Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Nima: “Joe Biden Calls For ‘Immediate, Full And Transparent Investigation’ Into Jacob Blake Shooting,” reports Forbes. “Obama Fraud Task Force Takes on the Big Banks,” proclaims Bloomberg News. “Democratic lawmakers call for vote on bill to study reparations,” announces CNN.
Adam: It seems that every time there’s a movement toward righting a historical or current wrong, whether police violence, corporate abuses, or otherwise, policymakers muster the same tepid “solution”: initiate a committee, an investigation, a commission, a study, or, if they want to sound super militaristic and serious a “task force” to probe the issue. This type of rhetorical filler offers elites the best of both worlds: creating the appearance of attentiveness and progressiveness without requiring any meaningful political agenda or overt ideological commitments.
Nima: Tethered to explicit political objectives, calls for investigations or studies can be a useful lobbying tool, but absent this, they are more often than not a political trick, a psychological tool to compel activists and those outraged on social media to take a break, because — you know what? — now the professionals are handling it. The effect is this, the political equivalent of a five-day cooling off period, wait the outrage out, channel activist energy into Get Out the Vote fodder and superficial reform-ese that never truly upsets the existing order.
Adam: Today, we’ll study the phenomenon of the liberal calls for bare-minimum interventions in times of political crisis, looking at how vague and open-ended calls for studies, committees, task forces and commissions are designed to elevate the reputations of spineless politicians while nullifying the social movements that actually seek to create racial, economic, and climate justice.
Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be joined by Briahna Joy Gray, former national press secretary for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign and currently a contributing editor to Current Affairs magazine. She is also the co-host of new podcast, Bad Faith.
Briahna Joy Gray: In early 2019, everyone started talking about reparations again, and I couldn’t get excited about it as someone who supported reparations, because it was very clear that they weren’t interested in doing anything more than convening a study on reparations, right? So the fallback position was H.R.40 and nobody really wanted to talk about any substantive meaningful ways to close the wealth gap between Black people and white people. Of course, to do that, one would have to target the extreme accumulation of wealth at the very, very top and it is that kind of hypocrisy that leads a lot of folks, I think, to be very, very skeptical of Democrats and more broadly, frankly, government actors, when you see them suggesting that they care about X, Y, and Z, but never committing to policies that manifest any real change.
Adam: Before we begin, we want to note that this episode is a spiritual successor of Episode 56: How the Media Learned to Worry About War Without Ever Actually Opposing It. One of the methods we document in that episode is how politicians, specifically Democrats who need to look vaguely anti-war, will make process critiques of war by calling for Congressional votes.
Nima: ‘Let’s vote on continuing to occupy Afghanistan. It’s important.’
Adam: An infamous example of this is Tim Kaine announced that he was calling for a new AUMF, a new authorization for use of military force for the war on terror. Now, Tim Kaine supported one that was actually more aggressive than the one that was being called for but it makes him look anti-war by saying we need to call for a new AUMF and so I asked his press secretary at the time I said, well, does he support the new AUMF that’s basically the same thing and he wouldn’t answer me and the reason, of course, is that he did, but he needed to look vaguely anti-war.
Nima: You need the process to justify what you were going to do anyway so that it seems official.
Adam: Yeah. And to be clear, what we’re talking about in this episode is not people who call for investigations or committees or Congress to seek a new law who are doing so as a lobbying effort pursuant to ideological ends. So just as we talked about in the hypocrisy episode, we’re not opposed to hypocrisy if there’s an underlying ideological commitment being advanced, we’re not opposed to calls for AUMFs if the goal is to end a war, end the military bombing in Yemen, for example, we’re not opposed to calls for committees or studies, if it’s pursuant to, let’s say police abolition, or moving troops from Afghanistan. We are critiquing in this episode, calls for studies, Blue Ribbon Commissions, further investigations and legislation absent ideological commitments or pursuant to just looking busy. So just to make a clear distinction about what we’re talking about, we’re talking about a rhetorical tactic that uses the appearance of looking busy or the appearance of lobbying without any underlying ideological commitments.
Nima: Right, which then serves the purpose of burying the issue, rather than continuing to address it. So, for instance, on April 15 of this year, 2020, Representative Ilhan Omar called for an investigation into “Amazon’s recent dismissal of two employees at a warehouse facility in Shakopee, Minnesota. The employees were involved in organizing efforts and helped file a complaint with a group of Shakopee facility workers to OSHA in early April. The formal complaint came after workers at dozens of Amazon facilities nationwide tested positive for COVID-19.” By doing this, Omar was calling national attention to a local issue Amazon had likely hoped to sweep under the rug if it didn’t have that kind of attention, if it didn’t get elevated to that level. Furthermore, she didn’t just hand wring about the problem, in that same statement in which she denounced Amazon, she also wrote this:
“It is outrageous that during an unprecedented global health pandemic, an employer would choose to fire workers coming forward to blow the whistle on health and safety risks, rather than fix the conditions that are threatening their dedicated essential workforce and their vital supply chain. Even prior to the dire global health crisis, these facilities had a proven record of serious health and safety standard violations, and at present, Amazon has not issued an adequate internal pandemic preparedness and response plan.”
So you can see that the investigation that’s called for, the study, is actually meant to advance justice on the other side of it. There are actual calls to action that are connected to the call for the investigation. This, as we will see, is not always the case.
Adam: So Democrats have a decade’s long history of co opting social movements and making mild concessions to silence activists. Indeed, that is where much of their power and social purpose in a capitalist system comes from. They’re the safety valve of populist unrest in this country. This was certainly the case during the Civil Rights Movement. According to author Lance Selfa, in their 2008 book The Democrats: A Critical History, Robert F. Kennedy, as Attorney General, reportedly told James Farmer, the leader of the Congress of Racial Equality, also known as CORE, “If you cut out this freedom rider and sitting-in stuff and concentrate on voter registration, I’ll get you a tax exemption.” Where have we seen this before, right? ‘Don’t do anything, just vote’ has e.g. become the plankton for the partisan whale of the Democratic Party. We just want to sort of eat you up and use that fuel to satiate our agenda, but don’t go off and do the sort of unsanctioned thing. Also, Selfa writes, the Kennedy administration “preferred to handle civil rights matters from an office in the Justice Department.” But when uprisings arose in response to segregationist police violence in Birmingham in 1963, Kennedy feared this would derail his bipartisan gradual desegregation plans. Here’s an excerpt from Selfa’s book:
“Kennedy’s Justice Department aide Burke Marshall warned the president, ‘If that agreement blows up, Negroes will be, uh…’ ‘Uncontrollable,’ Kennedy said. Marshall added, ‘And I think not only in Birmingham.’ Fearing this threat to ‘law and order’ nationwide, Kennedy announced federal troop movements to enforce the agreement. A few weeks later, he took to the federal airwaves to announce his support for the Civil Rights Act in Congress.”
Again, to the extent to which liberals act they act to co op or undermine social movements, and of course, that’s the purpose of social movements, whether they be violent or nonviolent, is to put pressure on politicians to respond but politicians would rather you just shut the fuck up and go home.
