Former Congressman Tom Perriello: Why “Bold Versus Old” Policy Reform Defines the 21st Century

 /  June 20, 2018, 7:58 p.m.


Former Congressman Tom Perriello served as the US Representative for Virginia’s Fifth Congressional District from 2009 to 2011. In February 2014 President Barack Obama appointed him Special Representative for the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, a position he served in until July 2015. He was subsequently appointed Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He served in that position until December 2016. During the Spring 2018 Quarter, the former Congressman served as a  Pritzker Fellow at the UChicago Institute of Politics. He sat down with the Gate to discuss his perspective on the national campaign to raise the minimum wage, universal healthcare reform, the shift in the gun control debate in the wake of the Parkland school shooting, the expanding scope of Presidential war powers, and the salience of progressive political movements as catalysts for bold societal change.  

The Gate: The national campaign to raise the minimum wage for low-wage labor in the retail and food industries to $15, Fight for 15, has seen successes in states such as New York and California, with a companion bill introduced by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the Senate. Where do you stand on the fight for $15, and how can our public discourse around wages be more inclusive of the needs of various communities across the United States?

Tom Perriello: I’m fully supportive of it, but it’s almost more useful for us to talk about the fight for 28, which is $28,000 a year. I think it’s hard sometimes for people to understand what it means to live on $14,000 a year, and that’s what the minimum wage is nationally and in my home state of Virginia. I think that there are a lot of people, who consider themselves quite liberal, for whom $15 an hour sounds like a lot—either because when they were growing up they worked at the pool for the summer for $3 an hour, or it just seems like doubling $7.25 is a tad extreme. And you say to those people, “Could you imaging trying to raise a family on less than $28,000 a year, or even trying to support yourself?”

We’ve found in study after study that in many cases people actually lose money by going back to work for less than $28,000 a year. So there are a lot of reasons why $28,000 is not just important from a moral standpoint, or from the standpoint of the people hoping to make that wage. In some ways, the biggest beneficiaries are the middle class and employers. It also saves the government money, because, particularly for parents, the number of expenses that you incur by going back to work far surpass the $14,000 a year you’re making on the current minimum wage.

Secondly, what we see increasingly is that for years we had the data wrong, and that the driver of growth in our communities is in fact the consumer power, the purchasing power, of the working and middle class. Unsurprisingly, when people have a little more money in their pockets, they spend it and spend it locally. In fact, two of the industries that claim to be the most hurt by minimum wage increases, which are the hospitality and restaurant industries, are actually some of the biggest beneficiaries of increasing the minimum wage.

Why? In any business, if you only look at one side of your ledger sheet, your expenses, then you’re never going to be a successful business. You have to look at expenses versus income. The fact of the matter is, by having more disposable income in the community, that is much more likely to be spent on local businesses than what we had been told creates growth, which is high-end tax cuts. In a global economy, we are much more likely to simply drive capital overseas, or drive investments in robotics and automation. That’s why when you go with the anti-growth strategy of the Republicans with this recent tax bill, the only thing it really grows is the number of robots, which actually costs American jobs because that’s what it incentivizes. Whereas when we actually create what I consider real pro-growth policies, like creating living wages, then you’re seeing more money in the community.

This needs to be coupled with policies that also help to grow the incomes of the middle class. Part of the whole point of raising the floor of income is to generate income growth for the middle class. When this happens you’re not seeing a downward pull of wages, but rather an upward push of wages.

Gate: Campaign finance reform is an important part of protecting democratic institutions from capture by elite and special interests. Six out of one hundred Senators have now pledged to no longer accept campaign contributions from corporate political actions committees. What structural legislative reforms do you endorse for the regulation and oversight of political campaign contributions, so that voters no longer have to merely wait for candidates to make voluntary pledges?

Perriello: We need your generation to completely rethink how we finance campaigns. These are marginal changes around the edges, I support them, but the system itself is corrupt to its core. We either need to figure out some creative system within the existing First Amendment jurisprudence, which I happen to think was wrongly decided, or we figure out how to change that jurisprudence, either through a constitutional amendment, or through stronger constitutional arguments.

