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I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. When perspective 2O20 Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke was asked recently if he considers himself to be a progressive, the response was a surprising, if expedient reset. “I don’t know,” he expounded. “I’m not big on labels. I don’t get all fired up about party or classifying or defining people based on a label or a group, I’m for everyone.” How does congressmen O’Rourke’s politics translate for the 2020 campaign and beyond? Sabeel Rahman is the president of Demos a “think and do” tank committed to advancing policy change on issues of racial justice, democracy and inequality, working for an America where we all have an equal say in our democracy and an equal chance in our economy. He’s also an associate professor of law at Brooklyn Law School and has previously been a visiting professor at Harvard Law, a fellow at the The Roosevelt Institute, and a fellow at New America. He explores the history, values and policy strategies that animate efforts to make our society more inclusive and democratic and our economy more equitable. Sabeel, a pleasure to meet you. Thanks for being here.
RAHMAN: Thanks for having me, Alex. Great to be here.
HEFFNER: What did you make of Congressmen O’Rourke’s comment recently as he is contemplating a 2020 bid, that he doesn’t know?
RAHMAN: Yeah, it’s, you know, its such an interesting moment right now for progressive politics and for politics broadly in the country. I think as your comment about Beto put it, we’re sort of in this big turning point right now where the next 20 years of our political fault lines are being mapped out. And on the one hand you know you can read O’Rourke’s comments as, you know, kind of classic pre-candidate, you know, trying to be pretty neutral, right, about what they stand for. But I think there’s something more going on here if you actually look at Beto’s campaign, Beto’s campaign is actually in some ways indicative of where progressive politics is going. So he knit together a really exciting coalition, a multiracial coalition in Texas that really focused on turning out black, brown voters, young people, knitting together a progressive coalition that came close to unseating Senator Ted Cruz, and a lot of the issues that activated that constituency were what I would think of as progressive issues, right? Pretty big bold ideas around things like health care, a kind of clear response to against the race baiting politics of the President and the Republican Party. And that to me is a progressive agenda. Now, whether or not we call it that or label it that, you know, fair enough. But I think what we’re seeing in Beto’s campaign and other campaigns across the country, Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum, others. We’re seeing the beginnings of this new Progressive Coalition.
HEFFNER: And what Beto O’Rourke invoked in his debates against Ted Cruz was Harry Truman. And he said if it’s progressive enough for Harry Truman, then it’s progressive enough for me.
HEFFNER: And so it’s possible, Sabeel, that he does not want to wrap himself in the Sanders or socialistic idea that has evolved in recent months and years because the Democratic Party, while it stood for an equitable future, it stood for that in a capitalistic system.
RAHMAN: Yeah. So I mean it’s, it’s interesting to kind of Truman versus Sanders. You know, what, what’s the, what’s the Lodestar here? I think there, there are two things to think about here. One is that it’s important to sort of level-set that what we think of as politics as usual for the last 15, 20 years is already a pretty right-wing extreme version of what this country used to be. And that’s because of the GOP efforts to undermine the safety net, to deregulate the economy going back to Reagan. And so the idea of calling back to Truman or FDR, it’s a good reminder that we’ve had moments of deep inequality before and we’ve built a robust progressive idea that involves things like social security and Medicare and so, that’s an important reminder, but I also think it’s important to kind of balance that against what we, what our future democracy looks like. So, you know, the New Deal of Roosevelt and Truman left out many key members of our society: migrant workers, African-Americans, women were left out of many of the most important provisions of the New Deal. And so we’re looking back, but we’re also looking ahead to doing it better this next time. And that’s, that’s why I think, you know, Beto’s campaign is so interesting, right? Because he’s evoking that historical language of, look, this is familiar with this is American and we have our own tradition of a more inclusive approach, but his, his campaign, his politics is actually very much forward looking in terms of who he was working with communities who is trying to activate in it together. And that’s the right balance. I think.
HEFFNER: If you surveyed your colleagues at Demos, I wonder where they would come out on this question, which is that hope and change was always an amorphous idea.
