Briahna dives into the legacy of FDR's New Deal with the help of Harvey Kaye and Cornel West. Dr. Kaye, a professor of democracy at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, explains how Bernie is adapting FDR's populist vision for the 21st century. Dr. West, who has taught at Harvard, Princeton, and the Union Theological Seminary, argues for reviving a multiracial, working class movement that addresses inequality along racial, gender, and class lines.
Harvey Kaye on Twitter: https://twitter.com/harveyjkaye
Cornel West on Twitter: https://twitter.com/CornelWest
Briahna Joy Gray: For as long as I've been alive, Conservatives have tried to own both history and patriotism as their exclusive territory. You know what I mean. They often seem to have a heightened affinity for flags, eagles and anthems as though those things are Republican symbols rather than symbols of our republic. I mean the Donald Trump literally has a penchant for embracing the US flag, like hugging it embracing it, like a blankie.
Conservative legal commentators cite the founding fathers like they're the voice of God Herself, despite obvious evidence of their ability to make mistakes, mistakes like not considering black people as rights-having human beings, for instance. Even the slogan Make America Great Again, hearkens back to history. An imagined history to be sure. The good old days before so-called Cultural Marxists, SJWs, Antifa, and other phantoms of Conservative paranoia infiltrated America and ruined everything. This is part of why we often dig into history here on Hear the Bern, because the real story is more complex, authentic, fascinating, and ultimately compelling than the distorted narratives bandied about by the Right in service of a very specific, very moneyed, highly prejudicial agenda.
The real story is a story of struggle and slow transformation from the bottom up. Of hard-won victories over opposing forces, of setbacks and years spent with little to no movement on the ground, only for sweeping changes to take place seemingly overnight. Of pressuring even sympathetic leaders to do what is right.
History is also important to Bernie who traces his politics back to key moments and figures, which made an impression on him in his youth, figures like Martin Luther King Jr, FDR and Eugene Debs. But Bernie doesn't look backward out of a sense of nostalgia for a whiter, more prejudiced America, but as a source for lessons about how we can truly live up to the constitution's promise of a more perfect union.
Cornel West: When we look back at the legacy of The New Deal, you see two major tendencies. One is a corporate liberalism that will include black people in a liberal capitalist regime in which poverty will still cut deep. But the other tendency was multi-racial, labor-centered class concerned organizing in which the critiques of racism and sexism are there, but racism and sexism are not fetishized. And what I mean by that is they're severed from class.
Briahna Joy Gray: That was Cornel West who has for decades been one of America's foremost public intellectuals. He's the author of more than 20 books, including the landmark Race Matters, which argued against racial hierarchies and advised on how to subvert racial divisions in pursuit of a more equal, more solidaristic country.
Bernie cites President Franklin Delano Roosevelt more than anyone. Except for maybe Cardi B.
Cardi B: I have a couple of reasons why I love FDR, you know what I'm saying? I feel like it's amazing because he became a president when America was in one of its worst time, and not only are you going through a Depression, but you also going to World War II. So, you're trying to fix the economy while you must fund a war.
Briahna Joy Gray: FDR was an incredibly popular president, so popular in fact, that he won four terms in office and might have gone for a fifth if he hadn't died during his fourth crack at the Oval. During the election that won him his second term, he won all but two states, Maine and Vermont, always on its own path it seems, and, he had a knack for painting the map blue.
This whole notion of a country fixed with deeply divided Democrats and Republicans roughly splitting the world up into red states and blue states, well, I find it inspiring to know that it wasn't always that way and it needn't always be that way.
FDR's populist appeal and his politics were of course related. He didn't just win the whole country based on charm. What he offered Americans in the shadow of the Great Depression was a plan to put the government to work in support of the people, mobilizing it with the energy of a war effort in order to meet the challenges presented by poverty, inequality and suffering on a dramatic scale.
Bernie is proposing a similar transformation. FDR's New Deal created institutions like the SEC, which regulates Wall Street, and the NLRB, which created and protects workers' rights that remain with us today. The Tennessee Valley Authority proved that the government could run and turn a profit on energy production on a massive scale, all while ensuring that the proceeds benefited working-class Americans rather than corporations. And Social Security remains a truly universal social good, providing significant support for our nation's seniors.
What you may not know though is that FDR wanted to go much further. He proposed a second bill of rights that would guarantee Americans a job, education, housing and medical care, among other things. Bernie's own economic Bill of Rights, adapts and expands FDR's 1944 proposal for the 21st century.
Bernie Sanders: Our job 75 years later is to complete what Roosevelt started and that is why today I am proposing a 21st Century Economic Bill of Rights.
Bernie Sanders: A bill of rights that establishes once and for all that every American, regardless of his or her income, is entitled to the right to a decent job that pays a living wage.
Bernie Sanders: The right to quality health care-
Bernie Sanders: The right to a complete education-
Bernie Sanders: ... the right to affordable housing-
Bernie Sanders: ... the right to a clean environment and the right to a secure retirement.
Briahna Joy Gray: In years earlier, during his 1941 address to Congress, Roosevelt extolled four freedoms, which should be enjoyed not just by the US, but by the entire world. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, or poverty, and freedom from fear, or war.
FDR: Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere; all our support goes to those who struggle to gain those rights and keep them.
Briahna Joy Gray: These last two, the president clarified, meant a healthy peacetime life for everyone and worldwide disarmament such that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression on any neighbor. Safe to say that if any of the candidates had said that on the debate stage last week, we'd still be reading hot takes about how they're pie in the sky impractical dreamers.
This is Hear the Bern, a podcast about the people, ideas and politics that are driving the Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign and the movement to secure a dignified life for everyone living in this country. My name is Briahna Joy Gray, and I'm coming to you from campaign headquarters in Washington, DC.
FDR's four freedoms were the banner under which the greatest generation won World War II and created a prosperous postwar economy, says Harvey Kaye, a professor of democracy at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. He's the author of The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great, and coming this October from Zero Books, Take Hold of Our History: Make America Radical Again.
