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Democratic Divide: Ryan Grim on the New Progressives in the Party at Odds with the Establishment

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As the 2020 election heats up and calls for President Trump’s impeachment continue, we look at the deepening divide within the Democratic Party with Ryan Grim, Washington, D.C., bureau chief for The Intercept. He is the author of the new book “We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement.” In it, he writes, “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may seem like she came from nowhere, but the movement that propelled her to office—and to global political stardom—has been building for 30 years.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to the deepening divide within the Democratic Party, an issue that came into sharp relief last weekend in San Francisco as 11 presidential candidates in the 2020 race to defeat Donald Trump joined the California Democratic Party’s annual convention. While many of the Democratic candidates participated, former Vice President Joe Biden was conspicuously absent. This is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders speaking.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: All of us are united in defeating Trump, but let me be frank with you and raise the issue that I think is on everyone’s mind. And that is: What is the best way to defeat Trump? As you all know—as you all know, there is a debate among presidential candidates who have spoken to you here in this room, and those who have chosen, for whatever reason, not to be in his room, about the best way forward. So let me be as clear as I can be: In my view, we will not defeat Donald Trump unless we bring excitement and energy into the campaign and unless we give millions of working people and young people a reason to vote and a reason to believe that politics is relevant to their lives. We cannot go back to the old ways. We have got to go forward with a new and progressive agenda.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The rift between establishment and more progressive candidates was clear to the more than 5,000 delegates in attendance, many of whom expressed their disapproval for moderate positions. This is former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, who was repeatedly booed for defending the private health insurance industry.

JOHN HICKENLOOPER: If we want to beat Donald Trump and achieve big progressive goals, socialism is not the answer. I was re-elected—I was re-elected in a purple state in 2014.

AMY GOODMAN: California Senator Kamala Harris drew some of the loudest applause of the gathering when she called for Trump’s impeachment, another source of division in the party. Members of the progressive new coalition, including Representatives Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have been at the forefront of efforts to impeach, which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other old guard Democrats have been resisting.

To speak more about the growing rift in the party, we’re joined now by Ryan Grim, The Intercept's D.C. bureau chief, author of the new book _We've Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement_. His book takes a deep dive into the last 30 years of Democratic politics and tracks the people-powered movement that brought Bernie Sanders and AOC to political prominence.

Ryan Grim, welcome back to Democracy Now! Congratulations on your new book. Why don’t we start off by looking at this divide around impeachment and what it tells us about, well, everything that you have looked at, this divide from establishment Democratic politics and the new progressive forces that you say go back decades.

RYAN GRIM: Yeah, and you don’t even have to go that far back in history to see a repeat of this. You know, in 2005 and 2006, the grassroots of the Democratic Party were furious at President Bush for all of the kind of global criminality, the black sites, the torture, the war in Iraq, and, on an antiwar wave, took back the House and the Senate in 2006. The first thing that Nancy Pelosi did—and you may remember this—she said, “We’re taking impeachment off the table.” And this time around again, she’s been trying to do the exact same thing. And she feels that her job is to curb what she sees as the destructive impulses of her base.

And this is something that, in my reporting, I discovered comes from this odd trauma that so many people in Pelosi’s generation have, who are at the top rights of the party now, that came from their experience in the 1980s. You know, they watched Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich and the new right kind of wipe the party out. And everything that they had known about politics, everything that they had believed in, was repudiated, they felt, in 1980, again in '84 and ’88. And they came to the conclusion that they just had to kind of retrench, find solace in corporate America, in Wall Street, raise as much money as they could, so that they could, in a sophisticated way, match Republicans dollar for dollar, but not let the country believe that they're some crazy, harebrained tax-and-spend liberals. So, anytime that anybody moves to the left of the center, politicians like Pelosi start to worry that the ghost of Reagan is going to come back and haunt their house.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, Ryan, in your book, though—and the subtitle is From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement—you go back to the period, the two presidential runs of Jesse Jackson, in ’84 and ’88, and you spend quite a bit of time talking about how those developed and the impact that they had on the Democratic Party, as well. Could you talk about why you chose the Jackson phenomenon to start a good portion of the early part of your book with?

