Ep. 28: Buddy, Essentialize This!

Ep. 28: Buddy, Essentialize This! (w/ Tom Sexton & Analilia Mejia)

Briahna Joy Gray: So, I've been thinking a lot about how we talk about politics versus how we should talk about politics. At the debates so far, the topic of K-12 education has technically been covered, but it was raised primarily as a question about Joe Biden's record on school segregation and Kamala Harris's objection to that record, based on her own personal experiences. The millions of students who attend schools that are as segregated now as they were 30 years ago, they weren't really part of a conversation at all.

Now admittedly, I noticed this because I was eager for Bernie Sanders to have an opportunity to discuss his Thurgood Marshall education plan, which was described in The Nation as, quote, "The most progressive and equitable public education agenda of any presidential candidate in the modern history of the United States." He actually has an integration plan.

But my personal frustrations aside, sometimes it seems like the people who run the news are less interested in eliciting information that would be useful to voters, people who really worry about their children's education, than about creating viral moments. While education is framed as an interpersonal dispute, health care is framed as an accounting question, rather than an ethical one. How will we pay for that? Rather than, can you ever put too much value on a human life?

And when it comes to so-called identity politics, well, it feels like we're having increasingly reductive conversations. Myriad headlines opine on a given candidate's ability to capture the interest of Latinx voters. Reporters ask me, "What is the campaign strategy to, quote, "Attract black students in particular?" Asian American voters are completely invisibilized, despite making up enormous percentages of populous states like California and New York. And Native American voters are more often than not treated as a footnote, their symbolic value counting more to cynical politicians during election season than their electoral weight. These groups are treated monolithically, and our interests are assumed.

Latinx issues are often reduced to immigration. But while one in 10 Latinos is undocumented, a full 20.6% of non-elderly Latinos are uninsured. Is Medicare For All not a Latinx issue? About 40% of immigrants hail from South and East Asia, Europe, and Canada. In fact, among new arrivals to this country, people from Asia have outnumbered Latinx folks since 2010.

Quote unquote "black issues" are supposed to basically boil down to criminal justice and maybe reparations. But black women hold more student debt than any other group. Is college debt not a black issue? In fact, under the reparations section of the Movement for Black Lives website, the first prong of the BLM Reparations Policy is full and free access for all black people to high quality educational opportunities, including public community colleges and universities. Not only does the website cite loan forgiveness as part of its ideal reparations package, but it actually links to Bernie Sanders College for All Act under a section titled Model Legislation.

Today marks the end of Hispanic Heritage Month, and this week on the podcast, I had two conversations that really highlight communities whose political interests are painted unfairly narrowly, often at great detriment to the political agency of that community.

First, I spoke to the Bernie campaign's dynamic and brilliant National Political Director, Analilia Mejia, about her background in organizing and how she connects the needs of the various diverse constituency groups she engages with on a daily basis, to the policies and objectives of the Bernie Sanders campaign. I ask her, "What's your why Bernie pitch? And how has your background as Afro-Latina informed your approach?

Next, I spoke to Tom Sexton, of the Trillbilly Worker's Party Podcast. And we talked, among other things, about how the interest of Appalachians are inadequately captured by the discourse about so-called Trump Country.

We've all heard about the opioid crisis, but what about Appalachians and the environment? States like West Virginia and Kentucky have been treated as colonies for mineral extraction, rather than places for real community investment. And the people who live there are deeply concerned with the environmental consequences of coal extraction and fracking. So why are these environmental justice issues treated as the exclusive province of well-to-do liberals?

Sure, some stereotypes about who cares about what, have their origins in legitimate trends, but often they obscure more than they reveal. It's time to acknowledge the full breadth of who we are. Solidarity depends on it.

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, D.C.

`I'm so happy to be joined today by Analilia Mejia, our National Political Director.

Analilia Mejia: Good job, by the way. [laughs]

Briahna Joy Gray: Oh, with my pronunciation? [laughs] Oh, gosh. Well, it is Hispanic Heritage Month.

Analilia Mejia: Yes.

Briahna Joy Gray: Or will be still barely when this episode airs. And so I wanted to talk to you for many reasons, one because you're a dynamic superstar and I think the world needs to know more about who you are on the campaign and what you do, but also because I want to talk to you a little bit about organizing in Latinx communities, how the campaign is doing, and what kind of interesting needs of the community are, more broadly. Um, but first and foremost, what, to the uninitiated, does a national political director do?

Analilia Mejia: So, our political team essentially manages the relationships for the campaign. Obviously, our main target in any election is turning out voters. However, there are multiple places in which people organize themselves, sometimes naturally, church or community groups, sometimes around issues that they care deeply about, sometimes around different advocacy organizations that, that move an agenda, that an individual voter is really connected to. And so, our job and my job as the political director, is to kind of map out what are the places and spaces in which we want to make sure Bernie shows up, both on his policies, but also sometimes physically.

Briahna Joy Gray: So, you have had this, like, really multifaceted career up to this point that I presume really facilitates this, this work. [laughs] I mean, you, you have. You've worked ... Like t- tell us a, some of the places that you've worked before this.

Analilia Mejia: So, I've worked as a, I started out as a union organizer. I just went, "Eh." Because I've always been an activist.

Briahna Joy Gray: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Analilia Mejia: I think that for many of us, what brought us to the work and what brought us to the campaign is our background in advocacy. We're rooted in this search for justice.

Briahna Joy Gray: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Analilia Mejia: Very much like the senator, I have this story about, you know, really focused on the struggle of my parents, as workers, as immigrants, and just being really present to the role that elected officials, that government could play in completely transforming a life. I always share this story about my family was food unstable-

Briahna Joy Gray: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Analilia Mejia: ... and, you know, very economically unstable. My mother worked two back-to-back sweatshop jobs.

