Current Affairs

A Very Nice and Polite [2019] Argument with Ezra Klein

Revisit this 2019 sitdown between Current Affairs editor-in-chief Nathan J. Robinson and founder and editor-at-large of Vox, Ezra Klein. Together, they debate (in a very friendly manner) the successes and failures of the Bernie Sanders campaign, incremental change versus radical change, and whether Nathan was justified in writing mean things about Vox in 2016.

This interview from August 2019 originally aired on the Current Affairs podcast, and can be hear on Patreon, embedded below, or wherever you listen to podcasts! This transcript has been cut for length and lightly edited for clarity.

Nathan J. Robinson:

Good evening, Current Affairs listeners. I am here with Mr. Ezra Klein. He is the founder and editor-at-large at Vox.com. I’m sorry, what is an editor-at-large? 

Ezra Klein:

Oh, see, that’s the whole point of the editor-at-large title. Nobody knows.

NJR:

Yeah.

EK:

You’re an editor, but you’re “at large.” 

NJR:

We have an editor-at-large, actually, but we have it because she is literally “at large.”

EK:

Me, too. I mean, Vox is based in D.C., I’m here in California. I mean, God knows where I am on any given day. I can tell you how I do the position, but I can’t, I think the nature of the position is that it varies from person to person.

NJR:

I think the reason I want to ask you this is because I want to know to what degree you can be held responsible for Vox at this point.

EK:

Well, I mean, you can hold me responsible as a founder, but I can’t, I don’t speak for the organization in the way that I did, say, when I was editor-in-chief.

NJR:

Right. So do you, day to day, oversee the production of content other than your own?

EK:

No.

NJR:

Okay. So you’re just devoted full-time to writing.

EK:

No, I’m about half sort of strategic stuff, helping to launch new products, you know, like I do a lot of work on our Netflix show or partnerships or that kind of thing, but I’m not running a daily editorial meeting.

NJR:

Okay, that’s interesting. Because one of the things I want to ask you about is, so just to start off here with a little bit of context, it’s kind of funny that you and I are talking because I have been somewhat rude to Vox and to you personally in the pages of Current Affairs magazine, and I wrote an article in 2016 about Vox where I was very strongly critical and what’s interesting to me looking back on it is that I…was looking at Vox this morning, and I was going, “Why was I so mad? What was I pissed off about?” And I looked and the first headlines today are, four out of five are about workers, they’re about Amazon workers, fast food workers, housekeepers, and I was like this is a publication that I have no beef with. And then I [thought], “Wait, has Vox changed since the Vox that I wrote about?” And I looked, I started using the way-back machine, and I have to say I opened 2015 Vox at random and the first articles I saw were “How NAFTA Got Us More Avocados,” “Why George Bush is a Better President than Liberals Give Him Credit For,” and “What It’s Like to Write Jokes for President Obama,” and I think you’ve moved left. I think Vox has moved left since I wrote about it, and I like, and link to, a ton of Vox stuff these days, and I don’t feel the same anger, and I look back and my anger seems more inexplicable. Do you accept that Vox has changed in its voice and tone?

EK:

So let me think about this. So I will say, I went back and looked at your piece, because you had mentioned it to me in our e-mail about this, and I read it at the time, and I was so excited for this conversation, I got mad at you all over again. So, I will say that whatever I say next, I think that piece is incredibly unfair, and we can, and I’d happily talk about it. But, do I think Vox has moved left? I think that the conversation in general has moved left and we’ve probably moved somewhat with it. It is different, and the cleavages are different. Writing in the age of Donald Trump than in the sort of waning age of Barack Obama. Right? And so you’re saying you went into the way-back machine and pulled up a 2015…. 

NJR:

Yeah.

EK:

The homepage, I assume, versus today in 2019, and so I do just think that part of it is that there is a different set of debates happening. I think that if you had a debate, say about free trade and NAFTA, I haven’t read the article you’re talking about with NAFTA and avocados, but I think probably Vox or a lot of members of Vox, probably have more pro free trade views than you do. Right? I think that’s true today. But I also think that that debate in that particular way has become less salient, and so you’re not seeing it quite as much. I don’t think the views about workers at Vox are any different today than they were really in 2015. There might be. We have somewhat more coverage of different things and so for instance Recode has joined with Vox now so we are talking sort of more about Amazon workers and things like that, and I think we try to be sensitive and serious about those issues. It’s part of the coverage we’ve built. Remember 2015 is only a year after we’ve launched, so a lot of the coverage we were planning to do wasn’t happening quite then at that point. But yeah, I think some of it’s probably evolution, some of it’s probably the conversation, some of it’s also probably just our capacities.

