We talk to journalist and activist Naomi Klein about Bernie Sanders’s historic presidential campaign as he suspends his bid for the 2020 Democratic nomination, and about coronavirus capitalism — President Trump’s response to the pandemic. Sanders “opened up the window of what was possible politically in this country,” says Klein, a senior correspondent at The Intercept, Rutgers University professor and longtime Sanders supporter.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, broadcasting from the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, New York City, along with my co-host, who is right here in New York City, as well, unfortunately not next to me where we usually are in the studio, but preventing community spread by broadcasting from home. Hi, Nermeen.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Hi, Amy. And welcome to our listeners and viewers around the country and around the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to turn right now to Bernie Sanders. We just played his speech as he withdrew his bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Joe Biden now faces the challenge of winning over his supporters. On Wednesday, seven progressive groups made up of young activists, including NextGen America, Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats, issued the Biden campaign a series of platform demands, saying, quote, “The organizations … will spend more than $100 million … but we need help ensuring our efforts will be backed-up by a campaign that speaks to our generation,” they said.
We’re joined now by Naomi Klein, senior correspondent at The Intercept. She endorsed Bernie Sanders back in November and is joining us to talk not only about his historic campaign, as it surged and now as it’s suspended, but also to talk about coronavirus capitalism. Naomi is the inaugural Gloria Steinem chair of media, culture and feminist studies at Rutgers University, author of a number of books, including The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism; her latest book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal.
Naomi, it’s great to have you with us. You were one of our last guests in studio here, and now you’re speaking to us from your home in New Jersey. Can you talk about how you and your family have fared during this pandemic?
NAOMI KLEIN: Well, it’s very good to be sort of with you, Amy, and it is true that going on your show is the last thing I did in person before this kind of lockdown. And thank you for asking. We are all doing well and healthy at the moment, though we weren’t a couple weeks ago, and so we’re very relieved to be. And yeah, I just want to express my gratitude to you and the whole Democracy Now! team for continuing to broadcast and bring us so many just crucial voices in this period.
AMY GOODMAN: Naomi, you and your family were exposed to COVID-19, is that right?
NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah, we believe that we were, because a colleague and friend of ours stayed at our house, and we spent time together — actually, the night before I saw you, Amy, which is why you know about this, because we contacted everyone we came in contact with. And that friend went back to Canada, got sick and, because they live somewhere where there’s more testing, was able to get tested, and did test positive. And so, when we started showing symptoms, my husband Avi Lewis and I, we wondered about that. But we’re fine. And you appear to be fine, too, Amy, so we are the least of people’s worries right now. We’re all good. And our colleague has recovered and is doing well, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, that’s an absolutely critical issue, the severe lack of testing to this day, whatever the president asserts —
NAOMI KLEIN: Oh, absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: — in New York City, the epicenter, and all over the country. But, Naomi, before we talk about that, Bernie Sanders has suspended his campaign. You, until recently, were saying he should continue, especially during this pandemic, to run for president. So can you talk about your response to his address and his decision?
NAOMI KLEIN: Well, I think the main thing that I want to say this morning, Amy, is just that I just would like to express my huge gratitude to Bernie Sanders, to his entire family, to the many people who worked for the campaign just so tirelessly and opened up the window of what was possible politically in this country. It was an incredibly tough campaign. And I trust that Bernie is making the right decision in this moment as the leader of that campaign and also as a U.S. senator. I know that he’s not going to just go relax, as he said in his address. He intends to fight for people, as he has always done, in this critical moment, in terms of what kind of relief, rescue and reimagining that we do in the midst of this pandemic. He is staying on the ballot. He is still building power in order to pressure the Democratic Party and Joe Biden to run the most progressive campaign that they can. So, you know, I feel so much gratitude for Senator Sanders.