Nima: Right. So, the way that they do that is by saying, ‘Yeah, okay, we’re taking it seriously. We will study this, thank you for bringing it to our attention but we’ve got it now.’ And so the development of faux academic language to stave off protest, seems to be actually a natural extension of this. We hear this all the time. It also dovetails quite precisely with the Democratic National Committee’s ever expanding reliance on regressive business and consultancy firms. So for a bit of context, the DNC’s Executive Committee, which is helmed by Chairman Tom Perez, along with nine others, contains 47 members, 17 of whom have ties to corporate lobbying. According to a February 2020 report by David Moore from the publication Sludge, 13 of these members were current lobbyists of for-profit companies, principals at consulting firms with corporate clients, or corporate lawyers; three of them were corporate lobbyists or corporate lawyers in the last six years, and one was a corporate lobbyist previously. So several of these members were appointed by Perez in 2017. Some of these folks include Jaime Harrison, DNC Counselor and Associate Chair. He was a lobbyist for Lockheed Martin, Wells Fargo, BP America, Merck and Bank of America, to name just a few. Another is Michael Blake, DNC Vice Chair. He was paid up to $20,000 in 2015 by a prominent political consulting firm, Hilltop Public Solutions, whose clients included Airbnb. Minyon Moore, an at-large DNC member is a principal at public affairs and lobbying firm Dewey Square Group. Dewey Square Group has represented anti-union grocery and restaurant industry members and pharmaceutical companies for years. Dewey has also worked to prevent changes to Medicare Advantage that were needed to finance the ACA, the Affordable Care Act, including an effort to place fake letters to the editor in local newspapers, as reported by The Intercept.
Adam: In reviewing this to make a general point, which is that over the past 30 years or so the Democratic Party has been, in many ways, taken over by and is run by the consultancy class, which is to say people who go in and out of the revolving door of policy, shops, corporate lobbying, the think tank world and these special consultancy firms that deal with a black box of international global clients and that is such much of their approach to politics is the approach public relations takes and public relations is about public relations, it’s about image, it’s not about having ideological commitments, like say, you know, an ardent socialist, or a union member would have or even someone who’s an ideological proponent of Black Lives Matter or racial justice or prison abolitionists. So when you move activists to the back of the line of the party, and the party is taken over by people whose job is effectively to influence pedal, or to monetize their proximity to the levers of power, you do get an increase and a rise of this kind of meta consultancy speak, which is going to be the throughline in this episode, where the goal is not to actually change conditions or change anything really, the goal is to look busy and to send signals and use the right verbiage so you sort of look like you are but nothing ever really changes.
The first topic we’re going to talk about is the way this is done with the military and war and empire. An early example of this was the Clinton presidency that really embraced the kind of do nothing but look progressive modus operandi of the think tank and consultancy class. In 1993, then President Bill Clinton, he commissioned a study to end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the military, or rather, in more circuitous terms, he signed a memorandum directing the Secretary of Defense Les Aspin to recommend a policy “in a manner that is practical and realistic and consistent with the high standards of combat effectiveness and unit cohesion our armed forces must maintain.” So here you have someone who’s under pressure from pro-LGBTQ groups, says, ‘Okay, I’m gonna fight for you by commissioning a study,’ handing it off to the Secretary of Defense, and then setting up the parameters of the study that it can’t undermine combat effectiveness, right?
Nima: Which could be defined in any which way to, right.
Adam: That way when the study is released, and it’s horrible, or it doesn’t do anything, you can say, ‘Well, I acted up to sort of commission the study,’ but you sort of remove yourself from the process, right? And so Aspin turned to the RAND Corporation, which is funded by the Defense Department and the military, military contractors to do this and ran topics of study for the report. The study found that homosexuality quote-unquote “homosexuals” in the military, which was a great term we used to use for you Zoomers, homosexuals in the military did not meaningfully, or they don’t believe would undermine unit cohesion. They hedge that by saying important and public opinion was divided at the time or favored banning “homosexuals,” quote-unquote, from the military. So invariably, what this resulted in was, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, which was considered the sort of progressive half measure, but was, as we now know, very reactionary and lead to a lot of problems for LGBTQ people in the military.
Nima: But speaking of Obama, during his presidential term, he issued a number of his own directives for task forces in response to the financial crisis that he inherited from the Bush administration. Now, the Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, for instance, was formed in November 2009 to “hold accountable those who helped bring about the last financial crisis, and to prevent another crisis from happening.” In his 2012 State of The Union, Obama claimed to be assembling a “special task force” via the Justice Department to target subprime mortgage lenders and “hold accountable those who broke the law, speed assistance to homeowners, and help turn the page on an era of recklessness that hurt so many Americans.” The task force would be chaired by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Even reporters at CNN Money, which later became the vertical CNN Business, conceded at the time that the housing crash had begun more than four years earlier, but of course didn’t question the efficacy or purpose of Obama’s approach.
Now, Schneiderman had previously been praised by organizations like MoveOn as a “courageous hero in his defense of the struggling underwater homeowners in his state and across the country.” So you have praise from financial reporters and from certain progressive groups for this task force which is supposed to bring justice to the oppressed. However, the task force seems to have done little other than issue a few press releases and other documents. Schneiderman defended the task force nonetheless against critics months after its launch, stating this: “The unglamorous work of issuing subpoenas, reviewing documents and conducting depositions is going forward.” Now, with this quote, Schneiderman unwittingly revealed how sluggish and ineffectual this task force, and many task forces, actually are.
Adam: So we got a lot of fanfare and hype over a task force that, of course, ultimately did dick squat.
Nima: Because we had to look forward not back, Adam. He couldn’t actually hold anyone accountable.
Adam: But it’s important to look like you did some things you can point to when you run for reelection. I would say the most popular version of this, the vertical if you will, with the most popular version of this other than prison and police reform and abolition is the topic of marijuana, which has been a sort of settled medical and policy issue for probably 30 years. The theoretical merits of decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana are extremely well documented, not the least of which being that decriminalization, reduce arrests, avoids racial harassment, reduces incarceration and helps people’s lives and livelihoods. In light of this pro-legalization stances have grown increasingly safe, at least theoretically, but for some bizarre reason, we have many theories as to why that is, no major Democrats running for president who have had the Democratic nomination have had the courage or even the sort of very minor courtesy, and it’s not a huge, edgy position to support legalization, so over the years, we’ve gotten increasingly goofy. This has been a major vector of what we call liberal meta demands. In 2014, while she was gearing up for her 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton discussed her conservative stance on legalizing weed with the radio station KPCC. She said:
“I’m a big believer in acquiring evidence, and I think we should see what kind of results we get, both from medical marijuana and from recreational marijuana, before we make any far-reaching conclusions. We need more studies. We need more evidence. And then we can proceed.”
So while Clinton is supposedly gathering more evidence for this issue, that again was settled 20 years prior, 30 years prior, and really much before that, but this is sort of a scientific consensus, a uniform scientific consensus, while we’re studying the revenants, of course, thousands and thousands of people are having their lives ruined by arrest, incarceration, fines, probation, based on what should be a legal substance. During an ABC town hall for her 2016 campaign, Clinton told an audience member who of course asked her about this:
Hillary Clinton: I think I would have to study that more to see how it was phrased, because it’s been phrased differently in different states, but I will tell you what I will do as president. I’ve said I want to move marijuana off of Schedule I, which you understand means that you can’t do any research about it. You can’t do anything, and I think that’s wrong. We have enough anecdotal evidence, as you well know, being a member of the NORML Board, about what marijuana can do for medical conditions, easing pain, and we need to be doing research on it because I am 100 percent in favor of medical uses for marijuana but I want to know what the evidence is.