I talked to Harvey about why Americans don't need to look abroad for successful examples of Bernie's politics in action. There is a robust tradition right here at home.
Roosevelt wasn't perfect, of course. He interned thousands of Japanese Americans in concentration camps and opposed federal anti-lynching regulation. At the same time, he moved to end discrimination in hiring by the federal government. This ambivalence came to the fore in his meeting with someone we've named-checked a lot on the pod, civil rights leader and democratic socialist, A. Phillip Randolph.
A. Philip Randolph: I called for a conference with the president. The President made as his first comment he said, "we can't have 100,000 Negroes marching on Washington. If anything, such as that were to occur, you wouldn't be able to- to manage them. You might have bloodshed and death." He said, "Now, uh, let us get on to business here and find out what can be done."
Briahna Joy Gray: I was extremely fortunate to have an opportunity to talk A. Phillip Randolph, The New Deal, and Black America's role in the labor movement with the inimitable Cornel West in the second part of the episode. So, stay tuned through the end.
So, I'm here with Professor Harvey Kaye from University of Wisconsin Green Bay campus who is a historian with a particular insight into FDR and The New Deal that I'm going to call a New Deal Revolution. And I want to talk to him [laughs] today about how that time period helps inform us about what our goals are here on the Sanders Administration and how the world of possibility that we want to build here isn't something that's completely foreign to the American context. It's something that we have worked toward and achieved in part in this country today. And it's a story that we can continue and that we want to finish as part of this contemporary revolution. So welcome, Harvey, to the show.
Harvey Kaye: Thank you. I can't tell you how thrilled I am to be able to talk with you.
Briahna Joy Gray: The pleasure is all mine. So, I- I- I want to talk to you, 'cause we were talking a little bit before, about how it's important to you to root our aspirations in American history as opposed to referencing Scandinavian countries exclusively. Can you tell me a little bit about why that is?
Harvey Kaye: Well, I think we underestimate the degree. I think we on the Left underestimate the degree to which Americans actually do have a deep cultural memory of what it means to be an American. I think in fact that, you know, it goes all the way back to the ... I mean all the way back to the revolution, the likes of Thomas Paine, the Declaration.
And I know the contradictions that prevailed then and the contradictions that continue to prevail today, but Americans do take special, uh, have a special understanding of what it means to be an American in spite of the fact that we've been suffering a Donald Trump administration. And what that means to them very much is the sense of equality and clearly the ideas of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and the best politicians in American history, the likes of Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt fully appreciated that, fully understood that. And when they spoke to Americans, they actually had a certain confidence that when they called for radical changes, that they felt that Americans would stand behind them in pursuing them.
Briahna Joy Gray: You know what's so ... what's so interesting is that even Donald Trump in the course of his run for office would say things repeatedly like, "We can't have Americans die in the street," right? He said over and over again, "You know, I'm going to get rid of Obamacare because you have high premiums," which, you know, isn't untrue, but then said, "I'm not gonna let people die on the street." Now obviously he didn't fill that in with any affirmative plan to actually keep people from dying in the street, but he seemed to recognize the reality that it's an American value to provide some kind of baseline no matter how poorly articulated.
Harvey Kaye: Yes, I ... and I think that is the case. I mean, in this case we're talking about a liar, that's something else. We're talking about somebody who's a phony. Uh, he learned in the real estate industry how to be a phony, and we used to think he was access ... a success at it. We know that actually he's not a terribly great success, but he is a really great phony. Okay, how's that?
One of the things that, that we, again, that we need to appreciate is that Americans actually do want to hear what it means to be American and they want to hear notions even if we don't use the terms of, of solidarity, of- of- of helping others because it, not to put it crudely, but it does enhance American life generally. Thomas Paine wrote a piece called Agrarian Justice, back in the 1790s and he asked this really interesting question that he's ... He doesn't understand why rich people would ever want to live in a society where they had to look at poverty.
In other words, if you're rich at the least, be selfish enough to realize that poverty doesn't make your riches a ... an easy thing to enjoy. And I think in fact, I mean if we get moralistic about it, it really is the case that we're all, we're all better off if we're all better off. But to be more political about it, it really is the case that at certain points in American history, we have confronted traumatic, mor- mortal crises.
I mean, at the time of the revolution, would we even be an independent country? At the time of the civil war, would the United States be sustained? And then in the 1930s with The Great Depression, and again in the 1940s with World War II, some people said we were lucky. Yeah, you know, we had a Washington at one point, a Lincoln at another and FDR in another.
But I think there's something that we- we really should understand, and this is ... will also help us understand why Bernie is so appealing, I think. It's that, especially in the case, say of Franklin Roosevelt, he came out of a- a very elite background, but he had a certain kind of democratic sensibility, small d democratic sensibility, which was informed by his knowledge of history and his sense of history told him that Americans got where they got, to use the crude thing. Americans made America greater when they made America radical, and he knew that.
I mean in 1930 and '31 he said to a very close friend, "You know, in the midst of this Great Depression, I'm really convinced that America needs to go fairly radical for at least a generation." And he had the confidence in his fellow citizens to actually raise the question of going radical. And then on top of that, he had the courage and confidence to allow Americans, working Americans in all their diversity, to push him further than he may even imagine going.
And if I can just segue into Bernie for a moment, one of the things that impresses me, and this goes even back to the 2016 campaign when somebody, I don't know if it was Anderson Cooper or somebody said to Bernie, "Well, you know, there's no guarantee you're going to win the Senate. There's no guarantee you'll have a congress that can w- that's gonna stand behind you. What are you going to do?" And he said something to the effect of, "Well, that's what the American citizens are about. They're the ones who are gonna come forward. They're gonna step forward, and that's how we're going to make these things happen." Bernie can quote FDR a lot, and I'd be all the more, all the happier, but one of the things that he kind of really does echo of FDR is that confidence in his fellow citizens to join him in making it happen.
