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Episode Summary

American democracy is in crisis, much of it the direct product of Donald Trump, a petty scammer who managed to talk his way into the white house, who was also willing to overthrow our government after he lost in 2020.

But the crisis of this moment is larger than Trump himself. It’s also bigger than the extremist political movement that he joined that calls itself conservatism in the United States.

The political left is also in crisis. A crisis of stasis. Poll after poll has shown that Americans overwhelmingly support more progressive public policies like universal healthcare, paid parental leave, higher taxes on the wealthy, more oversight for corporate behemoths, and a lot stronger protections for workers.

There’s no doubt that reactionary Republicans have played a role in stopping these policies from becoming reality, but it is also the case that more than a few Democrats have worked hard to block them as well. At the same time, however, the progressive activists who do favor these policies and want to implement them for their fellow Americans have had difficulty promoting the ideas into law.

What can be done about this situation? Can the political left take at least some lessons from the right on how to make change? I think so.

In this episode, we’re joined by Max Berger, he’s the editorial director at More Perfect Union, which is a new site featuring in-depth reporting about how corporate America abuses workers and showcases employees who fight back.

He’s also the co-author of a 2018 report called “Beyond Trump: A Theory of Political Transition” that sought to give advice to progressives on a way forward.

The video of our conversation is below. The edited transcript of the audio follows.



Transcript

MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thanks for being here today, Max.

MAX BERGER: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

SHEFFIELD: All right. So let’s just real quickly go through some of the things that you talked about in the report and we’ll have a link to it in the show page and the show episode notes for those who want to check it out.

And I encourage people to do that, but just walk us through some of the overall larger points that you guys made in there. You and your co-authors.

BERGER: Yeah. Well, I think one of the things that you hear a lot in this conversation about Roe and how we got to this point where the conservative movement could overturn it, is that conservatives had this 50 year plan that involved very serious investment in many of the institutions that you used to work at.

And the creation of a whole ecosystem [00:04:00] of very ideologically motivated political institutions that could really capture the Republican party from the right and sort of continuously move it further, so that it wasn’t really just a vessel for the party as a whole, but for a faction of the party that had a much more radical vision for the country than what the Republican party as a whole– certainly at the time that these institutions were founded– really stood for.

And I think many folks look at the results of that in terms of Roe and the success of that and wonder where that kind of institutional apparatus is on the left. And I think what we’ve seen over the course, the last five or 10 years, or 10 or 15 years, depending on how you want to cut it, is somewhat of a response from liberal and progressive donors in starting to create a kind of comparable set of institutions on the left, which are capable of defeating the conservative movement.

But one of the arguments I make in this report– and that I think I make pretty regularly on Twitter every day– is that the type of institutions that we’ve been trying to build on the left and the theory of the case of what those institutions are meant to do. And in particular, the relationship between those institutions and the Democratic party is actually very different than what made the conservative movement’s institutions successful.

And so what’s really needed is a much more significant investment in institutions on the left that are able to move the Democratic party to a much more progressive, a much more robust embrace of the progressive agenda so that we’re able to defeat the right, but not just the right, but also to change what it means to be a Democrat and to have the progressive movement really prevail over the Democratic party, as opposed to working for the Democratic party, which is how it really works today. Which as well, is very different from how it works on the right where the Republican party really works for the conservative [00:06:00] movement, in a way that the Democratic party does not work for the progressive movement. The progressive movement works for the Democratic party.

So that’s what the report is about. And, I would say at this stage, that was written maybe four or five years ago at this point. And I think it’s at least as true today is when I wrote it.

SHEFFIELD: So you feel vindicated basically? But not in a good way, you wish you hadn’t.

BERGER: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think that it really gets at this question of what it means to be part of the left, or what we’re really talking about when we’re talking about the progressive movement, because I think a lot of the institutions that big funders on the left gravitate towards and are willing to support don’t really have the same kind of hard nosed political instincts that a lot of the institutions on the right have. And frankly, they just are a lot more moderate ideologically, right?

Like the donors on the left, I think, tend to be a lot less willing to rankle the establishment and the leadership of the party. Then the institutional figures on the right are. Certainly when those institutions were created, right? Like the Heritage [Foundation] The most powerful institutions on the political right are very adversarial, were very adversarial for a long time with the establishment of the Republican party. And were able to essentially replace the establishment with their preferred ideological brethren.

Whereas if you look at the institutions that have been funded by big liberal donors, they tend to be relatively unwilling to go after people like Nancy Pelosi or, Democratic presidents.

SHEFFIELD: Oh, yeah. So you mentioned the Heritage Foundation as one of these institutions that you’re trying to draw people’s attention to, but let’s maybe talk about some of these other ones, just because you’re a hundred percent right. For me as somebody who was on the political right– on the inside as a media and marketing and political consultant who left and came over to the political left– it has always just been continually stunning to me how little institutional support there is.

Just as a for instance on the [00:08:00] right, there are several different organizations that they call themselves talent banks. And basically they are political recruiting operations, resume banks for organizations that are looking for someone to fulfill a particular role for them. And they need it as soon as possible, they can go to these groups and they can find people who are already pre vetted, who they know to be qualified. And nothing like that exists on the political left.

BERGER: There’s various layers to this and I think it’s important to take a step back to talk about the money first and foremost, because sure we can get into what exists on the right and how it doesn’t exist on the left, which is, I think a really important conversation, but I think also just understanding the extent to which that money does not exist on the left in the same way, or to the extent that there is money on the left, that it has a very different–

SHEFFIELD: Different focus, yeah.

BERGER: Yeah. The right wing money is ideologically and financially aligned, right? Like they, the big funders, especially the classic funders of the conservative movements, the Mellon Scaifes, and the kind of folks who really built a lot of the cores, et cetera that gave a lot of the money that–

SHEFFIELD: The Koch brothers, yeah.