Adam: It’s worth noting that as of 2016, the pharmaceutical industry had given Hillary Clinton’s campaign over half a million dollars in campaign donation. One study found that in medical related states, the average doctor prescribed 1,826 fewer doses of painkillers in a given year, 265 fewer doses of antidepressants, 486 fewer doses of seizure medicine, 541 fewer anti-nausea doses and 562 fewer doses of anti-anxiety medication. Now, I know it sounds like a weed commercial, I’m not a fan, but it’s only based on weird Protestant morality, I have no basis for this. In July 2020, the Democratic Party task force on criminal justice reform — you ready for it? — we have multiple layers here of meta demands. So we have a task force set up to fight criminal justice to engage in criminal justice reform, release policy recommendations, none of which included the legalization of weed. Joe Biden, who of course notoriously opposes the legalization of cannabis for quote-unquote “public health reasons.” An Atlantic article in July of 2020 stated this:
“With legalization seeming such an obvious political win, all that’s stopping Biden, current and former aides say, is public health. He’s read the studies, or at least, summaries of the studies (campaign aides pointed me to this one). He wants to see more. He’s looking for something definitive to assure him that legalizing won’t lead to serious mental or physical problems, in teens or adults.”
Of course, that’s not true. Biden’s just conservative, and that’s what he believes because he’s conservative, but he has to look progressive so he demands to see more studies and he needs more research into concluding whether or not this axiomatically obviously moral thing is the right thing to do. So again, you have something that the voters, an overwhelming majority, almost 80 percent of Democratic voters support legalizing cannabis but our major Democratic candidates keep needing more, they need more studies. We just need more money for more studies, you know?
Nima: We need to know! We see this with immigration as well. In July of 2020, a “Unity Task Force” — putatively meant to appeal to both Biden and Sanders voters — proposed a plan to curtail Trump’s egregious immigration policies. It revolved around implementing a “path to citizenship” — something we’ve heard before — and reducing private companies’ involvement in immigrant detention, but this task force didn’t address the abolition or defunding of ICE nor did it commit to decriminalization of immigration itself. Now these are just common, concrete, bare-minimum demands shared by many immigration rights activists. This task force reportedly urged Joe Biden, who as Vice President under Obama oversaw the deportation of well over 3 million people from the United States, to conduct a “full-scale study” to produce recommendations for “transforming enforcement policies and practices” at ICE and the border agencies. Now, calls for investigations were resurgent upon the news of forced sterilizations at an ICE-run camp in Georgia just this month.
So you have Congressman Adam Schiff, tweeting on September 15, responding to the news about the high rate of hysterectomies and alleged medical neglect and an ICE facility tweeting out this quote, “If true, it’s unthinkable abhorrent, and a grievous human rights violation. Cruelty and dehumanization of the most vulnerable have been a constant feature of Trump’s immigration policy. But performing involuntary hysterectomies on immigrants? We need a full investigation.” That’s where he went with it.
Adam: In The Washington Post September 15, 2020, quote, “Pelosi demands probe after ICE nurse raises alarm over medical care, hysterectomies at detention center.” Pelosi recommends DHS investigate — a suggestion that’s pointless by design, DHS can’t investigate itself. Newsweek from the same day, quote, “House Dems Call For Investigation Into Forced Hysterectomy Claims.” So despite the fact that the House Majority has investigative power, they call on the DHS and ICE to investigate themselves. Now some other Congress people did call on Congress to investigate but again, ICE’s crimes against humanity, especially under Trump are well documented, they are no longer in dispute. ICE is above the law, they have no interest in adherence to the law. There are a racist, jackbooted, anti-immigrant racists within the Trump White House and then, of course, the normal baseline racism of Democratic administrations, there is widespread calls to abolish ICE, they’re not limited to one specific Twitter pundit, they’ve been going on for many years, and so what you have here is you have Pelosi and Adam Schiff, they can’t call for eliminating the organization that’s responsible for, again, crime after crime after crime, well-documented crime after crime after crime by design, especially under Trump, or god forbid, defunding it because Democrats control the House, and thus the budgets of the DHS and ICE. The Democrats and congressional Democrats who control the House don’t need an investigation, they can cut off ICE’s funding tomorrow, and use that power as leverage to materially change ICE’s practices. But instead, what we get is we get that they have to look very concerned, very busy, but they don’t really want to undermine the fundamental function of ICE, which is a racist enforcement regime of a fundamentally racist country, but they have to look super liberal and concerned — so what do they do? — they call for more studies, more investigations and of course, nothing changes because we’re now on year four of Trump and every single time ICE is revealed to do some horrific crime, we have all these calls for investigation, nothing really gets investigated, and of course, nothing changes because there’s no incentive for it to change and the only leverage they have, which is the power of the purse, they do not wield which is how you know they’re not really serious.
Nima: Right, because when you just keep moving goalposts, you just keep saying ‘I need more evidence. Let’s investigate this. We can’t be too rash. Let’s get all the evidence documented, and then we will move with such ferocity and speed, you wouldn’t believe it,’ except that never happens. The last part never happens. It just is an endless investigation to compile more and more evidence for things we already know about. We’ve seen this for years when it comes to reparations. So since the kind of more mainstream talk of reparations entered political discourse in recent years, at least temporarily it did, the topic has become yet another subject of Democratic Party stalling.
So you have The New York Times on June 18, 2019 with this headline, “House Democrats, With Pelosi’s Support, Will Consider a Commission on Reparations.” The article discusses a House bill entitled the “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act” that would create a 13-member commission, with only six members from organizations outside of the government, though they’d very likely be conservative organizations. The commission was said to, quote, “study the effects of slavery and racial discrimination, hold hearings across the country and recommend ‘appropriate remedies’ to Congress.” Now the article in the Times also spends far more column space fretting about the so-called “complicated” and “undefined” nature of reparations and framing reparations as a “debate” rather than examining any moral imperative to just move to institute them.
Adam: Then in June of 2020, a CNN headline, “Democratic lawmakers call for vote on bill to study reparations.” Congress re-introduced the bill, a whole year later, to be followed by a full committee hearing, followed by a House vote. Since that June of 2020, about four months ago there has been no progress made at all, as you can imagine. So we’ll keep introducing bills to study the feasibility of potentially making some gesture towards maybe rectifying the original sin of this country, the cancer at the heart of this country, which is slavery, which we’ve never addressed in any meaningful way, but it’s important, again, to look busy, so we’ll just have more committees, and more studies even though more or less, we pretty much know what to do, the literature of what to do with reparations is actually out there, you can find it, you can read it, you may disagree with it, but the idea that somehow it’s this really complex, confusing thing for which there’s no existing literature, and we have to —
Nima: When you don’t want to do something, all you have to do is say that you need to study it more.
Adam: You need to study it more. This is, of course, very common with climate change. There’s a really great example of this in 2018 as a way of stopping the momentum of the Green New Deal, which really took off especially with young activists. Then incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi created a climate committee that included no commitment to crafting a Green New Deal. This was done directly to undermine a growing support for the New Deal Select Committee, which at the time had the backing of at least 43 congressional Democrats. Pelosi’s version of the committee lacked subpoena power, and was swiftly denounced by Ocasio-Cortez, who was one of the Green New Deal’s primary proponents who tweeted, quote, “Our ultimate end goal isn’t a Select Committee. Our goal is to treat Climate Change like the serious, existential threat it is by drafting an ambitious solution on the scale necessary — aka a Green New Deal — to get it done. A weak committee misses the point & endangers people.” So here we have an example of legitimate inspired grassroots activism that actually makes its way to some meaningful constituency in Congress, Pelosi sees this, again, Pelosi has called this “the green dream” or whatever and then she introduces a select committee with no subpoena power, no real authority whatsoever at all. That’s the total Potemkin committee to undermine the Green New Deal and the committee’s primary goal is to sort of research ways of course, the study ways of solving climate change. Of course, we know what to do with climate change. Again, this is something that’s a settled issue. Now, of course, there’s, you know, the lawyers need to work out the details for all these things, it’s not necessarily simple, but the general contours, the political will, we know, we know what to do, but there’s always this constant process concern trolling that’s created to make it look like it’s this inscrutable thing that we have to kind of interpret the language of the mystics to understand, and the goal of course, as always, is to basically just do nothing.
