How to Communicate Left Ideas to Gen Z

Jessica Burbank on how she makes TikTok and YouTube videos that effectively communicate left ideas in a short span of time.

Jessica L. Burbank is a broadcaster and commentator who appears on The Hill’s Rising, co-hosts the Funny Money podcast, and now hosts her own online news program called Weeklyish News. Jessica is also big on TikTok, where she produces remarkable short videos communicating left political and economic ideas, such as this one on the power relationship between workers and bosses or this one on Elon Musk. Today Jessica joins editor in chief Nathan J. Robinson to discuss how she thinks about the project of communicating ideas accessibly, using wit and operating within the limits of 21st century attention spans. 

Robinson 

I would like to talk about your TikTok presence. You are phenomenally successful on TikTok, and there is a particular type of Jessica Burbank video on TikTok in which multiple versions of yourself talk to one another, and you’ve become quite well known for these. Could you describe, for those who are unfamiliar, what the typical Jessica Burbank TikTok video is?

Burbank 

Yes, it’s true. It’s not any sort of personality disorder—I don’t have multiple personalities. They’re all me, and it’s acting. I very much enjoy being on both sides of the conversation because that’s how all the right questions get asked. When you’re talking about politics, inevitably, you’re going to say something that doesn’t line up with the audience, even if their views tend towards yours, and having it be a conversational piece allows you to say this is a common misconception—this is something that someone might believe that I know is not true—so let’s debunk the assumptions and the thoughts to the contrary that will inevitably pop up before they have a chance to think of them themselves. It allows it to be a persuasive piece, even though it doesn’t feel like that.

Robinson 

That’s very interesting. I want to get more specific on what you mean by that. So for example, a couple of the videos come to mind as you describe this. There’s one in which you are playing someone who has built a business, versus someone who is basically yourself—a leftist. The business owner is talking about how they built it: they did the work, and they should get the credit. You also have one that I just rewatched a few minutes ago, which is one where you’re talking to an Elon Musk fan, who has a portrait of Elon Musk behind them, and is describing how wonderful he is. And what’s interesting about what you just said to me is that you try and make the other point of view almost persuasive. The character that you make is, in a certain way, articulating the most compelling possible version of that position.

Burbank 

Right. I don’t want it to be a straw man that I’m arguing against. I think people would easily point that out and think, this is so easy, and of course, you can debunk that point. And I also think it comes from my experience as an organizer just talking to everyday people. I go into every conversation with someone politically with this fundamental belief that no one’s wrong for their views, and our views come from our limited experience. The American media is so full of propaganda that it’s no fault of their own that they’ve consumed propaganda and haven’t seen the other side.

And so, sure, it could be a reasonable position given someone’s life experiences and all the media they’ve ever consumed and information they’ve had access to because they’re a victim of the American public school system. It’s no fault of their own that they might be an Elon Musk stan and think we have a meritocracy and that all billionaires are absolute geniuses. I can understand why someone would grow up thinking that in this country, and so I don’t want to make the other person look stupid. I want them to seem reasonable.

Robinson 

And they’re played by you, and they’re almost likeable characters in a certain way. As I say, when you’re playing the business owner, you’re really inhabiting what that person would be like—obviously, you parody them and exaggerate a bit. Could you give an example of how you’ve constructed one of these dialogues in a way that, in a short amount of time, you can take a position that is commonly held and challenge it through this Socratic dialogue process?

Burbank 

Yes, in the way you put it, it does sound like a philosophical exercise, that I put myself really into the shoes of the person who holds these views that are very different from my own. I think it’s helped me consider my beliefs from a bunch of different perspectives and test them and come up with more persuasive explanations for things that I already talk about regularly. And so, doing the back and forth, it actually ended up being so much faster than if it was just me talking at the camera. Writing out what I’m trying to explain, it’s actually easier to explain certain things with the back and forth, and like that factory worker conversation, it’s a lot easier to get the point across when you also have the visual of, here’s the boss, here’s the worker, and here’s what this would look like.

It’s so much easier to convey what this is like, that there’s just this boss walking around overseeing all the workers, not doing work themselves, and getting all the profit. Just seeing the person having a casual conversation while the other person is supposedly working does a lot on its own. So, sometimes I will write a script and think, actually, I don’t even need to have this part of the dialogue—it’s not necessary. It’s just obvious because of how this back and forth is happening.