Briahna Joy Gray: Yeah. When we talk about populism, um, so often we're talking about these full populous, but I think one of the points to really highlight when we're talking about FDR is like, here's a person who when you look at the electoral map of the states that he was able to win, it's nothing like anything that we see in the modern era where we have kind of inured ourselves to the quote unquote reality, that America is about 50% blue and 50% red and all these broad swaths of the country that can never adopt these democratic ideals. Right? That this balkanization is kind of built into the crust. Can you describe the electoral map for people who don't know how many states FDR was actually able to win?
Harvey Kaye: Well, I mean, let's put it this way. He had ... Well, let's not forget the advantage he had that by the time that 1932 came around, most Americans were absolutely fed up with Republican governments and they really did want a change. I mean, Americans even at the time of '32 were themselves out marching. They were out demanding change. It isn't that FDR came into this kind of vacuum. It wasn't like he could have won as a Democrat outside of a crisis moment. However, and this is the key thing is that, he really did rally Americans around what it meant to be an American.
And part of that, as he told them was, that he did it through The New Deal, and but he did something else. We always learn in school about The New Deal as a series of programs, government programs and initiatives, which they were, and they were remarkable and they were perhaps uneven in their success, but they did lift American spirits out of the Depression.
But the other key thing is he empowered working people. So, when, when Robert Wagner of New York proposed labor law reform, right from the beginning, FDR signs it. In fact, when FDR signed the National Industrial Recovery Act into law, and of course the Democrats said he had the Senate and the house behind him, he actually said that this was, you know, this was not only for the sake of recovery, and people don't realize this. And he signed it, he said, because this thing contains a labor law reform, which will empower workers and moreover the first national minimum wage law. But he said no company should be allowed to operate in the United States that does not pay a living wage. And that's the kind of thing that the Democrats for too long forgot, that that's what won FDR elections. And that's what appealed not only to Democrats but also to Republicans.
But I took us away from the question, but all these things run through the head.
Briahna Joy Gray: No, no, no. There's like, there's, uh, so many pieces here I want to pick up on one of which is this idea that, you know, the coalitions are very fixed in this country, kind of along these like partisan lines that are largely defined around whether you're a racist or anti-racist, whether you're inclusive with respect to identity or not, and this kind of figment of wanting smaller government and less government involvement, although the Republican Party doesn't actually live up to that in any way, shape or form, right, driving up deficits, et cetera. But that's the axes that we are taught exist in class, you know.
So then when we had these political moments like we had in 2016 and which we're living in now, where there are all these people who voted for Obama and that voted for Trump, and a lot of people who said they voted for Trump but would have voted for Bernie Sanders. The media with their perception that the only axis that exists is racist and anti-racist don't know how to process that. And so, we get article after article, think piece after think piece about how it could be, you know, people debating are these voters racist or aren't they, as though that ... answering that question will determine how they're going to vote in the next election.
Instead of having this other conversation, and looking as to your point, to history to see what, how coalitions have aligned historically to say, there are a lot of people out there whose primary concern is corruption. There are people on the right and when I travel the country, this is what I hear, who are concerned. They think that Washington is a swamp. People on the left who say that Washington is a swamp. People on the right that say that Wall Street is corrupt and has too much influence in politics. People on the left who say Wall Street has too much influence in politics.
And the overlap between Bernie and Trump is not this specious accusation that Bernie Sanders is somehow a racist. [laughs] Given his lifelong advocacy, literally putting his body on the line for anti-racism it's laughable, but that for so long there have been so few voices that are willing to call out the corruption, the bipartisan corruption in this country. That there is an incredible amount of excitement for people who are disentangled from that because they don't take corporate donations, who are willing therefore to speak out assertively against the corporate interests that tend to normally in these campaign contexts, get a lot of mollycoddling and private speeches and private meetings and you know, corporate sponsorship. And that is what is galvanizing people and what has the possibility to bridge the divide and create another electoral map that is blue from coast to coast, top to bottom. I think almost every state except for like Mississippi and another southeastern state and maybe one other, the way that FDR had at during at least one of his elections, and away from this kind of balkanized America that is really scaring people, right?
Briahna Joy Gray: Because it ends up being half the country at one time is furious, which is not particularly stable for a productive, um, republic where we're moving forward instead of just dancing around in circles.
Harvey Kaye: Yes, yes. I've had this in my head for years. This goes all the way back ... I can re- I'm going to go back to my earlier years in Wisconsin. We're a paper making area of the country. We're ... our- our entire Fox River Valley is paper industry, and the workers at the, uh, International Paper Company Factory here in Green Bay were part of a national strike against the company. They were in Maine and Wisconsin and someplace else.
And these workers, this- this was a strike that was really dividing families because they brought in scabs. They brought in folks who were gonna take jobs and who do you think was the one Democratic figure who came to Green Bay to talk to the Workers? Jesse Jackson.
Briahna Joy Gray: Hmm.
Harvey Kaye: Now I can tell you, this was not a part of the country with a very sizeable African American population outside maybe of the Green Bay packer football team.
Briahna Joy Gray: [laughs].
Harvey Kaye: And when Jesse Jackson left Green Bay, after having thrown his support to those workers, there wasn't a single one of those guys that might not have walked in to a ballot booth ... but into the b- in and cast a ballot for Jesse Jackson for president at that time. What matters is that whether you're white or black or- or brown or whatever, you want a decent standard of living and you want your family to prosper. And in fact, we can build coalitions as you and I know, around just that kind of thing.
Wisconsin, having historically been a Republican state, nevertheless, over and over again recently had gone blue in presidential elections. And in nine- and in 2016, there was an interesting survey that came out at night, and I was ... I have a feeling, the media didn't want to pay attention to it. The survey asked Americans what kind of change they wanted and basically what- what they discovered is, the overwhelming majority of Americans wanted radical action by which they meant serious progressive action to address inequalities, to raise wages. I mean all of the things that working people of whatever color, whatever hue, whatever heritage you are, wanted.
