Briahna Joy Gray Is Not Backing Down
Former Bernie Sanders press secretary Briahna Joy Gray was viciously attacked throughout the primary for criticizing mainstream Democrats. In an interview with Jacobin, she spoke about what she learned from the campaign, how she came to the Left, and the empty, opportunistic anti-racism of neoliberal Democrats.
- Interview by
- Ana Kasparian
- Michael Brooks
Briahna Joy Gray knows what it’s like to feel the wrath of establishment Democrats. Serving as national press secretary for a campaign that incensed them like few others, Gray became the object of unending scorn from mainstream pundits and party operatives.
In late April, Gray joined Ana Kasparian and Michael Brooks on their new Jacobin YouTube show (which you can like and subscribe to here) for a post-campaign discussion. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
I’m doing as well as can be expected. Obviously, the campaign ending is a personal difficulty for all of us, who were so committed to the ideologies that were represented, and which unfortunately don’t have a lot of other homes in our mainstream political sphere, but we’re also all dealing with the larger crisis of the coronavirus pandemic.
Bri, just stay on that for a second. Because I think these reactions to you and other people are revelatory of a mindset that exists inside the broader Democratic Party. When people say, “Bri, David Sirota, you’re never going to work in this town again.” And then you look and you say, “Why? Did Bri key one of these people’s cars? No. What are you talking about?” Oh, they’re committed to an agenda of health care for all and other core tenets that the whole [Bernie] Sanders campaign was about.
I think that what it really exposes is the extent to which there aren’t a lot of substantive arguments among whatever you want to call them — neoliberals, corporate Democrats, etcetera. So when I tweet a simple truism — like, yes, people shouldn’t die because they’re poor and can’t afford coronavirus treatment, but that also extends to people who are dealing with cancer or people who are dealing with diabetes — there’s this kind of meltdown.
It’s particularly marked, I think, when it comes to me, because so much of the mainstream liberal discourse has been completely captured by identifying good actors and bad actors purely based on their identity. And when confronted with a black woman who also happens to believe in Medicare for All, and a living wage, and student debt cancellation, and medical debt cancellation, and some basic progressive principles, they don’t quite know what to say or to do with that. I think that’s why I and Nina Turner have been lightning rods for a certain kind of meltdown or tantrum-throwing, if you will.
I’m really glad that you mentioned that, because this particular primary election really clarified things for me: the very issues that these moderate Democrats claim they care about are just issues that they will exploit for political gain.
This is something that I used to write about before I joined the campaign, and which I thought was going to be a more central issue. I really anticipated that Kamala Harris would have a longer life in her campaign, and that it was going to be a question of “Why should we vote for an old white man when there is this black woman in the race?”
But what actually became clear — and which has been made even more interesting by a recent poll, which showed that it’s white people who are much more concerned or disappointed by a white candidate being the Democratic nominee than black people or other people of color — is that the interest in these kind of glass-ceiling-breaking campaigns is only relevant insofar as it advances a more moderate political agenda.
The first diverse state to vote in the election was Nevada. We won, and people were silent. You could hear a pin drop when it came to the discussion about what that meant for Bernie Sanders’s coalition. It was complete and total erasure of Latinos without even a second thought. And there was no political blowback.
Bernie Sanders was either number one or number two with black voters for the entire race. I remember an article shortly before I left the Intercept, which pointed out that Bernie Sanders outpolled Kamala Harris two to one with black voters. But that was a non-story. Nobody cared as long as there was someone, anyone, polling better than him with black voters.
Then that became not just a story about how does he bolster outreach, it became a story that was supposed to imply something was intrinsically racist about the campaign as a whole — a kind of subtext which never existed even for candidates like Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, who struggled to get out of single digits.
So as a black person, and as a woman now, in the context of these Me Too allegations against Joe Biden, it is deeply disappointing. If you are going to be the party of identity, at least have those values concretized. At least believe in that on some intrinsic level.
What they’re doing right now is giving free rein and fodder to every bad-faith, racist, sexist individual on the Right, who has always claimed that the Democrats never truly believed any of this stuff. It’s difficult to see where we’re going to go next if the Democratic Party doesn’t substantially reform and also adopt economic populist principles.
I want to follow up on a different but related note. You’ve always been somebody who has argued against the idea of “moral means testing” — the corollary of actual means testing, where if you talk too much about universal decency and justice for all, that might include some bad people.
One part of it is a broader, very important left idea that, as much as humanly possible, we don’t want to write anybody off as irredeemable. And secondly, why does somebody have to perform in any type of exceptional way, one way or another, to secure basic decency in life?
Yeah. It’s funny because I come to this whole world not because I was a red diaper baby and not because I came up through politics. I was genuinely guided by a kind of secular humanist ethical development, which says to me, “I live on the Left, or however you want to describe it, because I believe in the intrinsic value of human life.”