NJR:

I mean, I don’t know if I’m correctly picking up that when I see Dylan Matthews or Matt Yglesias writing today they’ve drifted a little more towards the Bernie side of the Democratic party than they might have been. I mean, I know there are some writers who have explicitly changed their minds on things. Like German Lopez was very notoriously, sort of anti-Vox and then changed his mind over time. It’s hard to say, you know, I don’t have empirical evidence on any.

EK:

Let me give, I think, maybe a better push on this, what I suspect is going on. One, let me actually speak for myself as opposed to Matt or Dylan or anybody else. I think that probably in a lot of ways I have moved left, but I wouldn’t exactly say that the way I’ve experienced it is moving left. I am open to and having a somewhat different conversation than I was in 2015. And the way that things feel differently to me is that they’re not bounded in the same way they were then by political institutions. So in 2015 after however many years of covering Obama and covering, you know, bills going through the Senate and getting killed by the filibuster, there’s a real sense of the limits of the possible and you begin to internalize that quite a bit. Right? So what is possible? What are you arguing about? Little tweaks to Obamacare here, changes to whatever the budget allocations there, and things just feel very small. And then you go through 2016 and everything explodes open. It doesn’t just explode in the sense that Donald Trump gets elected, but also obviously Bernie Sanders shows that a lot of things people took as received political wisdom were untrue, and now we’re sort of in this pre-2020 stage where candidates are coming out with lots of very ambitious and big plans that again are, I think, very unbounded by political institutions. Now, I wonder, I wonder this for everybody involved, if Bernie Sanders is President in 2021 or Elizabeth Warren or Joe Biden or all kinds of people we can imagine here, as people get back to those choices that are forced upon you by the American political system, like where different people will come down and what kinds of tensions and fissures will reemerge in some of the places where people are feeling a little bit more copacetic now. I think that’ll be interesting and I expect that to happen. But, yeah, for right now, I think there’s a lot more space than there was back then, or certainly I feel more space and more need to do some more utopian imagining.

NJR:

I think one of the critiques that would have been made at the time, though, and one of the frustrations that leftists have always had with what is described fairly or unfairly as kind of centrist or liberal wonkery, is that you sort of create the limits of the possible through not considering other things. That the possible was always there, but when you narrow your focus, when you don’t have a big, broad vision… I mean, I agree with you, by the way, that I was unfair in that article. Looking back I [thought], “Oh, that’s not really not fair.” But in my defense, I was not as unfair as Bhaskar Sunkara, his article about Vox, which said that it had been drained of humanity and was sort of politics as turned into, I think, robotic, it’s something robotic. It’s very nasty.

EK:

The way I would put it is I think there is a lot of performative positioning around Vox by some folks on the left who wanted to draw distinctions. And I don’t actually think Bhaskar would disagree with that way of putting it. But let me respond to what you’re saying there because I think this is actually really important. There are a bunch of places where I think both things are true, and I think both your critique there and the counter argument I’m going to make here are true simultaneously. I think there is no doubt that in absorbing a lot of the constraints of political institutions or conventional wisdom about, say, what people think of the word “socialist” or what they think of Medicare-for-all or what happened in 1994 to the Clinton healthcare bill, you end up constraining the possible, right? I mean, things change in part when people are willing to imagine that they can change. And so those kinds of constraints on the conversation can be really damaging. 

By the same token, I think the left really lacks a theory of political institutions right now. I end up in a lot of discussions with folks where it seems to me that there is simply an insistence that things will change, that they will be different, that if you simply imagine there is no Senate, you don’t have to cut a deal with Joe Manchin, you are not going to have a drainage of enthusiasm in the system as things begin to go through the legislative process, you’re not going to have to go through the House rules committee. All these things that are the rocks on which reform crashes in American political life again and again and again and again and again, that they all somehow go away. There will be a political revolution. There will be something. And I think that is going to be a real difficult thing for the left to navigate if they get into power. I have this joke lately, you know the old thing that like a neo-conservative is a liberal who was mugged by reality? I joke that a neo-liberal is a liberal who got mugged by political institutions. And I think that there has to be something, there has to be some learning from both sides here. You have to sort of be able to hold both models together at the same time.

NJR:

I completely accept that realism and pragmatism are important, and actually one of the reasons that I don’t like, and especially anymore I don’t like, the term “wonk” is that I think we need, I think it’s disparate, you know, you kind of have always embraced it, but I don’t think we should disparage it. I think you need people who care about the policy details, and that’s why I’m so…

EK:

See, that is.. .

