Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now into the second year of the Trump administration, and the last year has been filled with ups and downs, important victories, successful holding campaigns and painful defeats. We’ve learned a lot, but there is always more to learn, more to be done. In this now-weekly series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators not only about how to resist but also about how to build a better world. Today’s interview is the 114th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.
Ady Barkan became a household name when he was spotted over and over again at protests against health care cuts in Washington during the fight for the Affordable Care Act and then against the Republican tax cut bill — which included cuts to health care programs. For Barkan, a long-time organizer diagnosed in 2016 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, the fight for health care had become very personal. We sat down last week in Baltimore at the Congressional Progressive Caucus strategy summit, where Barkan, who works at the Center for Popular Democracy and who masterminded the Fed Up campaign, in addition to working on the health care struggle, was being honored with the Tim Carpenter Advocate of the Year award.
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Sarah Jaffe: You got famous this year sitting next to a certain someone on a plane. Let’s go back to that for a minute. That was how many months ago now?
Ady Barkan: Three. That was December 7, I think.
Wow … it feels like it was a year ago. Take us back to that moment for a second.
I just left Congress two days earlier where we were protesting the tax bill. I barely got to the airport on time. My friend who was picking me up was really late. I got to the front of the line at the gate and then overheard … Liz Jaff talking on the phone about Twitter with a candidate of hers. I had never met her and didn’t know her, but I kind of introduced myself out of nowhere and said I had had a Twitter moment the day before [involving] Ben Wikler’s video of me getting arrested. It had gotten 4,000 or 5,000 views. We were chatting and she said, “You know, Jeff Flake is on this plane.”
So, it was a good opportunity to practice some bird-dogging — which in some ways, I had been preparing my whole life for with speech and debate and theater and journalism. Watching these Stoneman Douglas kids from Florida, that is such a vivid reminder to me of how important funding for speech and debate and journalism and theater are because that is where they got so good. It was just a good opportunity to try to hold his feet to the fire, even though it didn’t work.
Jeff Flake of all people, too, because he wants to have it both ways. Right?
Totally. He wants to get the credit for being thoughtful and independent and…. What is the word he loves to use? Decency.
Wasn’t that what Edward R. Murrow used on Joe McCarthy? “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”
Yes. Although, I think it was an Army general, not Murrow.
Right. It is interesting because I think McCarthy is one of the precursors of Trump and Trumpism.
We sort of had the one fight that was supposedly to save health care and then they have just been backdoor-cutting it ever since.
That is right. It makes sense. They control the government and in a functioning democracy they probably should get to implement their agenda. And then, the voters in the polls should be able to pass judgement on it. I think the system we have where the governing party doesn’t get to implement its agenda is really counterproductive for democracy. It confuses everybody. So, we blame Obama and the Democrats because they didn’t save the economy or do X or Y, but it was Republicans who were obstructing. It would be much better if there were a clear connection between governance and outcome.
It is tough, because there’s that, but then, they implement parts of the agenda and we hear that it is a tax bill and you hear that people are maybe getting something back in their taxes, but we don’t hear about the other parts of the bill quite as much now. It is still referred to over and over as the tax bill.
So, one thing that I am going to be doing this year with Liz Jaff and Winnie Wong is launching this Be a Hero Fund that will try to raise money and spend it to win House seats for progressives away from Republicans, motivate voters and volunteers, and with a focus precisely on the tax and the health care bill, highlighting to the American people how and why this bill is bad for them and good for the plutocrats.
Looking back on all of this year … I suppose it could have been worse on some fronts, but it was still a mess. But what do you think we have learned in the last year that we can think about going forward about stopping bad agenda, but also implementing a positive vision, implementing an actually functional health care system?
Maybe … how unpredictable the future is…. I was diagnosed with this disease out of nowhere three weeks before the presidential election. Before then Rachel and I were the happiest, luckiest people we knew. We had a healthy baby boy. We each had these fulfilling jobs. We lived in paradisiacal Santa Barbara … the future was bright. Democrats were going to win the presidency. We were finally getting control of the Supreme Court after 40 years…. Then, three weeks later, Donald Trump wins the election. So, one is, we should stop making predictions.