Briahna Joy Gray: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Analilia Mejia: She would clock out of one and clock into the other. And it wasn't enough to make ends meet. I remember being young and, and not having enough food in the, in the house. And then my mother got this union job and it completely transformed our family.

Briahna Joy Gray: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Analilia Mejia: And I'm very ... I became very aware of the power that collective action and laws could play, you know, in the macro level but in the micro level. Like, I, you know, my mom got a union job and all of a sudden we could eat chicken and I could dream-

Briahna Joy Gray: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Analilia Mejia: ... about going to college.

Briahna Joy Gray: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Analilia Mejia: And so, I focused, very much like the senator, on what are the different ways in which the actions that we could take, the advocacy that we could push, can change lives. Um, and that's a truth for many of the folks on this campaign.

Briahna Joy Gray: Yeah, I've, I've definitely noticed that. And it's been a joy to be able to bring folks onto the podcast to talk about their personal experiences and why they're here. I'm curious though, oftentimes I've experienced, not, I shouldn't say often. Sometimes, occasionally I have experienced going into more political spaces, which aren't typically where I am, right?

Analilia Mejia: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Briahna Joy Gray: I want to say that I'm out in the field, I'm talking to kind of regular schmegular folks, um, voters, canvasing, stuff like that, right?

Analilia Mejia: Yeah.

Briahna Joy Gray: Whereas you're dealing with people often who are already in political sphere because they are organizers, because they work for some other institutional organization. And so I wonder what it is like for you to go into those spaces having been drawn to the Bernie campaign because of your own personal experiences, whether you experience any kind of institutional push back or what's tha- what that's like, because we all know what the stereotype is in some of these spaces, right? Of who the Bernie supporter is and what we're about.

Analilia Mejia: Yes, I am a Bernie bro.

Briahna Joy Gray: [laughs] Right.

Analilia Mejia: [laughs]

Briahna Joy Gray: I prefer Bernie broad. [laughs]

Analilia Mejia: [laughs]

Briahna Joy Gray: But, you know, like, how do you, how do you negotiate that?

Analilia Mejia: So, first and foremost, you know, we have a campaign that's very focused on getting to voters directly and cutting through a lot of the institutional barriers that are put forward in front of our candidate. The reality is that you can't challenge all of these oppressive systems without getting, you know, those that benefit from those oppressive systems to work against you. Um, and unfortunately sometimes that's includes, you know, organizations. Sometimes it includes, you know, other powerful entities and people, um, and corporations.

And so, it makes the job of politicking especially hard. I will say that being a woman, a woman of color, a woman of color who has spent a lifetime in labor, you know, it, it creates, like, a very thick, [laughs] thick skin. And, you know, more than anything, it's like, you know, we anchor our work on truth. We firmly believe that every individual deserves access to health care, access to education, justice at the workplace, real justice in our criminal justice system. And so, if you anchor yourself on truth and that power, then you can navigate any of these spaces, eve- and any of the hurdles that are put in front of us. So, you know, is it hard? Yes. But do I feel empowered with, like, the fact that I know we're right? Um, yes.

Briahna Joy Gray: Yeah. Our candidate does make the job a lot easier [laughs] than I think it is for a few...

Analilia Mejia: At least to keep going.

Briahna Joy Gray: Right. [laughs]

Analilia Mejia: [laughs]

Briahna Joy Gray: Right. So, I'm curious, there's been some good coverage about how the campaign is doing with Latinx voters. I'm curious what your read is on why that is and whether or not generally the media and our political world is speaking the right way to, I don't want to say the Latinx community, but the multitude of communities-

Analilia Mejia: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Briahna Joy Gray: ... that kind of comprise the Latinx community.

Analilia Mejia: For sure. I've been having this conversation with folks across the country, with organizations, and directly. Just recently I was in California and Nevada, speaking to leaders in the Latino community, Latinx community. And, you know, what's interesting is that for some electeds and some campaigns, some people, the interaction with the Latino community kind of begins and ends around immigration.

Briahna Joy Gray: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Analilia Mejia: And for our campaign it's never been that. Obviously immigration, immigration reform, the need for a pathway to rectify, you know, the situation for so many millions of people is of vital importance, but we have always moved towards this holistic and intersectional solution for the oppressions that face working class people in this country, including immigrants and Latinos. And the reality is that, my family included, many Latinos, many immigrants come to this country with a vision of how to better themselves, and the building blocks for that are access to education, access to health care, access to justice at work.

And so when you have a candidate that's very firm and clear on these different building blocks, then of course you're going to get the support of a community that has built, has built itself on those or on seeking those, those pieces or those justices. So, I mean, I think the secret to our success amongst Latinx voters and young voters and working-class voters and woke voters is that we are clear about what are the different pieces, elements that our families need, that people need in order to flourish.

Briahna Joy Gray: Yeah, I think that's a really salient point. I mean, also on this episode I spoke to Tom Sexton, who's a guy from Kentucky, uh, who's on a podcast called the Trillbillies.

Analilia Mejia: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Briahna Joy Gray: And he spoke to me about how Appalachian voters are perceived as kind of red- reduced to a specific set of stereotypes and issues, right?

Analilia Mejia: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Briahna Joy Gray: And I couldn't help but think that there's some very similar overlaps between how a lot of these discrete communities, they're not o- don't often think of white communities being stereotyped in that way, but there are a lot of discrete communities who are kind of characterized very narrowly. And then the media is surprised when someone like Bernie Sanders appeals across all of those community groups, right?