The fact of the matter is, if we essentially have a political space that we think is fundamentally analogous to the free market, then we shouldn’t be surprised that we naturally get a concentration of political power, just like we get a concentration of wealth without an antitrust component at work in our markets. So, sure, I have certainly refused to take corporate PAC pledges. I’ve supported the Disclose Act, and other measures for transparency—all of those are steps forward.  

I think some of these initiatives that have tried to flip the power towards small donations are quite creative and interesting, where you provide maybe not fully publicly financed elections, but you do a five-to-one match for donations below $50. Congressman John Sarbanes out in Maryland has spoken to this very powerfully because he’s run an experiment in his own campaign. The issue is where candidates spend their time. It’s not the evil man with the briefcase full of cash convincing you to support poison in the water—though that happens from time to time. The far bigger issue is what I call the “soft corruption of access and priorities.”

Most elected officials are spending most of their time running for re-election. Their finance staff is more powerful even than their chief of staff, and others. They get to decide where the official spends their time. That means that they are probably spending time only with the kinds of people who can afford to write $1,000 checks or more. If you’re a Democrat, these donors are actually probably pretty liberal. However, they also probably don’t have anyone in their family who’s living on a minimum wage, stuck in the criminal justice system, a person of color, been foreclosed on, or faced a litany of other challenges we could walk through. So they’re in many ways going to push very liberal policies that I agree with, from climate change to choice. But it’s likely going to be a different set of priorities than you would hear from a cross-section of your constituents.

This is one of the reasons why so many Democrats who are in Congress keep talking about how $250,000 a year is middle class in their district. The problem with that is that it is statistically untrue in any district in America. In the richest district, that puts you in roughly the eighty-sixth percentile. That’s different from saying that someone making $250,000 a year is rich, but it is statistically not middle class. However, among the people that that Congressperson spends their time with every day, it probably is relatively middle class.

So that soft skewing, or what I called the “soft corruption of access and priorities,” is a significant factor, and it is certainly worth considering publicly financed elections. The other thing which every country I’ve worked in has, except the United States, is actual campaign periods. One way to regulate campaign finance is to limit the period within which campaigning can occur. Now, that does not pass muster in our campaign cycle, but the fact of the matter is, you would find Republicans, Democrats, and Independents excited about it because most people hate the fact that politics has become 24/7 and twelve months a year.

Acknowledging that there are certain constitutional arguments that need to be taken seriously, we need your generation to think much more creatively about a full overhaul, and not just these reforms around the edges.

Gate: Universal healthcare has been the holy grail of American progressives since the time of President F.D.R. Through the latest push for Medicare for All, many healthcare reform advocates are calling for a federally administered “Single Payer” healthcare program, though not without opposition from Republicans and centrist Democrats in Congress. Why has this particular proposal for healthcare reform in America proved so contentious, and how might a goal like universal healthcare be framed so that voters trust it is a feasible one?

Perriello: To paraphrase the old Stephen Colbert, reality clearly has a progressive bias, increasingly. I think the reason you’ve seen something like a public option move from being considered a fairly far-left position to being seen as a highly centrist position, is not necessarily an ideological shift in the country, it’s a reality shift. We’ve tried it.

We keep trying these variations of saying “It’s got to be the private healthcare insurance companies left to their own.” That has not worked out very well for people—either in terms of quality of care, ease of access, or affordability. So, many people are saying “Fool me once shame on me, fool me twice shame on you.” I think that this is why the Republicans have faced a deep challenge.

My personal view is that if we had kept the public option, which was in the first version of the healthcare bill that I voted for out of the House, we would not only see much lower healthcare rates, but much higher popularity for the plan. To me this is part of this deeper shift in the political spectrum that elites in both parties have not caught up to. This is the twentieth century model was that there was an ideological spectrum from left to right which had a bias toward the center. The twenty-first century spectrum is one of scale. Put simply it is boldness versus oldness.

