Bernie Sanders' former campaign chief wants the left to be patriotic, thick-skinned, and ravenous for converts
Bernie Sanders' former campaign chief wants the left to be patriotic, thick-skinned, and ravenous for converts
Talking with Faiz Shakir about the quietly momentous bond between Sanders and Biden, the need for a progressive media machine, and why politics is the wrong game if you don't want your feelings hurt

Faiz Shakir is, by my lights, one of the most interesting thinkers and doers in American politics.

He is an organizer and advisor and operative who has played at the highest levels of the political left, most famously managing Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign. But he has shown a rare ability to navigate the broad coalition that makes up the left, having worked as well for Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, John Kerry, the Center for American Progress, and the American Civil Liberties Union. Most recently, he has created a new media organization called More Perfect Union, a creator of informative, unabashedly pro-worker, anti-corporate-power videos.

One of the things I’ve been learning in the Biden era is that, while ideological positioning is and remains important, political style is more important than we often realize. And Faiz, like Biden, is an exponent of what I would call a fundamentally coalitional style. Faiz is a progressive; Biden is, historically at least, a moderate. But the coalitional style they share, more interested in who can be pulled in than who should be kept out, has proven to be vital amid rising right-wing authoritarianism.

The other day, I had a wide-ranging conversation with Faiz about this political moment and how the left can thrive in it. We talked about the improbable Bernie-Biden bromance, the little-known gestures of respect that undergirded it, Faiz’s vision for a thick-skinned left that isn’t afraid to have hard conversations with voters of all stripes, and his immigrant family experience of America, which shaped a deep orientation toward simultaneously criticizing and celebrating the country.

Some text excerpts of our conversation are below. The full conversation in audio podcast form is available to paid subscribers. Thank you for supporting this work.

“In order to win, movements have to grow”: a conversation with Faiz Shakir

I want to start by asking you about the moment we’re in. It’s a moment of worker uprising around the country in a way that feels historic. It’s a moment of a historically moderate Democratic president who has acquired some progressive characteristics along the way and racked up a lot of legislative victories that were surprising to a lot of us. It’s a moment of movements on the left having really interesting conversations about cohesion and infighting and the future of the movement. And it’s obviously a moment of a very dangerous right-wing authoritarian movement that is seeing new players rise alongside Trump.

How do you see this moment in time, with all these things going on, in terms of the fights to which you’ve devoted your adult life?

Well, if we start from a political lens, with Joe Biden, the moment is making the man, and now there’s a question of whether the man is going to make the moment.

What I mean by that is essentially two major factors came in to affect Joe Biden. One is a progressive movement that has gained increasing sway within the Democratic Party and increasingly more represents the Democratic voter base. Joe Biden has essentially heeded it, built a coalition that comprises progressives instead of trying to stiff-arm them. The second thing that we know well is that Covid affected the economy and the psyche of Americans in a way that they wanted more government action, and the solutions that they were seeking were progressive in nature.

So those two things collide with Joe Biden entering office. To his credit, he says, I see you. I hear you. I feel you. And we’re going to start operating in a way in which government takes a much more aggressive role in a lot of different ways that progressives have been calling for — whether it’s in the healthcare markets or taking on large antitrust monopolies, heeding pro-worker movements, and also showing that, on Social Security, Medicare, and key safety net programs, I’m going to have your back.

Now there’s the man-making-the-moment question, which is remaking the Democratic Party to be more deeply aligned with working-class individuals. That’s an ongoing work in progress. That’s a struggle to win back lost trust in people who felt like either the Democratic Party didn’t align with the things that they cared about in their own lives, or that Democrats couldn’t make government work for them. So if you started to feel cynical about government, you started to feel cynical about the Democratic Party. We’re working on retooling that. I think how we flex for working-class people and show them that we’re on their side — that ends up becoming one of the big challenges to fight right-wing fascism and authoritarianism.

I want to go back to your beginnings in politics. For someone who ended up running a major American presidential campaign, you had an unusual background. You were one of the first Asian Americans and Muslim Americans to ever have that role. Can you talk about the background conditions of your life and how that led you into not just politics but progressive politics in particular?

My parents came as immigrants from Pakistan and had the dream of many immigrant parents, which is that their children will have a better life than their own and that, like many, particularly Pakistani, immigrants, this country for them held dreams that their child might go off to a place like Harvard, which seemed certainly out of reach for parents who were coming to this country and probably only knew three or four or five universities in this country and understood Harvard to be one of the best of them.