Nima: Because the call for commissions is effectively the political equivalent of the Indiana Jones scene where it’s like, “We have top men working on it right now.”
Adam: Yeah, we have “top men.” Yeah.
Nima: It’s like, “Who?” And it’s like “top men,” and just leave it there.
Adam: The adults are taking care of it, go home.
Nima: Exactly. If it’s reparations, if it’s mass incarceration, if it is making weed legal, we’re gonna pack it in a crate, we’re going to say that we’re studying it, and we’re going to put it in a warehouse where no one can see and therefore, we say that we’re doing something but we don’t really have to do it. The kind of mother of all of this that we found is really when addressing police violence, addressing police brutality, addressing police as a violent force in our society and what our society should do about it. What activists and advocates have been calling for for decades and certainly has become even more mainstream in recent years, in recent months, but these ineffectual calls for studies, for evidence, for investigation really winds up being most prevalent when it comes to avoiding the topic of what to do about cops.
Adam: Yeah, in 2014 Obama created in response to the unrest in Ferguson, again, it’s always unrest, populist outrage, it’s never something that they kind of just do a priori because they have any ideological commitments — they of course don’t. Obama appointed a “Task Force on 21st-Century Policing” to review police practices and December of that year after uprisings grew even greater after the November 24th acquittal of Mike Brown’s killer. This was after Obama stated that protesters in Ferguson, that he had “no sympathy at all for destroying your own communities.” The task force, of course, did nothing, prompting Obama to proffer nothing other than platitudes, quote, “Change has been too slow and we have to have a greater sense of urgency about this,” he said in 2016. Committee didn’t really do anything at all.
Nima: Faster task force next time.
Adam: Yeah. Democrats, whenever an African American, high profile African American murder happens by police, which happens of course very often, the thing they always do is call for an investigation of a particular murder. Now again, if you’re calling for an investigation of the murder, that’s fine if it’s pursuant a clear ideological objective, like say, defunding the police or abolishing a certain police department, or meaningfully scaling back say 20 percent of a police department budget, or some kind of concrete policy thing, right? But what we get is we get, again, after police shot Jacob Blake in August of this year, you got Joe Biden, quote, “Yesterday, Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back by police. His kids watched from the car. Today, we woke to grieve yet again. We need a full and transparent investigation.”
Kamala Harris, same day, “As @JoeBiden said there must be an immediate investigation and the officers involved should be held accountable.”
Amy Klobuchar, “We need an immediate full and transparent investigation.”
Time and time again, whether it’s Mike Brown or Freddie Gray or George Floyd, the first thing you do is you say call for investigation. Now, especially with things like George Floyd and Eric Garner, where we saw them murdered on tape, obviously, the police and prosecutors, they’ll do their investigation, whatever, but politicians calling for an investigation, again, these are the same things that that Mitt Romney or George Bush would say, they’re not very meaningful, right? Tom Cotton would say that we need an investigation. It’s so generic, who’s gonna argue that we need to investigate something, right? But you have to look busy and so what you don’t see is you don’t see after these mass shootings: ‘This is it. We’ve had enough. We need to talk about radically rethinking how we view security and safety in our communities by investing in social welfare and de-investing in police.’ Even as generic as that is, it’s at least a concrete policy goal. The issue is not whether or not we need an investigation, this is completely fatuous, no one argues with that the issue is what is your fucking ideological commitment? And they don’t make one.
Nima: Because at heart, calling for a full and transparent investigation is the Democratic version of offering thoughts and prayers. It’s the way of completely avoiding the issue that is actually at hand to look like you give a fuck and do literally nothing.
Adam: A very recent and egregious example of these meta demands was when Trump threatened to deploy the U.S. military back in June of this year after the unrest in Minneapolis, Trump threatened to deploy the U.S. military on any city or state who “refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residents.” Both Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer did little other than to recommend, “investigation into how the military is being used.” Sarah Lazare and I wrote about this at the time because they weren’t saying ‘we oppose the military deployed in the streets,’ right? This would have been the sort of moral supposition you would think that liberals supposedly would uphold, but they didn’t do that. So Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer released a press release that was roughly 250 words, and nowhere in the press release, which I’m not going to waste your time and read it, but nowhere in the press release did it actually oppose the use of military force domestically and then Chuck Schumer would go on Twitter and say, “ The admin is using the military as a tool to intimidate citizens. Sec. Esper & General Milley should not allow the U.S. Armed Forces to come anywhere near these ugly stunts. The Department of Defense Inspector General must launch an investigation into how the military is being used.” So here Schumer sort of vaguely alludes to a sort of ideological goal, but then his call is not to defund something or just sort of, you know, try to subpoena or take anything from Trump. The goal is to sort of call for another investigation.
Nima: Because it’s really just a policy critique.
Adam: Yeah. And so Sarah and I wrote in In These Times:
“While Trump has escalated and emboldened the police who overwhelmingly support him, it’s important to note that the Black Lives Matter movement began under a Democratic president, Barack Obama, and its major early uprisings — from Ferguson to Baltimore to Minneapolis — happened under Democratic mayors and Democratic-appointed police chiefs. Democrats have had a chance since Black Lives Matter began in earnest in August of 2014 to be the party of the movement — to demand the defunding of police and slashing of prison populations, and to call for long overdue reparations for Black Americans.
But instead, what Democratic leadership has offered is a series of never-ending exploratory committees, toothless DOJ investigations, photo-ops, platitudes about “healing” and “unity” and half measures like increased training (which does nothing more than give more money to the police and is often administered by abusers themselves) and deploying body cameras (which have not stamped out the scourge of police violence.)”
And in many ways, have simply given them more surveillance powers. So again, you have a party that has totally failed the Black Lives Matter movement, has never really pushed for any real change other than some toothless DoJ investigations. So naturally, the response to all this is just going to be more investigations, more studies, more hand wringing. Another example of this, a recent example, which we won’t get into because we’re going to do a whole episode on this, but during the Bolivia coup in November of 2019, this was, again, another textbook example where it was very obviously a right-wing coup. Jackbooted thugs stormed the government palace, ripped down the indigenous flag, said that Christ will return to the palace, held up a cartoonishly large Bible, there wasn’t really any doubt this was a right-wing coup. Now, Bernie Sanders, to his credit, called it a coup, he said it appears to be a coup in Bolivia and he said the US must call for an end to violence and support the democratic institutions of Bolivia. But Elizabeth Warren, this was her tweet about four days after the coup she said, quote, “The Bolivian people deserve free and fair elections, as soon as possible. Bolivia’s interim leadership must limit itself to preparing for an early, legitimate election. Bolivia’s security forces must protect demonstrators, not commit violence against them.” This is in response to a massacre by the right-wing forces. So Elizabeth Warren is surrounded by the worst spooks in the world when she was running for president, we’re talking Richard Nephew, we’re talking a bunch of “seen as” in Center for American Progress, you know, liberal imperialists, but pretty much holdovers from the Obama administration, people with consulting gigs in Saudi Arabia, and other despotic regimes. Now, she can’t call it a coup or oppose it as such, so what she does is she does a process critique or meta demand, which is that she’s not going to say we need to reinstall the legitimately elected President of Evo Morales, who we now know, by the way, was legitimately elected, that the election fraud claims made by the OAS and others were complete bullshit. So what she does is she sort of calls for, ‘Oh, we need new elections,’ but they just had elections and elections aren’t something you sort of just get to auction off. You have an election, that’s the election, she should be calling for Morales to come back to power as the legitimate elected leader of Bolivia, but she can’t do that, because she and her advisers almost certainly support the coup, because that was liberal imperial consensus, right? So it’s like, Nima, if I murder your accountant and someone comes up and says, ‘We need to immediately appoint a new accountant for Nima’ or ‘to find a new accountant for Nima,’ without commenting on the initial murder, this would be very suspicious, would it not?