HEFFNER: And President Obama’s failure to capitalize on a broader and more ambitious and longstanding progressive tradition is apparent to me
RAHMAN: Yeah, absolutely.
HEFFNER: And so perhaps Beto, in not wanting to be labeled, wants to write his own New Deal, his own Great Society, his own New Frontier,
HEFFNER: And maybe he’s struggling with what I think you and you and your colleagues are undertaking, which is how do you write that next chapter?
HEFFNER: What does it look like and how do you reconcile it with the concerns people had about or misgivings they had about the inadequacy of a New Deal or a Great Society or how it may not have lived up to its promise.
RAHMAN: Right? I mean, so I think that that’s exactly right, that what we’re looking for here is a really for the first time building at an inclusive economy that works in a multiracial society, right? That’s a new deal that is actually inclusive of all of our communities, black, brown and white. And that’s not what we’ve had before. Now I want to broaden a little bit from the focus on Beto’s campaign because I actually think this debate that you just named is what is shaping the entire kind of renaissance of progressive champions and new electeds. And so I see this in leaders like Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum, Ilhan Omar, in the congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley.
We’ve got this whole amazing new crop of young champions who are all in different ways trying to put meat on the bones to this idea of how do we have a racially and gender inclusive progressivism that actually tackles those deep inequalities in a way that the Obama Administration for all of its successes and really important historical achievements really didn’t dig into those, that deeper level. And so if you just think about the financial crisis, for example, now 10 years ago, you know, the Dodd-Frank Reform Bill, which passed, then it, you tinkered around the edges, it did some important things, but it really left the problem of Too Big to Fail financial banks still in place. And that’s in contrast to the original New Deal, right? Where when Roosevelt came in, in ‘33, they completely transformed the financial sector to eliminate that risk of kind of concentrated finance and that it could kind of bring down the economy overall.
So that’s an example of how what we need next time around is something much more transformative, much more bold and aggressive. And when I look at this new wave of leaders, I see folks who are trying to think through what that would look like and for us at Demos, it’s exactly where we want to be and that’s. And that’s the right debate to be having in this next couple of years to figure that out before the next administration comes in.
HEFFNER: So what are you figuring out? What have you figured out? What do you think you’ve figured out?
RAHMAN: Well, I think we’re all trying to get the exact answers, but I think there are really a couple of big ticket items to really develop between now and say 2020 or 2021. The first is we’ve got to restore our democratic institutions.
I think we all recognize that there’s a crisis of our democracy right now and we see that in everything from the Republican efforts to rig the elections by purging voters off the rolls, to lame duck sessions after the midterms that tried to strip powers from incoming progressives elected in Wisconsin and Michigan and elsewhere. So we need to do a lot to just make sure our democratic institutions survive and people can actually vote and their votes actually count. But then when it comes to thinking about economic inequality, we need to tackle a number of these deep structural issues. So we still have a problem with the financial sector and you know, there’s a high possibility that there’ll be another financial crisis and we need to get it right this time. We need to close the racial wealth gap and actually make sure that the economy works for everybody and we need to deal with issues like affordable housing and rampant skyrocketing rents in a lot of cities.
We also need to make sure that everyone can access these basic goods that we need to live fully human lives. Medicare for All, public education, debt-free college, these are the kinds of issues that you know, not just Demos, but we and many of our other colleagues are trying to figure out the policy agenda.
HEFFNER: You mentioned Too Big to Fail. I don’t think folks realize that concept on an individual level. It’s not just about the banks; it’s about the concentration of wealth
HEFFNER: … and the lack of competition for folks because of what Sanders said during the primary campaign in ‘16, which was when dozens of families, under 100 families own the preponderance of wealth in this country than that makes it impossible for regular people to compete in this economy to have the livelihood and the security.
HEFFNER: And economic safety that they deserve and the dignity of their lives as being denied.
RAHMAN: Yeah, totally.