BERGER: The Koch brothers, et cetera, their financial interest in a deregulatory laissez faire, far right economic agenda is coincident. These are investments essentially that will pay off in profits. And on the left, liberal donors are not trying to destroy capitalism, right? They’re not trying to liberate the working class from the yolk of corporate oppression. They’re trying to ameliorate things. And their motivations then are really different. They’re fundamentally in it for other reasons. And so their investments are guided by those motivations, and it’s less ideologically coherent, right?

Like they, they often are motivated by being close with [00:10:00] people that they respect or appreciate or, by wanting to feel like they’re doing something good in the world. And so there’s A) less overall money and B) the types of things that they’re investing in are driven by other considerations. And so I think it’s important to realize the overall sphere of money in terms of the left compared to the center left compared to the right.

It’s like orders of magnitude. There’s maybe tens of millions of dollars that are available to the left, if that. The actual left. And then there’s, maybe hundreds of millions of dollars, couple of billion dollars available to the center left. And then to the right there’s like billions and billions of dollars. So there’s also a question of just scale, right?

I know you know all this stuff, Matthew, but just for viewers who don’t know this stuff. I think it’s helpful to just understand when we talk about all the time on Twitter and conversations with people, they’ll ask you, why doesn’t the left do this?

I’m like, there’s no money. There’s no money for it. And the money that exists on the left mostly goes to the center left. And that is a huge part of the problem. And then historically, where a lot of the money for further left really progressive stuff has come from is labor.

And given the state of labor in the United States these days, and ideologically where a lot of the labor leadership is, they’re not inclined to put money behind things for the same reasons that, they’re similarly afraid of pissing off the establishment of the Democratic party and also, have succeeded at becoming a part of it, and so don’t want to threaten that relationship in ways that are, I think long term detrimental, but make sense in a sort of short term way.

And so that means there’s just not as much money for all the kinds of things that you’re talking about. And I think it’s worth getting into what’s not there on the left and what should be there. I have lots of opinions about it. Love to hear yours too. And what’s on the right that we don’t have, but you know, we want to talk about

SHEFFIELD: These are the fundamental dynamics at work, yeah.

BERGER: Yeah. I think it’s really important that people understand the structural. And the clearest example, I think, is the Leadership institute, right? [00:12:00] We want to talk about talent bank. It’s not even just that we don’t have a bank, it’s we don’t have the talent.

SHEFFIELD: Well, explain what the Leadership Institute is for those who don’t know what that is.

BERGER: So the Leadership Institute is an organization that was founded in 1979, it’s been around for a long time now. It’s trained tens of thousands of conservative activists in just about everything from how to run for office, how to be an operative on an electoral campaign, how to advocate at the local level, how to start organizations, how to fundraise, anything that you need to do.

SHEFFIELD: And how to raise money, how to start a website. I personally have taught their courses on how to start a website and have a blog. And what you should do, and how to do it.

BERGER: Right. And it’s, is it free or it’s relatively cheap for folks?

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, most of the classes are free. You just have to sign up for it. And then here’s the other thing is that the Leadership Institute is only one of several groups that do trainings like this. Charlie Kirk’s group TPUSA also does a lot of these things, especially for younger people. And then there are other groups as well with a bunch of alphabet soup names I can’t remember right now, but this is a huge industry on the right.

BERGER: And that institution alone, the Leadership Institute alone, they’re able to subsidize that level of having people come for free. And I think crucially, it’s not just skills based, it’s also they’re teaching you the theory of what it means to be a conservative in their lexicon. So when you do go on TV, or you do a blog, or you do an email blast, that you’re not just kind of making it up on the spot what it means to be a conservative, but that you’ve been given that kind of theory background, understanding frameworks.

So you’re able to be consistent in a way that with the rest of the movement in a way that nothing like that even remotely exists on the left. And to the extent that there’s anything that mimics it, it has at most one-one-hundredth of the resources. So if you’re a young person, [00:14:00] and you’ve talked about this, Matthew Sitman has talked about this, others who have left the kind of warm embrace of the conservative dole have talked about how much more difficult it is to make a career.

And I think especially as young people who are trying to figure out how to get involved with politics, and how to get to become part of the institutional apparatus on the left, it’s a very porous, it’s a very porous network. It’s pretty tough.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And I’ll give you just a real quick example. So there’s this friend of mine, he literally just went to a Twitter space that was held by someone. And he was contacted within minutes about joining his local Republican party. They figured out where he lived and they found someone from his party, or from that area, and said, ‘Hey, this person here is with your local Republican chapter, you want to go and meet with him?’

And he was just stunned at how efficient and quick this was, and how open the door was. Because one of the other problems from an institutional standpoint, in the United States in particular, but this is true to some extent in Europe, that a lot of the left is sort college-bound. In that it basically outsourced all the thinking and a lot of the activism into college professors. And the reality is that most college professors don’t know anything about activism or how to do things. And certainly they don’t get paid to do those things. And so why would they be good at those things? They’re not.

BERGER: Right.

SHEFFIELD: And of course, when you teach in academia full time, you have to spend most of your time speaking that particular argot of your field. So they come up with all these incomprehensible terms that don’t mean anything to the average person.

And then, so they go and will give speeches and no one has any idea what the hell they’re talking about. Or like they will use terms like Latinx. X is not even a Spanish letter, that’s English .

BERGER: Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: And that’s just one of a bunch of examples. And so they don’t understand that there’s this real gap [00:16:00] between the leadership, quote unquote, that exists and the people who that they would like to reach. Because most people don’t go to college and they never will.

