The Atlantic - April 23, 2020
Briahna Joy Gray has spent the past year waging war on behalf of Bernie Sanders—and now she’s shifted her focus to attacking Joe Biden. At a moment when Democrats are calling for unity around the former vice president, Gray is an outlier, someone her critics accuse of inadvertently aiding Donald Trump now that Sanders is out of the Democratic-primary race.
The former Intercept editor joined the Sanders campaign in March 2019 and was immediately ubiquitous on cable news, advocating for progressive policies such as Medicare for All and student-debt forgiveness. But she is perhaps most visible on Twitter, where she specializes in Thunderdome-style attacks with Democratic-establishment types like Neera Tanden, the longtime Clinton ally and head of the Center for American Progress. In April, after dropping out, Sanders officially endorsed Biden. And Gray, the Sanders campaign’s national press secretary, declared her disagreement with her former boss. “With the utmost respect for Bernie Sanders, who is an incredible human being & a genuine inspiration, I don’t endorse Joe Biden,” she wrote on Twitter. “I supported Bernie Sanders because he backed ideas like #MedicareForAll, cancelling ALL student debt, & a wealth tax. Biden supports none of these.” In a subsequent interview, Sanders distanced himself from Gray, saying she is “not on the payroll.”
I asked Gray this week whether activists on the left sacrifice their influence by being unwilling to compromise with other Democrats, especially with the 2020 election just seven months away. Absolutely not, she told me. “Pretending like the scraps that are being thrown are meaningful concessions is an insult,” she said. “Accepting those scraps without pushing for more is extremely detrimental to the cause.” While many Democrats are focused on doing whatever it takes to beat Trump, Gray believes that now is precisely the right moment for the Democratic Party to take bold, progressive stances. This is both ideological and strategic, she maintains: Sanders’s policies are not only morally correct, she argues, but also wildly popular among voters. While she would never vote for Trump, she told me, Biden will have to win her vote with meaningful policy shifts. The question is how many Sanders voters like her are out there: People who aren’t persuaded by Biden’s platform, and who won’t vote for any Democrat just to beat Trump.
Our conversation has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
Emma Green: I am sorry to say this, but I want to talk about Noam Chomsky.
Briahna Joy Gray: Ha ha, okay.
Green: He recently told The Intercept, your former employer, that “the failure to vote for Biden in a swing state amounts to voting for Trump.” He likened this to voting for the “destruction of organized human life on Earth, the sharp increase in the threat of nuclear war, [and] stacking the judiciary with young lawyers who will make it impossible to do anything for a generation.”
Agree or disagree?
Gray: The question doesn’t acknowledge the fact that Biden is still only the presumptive nominee, and not the actual nominee. There is still room to move his positions without actually jeopardizing the candidate in a general-election contest. Pushing Biden to the left makes him more electable. If he’s banking on securing independent voters, then he should be aware that a majority of independents are for Medicare for All, a wealth tax, a number of other so-called progressive policies that Biden has, up until this point, strongly resisted.
Green: Bernie Sanders has endorsed Joe Biden’s run for president, and obviously he did that before this summer’s Democratic convention. You tweeted that this was the wrong move. Why do you think he should not have endorsed Joe Biden at this point?
Gray: It was the wrong move for me—I personally was not endorsing Joe Biden. Bernie Sanders has considerations of his own: He is a sitting senator who has a lot of possible concerns about getting along with his colleagues and legislating and all kinds of internal pressures I can’t even begin to imagine.
I personally don’t think it is politically beneficial or, frankly, ethically appropriate for me to endorse Joe Biden, particularly at this stage, not that anyone is clamoring for my endorsement. The point of my tweet was to say that it is frustrating for a lot of supporters of progressive politics to see leaders in our movement seemingly fall in line with establishment politics without extracting any concessions on issues like a wealth tax, free child care, and Medicare for All. If these are in fact existential issues, then we need to behave that way, and not stop fighting.
Green: There’s an interesting theory of power embedded in what you just described. You argued that Bernie Sanders might have endorsed Biden because he needs to be able to legislate—to influence Biden from inside the room, so to speak. Alternatively, you seem to be arguing that activists gain influence from being in an oppositional relationship with people in power. Do you think activists on the left lose out by being combative with mainstream Democrats?
Gray: Politicians are supposed to represent the interests of the people who elected them, interests that overwhelmingly align with what Bernie Sanders was running on. I’m resisting your framing. There’s a real united front of consensus about the direction this country needs to go in, and the opposition is coming from a small handful of politicians that care more about the interests of their donors than the interests of the voters, even as they pretend their No. 1 concern is beating Trump.
No matter what progressives do, we’re going to get framed as somehow responsible for any negative outcome. Bernie Sanders was persistently asked, “Will you support the nominee?” He said yes, more vociferously than anyone else in the race. But he and his movement are still being held responsible for wanting Joe Biden to be a better nominee, or pointing out obvious flaws that might damage his candidacy.
The Democratic Party is telling us, it seems, that they’re more interested in shaming voters than actually putting forth the best nominee. ...
Read full interview at The Atlantic