HEFFNER: I don’t think that Too Big to Fail ever really materialized in the way we responded on the policy basis for the banks or for individuals, because the tax reform just exacerbated everything that we had already known is wrong with our economy.
RAHMAN: Yeah. Yeah. So if you look at the not, not just the tax policies, the deregulation agenda that the previous congress had put in place and the Trump Administration has continued, we’ve actually, we’re actually in a period of even worsening corporate concentration and economic inequality over the last couple of years. And as you put it, the problem is not just finance. So there’s actually really good data showing that one of the reasons why wages have been stagnant is that many industries are actually really concentrated where they’re just a small number of companies that run the whole show. So think of telecom or airlines and that actually reduces wages because workers can’t, when they wanted to leave to get a better job, there are fewer places for them to compete fewer places where they can go.
It also means that prices are higher and it means that we have these small number of companies that are hoarding the wealth and controlling large sectors of our economy. Agriculture is another good example where a lot of the economic hardship in, particularly in rural and farming communities has a lot to do with the concentration of corporate control over our agriculture system. And so you can go down the list, you know, we can kind of knock off each sector. But the point is there’s, we have this broader problem of corporate power and concentrated wealth and control and part of the policy agenda has to be figuring out a way to open that up to make sure that that wealth and opportunity is actually flowing more broadly to businesses, to communities, to workers. And you know, you mentioned Senator Sanders. Senator Warren has a great bill in the congress on this as well, where, proposing things like worker participation and corporate boards. There are a number of really exciting ideas out there, but we’re, we need to think big to reset the economy and make sure it works for everybody.
HEFFNER: And HR-1, which is now this Democratic House majority’s attempt to bring accountability also has a lens into
HEFFNER: Economic security by virtue of making sure that people have the right to vote and therefore have a right to have their economic value.
RAHMAN: Right? Right. So.
RAHMAN: Yeah. So, you know, if you, if you go back a century you went into the Industrial Revolution was taking over taking the country by storm and we were having to figure out how do we respond to it. You see progress as of that era made it, they saw close connection between the problem of corporate power that you mentioned a minute ago and the problems of our democracy that you couldn’t have a modern democracy that concentrated wealth and power in the few and that undermined the ability of “We the People” to actually vote and hold our government accountable.
And so HR-1 is a good example of the democracy side of the equation that we’ve got this bill that pulls together a number of key issues in our democracy reform world that it would improve access to the ballot, restore the Voting Rights Act, achieve public financing for elections to break the link between you know economic wealth and political power, right? You, just because you’re wealthy or shouldn’t be, and you have more influence in the political process and it would it impose a lot of ethics and lobbying reforms that would help kind of prevent the influence of big money on political decision making. And so we talked about the economic policy agenda, but HR-1 is, it’s HR-1 for a reason, right? I think we, until we fixed the political system, we’re going to have a hard time making sure that the economic policies we need to serve everybody are actually going to go through it.
HEFFNER: And do you have any hope that Republicans will go along with such measures?
RAHMAN: Not really, but I also don’t think it matters very much in the following sense that, you know we’re in a kind of interregnum period between two very different visions of what the country should look like. You know, the Trump Republican party has their vision of a democracy that really only works for the wealthy and for privileged white elites, and the Democratic Party, Beto and Sanders and Warren and Gillum and Abrams and all of these new leaders, they’re trying to craft a, a different vision of, of our democracy that works for everybody. This neck, this window of time now before the 2020 election is really about this bigger battle of ideas. And so I actually think it matters less whether Republicans in the Senate or in the White House agree with these policies we’re talking about if anything, it’s just as well that they don’t, you know, we should put them on the defensive and kind of see what it, what it looks like when they vote against these really important common sense reforms to our democracy or to our economic policy. But we should be putting, we as progressives, I’d say it should be putting the big ideas on the table and set the agenda for 2020 and 2021.
