Maurice Mitchell talks about the future of the left with the New York Times

The following is an interview with Maurice Mitchell of the Working Families Party, Nina Turner of Our Revolution, and Yvette Simpson of Democracy for America from the New York Times. Click here to read the full article.

A Chat With Progressive Leaders About the Future of the Left
New York Times, December 20, 2018

During the Trump era, Democrats have largely been able to avoid making tough choices. With little power, their most pressing question has been whether to object to everything the president does or just, you know, most things.

That all ends in two weeks.

When they take over control of the House in January, Democrats will gain real legislative and investigative power — and will carry the burden of making decisions. And the three dozen Democrats flirting with a presidential run will quickly have to decide whether to actually take the plunge.

With all of those decisions over the next year, there’s sure to be a robust debate about what the future of the Democratic Party looks like. A big part of that discussion will center on the progressive wing — what they want, what they believe and how they’re shaping the presidential race.

We were curious what the conversation inside that progressive wing sounds like. So we spoke to three people who have recently taken the helm of some of the country’s biggest liberal groups: Nina Turner of Our Revolution, Maurice Mitchell of the Working Families Party and Yvette Simpson of Democracy for America.

It was an expansive, 45-minute conversation, which we had to condense quite a bit for the newsletter. Here’s what they had to say about their new roles, 2020 and how progressivism is changing.

LISA: So you three are all relatively new in your jobs. Nina, you took the helm at Our Revolution about 18 months ago. Maurice, you started as the director of the Working Families Party in April. And Yvette, you’ll become the CEO of Democracy for America next year.

What do your appointments say about the state of the progressive movement?

NINA TURNER: One of the top goals of this movement is first recognizing that it is a truly multiracial movement. A lot of times when people see the faces of the “progressive movement” they tend to think that the movement is very white, but the movement is really, you know, to borrow from Reverend Jesse Jackson, the “rainbow coalition.” To have at this moment in history three very dynamic African-American leaders leading organizations in the progressive movement, just our very presence is a symbol.

MAURICE MITCHELL: What I would also add is that this movement is not about one election. I think a role for our movement is expanding people’s understanding of what democracy is and making sure that they see themselves in it. This idea that Bernie (Sanders) said — in fact both Bernie and Trump said — that the system is rigged, right? So in order to un-rig the system, we need a new type of politics that confronts the systemic challenges and is willing to do big things. We don’t want to play small ball.

YVETTE SIMPSON: The shift for our organizations hopefully will be a rallying cry for what we should see in the Democratic establishment. We want to see people of color represented not just at the bottom, but we expect to see those individuals in leadership. And then when you do that, not only do you get average results, but you get even better results.

It’s the idea that when brown and black people lead us, we not only take care of brown and black people, we take care of all the people.

You all mentioned that there’s this perception that “progressive” means white. Why do you think that has persisted?

MM: It’s a historical inaccuracy. Our presence at the helm of these organizations is a corrective one because black folks have always played this critical role. But I think the reality is black folks haven’t always been in leadership.

If you look at a traditional Democratic Party, unfortunately, black folks and the issues of black folks haven’t always been front and center, even though our vote and our movements and our strategies have been utilized in order to get elected. But I feel like this is a political realignment that we’re experiencing, where black leadership is central.

YS: The face of the progressive movement, in my experience, has been very white, and I think that was less the reality and more maybe what was put out front. People most associated that with white, traditionally, maybe more male.

But what Maurice is saying, and what Nina said, is that is just not true.

NT: I’m amen-ing everything that my sister and my brother said. You know, there is a saying that said that if the hunter writes the story, then the lion’s story is never told. So that’s the same thing I feel about this movement. The lens by which it is written about leaves out so many people because the hunter — i.e. the neoliberal class, or the class of people that have the most power — they tell the story. It benefits folks to write that story in that way.

But I would argue that progressivism is by its very nature black, because you have to be progressive when you fight against the system that is treating you like a second-class citizen. Hopefully our very presence as the leaders of three very strong organizations says to the world, you need to tell the story differently. Now the lion is telling the story.

We’re having a conversation that’s a lot about representation. And we could see a presidential field with multiple African-American candidates and multiple female candidates. What advice would you be giving those people?

YS: Black women matter. We want to see candidates who are engaging with black women, with black people on the ground, making sure that those in these communities are not only heard but are front and center in the work that you plan to do, in your calculus as you think about how you’re going to navigate this country over the course of the campaign. We don’t want you just knocking on the door when you’re running.

Number two, this is the time to be bold and be unapologetic in your agenda. And we want to see that. People who have been on the bubble too long, they use words like bipartisanship. The person down on the ground could care less about how you would get along with the person next to you. They want to know whether you’re going make a change, if you’ve got to do that by hook or by crook, by any means necessary. They want to see change in their real lives.

I was preaching there a little bit, Nina, did you see that?

NT: So it’s no secret, you know, if Bernie Sanders decides to run, who I will support. But amen to everything that Yvette just said. She’s absolutely right — the only people who talk in terms of who’s Republican and who’s Democrat are people here in this Beltway. But the average, everyday person in this country does not have that conversation when they’re talking about how to pay their bills. They’re not talking about those issues when they still have dirty water in Flint.

And in 2020 we have a pivotal opportunity to do some course-correction in the country and hopefully give people a real choice. And I’m going to say to Democrats not to equivocate at all who they are standing for, because we already know who the Republican president is standing for. So this 2020 opportunity, this is real in the field. It’s go time.

MM: Man, I’m getting excited.

What I would say is we’re not going to fall for the “okie dokie,” in the sense that somebody could just signal through cultural signifiers and identity that they’re down with a particular set of politics or a movement. People have to show and prove, not just based on the fact that they might occupy a certain identity. We need to see it in their voting record, in the issues that they champion.

It’s easy in the moment of the “resistance” to signal that you’re down with the resistance. But I’m less interested in what you’re against — I’m interested in what you’re for. The prerequisite for sanity in this country is to have an opposition to the Trump movement. What sways me is what you’re trying to build. Which side were you on previous to the moment that you decided to take the mantle?

NT: Can I just say, amen. I’m sorry Lisa, I am shouting across the office right now because my sister and my brother just put ten thousand exclamation points. We will be rolling the tape.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times on December 20, 2018