BERGER: Right. Well, I think the history of this kind of thing is also incredibly illuminating, because in the 60s and 70s, there was understanding amongst conservatives that institutions like the academy and the bureaucracy had been conquered by liberals and were just bastions of liberalism and could not be reclaimed unless and until conservatives created their own counter hegemonic institutions that could inculcate a new generation of operatives in the ideas of the conservative movement.

And then those people could go back into those other institutions and retake them for conservatism to defeat liberalism. And so the entire apparatus of the conservative think tank was created for people to operate outside of those structures.

My friend, Jonathan Matthew Smucker has a good bit about this, because academia became one of the last bastions of the left, becomes academia-tized, right? Like it becomes synonymous with leftism. And I think that does explain a lot of how we get to where we are today in terms of who the operatives are and how they think and talk. And it is definitely a huge problem.

I mean, I would say that in the last five years, certainly Bernie creates a different lexicon for that. And the kind of rise in labor insurgency and militance amongst working class people, and the rise of this new wave of labor unions also creates a new lexicon or borrows from that or elaborates on it.

So I think there are increasingly different sources of how people are learning to think and talk on the left. But I think we’re at this moment where there are very few institutional foundations for that type of articulation, whether you’re talking about getting people on TV, whether you’re talking about direct media, communicating to people directly through owned media, or whether you’re talking about sort of training and development.

There’s enormous [00:18:00] latent demand for that, both in terms of people who would like know more about how to do that, or to do that in their own ways. And amongst voters for that type of politics. But you still see the academy as being one of the major sites out of which people are learning language– much to the detriment of progressive politics.

And I don’t blame people ultimately on a kind of personal level for making that type of category error and believing that critique is politics, or that making good arguments is politics, but it’s really this profound irony.

At this point, most conservatives have a really implicit Gramscian framework where they’re really trying to form a hegemonic coalition in their head at all times on a subconscious level. And it’s actually progressives who are like, ‘I am an individual and unique flower who is just expressing my authentic beliefs.’

And I’m like, ‘I don’t fucking care what your authentic beliefs are. What is going to help us conjure a hegemonic majority that can crush the power of capital.’

And that’s not the game that most leftists are playing.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. That’s a great point. And you’re great to point that out in terms of the Gramscian framework, that the American right to a very large degree was created by former communists. You’ve got people like Whitaker Chambers. You’ve got people like Frank Meyer, you’ve got people like–

BERGER: The entire neoconservative movement.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And so basically they, they understood that the institutions of society were not there for you to create revolution. Because institutions in and of themselves are anti revolutionary. And now in their minds, they saw them as being taken over by the left, but really what that was is these institutions are fundamentally conservative. That is to say they’re in favor of whatever is the status quo at that moment.

And you can see that with especially the [00:20:00] larger universities in this country, whether it’s Harvard, which has some ungodly amount of money. They’ve got this gigantic sum of money and they just sit on it and then continue to charge students tuition. They could run their entire operation just off of their endowment and not charge tuition to anyone, but they choose not to, they choose to force a lot of people to pay.

And then at the same time, they will go and promulgate, and you guys at More Perfect Union recently did an interesting discussion about how the status quo left prefers people to focus only on identity politics, like racial manifestations of injustice and not talk about economic injustice or gender injustice.

They’re in bed with corporate America, they’re in bed with all the hedge funds, they’re in bed with all these vastly wealthy and oligarchic institutions and that’s who is the leaders of the left. Of course it’s not going to go anywhere if that’s who the leadership is. It’s time for the political left to say, ‘You know what, the academic world, it’s a nice place to make some research and there’s some good people there, but we need to get over it.’ And don’t consider them your leaders.

BERGER: But I think it’s important also that we define our terms a little bit more clearly too, because when we talk about the political left, who are we talking about here? This stuff kind of would be so much clearer if we had actual parties.

But I think what’s happening under the hood in this kind of, within the broad liberal left coalition is very different depending on where you’re talking about, right? Like I think the argument that you’re making about sort of the centrality of academic politics as being a problem. I mean, that is, I guess, true that there are parts of that are true across the spectrum.

But, I think what that looks like when Hillary Clinton says, if we broke up the big banks, would that end racism or, sexism, that’s one thing, right? It’s another thing [00:22:00] when folks on the progressive end of the spectrum use language that is alienating or focus on issues that are only kind of resonant to a small subset of the population.

But I think who is the political left and where are they taking leadership from is, it’s more complicated than just to say, the problem is academia.

SHEFFIELD: Oh, sure.

BERGER: Because I think the problem with the establishment left or the kind of center left is that they are, as you say, like completely in hoc to corporations. And I think that the challenge for the left– and when I think about the political left, I really think that at this point, they’re really led by folks like The Squad. And I think what people don’t understand sometimes about how difficult of a position they operate in is that they don’t have an army, right?

Like they don’t have with the conservative movement when you have Reagan for example, right? You have all these institutions that have been created over the last 10 or 15 years that are able to staff an administration. If we were to win in 24 to 28 with an actual progressive leftist, socialist, democratic, socialist, social Democrat, whatever, any of those, could we staff an administration?

I don’t know. I think between Bernie and Warren and other alums, we could maybe round out a competent leftist presidential campaign at this point. I don’t think we had that in 2020, we did not have a full staff’s worth of people. So I think that’s the part that is very apparent when you’ve been part of these things.

Which you’re seeing now, as somebody who’s on the left, you’re like, ‘holy shit, these people don’t have fucking anything.’ And I’m like, ‘yeah, man, we don’t have shit.’

So I think I find myself sometimes also being more empathic or supportive of sort of the limitations of the political left, whether it’s any of the figures that you might identify as being in leadership on the political left, because [00:24:00] they are lacking so many things that to be a really powerful political force in this country you need, and that other factions or party-like structures in American politics have in excess.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yeah, that’s true. Although I would say that there is one thing that, that definitely is in short supply on the progressive left or social democratic left, and that is media outlets.