Nima: Yeah, it would be a little weird.
Adam: It would be a little weird.
Nima: It would seem like maybe you were avoiding the actual point.
Adam: Uh huh. So again, you see this thing where you can’t address the fundamental issue, which is that holy shit, there was a right-wing, Christian, quasi fascist coup in Bolivia, so you move on to like, ‘Oh, this fascist coup, that is quote-unquote, “hunting down” indigenous activists and murdering them in the streets, they need to do a better job policing themselves,’ right? It’s this sort of very scolding Human Rights Watch way of framing politics where there’s not any sort of normative demands or political principles here. It’s just we need to do a better job kind of managing the chaos for which there’s no agent, there’s no U.S. State Department, there’s no OAS, there’s no CIA, there’s no, you know, business interest in Bolivia, sort of this thing that sort of just happened and now we need fair and free elections, even though we literally just had them and they were overthrown by the right-wing fascist coup, then again, a lay person reading that Warren tweet would say, ‘Oh, she’s like calling for fair elections. That’s good.’ But the implication is that the previous elections weren’t fair. But the problem was, is that they were.
Nima: Now if all these calls for investigations wound up resulting in convictions in changes to laws, to evidence being actually understood and accepted and that, you know, massive sea change came out of these, that would be one thing, but that never happens. Despite all of these pained pleas for studies and task forces and investigations and more evidence, it turns out that these investigations usually don’t have any effect. As most of our listeners probably already know, police themselves face very few consequences for using what’s deemed quote-unquote “excessive force,” or what’s really known as killing people, and have been found to withhold evidence themselves from the investigations into their own police abuse. So according to Philip Stinson, a professor at Bowling Green State University who has collected data on police convictions, police are still — again, unsurprisingly — almost never convicted of murder. It’s basically the same as when the Israeli military investigates itself for committing war crimes in Gaza. Obviously, when you’re investigating yourself, when that’s what the call is, when it’s from inside the fucking house, you’re not going to actually have a result that is going to nudge towards justice in any way, it will just absolve those you are investigating which really is the whole point.
Adam: Right. That’s the key takeaway here, which is that as activists or leftist or whatever kind of label you want to use, the second someone calls for an investigation or a study or a commission without expressing an explicit underlying and verifiable and falsifiable, an actionable ideological goal, they’re blowing smoke up your ass. We know the solutions to these problems. It’s not a fucking mystery how to stop police shootings and that’s to begin to radically defund or abolish police departments and rebuild something else in it’s stead. We know how to stop US imperialism, you move troops out of other countries, we know how to stop climate change, there’s things you have to do, there are metrics, there’s X, and then Y, then Y. These aren’t inscrutable fucking mysteries that require more studying and more knowledge. What you need is you need political momentum to do something and the rarefied knowledge required to do that will then follow from that, but the shield of ‘we need more information, more evidence, more studies,’ again, when it’s not pursuing an ideological agenda is always bad faith bullshit filler to look busy. So this five day cooling off period can take place and everyone sort of just moves on to the next outrage.
Nima: For more on this we’re going to be joined by Briahna Joy Gray, former national press secretary for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. She’s currently a contributing editor to Current Affairs magazine, and also the co host of the new podcast Bad Faith. Brianna will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Briahna Joy Gray. Briahna, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Briahna Joy Gray: Thank you for having me. I’ve enjoyed listening to the show for a very long time and I’m very glad to be here.
Adam: Thank you so much. So we’ve been exploring what we’re calling the sort of meta demands of Democrats, which we define as a rhetorical tic used to avoid ideological commitments, as in, ‘we need to study X, convene a committee determine Y, call on Congress to investigate Z, etcetera, etcetera. In your time working for I guess what some would call an insurgent presidential candidate who backed kind of big policy ideas or had very clear ideological commitments to things like free college, Medicare for All, drug decriminalization, so forth, I guess I’m sort of curious to get your perspective of this kind of rhetorical busy work and how often you saw that from some of the campaigns and how much even as someone who led the comms of that candidacy to what extent were you tempted to kind of rely on this wait and see rhetorical gimmick?
Briahna Joy Gray: Well, I should clarify that I didn’t lead the comms team, I was more of a spokesperson role as opposed to setting, but the point is well taken, I think that the most standout example I can think of from the campaign was the extent to which Joe Biden often talked about the need for marijuana legalization to be studied more. I think it’s a pretty transparent way to tread water when it’s clear that the Democratic base wants something, overwhelmingly wants something, but there is a perception that some subset of voters, or in Joe Biden’s case, in this case I think, a subset of the donor class or industry groups, don’t want that thing to be set. So you can’t come outright and say, ‘I don’t believe that marijuana should be legalized.’ He got a lot of heat for saying early on that he believed that marijuana was a gateway drug. At the same time, there are those who would suggest that the reason he won’t embrace this policy that’s overwhelmingly popular, not just with Democrats, but also Republicans, is because it stands to cost the healthcare industry a great deal of money. So, you know, that’s one example, but the example that harshed my buzz, if you will, the most actually, happened before I joined the campaign and that was when there was suddenly an enormous resurgence of interest in reparations. It’s a policy I personally support, it was interesting, and in some ways, heartening to see so many people get interested in and so many candidates talking about it, but it was curious because it was raised at a time when previously nobody has been talking about reparations, it seemed to be raised, I mean, without sounding too cynical, it seemed to be an effort to highlight an issue that Bernie Sanders had been dinged on in 2016, which was his non support of the issue at that time. Of course, Hillary Clinton also didn’t support it in 2016, of course, Barack Obama didn’t support it either, but Bernie Sanders was characterized as uniquely against the interests of Black Americans as part of the whole Bernie Bro mythology. So in early 2019, everyone started talking about reparations again, and I couldn’t get excited about it as someone who supported reparations, because it was very clear that they weren’t interested in doing anything more than convening a study on reparations, right? So the fallback position was H.R.40 and nobody really wanted to talk about any substantive, meaningful ways to close the wealth gap between Black people and white people. Of course, to do that, one would have to target the extreme accumulation of wealth at the very, very top, something that ironically, Bernie Sanders was more willing to do through a wealth tax and other means than any other candidate in the race, and it is that kind of hypocrisy that leads a lot of folks, I think, to be very, very skeptical of Democrats and more broadly, frankly, government actors when you see them suggesting that they care about X, Y, and Z, but never committed to policies that manifest any real change.
