Let’s Challenge Corporate Democrats and Fight for a Universal Jobs Guarantee

Sarah Jaffe March 16, 2018

It's time to lay out a progressive agenda for 2018. (Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Wel­come to Inter­views for Resis­tance. We’re now into the sec­ond year of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, and the last year has been filled with ups and downs, impor­tant vic­to­ries, suc­cess­ful hold­ing cam­paigns, and painful defeats. We’ve learned a lot, but there is always more to learn, more to be done. In this now-week­ly series, we talk with orga­niz­ers, agi­ta­tors, and edu­ca­tors, not only about how to resist, but how to build a bet­ter world. 

Ady Barkan became some­what of a house­hold name after he was spot­ted over and over again at protests against health­care cuts in Wash­ing­ton dur­ing the fight to pro­tect the Afford­able Care Act and then against the Repub­li­can tax bill. For Barkan, a long­time orga­niz­er who was diag­nosed in 2016 with amy­otroph­ic lat­er­al scle­ro­sis, or ALS, the fight for health­care had become very per­son­al. We sat down last week in Bal­ti­more at the Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gres­sive Cau­cus strat­e­gy sum­mit, where Barkan, who mas­ter­mind­ed the Fed Up cam­paign to chal­lenge the Fed­er­al Reserve to adopt pro-work­er poli­cies, was being hon­ored with the Tim Car­pen­ter Advo­cate of the Year award. 

Ady Barkan: My name is Ady Barkan. I am 34 years old. I live in San­ta Bar­bara, Cal­i­for­nia, with my wife and tod­dler. I work at the Cen­ter for Pop­u­lar Democracy.

Sarah Jaffe: You got famous this year sit­ting next to a cer­tain some­one on a plane. Let’s go back to that for a minute. That was how many months ago now?

AB: Three. That was Decem­ber 7th, I think.

SJ: Wow. It was only three months ago.

AB: Yes.

SJ: It feels like it was a year ago. Take us back to that moment for a second.

AB: I just left Con­gress two days ear­li­er, where we were protest­ing the tax bill. I bare­ly got to the air­port on time. I got to the front of the line at the gate and then over­heard a friend, [Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty cam­paign man­ag­er] Liz Jaff, talk­ing on the phone about Twit­ter with a can­di­date of hers. I had nev­er met her and didn’t know her, but I kind of intro­duced myself out of nowhere and said I had a Twit­ter moment the day before when Ben Wikler’s video of me get­ting arrest­ed had got­ten 4,000 or 5,000 views. We were chat­ting and she said, You know, Jeff Flake is on this plane.”

So, it was a good oppor­tu­ni­ty to prac­tice some bird-dog­ging. In some ways, I had been prepar­ing for this my whole life, with speech and debate and the­ater and jour­nal­ism — watch­ing these Stone­man Dou­glas kids from Flori­da, that is such a vivid reminder to me of how impor­tant fund­ing for these things are, because that is where they got so good. It was just a good oppor­tu­ni­ty to try to hold his feet to the fire, even though it didn’t work.

SJ: Jeff Flake of all peo­ple, too, because he wants to have it both ways. Right?

AB: Total­ly. He wants to get the cred­it for being thought­ful and inde­pen­dent and… What is the word he loves to use? Decen­cy.

SJ: Wasn’t that what Edward R. Mur­row used on Joe McCarthy? Have you no sense of decen­cy, sir?”

AB: Yes. Although, I think it was a lawyer, not Murrow.

SJ: Right. It is inter­est­ing because I think McCarthy is one of the pre­cur­sors of Trump and Trumpism.

AB: Totally.

SJ: We sort of had the one fight that was sup­pos­ed­ly to save health­care and then they have just been back­door cut­ting it ever since.

AB: That is right. It makes sense. They con­trol the gov­ern­ment and in a func­tion­ing democ­ra­cy they prob­a­bly should get to imple­ment their agen­da. And then, vot­ers should be able to pass judg­ment on it. I think the sys­tem we have, where the gov­ern­ing par­ty doesn’t get to imple­ment its agen­da, is real­ly coun­ter­pro­duc­tive for democ­ra­cy. It con­fus­es every­body. So, we blame Oba­ma and the Democ­rats because they didn’t save the econ­o­my or do X or Y, but it was Repub­li­cans who were obstruct­ing. It would be much bet­ter if there was a clear con­nec­tion between gov­er­nance and outcome.