Analilia Mejia: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Briahna Joy Gray: And then there's all of this kind of pontificating about how, "Oh, well, there must be something Trumpian about him if he appeals to a group that once voted for a Trump." Regardless if that same district once voted for Barack Obama, right?

Analilia Mejia: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Briahna Joy Gray: And what is, what is the secret sauce, what is the magic behind why he's doing so strongly with Latinx voters. And I think oftentimes it does come down to the class and that there are communities that have historically been locked out of participation-

Analilia Mejia: Yeah.

Briahna Joy Gray: ... that have been told that you're supposed to care about this thing, but really that thing plus-

Analilia Mejia: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Briahna Joy Gray: ... you know, your ability to earn a living wage and to have health care and to get an equal education for your children are as important to us and our community as they are-

Analilia Mejia: Oh, absolutely.

Briahna Joy Gray: ... to everybody else.

Analilia Mejia: And we, and we do it across community. We do it to African American or black communities where we're like, "Oh, we should talk about criminal justice for you-"

Briahna Joy Gray: Absolutely.

Analilia Mejia: ... or like I said, Latino community or immigrants, "Oh, we should talk about only immigration-"

Briahna Joy Gray: Right.

Analilia Mejia: ... or, "We should only talk about coal jobs-"

Briahna Joy Gray: Right.

Analilia Mejia: ... or, "We should only talk about this-"

Briahna Joy Gray: The opioid crisis.

Analilia Mejia: Yeah.

Briahna Joy Gray: Yeah.

Analilia Mejia: This, this particular subset or small, narrow issue, when the reality is that we are whole people. We are building our lives in this country and seeking, you know, a better future for ourselves, for our children, for, for our communities. And it goes beyond just a sliver. Now granted, we're also spot on on those slivers.

Briahna Joy Gray: Right.

Analilia Mejia: And sometimes different issues will bring communities into the campaign, and then when they learn about all of the different elements of justice that we seek and how they're all interconnected, I think that's what brings and retains voters-

Briahna Joy Gray: Yeah.

Analilia Mejia: ... to the senator.

Briahna Joy Gray: I think that's right. And I think that you can't deal with those slivers without situating them within the context of a whole. If we're gonna talk about intersectionality, it can't just be a buzzword. You can't say, "I want a humane immigration system." And then say, "I want a health care system that doesn't extend to undocumented people."

Analilia Mejia: Exactly.

Briahna Joy Gray: Right?

Analilia Mejia: Exactly.

Briahna Joy Gray: So that, that is why I'm here.

Analilia Mejia: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Briahna Joy Gray: And that's why I'm proud to be a part-

Analilia Mejia: Yeah.

Briahna Joy Gray: ... of this campaign. But I want to ask you, since your everyday job is to make this kind of a pitch, you know, what is your kind of go-to best Bernie pitch?

Analilia Mejia: I don't know if I want to tell anyone.

Briahna Joy Gray: [laughs]

Analilia Mejia: Keep it secret. Uh, no.

Briahna Joy Gray: Or, or you can an- answer it personally if you prefer, you know, why are, why did, have you chosen Bernie.

Analilia Mejia: Well, no, no, I'm happy to do both. I mean, I've chosen Bernie. I actually shared this with the senator when, when I first met with him at the start of my role on this campaign. I am here because the day after Trump got elected, I had to wake up and tell my then six-year-old that the nation had picked this individual to lead the nation, and he started crying.

Briahna Joy Gray: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Analilia Mejia: And then even for a young child, he was very clear that what was coming out of that campaign and then administration was not positive. And, and he was upset about why this would happen. And so, what brought me to the campaign on a very base level is, like, what do, what kind of world do I want to leave for my children? I have two boys. You know, what kind of world do I want to leave? What kind of future can we create for them and, and other children? And I want someone that wasn't going to make my kid cry when they won. [laughs]

Briahna Joy Gray: [laughs]

Analilia Mejia: And so, there's that. And then what I share with folks as we, you know, different elected officials, different organizations, different thought leaders, as we try to onboard them in support of the campaign, what I talk about is, you know, we are big and bold. We are not beholden to corporate interests. We have the freedom to speak truth, and we consistently do it and therefore we set the tone. Therefore, we set the discourse. And if you want to really push the envelope in search of justice and freedom, then you need to be with us because we are not beholden to corporations and therefore limiting how or what we talk about when it comes to any issue. We have the freedom to really speak truth to power and anyone that wants to do that needs to be on board with Bernie Sanders.

Briahna Joy Gray: So specifically when it comes to Latino outreach, given that it's such a, one, large voting group, two, a voting group that is intrinsically valuable on its own merits outside of electoral politics and, three, one that the Senator is doing well with, what are we doing strategically to retain their support and to grow that support?

Analilia Mejia: So obviously, we were being targeted in terms of what communities we're going into and what issues we're uplifting and making sure that we're pointing to the intersectional ways in which we could uplift that community. Like I said, not limiting to what is the stereotypical issue. So, there's that. We have a really broad group of organizers, specifically constituency organizers that are engaging with the community, and we're being intentional in driving our volunteers who are equipped to reach that community to help us do so.

You know, the Latino voting block is very interesting and complex. You have mono Spanish language speaking voters and then you have members of the community that are ineligible to vote but have spent their entire lifetime here, have an entire network of people-

Briahna Joy Gray: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Analilia Mejia: ... around them that can vote on their behalf.

Briahna Joy Gray: Okay.