So, it’s been really interesting that it started off because there are all of these silly skits I was seeing on TikTok of the back and forth conversation. I made the first one talking about the deficit and how there’s all these misconceptions about it, and actually did a terrible job with it, even though it got a lot of views. It had the impact of a Colbert Report satire, where people thought that the person who was the reasonable one was the person saying the government spent too much money and the deficit is a huge problem. And so, I actually didn’t do a good job being persuasive in that video because people left it thinking, well, of course, that was the reasonable one.

Robinson 

Well, you did too good of a job presenting the bad position.

Burbank 

Right. I’ve had to learn how to avoid that. 

Robinson 

You’re doing this in quite a short amount of time. Like when you’re doing the owner and the worker, you’re trying to explain class relations and the basic Marxist theory of exploitation and boil it down in minutes.

Burbank 

Yes, and the reason I have such limited time is because of exploitation itself. People have such short attention spans, and they’re trying to maximize their leisure time by consuming as much entertainment and content as possible. People are swiping so fast, the amount of time to explain to them anything—politics, news, your idea, your perspective—is so small. And so, you almost have to do it in a way that’s concise and entertaining; otherwise, you’re just not going to be heard.

And so, if I were to explain freeloaders, for example—I just did a video on that—I’d say, “many people think that the working class in America is freeloading because there are welfare programs where people receive food assistance or housing assistance. But, really, we’ve seen corporate profits on the rise,” and so on… It would take a long time, and many more words, than if I just had one person who’s just hanging out in what looks like a living room with a green screen behind me of a middle-aged family who’s watching Fox News, and they say, I’m sick of all the freeloaders taking our tax dollars. I say, well, what do you mean? And then they say, Walmart and McDonald’s actually have a ton of employees that are on food assistance and on Medicare, and the freeloaders are actually the people who are on welfare. And I’d respond, well, no, those people are working full-time. You really cut to just the substance of the conversation without the explanatory language that would have to come around if you’re just lecturing at someone.

Robinson 

I’ve realized over time that your videos are deceptively simple in a certain way. Sometimes you are just in a hat—the production values are not expensive or high end here—but there’s an incredible art and a lot of work that goes into thinking about how you convey Left ideas persuasively. You’re trying to convince people and take things that they might not believe and challenge their pre-existing conceptions in a very short amount of time, and the raw materials that you have to do it is just you with a hat and you without a hat. There’s a real art to doing that successfully.

Burbank 

It’s like that old Mark Twain quote where he says, I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one. It actually takes a lot of time to make these skits like very concise, and convey complicated ideas in a way that is simple and seems common sense. And to the credit of the Right in America, the neoliberals, and the duopoly mainstream opinions, they explain things that are so perversely wrong as if they are common sense and true. As leftists, we’ve almost been put in this position of having to explain how all of that is wrong, and also how this other thing you’ve never heard of that sounds converse to everything you’ve heard is true.

And so, by avoiding that conversation altogether, and just saying, what if I explained this position as if it weren’t common sense, as if it were assumed as if it were true? That’s really powerful, to not confront the misconceptions as if they are the dominant narrative, to not take the dominant narrative for granted, and just say, this is how it is based on our human lived experiences and data we have. If you put those two things together, I think you have a more powerful narrative than the status quo.

Robinson 

I agree with you. I’m always almost in awe of the Right as communicators. I review a lot of right-wing books, and they’re always very accessible. They’re written in pretty simple, compelling language. What Fox News does is evil, but my god, as a piece of propaganda, you almost have to admire the craft of the propaganda, even if it’s morally heinous. As you say, we have these ideas that are often very complicated and difficult, and it takes an order of magnitude more time to refute a piece of bullshit than to spew it. And so, I think constantly about, how on earth do we communicate with people? And you do it in this fascinating way, where you’re doing skits to convey very serious ideas. As you say, they talk about the deficit, for god sakes. Hard to make fun.

Burbank 

They are very serious. I don’t take myself terribly seriously in my day-to-day life, and so injecting a bit of comedy into it is something that I don’t have to think about very much. I think, this is not me being genuine if I’m not making it a little bit sarcastic, and I think that lands with people as well. I think people are kind of sick of political debates being overwhelmingly academic, intellectual sounding, that there needs to be such a clear right and wrong instead of just saying, we’re all people, so what’s the best stuff to do for the people?

And there are all kinds of criticisms about that way of thinking, that it’s populist and populism is dangerous. I find that conversation interesting because, yes, right-wing populism is dangerous, but left-wing populism is very cool in my eyes. People embrace populism because they’re kind of ripe for it. They don’t like the elites, and they don’t like the way they communicate. And so, I think another thing is that people are ready for it, and I think we have this opportunity where people are gravitating towards populism.

We can either put the ideas out there and say, how about we make a government and economy that works for everyone, instead of having this brand of populism that’s very fearful and can be very racist. So, presenting the alternative online is important because the Right has so much money to make good propaganda, that I kind of see it as a way of organizing by making propaganda on the other side. 

Robinson 

I agree. I think you are one of the Left’s great communicators, and people might not realize this because you’re making TikTok videos where you’re wearing hats. I think about the platforms that we have to work with. I write 10,000-word articles sometimes, but a lot of people aren’t reading 10,000-word articles. We have to use the tools and the platforms that everyone is on. Given the fact that everyone is watching short videos of things, and just getting fed all this stuff, what do you do with that medium? You seem to have cracked the code here. 

Burbank 

I love this little book that you’ll find in organizing circles of people who are labor organizers and knock on doors and stuff. It’s by Fred Ross Sr., and it’s called the Axioms For Organizers, and there are quite a few of them that talk about just meeting people where they’re at. There’s a beautiful story people tell about him knocking on doors, and just finding the most brilliant organizers that have ever organized. Maybe they were about to call it a day and decided to knock on one more door, and then it’s Cesar Chavez or whatever, which is a true story. He brought him into the fold of organizing by just knocking on his door one day.

But I don’t think meeting people where they’re at right now is by knocking on their door because when someone comes to your door, you just want to get back to resting and scrolling on TikTok again. You’re not really meeting someone where they’re at. They mind it when they answer the door. They think, how can I get back to my television? How can I get back to my leisure time and consume entertainment? And so, meet people where they’re at, and if I put my organizer cap on, it is scrolling TikTok. That is where they’re getting information. And I have the same lizard brain as well. I am diagnosed with ADHD and I take medication for it. I get why people don’t want to sit down and read the 10,000-word article, even though I went to graduate school and had to read research papers. I get why people don’t want to do that, and they want it to be entertaining. And so, a big part of it is meeting people where they’re at.

And I found that actually on the Left, especially in big organizing nonprofit spaces, a lot of people don’t want to invest in social media. They really don’t see getting on there and making videos as a reasonable thing to invest in. I left a huge nonprofit, People’s Action, which was founded coming out of the labor movement, and they have member organizations in every state. I felt like if I was on the phone all day, or if I was creating a list for a mass text, we were engaging people less than my posts on TikTok. And so, when I left to pursue media, I actually didn’t feel like I was leaving organizing. I felt like I was going to the heart of it.

Robinson 

No, I agree. This is why I’m in media. I just think this is shaping people’s ideas, and the ideas that people get are often the things that they’ve heard and been exposed to. And if we’re not in the territory, if we cede the territory, there are people with horrible ideas who are going to find compelling ways to present them.

Burbank 

Right, that’s so true. I was one of those people that grew up working class and spent a lot of time with my mom, who was always taught to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and you’ll be fine. If you work hard, you’ll do well in America. Classic American dream, bootstraps conservatism. I slowly found out that how I viewed the world didn’t match up with how the system was designed. And so, I was one of those people that really thought we don’t need welfare programs, and people should just work. And because I was in that mindset, due to mostly my lack of understanding of the world, I can understand why people are in that position. I think some of the best communicators of Leftism are former conservatives.

Robinson 

Yes, because they understand the sorts of things that you have to say, and what will and won’t be persuasive. In that case, let me ask you, given that you became a Leftist, how did you become one? How does your own process of becoming a Leftist provide insights into how we can take other people who might be like your former self and turn them into your current self?

Burbank 

I was a Leftist before I knew I was one. I always said that I hated politics and didn’t want any part of it. I didn’t like elections. I thought America was hopeless and dysfunctional. I got really lucky to go to college. I was in trade school, and I didn’t think I would end up going, and became the first in my family to do so. And then I almost dropped out because Pell Grants are inconsistent. You get them, they dry up, and then you have to figure out where that money comes from the next year, and so I ended up taking the first semester of my sophomore year off. But the professor that I had during my freshman year was Tukumbi Lumumba-Kasongo. He’s the nephew of Patrice Lumumba, who led the Democratic Republic of Congo. He freed the slaves, fought colonial rule from Belgium, and the CIA assassinated him. There are documents now making it very clear that was their goal—they sent people off to do that, and for a long time, it was the case that people denied it was the CIA, but it really was. And so, his nephew was just teaching at this tiny college in upstate New York. I thought he was brilliant and studied really hard in his classes. And so, when I took this semester off, he sent me an email asking, why aren’t you in school? I said that I was struggling to afford it, that I’m working as a waitress right now. And he said, if you come back, I’ll make you my teaching assistant.

Because of him, I finished school, and because of the way he communicates his ideas, I’m a Leftist. He talks about the world in the way I described earlier, about just what’s good for human beings. And you can imagine, he probably has a lot of disdain for American imperialism, given that his close family member was killed by the CIA, but he has no bitterness in communicating what’s wrong with imperialism. I thought that it was really brilliant. And because his first language is not English and speaks with a heavy accent, he speaks in very simple words. So, I learned all of these concepts of political science, international studies, and public policy from someone who was communicating the ideas to me in very simple words. So, because I first learned them that way, they’re kind of ingrained to me in that way. I think he really shaped my brain politically, but also made me a better communicator as well, just because of who he is and how he speaks.

Robinson 

Do you have any favorites among your own videos that you’ve produced, or things that you think worked particularly well in communicating an idea in a narrow space?

Burbank 

It’s a good question. I think the factory video is one of my favorites ever. 

Robinson 

It’s very good.

Burbank 

I love that one. And then there was a video I put out after the jobs report came out as well, talking about intentional unemployment. I thought that one was quite good, too. It is one of the biggest crises of our times that we have intentional unemployment, that the Federal Reserve thinks interest rates need to be at a certain level, and this population of people needs to be unemployed or else inflation will be a problem. It’s just an absurd thing to assume. And instead of going into the details of economic policy—how this doesn’t shake out and go into the macroeconomics textbook—with basic logic, how do we debunk this? I think that’s really powerful. You don’t need to be an economist to understand that this is broken.

So, of course, you can make a video explaining to everyone how their logic collapses in on itself, that when you even use simple concepts of supply and demand, if more people are working, they’re producing more and more stuff to buy, it’s not a situation where too many dollars are chasing too few goods. Inflation is not a concern because things are unbalanced then. And so, I think videos that are really just relevant, like a jobs report comes out and everyone is thinking about inflation—let’s make a video on this, but not make it super technical.

Robinson 

It’s really impressive. I encourage people to go through your archives because I really do think that there are lessons in political communication there that are not unnecessarily obvious on first viewing. People might see you do videos where you’re translating the news into Star Wars, and you do it with the Princess Leia hair. Again, people might not see the deeply morally serious underpinning to everything you’re doing. I want them to understand the organizing mentality at the base of the Jessica Burbank political project.

Let’s talk about your new venture, Weeklyish News on YouTube. Tell us more about this.

Burbank 

This is exciting. It’s not unlike The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. It’s not serious. This is just what’s happening, what I think about it, and what I’m passionate about, like the Candace Owens or Ben Shapiro way of doing news commentary and coverage. It’s more like Jon Stewart in the sense that it’s not serious. But I can’t help but have it be educational. I just have a natural inclination towards, what’s the relevant information needed to understand what’s going on? Not just, here’s the news. But, what do people need to know to understand the news that they might not be getting on mainstream TV?

So, that’s the show, and I think it was coming out of me doing the TikToks which led to me getting recruited to do commentary on TYT, and I never thought of doing something like that before. So, I was kind of thrust into the world of political commentary and news, not knowing what it was. And I quickly thought, this kind of commentary probably isn’t relevant for young people or the working class. And just slowly through doing it and seeing how it was done at TYT, and all the other shows that are out there, I realized that we need something that’s a little bit deeper and more thought put into it in terms of research, and really producing something that allows people to understand the concepts and a framework of thinking so that they can apply it themselves, to give people the tools they need to break down propaganda and understand this the next time that comes up in the news cycle. Stephen Kinzer, who writes a lot about American intervention, was a mentor to me when I was in graduate school. And after he became more of a history writer—he was a foreign correspondent for The Times and found out The Times was pretty much a parrot for American imperialism—he said, the news is what’s happening right now, but what’s really important is what happened yesterday, and what’s likely to happen tomorrow. I wanted to really do a show that covers that. 