HEFFNER: So to look at Beto’s comments more cynically or critically would be to perhaps judge from history, specifically President Clinton, this idea of not having an allegiance to progressivism or liberalism as a function of triangulation, you know, as a competing think tank, the work undertaken by the Democratic Leadership Council and Third Way and other groups that have sprung into the fore like No Labels in recent months and years and we’ve become over time, more skeptical
HEFFNER: Of the influence that they want to have to genuinely bridge the divide and at the same time realize policy goals that you would share at Demos. So is a possible reading of Beto’s comments that he may fall into that not Hillary Clinton, but Bill Clinton trap of Triangulation, Mr. Triangulation.
RAHMAN: Right. I think that, that No Labels sort of idea can look… It has these two very different versions, right? One is the triangulation version where it really is kind of whatever’s politically expedient. Right? And the other is what I think O’Rourke and others are trying to get at, which is that, you know, set it, set aside the label for a moment in order to engage with the, the actual idea and the actual moral values that we’re trying to achieve in terms of a democracy and economy that works for everybody. And I think that it’s, they can look similar, you know, it’s cynical read. I think we should be rightly cautious about folks claiming the No Labels mantra, but I think the difference is, we should also pay attention to know where their money is coming from, who is their base, who are they actually trying to work with to empower and to give voice to. And it’s one of the reasons why I keep going back to the campaign that, Beto and these other new leaders ran in 2018, where that to me looks like a very different set of values animating that campaign, than, or those campaigns then the sort of early 90s era triangulation.
HEFFNER: How do you read into the situation in Ohio where Sherrod Brown won handily reelection to his US Senate seat and the governor, the gubernatorial candidate for the Democrats lost,
HEFFNER: By a pretty wide margin as handily as Sherrod Brown won his Senate seat and Sherrod Brown is self-identified as a progressive, advocate of unions and the worker and Cordray, the Democrat running for governor helped launch the Consumer Protection Bureau and, and maybe it was that Cordray was cast as a DC villain and Sherrod Brown’s been there for folks, for people. And of course you can even look at their own personalities and the flash and one is a really much more of an authentic and believable populist,
HEFFNER: Sherrod Brown and Cordray it looks far preppier and,
RAHMAN: Right. Right.
HEFFNER: And so these kinds of things are the reality, but what do we learn from that election?
RAHMAN: Yeah. So I mean, you know, I think when Cordray ran can announce is now running for governor, there was a sense that, you know, will he could maybe tap into some of that kind of progressive populist mantra, right, as the founding director of, of one of the first director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that didn’t pan out as, as you described. I mean, I think we’ll have to spend some more time sort of unpacking what exactly happened in Ohio and look at Ohio and context of the other states in the Midwest. Right. So, you know, in state in a state like Michigan progressives ran the table, including with major initiatives and all of their candidates and in Wisconsin as well. So, you know, personalities always matter for sure. I think authenticity is important. Sure. But you know, I think we have to look at the broader picture and not….
HEFFNER: So let me ask you this then. How do you see the values of Sherrod Brown relative to the values of Beto O’Rourke? Do you see Brown’s values as more established and Beto’s values more enigmatic, unknown?
RAHMAN: Well, I mean, I think, I mean Brown’s been at this longer, right? He’s had more time to build out his narrative to, to make clear what he thinks on a number of issues and, to forge that, that shared vision around workers and economic inclusion and anticorruption and, and the many things that he’s worked on. Yeah. I think O’Rourke is just, hasn’t been around as long on the landscape, so we kind of have to wait and see a little bit. And, and that’s where, you know, the No Labels sort of con concern I think is, is a point well taken in the sense that for these new leaders who are step, coming forward, who don’t have as much of a track record, there’s less, there’s less that’s defined about them at this point, but I think we really have to look at what kind of, what they’re putting on the table and how they’re actually operating their campaigns and their work, you know, to his credit O’Rourke did not take corporate contributions, really worked hard to try to build this multiracial, progressive coalition in Texas of all places. And so and, and really tapped into a lot of the great grassroots organizing work that a number of progressive groups have been doing on the ground in Texas to link together workers of different backgrounds. Right. And so, so I think that speaks very well for, for the O’Rourke campaign, you know, what’s the actual ideological difference between O’Rourke and Sherrod Brown, you know, I think in some ways Brown represents more of that classic New Deal, Democrat kind of view, right, kind of an economic vision that centers workers and working people. Beto does that as well. But you know, coming out of Texas has a bit more of a focus on kind of multi-racial solidarity, which I think is really important.