I think that voters are rejecting old ideas from both parties, and looking for bold ideas. The idea in the twentieth century mentality that we’re stuck in is that if you make an idea bigger, somehow that makes it more left or more right and therefore less popular. In fact, people are looking for big ideas because their lived reality is pretty crappy. Whether that’s not just raising the minimum wage but going to $15, not just reforming healthcare but having a public option, not just decriminalizing marijuana but looking at criminal justice reform more comprehensively—these reforms save money and they save lives.

People aren’t reaching out to them from some ideological space, it’s not like people all of a sudden want more government in their healthcare. It’s from a very practical space, which is “The status quo is not working. It is not affordable, or sustainable, and this Medicare thing seems to work pretty well. Everybody seems to love it, and it seems to be more affordable at a lower cost, so why wouldn’t we do more of that? More of the thing that’s working, and less of the thing that’s not working?”

I think that that’s the fundamental shift, and neither party has really caught up to it yet.

Gate: While gun violence has been an American reality for decades, many commentators have characterized the recent activism from students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, under the national “March for Our Lives” campaign against gun violence, as a turning point in the national gun control debate. Do you agree with this characterization, and how might politicians and civic leaders cultivate a more robust discourse around gun control and reform advocacy?

Perriello: I absolutely believe that it is a turning point, with the caveat of “so long as people stay at it.” Movements tend to change the world more than politicians do, but movements tend to create that change over significant periods of time. I don’t think that the Parkland students believe this, but if people believe that this change will happen with a single march, I think that they’re in for a longer period of time—even a single election cycle.

Let’s face it, if we flip the house in the midterms, you will see some gun reform legislation, which was not true ten years ago. When I got elected in 2008, everybody knew that the Democrats were not going to touch guns. The Obama Administration knew it, the Pelosi House knew it, because that was seen as having cost the Democrats back in 1994. Movements have changed the politics on this issue. It used to be that there was only resistance on one side, which was the NRA side.

I think it’s important to remember that you’ve seen Moms Demand Action and others after the Virginia Tech killings, and the slaughters at Sandy Hook—these movements have been there and been growing. I think that the Parkland students have elevated it to an entirely different level. Such that, if the Democrats won the House, it would not be acceptable to these movements to not move reform bills. Now, even then there’s a good chance that Trump would veto such legislation, or it wouldn’t get through the Senate. So then movements would need to understand that it’s going to take the 2020 cycle, and it’s going to involve the community level.

When we go back and look at the quintessential movement, the Civil Rights Movement, we sort of sometimes draw this map where there was Montgomery, then Selma, then we had the Voting Rights Act. That movement got its ass kicked over and over again in these spaces. That’s why Selma is such a powerful film. It’s really more the biopic of a movement than of King. And they talk about those loses and setbacks. It’s only in retrospect does it seem like its destiny that got it through.

With movements the payoff is bigger, because its real social change as opposed to political change. The cost is that the stakes are higher. I do think Parkland has changed the game, but you only get to victory by sustaining that.

Gate: President Obama often used the language of just war theory when discussing the role of the United States’ military abroad, but also in particular when he sought to justify and account for drone warfare against members of ISIS, and other hostile terror groups in Syria and other Middle Eastern nations. Critics of the Obama Administration however, cite the underreporting of civilian death tolls, a lack of transparency with the news media, and vague standards for what constitutes an enemy combatant, as contradicting the paradigm of just war theory. So what makes a war a just war, and what is your standpoint, as a former congressman, on the expanding scope of Presidential war powers?

Perriello: I think that it is valuable and overdue that Congress, or some important leaders in Congress, including Senator Tim Kaine from my state of Virginia, are working to restore the constitutional role of Congress in authorizing the use of force. Congress has a bad track record on this, of asserting that they want the football, but the second it’s thrown to them running in the other direction. However one feels about the Syria intervention, there were leaders in both parties (but particularly the Republican leadership) yelling at President Obama for not doing something about Assad, for not doing something about chemical weapons.

