America is in a tailspin. There are many reasons why people are so fed up, but two of the biggest are corruption and unfettered capitalism. Other countries have recently reached breaking points because of these same factors.
In Puerto Rico, citizens roamed the streets en masse, carrying a guillotine to the governor’s residence to call for their resignation. In Hong Kong, millions of people have taken part in pro-democracy protests and riots. And in Paris, a “yellow vest” movement has emerged as a result of a tax that required the working class to bear the brunt of climate change rather than the industries that cause the most damage.
Practically every country in the world is succumbing to populist sentiments, and the U.S. is no different. Tens of thousands come to hear President Trump and presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders speak. Both the Democratic and Republican parties are seeing a rise of insurgent candidates as the establishments of each party attempt to cling to power like a delusional emperor who refuses to see his own nakedness.
Meanwhile, the New York Times endorsed Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren for president, but they both have been rejected by the public and subsequently dropped out. MSNBC has been relentlessly criticized by viewers during this election cycle, and so much so that the network scolded and later fired longtime host Chris Matthews (who also received accusations of sexual harassment) and benched regular contributor Jason Johnson for their deeply offensive anti-Sanders smears. As the working class and young people rally around Bernie Sanders, the Democratic party elites and corporate donors are putting their support behind Joe Biden, whose base of supporters are really only willing to tolerate him.
While the media and party establishments struggle to detect the pulse of America, independent political outlets have continued to flourish, especially on YouTube. Progressive shows like The Young Turks, Secular Talk and The Michael Brooks Show have seen huge gains in subscribers, all hungry for a more substantive political discourse. While The Hill is by no means an independent outlet, its new YouTube series, Rising, hosted by two unapologetically populist commentators—Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti—draws hundreds of thousands of eyeballs and whose Jan. 14 Democratic debate coverage had over one million viewers.
Ball and Enjeti are two of today’s most insightful voices—on the left and right, respectively—in American political media, and they are proudly out of step with the CNNs and Washington Posts of the world. When the corporate media giants fail to inform and the corporate political parties start to shake, it requires brave truth tellers to represent the actual sentiments of the American people, and both attempt to do just that in a new book titled The Populist’s Guide to 2020, available now via Strong Arm Press.
Paste had a chat with Ball and Enjeti about their popular YouTube show, their new book and the dwindling power of the media and political party establishments. Read the interview below, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Paste: Did you have to convince The Hill that there would be an audience for a show with your distinct perspectives?
Ball: I think they saw the promise of it very quickly. I was brought in first and the stipulation I had was that I wanted a lot of creative control and the stipulation they had was that they wanted it to be a left/right show, which I had no problem with. I also wanted some say over who the right was and I think from the beginning, the idea of the new energetic movement on the left in conversation with the new energetic movement on the right made sense from a higher level within the company. Then the audience response was so immediate that the promise of it was borne out very quickly once it was posted to YouTube.
Do you think a better mainstream media is possible or is the best analysis and information always going to come from independent voices that don’t have a corporate profit model?
Enjeti: Well, it depends on what you mean by “a better mainstream media.” I mean, yes, it certainly can twinge on the margins, but I think a lot of the structural things that Krystal and I lay out in the book about control, consolidation, the sheer amount of people who work in these organizations, the type, the ages, the demographics, the advertising market, just the way that the entire thing is structured is that with the rise of more populist candidates like Trump and Bernie—and who knows where the right will go, who knows where the left will go under Bernie or after Bernie—all of these things empower people who are very much at odds with that mainstream media. But don’t get me wrong, there will be improvements, I think, on the margins by maybe hiring a pro-Sanders voice or a pro-Trump voice or a pro-populist voice on the right. But fundamentally, I think that the trust will always be with somebody a little bit more independent.
Ball: The other issue is as inequality increases, it plays into the distancing of the elite media from the population it’s supposed to be informing. We have a dynamic in the economy now—analysts coined the term, the “plutonomy”—where basically all the money in terms of revenue, the group that advertisers want to reach, goes to this very thin slice of Americans who happen to be doing well in this rigged economy. So if you have news organizations who are trying to sell to advertisers that want to reach that thin slice, you’re going to be creating content for a narrow band of Americans that doesn’t speak to the working class in the way that we are trying to. That’s one of the things I have to say about the show. I think both Saagar and I frankly were worried that we’d be speaking to hipsters in Brooklyn.
Enjeti: Or just my friends.
Ball: Yeah, exactly. I went to a group of union organizers and activists and rank and file union members this week and a lot of them were watching the show and really big fans of the show. Service workers come up to us all the time who are big fans of the show because they don’t see themselves in mainstream media. It’s not made for them. It’s not speaking to them. It doesn’t represent their perspective. To me, that’s been one of the most exciting parts of the rise of Rising this year.