Now, Bernie Sanders was that candidate and he won in Wisconsin. I'm repeating what we all know. What states did we lose? Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania. I mean, w- a- one could hope not only that intellectuals learn and the media folk learn, but maybe the Democrats want to learn that what matters is what working people aspire to and how they can be mobilized around what it means to be an American. And also, the very basic questions of, how well off are you? Can you afford the necessities and what's your sec- What kind of security do you want in the future? You want economic security, you environmental security, you want to know you can send your kids to college. I mean, it's a million things running around in my head that I could quote from history along those lines.
Briahna Joy Gray: And that's what we're talking about when we talk about, to be clear, an economic bill of rights, right? We're talking about this idea that freedom, which has so often been limited in a kind of vulgar, right-wing world view, "I can have my gun and have the freedom to use it as I want," without looking at being free from gun violence, right? Free to walk the streets and not afraid to be hurt.
And so, part of this project when we're talking about a bill of rights is, to start to flip the freedom narrative and highlight those freedoms which have been broadly ignored because they come at the cost of frankly, the rich and the powerful in this country. That's what you're talking about when you're talking about how, how, um, FDR was able to connect with what people understand, I think intrinsically, morally, whether it's through a spiritual tradition or just a humanistic tradition, that there are ... is the basic guide to being a human being and that the government should facilitate and res- respect that and at the very least, protect us from independent private institutions that would try to strip us of those freedoms.
Harvey Kaye: Yes. Many- many people don't realize that FDR didn't just sort of spout the four freedoms in 1941, freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear as if he was the only one who was thinking along those lines. He had just led the nation through eight years of New Deal struggles against corporations, corporate powers that be, and Republicans, and even in many cases, even Democratic reactionaries in the south the white supremacists south. I mean the white supremacists in the south, they wanted the money of The New Deal, but they didn't want the possibilities that The New Deal might actually bring it in to- to Jim Crow. So, when he spoke those four freedoms, he knew that Americans, it was as if he anticipated ... He anticipated what they were anticipating, that they wanted to hear what the vision was. And indeed, he rallied Americans around that to pursue World War II.
And by the way, for all of the tragic mistakes made of the Jim Crow military and the internment of Japanese Americans, we shouldn't forget that African Americans served ... one million African-Americans served in favor of the fight for the four freedoms, and 22,000 Japanese Americans who- who actually served in a combat unit that was the most decorated unit in World War II. Americans refused to be denied the status of Americans.
But here's the key thing. In 1943 FDR, wanted to know, what do Americans actually want when we get beyond this war? And he ran a series of surveys, polls that were commissioned through Princeton University. And what he found out was whether you're a Republican or Democrat, 85% of Americans wanted to expand social security to include national health care, similar kinds of figures, if not higher wanted programs that would guarantee education as far as you sought to pursue it and were qualified to pursue it.
In other words, he wanted to guarantee healthcare, housing, food on the table, a job for every American. Americans wanted it all, 85% so when he gave the Bill of Rights speech in 1944, he was speaking on behalf of his fellow citizens, not on behalf of his presidency alone, and he- he wasn't so confident that they would be able to enact a new bill of rights because the southern Democrats were convinced that that would undermine Jim Crow rule, and Republicans were absolutely afraid of the possibility that Democratic liberalism, or as we would think of it Democratic socialism, might actually transform America so radically they'd never get elected again.
But what it is is, that there's this vision that comes out of the FDR years that set some possibility that actually sustains Americans for some decades and as ugly as the civil rights struggle had to become to win civil rights and voting rights, as hard as it was to pursue the rights of equality for men and women, the fact is that that vision is sustained. And all the way through the 50s, a majority of Americans still wanted national healthcare. And in the 1960s of course, we at least finally enacted under LBJ, who was himself a new dealer, Medicare, Medicaid, voting rights, civil rights. So, there's that arc.
And I think Bernie, if you don't mind my pitching Bernie here-
Briahna Joy Gray: [laughs]. No, don't mind at all.
Harvey Kaye: ... Bernie realizes that that underlying understanding of what American, what it means to be an American and what ... that American democracy requires extending democracy. And I think FDR understood that. And I honestly believe that Bernie understands that better than all of the Democratic candidates.
Briahna Joy Gray: Yeah, I do think that there is, there's a strategic component to these universal programs in being increasingly inclusive and helping broader groups of people that often gets written off as somehow a deficit, right? They say, "Oh, these programs over extend. They cost too much. They are too broad. They help people who aren't exclusively the most desperate," completely ignoring the political shielding that's built into a program that because it helps everyone, everyone is invested in it and then they protect those same programs. And that is exactly what the strength of programs like social security that are broadly popular.
Before we go, I really want to talk to you specifically about, um, The New Deal because to so many people who even believe in the promise and, and, and the ideals behind something like The Green New Deal, there is this skepticism. We've had decades and decades of politicians on both about the right and the left telling us, "No, we can't have nice things. No, we can't pay for it. You know, nothing transformative is po- is possible." We have Joe Biden saying, "Nothing will fundamentally change in my election." You know, I- I ... how can The New Deal, and maybe you can think of a specific, um, example, whether it's the TVA or some other specific project that was implemented then, how can that be a model for people to understand how quickly we are able to mobilize and change how this country works for the greater good in exigent times like we're living in now with respect to the climate crisis?
Harvey Kaye: Well, first of all, let's not underestimate young people. That's the key thing. Let's not underestimate young people. I'm going to say something which Democrats might not like to hear. Okay? When Obama ran in 2008, I can tell you that even in 50% Republican Wisconsin, my students, first year to fourth year students, they were so excited. First of all, they would've voted for any Democrat, but it was all the better that they were mobilized d- regardless of the background around the Obama presidency. And I said to them, "Look, he's telling you, 'Yes, we can.' If we really can, then the first thing he needs to do is launch a hundred days that doesn't just propose things, but that mobilizes your energies. For example, if he's smart, what he'll do is, he'll say, 'I want to guarantee free public higher education to every student who is willing on graduation to serve two years in some kind of public internship, not unlike everything from the CCC to the- the, you know, to- to some kind of WPA and PWA kinds of projects.'" Sorry about the alphabet letters.