I second that one.
And we have to appreciate all we have in the moment we are in and not only live in the future. As to resistance, I think it has proven more effective than … many people thought possible. Chuck Schumer and the like were all ready to capitulate on everything until “What the fuck, Chuck?” protests started popping up in Park Slope. And we actually were able to gum up the works to block a bunch — I mean, ultimately, he has really passed, enacted only one significant piece of legislation. Which is not terrible for a unified government.
“If I had another five years of health, the campaign I would want to run would be a guaranteed good jobs campaign.”
I don’t think they are going to get anything else. They don’t have any good reconciliation instructions and it is an election year. We will see about this bank lobbyist Dodd-Frank roll back where the Democrats are being traitors, which brings me to the third point, which is that we have a lot of house cleaning to do.
The Dems are still way too [deep] in the pocket of Wall Street. Elizabeth Warren’s speech on the Senate floor was really fantastic. It is just so embarrassing and infuriating to see the DCCC [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] endorse a union buster in Houston and all these Dems support rolling back Dodd-Frank. It is like, who among the American people are clamouring for reducing the regulations on banks?
Bankers. So, those are my three lessons.
Yes, it was really striking this morning to hear Elizabeth Warren speak about that, just saying, “Yes, 16 Democrats supporting the roll-back of Dodd-Frank,” including the vice presidential nominee.
Oh my god. I remember the day that he was chosen. When Tim Kaine was picked, everyone was bellyaching. It had been our fault. We had focused on the platform. We had all worked so hard to get various good things in the platform. We knew for months that Tim Kaine was the number one candidate … we could have easily launched campaigns documenting Kaine’s sins on a whole array of things and said that he is an unacceptable choice, but we didn’t and we got him. It is a perfect example of what happens if we let the establishment party operate without our voices included in the conversation. They play it safe, pick the conservative white dude from Virginia … we get this douchebag who now votes for deregulating the banks. It is unbelievable. He is like Joe Lieberman. It is the same thing.
We need to primary Chuck Schumer. Unfortunately, it is still many years away. We need to get rid of these guys like Kaine, Mark Warner….
It has been a year of mass protests in the streets, at the airports, at Congress, people getting arrested over and over again…. And this is still the vote the Democrats are going to stick their necks out on?
Yep, it is crazy. It is like Obama. The number one thing he fought hardest for after health care was the Trans-Pacific Partnership. That is how he spent his final year in office, fighting for TPP. And then, you wonder why Ohio goes for Trump. So, we have got a lot of work to do.
You already mentioned one thing that you are working on this year. What should people be talking about? You mentioned the platform and fighting to get good things in the platform. What do you want to hear people saying that they will do if they get elected?
If I had another five years of health, the campaign I would want to run would be a guaranteed good jobs campaign. I think we could run it now leading up to 2020. It would be a great campaign to say if you can’t find good work in the private sector, we are not going to give you unemployment benefits, we are going to give you employment and we are going to put you to work cleaning the streets, rebuilding our infrastructure, taking care of older people or young people, writing plays, making music. There is so much good to be done in the world.
We can afford it: $1.5 trillion for the biggest corporations; $80 billion for military when John McCain sneezes and wants to increase the appropriation for the military budget. You can conjure up $80 billion a year, which is basically what it would cost … but that is the campaign I would want to run.
A good jobs guarantee … would allow us to combat racial, gender, economic inequality. It would allow us to invest in the country via a populist vision that people could run on in every district in the country. It is much easier to explain and understand than Fed Up, which is esoteric, hard for people to understand. What is the Fed? How do the interest rates work?
If I had one campaign to run, it would be that one. I hope that Bernie does it. Maybe I will be able to convince his people and we can make it an issue in 2020.
How can people keep up with you and your work?
Twitter is good. @AdyBarkan. I will be keeping folks updated on the political electoral work, on the resistance work. Maybe I will be going — we will see — to Arizona or Oklahoma to join the teachers, which will be lots of fun. People can get involved and need to get involved every day from now until November.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.