If Bernie does well, we’re about to find out if the media and the Democratic party establishment has the guts to try to steal the nomination from him. From the left, it’s always hard to grapple with how conspiratorial to be. Do you have predictions on that front?
Ball: Well, we’ve gotten some contradictory information. On the one hand, the New York Times interviewed a bunch of superdelegates and they were all basically like, “Fuck the party. We’ll take it from him if we possibly can.” Obviously, that’s not their exact words, but that was the sentiment. On the other hand, you see a lot of people hedging their bets. You see Senator Chris Murphy going on TV and talking about how strong Bernie Sanders is. You saw Pelosi, Schumer and Barack Obama through a spokesperson and Hillary Clinton all say, basically, they are comfortable with Sanders as nominee or they will definitely support the nominee. So you’ve got a lot of hedging of bets as the power dynamic becomes very clear. But I think that’s exactly what it is. The bottom line is most of these people prefer another Trump term to a Bernie Sanders presidency. Why? Because they know how to be in the opposition. They know how to keep their access to power, keep their status, keep their position, keep their deal flow, keep the cable news contracts. They do not know how to stay relevant under a Bernie Sanders administration. It really represents the complete end of their order and way of doing politics. So they’re willing to split the party and consequences be damned and deal with those ramifications because they would prefer to lose to Trump than to see Bernie Sanders as president.
Enjeti: I’ve always from the beginning had a conspiratorial view of this because I really remember how it was going during the Trump campaign. There is no question in my mind that they would have tried to take it away from Trump if they had the ability at the convention. I’m absolutely certain. All of that stuff was there. There were attempts to do that through John Kasich and others and it didn’t end up panning out. So I do think if it goes brokered, I 100% believe there will be an effort. I don’t know if it will be successful, but there’s just too much at stake whenever it comes to what the establishment has. I saw that on the Republican side and I think it’s the exact same dynamics for the Democrats.
You lead off your book by talking about how 2019 was the year that everything burned. You mention what the breaking points were for the various working classes of other countries to take to the streets in a widespread, coordinated fashion. What do you think it would take for that to happen in the U.S.?
Ball: I think in a lot of ways that is happening in the U.S. I would put the teachers’ movement here, which was tremendously under-covered by the media in alignment with those sorts of protests around the world. I certainly don’t think we’re far from the edge of a much larger public unrest because of the same trends and dynamics that we see around the world—just that fundamental rot of the way we’ve been doing things for the past several decades and the inequality that it’s caused and the way that our entire economy seems to be set up to benefit just a few small sliver of society. I think we are already at the edges of that.
You both lay out your ideas for the new right and the new left. Saagar, do you think Trump’s rise to power is a successful takeover of the Republican party or do you think the populist right still has a long way to go?
Enjeti: They have a very long way to go. I think Trump made kind of a bargain simply because he didn’t have the talent pool. Basically, the talent pool for our populist new right agenda does not exist. It’s much more of a nascent movement than the populist left and the progressive left, which has really been organizing for about 20 years in a real, serious fashion. So Trump had to make a bargain simply to staff the administration and placate the RNC and people who have power by bringing in the establishment. I think he has several populist elements of his campaign. He himself is the king of populism for really showing that it could be done from the right. But I think the populist right has a very long way to go. Part of the issue is that the establishment takeover of the Trump administration has made it so the signature accomplishment of the administration is the tax cuts and jobs act. So I very much foresee an establishment person running in 2024 as the Republican nominee, saying we need to make America great again and fulfill the Trump legacy of tax cuts by deregulating derivatives markets. That’s a very plausible scenario and ramping up the swamp once again. Basically, they can superimpose whatever they want onto MAGA and onto the populist right. The actual true populist right, new right, whatever you want to call it, has a long way to go, but it’s there. Every young person I know who works in Washington politics on the right does not believe in the establishment stooges and what they tell us to believe because we saw how wrong they were in 2016 and that was a great breaking point.
Saagar, you offer criticisms of Trump. Is there someone that you would like to see as the figurehead of the new right?
Enjeti: I can’t give one person. I could give you a few examples and they’re all kind of different in their own ways. Governor Ron DeSantis down in Florida, he’s got 73, 75 percent approval ratings, one of the most popular governors in the country, and he’s by no means, a Republican in name only. He’s a hard right guy. But he made concessions on the environment. He promised to try to protect the Everglades. He wants to raise teachers’ salaries. He’s basically merged a populist economic agenda with immigration restriction, which I think is a really interesting way for him to go. In terms of the national level, Senator Josh Hawley’s kind of the new right senator. But there are elements of the new right that you can see in guys like Tom Cotton and the way that he’s been talking about China and trade for many years. Marco Rubio has been the leading voice on conservative economics in the post-Trump age because he’s been talking a lot about history and workers and the way that we define capitalism. There’s just a lot of really important stuff that these people are doing. I would say the trifecta in D.C. is Cotton, Hawley and Rubio and DeSantis on a governorship level.