More than anything else, I think what the campaign did is help us find each other. And by “us,” I mean that huge “us” of the “Not me. Us.” campaign. And he did this not just in this campaign, but in 2016, where he really broke the spell of the Reagan era, that spell that has lasted for four decades, that told people, who believed, that this system that was funneling so much wealth upwards and spreading insecurity, precariousness, poverty and pollution for everybody else — everybody who saw that system and thought there was something deeply wrong with it, what the neoliberal era told us was that we were the ones who were crazy, we were a tiny minority of fringe people, and that we should just accept it. And what the Sanders campaign did in 2016 is tell us that we had been lied to, that, in fact, there were so many millions of us who saw that this world was fundamentally upside down. And all of the incredible organizing, including digital organizing but also in-person organizing, wove this amazing web, and we were able to find each other and find that we were many and they were few. And so, I don’t think we can ever thank Bernie Sanders and the campaign enough for that. And being part of the campaign as a volunteer — but I did go to four states for the campaign — was some of the — provided some of the greatest moments of my political life. I mean, I was in Nevada when we won, and got to be part of that incredibly joyful moment and just got to meet so many other like-minded people.
And I think in Senator Sanders’s address that we just heard, Amy, I think he was so correct in zeroing in on the conspiracy of lowered expectations, right? He focused — he very directly addressed the American public and said, “If you don’t believe that you deserve universal healthcare, you’re not going to get it. If you don’t believe that you deserve a safe planet, you’re not going to get it.” And I think that that is really at the heart of why he lost. You know, we’ve heard again and again, Bernie has won the battle of ideas. But the truth is, there is a difference between winning a battle of ideas, winning an intellectual battle about what kind of policies are right and just and will keep us safe, and believing that you can win. You can simultaneously win that battle of ideas and still believe that you will never actually win, that you are still a weak minority, that you will still be destroyed by the forces of establishment power and money.
And that, I think, is the real generational divide that Bernie was also speaking to in that address. You know, I don’t think that Bernie lost because of a battle between leftist and centrist, although of course that battle is still raging, but we had a progressive majority on the issues. But where the generational divide comes in — and Bernie spoke to this — is that among voters not just under 30, but in many cases under 45, under 50, were starting to believe that they could actually win. And I think particularly among that majority of young voters, that always backed Bernie, they understood that the intellectual project of neoliberalism was bankrupt, that it had lost its powers of persuasion, and that these words like “democratic socialist” were not as scary anymore. In fact, they have become appealing. But I think for that older generation, that has — particularly the older generation that has a living memory of the state violence of the 1960s that waged literal war on revolutionary movement leaders, that sent them into exile, that sent them into their graves, that surveilled them, blacklisted them, when Bernie’s opponents raised the specter of the Red Scare that would be used against him, that was incredibly triggering, terrifying, and they couldn’t — progressive voters who agreed with Bernie could not believe that he could win, where younger voters did believe that he could win. And that was, I think, the most important generational divide.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Naomi, a lot of people believed — progressives, but also others — that since this coronavirus emergency has exposed so many failures of the U.S. system — healthcare, as well as the absence of a social safety net — that this would enhance support for Sanders and his policies. Your response to that, and also whether you think his supporters will actually back Biden? I mean, Sanders did not say yesterday — he did not explicitly endorse Biden.
NAOMI KLEIN: Well, I think that he implied that after the battles over the platform were won, then it would all be about coming together and defeating Trump. So, I don’t know, that’s not the way I heard it.
I think that there is no doubt that the way this pandemic is playing out is opening — is further opening up that window of what is politically possible, indeed what is necessary for people’s survival. And so, yes, support for Medicare for All is surging, as well as support for other kinds of programs, like housing for all, that were always at the center of the Sanders campaign. You know, in your headlines just now, we heard news about the air clearing around the world. We are seeing that it is possible to clean the air. A lot of people like that as one of these silver linings of this crisis. But this isn’t how we want to clean the air. We don’t want to clean the air by crash, by brutal crash. We want to clean the air by craft. We want to design policies that care for workers, that protect workers, that retrain workers, but allow us to live in a way that doesn’t poison people’s lungs, which, by the way, is part of what is making black and brown communities more vulnerable to the coronavirus, because those are the communities that have the most polluting industries in their backyards. That’s one of the factors. So people are seeing this and being radicalized by this and demanding policies that were at the center of the Sanders campaign.