Well, what happened? He wins, my students were left hanging. In other words, there was no mobilization of all this youthful energy. So, I think what The New Deal tells us, and this is the thing, question of money aside, we know we have the money. They've been giving it away to the rich people for years now. Okay? What we ... but what we failed to consider is The New Deal is not just a set of government programs. It requires mobilizing young people to fulfill their ... en- to enable them to fulfill their aspirations, to fulfill their desire to have meaning in their lives, but also to empower working people.
And by the way, I'm going to say it again. People should pay very close attention to the program that Bernie Sanders is offering because this is very much a 21st century new deal that we need. Look, we've been in crisis for maybe 45 years. Our inequality is completely out of control. Rights are under siege, workers have lost rights, women's bodies are under siege and we know all these things. The time is now for very serious, progressive, radical Democratic socialist action.
Briahna Joy Gray: And- and Harvey for people who g- genuine- genuinely don't know the history, who we say, "Oh, we've done it before because we did it, we did The New Deal." Like, "This is the new New Deal." Like, "We can do it." Like for people who literally don't know or have no sense of the scale and scope of the mobilization, can you drill down and give us like just some kind of example that- that- that helps us understand? You know, people talk about, for instance, you know, the nationalization of energy and that sounds really scary to people and "Oh, it's government controlled. This is like Venezuela," et cetera, et cetera. But we've had examples like the Tennessee Valley Authority, which has been a profitable, first-
Harvey Kaye: [laughs].
Briahna Joy Gray: ... and foremost, useful in terms of like-
Harvey Kaye: Right, right.
Briahna Joy Gray: ... to meeting the needs of what was one of the poorest and underserved areas in this country, in the Tennessee Valley, but then also turned a profit, was self-sustaining for the government, and it was economically beneficial to the community that that was in. And that was something that was thrown together, built together by community members and the government in a partnership in just a few years as part of The New Deal. So, are you able to help us understand the scope and scale of what was accomplished by just kind of pointing to some of these New Deal projects that people might not know about?
Harvey Kaye: Yes, I can. Let's use the example of this whole question, the TVA. By the way, there's the TVA, the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was to create energy, to provide jobs, to fight the diseases. It was a terribly poor area of the country, the Tennessee Valley Authority. And what they proved is they could do all of that by mobilizing people's energies.
But let me give you a key thing, associated with that initiative, a few years later was enacted a law that created the Rural Electrification Administration. I don't think Americans quite realized what the situation around the country in rural areas was like. Nine out of 10 farmers did not have electricity. They didn't have power to turn ... walk into the house and turn on a light switch. It also meant that out in the bar, all you had to do was kick over a lantern and you're gonna have a barn fire. And FDR was fully aware of this. So, they launched this initiative and in the course of the Rural Electrification Administration's period, for several hundred thousand farms were provided with electricity by setting up public co-ops all across the south and through the Midwest.
Now tell a farmer, "How'd you like to not have electricity?" and they'll look at you like you're an idiot and ask them if they understand the basis by which this came into being. It's amazing. They don't vote Democratic all the time. The point is, and by the way, the reason they had to do it through public initiatives was that, the big electric utility companies refused to do it. They figured they couldn't make money on poor people. Why bother supply electricity? That's what it was all about.
Briahna Joy Gray: And you are from Green Bay, and correct me if I'm wrong, but the Green Bay Packers is a cooperatively own football team?
Harvey Kaye: I can't tell how happy I am you asked me that question. I'm thrilled you asked, okay. For a start, the Green Bay Packers have always been a fan-owned team, so it's a trust that owns it. So, when stock is issued and you buy into it, you do it as a community gesture.
There was a New York Times columnist, his name, I'm forgetting, it was about 15 to 20 years ago, the headline in the sports section, you'll love this, Socialism is Alive and Well in Green Bay, Wisconsin. It was fabulous. Yes, we're a, we're essentially a cooperatively-owned team. I mean, you know, it's still a big bucks team. It still has to operate in terms of- of the corporate world of the NFL. But I'll also add, the NFL now has a rule that no team can be organized on the basis of the Green Bay Packers.
Briahna Joy Gray: No.
Harvey Kaye: Absolutely. They- they w- by the way, I don't know if everyone realizes how small of a city we are. Can I give you a, can I ask you if you know how small of a city we are?
Briahna Joy Gray: Oh dear. Is it bigger or smaller than South Bend Indiana?
Harvey Kaye: Okay. See, I don't know. How big is South Bend, Indiana? [laughs].
Briahna Joy Gray: I hear it's like a hundred thousand?
Harvey Kaye: We're a hundred thousand. The city has 100,000 and we have the best team in the NFL.
Briahna Joy Gray: Well, what ... Well, I'll leave you on that and the testament to the power of community-owned and advanced, um, enterprises, the power of the people. It's been so thrilling to talk to you today and to talk to someone who has, we have such a mutuality of spirit and enthusiasm, like so much positivity about the world that we can create because it's a world that we're in the process of creating. We've already achieved so much. So, I want to thank you for your time, Harvey.
Harvey Kaye: Thank you very much. This is a pleasure talking to you. Thanks.
FDR: Certain economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. A second bill of rights, under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all regardless of status or race or creed.
Briahna Joy Gray: Dr West, I'm so heartened to be able to talk to you today because we talk a lot on this podcast about the way that the labor movement and the civil rights movement have been entwined, right, and informed each other. And I think that there is a kind of a lack of awareness about the role Labor has played in creating equality in this country because it of course, hasn't done a complete job, right? And there are times at which historically marginalized groups have been left out of that equation. But I want to talk to people and I would love for you to help our listeners understand a little bit about the earl- the origins of the civil rights movement and figures and particularly like A. Philip Randolph and their roots in the labor movement and how Labor can provide an example of how we can move towards substantive racial equality as well as economic equality in this country.