Adam: Yeah, because I distinctly remember that because I remember Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris came out in support of reparations and I remember I praised Warren for doing so because we are a very pro-reparations show and then someone said, ‘Well, Adam, read what she said, read the sort of fine print,’ if you read the fine print it was a sort of study to investigate reparations and it wasn’t really any kind of commitment to a specific policy and I felt a little duped, I’m usually more cynical about these things, but I remember thinking like, okay, well, then if you don’t clarify what exactly reparations means, then yeah, you are sort of checking a rhetorical box. Then, of course, it ended up being that no candidate really supported reparations.
Briahna Joy Gray: Yeah, it went away immediately and you’ll never hear Joe Biden talk about it again.
Adam: I think some people reframed reparations as like, Pell Grants and small business loans, and I’m like, the RNC framed reparations in the 2000s. We’re not gonna —
Briahna Joy Gray: Right. Right. And I don’t mean to, I don’t mean to be so cynical, but I do think it’s an important point to recognize because it’s a way to exploit folks who aren’t paying that much attention and I don’t mean that dismissively, most folks have a lot going on in their lives and don’t have time to do much more than take politicians at their word and I’d like for us to live in a world where those kinds of rhetorical gestures were followed up with meat and substance, but unfortunately, it’s often not the case.
Nima: Yeah, there was actually an amazing example of this, I think, a perfect example of this, that we heard late September of 2020, when in an interview, Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris was asked this question, which is pretty straightforward: “Would you have pressed charges against the three officers involved in the Breonna Taylor case?” To which Harris replied, this: “I don’t know all the details of the case but I will say this, there needs to be transparency about what happened and that family and that community need justice.” So again, it’s this typical gambit, rather than taking a side, rather than being honest about, I don’t believe that Kamala Harris doesn’t know the details of the case at this point, but you know, obviously avoiding calling for charges, calling for something that I think is so kind of clearly the right thing to do, but instead doing this kind of generic, ‘we need an investigation, there needs to be transparency.’ Let’s kind of break this down a little bit in terms of your experience with that toeing the line of what the talking points can be, not wanting to alienate people, but also, hopefully having an ideology to stand on to actually come down on something. Let’s kind of tease out what this tactic of calling for these meta demands actually does in this case.
Briahna Joy Gray: Yeah, I mean, so in some cases, it feels as though folks are trying to avoid the soundbite, right? There are moments when even a good faith answer can be exploited in ways you could avoid and which there are often opportunities to say what you mean, without handing an easily exploited layup to the other team and I understand that instinct, I also understand an instinct to not weigh in on an ongoing criminal investigation where facts are coming out, in not necessarily trickle, but in fits and starts and she may not, she genuinely may not be aware of every single thing that’s happened in the last few days or so, but there’s ways that you can talk about the issue without getting yourself cornered. So you could say, ‘If it is the case, if the facts show that X,Y and Z, as it appears that they do, then of course, I think that the people who shot Breonna Taylor should be indicted,’ etcetera, etcetera, right? So you can lay out your own facts that if fulfilled, you would believe X, Y and Z and another option would be if you’re getting flack for having answered a question in a wishy-washy way, and you are deeply invested in the constituency that cares about that answer, trusting you, right? Trusting you as a candidate. Kamala Harris, by all accounts, was picked in large part to shore up support among Black voters, the same voters who are disproportionately interested in the outcome of this investigation. If you see negative blowback to an answer that’s perceived to be inauthentic, you could do the reading, make sure you do know the facts and come back to the press who is going to be more than happy to talk to you about this at length, and issue a follow up statement.
Briahna Joy Gray: She could tweet a follow up statement at any point but I think that the choice here is to choose the option that is going to not turn away what are perceived to be more borderline voters, this moderate imaginary voter, and have a lot of confidence that the diehard base, these Black voters are going to vote for Biden regardless and I think that these kind of statements reflect a confidence, perhaps a misplaced confidence, in the fact that the Democratic base isn’t going anywhere.
Adam: Yeah, because I think this speaks to a bigger issue here, which is that the more kind of centrist right-wing of the Democratic Party, they have to sort of speak in ways that gesture towards progressive politics, because that’s usually where voters are, that’s where the sort of emotional or sort of ideological sentiments a lie, but their primary task and I think, oftentimes funded for the express purposes of not really doing much to advance progressive ideas, right? Indeed, the Biden campaign has been pretty overt in pitching itself as kind of a moderate Republican administration, and it’s indeed courted Republicans to that effect. I guess my question is sort of how frustrating is it for those who do have real ideological commitments who are in politics for the purposes of changing things versus again, getting cushy consulting gigs once they launder themselves through the administration, whether it be Uber, McDonald’s, or whatever else the — for example — the Obama guys were known to do. Mysteriously, the most noble gesture was to do Pod Save America somehow, even though this has its own problems, but in retrospect, it’s better than lobbying for Uber in Saudi Arabia. I guess my question is, these kind of looking busy statements, which are very common, they serve the sole purpose of just looking busy or concerned, the old adage you can kind of witness suffering but never change it, and I guess I’m sort of curious what your thoughts are on that, and how kind of frustrating that is from someone who I do think sort of, again, entered the political realm as an outsider to sort of move to sort of advance ideological projects.
Briahna Joy Gray: Yeah, I do consider myself to be a civilian, if you will. Working for the campaign was my first political job, before that I was briefly a senior politics editor at The Intercept, and before that, I was just a regular attorney and I was drawn to start writing about politics because I was so frustrated with the messaging battles that were taking place in 2016 and my goals have always been ideological. My personal objective was not to work for a campaign or to be the spokesperson for a campaign, they were to advance my personal politics that I often say that I would not have put myself in the position to have to be a spokesperson for someone that I didn’t overwhelmingly agree with. I didn’t have to look at talking points as much as say what I believed and, you know, odds were, I was going to be saying the right thing. So for someone like me, and I think for a lot of members of the left, who are also civilians, the fact of Bernie Sanders candidacy in particular, emboldened us to think of our beliefs in political form, instead of just thinking of them as kind of an ideology separate and apart from what politics would actually put into practice and that combining of what we really really, truly believed, with a campaign that was willing to fight for those things, was deeply empowering, and I think, generated a real political consciousness among millions of Americans who previously were pretty disaffected, or who kind of dutifully pulled the lever for Democrats as a harm reduction matter, but didn’t really believe that much could change. And so it will be interesting to see what happens to those voters who were, I don’t know, blue pilled, if you will, whose eyes were opened by the possibility of a genuinely progressive candidate, both in this general election context and beyond. What happened to those 1 million volunteers, what will happen to the folks who contributed to a campaign to such an extent that it set records for individual small dollar contributions? I don’t know but I have a really strong suspicion that the public as a whole is going to be a lot less credulous and a lot less tolerant of this kind of lingo.
Adam: Because I think on some level, people sort of know they’re getting bullshitted with this stuff, right? I mean, I think this isn’t a huge revelation to a lot of our listeners, but when you do film editing, or screenwriting, professors always say something to the effect of, ‘you may not notice it, but your brain does. if there’s a lack of continuity, or if there’s a lack of coherent character motivation you may not intellectually get it, but on some level, I think you sort of interpret it.’ I think that part of what drives cynicism, and this is my own personal editorializing, free to disagree, Nima, is that there’s a sense that whenever one sort of gives these long winded kind of meta answers about calling for investigations and transparency, that it’s not clear what they’re fighting for. It’s ultimately a process statement, right? The 1,800th Black guy gets killed by the police officers and the first thing you say is ‘I call for a full and transparent investigation’ and it’s like, well, so does the Republican governor, what the fuck does that even mean?