SJ: It’s tough, because there’s that, but then [Repub­li­cans] imple­ment parts of their agen­da. We hear that it’s a tax bill, and that peo­ple are maybe get­ting some­thing back in their tax­es, but we don’t hear about the oth­er parts of the bill quite as much. It is still referred to over and over as the tax bill.

AB: So, one thing that I am going to be doing this year with Liz Jaff and [Occu­py Wall Street orga­niz­er] Win­nie Wong, is launch­ing this Be a Hero Fund. We will try to raise mon­ey and spend it to win House seats for pro­gres­sives away from Repub­li­cans, moti­vate vot­ers and vol­un­teers, by focus­ing pre­cise­ly on the tax and health­care bill, high­light­ing to the Amer­i­can peo­ple how and why the bill is bad for them and good for the plutocrats.

SJ: Look­ing back on all of this year… I sup­pose it could have been worse on some fronts, but it was still a mess. But what do you think we have learned in the last year that we can think about going for­ward about stop­ping bad agen­das, but also imple­ment­ing a pos­i­tive vision, like an actu­al­ly func­tion­al health­care system?

AB: Maybe three things to start with. One is how unpre­dictable the future is, on a social lev­el and a per­son­al lev­el. I was diag­nosed with this dis­ease out of nowhere three weeks before the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Before then, Rachel and I were the hap­pi­est, luck­i­est peo­ple we knew. We had a healthy baby boy. We each had ful­fill­ing jobs. We lived in par­a­disi­a­cal San­ta Bar­bara. Lit­er­al­ly, the num­ber one thing I wor­ried about in the weeks before my diag­no­sis was that there was grass grow­ing up in my plants that I had plant­ed and I couldn’t for the life of me get rid of it. It was so infu­ri­at­ing! You know, the future was bright. Democ­rats were going to win the pres­i­den­cy. We were final­ly get­ting con­trol of the Supreme Court after forty years. On the per­son­al lev­el, things are unpre­dictable. Then, three weeks lat­er, Don­ald Trump wins the elec­tion. So, one is, we should stop mak­ing predictions.

SJ: I sec­ond that one.

AB: And we have to appre­ci­ate all we have in the moment we are in, and not live only in the future. As to resis­tance, I think it has proven more effec­tive than me or many peo­ple thought pos­si­ble. Chuck Schumer and the like were all ready to capit­u­late on every­thing until What the fuck, Chuck?” protests start­ed pop­ping up in Park Slope. And we actu­al­ly were able to gum up the works to block a bunch — I mean, ulti­mate­ly, Trump has real­ly enact­ed only one sig­nif­i­cant piece of legislation.

I don’t think they are going to get any­thing else. We will see about this Dodd-Frank roll­back where Democ­rats are being trai­tors, which brings me to the third point, which is that we have a lot of house clean­ing to do.

The Democ­rats are still way too in the pock­et of Wall Street. Eliz­a­beth Warren’s speech on the Sen­ate floor was real­ly fan­tas­tic. It’s just so embar­rass­ing and infu­ri­at­ing to see the DCCC endorse a union buster in Hous­ton and all these Dems sup­port rolling back Dodd-Frank. It’s like, who among the Amer­i­can peo­ple are clam­or­ing for reduc­ing bank reg­u­la­tions? It’s crazy.

SJ: Bankers are.

AB: Bankers. So, those are my three lessons.

SJ: Yes, it was real­ly strik­ing this morn­ing to hear Eliz­a­beth War­ren speak about that and just say­ing, Yes, 16 Democ­rats sup­port­ing the roll­back of Dodd-Frank,” includ­ing the vice pres­i­den­tial nominee.

AB: Oh my god. I remem­ber the day that he was cho­sen. When Tim Kaine was picked, every­one was belly­ach­ing. It was our fault. We had focused on the plat­form. We had all worked so hard to get var­i­ous good things in the plat­form. We knew for months that Tim Kaine was the num­ber one can­di­date and none of us… We could have eas­i­ly launched cam­paigns doc­u­ment­ing Kaine’s sins on a whole array of things and said that he is an unac­cept­able choice, but we didn’t and we got him. It is a per­fect exam­ple of what hap­pens if we let the estab­lish­ment par­ty oper­ate with­out our voic­es includ­ed in the con­ver­sa­tion. They play it safe, pick the con­ser­v­a­tive white dude from Virginia.