HEFFNER: The fact that he is from Texas signals the 50 state strategy in it. It evokes Howard Dean’s emphasis at the beginning of the ’08 cycle, 2006 onwards up until the screeching halt of the Tea Party for Democrats. That was really an effort underway and then kind of demolished. To be competitive in every state.
HEFFNER: And so the idea that Republicans would have to compete resource wise.
HEFFNER: And, Beto O’Rourke might not win Texas, but he could be competitive in any number of southern states.
HEFFNER: It’s not clear if that would be competitive only at the top of the ticket, more likely only at the top than at the bottom of the ticket, but just the fact that he is competitive reminds Democrats that they had some beginnings of success with Howard Dean’s 50 State Strategy. Did they not?
RAHMAN: Yeah, I think that’s right. And, I think I would again bring Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum into the mix here as well, because they, I think along with Beto, they showed the same point that you’re making about Democrats competing everywhere and being authentic about progressive values in these deep red states. And so, you know, the fact that Stacey Abrams triple Hispanic-American turnout, got 1 point 2 million African American voters to support, her got more votes period than any previous Democratic candidate in Georgia. And came within, I would argue within some shenanigans by Brian Kemp of winning the governorship, that in Georgia as well, so that’s another marker that progressives can compete …
HEFFNER: Final thoughts from you, what is Demos and what are you all doing when it comes to those secretaries of state posts that are really essential to preserving the integrity of elections and with a Democratic secretary of state in Georgia, the process may have different. She may have won. There may have been a fairer administration of the election. What are you all doing when it comes to?
RAHMAN: It’s critical …
HEFFNER: … secretaries of state – It can’t work on Congress necessarily? Yeah, like a with a split control, but maybe you could work on secretary.
RAHMAN: There’s a lot of action that that is underway and that needs to happen at the state level. So three things in particular that I’ll mention. We’ve been doing a ton of voting access litigation in a number of these states. Trying to resist attempts to purge individual voters. Number two, that’s then fed into a lot of our work with partnering with grassroots organizations in these different states to push big democracy reforms that would change the way elections are administered: ensure automatic voter registration, sort of take some of the discretion and a potential for abuse out of the hands of election administrators by guaranteeing the ability of voters to register. And then the third piece is building out a policy agenda for states to do the kind of structural democracy reforms so that we can kind of have more secure and fair elections going forward. Now that’s going to take a lot of concentrated organizing and advocacy work at the state level, which is why we’re really proud to work with a number of partner, grassroots partners in states like New Mexico and Texas and Michigan many other places.
HEFFNER: And if you wanted to encourage folks to participate in and discharge their civic duty to preserve democratic norms and accountability, what would you say?
RAHMAN: Well, number one, you absolutely you have to vote and you have to vote for these down ballot races that often, don’t get the headlines. You mentioned secretaries of state. I would also put state judges and other kinds of county clerks. It varies state to state, but there are a lot of these offices that have a lot of a lot of power in how elections are run and the second is to keep your foot on the gas. A lot of people were activated and engaged in the 2018 midterms. This next period is just as important even though there’s not an election necessarily immediately on the horizon. Stay involved, keep the pressure on elected officials, get connected to or organizations in your community that can kind of help do that lobbying and advocacy to actually pass the bills we need passed at the state level to restore our democracy.
HEFFNER: Sabeel, thank you for your encouragement and your time today.
RAHMAN: Thanks so much Alex.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. And I hope you join us again next time for thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind, please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to see this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.