Cornel West: Well, one is, I think is very important to begin with the notion that you cannot talk about race in America without talking about class and the various ways in which economic inequality have gone hand-in-hand with the racial inequality. I'd say the same thing about gender as well, and therefore when you talk about the struggles for black freedom, you're talking about the struggles of working people who are black of poor people who are black, who are dominated by capitol, who are dominated by economic elite, who are trying to ensure that they extricate various kinds of profits out of the wealth produced by those workers. And so, going back to slavery, that was a capitalist operation though it was pre-modern conditions because it was not industrial, it was not urban, but it was still capitalist because they were making huge profits based on the labor of the wealth produced by those enslaved Africans.
Similarly, so during Jim Crow, but it's very different situation with ... vis a viz, white ethnics who have arrived, the Italians, the Poles, and other Jews and others who have arrived, but it's still a capitalist order. And in fact, it's actually imperial order in terms of the Spanish American war, in terms of indigenous people's land being dispossessed and indigenous people being subordinated and degraded. And so, it's impossible to really come to terms with issues of race unless you're wrestling with class. And this is what is so very important about the Bernie Sanders campaign. This is why it constitutes such a threat to the powers that be, especially the establishment in both Republican parties and Democratic parties because both- both establishment in both parties have been tied to capital. Be it corporate elites, be it Wall Street, be it the 1% who have a disproportionate amount of wealth and a disproportionate amount of power in our society.
And I think it's no accident at the very moment, at this crucial moment where the Democratic Party lives in the age of Bernie Sanders. It lives in the age of occupy in the sense that the party must come to terms with wealth inequality, Medicare for all, must come to terms with student debt being eliminated, must come to terms with high quality public schools and high-quality public housing. And so, you get it anybody but Bernie effort in the Democratic Party establishment because he has the guts, the vision, the courage to acknowledge race and class and gender go hand in hand and his critique of Wall Street, his critique of the greed at the top constitutes the major challenge in this particular election.
And it goes back really to probably, uh, if not Henry Wallace in 1948, Eugene Debs in 1912. We have not had a candidate who had any popular visibility, who understood the relation between race and class and gender and even, you know, militarism abroad, which is another issue, but they're all tied together. According to Martin Luther King Jr. understood this so well in the last years of his life, A. Phillip Randolph understood this well. He and Chandler Owen understood this well in the Messenger in the nineteen-teens all the way through the 1940s.
Briahna Joy Gray: I'm ... was hoping that you could perhaps explain to listeners who might not know about that legacy, who might not know as much about A. Phillip Randolph for instance. You know, when we look back to the early part of the last century and the accomplishments that were achieved by these figures, you know, what is the relationship between Labor people like A. Phillip Randolph, who u- were unionizing, uh, Car porters for instance, and civil rights. You know, we- we know that the civil rights, the- the march on Washington was a march for jobs and freedom, but sometimes when we're talking about that, right, the history doesn't always include the extent to which civil rights was bound up in that Labor history. And the Labor history itself has been erased. So, I was hoping that you- you could, you know, lay out, s- sketch out a foundation for folks who might not even know who A. Philip Randolph was.
Cornel West: Oh, A. Philip Randolph was born in Florida. He's one of the Great Democratic Socialists. He's one of the great Labor activists. Uh, he founded us the Sleeping Car Porters. But at that time, of course the labor movement was so deeply racist that they would not embrace his attempt to connect race and class. Now, he of course was also, uh, in some ways inspired by the, uh, the work of W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois was already a Democratic socialist by 1907, 1908. He understood the relation between organizing black people against Jim Crow, against American apartheid, but also organizing at the workplace. The workplace is a site of relations of power. it's asymmetric relations of power at the workplace between bosses and workers and A. Phillip Randolph, and he was not alone though. I mentioned Chandler Owen as well. We could mention Hubert Harrison as well. All of these were early leftist Democratic socialists seeing the connection between race and class.
And then there was the, uh, the African Blood Brotherhood of Cyril Briggs and others. Now, they would go on into the communist party, with Harry Hayward and Charlene Mitchell, Angela Davis. I mean that you got the red tradition of our communist comrades who went into the communist party, but then became connected with the Soviet Union. And the Soviet Union gets locked into a repression and a regimentation and an oppression, and they didn't have to come to terms with their connection with Soviet Union, but at home, always concerned about race and class. So, A. Phillip Randolph was not red, he was pink.
Briahna Joy Gray: [laughs].
Cornel West: He was a Democratic socialist rather than a communist. And there's a very rich tradition of Democratic socialists. George Washington would be who was pastor of the largest black Baptist church in San Diego who ran for vice president, uh, o- on the Socialist Party. Back in the 1900s hundreds you've got Slater. There's a whole wave of black leftist, black Democratic socialists who understand the relation. You're talking about a race and class, but A. Phillip Randolph is probably the most visible in many ways. He's a peak of a wonderful iceberg that has yet to fully be manifest.
Until now with the Bernie Sanders campaign, you actually have a presidential candidate who understands the relation between race and class. We've never had that in the history of the country. We've had some wonderful activists, we've had some wonderful intellectuals. We've had some wonderful congress men and women. Never had one at the highest level of presidential politics. And it's sad really that there has not been the kind of awakening in black America to recognize that Bernie Sanders represents A. Philip Randolph's legacy, early legacy, the late Martin Luther King's legacy, Ella Baker's legacy of Democratic socialism, connecting race and class, focusing on the poor, focusing on working people, male, female, whatever sexual orientation or regional identity.
Briahna Joy Gray: I want to know what you make of this because you know a lot of my writing was about why it is that class has been underemphasized, shall we say, in contemporary narratives, right? And why it is that the, it's not obvious to everyone what the power is and actually combining both race, uh, race analysis with a class analysis to achieving some of these broader goals. I- I think actually a lot of black Americans, I mean, you look at polls actually do see themselves reflected in Bernie Sanders' message, especially younger black Americans who are more cynical about the power of capitalism on its own to save us, right? So I'm- I'm curious, what do you make of those who still resist the relevance, the political power, the- the power in terms of being able to b- make a broad solidaristic movement that class holds and who even sometimes go as far in to say ... as saying, caring about Labor, caring about class is kind of antithetical to the interest of black Americans or as even, you know, there's this accusation of kind of class reductionism. You know, w- what do you say to those folks? What do you make of that?
