of the different sub issues were all on the ballot in a really big way last week, not just in the form of candidates that we’re talking about right now for top-of-the-ticket, for the Senate, for the House of Representatives, but also in the form of both a set of races that get way, way less attention than probably anything else: races for District Attorney, for sheriff, for judge, as well as ballot measures. Ballot measures that were overwhelmingly approved everywhere that we saw them, pretty much, for policing reforms like civilian oversight boards, for legalizing not just marijuana, but drugs across the board, small amounts in Oregon, right? Just a huge rejection of tough on crime, a huge rejection of the previous kind of narratives on criminal justice: the lock them up and throw away the key kind of stuff. And in now come a crop of folks in these really critical offices, like the District Attorney of a particular jurisdiction who ran on, and heavily campaigned on, changing the system from within. So, just sending people to that episode as well for a lot more on this.
But it does feel like it’s worth mentioning and giving you guys a little bit of space to talk about some of the other ballot measures that are also evidence of the tremendous popularity of these kinds of progressive policies and which seem to be sort of missing in conversations about how we need to rein in progressivism. What are some of the ballot measures that you’re most excited about passing last week? Perhaps the minimum wage has gotten the most attention, but Dorian or Angela, whoever wants to weigh in, what do you see as the cause for excitement in terms of ballot measures in the greatest way? And what do you see as the national significance of the passage of these kinds of measures, not only in blue states, but in red and increasingly purple states as well?
WARREN: Well, I think I know Angela will have a great list. I think it’s helpful to think about the history of what we might call progressive federalism in this country so that we can contextualize the importance and significance of many of these ballot initiatives. So, I think back, for instance, to the long campaign over 50 years to end child labor in this country. Every time we tried to do it in the late 1800s, early 1900s, federally, it was blocked by the equivalent of Mitch McConnells of their day. And so, what did we have to do to end child labor, which, right, in hindsight, it’s like, well, that’s kind of morally clear. Why would you force children to work? But it was a struggle over 50 years, and it took states leading the way, right? Supreme Court Justice Brandeis always talked about states as the laboratories of democracy. And so, Massachusetts and New York and other states had to go first to end child labor before we could finally do it in 1938.
And so, I want to just provide that context because I am excited about a lot of the ballot initiatives. That one you already mentioned, Rebecca, the Florida minimum wage that goes to $15 an hour! Which, by the way, the federal minimum wage, still $7.25, have been blocked by McConnell and the Republicans from increasing wages nationally. So, in a state that went for Trump, the majority, over 60 percent of voters said, yeah, we actually want a $15 an hour minimum wage. Colorado: paid family leave, big, big deal. Arizona: raising taxes on the rich! Remember that state was red? [laughs] Right?! This is John McCain’s state, right? It not only turned blue, but they decided to tax the wealthy in their own state to raise money for education. And then, of course, there were a range of marijuana legalization ballot initiatives that were successful.
And then the one I think that’s been overlooked that I think is really important symbolically is the voters of the state of Mississippi voted to change their state flag to remove the Confederate emblem from it. That’s a big deal in a solid South state! You know, it took till 2020 [laughs] to remove the Confederate emblem from the state flag? And, yeah, a majority of voters in Mississippi did that, even if they still reelected Republicans to office. So, some interesting you know, that’s an interesting, I think, initiative for us to think about going forward. And it goes back to how do you actually build permanent infrastructure in a state to allow the election of candidates that represent the will of the majority of the voters in that state? I think that’s the puzzle for us going forward.
VALLAS: Angela, anything to add to that?
HANKS: Yeah, I think that’s the right list. And I think you sort of see a trend of things moving in a more sort of like pro-justice, pro-democracy direction, right? Whether it’s decriminalization and expanding policies like paid leave, like minimum wage, I think that that bodes in a positive direction. I think the only thing I will add is I think there was so much positive movement, and there is some indication that we still have some more work to do. I think Prop 22 in California, we’re talking about a state where folks think of it as being very deeply blue, that just voted to really limit worker rights. And so, I think that’s something that we have to grapple with as well, is how do we ensure that we’re pursuing an agenda and doing the work that Dorian talked about, about really organizing people and talking about issues? So, it’s very clear that something like that, that the Ubers and Lyfts of the world can’t lobby themselves into a victory at the expense of workers, we really have to do some more work there. But I do think on balance, we’re moving in the right direction, even though there’s certainly more work to be done during.
VALLAS: Dorian, I’ve got to do a quick fact check on you, though, when you were talking before. I always enjoy your history lessons. You’re one of my favorite political scientists, and you always bring the history. But you sort of made it sound like child labor was universally something that people are not in favor of anymore.
WARREN: [chuckles] Yes, yes.
VALLAS: And I just I feel like we got to correct the record a little bit and slam Newt Gingrich for the last time he ran for president, one of his great big ideas, along with the moon base that folks will remember (that maybe we should just send him to to be in charge of to get that over with), but was he wanted to make children in school work as the condition for their school lunch. So, he wanted them cleaning the cafeterias and working as janitors, little, tiny janitors. So, child labor not totally out.
WARREN: No. And there were some, you know, he said — but thank you for the fact check — and he’s one example of many on the right who want to take us back to the 18th century.
VALLAS: Yeah. So, just while we’re keeping in perspective how things have changed and what has maybe not changed.
