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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.
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.
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.
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Sarah Jaffe is a Type Media Center Fellow, co-host (with Michelle Chen) of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, and a columnist at The New Republic and New Labor Forum. She was formerly a staff writer at In These Times and the labor editor at AlterNet. Her previous book is 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.