It turned out that, as I grew older, I played baseball and did OK at it and did OK with my grades, such that I got an opportunity to go there. My parents were running a dry-cleaning business at the time, and I grew up much of my life in a dry-cleaning plant and learning about the business. So the opportunity to go get a higher education, play baseball, and get an opportunity was a political awakening for me. And 9/11 occurred during my senior year in college, and certainly as a Muslim American affected how I saw injustice in our society. So there were opportunities and greatness that I had experienced, opportunities that, as an immigrant to this country, wow. What other countries would give you such opportunities? And then you see the injustice. You’re like, “Whoa, did we just execute this war that was morally heinous and sinful on a whole bunch of people and killed them unnecessarily?” Yes, we did.

Reconciling those two in my head and figuring out that I wanted to get involved in the fight to rectify injustice — this has always been the thing that drives me.

I want to pause on what you just said. There’s one way you could tell your story or your family’s story as the American uplift story, the story of possibilities. There’s another way you could tell your story: 9/11, a tough business that your parents were in, where it’s a harder country, an often unkind country.

It sometimes feels like people specialize in either being boosters of the American story or critics of it. It always strikes me that that’s politically not great, that the ability to tell both of those stories simultaneously and try to reconcile them for oneself and others is really important work that too often we fail to do.

I’ve been back to Pakistan and had the good fortune of traveling to some other areas like Guatemala and such. You see people struggling, really, really struggling, with just the basics of ever achieving a standard of life for themselves. It’s so far out of their realm of possibility. Thankfully, in America, it is one of those countries that allows you to potentially achieve it. I mean, it’s not perfect, but it has a far greater opportunity for you to achieve it.

I think it’s important to start with an understanding and appreciation, a recognition, that you’re building on something that has good merits to it and you’re trying to improve upon it. One of the first conversations I had in building my own organization, called More Perfect Union, was this idea that if you’re calling it a more perfect union, what does it connote? It means that, in our founding and in our beliefs and in the reality of so many people, it’s been a good union, that there have been opportunities and the struggle is always to make it more perfect. It was built into the initial thought, which is to say it’s evolving, it’s growing, it’s improving, and that’s a mark of any good society.

You can and need to hold both of those thoughts, because to suggest improvements and alterations has to come from a place of appreciation and wanting it to succeed. If the criticism is coming from a place of “never liked you to begin with, you stink, you’re terrible, go to hell, I don’t even give a damn,” then it will be seen as such. Like, are you really invested in the success and the improvement and wanting this to succeed? The answer has to be, Absolutely yes.

You are deeply expansionary in your conception of politics. You’re obsessed with getting converts to the causes you’re interested in.

Can you talk about that instinct towards getting the people who are not with you? And why it is sometimes that, although it shouldn’t be controversial in some of these spaces, it actually is controversial?

That’s true. We never know how our circumstances in life affected our value systems, but certainly one thing I reflect on is that I grew up in a very conservative area in Florida, so conservative that Ronald Reagan flew into the small airport that we had and held a big rally there because the red turnout there for him was so strong.

I grew up around people who didn’t look like myself: a lot of white, largely white folks, working-class people in that zone. I grew up playing baseball with those types of people and lots of different types of folks that I think really just were nothing like the culture in which I was being raised, of Pakistani Muslims. So I got this opportunity to see and build relationships and appreciate that, while people might have harbored views about me that I thought were not accurate about my religion or my background, I also built a camaraderie and trust and understanding of where they were coming from.

I do measure our success and our efforts on whether we are converting or moving people who might not already be with us. That is a big point of emphasis for me.

I’m sure you know Maurice Mitchell from the Working Families Party, and this really magnificent essay he wrote a few months ago called “Building Resilient Organizations.” One of the things he’s arguing is that, in progressive spaces, the desire to feel and be safe has, in some ways, come to thwart the political project of conversion.

The culture has turned in a way where, rightfully, we want to protect people from being in situations that degrade them and subject them to pain. Can you talk about that tension a little bit? Because I think we would share the idea that you don’t want to just throw people into a difficult environment for them to feel dignity in, but also: politics is conversion. Politics is asserting the humanity of groups who are not currently rightly seen as human.

I think that if you sign up to be in political advocacy, the goal is to build movements that win. In order to win, movements have to grow. You have to get more people to your cause.

I understand the instinct of people who feel like they might be pained or angered or triggered or trolled by people who don’t agree with their values. You and I can empathize with that, that there might be folks who say, “When you say X, it triggers and causes emotional pain to me.” I would humbly suggest, then, that the political advocacy arena is maybe not the best-suited place. There are other ways that you can certainly find people who need help and support and maybe are more aligned and more consistent with the values that you already hold. But if you’re going to be in political advocacy, you’re constantly needing to deal with tension, debate, friction, fights with people with whom you disagree, and to project those to other people in ways that can win them over. That’s the nature of the game.

Bernie Sanders, despite losing in 2020 in the primary, has in some ways had more influence over the ambitions of the Biden presidency than you would expect given the history of Joe Biden’s Senate career. Can you talk about the Bernie-Biden relationship and tag team as you’ve seen it over the last couple of years?

Even during the course of the primary, there was respect between them. Part of that had always stemmed from Biden actually respecting Bernie’s first run for president in 2015-2016, when a lot of establishment Democrats were criticizing Bernie for even running and felt that it was unfair to Hillary Clinton. Biden reached out and had meetings with him and talked positively about Bernie Sanders. I think it was because there was a sense on Biden’s part that this guy’s out here sincerely — this isn’t a game; this isn’t a joke for Bernie Sanders; this is actually things that he truly believes, and he’s out here trying to fight for causes that he believes are just. And that, yeah, political corruption is a real thing. We should talk about money in politics, yeah. We should talk about a working class that doesn’t feel like the economy works for them.

After the 2020 primary was over, we built upon it. We developed a good relationship at the staff level, but also between them, there’s mutual admiration and respect.

It shouldn’t be rare for a major Democrat to see that Bernie Sanders has built a very popular and successful movement of ideas and substance. To my dismay, I think, for most of the Democratic Party, there’s kind of begrudging acceptance or, “OK, fine. Bernie is Bernie.” At least at the elite levels. And Biden actually is kind of rare in that he stands out and says, No, I like that guy. I like him, and I respect him. I’m willing to say that openly. I’m willing to appear in a video with him. I’m willing to travel with him. I’m willing to ask him to go campaign on my behalf. It is kind of a low bar, honestly, but it’s a bar that, even to this day, a lot of people don’t meet.

Bernie is far more comfortable being loud and proud and wielding a stick, where Joe Biden operates often with carrots. There’s something to be said for both of those approaches. There’s yin and yang to each other in that way. Old school politics — Joe Biden’s got it. Old school politics is you’re building your coalition, and you’re seeing who’s got power and sway. You’re bringing them into the tent, and you’re figuring things out together, and you’re finding roles for each of them. I think he sees that Bernie’s out there. He’s going to be a hammer, and I’m going to try to come in behind them and see where we can get things done through this government on an antitrust agenda or paid leave for rail workers or whatever it might be. I’m going to see where I can get things done after Bernie kind of goes out there and hammers away at these things.

I want to talk about More Perfect Union, which is a media organization you’ve created. You were associated with and built Think Progress a long time ago, so you’ve worked in direct advocacy and movement building but also in this media component of advocacy before and are doing that again. Coming out of the Sanders campaign in 2020, how did you reflect on your theory of change being the creation of new media?

You remember one of our critiques on the Bernie campaign was often that the media doesn’t cover the plight of the working class because they don’t see it as interesting, sexy enough on a daily basis.

So you come out of that campaign with those media critiques in mind, and I was interested in saying, “Let’s do something about it.” Rather than criticize and blame the media, let’s see if we can build our own that tries to generate the type of content that we would’ve wanted to see and showcase that there is an audience for it, that people do want this content.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised that, in two years’ time, we’ve had a hell of a lot. There was something like 885 million video views over the course of two years, and we built it around video. Part of what we’re trying to do is break class bubbles in society here.

There’s a struggle of a working class that is, I think, not seen, felt, or heard by those who don’t live it. I’m like, “OK. Well, I’m going to show it to you,” to an elite class, whether it be the media or political class. We’re going to try to show you a working-class struggle and then connect it to potential solutions, to do something about them.

What you’re doing now addresses a deficit that has always infuriated me. Which is that, on the left, there’s often a tendency to think about the political transaction as starting too late in the process: asking for votes, asking for money, asking for joining a thing.