Robinson 

So, tell us, when people watch this, what is the sort of thing that they can expect to see? How do you go about covering an issue on this new show?

Burbank 

Here are the facts of the story. Recently, I did a segment on Fox News, covering the Harvard professor study where he said that there’s no racial bias in police shootings. I did program analysis and studied public policy research. So, let’s read this study and really see if he can confidently say there’s no racial bias in police shootings, and I was just kind of appalled that he was confident in letting that headline run and saying that was the finding. After reading the study, he actually didn’t have enough data and evidence there. And I asked, why is Fox reporting on this? It turns out that he’s doing interviews saying how terrible it was that he had to get private security, that he had a newborn baby and people were so violent, just because what he put out didn’t match up with their idea of the world.

So, what I said was, here’s what Fox is saying, here’s what’s wrong with this study, and here’s how it fits into the larger narrative of policing, that actually police comes from the slave patrol. He makes this assumption that there’s no racial bias in police shootings because what he looked at is if an interaction is happening, is the police officer in the interaction likely to shoot the subject if they’re white, Hispanic, or Black. He ignored the fact that the police were interacting with more Black people than anyone else—four times the proportion of the population. Of course there’s racial bias and police shootings. If someone walks out of the door in the morning and are Black, they’re way more likely to be shot by police than if they’re white. But because he made it so precise, it became such a part of the conservative narrative about police shootings, and they clung to this and use this in arguments all the time.

Robinson 

They love the Roland Fryer study. It’s in the Wall Street Journal all the time. They love this one study.

Burbank 

They always go back to it, and it’s based on nothing at all, really. And he actually wrote a follow-up paper where he said these other papers published by Vice, The Guardian, and the Post were more robust, that they had better data than he did. But he won’t say that when he’s doing his interviews, but he did say it in a paper where he walks things back three years later.

Robinson 

That’s interesting, though, because you’re taking a news thing and asking, why are they talking about this? I think it’s so important to train people in critical thinking: let’s look at the study and think about where it goes wrong. What are the other ways in which there is racial bias? It may be true that given a particular interaction, there’s no difference in the chance that someone will be shot based on their race. But what determines the different interactions? That’s an important question. You’re training them to think critically about the evidence. And then, as you say, you’re also giving them crucial historical context to understand why all of this came about, and you’re doing it all in 10 minutes.

Burbank 

It has to be fast, and it has to be entertaining. I do all of the editing myself, which is a lot of work, but it’s very rewarding that it’s communicated in exactly the way I think people will understand and enjoy it.

Robinson 

You deserve an editor. Jessica, we need to get you an editor. 

Burbank 

I do. I appreciate that you point out that you see the Star Wars and the silly hats, but actually thinking about this stuff all the time, it’s quite dark. The news is very dark, but someone’s got to do.

Robinson 

It’s true. I wanted to talk to you in part because I really do feel like we pursue a common project in two quite different ways. Our print magazine is full of silly stuff. It’s full of fake ads for non-existent satirical products. You can pick it up and flick through it, and you could think we’re just being goofy. But in writing those ads, we’re trying to show you something about the world and train you on how to look at advertising and how to look at the messages. By parodying a magazine, we’re trying to teach you how these things work. And I feel that when people start doing close reads of your videos, they’re going to get the same kind of understanding.

Burbank 

I think people absorb a lot more value and information through comedy than anything else. I think it’s such an important tool. If you really care about your idea getting communicated, can you make it funny? Then you have a brilliant idea. 

Robinson 

We really wish you the best for Weeklyish News. I really do hope this takes off. I encourage all of our listeners and readers to check it out and to follow you because I do just think that what you’re doing here is so important. What is your ultimate ambition? What do you want this to become? If it succeeds to the degree that you’re trying to get it to succeed, what is the core of what you’re trying to make here?

Burbank 

That I just get to keep doing it. That I have an editor that can just edit it the same way that I would edit it. That it can come out on a weekly basis. Because sometimes I think when I was doing the biggest news of the week on TikTok, I would try and force topics that I didn’t think were really the biggest news. So now I get to say, there’s enough to talk about, I can record it. And I think of just doing it regularly as a supplement to the news. People should be checking the news probably more frequently than I put content out. It’s okay if they don’t, everyone’s busy. But, just doing it regularly, many people watch it, and they’re mostly young people and working class people, or people who would not consume any news if it didn’t exist. I would love to reach those people with it. 


Transcript edited by Patrick Farnsworth.

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