Analilia Mejia: And so, figuring out ways in which we reach these voters and the language that they feel comfortable and empowering them to, to either go out to vote or ignite their network. All of that is going to be very critical and important, especially in states like Nevada, Colorado, California, where they are early states and, and the Latino vote is going to matter a lot.

Briahna Joy Gray: So, this past weekend we had a drive to make a million phone calls in 10 days and we exceeded our goals-

Analilia Mejia: Yes.

Briahna Joy Gray: ... by making it, and doing it 8.5 days, we then, it became to 1.3 million calls. I'm curious, is there an interest or a need in particular for folks who can make some of those calls in Spanish?

Analilia Mejia: Yeah, absolutely. Like I said, we're trying to reach voters in the way that is most successful and effective. And so, like I said, we have mono Spanish-speaking voters that if you are able, if you, you know, wanna dust out your high school or college Spanish [laughs], you're welcome to. We really do need folks who are, are fluent enabled to engage these voters because it's going to matter in terms of turnout and winning big.

Briahna Joy Gray: Yeah. And it's probably true for other groups as well. Language groups, if, you know, please do reach out and get involved. If you're interested in helping with the campaign, if you speak a second language. It's really useful.

Analilia Mejia: Yeah. You could help Bernie and practice your [laughs], uh, language skills. Or at least make your mother happy. I also made calls in Spanish last week or weekend because I was like, "Okay, we have to hit these numbers." I'm so glad that we exceeded them.

Briahna Joy Gray: I don't know that that it's worth it for me to be dragging down the campaign with my eighth grade French to reach out to a handful of Haitian voters who will probably immediately hang up on me. But I'll give it some thought. [laughs]

Analilia Mejia: Every bit counts, people, every bit. [laughs]

Briahna Joy Gray: Well, well thank you so much. Is there, is there anything else that we should know about what's going on on the trail that would be helpful to the campaign or that you think is particularly insightful about what you've experienced over the past six months or so?

Analilia Mejia: You know, the one thing I just want to, I'm sure you've shared, um, your evidence of, you know, this campaign is built by a diverse group of people. We're empowered to create the type of campaign that touches and really reaches all of our communities. I think that the senator or the campaign doesn't always get full representation of who we actually are and what we're about. And so I'm just proud to stand with you and with other activists on our campaign who are really focused on justice and come from different communities and we know how to reach our folks and we're gonna save the world. So, there you go. [laughs]

Briahna Joy Gray: I'm proud to stand with you too, sister.

Analilia Mejia: Thank you.

Briahna Joy Gray: Thank you for joining me today. It's been a real pleasure.

Briahna Joy Gray: So, I am so excited to be joined today by Tom Sexton to talk about what’s going on in your neck of the woods a little bit.

Tom Sexton: Awesome. Happy to be here.

Briahna Joy Gray: So, do you want to tell us a little bit about your podcast for those who haven't tuned in?

Tom Sexton: We started up in February of 2017, and my cohost, Tarence, and I had a radio show that we, we did at the local radio station that was like, you know, talking about a lot of different things that were happening but also sort of making jokes about conspiracy theories [laughs] and all this stuff. Set to these interludes where we play this like really sexy soul music and stuff. [laughs]

And shortly after that came out we discovered Chapo Trap House and it was like, you know, like these guys are doing a similar thing to what we're doing and maybe we could kind of, you know, sort of enter that sphere a little bit and put our own spin on it and, and run with it. And then that just so happened to coincide with JD Vance releasing this book Hillbilly Elegy, which we thought was, offered a bunch of distortions about the region. It was sort of like, you know, it was sort of insulated from criticism because, you know, it was like his memoirs or whatever, but we saw this sort of culture of poverty thesis that he was kind of like trying to push through that filter. And so that sort of gave us a good jumping off point. Yeah, that was 115 episodes ago or so.

Briahna Joy Gray: Oh wow. That's quite an accomplishment.

Tom Sexton: Yeah, it's, it's been fun.

Briahna Joy Gray: So, can you unpack the word Trillbillies for us? What does it, what does that mean to you?

Tom Sexton: It's as really just a [laughs] just, just growing up in Kentucky, we're just fans of Southern rap from, you know, Memphis and Houston and whatever. And so, it's just kind of a, an appropriation of that in the, you know, the most respectful way.

Briahna Joy Gray: Right, right. So, you know, you mentioned JD Vance, his book, and I think that it's a good place to start insofar as it's not just him that kind of seeds the public with distorted narratives about what's going on in Appalachia. It's the same kind of narratives that we see parroted about other kinds of the country, this cultural poverty stuff that has been bandied about, about urban, predominantly Black and Latino areas as well, in a different way.

Tom Sexton: Right.

Briahna Joy Gray: So, what to you are some of the biggest problems and distortions about how folks on the coast or in Washington approached the concerns of the kind of the middle of the country and the Appalachian region in particular?

Tom Sexton: Well, I think the first thing is, is that you have to have the context that Appalachia is, our story is we've been an extractive region for generations and generations and generations, and so people disproportionately from those coasts came here, took our resources out and didn't put anything back in. And so, I think that's sort of where you have to start, is, uh, sort of recognizing that, that we are, uh, behind the eight ball in, in that way. And, and a lot of the same ways is, is, you know, other folks from backgrounds like you mentioned.

Briahna Joy Gray: So, I was listening to a recent episode and Kentucky was referred to as a resource colony.

Tom Sexton: Right.