Briahna Joy Gray: Right.
Adam: It’s not a meaningful statement. I think that kind of constant, because we trace the origins of this habit to the emergence of the consulting class, and lawyers taking over the party who don’t really have pedigree within certain movements, especially with, you know, DLC in the ‘90s and such. There’s constant McKinsey and Company, you have to sort of look busy, but there’s no real commitments to anything. I think that drives cynicism.
Nima: Well, because God forbid, you say something that then you are beholden to, right?
Adam: Yeah and, you know, admittedly, as a leftist, this is somewhat of a self serving prescriptive advice, but I do think it does.
Briahna Joy Gray: Well, what is almost even worse, arguably, is when parts of the center left, you know, corporate Democrats, start to appropriate the actual identical language that is being used by genuine progressives, so that the lingo is actually indistinguishable and you have to, you know, start looking to records and history and read between the lines and talk about what they said during private donor meetings to try to get at the real deal. But, you know, just today, he’s done this before, but Joe Biden periodically now tweets “Healthcare is a human right.” You know, it’s one thing for Pete Buttigieg to argue Medicare for All who want it and to use a bunch of right-wing talking points about how people love their health insurance company, it becomes even thornier when someone like Joe Biden, who has continued to say, during a global pandemic, that he would veto a Medicare for All bill, even if it were to reach his desk, that healthcare is a human right. What that begins to do, or what it has the potential to do is neuter the enormous political, moral power of the original statement, which Bernie Sanders popularized and then what do you do? Do you keep shifting your statements to make sure that yours is distinguishable from Joe Biden’s? Do you attack Joe Biden?
Adam: Because human rights doesn’t mean anything at that point.
Briahna Joy Gray: Right and it’s difficult, because to your point, at a certain point, there’s human rights or there isn’t human rights, you can’t keep making things up. You can’t let him claim that ground of human rights but it also puts the left in a position where I don’t necessarily want to be online today, saying Joe Biden doesn’t believe healthcare is a human right, but if he misrepresents himself in that way, in order to preserve the rhetorical power of the left, one of the left’s strongest arguments, it forces us to do so and then we are in the middle of this inter left fight at a time when arguably it’s not the most productive thing in the world and it’s a fight, of course, the left gets blamed for participating in in a way that the corporate Democrats don’t. So it’s a difficult question, and I’m not entirely sure what to do with it but it does seem necessary to defend these kind of rhetorical goalposts because they’re not just rhetorical, they’re moral, ethical, and they’re really at the core of why people are committed to a left policy project.
Nima: Well, yeah, because so much of it has to do with saying the first part of an answer and then deliberately not defining what you even mean, as you get to the end of that first part, omitting the second part, like the family and community need justice, right? But then you don’t define what justice is, you’re just like, ‘that sounds good and that can be broadly agreed upon’ by either the base that you assume is going to be right or die, or the quote-unquote “persuadable middle” that doesn’t exist, but what can we say so as not to alienate them, but I’m going to stop short, right? I’m going to say, I’m going to say something that’s really non-committal and whatever and then I’m going to stop short before we actually define terms because, as you said, I mean, I think that’s such a great point you made earlier, Briahna, which is, like, not wanting to get caught with the soundbite.
Briahna Joy Gray: Yeah.
Nima: Political ads are run on that kind of soundbite and so I guess it kind of leads me to think about, you know, we’ve talked about how this happens so often on the Democratic Party side, I think less so on the Republican side, because they’re like whatever, everyone knows we’re just racist and like, that’s the, that’s the point. We don’t need to play that game. How far does this go to just trying to woo Republicans to the Democratic Party, as basically the entire gambit?
Briahna Joy Gray: Here’s what I’ll say, Democrats often lament, what at this point has become an aphorism that Donald Trump could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and his base wouldn’t care, and in fact, we’ve seen a lot of things over the last four years and his 30 percent has stuck with him or what have you. There seems to be a distrust of the Democratic base having a similar kind of commitment. There doesn’t seem to be an acknowledgement that for overwhelming majorities of voters, they identify as Republicans or Democrats or Independent, I mean, there is this cohort that doesn’t identify as either but for Democrats they’re Democrats and Republicans are Republicans and there’s this 30 percent that’s gonna vote their party line regardless and that maybe shaky statements that are dealing with kind of new politics that haven’t been thoroughly vetted, aren’t quite as dangerous to the stickiness of Democratic support as everyone pretends. So we saw a little bit of this with abolish the police. The slogan comes out, everyone loses their minds in much the same way that everyone lost their minds over Black Lives Matter. I’m old enough to remember when people thought, you know, Black Lives Matter is too visceral a slogan. And then as it turned out, nothing happened to Biden’s lead. There was a great deal of support for the protests over the summer, it has ebbed and flowed somewhat, but it hasn’t negatively affected Biden in the way that people imagined. Despite that fact, Joe Biden chose to double down and deny that he wants to abolish the police, to really construct himself as a law and order a candidate, to be pretty forceful in a way that a lot of people on the left, the broad left, including a lot of young, Black and Brown protesters found to be really demoralizing. Recent polls this week show that 18 percent of registered Black voters under the age of 30 and 14 percent of registered Black voters aged 30 to 44 said they don’t intend to vote at all. That’s down, that represents a historical decline. So there is this way in which we see again and again, an assumption that the people you need to be playing to are these imaginary voters in the middle and that you can disregard certain parts of the base in a way that doesn’t really seem to play out, the people who might have in your head been really put off by abolish the police don’t seem to have flinched and the people who actually are sensitive to legitimate political commitments, younger voters, voters who largely were fans of Bernie and perhaps Warren, are very, very much put off by a candidate who’s still willing to be dismissive of what is in fact the largest protest movement in American history by the numbers, right? And it is doubly frustrating to point that out and to be told that those who do highlight that misplaced effort are working to undermine Biden and help Trump win, when it’s really quite the opposite.
Briahna Joy Gray: Also, if you want the kind of mobilized protests in the street that will fight for and put pressure on Republicans not to steal the election, on Democrats to continue to fight for elected officials, to forcefully try to make sure that the election is fair, then you shouldn’t demoralize those parts of your constituency that are most likely to occupy those zones, most likely to be in the streets, most likely to protest, the younger, more active parts of your base.
Adam: On that note, I want to talk a little bit about the kind of way this technique was used post-Ferguson where I thought it was very profound. We talked about this at the beginning of the episode in our introduction, but post-Ferguson, you saw, especially from the federal government under President Obama, even some states, there was this emphasis on task forces more to sort of study, quote-unquote “study” policing, and then “police reform”, that really emerged around 2015, 2016. And we saw a sort of cottage reform industry that emerged, and then we cut to 2020 and basically nothing has changed as far as I know, and I’ve looked into this quite a bit. There’s no real change since Ferguson, in terms of laws, in terms of people being, there’s been bail reform and stuff like that, but that has not come from the top down, right? That’s come from grassroots efforts within particular jurisdictions, but nothing from the sort of top down Democratic Party establishment, none of the Democratic nominees supports legalizing marijuana, which was a moral chip shot 35 years ago that we’re sort of still relitigating these issues and then the uprisings this time are more radical. It’s actually kind of fascinating. I spent a lot of time at the protest in 2014. I went to one a few weeks ago, a few months ago, obviously, I’m now an old man, I was was less so maybe back then, but it’s, you know, the demands were more radical, the rhetoric was more radical, the feeling was that we need to abolish the police, which was not really a core demand back in 2014. They kind of had seven years to do something and ended up doing nothing and so much of that momentum you saw get kind of sucked up into this kind of consulting PR machine and then reduced to kind of PR speak and so much of that ends up being very micro sort of body cams, kind of, you know, there was the launch of 8 Can’t Wait which was summarily made, you know, sort of made fun of and dismissed or being very kind of offensively unambitious but so much gets eaten up into this PR rhetoric or like we’re going to do something, you know, a task force sounds so militant, it sounds so like, we’re gonna have a task force, right? You know Jack Bauer is gonna be there and we’re gonna have flak jackets on and it’s like, but nothing happens and you saw this of course with the financial crisis, nothing happened, and I guess it’s no surprise then the next movements are more radical in their demands because they realize that this bullshit reform industry is not going to do anything for them.