BERGER: Absolutely.

SHEFFIELD: And so, and that is perhaps the starkest contrast with the political right. So the political right from the very beginning, it was a rejection of existing media outlets as non allies, as hopelessly compromised, biased against them. And they were right actually to say that because that situation still exists today that the establishment media is center-left media. Like that’s true.

And as somebody who spent the first part of my career attacking liberal media bias, I didn’t understand it as liberal, it was Democratic media bias.

That’s what it was.

BERGER: Yeah. This liberal, I think liberal is actually a better word than Democratic, but yeah.

SHEFFIELD: But however, whatever you want to call it, like it was true. And so they went and instead of saying, ‘ ‘Okay we’re going to complain to them to make them treat us better, but we’re also not going to rely on them to be the messagers for us.’

And that’s a huge contrast that when you look at the way that the way that progressive and even Democratic people, they seem to think that getting a story placed in the New York Times about X , that, ‘Okay, well now we’ve done our job. We’ve won. We’ve won the day.’

And then of course not realizing that as many people who read the New York Times and as influential as it is, it’s still not that influential in the broader scheme of things. It’s only got X number of people reading it, right? Any particular piece of content and that’s less than 1% of America would read any New York Times story.

And [00:26:00] so if you think that you’ve done something significant, you really haven’t. And the other thing that is crucial, though, about this media oriented way of activism is that media enterprises are also self-sustaining because they can attract an audience and build it, and then also monetize it.

So that’s been the secret sauce for a lot of right wing politics, because before talk radio came along, all they had were these political magazines that I mean, most people are not going to read a political magazine. More people read newspapers in and magazines in the 60s, 70s, whatever, but it still wasn’t that many.

So they were never really able to get things going until the 1990s. That was the first time when they were able to get a majority in the Congress. And it was because of talk radio that it was carrying their message out into just regular small towns and suburbs, and out to the people on the construction sites, and out to the teachers grading papers after school, and people just sitting there working on their car after work or whatever. That was able to bring this message, which had been hopelessly abstract, hopelessly argot-filled, hopelessly non-transparent, inscrutable to the average person.

And that’s basically where a lot of progressive messaging is nowadays. I think when you look at it, an average person has no idea what the fuck you’re talking about.

BERGER: Right. I mean, I think that just a couple of points there. I think that’s really interesting example. I mean, Reagan did win enormous victories in, 80 and 84 with conservative messaging.

SHEFFIELD: But it was more about himself as a person.

BERGER: I of course. Right, right. But if you look at the timeframe there, my analogy, and there’s another article that we could send folks to, which is this great piece in the New Yorker about are we entering a new political age that featured some of my friends, myself in terms of [00:28:00] this kind of broader theory of political time.

But you know, if you go back and you look at Goldwater as being the beginning of the Reagan revolution, I think Bernie’s run in 2016 is a decent analogy for that in terms of the resurgence of progressive left, the socialist left, social democratic left, any all of those things, and its relationship with the Democratic party and the project of realignment, which means 15 years later, you get Reagan, and then 25 years later, you get talk radio.

And Limbaugh, right? So, hopefully it won’t take that long. But in terms of the development and the growth of the movement and the network, I do think that there’s this kind of generational component to it. And I think that if you look at the state of left media today, first off, I think it shows all those same dynamics I was talking about before in terms of big donors’ unwillingness to be more ideological.

The broader story here is like the conservative movement after the Reagan revolution or after the Goldwater campaign sort of created this whole infrastructure throughout the period of the 60s and 70s, created this institutional infrastructure that was able to create a new generation of people who had the same kind of a language– wage political conflict within the Republican party coalition. And also bring forth that message and spew it out into the broader world through things like the Christian Broadcast Network and other things like that.

Where are we on the left in terms of developing something similar? I think the beginning of things like more Perfect Union is an example of kind of the green shoots of that. The very beginnings of what that could or should look like, what you’re doing with Flux. I think that’s another example.

And I think, the kind of like wild west state of play of the progressive or socialist podcast, YouTube landscape, and obviously the kind of hit or miss quality of what those groups are.

And again, I think like that ecosystem really shows some of the strength and limitations of kind of [00:30:00] where we’re at as a movement right now where 10 years ago, five years ago, that didn’t exist at all, really.

There was no equivalent. Do I think that something like Chapo Trap House is the kind of leftist equivalent of Rush Limbaugh? No, is it good that things like that exist? Probably. I’ve obviously had my differences with some of those folks, and they’ve had their differences with me.

And I think that there’s a definitely an argument to be made that that ecology should be better funded and also a bit more disciplined and strategic, rigorous and thoughtful in terms of how it’s engaging in politics. But instead what you have is essentially just a bunch of random individuals who are out there trying to say–

SHEFFIELD: Make a living.

BERGER: –things that, yeah, that right.

Exactly. And so the incentives are to say crazy things that are going to rile people up and get you an audience, whether or not that audience is sees themself as being a part of this broader political project is kind of irrelevant, because that’s not what pays your bills. And there aren’t a whole set of institutions that you can go to post up at to have a decent life while simultaneously waging the kind of political conflict that you want to be a part of.

And it’s a problem for the people who produce those things or who want to be a part of this world. But I think it’s also a problem for the left, because as you say, we’re not really reaching people.

I think your point about the New York Times is also a really important one, where for a lot of the funders of liberal institutions, they see their job as producing stunts that are going to get coverage from existing media. And there’s, as you named, lots of strategies that you could take on to just go directly to the people and explain to them what’s going on, what they should think, why they should change who they vote for, how they think about politics.

And there’s a real reluctance to do that on the left amongst liberal funders, because I think they are much more comfortable with institutional politics than mass politics. And because there’s some [00:32:00] concern about what types of ideologies would actually gain mass resonance.