NJR:

Yeah.

EK:

That is a big evolution from that article. [Laughter]

NJR:

Yeah, and seeing people like Matt Bruenig with the People’s Policy Project or Marshall Steinbaum who writes for us, people on the left who are really super serious about data, that’s so exciting to me. And I’ve been frustrated by Bernie Sanders because I think, you know, I’m like get past the talking points. And I loved, for example, like Abdul El-Sayed when he ran for governor of Michigan put out like these 50-page policy documents.

EK:

Yeah, that was a very exciting campaign.

NJR:

And I thought that’s so cool to see like lefty policy documents that, and I think it’s also critical to making the vision seem more real, making it seem like it isn’t puppies and rainbows and is something that could happen. At the same time, the response that I would give to what you’re saying, though, is I agree that we have to think about how political institutions work, how the Senate works, how things get through it, but I also think that you get into this kind of acceptance without, and if you fail to think about how you change the Senate, this was my frustration with Barack Obama, is that Barack Obama wasn’t out organizing people and wasn’t out campaigning. I mean, even you wrote, I mean not even you, you wrote during the Obama years, I think…

EK:

Even a neo-liberal scum like Ezra Klein…

NJR:

No!

EK:

…Wrote. [Laughter]

NJR:

You wrote a thing about the collapse of the Democratic party as they lost offices all around the country, and [in] reading the memoirs of people in the Obama administration, I feel like they went, “Well, Joe Lieberman won’t sign onto it so we can’t get it” instead of thinking the next step, “Well, how do we threaten Joe Lieberman?” It didn’t enter into the calculus, this long-term political strategy.

EK:

So that’s wrong, I think. Let me say two things here. One is that I don’t think anybody, I literally think this might be true, that nobody in political journalism writes more about how to change the Senate than I do. The number of articles I have written over the past ten years about the filibuster and about apportionment, because I actually care so much about political institutions, because I see them as the foremost impediment to change in American political life, they’re the thing that even if you could get a majority, they destroy the hopes of that majority and then they disillusion people with the system. The reason I am constantly banging pots about the filibuster and about how the Senate works is because I really worry about it and because I think it is a central problem in our politics. That said, this is one of those places where people did think about it. They may have come to the wrong conclusion, but they did think about it, and what they thought was going to happen. It’s not that nobody had the idea in a meeting. What if you got to Ben Nelson’s state Nebraska? What if you’re Barack Obama, you go to Ben Nelson’s state Nebraska, and you give a big speech about how Ben Nelson is bad? Will he vote for a public option then? What if you do it to Joe Lieberman? And the answer people came to was no, like they would turn against you more. That would actually be in some weird way good for Ben Nelson as he tries to court red voters in Nebraska. And Joe Lieberman was already, I mean, look, you can go to my Wikipedia page, there’s a whole thing there, like the only thing anybody for some reason remembers about me during this period is that I accused Joe Lieberman of being willing to cause the deaths of thousands and thousands of people to settle an old grudge with liberals.

NJR:

That was great.

EK:

Which I think is basically…

NJR:

That was one of your finest moments.

EK:

…A correct assessment of the situation.

NJR:

I’ve never loved you more.

EK:

Thank you. But that said, the only way they were going to get Joe Lieberman’s vote was by placating him. So there is, I think, this constant view of well, what if you could just force him, right? Twist their arm? But it turns out when you look at what are the powers you have to twist the arm of a lot of these swing votes, it’s weak. Now, if you were looking at 51 votes and you had 59, well, then you have a little bit more running room. Then it’s like you have some leverage over the people, at least conceptually, but when it’s that razor-thin of a margin, you don’t have that much power and sometimes I think people are, I think this is all over the system, people are very unwilling to just find themselves in a place of there’s good no option here. Like there isn’t we live in a fallen world and whatever is going to happen here is going to kind of suck, and that has been my experience watching legislation go through a bunch of times. And I’m not saying to people they should start from that perspective, but the idea that there is some really smooth way of doing this, where you could have gotten everything you wanted, people who think seriously about this and their whole jobs and careers and life’s work were on the line were trying to figure this out, and they may not have come to the right conclusion, but I wouldn’t totally dismiss that they thought of and rejected some of the obvious options here.

NJR:

I think my basic problem is with what I consider a kind of short-term thinking and the acceptance that the existing arrangements of political power are kind of the arrangements of political power. So you look, well, what could we do in this particular state, but the failure to articulate like a very long-term vision. I mean, this is why I like Bernie, this is why I like what Jacobin is doing, because I feel like they get up every day thinking, “How do we win converts? How do we take the number of people who do not agree with us on day one and turn it into that many plus one on day two? And how do we do that over the course of years and years and years?” That’s how I look at what I do. I go, and the letters that I like getting, are the ones from conservatives where they go, “I thought you were a crazy socialist. I read this and now I am a bit more to the left.” And I’m like, “Ah, yes, got another one, got another one,” and building that sort of ideological shift over time that I think is the precondition of the shift in the arrangements of political power, and that’s almost the thing that I wish there was more focus on. And I don’t know if you think of yourself as someone who’s trying to sway people or change minds or organize as part of a social movement.

EK:

It’s a good question. So, one, I agree that I also like the work that Bernie and Jacobin and Current Affairs for that matter and a lot of folks are doing. I want this kind of work to be happening. I do some of it myself, right? I’ve been trying to move, everybody likes talking about moving the Overton window, I’ve been trying to move the Overton window on political institutions for a long time, that’s part of my project personally because I want people to look at this. I’m doing a podcast tomorrow with Utopia for Realists, Bregman. What’s his first name?

NJR:

Oh, yeah, Rutger.

EK:

Yes. Because I think this kind of utopian thinking is really important, and so I try to amplify it and make sure people are hearing it. So I certainly see part of my work as at least exploring these kinds of ideas, and I certainly see my work personally as trying to get converts for the ideas that I think are good ideas, that I’ve, you know, whatever come through my reporting and research and podcasting. So, sure. I just don’t think it’s all that different. I mean, I think that if I’m being totally honest about my own political cosmology, I have a view which I don’t like having. I don’t like this perspective and I don’t want to have it, that the boundaries on politics are a lot narrower than I want them to be. Let me turn the question around in this way, because I think it will get us somewhere productive. Bernie Sanders, in 2016, I think did something really startling, right? I think that the political movement he led, the way he performed in the Democratic primary, was remarkable. And the theory that has emerged from that, the theory that powered it was this idea of political revolution. But instead of in this period of time between then and now, when Bernie Sanders has gone from being a gadfly politician on the very left-most edge of the Democratic party in the Senate to being perhaps the most important party politician in the Democratic party in the country. Instead of building support, he’s lost it. He’s polling lower in New Hampshire than he did in 2016, polling lower in Iowa than he did in 2016, polling lower nationally than he ultimately did in 2016, and recognizing there’s a big field so things look a little bit different, for folks who believe that that’s the path forward, that the public is malleable and has been waiting for someone like Sanders, what’s the explanation for that?

NJR:

Well, I don’t think it’s that they’ve been necessarily waiting for someone like Sanders as it is that the public will be very strongly receptive to left ideas. And personally, I think that Sanders has made a number of mistakes. I think that was avoidable. I think a lot of that drop in support was pretty avoidable.

EK:

What do you think the mistakes were?

NJR:

For one thing, he’s done a lot less cultivating new blood, cultivating new organizations, going around, keeping them… Our revolution has had a lot of internal organizational problems, people who have tried to get involved with it have said [it’s] completely disorganized, the Sander’s campaign itself seems to be a little disorganized. I get frustrated, for example, with his performance at the debate. One thing that I thought, Elizabeth Warren is in some polls exceeding Sanders now and I thought, for example, Elizabeth Warren’s coming out as the policy person and having that be her angle; that was not inevitable, right? If the Sanders campaign had come out on day one with the Abdul level of, “Here’s my ten 50-page policy papers,” there’s no room for Elizabeth Warren to then go, “I’m the one with policies,” because you’ve already come out with policies, so the fact that they didn’t do that means that they’ve now created this huge opening for someone to say, “I’m the one who can get things done, I’m the one who’s thought about this,” but all he had to do was assign someone to actually write some things up and add some numbers and really present some plausible things and you could deal with a lot of the criticisms of Sanders that are quite fair. I find it very difficult to deal with people who say, “Well, how’s this actually going to work?” With Abdul, that was easy. You go, “Here, let me show you the MichCare plan, let me show you all the numbers, let me show you how they work.” I mean, you wrote about Sanders’ single-payer plan in 2016. I mean, I think there were fair criticisms of your article, but…I still thought that you are right in the sense that it was avoidable. There are plenty of ways that you can present a universal healthcare plan that don’t open you up to everyone going, “This is puppies and rainbows.” 

EK:

I think there’s a lot to that. One thing I would pull back that you just were talking about, because I think about this a lot, it is a consistent story that I see in politics, that you’ll have a very charismatic politician emerge during a campaign. A movement will build around them and there’ll be all this press and also legitimate claims that this is one of the most amazing grassroots movements we’ve seen in the history of American politics, right? Barack Obama in 2008 but then Bernie Sanders in 2016. And then a couple of years later you’re talking to people about what happened to that, and you get a[n] answer a bunch of avoidable mistakes got made. People demobilized, things were confused, the candidate made some mistakes in terms of how they led it, things got internally disorganized… The point is not that you can’t do big picture, kind of large-scale organizing. The point is simply that there tends to be a narrative that attaches to each one of these things where it’s always like people made a bunch of avoidable mistakes as opposed to it’s just structurally incredibly hard to do because people, I don’t know, they get distracted and then particularly it’s unbelievably hard to do once you’re actually in the political process and people are getting disappointed by the compromises you have to make and how long everything is taking and things are now tied up in court and they think: this was not how it was supposed to go.

And that’s part of my, I don’t want to call it a pessimism because, and this is going to take me back to something in your article, I think there is something genuine and encouraging in believing you can make things better even if it is slower than you wish it were, and even if it is less transformative than you wish it were. But I think that there are boundaries on this stuff that I don’t want to say they are always there, but I think that they at least need to be taken seriously and I would like to see better arguments for why they are going to be different this time, particularly given the surrounding structures of political power and particularly political geography in this country.

NJR:

One point is we haven’t had a left Presidential candidate who’s a self-declared Democratic Socialist ever before. I don’t think, I don’t see it the same way as you do as like we’ve tried over and over again and the same thing happens every time, because from the left perspective Barack Obama was always a centrist. He was always a person who wanted to achieve…

EK:

Absolutely.

NJR:

Real strong compromises between Republicans and Democrats, so I don’t…

EK:

But this is why I asked you the question about Bernie Sanders 2016 to 2020, because one thing that I try to do, a funny thing is that I’m often, I think, framed as somebody who doesn’t like Bernie Sanders, but I actually quite do. I covered Bernie Sanders for years in the Senate. I actually thought he had a really strong, in many ways, policy operation, particularly for a Senator who was not in charge of, at that point, major committees and so forth.

NJR:

He’s the amendment king, of the house.

EK:

He’s the amendment king. He worked very well inside the system in a way I don’t think people often give him credit for. When you move to being a presidential candidate, I cover your policies with more rigor and people didn’t like that, and I think oftentimes a Sanders campaign and sort of world will take something that could be understood as a constructive criticism as implacable opposition. But all that said, one thing that I took very seriously in watching Sanders build is like maybe we’re all wrong. Right? Maybe it’s really wrong what you can do in American politics. If Bernie Sanders is building this kind of movement, maybe something is really different here, and my view very much in this intervening period was one, I thought Sanders was correcting a bunch of real mistakes from 2016. I thought he brought on a lot of really good staffers, people like Matt Duss, who I think has strengthened his foreign policy side immeasurably; Ari Rabin-Havt and Faiz Shakir I thought was a good choice to lead the campaign. A lot of those folks are very smart. He brought on strong health policy staffers in the Senate, he did a really good job getting people onto his big bills in the Senate, so he, I mean, did a remarkable job moving the center of political gravity in the Democratic party. But, by the same token, if you were taking seriously the theory of political revolution and the theory that exposed finally at long last to a Democratic Socialist candidate, that that would build momentum, people were waiting for something like that and they wanted it, I think your hypothesis would have been something different than what we have seen in the pattern of his support. So my point here is not even that Bernie Sanders is not a good candidate, it’s actually that I think he’s probably one of the Democrats with the best chance to win in 2020 if he’s nominated, but I’m just skeptical that it will look different than a Democratic candidacy as opposed to, it’s left me more not less skeptical about political revolution.

NJR:

Ezra, how about the fact that all of the candidates on the stage are competing to sound as much like 2016 Bernie Sanders as possible? I mean, I think one of the reasons it’s difficult for Bernie to sustain the kind of support that he had in 2016 is because he no longer has a unique pitch. Like, what separates…

EK:

I agree.

NJR:

…Him from all of the other candidates that adopted his 2016 agenda? So that doesn’t really suggest anything about the agenda. In fact, if anything, that really shows you that the strength of and persistence of how he’s moved the political debate, and now he’s struggling to find a unique angle.

EK:

I totally agree. You’re framing that as a disagreement with me, but I think we’re agreeing. [Laughter] I think the thing we’re seeing here is that to me, Bernie Sanders has been incredibly, incredibly effective as a policy change agent within the Democratic party, and I think also as an individual politician. And you know, to the other conversation we were having about political organizing, I think that’s been the part that’s been hard. I think building a political movement where it seems that you can kind of wipe away some of the normal impediments of American politics, that my priors are not super changed by given what we’ve seen over the past couple years, but in terms of certainly where the center of the Democratic party is going to be, that’s very different. Now, what will happen when you, if you get into power and you’ve got,if they do well, 52 Democrats in the Senate? I don’t know. Right? A lot of my background in writing this stuff comes from writing about healthcare policy and how it’s gone through the ages and the thing that tends to happen is failure, so I worry a lot about what happens when all this collides with the system. But nevertheless, the degree to which it has moved the Democratic party well to the left on particularly healthcare, I think, is extraordinary, and is something I’m very complimentary of.

NJR:

But then it has changed the institution because you’ve got a bunch of people, your Democratic candidates, support different things than what they used to support, right? Democrats that would never have signed on to something before now sign on to them because the Sanders’ campaign successfully shifted them.

EK:

Yes. I’m sorry. I think now we’ve sort of gotten into where we’re arguing slightly different things. I don’t disagree with any of that. I have some ideas about institutions here that are sort of like holding steady, but I certainly agree, and am the first to say, that it’s moved the healthcare debate well to the left. That’s a big thing to change.

NJR:

Yeah. But this is why so many of us were so frustrated when we heard people like Hillary Clinton saying single-payer will never, ever, ever happen, right? Because you are creating that reality by making that assertion. Sign on, say it will happen, and then we can make the compromise. But you’ve compromised from the outset.

EK:

Here’s a place where I do think I disagree with the implicit theory. I’ve been wanting to write a piece about this, but I think there’s this idea that I’ve come to think of as Overton window politics, right? And it’s embedded in what you just said, right? Sign on, say single-payer, say you’ll get rid of all the health insurers and everything, and then you start all the way to 10. And then look, if in bargaining through the political system you have to take four points off, but you started at 10 and end with a 6, then you start with a 7 and end with a 3. Right? And I think if you open the guts of what people are saying there, it assumes an outcome, right? It assumes that something happens on the other side. But I think, and I think if you’re asking Hillary Clinton in this case, whose healthcare politics I don’t exactly share, but I think I kind of share some of this view, at least, the modal outcome is not something happens but you have to lose four points on it no matter where you start. The modal outcome is nothing happens and you get annihilated in the midterms. And that is what has happened with most efforts at healthcare reform ever, and Obamacare was remarkable in that something actually got done, but even with 60 Democrats that got compromised within an inch of its life and it almost died at the end of the day and there was a huge political backlash, and then the Supreme Court began to gut it. So I think that it is not, actually, the right move.

I think there’s a good reason to do it if you’re just trying to move the Democratic party to the left on things, but the idea that you would start with a bunch of very unpopular ideas in the healthcare space, like getting rid of all the insurers and very, very big tax increases, includes the middle class, and expect that what will happen is you will get bargained down as opposed to what will happen is that as soon as you come into contact with the political system, you will get demagogued within an inch of your life and that will be the end of your majority forever and you’ll have failed, I think people need to take the possibility of failure a lot more seriously there. And this, I think, is hopefully generative tension between people who have a certain view of the system’s constraints and people who operate outside of it; you don’t want to be all one or all the other, but they give the folks who have an idea of, this might go really badly, that they’re just talking out their ass. I think that’s wrong. I think that folks who, like Hillary Clinton’s whole idea of healthcare, is generated by the failure of ’94 and the failure of ’94 is a really searing thing for Democrats and for good reason and is something that I think that people should learn more lessons from even today.

NJR:

But my lesson from that is how do we fight? How do we message effectively? How do we make it so that we don’t just accept, oh, these things poll unpopularly, right? Tax increases. How do we make it so that people actually understand what it means for their pocketbook? What it means for their bottom line? How do we make it so they understand how many people get thrown off their employer health insurance every year so that getting rid of private insurance doesn’t sound like, “Oh, you know, everyone’s going to lose their insurance and end up with nothing” when you poll it? I think about, and I think, you know, you’ve got to be honest with people, you’ve got to say, “This is a long-term project. We lose, we lose a lot of fights.” We still have to lay out a very, very clear and ambitious and utopian almost vision where people can go, “I understand that, I understand the kind of world that you’re trying to make and I’m not confused by it. It really makes sense to me and I know I can expect disappointment.” So I agree with you that you’ve got to set people up where, if something fails they’re not going to go, “Well, you promised and then you didn’t deliver,” but instead they’re going to go, “Well, failure was a part of a long-term fight that we do sign on to.”

EK:

So I don’t disagree with that, actually, and I think it’s important. And I think one thing that I wish people just appreciated more in general is that the political system needs all kinds of people doing all kinds of things. It needs some people working inside of it and making compromises, it needs some people outside of it generating utopian vision, it needs activists, it needs organizers, it needs wonks, it needs all kinds… everybody’s got a role to play for better and for worse. So when I say this next thing, it’s actually not to take away from that. But to go back to the piece you wrote, because I was scanning it today, and one of the things you wrote about me in that was the wonks have no vision, right? What you wrote, I think, what does Ezra Klein even want any of this policy for?

NJR:

What is it? And I wanted to ask you that today. What is Ezra Klein’s utopia?

EK:

What do the wonks even want any of this policy for? And something I sometimes hear when politics is made into this grand game of competing visions and we’re going to fail and we’re going to fail and we’re going to fail and maybe someday we’ll get… You know what I want when people are governing? I want to make people’s lives better right the fuck now. I have done in my life a lot of healthcare reporting and a lot of reporting about what is happening to people right now, and so oftentimes what I want when people are being, not at this point in the process but way later in it purest, when I was arguing with the people in 2010 who wanted to allow the entirety of the Affordable Care Act to die because they would prefer to remain pure on the public option, which is one of those I think moments of real, like which side are you on? The reason I fall down on the side I am is that my vision is that this is a tough world and we can make people’s lives better now and we should and we are never going to get everything that we want and so we’ve got to do our best. And that doesn’t take away from there being a longer-term effort and people trying to move the Overton window and I try to do that, too, but I do think people underestimate the need to, actually; it is oftentimes the people willing to cut the compromise who are able to get an earned income tax credit increase for 5 million people and that’s a really big deal to those 5 million people. And so sometimes I wish there was not such a distaste for the incremental politics. I wish people could see incremental and transformative as not necessarily being opposed but as building on each other, because another view I have about politics is if you’re able to bring good things to people that will make them more open to more happening in the future, but if you just fail, if you just fail and disappoint them, then they turn against you, then it’s broken promises and they turn against you. And so something I think that sometimes people are a little bit dismissive of is that there are visions that are non-transformative, visions that are just unfortunately this is now a binary choice between a bit better and no different at all and we’ve got to choose a bit better.

NJR:

But Bernie Sanders understands that.

EK:

I completely agree with you.

NJR:

So…

EK:

I’m only responding to you here, I’m not here with Bernie.

NJR:

Why is the vision incrementalist? Like, again, what is Ezra Klein’s utopia? Is there….

EK:

Ezra Klein’s utopia, and I’d have to do some thinking about it, but Ezra Klein’s utopia is probably, and I’ve written this a bunch of times, it’s probably a healthcare system that looks a lot like the French one. I’ve become more, I would call it universal basic income curious over the years. I would like to see a lot of the current welfare state dissolved down into a large cash payment that people could do what they want with but that doesn’t come at the cost of basic social safety supports. So I would like to see something like a guaranteed standard of living. I would like something like a negative income tax or probably a basic income but I’m still thinking that bit through. I would like to see much larger rates of immigration. I don’t think we can be politically stable with open borders, but immigration is something that matters a lot to me. My father’s an immigrant and that means a lot. And then the other thing that I would say that’s increasingly core to my politics is that I think the country should be a democracy. I think that it should be governed more cleanly along the lines of what does the majority actually want and that we have so many systems and political institutions and veto points dedicated to foiling majorities, we are so much more comfortable with the politics of nothing happening than the possibility that something will happen and it will be a bad thing because people wanted a bad thing to happen, and I would like to flip the line on that. I think we should certainly have minority protections and individual rights protections, but I would like to see us be much more of a country where majorities can have their wills turned into action. So I think that’s some of the utopia. And then I think there’s a lot about my utopia that probably can’t be achieved through politics.

NJR:

It strikes me as you say this that you definitely, there’s definitely a very strong difference between the way that you think about the world and way the socialists think about the world. Because open borders, to me, is like just such a completely morally necessary part of a just world to where, to say, well, you know…

EK:

Well, a lot of socialists don’t agree with that, right? I mean, like say Bernie Sanders…

NJR:

Not, not all but, well… 

EK:

Who is a Democratic Socialist. I asked him about this and he said…

NJR:

Yeah, I know you did, and he said that’s a Koch brothers… But then a bunch of the socialists got really made at him. But to me, like it’s just a world in which you can just go, where everyone could just go where they please. Like we say, yeah, you know, it wouldn’t make America stable if it opened its borders, I’d probably agree with that, but you know, when you think 200 years in the future, 500 years in the future, and you know many of us came to socialist politics because we take a very, very long-term view of humanity. Yeah, we think, oh, we want to make people’s lives better right now and we certainly don’t want things to get worse and descend into the abyss before they get better, but we think what will life be like on earth in 10,000 years and how do we sort of move very steadily as, and we see ourselves as part of this incredibly long, this long journey towards this much, much different world.

EK:

I think that’s great. [Laughter] I guess I don’t know what to say exactly. There’s a lot in my own political thinking that is unsettled. You know, I’ll say that as a start here. And things that I’m trying to explore and work through and things that are changing. But one of the things that I wonder a lot about is I don’t have a clear view, a clear perspective exactly on human nature. I think that there are things we can say about people and things that I am just not sure about, and so you know one of the things that holds me back a little bit on open borders, look, if I thought, if I was certain that we could handle open borders, I would be for them. But I look at what larger rates of immigration have done to politics across the EU and I look at what they’re doing here, and you’re saying, “Well, look, like this is a 10,000 year project,” and great, God bless, maybe in 10,000 years that will be different and I’m open to that idea, too. But I don’t know why, but if you assume that there is some boundaries on what people are going to tolerate there, then I don’t want a utopia that ends in a dystopia.

And so, you know, the thing I always say on immigration is I want the maximum level of immigration for moral reasons and that is consistent with political stability, that is, like you’re getting immigration that does not create more of a backlash than the benefits of the immigration and I don’t where there line is. I just don’t. And it might be different today than it will be in 30 years and, you know, in 10,000 years when the AI’s are the only ones on earth, like it might be totally different because what does it mean when we’re all uploaded into the cloud to have open borders. Those are places where it’s a little hard for me to be a utopian thinker. It’s, you know, I’m a little foreign from having done years and years of political reporting inside institutions and that will create boundaries on you in certain ways but not all of those boundaries are worthless. Having some recognition of the ways that it can all go wrong is not a totally worthless thing to have inside your own thinking. 

NJR:

Oh, God, no. I totally agree with that, and I think, you know, most of the contemporary socialists sort of, they’re not hardcore Marxist Leninists and they’ve learned the lessons of the 20th century. But I think the way they think is like, even big things like nationalism, like capitalism, like race, these are all things that have emerged within the last several centuries of human existence and could therefore be reversed.

EK:

One of the things that frustrates me sometimes in my, I don’t want to call them clashes, but my arguments with people more to my left, or frankly sometimes more to my right, is people will take a place that you ended up because like that’s what the choice was at the time, and kind of assume it as your kind of ideological ideal point. That’s my joke about neo-liberals being liberals mugged by political institutions. I’m open to a pretty wide range of political outcomes that I classify as better. Like there’s a pretty big range of things on healthcare, for instance, that I think would be better. And then I’m trying to ask this other set of questions of what will people accept, what won’t create so much backlash that it will annihilate the project in the first place, what can you get through the institutions as we have, like what would happen when industry rears up and tries to kill it, and all these fuzzy dimensions that like with everything else we can’t have a pure answer on.

But sometimes I think that there is a tendency to confuse means and ends, and I like having the bigger conversations about ends and I sometimes wish that they didn’t so often mistake where people have been on means for them. So to your point about open borders, if we can handle open borders, fantastic, like I am all for it. I am just not sure that we can, and I’m just open to argumentation in both directions on there, or getting there slowly, right? Which is what I see it as being. And I recognize that part of the answer that you would give me on this is, well, look, by absorbing these and being so hesitant around some of these political constraints, aren’t you the one in part creating them, but you know, I see a lot of my job as a reporter to try to be alert in the way I’m conveying what’s going on to institutional constraints because they end up being important about what goes on and political opinion constraints because they end up being important in what goes on, so I kind of can’t get them out of my head, it all swirls around together.

NJR:

You and I just have different kind of approaches in that I kind of start with what I think justice is and then I’m like how do we get there, and the question can we get there does not enter my head. It’s how do I sell this, how do I make arguments, how do I make the case for open borders, how do I make the case for new kinds of social institutions? 


[To listen to the complete interview, including discussion of Paul Ryan, takedowns, and the state of local and independent journalism, check out the Current Affairs podcast.]

NJR:

Well, you and I both hopefully have long lives ahead of us and maybe we can get it done eventually.

EK:

The Vox/Current Affairs local project.

NJR:

I do consider us, now, to be on the same side. There are things that I think that are valid critiques that I’ve made, there are things that I think that I don’t, but I enjoyed getting to talk to you.

EK:

I did, too. Thanks for having me on.

Thank you to New Orleans Transcription for transcribing this interview.

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