RYAN GRIM: Yeah, because the Jackson wing or the Jackson phenomenon was the counterargument to the Democratic Party, to the Democratic Party elites’ response to Reagan. In other words, there was kind of two ways that you can go about trying to win over white working-class voters, particularly. You know, the one is to appeal to economic interests and put together what Jesse Jackson called a Rainbow Coalition, and note that kind of neoliberalism and globalization is wrecking the working class across the board and that only by uniting can the working class then fight back against that phenomenon. The other is to use corporate funding to buck up the party and then rely on racial resentment, to rely on racial anxiety and racism within—and appeal to that element of a white working class. And so, the Democratic Party in the '80s chose that direction rather than Jackson's.

And I chose to focus on Jackson because of how close he came to actually winning the nomination in 1988, which shows that this is a moral force that’s been in the party for decades. The difference was that Jackson didn’t really have—well, A, he wasn’t a sitting senator, or he didn’t have some other position that gave him the credibility at the time. This was pre-Trump, where people thought you had to actually be qualified to be president. But he didn’t have the funding base. And so, what’s so different nowadays is that, you know, with the tap of your phone, somebody who’s angry or inspired can back an Elizabeth Warren or can back a Bernie Sanders for president and equalize the playing field. And so, this presidential election is the first time that that energy that was around Jesse Jackson in ’88 actually has a fighting chance against the center of the party. And you saw that on display at the California convention.

AMY GOODMAN: Yeah, you have a coalition of progressive groups making a fresh call for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to open impeachment proceedings against President Trump. The letter from groups including the Women’s March, Just Foreign Policy, CREDO reads, “As Speaker of the House, you have the power to ensure Congress exercises its constitutional obligation to hold this president accountable, but instead of using your power, you are giving us political excuses for why you shouldn’t.” So, this is Nancy Pelosi speaking in San Francisco last week.

SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI: Nothing is off the table, but we do want to make such a compelling case, such an ironclad case, that even the Republican Senate, which at the time seems to be not an objective jury, will be convinced of the path that we have to take as a country.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Nancy Pelosi. When she spoke at the California Democratic Party’s convention on Saturday, she was met by chants of “Impeach! Impeach!” When we come back from our break, we want you to talk, Ryan, about the rise of Nancy Pelosi and then the rise of AOC, of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. You were one of the first to document AOC’s run for office, before she beat Joe Crowley in the primary. Ryan Grim’s new book is called We’ve Got People. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Closing Time” by Semisonic, here on Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guest is Ryan Grim, who’s the Washington, D.C., bureau chief for The Intercept. His new book is just out, We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement. I want to go to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as she talks about the importance of impeachment and about Nancy Pelosi’s stance on it. She was speaking on CNN.

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: I trust the speaker is taking a measured approach to ensure that we’re moving everyone forward. I know that, you know, being a speaker is hard. Holding this party together is a difficult task. But I think that we know what we need to do.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting, Ryan Grim, here, a number of calls for impeachment come out of the Mueller report coming out, come out of those who originally were talking about President Trump’s collusion, which Mueller found there wasn’t collusion. There may be corruption. There may be obstruction of justice. But there wasn’t collusion. Yet the very people who are calling for impeachment are those who are concerned about many other issues, concerned about inequity, about inequality, concerned about the president’s racism and concerned about the Green New Deal. Can you talk about the rise of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and how she’s become such a powerhouse in Washington?