The liberal institutional world is used to coming up with things that are actually designed to change how elites talk, not to produce things that are meant to resonate with the public.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah.

BERGER: And I think like, even people with your skillset just to make this like, even more clear, right? Like you have built audience for groups, institutions that actually have a real mass base in terms of people who regularly read this stuff.

And as far as I know, there, there are institutions that do some type of reporting or there are institutions, individualistic driven media outlets that have that on the left to a certain extent, but I think More Perfect Union, as far as I can tell, is really one of the only organizations that’s even really tried to do that, let alone been successful at it.

So I think it’s just not something that we have a lot of success with on the left.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And again, it’s not just the institutionalization of the left in the United States, but it’s also that to the extent that there are progressive institutions– so things that want more progressive policies, like you could say like the NAACP or some various environmental groups, some of these groups that have pretty large membership bases and budgets– they basically created their own little parallel world and they’re very walled off from the rest of America. They don’t understand that the rest of America doesn’t pay attention to what they’re doing, has no idea what they’re doing.

And so, as you were saying, this idea of organizing stunts and organizing your PR strategy. So if your goal is you think you’ve succeeded if you got CNN to cover your event. But the reality is that, CNN at most would have like 1 million people watching your thing. And it would only be on there for a couple of seconds.

So it’s just, it’s a complete crap shoot. You are aiming so incredibly low right by this stunt based politics and what you should be aiming for is the permanent campaign. [00:34:00] Which it’s funny that Democrats came up with that term, the permanent campaign. But then it’s actually Republicans who practice it, and reactionaries who practice it much better and much more effectively.

BERGER: Right. Well, I mean, I think that’s the part of that unifies everything that we’ve said before, which is that the the center left are institutionalists. They’re liberals and in a classical sense, right? Like they believe in reason and logic and they operate very effectively within institutional framework spaces.

And you see it today. I mean, I think what is happening now with Biden and Roe and the rise of the insurrectionary Republican right is a really clear example of Democrats and liberals who came up in time in which there was a broad assumption and understanding that American democracy fundamentally worked and had some implicit understanding that the project of liberalism was about upholding those institutions because those institutions were legitimate and also bastions of liberalism.

Which is a thing that I think liberals and conservatives broadly agreed on for a very long time. That those institutions like the York Times, or the establishment media generally, the academy, that those were all bastions of liberalism and legitimate institutions.

And so the way to uphold liberalism and to win, was to work through these institutions. And now that these institutions have much less popular resonance and legitimacy and you have a far right that has their own institutions outside of them, that’s waging war upon them constantly.

The libs just, they don’t know what they don’t know what to do. And I think you have a new generation of of leftists who are much more antagonistic, who are much more willing to get down in the mud and actually knife fight with people. But what we don’t have is money and we don’t have institutions.

And so we have individuals, we have powerful individuals, we have smart, talented people who are trying to do their best. We have groups like [00:36:00] DSA [Democratic Socialists of America] that are trying to get by with the resources that they can get from dues. Which is important. I’m not trying to in any way minimize those efforts, but I think when you think about the scale of what you can accomplish with that set of resources, it’s very different.

It’s a very different potentiality. There’s really no end run. This is why I think that labor, basically nothing that we’re trying to do can work unless there is a real growth and upsurge in labor militancy. And also that the labor institutions are made much more political and ideological, and are understood by their leadership to be about waging class warfare, essentially. And to be working on behalf of the working class as a whole, and not simply on behalf of the existing membership, because there’s no other source of capital for investment in political infrastructure besides unions, right? Like there’s no other place you’re going to get that money.

SHEFFIELD: Of that kind of scale, yeah.

BERGER: Of that kind of, if you’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars, right? And, look, everyone wants to come in and say, ‘Well, what about small dollar contributions?’ And you can do stuff with that.

But I think the part that people need to understand is you always got a boss, so if you have a small dollar donor base, you end up having to do stuff that’s going to generate more donations, which may or may not be the most strategic thing to do. I mean, part of the reason why I think you get these crazy ass podcasts, people saying wild ass shit is because that’s how you feed the hype machine.

And I think that when you talk about the scale of what you’re able to accomplish with those kinds of resources, I think just as an example, like we’ve seen that presidential campaigns are able to raise tremendous amounts of money and be competitive, purely on small dollar basis. Bernie’s campaign raised what, 200 million, a really incredible amount of money. Now, if you were to try to do a comparable effort for [00:38:00] Democratic members of Congress or Democratic state legislators, or city council members. We’re talking tens of thousands that you could do for state legislators, and maybe Justice Democrats, couple million, maybe 10 million annually for members of Congress.

Again, I’m not saying that these things aren’t possible, but if you apply that same logic to media, where are we getting the money? On some level, I feel so fucking lame whenever I have this conversation. And I’m just like, where is the money coming from? Where is the money coming from?

Because it sounds so, it sounds like such a myopic thing to just be so overwhelmingly focused on. But at the end of the day, institutions cost money, and the reason why the conservative infrastructure is as vast and elaborate and sophisticated as it is, is because the richest people in the world know that it is in their financial interest to fund it.

And so they’re able to use what amounts to ultimately is a tiny fraction of their overall wealth to create these institutions that can create thousands, tens of thousands of highly sophisticated conservative operatives, whose job it is all day, every day, to wage conflict, ideological conflict on the airwaves, in politics, in courtrooms, et cetera.

SHEFFIELD: That will directly financially benefit them.

BERGER: That will directly financially benefit them, exactly.

SHEFFIELD: It’s not a donation.

BERGER: Exactly. And on the left, if you are the equivalent of that on the left, what do you do? You go to Yale Law School, you go to work at your local NGO. You end up working for Sierra Club or NAACP. You end up working for whatever schmo Democrat that got elected locally.