President Obama says “Alright, I’m sending it your way. You guys authorized me.” And then many of those exact same people, such as Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who had been one of the most outspoken advocates for intervention (I was actually pro-intervention in Syria, which was part of an integrated strategy well-beyond military involvement. I think that we sometimes see that in a more binary fashion.) voted against the authorization in committee.

I think that that example is almost the “Exhibit A” on why it is important to have that authorization—people who are directly accountable to the people have to go on the record and affirm their support for authorization. I think that what we’re seeing as well is that America has not necessarily followed the Rawlsian standard here of a veil of ignorance. Which is that you might design one global drone policy if you assume that you’re the only ones with it. And then, when you assume not only that there are lots of countries that can have weaponized drones in the near future, but also that there are non-state actors that can as well, then one’s attitude towards it will be very different.

One of the things on which I think President Obama showed a tremendous amount of leadership, was reviving the debate on global denuclearization. He spoke to that powerfully in Berlin, and started to move us in that direction. Because there is this inherent contradiction, which is that our incredibly important nuclear treaties are based on the allowance for certain countries to keep nuclear weapons, but nobody else is allowed to acquire them. If you’re one of the countries that has them, we see that as important for restoring that order, but its not hard to see why others say not only is that irrational, but India and Pakistan got them, and they were in “time out” for a couple of years, and then now they’re being taken seriously as part of the nuclear club.

The incentives are off for proliferation, and drones, because the barrier for usage is so much lower, in some ways represent a different space. I think that the issue of constitutional authorization of war is an important one, I think that the debate is going forward. I do think that Congresspersons do not want that authority as much as they claim they do. That’s one of the reasons why I think it’s useful to put that out there.

Gate: China is the largest trading partner with the United States, with $5 billion in goods imported in the year 2017 alone. The recent demands from the Trump Administration to lower the China-US trade deficit $100 billion, provide greatly expanded access for US technology investors to Chinese markets, and to agree to not retaliate to any US-imposed restrictions on Chinese investments, have stoked fears of a trade war. What are the biggest costs of a trade war between the United States and China for Chinese and American workers, and what reforms might serve to narrow the existing trade deficit between the two nations?

Perriello: A full scale trade war would be incredibly costly to consumers in both countries, as well as incredibly disruptive of things that are key to our security and our quality of life. That’s why it’s unlikely to escalate all the way in that direction. I think that we have allowed ourselves to get into this possibility by two attacks on global trade. The one that is obvious is from Trump, both his rhetoric and his actions, but quite frankly the other is elites who are thirty years out of date on what is actually driving global trade, and are so clueless about the real economy that they have introduced the vulnerability for themselves of Trump’s argument sounding smart.

Concerning global trade, I am someone who has been very critical of so called “free trade deals,” but I am very pro-trade. I am someone who works all over the world, I think it’s very valuable and important. But the fact of the matter is the most successful countries are the ones that didn’t follow the neo-liberal advice of this university. In fact, most of those, like Russia, ended up being total disasters in their transitions; the successful tiger economy has actually followed a much more managed path. Major investments in public education, public literacy, infrastructure, protecting certain industries, just like we’ve done in the United States.

The assumption that this sort of perfectly liberalized model is the ideal, and everything down from that is suboptimal, simply isn’t defended by the data. I’ll give you one big example. The single biggest drag on global trade is corruption. It costs upwards of 3 percent of global GDP a year, and it’s also probably the most pernicious for the lived reality for say the street entrepreneur in India. Not to mention, it’s a drag on American companies because thanks to progressive activism, we have something called the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. It’s been incredibly successful actually, and it has made American companies much more beloved around the world, when prior to they were much more hated, though it obviously varies from company to company and industry to industry. Now they meet this incredibly high standard, which can at times have a competitive disadvantage for all the wrong reasons.

There’s a difference in trying to lead our global trade policy with things that reflect the real economy, and bring together the interests of the real America, the people who we’re trying to win over, and thinking, the way that elites have, like ideologues in the clothing of technocrats, saying we just want this morally neutral liberalization, but we just happen to be telling you that we think you should pay more for your generic drugs. Not a great sales pitch for the people of the world.