RYAN GRIM: Right. I mean, she launched her campaign not long after Trump’s election. She was recruited, so to speak, by a group of organizers who flowed out of the Bernie Sanders campaign. They first created an organization called Brand New Congress, and then they split that into two, and one of them became Justice Democrats. Her brother actually nominated her as a candidate. And they went over all of—they got something like 10,000 applications. They told me something like 90% of them, roughly, were young white men. But they were looking for people who could run in districts that matched both the politics and the demographics of it, and they found that in a number of districts, and particularly in New York 14, which is the Bronx and Queens, with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Their original plan had been to run 435 candidates across the country. That failed spectacularly. And, you know, towards the early part of 2018, they decided that they were going to abandon that strategy and just train all of their fire on New York 14, on Ocasio-Cortez’s race, and just take this one moonshot. And they could tell that she had something special in a candidate, that she had a charisma that we’ve since seen on display, since then. So, it was June of 2018 that she upset Joe Crowley.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ryan, I wanted to ask you, in terms of the—you also focus in the book on Chicago politics, not only Rahm Emanuel, but also, earlier on, the Harold Washington race. One of the hallmarks of the Harold Washington race is that as he was running for mayor, that a significant section of the Democratic Party broke off and supported his opponent. We saw a similar situation happen with Nixon in 1968, the Nixon-Humphrey race, when many Democrats, because of the civil rights movement of LBJ, left the Democratic Party and voted Republican. Any concerns on your part as this continuing divide in the Democratic Party, with a section of the Democratic Party, which I think is what you’re referring to as Nancy Pelosi’s worst nightmare, might break off and support the right wing of the Democratic Party, even support a Trump for president?

RYAN GRIM: Right. It’s a real question. And the Harold Washington case is instructive. Like you said, he won an insurgent primary in 1983, with the support of Jesse Jackson. And then, in the general election, the entire Democratic machine switched sides. And in this overwhelmingly Democratic city, Washington only won the general election by four points. And so, you know, the machine showed that it was more interested in maintaining its own control than it was what was up with the Democratic Party. You saw it again, like you said, in '68; then you saw it in ’72. There's this famous quote from a top Democratic official who said, “McGovern is going to lose because we’re going to make sure that he loses.” So, it absolutely is a fear.

And the irony is that the center has been keeping the left in check for a generation by saying, “OK, this is not the candidate that you wanted, but if you don’t stick with us, you’re going to get the barbarians who are at the gates, you know, busting through and pillaging the village.” The shoe could be on the other foot this time, if there’s a Warren or a Sanders nominated. And the question would be put to the center-left on the party. You know, if you don’t stick with the party, then the barbarians, actually, they’re not only at the gate, the barbarian is the incumbent and will win re-election. It’s a very live question. Now, a lot of them live in New York and Washington, D.C., and so their votes are diluted. They don’t live in key states, like Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. So, it’s blunted a bit. But it absolutely is a real threat, that—you know, would a Sanders or a Warren be able to unite that element of the party.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the DCCC, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, policy barring it from conducting business with a primary opponent of a sitting Democrat, that they would not pay—they would stop paying any consulting group that launched, well, exactly what AOC did, what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did, from working with an AOC or an Ayanna Pressley?

RYAN GRIM: Right, and that includes Marie Newman, who ran against Dan Lipinski, who has an anti-immigrant record, anti-LGBT. He’s anti-choice. And he’s a member in good standing of the Democratic Caucus. You know, she had fairly establishment-level groups backing her in 2018. She’s running again against him and is finding it much more difficult to find consultants to work for her. And it’s easy to disparage consultants, but you need them to do the basics of campaigning. You need them to put together your mailers, to do your FEC compliance—you know, the basic nuts and bolts of a campaign that you can’t just do yourself.

And so, the DCCC chair herself canceled a fundraiser for Dan Lipinski, yet is still maintaining this policy, which could end up backfiring in the not very long term, as it will create a kind of new industry of consultants who are no longer kind of bound to the DCCC, because they know they can’t get business from them anyway, so they’re going to come out and find more innovative ways to run campaigns. But in the short term, it’s making it very difficult for challengers to incumbents, which only protects the current House Democratic Caucus, which was on its way to being increasingly diversified, and this kind of puts a stop to that movement.

AMY GOODMAN: Ryan Grim, we want to thank you so much for being with us, Washington, D.C., bureau chief for The Intercept, author of the new book We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement.

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