You don’t have anywhere near the infrastructure to be a part of. And so I think that does explain a humongous amount of how our politics works, that people maybe don’t see.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And just to go back to something, you had mentioned about this sort of liberal institutional paralysis, because if your [00:40:00] entire political strategy is based on, ‘well, we have to protect the institutions. The institutions must be protected,’ but you live in an environment where most people are not benefited by these institutions. Most people are not going to go to college. Some centrist Democrats have been really big on state and local tax deduction, SALT, trying to get that back in. Most people don’t make enough money that their SALT taxes would be deductible for them.

There’s a lot of people out there who literally cannot afford to work because they have children and they cannot make enough money from their job in order to pay for childcare for their kids. So literally their only option in life is to be unemployed. They cannot afford anything else.

And especially during the pandemic, that was absolutely the case. And so there are a lot of these dynamics, and the institutions have no value to people who perhaps might at least not hate them.

So in other words, these are people who are standard-issue Democratic voters, they don’t want to actively destroy Social Security or Medicare or something like that. But they see nothing in it for them, and they’re not wrong to think that.

And then meanwhile in the establishment left they’re coming up with these ridiculous theories, like in the legal world, they came up with this idea called legal formalism. And legal formalism is one of the dumbest ideas imaginable. It’s this idea that there is an objective legal theory behind any court case, and that if you just think hard enough and research well enough, everyone will agree on what you should do in the case. And it’s total absurdity, because all courts are inherently political.

Every judicial ruling is a political act, and it’s always been that way. And now they’re all stunned and flabbergasted that the Supreme Court, which has a right wing super majority, is going [00:42:00] out with all these rulings and saying various things are unconstitutional or must be mandated.

And it’s just broken their brains. They cannot contemplate that judges would be doing these things. They actually believed that the court wouldn’t overturn Roe, even though the majority of it is literally run by fundamentalist Christians like Clarence Thomas, like Amy Coney Barrett, like Samuel Alito.

These are people who literally see themselves as God’s servants. And then you’re going to tell them about legal formalism. They’ll tell you to go get fucked. That’s what they’ll tell you. And they’ll be right.

BERGER: Well, I think there’s, I think it’s interesting. Ezra Klein had a great podcast with Larry Kramer, who is the former Dean of the Stanford Law School. And he talked about how in the Dobbs case that the lawyers who were arguing in favor of Roe made no affirmative argument on behalf of abortion, and really predicated their entire case on the notion that it was settled law.

So almost literally this example of liberals were only capable of arguing to uphold the status quo, and what had been settled, and were incapable of making an argument on the substance.

In the wake of that decision, you see this real limitation with certainly neoliberalism, if not liberalism itself, where the notion that the decisive body, when it comes to interpreting the Constitution was actually the people, not the guys in the robes, they are supposed to serve us. They do not have some exclusive right to interpreting and understanding the Constitution, ultimately that power resides with the American people.

And that is not an argument that is available to liberals today, that does not make sense to them. They have swallowed wholesale many of the conservative notions about the court that I think are also really implicit ideas about the Constitution and power and institutions generally, which is to say that [00:44:00] those things are valid and legitimate and should not be the subject of democratic contestation.

They have sided with liberal formalism, opposed to the power of the people and of democracy, and have ceded that ground. And that is ultimately just an incredibly failed strategy. And one that is both what led to the rise of fascism and is completely incapable of countering its power, because it has nothing to say to the people.

It has nothing to say to them, right? This is why the Democrats’ message on Roe and the post-Roe world has been so pathetic, frankly, and I have the secret theory that this is why Kamala Harris can’t talk anymore. It’s because there’s actually nothing that they can say.

It’s not that she just got dumber. Granted, she was never a phenomenal public speaker, but why have her public utterances in the last two weeks been so unbelievably incomprehensible? I think it’s because what’s happening right now is the collapse and failure of the political order, generally of the Constitution, of the total loss of legitimacy for our political institutions and liberals have nothing to say about it.

They cannot articulate an alternative or how people should be thinking about the problem. And I think that is an opening for the left to provide a new understanding of what politics should be and what government should be.

But– and I think this is goes to your point about the media– we do not have the mechanisms to articulate that. We have a handful of people in Congress who can conjure a national audience. And that’s basically it, Bernie’s media operation is still, by and large, the largest, most successful, important progressive media outlet that exists on the left.

And, I think that really shows structurally some of the limitations of what we have at our disposal to offer an alternative as well.

SHEFFIELD: The liberal [00:46:00] response to the Supreme court going off the deep end into reactionary fascism it’s like the original Star Trek when Captain Kirk would offer a logical contradiction to some alien robot and it would self-destruct because it was unable to comprehend the paradigm that he had established.

And that’s basically what they’re doing here with right wing legalism, they never paid attention to it to begin with. And so they didn’t understand what their framework was in the first place. And then number two, they didn’t understand that they were organizing. They knew the Federalist Society existed, but they didn’t understand how influential and what it was doing to the members who were in it.

It wasn’t just a way of brainwashing law students. It was also a way of continuing to brainwash them as they moved along in their career after graduation. So whether it was as attorneys, whether it was as judges, it was creating a network that would continually reinforce their ideas and tell them to hold fast to them and to stay true to them. To create a legal realism framework for them, which is simply that politics are whatever the judges say it is. And that is the reality, and that’s always been the reality.

And actually Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she did say this about Roe itself. At one point she said, I don’t think that it’s sufficient as a case, the way it was decided and the way it was worded. It was a warning to the Democratic establishment years ago that they needed to do something about it, but they never did anything about it trying to codify it.