And it may or may not just happen to correlate with large donors to both major parties back in the United States. I think that if the response to Trump’s protectionist impulses is to defend the status quo, we’re stepping into exactly the trap that he wants. What we need to do is understand ways in which the Washington consensus has been left behind by data and reality, and we need to have smarter policies that do advance global trade in a fair way, but not thinking that the same blueprint that we had in the 1970’s and 1980’s is the right one for today.  

Gate: In a prior interview with The Gate, I sat down with Vladimir Kara-Murza, a member of the Russian opposition to the regime of Vladimir Putin. He has successfully pushed for the Obama Administration to impose tough sanctions on pro-Kremlin propagandists and human rights abusers. The Trump administration has followed through on additional sanctions against cyber intruders and election meddlers, but not without hesitation from the President. Why do you think that President Trump has been reluctant to impose sanctions on these actors, and how might Congress better counter these aggressions from the Kremlin?

Perriello: As they say, where there’s smoke there’s fire. We don’t know exactly how broad those fires are burning, and that’s what Special Counsel Robert Mueller and others will help us figure out. But the level of publicly available evidence at this point, paints a picture that would suggest, for one reason or another, that this President is uniquely compliant with Putin’s interests.

Not just in the direct sphere of Russia, but also in the trilateral influences around the world. A lot of credit goes to Virginia Senator Mark Warner and others who have been trying to not just ensure full investigations, but keeping some bipartisan support for what’s gone forward—at least on the Senate side. The House unfortunately has sold out the national interest in a way that historians will look on very poorly, including people from the Republican Party of the future.

Gate: Many critics of globalization have framed the trend as having adverse effects on democracy. Some have argued that financial and political decisions are increasingly being placed into the hands of technocrats, international corporate lawyers, and political elites with little input from everyday citizens. In particular, the strong pushback against the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, and the influx of refugees into Western nations, has been characterized as reflecting popular repudiations of globalization, in favor of more national autonomy. How should political leaders in the West respond to these frustrations, and craft policies that are aware of these concerns?

Perriello: Part of the whole appeal of democratic capitalism is agency. With democracy the idea is that you’ll have some role in shaping the politics of your future, and with capitalism everybody has a shot at shaping their economic future. When neither democracy nor capitalism seem to be delivering on those, it creates room for alternative ideologies, most notably state capitalism at this point, which I think most of the globe sees as outcompeting the Western model, fair or not. So I think when we think about how to address this, certainly people feel more distance from themselves and the forces that shape their lives than they have felt at other periods.

But globalization is not something to be for or against, its something to acknowledge as a reality and try to engage with in a way that is most positive, for whatever group you care about—say the American people. I do think we need to be thinking about structures and systems that deliver. I think that in some ways, democracy itself—to default to the cliché—is the least effective system of government, except for all the others. We all understand that there are enormous inefficiencies built in to democratic processes and decision making. But it’s not like people around the world are carping for a different system, saying “Please don’t give me a voice in the system.”

Part of this of course is that we need to ensure that we define democracy with the fullness that I think experts do. It’s not just having an election every x number of years. It is the fullness and reality of freedom of the press, assembly, and speech. It is, in its most robust form, ensuring a level of education and other factors to ensure informed participation. I think that one of the challenges within democracy that has been there for some time, include questions of whether parliamentary systems have been better than first past the post. I think America has over imposed an executive-heavy form of democracy; in parliamentary systems democracies have generally proved more resilient. All of those are less calls to depart from democracy than questions of “How do we get this right, and how do we take care of it?”

One of the big challenges we have in the United States and all over the world is the issue of racial inequality. It often plays out in a political context in some form of racial or othering disenfranchisement. There can also be a tendency to play towards ethnic or tribal coalitions in politics, and that means that democracy can be fragile to racial demagogues who can try to rise to power by often rallying some form of nationalism or identity around a majority population. Those are legitimate concerns. Some things, like the Dayton Accords, ended up having deeper unintended consequences, by locking in the tribal and ethnic dynamics that they were hoping to overcome. These are challenges that we continue to struggle against.  