Briahna Joy Gray: That phrasing really struck with me. The idea that it is this extractive place where folks have gone in purely for the resources, the resource being coal and really not paid any attention to the infrastructure, the communities that are left behind especially now that coal is in decline. I was reading a recent piece of yours in the Baffler, and there is a particular note of the ways in which efforts to… that are purportedly to most of the region are in fact more geared toward enriching basically the NGO system that is putting these programs into effect as opposed to directly growing the material circumstances, enriching the material circumstances of the people that actually live there. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Tom Sexton: You’re talking about my co-host Tarence's piece in the Baffler. I think what he was trying to say is that these sort of technocratic, neoliberal-leaning solutions for our problems in, in the region are, they’re a rich seam of grant money for people that are already upwardly mobile, disproportionately have access to opportunities. And then of course the other part to that is at, at worst it is just sort of a grift for the ultra-wealthy who, you know, have sort of gotten in on the ground floor of the poverty industry in there and have gotten grants through different government initiatives.

POWER is the one Terrence references in the piece most frequently and padded their own pockets through that, you know, and so, you know, a, a friend of ours, Herbie Smith has a great quote that says there's a lot of money in poverty if you're not impoverished. [laughs] And that's what Tarence is kinda talking about there.

Briahna Joy Gray: So, what kind of interventions do you think would be most useful then if not, you know the, the kinds of things that are described in this piece are like a, a huge grant to fund a satellite that would beam, you know, teaching materials into the classroom that could have just have easily have been given by cassette tape or, you know, TV, you know, cable news basically, right?

Tom Sexton: Right.

Briahna Joy Gray: What kind of interventions then make more sense to enrich the community?

Tom Sexton: What you said there kind of made me think about before you get like the big satellite that's beaming all this stuff in, you have to have good internet. You know?

Briahna Joy Gray: Yeah.

Tom Sexton: Whe- when, when I was approached about doing this, one thing I was afraid of is that like our internet is going to break up. It's going to be all sloppy and what. 'Cause that happens when we're recording the show all the time. And so, like all these sort of NGO left technocratic vision of the future that we kind of talked about doesn't take into consideration that we don't have things like basic infrastructure. I mean I can take you to places that the water is not drinkable. I could take you to places that would rival conditions you see in countries that aren't nearly as developed as ours. I think when we're talking about what has shown precedence for having worked in Appalachia, it's these sort of big infrastructure projects.

The sort of, you know, and I know it's sort of a cliché at this point, this sort of the New Deal-era style programs. The Democratic Party had such… people back home have such a visceral tie to the Democratic Party of the FDR era. And a lot of the reason why that is, is because those style policies, while it didn't usher in socialism or anything like that, it did save people. And, uh, I think, you know, if we're just talking about what we could do in the near future, it's those types of programs that could, that could work.

Briahna Joy Gray: So, what's so interesting is that this part of the world isn't, is often kind of derived or written off by folks in urban centers on the coast, etc., because it's identified as being Trump country and therefore a red country and then for kind of untouchable, like this has always been the way it was. And that there is almost an essentializing of the people who live there as uniquely bigoted or somehow constitutionally unable to ever be a part of a left coalition or even a democratic, broadly democratic coalition. But that has not been the long-term history of places like Kentucky, right? So, can-

Tom Sexton: Right.

Briahna Joy Gray: ... you tell me a little bit about kind of what your sense of the politics are like on the ground and what people are actually looking for in a candidate and kind of what was going on there with the attraction to Trump, especially in places that, you know, counties that one time voted for Obama.

Tom Sexton: Right. So yeah, I, I think, you know, the whole notion of Trump country is just ahistorical. I mean, up until George Bush's second election, Appalachia was the most reliable blue wall in the country, arguably. I mean, Jimmy Carter carried West Virginia in like his second run for president. So, I think, yeah, that's just completely ahistorical. The thing about the Trump country thing I would say is that, and you know, this is something that like we've tried to make a lot of sense of and, and the bottom line is people vote for whoever is speaking to their material concerns.

And I think if you look at, you know, when Trump ran and he's like, you know, "I'm going to bring coal back." After coal had a serious decline that, you know, it wasn't Barack Obama's fault, it was just the continuation of a trend that had been going on since the '80s but when you have this guy for all his warts and all the crazy stuff, he's saying, I'm going to bring your industry back, I'm going to keep you in work. If your life is sort of precarious, I could see why you might take a flyer on this like crazy guy or whatever.

Also, to boot, it's like, and if Democratic Party has sort of betrayed you and, you know, sort of left the party up to these sort of, you know, again, like we were saying, these neoliberal technocrats, I think it's not that far-fetched for some of these guys to, like I said, take a flyer on Trump and that's not like to justify the racism or anything like that. I just think that's the reality. I think people vote for their material circumstances and when the alternative is Hillary Clinton saying, "We're going to put a lot of coal miners out of business." It's not hard to see why they would go that way.

Briahna Joy Gray: Yeah. So, for people who might not know, who might not be quite as versed in lefty lingo, when we're talking about material circumstances, what are the kinds of things that we're talking about that are motivating voters in this way?

Tom Sexton: Yeah, I mean you're talking about just in my county alone, you know, when I was growing up, just a disproportionate amount of people were working in the coal industry, and then you fast forward to 2016 and there's maybe a couple hundred people or something like that. I mean that's a serious, serious dent, you know, so it's just like everything was coal and that was gone. People are left with, you know, housing insecurity, is something that we don't talk a lot about in rural places, but I just saw this thing in my home county. There's like 3,000 school-aged kids that are either homeless or housing insecure and like all these things that the decline of coal ushered in. That was like day to day things that a lot of folks take for granted.

Briahna Joy Gray: Yeah, yeah. It's, it's, this is always such an interesting point to me because as a journalist I wrote a lot about how people can be motivated by more than one thing at the ballot box, right?

Tom Sexton: Yeah.

Briahna Joy Gray: And like you said, the fact that you're motivated by one thing and kind of indifferent about another thing. Let's say the other thing is the racism part.

Tom Sexton: Right, right.

Briahna Joy Gray: It's not an excuse, right? It doesn't make that choice kind of morally laundered, right?

Tom Sexton: Right.

Briahna Joy Gray: But it does present an option for those seeking to appeal to those voters as a way to appeal to them without actually having to, let's say, pander to the racism, right? There is a kind of a view, I feel like sometimes on the, a- among Democrats that because racism was a part of Donald Trump's pitch, anyone trying to pitch that same group of voters is required to use racism to pitch that. And part of what was so frustrating about this narrative that says no, part of the attraction to Trump was about economics, economic precarity for instance. It basically meant that those people who believe that we're taking economic precarity off the table as part of the pitch and basically admitting that they weren't going to make any appeal to this substantial group of voters that formed part of the Obama coalition and that are in a lot of ways necessary or, you know, at least a necessary part of how we're going to get back to getting Trump out of office.

Tom Sexton: Yeah.

Briahna Joy Gray: So I, I'm curious to know a little bit more about your kind of personal political journey, what it was like for you both growing up, how you came to left politics, and what it was like for you kind of at first Thanksgiving after Trump was elected.

Tom Sexton: [laughs] Well, I mean for me, I think my family had always been like, like I was talking about like FDR, like social democrats or whatever, and my granddad was a coal miner and he was a UMWA guy and, and all this sort of thing. So, I, you know, it was imparted to me at least from a young age, the dignity of labor and labor movements and all this sort of thing, even though if it wasn't really explicitly expressed in leftist terms or whatever.

Briahna Joy Gray: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Tom Sexton: And then, you know, when the, the older I got and, you know, from personal experience being burnt by like the Obamas and the Clintons and everybody else and sort of that, that, that milieu, you know, and then all of a sudden there's these cultural documents like Jacobin Magazine was, was coming out, you know, around this time when I was sort of like opening up to this stuff and, and, you know, a lot of writers that I admire a great deal were, you know, being published in mainstream outlets, but were having a sort of leftist bent. And so, it's an ongoing thing.

But I think it's a lot easier now to sort of come to like an awareness of working-class politics and left politics and stuff now than it was 15-20 years ago or whatever.

As far as the Thanksgiving, [laughs] it's like a, we were never really a family that did like the whole get your talking points ready to combat your racist uncles kind of stuff. You know, I, I don't know, like obviously I went there and complained about it and all that, all that sort of thing but, you know, it's interesting. I think now a lot of my family members that were just like die hard Trump because he was going to bring coal back or whatever it was, are seeing, sort of the holes in like all of his promises and that and all, all that kind of stuff.

And, uh, you know, which is certainly encouraging but, you know, it's like, you know, it's, it's tricky. It's like what do you do with people you love that are at least tacitly supporting this racist president or whatever, you know, and it's, it's certainly a trick and I think an open question, how you engage those folks and not write them off or whatever the right thing is to do. It's tricky.

Briahna Joy Gray: You mentioned an uncle and, and the idea that, you know, Trump was going to bring coal back. And I think one of the most interesting moments for me in kind of like the aftershocks of 2016 was this town hall that Senator Sanders did I think early in 2017 in coal country, I believe it was in West Virginia, and it was a Chris Hayes panel-

Tom Sexton: Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Briahna Joy Gray: ... um, in which it was the, the room, the, the people who comprised the broader audience were all members of the community. And there were small, a smaller group of coal miners and coal families who were brought up on stage to have this discussion. And at one point, Chris Hayes asked the audience, "Who here sincerely thought that Donald Trump was going to bring coal back?"

Chris Hayes: The president of the United States is not going to wave some magic wand, and he’s not going to pass some piece of legislation that’s going to reopen the coal mines here in McDowell County. That’s not happening.

Briahna Joy Gray: And no one raised their hand, or maybe he asked it in reverse, then everybody raised their hand. But the point is nobody, everyone kind of acknowledged that they didn't think that magically coal, which had been in decline as you put it for decades, was going-

Tom Sexton: Yeah.

Briahna Joy Gray: ... to make a magical resurgence. But what some of the commentators said, what some of the community members said was they at least appreciated that he was diagnosing their problems in the community, acknowledging the importance of coal to the community, not speaking about it in this dismissive, antagonistic way that as you pointed out Hillary Clinton had done with that statement and seemed to offer a solution even if it was a lie, like better the lie that recognizes my humanity than a kind of dismissive wave of the hand, right?

Tom Sexton: Yeah. Yeah. People have, you know, such a visceral tie to that like labor heritage. I mean like whether anybody wants to recognize this or not, like all the, you know, liberals or conservatives or whoever you are that deride coal country don't realize there are still people that are dying today so you can turn your electricity on in places like where I'm from. There’s this whole epidemic of black lung disease, which you know has just proliferated in the last decade or so with different advents in like, trying to think of how to phrase this for the uninitiated, but just different advents in like extractive practices. What happens is they blow these mountains up to get the coal seams inside and it used to be, they would just go underground and mine it out and you would breathe that coal dust and that was bad enough and like you would get the disease like long term.

But now we're seeing like young people that go to work in the coal mines that are doing it this new way that are breathing in all these different silicas and, and different metals and different things. And you're seeing them land on lung transplant lists when they're in their forties and stuff like that. And so, it's like that is still a very real thing that happens so that people can have electricity and stuff. And so, whether anybody wants to acknowledge it or not, people owe a great debt to coal miners and people in coal country, you know? I know, and I can understand how you might get frustrated with how seemingly these people have wielded like a, you know, a disproportionate amount of political power in the last, you know, couple of years or whatever. But what they did was important for the development of, well not only the country, but the world as it stands today. And so, whatever you think about that, it's important.

Briahna Joy Gray: Yeah. It's kind of part and parcel with this conversation that's happening about kind of the global nature of the environmental crisis, right? And folks who say, "Well, why should America, who's already benefited from industrialization get to wag its fingers at other countries that are just trying to catch up using these kinds of energy that we use. And now we're just trying to close the door to them. You know, which is why Bernie Sanders’ Green New Deal policy devotes a substantial number of resources to helping to balance the cost of switching to renewable energies for those places.

'Cause it's, it is not fair to say that all of a sudden you can't compete and the same, it seems must be true for coal country that we can't have a Green New Deal without having a jobs program that's going to respect the need for folks to still continue to be employed after devoting their lives and multiple generations to buying this resource that enabled America to be what it is today. And at the same time provide healthcare universally and fully for the people who are going to, for the rest of their lives, be suffering with the consequences from having done that work.

Tom Sexton: Yeah, yeah. And dealing with my elected leaders locally. You know, when you like pitch something like, you know, like what, what do you think the efficacy of Medicare For All will be in a place that is, you know, has all these health problems and all this stuff and a lot of it, much of it work related. Like you were saying, I had one guy that ran for governor in the primary last time. When I said that to him, he said, you know, "Oh I guess also they like Louisville basketball too." Which is like a reference to everybody's a big university of Kentucky fan and Louisville is the big rival. And it's just amazing to me that the dissonance that like who the hell likes going to the doctor? And two, who the hell likes dealing with insurance companies [laughs] and all this stuff. Like to think that people actually would prefer to keep things the way they are or just make it, you know, a little easier, whatever. It's like it's just ridiculous.

Briahna Joy Gray: Well the, well tell me more about that because that is the narrative, right? The, the narrative is that Bernie’s, you know, far left ideas, the far left progressive ideas like a Green New Deal and Medicare For All and a $15 minimum wage and some of those workplace democracy things that will help double union membership and, that a lot of the stuff is just too lefty and too wonky to fly in, in these parts of the country, even though we've seen at least in 2016 the primary, for example, you know, every county in West Virginia going to Bernie Sanders. I mean, how does that sit? How does the skepticism of how a progressive agenda flies and the kind of like the interior of the country, how does that sit with you, given your observations of how people are responding to more progressive campaigns, both local and national on the ground?

Tom Sexton: Well, I think what it is, is, is you're seeing, one, you're seeing an empire in decline. [laughs] Two is you're seeing like the- those types of hesitancies to embrace those more sort of left policies, it's just like the stuff they say is just their bulwark against Bernie Sanders or whoever it is coming for their insurance kickbacks or, you know, whoever the, the lobbyists are that are padding their pockets. And that's really the bottom line is they would rather let their constituents die than to give up this little side hustle or whatever. I mean, and it's just like, it's just abundantly clear to me and, and- [laughs]

Briahna Joy Gray: Yeah.

Tom Sexton: ... it's, it's, it's something,

Briahna Joy Gray: Well, do you think that people are, are following? I mean, I don't want to, I don't mean to ask you to speak for the entire state of Kentucky, [laughs] but like in your kind of daily life as you walk around with these left politics, I mean, do you, we've seen, for example, all of these teacher strikes come out of these parts of the country, right? We've seen the, the red, Red for Ed movement coming out of Red America, right? Disproportionally. There is evidence, it seems that it's not this like black, red, white, red, blue polarization that the way the, the media basically treats it, but for you, like the, the narrative is if this won't work, candidates like Bernie and even Warren aren't going to translate to this part of the country. Are you seeing enthusiasm in your life for these candidates or skepticism for these candidates? Or are people still supporting Trump, or is there some waning enthusiasm there?

Tom Sexton: No, I think there's waning enthusiasm, but what I, I think Bernie’s strongest thing is, there's still, and granted it's a lot of the older generation, but they're still very much that again, that visceral tie to the Democratic Party of old that you know, embraced social democratic policies and these big infrastructure programs and alphabet soup programs and all this kind of stuff with the New Deal. And I think the trick is going to be how do you play on that to not only keep the older generations that, you know, still have some proximity to that era engaged, but also how do you take that to the younger generation? And the common denominator is people's material concerns. You know what I mean? It's like with the, you know, the teachers strikes and, you know, like the coal miners doing the, the blockade in Harlan County recently and all this stuff. It's like, I see all of these sort of think pieces and everything written about it. But the common denominator of all that stuff is people just want to get paid.

Briahna Joy Gray: [laughs] Yeah.

Tom Sexton: For the work they've done.

Briahna Joy Gray: Yeah.

Tom Sexton: We could parse it out all day, it's like, "Well, you know, his, you know, what's, is there some sort of Maoist peasant rebellion fomenting in Harlan County?" It's like, "No, these guys just like want to get paid." And like it's as simple as speaking to those material concerns. I mean, there's no great trick to it. And if Bernie can sort of hearken back to that sort of FDR era, New Deal heritage, but also make it palatable for younger people, which we could both see that's happening, I think he's going to be a formidable, but also, you know, it's just going to be a boon to people living there. And I think that people are embracing that.

And my mother, who I wouldn't necessarily consider an exemplar of progressive politics is like, "Yeah, if Bernie would have won the primary, I would have voted for Bernie last time." And all this stuff. You know? So, it's like if, you know, he can crack through the primaries, I think he's gonna be in good shape in places that people think he won't do well in.