We’re going to run out of time, but I really would be remiss if I didn’t give you both just a little bit of space to talk about one of the things that is keeping me up most at night. And this is especially keeping me up at night on nights where I’m more worried about January 5th and what might happen then. But it’s something that worries me no matter the outcome of those Senate runoffs. Folks may remember the period following the Great Recession. It feels like a different lifetime at this point, right? But let’s take you back to that period. During that period, we saw conservative lawmakers in particular, but I should note, with far too much complicity from the mainstream media for my taste and also from an uncomfortably large share of Democrats in Congress, they invented and inflicted upon the United States an age of austerity, wherein all of a sudden, we quote “couldn’t afford” the kind of economic stimulus that economists were telling us we needed to have to ensure a sufficient federal fiscal response and to put the country back on strong economic footing. We needed to find bipartisan cuts in Social Security and Medicare. Is this something that you guys are worried about a repeat of in the coming year, especially following this pandemic, and as Republicans start to exhibit perhaps another instance of selective amnesia about who passed that tax law that added $2 trillion to the deficit? And if I’m not the only one being kept up at night by worries of another age of austerity, what might it mean for a Biden/Harris agenda? And most importantly, how can Democrats and progressives combat it? And Angela, Dorian, whoever wants to take that first.
WARREN: How about I go first because Angela has actually all the things to say about this, and I follow her lead.
WARREN: But let me just say, there’s an old political saying, “Power eats good ideas for breakfast.” And in this case, narrative power eats the best ideas for breakfast. And so, austerity is an example of that. And we have to forcefully push back and then offer an alternative to austerity. I do worry Democrats will once again, like they were in 2009 and ’10, that they will be cognitively captured by a zombie ideology, to borrow from Paul Krugman, that is not only empirically wrong, historically wrong, it’s politically wrong. And that is an ideology of austerity. And so, we have to hold the flag around why there is an alternative that will actually save people’s lives and offer real relief and a pathway to security and opportunity and freedom, and combat the zombie ideology of austerity. And don’t allow, frankly, the party of the people, particularly Democrats, to get cognitively captured yet again.
HANKS: Yes, agreed with all of that. And I mean, conservative economic dogma is very powerful. It’s also not true, and they don’t believe it. [laughs] And I think this is a perfect example of that. You know, I was working in the House in 2011 when they passed the Budget Control Act. And in this moment where we were coming out of what was then, at that moment, the most significant economic crisis of my lifetime, it sort of seemed unreal that there was this what ultimately was a bipartisan push toward austerity. And we have no further to look than the last 10 years to see what the impact of that was. It took us a decade to recover from the last crisis. A decade. And for many communities, for Black communities, we never fully recovered. And so, there’s real harm, long-lasting harm that’s inflicted when you pursue austerity. And again, because we have these recent examples of that harm, it’s just I hope that we hold that in our minds going forward.
But fundamentally, yes, this keeps me up because austerity is fundamentally bad for the economy, especially right now. Like I said in the beginning, we need money. We need money to states and localities. We need checks, we need UI, we need eviction moratoria. We need student debt relief. Those are the things that are going to make people and our economy writ large better off.
And then to Dorian’s point, it’s not just that austerity is bad and sort of these faux concerns about the deficit are bad. It really inhibits us from being able to think about what it would look like to create a thriving economy that’s based in abundance. So, when we focus on austerity, we’re focused on cutting things that are essential to economic thriving in this country, rather than thinking big about what are the major investments that we can make in health, in education, in climate, in the things that will actually make us all better off and make our economy more functional. So, I think we have some work to do to ensure that sort of the dogma that’s coming from the right isn’t so seductive to folks on the left. But fundamentally, I think if we are clear-eyed about the fact that the only thing that will get us out of this crisis, the only thing that will actually improve people’s lives is massive public investment in the things that we all need, then I think that’s sort of the direction that we have to pursue going forward.
VALLAS: And for a ton more on the narrative shift that both Dorian and Angela have been talking about, Dorian and I had a conversation over the summer for Off-Kilter with Anat Shenker-Osorio, one of the progressive message gurus of our time as part of a series on narrative shift. And surprise, surprise, it all comes back to the neoliberal narrative at the root of so much of this. I appreciate so much of you for taking the time to join me for a little bit of this, this morning. We’re going to have a ton more in the next several weeks when it comes to the agenda ahead, the work ahead as it begins. But so grateful to both of you. Angela Hanks is the Deputy Executive Director of the Groundwork Collaborative. Dorian Warren is the President of Community Change, and the co-host of the System Check podcast.
And I want to give some shout outs and congratulations to two friends of mine who also were among the down-ballot victors who made history last week, Sarah McBride, another CAP alumna, the first trans state Senator in this country, now in Delaware. Sarah, congratulations. And Tarra Simmons, the first formerly-incarcerated state Senator that we know of in this country over in Washington State. Congratulations to Tarra. Two phenomenal leaders to watch as well.
Dorian and Angela, thank you both and be well. Take good care. And I appreciate all of your wisdom on all of this so much.
WARREN: Thanks for having me back, Rebecca.
HANKS: Take care.
VALLAS: And that does it for this episode of Off-Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality, and everything they intersect with, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m Rebecca Vallas. The show is produced by Will Urquhart. Find us on the airwaves on the We Act Radio Network and the Progressive Voices Network, and say hi and send us your show pitches on Twitter @OffKilterShow. And of course, find us anytime on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. See you next time.
♪ I want freedom (freedom)
Now, I don’t know where it’s at
But it’s calling me back
I feel my spirit is revealing,
And now we just tryna get freedom (freedom)
What we talkin’ bout…. ♪