Or even in the case of a number of different states, they never even bothered to repeal their laws. So there are a number of states run by Democrats right now that have laws on the book s that would criminalize abortion. And they never bothered to make that argument. And it was, as you said, they had settled for left elite capture of the judicial system.

BERGER: Right.

SHEFFIELD: And assumed that was a permanent state of affairs. And so just opted out of the need entirely to explain themselves.

And it’s very different when you look at how [00:48:00] that same sex marriage became a popular belief. It was made by people who were opposed every step of the way by the institutionalist left. They told them, ‘Go away, we can’t help you with this. This would be damaging to us. I’m not going to help you. I’m against gay marriage. Oh, but I’m for it privately just so you know.’

Barack Obama did this. A bunch of people did it, they were privately in agreement with them, but they said, ‘Look, I can’t do anything for you. It’s too risky. You should just go with the courts.’

And they were like, ‘No, we can’t do that because the courts won’t rule in our favor until we can have that discussion with the people and have public demand for it. But even then, after Obergefell, there’s still a need for that continued advocacy and continue standing up for the victories that had been won.

There hasn’t been that interest, and so they never codified Roe beforehand. And then even after the opinion, they never bothered to codify it. And then finally after it did come, at one point they did put forward some legislation, but it actually did not match the guarantee of Roe.

And so there were some Republicans like Lisa Murkowski of Alaska who said she supported the Roe framework and she decided was she wasn’t going to go for this expansion of it. So they just kept making mistake after a mistake after mistake on this stuff. And this is just this issue is at the forefront right now in the news cycle, but this is what they’ve done on every other issue.

BERGER: I don’t know the history of Roe, this is one of the issues I would say I’m relatively unfamiliar with, in terms of every possible iteration in which Democrats could or should have done something different or better.

What I will say is that you mentioned the Federalist Society and people often say there’s really no progressive equivalent of that. But I think it’s really important to mention that there was an attempt to build something like this, but I think it’s called the American Constitution Society or something like this. The fact that I don’t even know the name is also telling, but I think it’s clarifying in terms of what you’re [00:50:00] describing in terms of liberals’ status quo based bias and focus on upholding what existed in kind of New Deal era consensus.

Because this institution, the American Constitution Society was very center left, right? It’s not a place to encounter new ideas, or to try to be arguing to the public. It is really something that is designed to help elite lawyers get career opportunities within the Democratic party.

And that is very different than what the Federalist Society was designed to do, which was to really change the ideological makeup of the Republican party, and to conquer it, and to take it over, and the judiciary. So I think, when we look at what that, what happens over time when you adopt those different mentalities, I think it does a lot to explain how we end up where we are today on Roe. And as you name so many other issues.

SHEFFIELD: So we talked a little bit about More Perfect Union, but tell us a little bit more about what that is, for people who don’t know what it is and what you do over there.

BERGER: We’re a nonprofit media advocacy organization that really focuses on building power for working people. We’ve been very active and covering a lot of the new labor fights that have been happening, Starbucks, and Amazon, and apple, and many of the others, that kind of have started over the last year or two. And that’s been something that we’ve spent a lot of time and energy on popularizing.

Obviously lots of other folks doing great work on that, but what we really realized, video was going to be very important in popularizing those ideas and creating an opportunity for organizers to do outreach through the content. So that’s been most of our focus in trying to build power for working people and be this kind of media outlet that’s able to put forth this new perspective and focus on issues that really are going to make a difference in the lives of people.

We’ve also branched out into covering stuff that’s not just kind of pure labor fights, and I’m part of the classroom team, which is a YouTube focused series that we produce that is [00:52:00] meant to kind of emulate some of the success of Prager U and to popularize progressive ideas on YouTube and help people in terms of kind of basic political education. We’ve been doing some experimenting. It’s been exciting and interesting for me. So that’s More Perfect Union.

SHEFFIELD: And when did you guys launch?

BERGER: We launched in, gosh, what is time during the pandemic? 2021? I want to say January 2021.

SHEFFIELD: So, we’re just getting close to the end here, and I think this has been a great discussion, Max, and but I guess you you had mentioned, that there has been the rise of at least a few socialist podcasts out there that have really had some success.

And what’s kind of disturbing to me is that some of them seem to be making millions and millions of dollars a year, but what are they doing with it to build the cause of socialism that they allegedly believe in? I mean, it seems to me that there’s something inherently wrong about becoming a multimillionaire socialist, but I don’t know, you tell me.

BERGER: I mean, I, I try to always look at those types of questions and whenever I see people doing things that are confusing or problematic, to try to understand it in a structural perspective, right? Like those are their incentives, right? And I think on some level, I do find it to be problematic, but I also think the deeper question or the harder question to answer is what is the project?

And I think part of what is difficult for those people, especially in a post Bernie world, especially for people for whom Bernie was really their first real political project is to ask themselves, ‘What are we trying to do here? What is the strategy? What is the theory of change? How do I, with my voice, with my platform, with my resources contribute to something that is bigger than myself that can accomplish the things that I probably genuinely wish to accomplish?’

And I think the challenge is that most of those folks don’t have a good answer. They don’t actually know. And this is why there’s this [00:54:00] whole conversation about being blackpilled and whatever. It’s like this turn towards nihilism, because people do not understand what is the project that they are part of.

And even if you were to say the project is socialism, that’s really unclear what you’re supposed to then do with that money.

SHEFFIELD: Or what does that even mean, socialism?

Or what does that even mean?

You have to define what that means first .

BERGER: Sure. Yeah. And so I think, it’s, to me, it’s actually, and this is maybe a little bit condescending or whatever, but I think it’s in another way, very generous is to say look, people go through a period of growth, a development as leaders and in understanding what their role is in the struggle, and in our democracy.

And a lot of these people are new and they don’t really understand what they’re doing yet. And they don’t really understand what the project is, and I hope they figure it out. And I have my own understanding of what the project is and how I would define it and what they could be doing to be helpful.