SJ: But he spoke Spanish.

AB: Yes, exact­ly. [laughs] If she had picked War­ren, if she had picked Bernie, if she had picked Tom Perez… Instead, we get this douchebag who now votes for dereg­u­lat­ing the banks. It is unbe­liev­able. He is like Joe Lieber­man. It is the same thing.

We need to pri­ma­ry Chuck Schumer. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, it is still many years away. We need to get rid of these guys like Kaine, Mark Warn­er. It is real­ly out­ra­geous. It is one thing for Joe Manchin or Doug Jones, we can debate whether in deep red America…

SJ: Although, after the last cou­ple of weeks in West Vir­ginia we can debate whether that is deep red Amer­i­ca, too.

AB: Exact­ly, right! But, in Vir­ginia, in Mon­tana where there is demand for pop­ulism… Remem­ber when [Jon] Tester was elect­ed in the wave in 2006, every­one was so excit­ed he was this cow­boy pop­ulist? No way. 

SJ: It is so inter­est­ing because after a year that, like you said, has peo­ple show­ing up out­side of Chuck Schumer’s house, it has been a year of mass protests in the streets, at the air­ports, at Con­gress, peo­ple get­ting arrest­ed over and over again… And this is still the vote they are going to stick their necks out on.

AB: Yep. It’s crazy. It is like Oba­ma: the num­ber one thing he fought hard­est for after health­care was the Trans-Pacif­ic Part­ner­ship. That is how he spent his final year in office, fight­ing for TPP. And you won­der why Ohio goes for Trump. So, we have got a lot of work to do.

SJ: You already men­tioned one thing that you are work­ing on this year. What should peo­ple be talk­ing about? You men­tioned fight­ing to get good things in the plat­form. What do you want to hear peo­ple say­ing that they will do if they get elected?

AB: If I had anoth­er five years of health, the cam­paign I would want to run would be a guar­an­teed good jobs cam­paign. I think we could run it now lead­ing up to 2020. It would be a great cam­paign to say to peo­ple that if you can’t find good work in the pri­vate sec­tor, we are not going to give you unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits, we are going to give you employ­ment and we are going to put you to work clean­ing the streets, rebuild­ing our infra­struc­ture, tak­ing care of old­er peo­ple or young peo­ple, writ­ing plays, mak­ing music. There is so much good to be done in the world.

We can afford it. $1.5 tril­lion for the biggest cor­po­ra­tions, $80 bil­lion for the mil­i­tary when John McCain sneezes and wants to increase its bud­get appro­pri­a­tion. You can con­jure up $80 bil­lion a year, which is basi­cal­ly what it would cost. That is the cam­paign I would want to run.

A good jobs guar­an­tee would allow us to com­bat racial, gen­der, eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty. It would allow us to invest in the coun­try via a pop­ulist vision that peo­ple could run on in every dis­trict in the coun­try. It is much eas­i­er to explain and under­stand than Fed Up, which is eso­teric, hard for peo­ple to under­stand. What is the Fed? How do the inter­est rates work?

If I had one cam­paign to run, it would be that one. I hope that Bernie does it. Maybe I will be able to con­vince his peo­ple and we can make it an issue in 2020.

SJ: How can peo­ple keep up with you and your work?

AB: Twit­ter is good. @AdyBarkan. I will be keep­ing folks updat­ed on the polit­i­cal elec­toral work, on the resis­tance work. Maybe I will be going — we will see — to Ari­zona or Okla­homa to join the teach­ers, which will be lots of fun. Peo­ple can get involved and need to get involved every day from now until November.

Inter­views for Resis­tance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assis­tance from Lau­ra Feuille­bois and sup­port from the Nation Insti­tute. It is also avail­able as a pod­cast on iTunes. Not to be reprint­ed with­out permission. 

Sarah Jaffe is a for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of Nec­es­sary Trou­ble: Amer­i­cans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kel­ley called The most com­pelling social and polit­i­cal por­trait of our age.” You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @sarahljaffe.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH