A talk with David Akadjian
People need a movement.
by James Mann
We last spoke with political writer David Akadjian on the publication of his eye-opening book The Little Book of Revolution in 2014. We’ve invited him back to share his thoughts on our election, and the options going forward.
Q: So, what in the hell happened on November 8th?
A: The question you’re really asking is “why.” Since the election, there’s been a lot of talk about the platform and the white working class of middle America and that the Democratic Party needs to adopt a more populist message.
I think we need to be careful. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by what? 2.5-3 million people. I think the Democratic Party did almost everything right in terms of strategy, platform and message.
In my opinion, what happened was that a policy wonk ran against a charismatic candidate who was very comfortable in front of the media. I believe Barack Obama, or someone with similar media savvy and charisma, would have won executing the exact same strategy.
If you look at Alan Lichtman’s model for predicting presidential elections, the model that has successfully predicted every presidential winner 1984, two of his thirteen keys for predicting the winner involve charisma. One is for the incumbent and one for the challenger. Having a non-charismatic candidate against a charismatic one was the big reason I think Clinton lost.
The other comment I thought was pretty spot on came from economist Stephanie Kelton who said “Republicans: F- the deficit, we’ll make America great again. Voters: Trump.” We heard nothing but “small ball” from Clinton. She talked about small policy changes and didn’t offer a vision. For this reason, it was hard to tell why she was running. We saw this in the SNL parodies of her where she came across as a political opportunist. She was never able to break that caricature and counted primarily on attacking her opponent.
Q: What troubles you the most about Trump?
A: The fact that he knows how to work the media. It’s going to be really hard to fight against his shitty policy ideas while the media is obsessing over him trolling Saturday Night Live or the cast of Hamilton on Twitter.
I think most people misunderstand Trump. I don’t think he’s a white supremacist. He’s worse than that. He’s a guy who uses white supremacists to get into power for his own personal profit. He’s a guy that understands people want to fight the race war and he’s willing to use this to distract America while he works to privatize Medicare, Social Security, the VA, education, and anything else he can get away with selling off.
And I think he actually believes making people like him wealthier is how to make America great.
Q: You were a Bernie Sanders supporter. What role do you see him in going forward?
A: I hope Bernie continues to movement build. People tend to get all worked up around election time but much of the hard work is done in between elections. The idea fights take place in between elections. And the infrastructure building takes place in between elections.
People tend to have this belief that politicians create political change. If we believe politicians create political change, we make the assumption that we just need to elect the right politician and then everything will be hunky dory.
The reality of almost every successful piece of legislation tends to be quite different. It’s that politicians react to public pressure. In other words, the model looks more like this:
Social change -> political change -> legislative change
Civil rights legislation started with the Civil Rights movement. New politicians came into office. Old ones got worried. The result was that Civil Rights legislation was eventually passed. If you look at the suffragette movement, it followed the same pattern. Same for the LGBT movement. And, more recently, corporate special interests have figured this out and have been having tremendous success passing legislation because they’ve created a movement for laissez-faire capitalism. They’ve advanced these ideas in the minds of the voting public to the point where they can get politicians elected who support these ideas and easily pass legislation.
Corporate special interest groups have gained so much control of our government because they figured out the above and they poured a lot of money into what I’ll call the corporate special interest movement. If we ever hope to reverse this, it’s not going to happen with some sudden realization. It’s going to take a movement to restore democracy and create an economy that works for the 99%.
People need a movement. Politicians don’t typically build movements. Bernie seems to be good at it though.
Q: Your book dealt a lot with framing. How does one “frame” the discussion around Trump?
A: The first thing I would emphasize is that framing is teaching about ideas. It’s not messaging.
Since the biggest fights under the Trump administration are going to be about privatization, we’re going to have to fight the Milton Friedman ideas about privatization. The opposition is going to say government is the problem, we need to “free” the market, and we need more choice. “Efficient” markets will be pitted against “inefficient” government and we’ll be told there can be only one.
I like to teach instead that the private sector and public sector are good at different things. We need both. Every successful economy in the world is a mix of capitalism and socialism. Every one. Without government, capitalism becomes a black market. Democracy provides checks and balances. People create markets and we have the ability to create them any way we want. We created money to trade with, for example. It’s not something that just grew in nature. And we create rules. We can either create these rules so they benefit all of us or we can create them to benefit a few wealthy people.
What is the private sector good at? Consumer goods. This tends to be the sweet spot for privately-owned companies. What’s the public sector good at? Services where there’s a natural conflict of interest between profit and providing service. Healthcare. Education. Police. The military. The way to make the most profit with these services is to deliver the least amount of service. When this happens we will always pay more and get less. For this reason, incentives matter and if you take profit out of the equation, organizations can focus on service.
The more people believe democracy is important to capitalism, the easier it will be to pass good legislation. The more people believe in “black market” capitalism, the easier it will be to privatize everything left of our democracy.
Q: What were some bright spots that came about on Election Day?
A: 2.5-3 million more votes for Clinton than her opponent. Winning the North Carolina governor’s race (though this just recently ended).
On the local level, Hamilton County OH had some big wins. Aftab Pureval won a race against the Winkler family, a local political dynasty. And Denise Driehaus won a county commissioner’s race tipping our county commission democratic. This doesn’t seem like much but these were what the party focused on. So locally, I felt pretty good. Especially since Cincinnati is known as such a conservative city.
Q: Despite winning the popular vote, the Democratic Party faces perhaps its dimmest future in decades. What would you like to see them doing in the days ahead?
A: The heart of this question makes an assumption that I don’t believe to be true. The assumption is that politicians are where to start if we want to create change. As I mentioned above, I believe the place to start is with social change.
So to answer your question, what I feel we need to be doing is following a similar model. We need to expand the fight the Occupy movement started against Wall Street and income inequality. And we need to band together with others experiencing economic distress and inequality. The fight against the 1% is the right fight but I don’t mean this in the sense that we need to abandon identity politics. We need to recognize that the people most hurt by the war the 1% has been waging for more profits tends to hurt minorities like African-Americans and women most. These fights are one and the same. In the past election, we fell down connecting the dots. In the effort to paint Trump and his supporters as deplorables (which a small number are), we alienated many of the legitimate concerns of independents.
If we do this, it will be easier for politicians to support better ideas. If we can recognize that by and large the Democratic Party wants what we want, they just face certain realities when it comes to getting elected and unelected. That is, if they support ideas that are deemed too radical they will lose. We, I believe, need to make it possible for them to support these ideas and win. As we make this push, we have to remember if we push too far, they will lose.
If we don’t get politicians elected who will help fight this fight, we have nothing. Now we may not like that we have to start with politicians who can get elected, but it’s the reality. In the case of this past election, we now have Trump and Republicans control all 3 branches of government. I think this is partly the result of activists not recognizing that losing political races sets us back even further.
Many of the folks I spoke with this election season came from academic backgrounds. In academia, there is this idea that the best idea wins. All too often we try to translate this into the political world. In the political realm, the reality is quite different. What matters is what our representatives can support and still win them re-election.
What this means is that if we want change we should be supporting good politicians. We can lob bombs at the bad ones all we want. But all too often this election, I’ve seen people lobbing bombs indiscriminately as if there’s no differences between the parties.
As Republicans prep to sell off what’s left of our country, I think we’re about to find out that there are some pretty big differences.