Gate: At an April convention hosted by the National Action Network civil rights advocacy group, Democratic senators and suspected 2020 presidential candidates reached out to civil rights leaders, advocates, and clergy members to reflect upon the legacy of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., and to discuss salient issues affecting African-American voters. What do you think Democrats must do in order to move beyond rhetoric, and ground their outreach to black voters in substantive policies?

Perriello: I think that the needle is finally moving in the right direction, as we shift from the politics of the 1990’s which tended to be take your base for granted, and appeal to a sometimes mythical suburban swing voter, who was inevitably seen as white, a woman, college educated, and middle class to upper middle class. What Karl Rove changed about our politics was realizing that actually that the elections are won more by how often your base shows up. I think that communities of color have realized over recent years that they’re not welcome in the Republican Party, and so the thought was “Well, we really don’t have a choice.”

The choice is voting or not voting, and even though I personally, from a point of privilege, always think that voting is the right answer, the fact of the matter is that communities of color have probably gotten the attention of the Democratic Party more by times they have not shown up than by showing up. I think the message has come through enough times now that the Democratic Party does not see a path to victory, leaving out the morality of taking these issues seriously, I think that on purely strategic grounds, if nothing else, there’s a not fully internalized understanding that things like the Alabama election and others have shown, which is that you have to give people of color and young voters a reason to show up.

We also have to win over as many independent voters as possible, and that right now appears to be college educated white women. I personally think that we should be reaching out to everybody, I’ve been able to win votes in Trump country, but you do have to make priorities in a campaign, and I think that that’s where we are. What does that mean? I do think, before you get into policy, it is a matter of showing up, over and over again. Not showing up once, but showing up listening, and then coming back, having shown that you didn’t just show up and listen, but you internalized it and came back with answers. When I am a candidate, I find that it’s not the first time you show up, but the second or third time when you start to build trust. The lack of trust is real and historically understandable.

It also means making sure that the Democratic Party is not a party that is dominated by white, and particularly white male, voices, and then we expect everyone else to play along with a certain set of games. I do think the party today, from the grassroots up, has made huge strides on that, but it still has a long way to go.

On policy, I think that’s where you have seen, like in so many other areas, policy ideas move from the margins to the mainstream extremely quickly. Criminal justice reform, deep criminal justice reform, was still seen as kind of marginal just a few years ago. And now, no serious candidate for President or Senate is going to run without talking about it. Pure voting rights, that’s something that’s been kind of a landmark for the Democratic Party, we’ve had a better history on that, but we could prioritize it more.

One of the topics that I think we’ll hear more and more about, and need to hear more and more about, is the racial wealth gap. We have a, depending on which statistic you use, the median white family is still worth about thirteen times more than the median black family. This goes to a fundamental need to shift the American narrative from where much of our leadership has wanted it to be: “America is a city on a hill that had the one original sin of slavery, but it was a long time ago so shouldn’t we get over it?” versus drawing a through line from slavery, through a war of terror, lynching, and ethnic cleansing in the South, through redlining, the G.I. Bill exclusions, to mass incarceration to today, gives you a very different understanding of why that thirteen to one wealth ratio exists.

Those are very important conversations that have to go from the margins to the mainstream. I’ve called for a South African style Truth Commission on race for the United States. I think that there are some communities that are starting to look into creative and exciting versions of this. Having not just grown up in Charlottesville but been in the streets on August 12, when these tragic events went down, and having worked in conflict zones overseas, I’ve come to see how a lot of conflict is rooted in how people have fundamentally different narratives of what got you to a certain point. It’s sort of like fighting with a significant other in a relationship—if you both have different origins stories of exactly where the fight started, you’re not going to solve it when no one wants to concede the other person’s starting point.