Briahna Joy Gray: So before we wrap up, I want to ask you a little bit about the prison industry and mass incarceration because the, one of the other interesting points of overlap between the economic struggles in urban centers, which is disproportionally black and brown and the economic marginalization in Appalachia, which is disproportionately white, is the fact that the prison industrial complex has gotten its fingers in there, too. And I was reading about how the land, which is perceived as kind of not being good for much else after coal mining, except for building prisons has in fact become fallow ground for prisons being built at an alarming rate. Can you tell us a little bit about what's, what's going on there and how it's affecting the community?

Tom Sexton: Yeah, so like in, in my county Letcher, up until this past year it was, they had this proposed prison project, the USP Letcher. It was the only federal prison in the pipeline to be built. And we were lucky enough to kick the can down the road long enough and through some organizing efforts with people in the community, they pulled the record of decision on that prison and it's not slated to be built anymore. Interestingly enough, the Trump administration cites some friends of mine, Sylvia Ryerson and, and Judah Schept, who is a professor at Eastern Kentucky University and their research saying that like, "Yes, actually there's no economic benefits of these communities. Actually, it's a lot of times it's to their detriment." It's one of those things where our congressman, our Republican Congressman, Hal Rogers, if that prison were to have been built, it would have been ninth out of their federal, state, or private prison in his congressional district.

You're talking about like a little swath of Eastern Kentucky. It's like you could drive from one side of it to the other and like two hours and change. For our purposes it’s like, you know, when we were organizing, it's the prison to be built in our hometown. You know, we didn't want this sort of narrative reinforced that this was just a bunch of like white people locking up black and brown folks and sorry, this is our economic redevelopment and whatever. And we're fortunate enough now that I think a lot of people agree that there's no moral imperative involved to this analysis, but like that it's just bad business to be locking up a ton of people. I think it makes it slightly easier to organize against those things by virtue of that fact.

But still, there's work to be done around getting people to recognize the humanity of the people and that, uh, we don't need to be building as was our case, you know, these multimillion dollar, $444 million monuments to human misery in these… they were going to build ours in, in this place that was just like a stone's throw away from like one of the oldest forest in the world.

It's not just like, they're just like, you know, slapping these places up on like, you know, just old abandoned land that they can't do anything with, which is bad enough because the folks locked up there still have to drink the water that has to come through there and everything. Like they have no autonomy in the situation, but they're also not above just destroying what we do have that could bolster tourism or whatever it is to build these things too. So, uh, I'm glad you brought that up because it's, it's important work that's going on down there.

Briahna Joy Gray: Well, I appreciate, you know, you being involved and talking about and raising awareness about it. And before we go, I'm curious whether, you know, I, I am forever embattled with the mainstream, uh, media it seems and, you know-

Tom Sexton: [laughs] I, I hear.

Briahna Joy Gray: ... trying to push back against the ways in which they characterize not just this campaign, but the broader movement for progressive values in ways that I find often to be kind of dishonest at best. And so, I'm curious from your perspective, how can the media do a better job covering Appalachia? What would you like to see different about the story? Whether the stories they cover or the way that they talk about what's going on and perhaps also with an eye toward how they talk about the potential for coalition building broadly with Appalachians as part of a larger left movement that's going on right now.

Tom Sexton: In my experience, just like handling requests from journalists or whatever, they have this story written before they get there and they're just trying to find the characters they can plug in to like make it make sense. And so, in that, what that usually translates to is downtrodden coal miner that’s at the end of his rope and all this stuff and he voted for Trump 'cause blah blah blah. And then, you know, it's just like rinse, wash, repeat. There's just this never-ending stream of these stories that come out. Now I, I was talking with my buddy Leslie Lee from the Struggle Session podcast the other day whose dad is from Harlan County. And we were talking about how like in Harlan County you have this whole black community. They were all coal miners too that were in the same labor struggles with their white counterparts and all this stuff, but nobody ever talks about them. And the number one piece of advice I would give is just to kind of kill those preconceived notions and, you know, just do the work of being a journalist and, you know, write what you see and what people say and not try to like fit it into your template for the story you want to write.

Briahna Joy Gray: Mm-hmm [affirmative]. Well Leslie was a guest on I think on our third episode of the podcast where we talked about the Bernie bro- mythology, maybe we should get him back on and talk about kind of, diverse perspectives of what's going on in Kentucky right now.

Tom Sexton: Yeah, tell him to come on my show too. [laughs]

Briahna Joy Gray: I would definitely tune in for that. Well, thank you so much for joining me today, Tom. Is there anything else that you want to shout out where people can find your show or anything else that our listeners should know about?

Tom Sexton: Yeah, yeah. Uh, checkout, Trillbilly Workers' Party in all the usual places you would think to find it. And also in the spring we're going to be looking to get back out to the Northeast, maybe some New York shows and Philly shows, maybe Boston. It's not clear where we'll be going yet, but we'll be getting out with our buddies, Street Fight Radio and District Sentinel who we just finished a nice run of shows in the south with. It was a lot of fun. So, uh, I'm looking forward to getting back out with those guys. Yeah, thanks, Briahna. This was fun.

Briahna Joy Gray: All right. Same here, thank you Tom.

That's it for this week. Let us know what you think at [email protected] or send us a tweet with the hashtag #hearthebern. If you haven't done so already, please, please, please take a moment to rate review or like us on Apple podcast, SoundCloud, or wherever you're listening. As always, transcripts will be up soon. Till next time.