Cornel West: Well, one, I- I- I say we have to be very honest and candid about the class divisions in black America and even the class interests in black America. And I'll give you an example of this. In the late sixties and seventies, there was a divide between those who are pushing for full employment under the Humphrey Hawkins Bill and those who were pushing very much for welfare programs. Now those of us who were pull it ... for full employment, understood that if you're really going to hit poverty head on, that Welfare's going to be a parasite on a market-driven strategy that was v- that would be very provisional and tentative but would not get at the class roots of the poverty itself, and very few black leaders opted for the full employment route. They went the welfare route.
Same is true with affirmative action. They went to affirmative action, but affirmative action was fine for the black middle classes. It provided access to jobs. It was against racial discrimination. That's a good thing, but it had very little to offer black poor people and really did not have the kind of impact on black working people that it had on black professionals. And so, what happens is that black progress is measured more and more by black middle-class progress as opposed to black poor people's progress or working people's progress. And so, you end up with a whole sense of talking about race in America, always tilted toward the black bourgeoisies, is tilted toward the black middle class so that mass incarceration could take place and black middle-class politicians can be complicited with it so that mass unemployment can take place. No serious voices about it so that mass black poverty can take place, no serious efforts to fight it. And so, you end up with a very different lens through which you view the struggle for black freedom.
And if you look at the lens through black middle-class progress, we've done very well because we've got the biggest black middle class in the history of the country. But if you look at it through the, through the lens of black poor working people, you see devastation, catastrophe, you see disaster in terms of the, the life chances, the- the social misery, the suffering. And most of black leadership in the eighties and nineties went to black middle-class way. They didn't go toward the black poor the way Martin Luther King did in the last few years. They didn't go toward the black working class. They didn't go toward the black labor movement in a significant way or the labor movement with black folk as a part of it.
And of course, again you always got to deal with the racism and the sexism in the labor movement. I don't want to get them off the hook, but at the same time it's fairly clear that if you have jobs with a living wage across the board, you're hitting poverty more directly than you are with welfare programs that can be pulled at any time, as was the case by Bill Clinton in 1996.
Briahna Joy Gray: So, uh, what I'm hearing also, and I think this is a really important piece that often gets omitted, is that there is a political advantage to speaking in terms of both race and class together in addition to a kind of moral and just like t- technical advantage, which is, that by speaking to class issues, alongside with racial issues, you are able to demonstrate the extent to which different groups of working class populations who very different from each other racially, actually share an agenda, which is, you know, potentially part of why you look at the map that FDR was able to win in his m- elections and see that he was able to sweep, you know, all but a couple of states or a few states depending on which election we're looking at.
And so, I want to talk to you about this because you're someone who recently went on the Joe Rogan Show, as did Senator Sanders and had I think more success than most might anticipate in kind of talking across two different kinds of politically oriented audiences, right? And I- I- w- I want to hear from you l- kind of what you think of as the potential, I mean, communicating broadly when you are using a- a- an- an approach that doesn't ignore the shared class realities of various ethnic groups in this country.
Cornel West: Yes, I mean a good place to start is the, uh, the great intellectual, my dear brother Adolf Reed his book Class Notes. Very important text, indispensable texts because it allows us to see the ways in which given all the ethnic diversity, racial diversity, that the issue of class either is highlighted, or you're going to miss out on the plight and predicament of poor and working people. And it's a political issue because if you don't have politicians who are highlighting the issues of employment, living wages, or highlighting the issues of quality schools and quality healthcare for all and quality housing for all, and if you don't have intellectuals as spokespersons, I should really know this- this is partly a ferry of intellectual. That our intellectuals became so incorporated within a mid- a middle-class, bourgeois framework and paradigm who were talking very much about civil rights, talking about legal rights, talking about affirmative action, talking about access to credit and capital, but saying very little above the structural inequality at the workplace and the grotesque wealth inequality that was taking place as the 1% would breakdance into the bank, let's put it that way. So that there was not enough voices, texts, analysis.
I mean William Julius Wilson tried to hit this and the declining significance of race in 1978 and truly disadvantaged in 1987, and he was deeply criticized, now, and he's a towering figure, there's no doubt about that. And that Adolf Reed and- and others including myself, had a much more socialist vision, and an understanding of class. It had to do with relation to production.
He was talking about relationship exchange. He's a Weberian. He follows Max Weber, so that even he was not able to get at some of the deeper structural inequalities that are ... as are related to capitalism. He was talking much more about class as a form of access to income and financial remuneration at the workplace.
We were talking about class as a collectivity whose labor generates wealth and therefore, they must have not only the right to engage in collective bargaining, not only the right to bring power and pressure to bear, but there has to be a transformation at the workplace. If not, th- they will continually be built in structural inequality with the power of capital over labor. And that was a very important dialogue back then in the last 40 years, and looking at black leadership, looking at black intellectuals there, I mean, Robin Kelley would be a great e- exception here too, but there's not enough folk who are hitting the issue of the centrality of class, the centrality of labor activity, centrality of the trade union movement at its best and the ways in which patriarchy engendered the ways in which white supremacy are shot through our society, but at the center of it is a capitalist process in which class is fundamental.
Briahna Joy Gray: It can be frustrating to hear certain words become popularized like intersectionality, um, and structural change at the same time that the same people who often are speaking that language ignore class is a part of the structural dynamic that is keeping marginalized people marginalized. And who talk about intersectionality without an understanding that class is one of the intersectional factors along with race and gender, et cetera, that need to be examined.