Krystal, how far do you think we are from a point where progressives are the majority?
Ball: In some ways, many of the battles he’s already effectively won. This entire primary has been fought over. Do you support Bernie’s ideas or do you oppose Bernie’s ideas? Thus far, certainly the voting public, has sided with Bernie Sanders. But underneath that, there’s more of an existential, in my view, struggle going on, which is between what demographic groups you’re going to center the party around. For decades now, we’ve had a party that has been realigned increasingly around a sort of professional managerial class—”the creative class” is Richard Florida’s term—that comes with a certain set of interests. It tends to lead more towards a centrist or conservative economics. These are people who are benefiting from the current economic system and more of an identity-focused politics. What I see as so important about the Sanders movement and the other populists on the left is that they explicitly want to realign the Democratic party around their historic base, which is the working class. It’s a reclamation of the party and the direction that it should be going in. So that’s why I see this election and this fight within the Democratic party as so important, pivotal and existential because the further you get down the road of putting the professional class at the center of your concerns, the harder it is to turn back and the less revolutionary the politics become.
Do you think we can get to a point where billionaires, corporations, lobbyists and the whole machine are not fundamentally running the country?
Enjeti: It’s possible. It’s a slow transition. I study political movements, history, all these things. They all seem impossible until they aren’t. Usually, there needs to be a watershed breaking moment in which people are just completely fed up and there’s no way to predict what it is. It’s not even necessarily an election. It’s not necessarily an economic crash or anything. Sometimes it’s war, sometimes it’s economics, but I do absolutely think it’s possible. The most important thing is to be prepared to have the right political movement, to have the right people in power, infrastructure, and to have the ability to seize the moment in order to make sure that you can accomplish that when the opportune time comes. I’m sure Krystal can go into this, but that was the failure of the Obama administration and their lack of ability to respond to a truly pivotal moment in this country’s history—the financial crisis—in a way that could restore or change the balance of power. They just decided not to take that.
Ball: Right now, we’re in a spiral where corporations get more powerful and have more money, which equals power and then they have more influence over our politics, which gives them even more power and around and around we go. The populist movement, I think at its best on both the left and the right, is about reversing that cycle so that you have increasing power flowing to the working class and away from corporations. But it’s not a flip the switch kind of a thing. It takes a lot of time.
One thing that I’m sure you saw in the book that has really informed my thinking is the way that Sanders used his position as mayor and the way that he overcame opposition there to fundamentally turn the tides. Burlington, Vermont is very different than the entire country, but he overcame the overwhelming opposition of Democrats and Republicans—basically by giving power to the actual citizens of the community, creating community councils that had budgets that could figure out what their priorities were for their neighborhoods, creating a shadow government. And then he primaried. He ran candidates against the city council—they’re called the Board of Aldermen—to both flex his muscle and actually get some of the obstinate people out of office. When he did that and when they saw this guy has his own movement, the people are behind him, that is when they realized that he wasn’t just an aberration, they were going to have to work with him. He got reelected time after time, even against a candidate that both the Republicans and the Democrats endorsed against him because he had built this movement of people who were going to back him and increase turnout too, by the way, 50 percent. So I think it’s going to be a similar process. It doesn’t end when you just get the president you want into office. You have to sweep out of power all these people who are going to do everything they can to possibly undermine you and preserve the status quo.
Many among the left fear that a Bernie presidency would be doomed to fail if he’s not willing to pressure fellow Democrats and even employ general strikes. What do you think about that?
Ball: It’s definitely a concern. He’s a human being and it’s been remarkable how consistent he’s been, how willing to ruffle feathers in this town he has been. You saw it with Joe Biden when he was at the top of the polls and someone really needed to prosecute the case and it was very challenging for him to do. So I think that is absolutely a concern when you’re talking about people he’s worked with, people he’s been friends with, et cetera. He’s ultimately going to do what’s necessary, which will be very uncomfortable and very contentious, even more so than this race is probably. I do think that that is very much an open question.
Enjeti: This is part of my central critique of Bernie and a lot of the progressive left movement. To do what they say they want to do and to get power in D.C.—just because of the way it works—they have to play games and footsie with the worst elements of the identitarian left, corporate media, all of these other people. That ultimately is what’s probably going to win out whenever it comes to actually executing power. Not calling out people that should be called out, not being truly pure, it risks the same Faustian bargain that Trump made. It’s just always going to have to be a concern—anybody populist right or populist left.
The Populist’s Guide to 2020 is out now via Strong Arm Press.