I think that there is room on several fronts for the Democratic Party to show it’s serious this time. Part of that is about who has the reins of power. One of the reasons we were so successful in Virginia last year in our legislative elections, is that we had delegate challengers who looked like all of Virginia. That was racially, ethnically, class wise, geographically, and people understand. They looked at that slate of candidates and said “One party represents all of us, while the other party represents a very small sliver of the state.” That hopefully will become a model, for Democrats to not only contest every office in every zip code with more candidates, and particularly women, that look like all of that community.

It’s a huge testament to the Black Lives Matter movement, that focusing on District Attorney races, was a smart priority, and they’ve delivered huge victories, and those victories have had very real human consequences in the community. But then you look at the statistics, which still show 90 percent white guys that are District Attorney’s, and then you realize, okay to your movement point from before, it’s movements that change things, but it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s going to be five, six, seven cycles that we’re going to see the results of that. And then it starts to take on a virtuous cycle of momentum, and if you don’t you get the kind of cynicism that you’d expect from before.

Gate: Assuming control of at least one chamber of Congress post-2018, what should Democrats’ chief legislative priorities be going in to the 2020 Presidential elections?

Perriello: It’s a fair question, but it’s difficult to see through that looking glass, because you’re still going to have a President Trump. I believe that national security and Constitutional resilience of our country requires that at least some of that time will be spend looking into the very serious allegations against President Trump about the 2016 cycle. Obviously, I think we need to walk and chew gum, so we need to be resisting the politics of hate and division from Donald Trump, but also offering a proactive vision while understanding that President Trump is unlikely to be complicit. But you have to understand that he’s a chameleon like figure.

So, I would love to see, as one of the first things past, a national policy for everybody having five years of debt free community college and career training that they can use over a lifetime. We have a system that’s built on the assumption that you go to school once, after high school, and then you go to work. That’s not the reality, and that’s only going to change more with automation and other things disrupting the economy. So the fact of the matter is that you’re going to come in and out five or six times. If you have a five year training bank essentially of community college or career training, over that lifetime, that is going to allow people to plan out a very different trajectory that gets you into that $28,000 a year job much more quickly. In many places you only need an eight week certificate program in order to take a job like that. And knowing that you’ve still got four and a half years plus banked that you can come back to, would be a benefit.

The interesting thing about programs like this is that in some ways they’re modeled on successful Republican governors in places like Kentucky and Tennessee. One of the things I love about this plan is that the two biggest consumers of the community college plan, at least in Virginia, are communities of color and rural white communities, so the very groups that Trump wants to divide, you bring together, and it puts him in a tough spot. You could do a major infrastructure build with a living wage attached to that. I think we certainly should pass some common sense gun reform, whether or not Trump will sign it. Maybe if you tweet enough times that he’ll win a Nobel Peace Prize for it, he will. So, I think we’ll see what the landscape looks like then. I think it’s important to not be in resistance mode, but transformative government mode.

Something interesting happening right now is I think that the vision and the energy is coming from the movements outside the party, and not from inside the party. That’s the way it should be. Political parties are static institutions in a way, they are there to support candidates and to win elections. Movements are there to win an agenda in a much more focused way. I think that one of the vulnerabilities when President Obama was elected, was that it was not a movement moment. He was a once in a generation talent, at a moment that converged with a once in a generation delegitimization of everything that the other side stood for. But it wasn’t something that was bolstered alone. For example, the immigrant dignity movement was pretty far along at that point, in terms of all the things you want to converge for a successful movement. Today it’s the gun reform movement, the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, the legacy of the Occupy Movement.

There’s a number of factors. where a general level of both grassroots energy and intensity, combined with some pretty bold policy reform ideas, that will make the first year of the next Presidency far more transformative than what we’ve seen in the past—those forces from the outside are there to push for progress.

The featured image is licensed under the Creative Commons; the original can be found here.

Richard Omoniyi-Shoyoola

Richard Omoniyi-Shoyoola is a rising fourth year in the University of Chicago studying Political Science. He has served as an Intern in the Office of U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, as a Complaint Counselor for the ACLU of Missouri, and as an Investigations Intern for the Law Office of The Cook County Public Defender. All of these experiences have taught him that everybody deserves an advocate, and that being cynical is overrated.


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