You've- you've supported Bernie Sanders in 2016 and also now going into 2020. And so people have been asking, you know, why- why Bernie now that so many other candidates have adopted portions of his policy from 2016 and, you know, we can talk about the extent to which we kind of believe in their commitment to various aspects of it, who a- have generally moved much farther to the left than they were in 2016. And one of the things we say is the campaign to talk about like movement politics and what it means to say, "It's not me, us," and that, and having an understanding that one- one leader alone, one president alone isn't going to be able to, um, you know, change the entire country without a movement of people rising up behind him and exerting certain kinds of political pressure.
Looking back to the model of the 1930s and 40s, looking back to The New Deal era, what lessons can we learn about how change was achieved then, that helped ... will help to inform people as to why Bernie Sanders is the best candidate for 2020?
Cornel West: Well, I think when we look back at the legacy of The New Deal, you see two major tendencies. One is a corporate liberalism that will include black people in a liberal capitalist regime in which poverty will still cut deep, in which the labor movement will still be under great suspicion because keep in mind with the Taft-Hartley that kicked in immediately after the death of FDR a matter of six or seven years, it was a vicious attack on the trade union movement because the organization was advancing so quickly. It was intensifying in terms of the scope with strikes, various unbelievable, uh, courageous acts o- on behalf of Labor activists. So the Taft-Hartley was a right-wing attack on the trade union movement because what the last thing they wanted is what Bernie Sanders represents, which is a multi-racial class-centered, highly sensitive to white supremacy and male supremacy and homophobia and anti-Jewish, and anti-Muslim, anti-Mexican, an- and anti-Asian sensibility, but multiracial alliance, that's the last thing the powers that be wanted.
So the corporate liberalism said, "We will incorporate and include black middle class folk if they become part of the class hierarchy," so once they become successful, hardly say a word about poverty, hardly say a word about Wall Street domination of the economy, hardly say a word about the trade union movement and not support the Free Choice Act for example, in just 10 years ago when it was promised. You see what I mean?
This is a Democratic Party that is so tied to capital, so tied to Wall Street that doing the campaigns, it will make some progressive speeches, but when it's on the ground they support Wall Street. They don't support the trade union movement in a serious way. When there are strikes, wildcat strikes, you hardly get a word out of the Democratic Party leadership. This is the true when they are in the White House. This is true among their leadership in the house.
But the other tendency was, multi-racial labor-centered class concerned organizing in which the critiques of racism and sexism are there, but racism and sexism are not fetishized. And but I mean by that is they're severed from class. So, the- the black middle-class can rationalize their entry even as the masses, the black masses and poor masses are excluded from access to resources. And that battle was a battle in which corporate liberalism won and neoliberalism took off thereafter. And we're in the end of the neo-liberal era to the degree to which it's clear neo-liberalism of the Democratic party cannot deliver for poor people and working people.
The saddest feature of 2016 was, we had the most progressive presidential candidate in the history of the country and the most progressive community and constituents in the history of the country. Black people did not support him and that's what the historians are going to say. What happened? Black people used to be the most anti-war, used to be the most pro-class of struggling against poverty, the most progressive struggling against racism and white supremacy, struggling for public education, struggling for public health and so forth. But no, we failed. We failed because the neo-liberal elite were able to mobilize black people and convince black people than multi-racial coalition around issues of class and race and gender.
And I would add empire too in terms of being anti-militarism failed us. And Martin Luther King Jr and Ella Baker were crying in their graves as black people did not embrace Bernie Sanders the way in which they should.
This time around we hope it's going to be different. And that's why you and I and the rest of us are doing all that we can to promote this cause. It's not just a matter of a candidate. We love Brother Bernie Sanders. He is a vehicle, he's a conduit. He's a medium of the best of the country. He's still a human being, but he has ... it's his cause. His heart is in the cause of empowering poor and working people at a moment in which fascism is creeping on- on the right, escalating a moment in which the Democratic establishment is in a panic, looking for anybody but Bernie trying to hold on to some neo-liberal candidate.
Briahna Joy Gray: Well, th- that's incredibly powerful and I'm so glad that we're doing this work together and we are making strides already, I think. Your name recognition was a- an aspect of it last time around. You know, th- the- the, you know, mainstream media certainly isn't doing any favors in telegraphing the extent to which Bernie Sanders is just picking up the mantle of these figures that we've just discussed, like A. Philip Randolph and Mart- Dr. Martin Luther King.
So, I appreciate, um, you continuing to be a- a loud speaker for these perspectives given how well respected and powerfully eloquent a communicator you are. And I look forward to many more of these conversations. Thank you, Dr. West.
Cornel West: Well, I- I salute you.
Briahna Joy Gray: [laughs].
Cornel West: I salute the work that you are doing and most importantly it has been your generation, not mine. It's the older folk, and especially the older black folk who have been tied into the neo-liberal politics of the Democratic Party. It's your generation that has been awakened, awakened not just in relation to police brutality, but in relation to issues of class, of gender and of empire and militarism. And we know that if your generation were the only generation who were voting in 2016, Bernie Sanders would be president rather than the gangster who's in-
Briahna Joy Gray: [laughs].
Cornel West: ... the White House right now.
Briahna Joy Gray: Right on.
Cornel West: So that's a wonderful thing to keep in mind as we struggle to keep alive the legacy that they A. Philip Randolph and Ella Baker and Martin Luther King Jr and so many of th- what W. E. B Du Bois and so many of the other freedom fighters.
Briahna Joy Gray: Well, uh, we have another crack at the apple and I'm- I'm very glad-
Cornel West: Yes.
Briahna Joy Gray: ... for it. Um-
Cornel West: That's right. Absolutely, but we goin' win this time.
Briahna Joy Gray: [laughs]. We're going to win.
Cornel West: W- It ... We goin' win this time.
Briahna Joy Gray: We are. [laughs] I'm-
Cornel West: Oh yeah.
Briahna Joy Gray: And I'm glad to be yours in the struggle. Thank you, Dr West.
Cornel West: Stay strong now.
Briahna Joy Gray: That's it for this week. Let us know what you think at [email protected] or send us a tweet at the hashtag #hearthebern.
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