Briahna Joy Gray: Yeah, I think it’s radicalizing, I think that a large part of why you saw declining or lower Black voter participation in 2016 was because there was this moment in Barack Obama, where a lot of voters who have been historically disaffected who have been, who felt generationally shut out of the process, both de jure and de facto thought, Oh hey, we got one of ours we got a Black guy in here, he’s gonna really fight for us and things are really going to change,’ and when they didn’t meaningfully change the lives of a lot of Americans, I don’t want to dismiss the genuine gains of the ACA and, you know, some of the other things that Obama was able to accomplish, but for the average life of the average American, particularly in this case Black Americans didn’t, you saw folks give up and that’s not an irrational response, as much as it’s a frustrating response for anyone trying to, you know, gather votes. I don’t know, like being disappointed is a radicalizing experience in the same way that being offered hope is a radicalizing experience, right? And being offered false hope, is perhaps the most radicalizing experience of all in the opposite direction and it takes us so much longer to dig out of that ditch and to earn that trust back after you have something like that occur and now with, you know, a second cycle of Bernie Sanders not securing a nomination, and people feeling rightly or wrongly, that the process was fair or disadvantageous to him in various ways, growing frustration with the media, folks splintering into media silos further because of a lack of trust in the mainstream media options, you can’t help but think it’s going to get worse before it gets better. I think the way it will get worse is Democrats having declining turnout among core constituency groups that have been characterized as the backbone of the party, despite getting very little out of that political bargain and I hope, instead of just writing endless articles about how demographics are destiny and how Democrats are going to win because we’re going to have x number of folks from wherever immigrating, and then that’s going to magically redound to Democrats benefit, that Democrats actually realize they’re going to have to earn votes by changing people’s lives by advancing policies that majority of Americans want and that should be an easy give. It should be an easy, easy, give, because it will also help them get elected.
Adam: Sounds like crazy talk.
Briahna Joy Gray: If people refuse to do the thing that helps them get elected, and is also the right thing to do, we have to start asking why that is and the more voters find that they can’t trust politicians because they’re doing the bidding of their corporate donors over the bidding of the people who put them in office, the less participation we are going to see and the more leverage Republicans are going to have.
Nima: Yeah, that’s a thoroughly unvetted idea.
Briahna Joy Gray: (Laughs.)
Nima: (Laughs.) I don’t know if we have the polling. But Briahna, before we let you go, can you tell us a bit about what you’re up to these days, namely, the Bad Faith podcast?
Briahna Joy Gray: Yeah, well, so Virgil Texas of Chapo Trap House and I started this podcast, we’re really excited about it. The thinking is that there are a lot of folks who obviously listen to Chapo and find it to be deeply cathartic. They’re really funny. But there are folks that won’t necessarily listen to it because the humor isn’t necessarily what you would take home to your mom. And then what we were able to do on here, The Burn, which was the campaign podcast was to speak to an audience that wasn’t necessarily so online, that wasn’t so inside baseball, to really educate and inform and my personal philosophy was that I wanted to investigate and be really introspective about how I came to my own personal political philosophy, and then do episodes about the historical moments that I had learned about, the legal principles that I understood, the organizers that I had spoken to, that led me to a place where I believed what I believed and so what we’re doing is meeting somewhere in the middle. So, Virgil is hilarious and entertaining and wonky and deeply knowledgeable about politics and what’s going on in the world, but I force on him some more sincerity and authenticity and slow it down a little bit so it’s more accessible and we’re hoping to create a space that feels like a place where the left can come together and get a little bit offline and stop having these internal fights and start to do the work of putting together the kind of broad left coalition where someone who listens to Pod Save and someone who listens to Chapo can coexist and not have such a fractured divergent understanding of the world as it is and the world as it should be.
Adam: Well as a hyper-sectarian and petty podcast, we don’t agree. No, I’m just kidding.
Briahna Joy Gray: (Laughs.)
Nima: One of these days I’ll learn what Chapo Trap House is.
Adam: We are aggressively not sectarian but whether or not we would stretch out the tent to Pod Save is definitely not going to happen. But I appreciate that you’re doing it.
Briahna Joy Gray: This is an ongoing fight between Virgil and I. I’m trying. I’m trying.
Nima: Well, that is I think, a great place to leave it, Briahna Joy Gray, former national press secretary for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, currently a contributing editor to Current Affairs magazine, and, of course, the co host of Bad Faith podcast. Briahna, it has been so great to talk to you today on Citations Needed.
Briahna Joy Gray: Thank you. It’s been my pleasure.
Adam: Yeah, it’s just one of those things where I think the ultimate political question whenever there’s demands coming from the bottom up from the masses, or from movements or from any group of people is the first instinct from those in power — and this is just Marketing 101, PR 101 — is to buy time, is to buy yourself time and let things blow over. It’s like in the movies, when they murder someone, you gotta leave town, let it blow over. So you have to look busy and so the way you do that is by coming up with meta-solutions, which is not to actually try to solve something. But to do something that’s at least on the surface is an antecedent to solving it or condition of solving it. And then you buy yourself time, and then it kind of goes away. And —
Nima: Right, ‘If we study this long enough, then our studying will be out of date, and then we can all forget about it.’
Adam: Well, because people move on, they move on to something else. I mean, if people try to protest every day for, you know, weeks, it’s exhausting. Anyone can show up after the initial outrage and protest. But you know, the people who stick there every single day, the numbers start to dwindle. This is why old mill and copper barons would wait out try to wait out strikes, because eventually it’s hard. So this is just an updated version of it. But while you can sort of still maintain the pretense that you’re very concerned, and very upset, and that you sort of care, right? Because what’s important is to care. You don’t actually have to do anything, you just have to look like you care. And as long as you look like you’re care, politically you’re fucking golden, because what are they going to do, go to the Republicans?
Nima: And I think we’re really going to see that with the incoming Biden-Harris administration, we’re gonna see task forces set up, we’re going to see studies and investigations galore, right? Like, we’re gonna see this.
Adam: There’s going to be so many task forces and so many Czars.
Nima: Czars and task forces are going to be everywhere in the first hundred days of the new year for sure. So we will be paying attention to that. But do not be surprised, on anything from white supremacy to universal health care to expanding unemployment benefits, we’re going to see a lot of task forces. We’re going to see a lot of studies, we’re going to see a lot of investigations, and we’ll see what actually changes on the other side of that, if anything.
Nima: But that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you everyone for listening. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook: Citations Needed, and if you are able to and so inclined, become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All your help through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated. We are 100% listener funded. I’m Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production Assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again for listening, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, November 18, 2020.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.