But I hope that they will find their own. And it is definitely frustrating that it’s taken as long as it has, but in another perspective, if you look at it historically, this stuff does take a long time. And so people are totally unsupported in figuring out these questions.

There’s no space for them to be processing them. We don’t have a party, right? This is something I talk about with my friends all the time at Justice Democrats, and Sunrise, and other places where we all have to do this cockamamie alphabet soup thing, where I work at this institution or this institution, or I have this podcast, or buppedeebuppa. If we lived in a rational, decent society, even just a normal European democracy, we would all just be operatives in the left party, and it wouldn’t be this complicated. ‘Oh, you’re a really talented comms person, you’re really talented communicator? Oh great. You host the official podcast.’

If you’re Chapo Trap House, and you are clearing three to 5 million a year, what do you do with that? You have the same challenge and questions as a foundation. Are those guys set up to run a small socialist foundation? No. They weren’t even doing this stuff three years ago. [00:56:00]

Now, I would hope they would find someone that they trust and that they would listen to, or that they spend the time to figure it out. But that’s a lot of work. And it’s complicated, and it’s confusing, and it’s hard emotionally because you have to actually make difficult choices about what isn’t going to work.

SHEFFIELD: And then also, I mean, in this nascent space, there are a lot of grifters out there that are trying to take advantage of the public or take advantage of various figures and latch on. I mean, AOC gets that all the time as well, that people are always trying to glom onto her.

BERGER: Right. Of course. But I and I, yeah, exactly. So I think it’s hard to know what you– I mean on some level it’s simple, it’s just like give the money to DSA and have them run state candidates. If you can’t think of anything better than give the money to Justice Democrats, give the money to other podcasters who are going to do similar things.

Like sure. That’s great. I’m for that. But I think part of what makes Rush Limbaugh, when he was alive, he understood that he was running an insurgency against the Republican party, but that people had to vote and they had to vote for the right Republicans, but they had a strategy, right? They had a strategy around realigning the Republican party towards the conservative movement. What is this theory of change? No pun intended for any of these other podcasts.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah.

BERGER: They don’t have one, and I–

SHEFFIELD: And it is a tricky question. But I guess one of the other, and it’s a related topic to this, and that is that if you ask people, you look at polls, is the country going in the right direction or the wrong direction, overwhelmingly people say the wrong direction. ‘Things are not going where I want them. The system has failed me.’

And of course, the institutionalist left, the center-left, they cannot even begin to understand that critique. And so of course they can’t respond to it in any meaningful way.

And so basically that leaves this gaping hole for a progressive or leftist response to that. And this is a real urgent need in the present moment, because there is another system out there that is offering critique and a understanding of that the system is broken and that’s the [00:58:00] fascist critique, which is, ‘Yes, you are right. Your life is terrible. And it is those other people’s fault. And so therefore the only way we can fix this is to have christofascism, because the system is broken and we must destroy it.’

And that’s an argument that is being made to millions of 20 somethings on YouTube and millions of people on talk radio. So there’s this drastic need for people to carry this critique out there. To sing the music that people want you to sing.

BERGER: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. I think it’s a real interregnum between the existing order has collapsed in terms of its legitimacy and the incumbent elites who oversaw that. The center left elites are completely incapable of comprehending that fact or articulating–

SHEFFIELD: Because the system works for them. It worked.

BERGER: Right, because they are–

SHEFFIELD: It’s great.

BERGER: They identify with it, on a host of different levels. And this is maybe an aside, but there’s this whole Twitter debate about what can Biden really even do right now about Roe, that I think is emblematic of this broader conversation.

And where I come in with this stuff is like, ‘Look, it is actually true that crisis is not just a failure of legitimacy, but at this point, it’s like a real un-governable state challenge. We actually can’t pass laws that are going to meaningfully materially improve the lives of working people.

And so to go out there and promise them that we can, is in some ways to lie to them. But I think what you can do when you’re facing that kind of challenge is to be honest with people about the fact that the institutions are now a part of the problem, and that if we want to solve things that we need more democracy, we need more popular rule.

We need more power and wealth for working people and less for the elites. And if that means that we need to change the institutions, then that’s what that means. And I think the failure of Biden’s presidency thus far, and really the failure [01:00:00] of the liberal establishment is to be clear in articulating that to Democratic voters and to the public at large, to working people.

Because right now, what people are getting is this shit doesn’t work. No one cares about me. Nothing is happening. People make promises, nothing happens and my life is getting worse and there’s nothing I can do about it.

And even if the political elite can’t say, here’s what we can do right now to fix it for you, what they should be saying is, well, then we’re going to get all this, these obstacles out of the way, and we’re going to change the institutions so that they actually work for you. And we need your help with that.

The fact that kind of argument would never occur to these people, it would never occur to these people. So what that does is it creates this huge vacuum, this huge opportunity for the left to provide leadership and to articulate what this country could be.

If it actually was designed to work for regular people, how your life would be different. And I think there definitely been attempts by people like AOC and others, by Bernie, obviously my former boss Warren, to like try to do versions of that. I think what’s really challenging is within the limitations of our political system to figure out how to do that?

And unfortunately, I think really the only opportunity that the left will have to gain a megaphone big enough that regular Americans will hear is through a presidential primary.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and through as many media outlets as they can create along the way.

BERGER: Amen. Amen.

SHEFFIELD: All right. Well, it’s been a great conversation, Max. You’re on Twitter at maxberger, that’s B-E-R-G-E-R for those listening. And then people can also check you out at More Perfect Union. I encourage people to visit and subscribe. You guys are doing a lot of great stuff.

BERGER: Thanks. It’s been a pleasure.

SHEFFIELD: So that’s our show for today.

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