But during times of crisis, people also are risk-averse. And so, you know, I think the timing of this was such, with the inability to continue campaigning in person, with people just reaching for something that looked and felt safe, I don’t think it was possible to translate that shift in openness to these kinds of policies with a huge electoral swing from Biden towards Bernie, although I was certainly hoping for it up until Bernie’s announcement last night. But while hoping for it, I was keenly aware that the polls were not reflecting it, that it wasn’t happening and that people are not up for that kind of political seesaw in this moment of tumult.
So, what we have to be focused on, what the movement that the Sanders campaign represents, but also all of the social movements that were part of that campaign, independent social movements, and also movements that never joined the campaign — what we need to be focused on right now is winning those policies for a kind of a people’s bailout in this moment of profound crisis. And we need to be focused on beating Donald Trump in November, absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: And how exactly do you see that happening? This is our last question to you. We’re going to then play a clip of Noam Chomsky talking about the significance of Bernie Sanders. But I wanted to ask you, Naomi, how you see this happening, when people have to be isolated. It’s not clear what’s going to happen in the coming months. Clearly, in the White House right now they’re talking about opening as fast as possible the country, despite the dire warnings of scientists that another surge could happen if Trump does this. He has removed the inspector general in charge of the $500 billion corporate fund that corporations will be bailed out by, despite the fact that Democrats put that into the bill to ensure that there would be some kind of oversight, but clearly didn’t put it in strongly enough, because he is able to just fire the person. We’re going to talk in a moment about the disparities of who is affected by this. It’s certainly not a great leveler, the coronavirus. Those on the frontlines are, of course, the most hard hit, and who are on the frontlines of inequality in the country are the most hard hit. But your whole assessment of coronavirus capitalism right now, where it stands right now on what has to happen in these next months?
NAOMI KLEIN: So, I think our phones still work, our internet still works, so we are still able to make ourselves heard in sending a very clear message to people in Congress, who are going to have to be running for reelection, who are running for reelection, that people are enraged by this bailout and the fact that these meager strings that were attached to the corporate bailout were immediately snipped by the Trump administration in terms of oversight, in terms of congressional oversight, in terms of their own watchdogs, in terms of giving Steve Mnuchin the ability to override that oversight.
I think that the battle, frankly, when it comes to disaster capitalism and this sort of corporate free-for-all that we are seeing right now under cover of pandemic, that that battle was lost when the rescue for people was bundled together with the corporate bailout. I think the demand that we need to make on lawmakers right now is that they need to keep those things separate so that they aren’t held hostage, right? When we look at the fact that there was — that people voted for that bailout who shouldn’t have voted for it, it was because they couldn’t be seen, or they felt that they couldn’t be seen, to be voting for what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called “crumbs for our families,” right? Because those crumbs are not nothing when people are starving. So, the battle, really, the political battle, was lost when those two things were bundled together, when the people’s rescue was bundled together with the corporate rescue. So people need to send that message very, very strongly.
The fact is, there is power right now, and there is power from the working people who are holding the world together — this country together, but the world together — the healthcare workers, the janitors, the caretakers, the delivery workers, the people who are picking our food, under very unsafe conditions. And we are seeing a wave of job action from these workers, who understand themselves to be so essential despite decades of having their labor belittled by those in power. And that is one of the great — it was one of the great strengths of the Sanders campaign, was that he always recognized the power of those essential workers. It’s why he was supported overwhelmingly by Amazon workers, by grocery store workers and, of course, by nurses and by teachers. And so, this is a time for us to be organizing and taking leadership from those workers.
And I have to say that one of my great, great regrets from having been involved in this campaign is watching my friends in the progressive movement who didn’t support Sanders, in part because they weren’t able to take leadership from those working people who recognized Sanders as their champion from the very beginning, and they felt that those workers didn’t understand their own best interests, and so they wanted them to support somebody else. And this is a moment where if we say that we have so much gratitude for these frontline workers, let’s trust them politically, too, and let’s do everything we can to augment their political power. Let’s demand that of our trade unions. Let’s demand that of ourselves. Let’s support them tangibly. But let’s also take leadership from them, which is something that Bernie Sanders always did, and it is one of the things that I love most about him.
AMY GOODMAN: Naomi Klein, I want to thank you for being with us, senior correspondent at The Intercept, professor at Rutgers University. Tonight she’s joining in an “After Bernie” online teach-in with Astra Taylor and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. We’ll link to it at our website.