That’s what guided my understanding that we shouldn’t throw away people through our criminal justice system, that rehabilitation should be the goal of any kind of criminal justice, and that we shouldn’t discriminate against people once they are out of prison. It guides my understanding that you are not the worst thing that you ever did in your life. That everyone deserves health care, no matter your economic status.
Everyone seems to get these principles, but when you start to get into other areas, and we start to talk about racism, for instance, or other kinds of personal prejudice, it becomes very black or white. So Democrats will understand that we should have rehabilitation and that a prison sentence isn’t a sentence to get raped or be in solitary confinement. But at the same time, we’ll say, “The person who used an epithet is canceled forever.”
We have Democrats saying things about, “Trump voters deserve to live in squalor. They voted for him, and that’s the world that they deserve, the outcome that they deserve.” Not thinking about worlds of imperfect information, or the extent to which their lives have intrinsic value, or that people change and evolve over time. And that they have children who did not make those voting choices who live in those households.
Much of the writing that I did before I joined the Sanders campaign was about trying to clarify where we actually stand on a number of these issues, from more minor things like cultural appropriation discourse to more substantive things like how identity is weaponized in politics, precisely because I want to shore up our position. Not because I want to attack the Left, but because I believe the underlying principles are really true and that we should have the best arguments, ones that aren’t so easily weaponized against us.
I agree completely. “Attacking the Left” — that’s like saying the coach of a basketball team running drills is opposing his team. It’s ludicrous, of course you need to up your game.
Yeah, as a former varsity basketball player, I really love that analogy.
Yeah, that’s absolutely right. Just to give a recent example, we had a discussion about the optics of Nancy Pelosi doing this video in front of her $24,000 refrigerators, and showing off her collection of luxury ice cream in the middle of a pandemic where people are literally starving and do not know how they’re going to pay for their rent, for their mortgage.
What Pelosi did in that video was incredibly dumb. I’m just going to call it exactly what it is. It’s dumb. And when we did a segment on it, I said that it’s going to be used against her by the Trump campaign, and guess what? It was used against her by the Trump campaign.
Because while Donald Trump and Republicans are absolute liars when they pretend as though they care about the working class and improving the economy for the majority of Americans, they’re successful in their messaging, their empty hollow messaging. And they do, in a very, very successful way, paint Democrats like Nancy Pelosi as these corporatists who have helped to ship jobs abroad, who live in luxury, who enjoy their wealth, and who really screwed up the manufacturing sector in America. They’re really good at that kind of messaging.
Yeah, I think about that a lot. There’s an argument that Democrats don’t want to win, that they are equally satisfied by either corporate party being in charge, or their interests are served either way. Sometimes I’m feeling very cynical, and that’s where I am.
Other times I say, “Even if I think that that’s happening, that has a kind of defeatist air about it, and we can’t embrace that. But what else is happening?” Well, sometimes I think psychologically that Democrats are in a kind of losing defensive posture. Donald Trump does present an existential, terrifying threat, especially looking down the barrel of another four years. And maybe it’s a “don’t kick a man while he’s down” kind of attitude, or you feel too vulnerable, or members of the party, voters, feel too vulnerable to be really clear-eyed about the flaws in messaging.
I also think that the Democratic Party has propped up figures, Nancy Pelosi being one of them, that are perceived more for their symbolic value as opposed to any understanding of what role they’ve played in the party, including detrimental roles they’ve played in the party. So if Nancy Pelosi to you is this totem who shamed Trump in a viral GIF, clapping at the State of the Union, then yeah, you’re going to be less willing to perceive her as someone who is flawed in any way.
Why is it that Nancy Pelosi has been able to accumulate such an enormous amount of wealth while being a sitting member of Congress for decades? Why is it that there are so many people who are thrown from food insecurity to full-blown inaccess to food in the context of a crisis?
I think the criticism from the Left has to always be about, why is the distribution of wealth the way it is? What structural factors enabled her to accumulate so much? That is where the argument is the strongest. That’s, I think, where Bernie Sanders got a lot of his power, especially in 2016, talking about the 99 percent and the 1 percent, and the oligarchy, and corporate greed, and all of those kinds of themes.
So there’s lessons there for both the Left, in terms of how we frame our critique, and also for the center left, mainstream Democrats, about how to be more clear-eyed.
Bri, they say you’ll never work in this town again, but you are working in many towns. So what are you up to now?
I’m back with Current Affairs, writing there as a contributing editor. And I hope to do some other media projects so that hopefully I’ll still be able to talk to folks the way I could through “Hear the Bern.” I really enjoyed that format. I really enjoyed having access to so many intelligent people who were able to have such free-flowing conversations.
And now that I’m outside of the context of the campaign — there were things we couldn’t do or targeted critiques of other candidates that we were discouraged from getting into — I have free rein. I think there’s so much work still to be done, about what to do with this movement, including before this primary officially ends. I’m really hoping to launch some media opportunities in which we can continue that dialogue. So stay tuned.
How is life after the Bernie campaign? I see some of the reactions to you on Twitter, which are pretty disheartening, but how are you holding up?