Whereas I think the right, to oversimplify, has an understanding of a funnel of political education and political involvement in this moment that feels much more sophisticated. The right often starts with what people are feeling and what people are seeing. It doesn’t start with politics. It starts with just people observing things in a society, getting annoyed by things in a society, feeling fear and anxiety and other emotions about things around them. The right has built a complete radicalization pipeline, from feeling a little bit insecure that you didn’t like that you had to navigate a Spanish-speaking cashier for the first time at your Arizona Walgreens, or feeling a little bit weird that your kid asked you if America’s a good country because they’re learning about the Founding Fathers, or feeling a little weird about some training you had to go to at work.

The right meets you where you are in that initial moment of discomfort, disorientation, and it has a political funnel to take you from there deep into its radical political project. That kind of funnel, but for good, is missing from the left.

So I wanted to ask you about this notion of meaning-making. Before you’re asking for votes, before you’re asking people to be part of your movement, are you there answering the everyday questions when they’re trying to just sort out why things are happening the way they are, why they’re getting laid off, why China is doing this? Why is this happening? That feels like such an important political question in this age. Do you see the role of More Perfect Union and advocacy journalism on the left as being to fill a meaning-making void?

Oh, 100 percent.

Initially, when I said we were going to start doing videos, I did my own trawling of YouTube. I was like, Whoa, look, a bunch of these people on the right are just crushing it with YouTube. Millions and millions and millions of views. When you try to ask, Well, who’s doing this on the left as a project?, you’re like, Nope. There isn’t really any of it. It might be some independent creators who might be doing some things on their own, but, institutionally, there’s not a mission and a purpose of trying to educate people around progressive values. It didn’t exist outside of a campaign. A campaign, as you say, comes in very late — “OK, I just want some votes.”

There is also the question of what we should talk about. I hear words being bandied about often around neoliberalism, fighting neoliberalism. I’m like, OK. Who understands what you even are saying? The word that I would counter with is populism. I’m trying to bring back populism on the left, which is infused by Bernie, which is to say, If I’m going to go out to some town in random wherever, put me in a random place in Ohio, and you put me on the stump and say, OK, go, just talk, what are you going to talk about that resonates with those people?

You’re talking about neoliberalism? No. We’re going to talk to them about the effect of wealth and income inequality and the impacts that they’re having in their own lives. We’re talking about unionization. What’s happening to you? Why did the plant close? Let me tell you about that plant. Let me tell you about the CEO of that plant. Let me tell you about the stock buybacks of this company.

There’s so little education connecting these ideas to progressive solutions. It was just so ripe.

On your point about language and being understood: I think we have a normie problem as a movement. At the same time, the fact that, as you know, there is a discussion of neoliberalism in this country in the last few years in a way there wasn’t 20 years ago is progress. It’s really good that we have been having that conversation. The fact that there is a discussion of white supremacy in this country the way when you were a Pakistani kid growing up in Florida, and I was a Indian kid growing up in Ohio, that just wasn’t a discourse. There’s a lot of progress that’s come from this kind of honest facing of the lived reality that a lot of us have.

At the same time, I totally agree with you that some of those languages and frameworks and jargon, they don’t just stay indoors in the breakout sessions of the movement. They’ve become mainstream political communication, in part because everything is just refracted through everything online. There’s not a separation of, What conversations are we having indoors and what conversations are we having at rallies? It feels complicated to me because I want to be having conversations about neoliberalism and white supremacy in some places, and I want to be able to stand at a rally in Ohio and sound mainstream.

Let’s take some of the issues that you raised that might be difficult. If we put me on a stump in Ohio and said, Go, I’m talking about the economic justice issues that I’ve raised. I’m talking about income and wealth inequality. I’m going to talk to you about the Starbucks workers, why they’re organizing. I’m going to talk about CEOs’ buybacks, why we need increased taxes on them. Talk about degradation of the safety net. What happened to retirement in this community? What happens to education and why many of us are swimming in debt, both in credit cards and education debt? How did all these things happen? Those are the issues I really want to win them over with and discuss.

First, I want to build some trust and credibility with this community. And then I want to talk about things that we may disagree with. I’m going to own that. But it has to come from a place of respect. Something I think people miss about Bernie is that when he traveled this country, he didn’t yield on talking about the white supremacy of Donald Trump. He was saying it like at literally every stop. But people said, I trust this individual saying these things, even if I might disagree. He’s saying them because he believes in them. And he’s tying it back to a value system where, even if I might disagree with it, I see where he’s coming from. And so I think sometimes this just becomes a style issue on how you project that conversation that might be a hard one for people in which they have differences of perspectives and views on gender inclusion, racial inclusion, all kinds of related social justice issues. Do they start with a position of feeling like you respect them even if you might disagree with them?

Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty

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