An Interview With Nina Turner
One of the principal projects that emerged from Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign was Our Revolution. Since its founding in 2016, OR has organized hundreds of local and statewide groups, endorsed scores of candidates in political races around the country, and supported a wide range of progressive campaigns. The organization could also provide key infrastructure for a Sanders 2020 run for president.
Jacobin spoke to OR President Nina Turner recently. In a wide-ranging interview, she discussed OR’s relationship with the Democratic Party, recent criticism the organization has faced, the meaning of “democratic socialism,” and the urgency of immigration reform.
How does Our Revolution’s political and economic vision differ from that of the Democratic Party establishment?
I can’t answer for them, but I can tell you that the mission of Our Revolution is to create a system in this country that is geared toward helping people live out their greatness. We continue to push that either through electing candidates or through issues — for example, the $15 minimum wage, and certainly Medicare For All, fit that vision for us. We need a living wage, people need tangible things in their lives to help them get closer to that and solving the medical crisis that we have in this country will go a long way.
We need to make sure we have policymakers who understand that men and women should be paid equally for the work that they do; that this [public] education system we have needs to be shored up; that we have to invest our tax dollars to ensure that a child will not be discriminated against or treated differently because of the zip code they live in. All these things are part of an economic package to lift folks in this country. Our Revolution is supporting candidates who are committed to pushing for just that.
The Democratic Party establishment doesn’t necessarily share that vision. What do you think it stands for right now?
At times, when people just look at the horse race, it’s “who wins.” We have two political parties in this country that just care whether their man or their woman wins, without regard for the types of policy positions they take or what they will stand up for. As for Our Revolution, any old blue just won’t do. We need people with a certain type of commitment, so that when they get these seats they will put people power towards that commitment.
If the only concern is that a Democrat wins over a Republican, without concern for what the core values are of the person who’s running under the Democratic banner, then people will get more of the same. They won’t get change.
We can use California as an example. In California, Democrats control every statewide office, they control the legislature — yet we can’t get Medicare for All passed. The nurses [union is] pushing to get this passed, along with other groups, but we can’t get it passed. That’s not a state controlled by Republicans, it’s a state that’s controlled by Democrats.
Or let’s take New York. In terms of voter access and voter rights, one of the worst states for voter rights in the country. Controlled by Democrats, but we can’t even get the legislature and the Governor and others to move policy that will create an environment where all voters matter.
So, if the calculus for the Democratic Party is only to have Democrats elected, without regard for what they stand for and what they’re going to fight for, then that’s a problem.
In 2016 we passed the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party. Now, what does that mean in 2018? We patted each other on the back, we were happy, we used it as a talking point — hell, I even used it as a talking point. OK, now what does that mean? Does that platform line up with how people are running? Once they win the seat, what are they doing?
Is Our Revolution trying to get mainstream Democrats to concede political demands from the Left, or is it trying to change the face of the party entirely?
Part of our mission is to transform the Democratic Party. So, we’re running and supporting candidates who believe in the pillars of justice that we believe in. And if there’s somebody who’s been part of the establishment and they see the light, that’s fine too.
But the overwhelming majority of the endorsements we make on the candidate side come from our local groups. We have almost 600 groups in 49 states in this country. After less than two years, that is really a big deal. We’re in about seven countries, and our members include about half a million people across this country and internationally.
Does Our Revolution have a game plan if the Democratic Party doesn’t change?
Our plan is to transform the Democratic Party; our plan is to run and elect progressive candidates; our plan is to make sure we continue to build local groups. Groups really are at the center of our universe.
We don’t see everything from an electoral lens, as some organizations do. We see the bulk of our work through an organizing lens. That’s the harder work, but we believe that if we can get people vested and engaged in the process, that over time sheer people power is going to force those who have the power to change.
It is a heavier lift, it’s a longer lift. But let me give you a very real-world example. We can use Senator [Bernie] Sanders’s Medicare-for-All bill. When he first introduced it, nobody would touch it with a ten-foot pole. But now, all of a sudden, he’s got sixteen of his closest friends in the Senate standing by his side when he introduced that bill.
That didn’t happen because people saw the light and said, “Oh yeah, Medicare for All is the thing.” It happened because the American people are demanding that. That is why Our Revolution is committed to building these groups and giving voice to the people: because they are the force that will push the political class to where they need to be.
It sounds like you’re saying that realignment of the Democratic Party is the primary goal right now. What does Our Revolution think about running independent or third-party candidates?
No, that’s not our primary goal. We have three goals that we adhere to. Think about it as a triangle. Our groups are in the center of that triangle. The equal sides are: candidates — we need to run candidates to get the power, so we can get these progressive things passed. Then we have issues, like the Fight for $15 and Medicare for All. And then we have transforming the party. All of those things are of equal value to us.
The overwhelming majority of the candidates we endorse come from our groups. We’ve had groups nominate Green Party members, we’ve had groups nominate independents, and we at national have endorsed those candidates. So, we don’t just look at candidates and say, “Oh you’re a Democrat, you get the endorsement,” or “Oh you’re not a Democrat, you don’t.” Our groups are the leaders in that.
What do you think accounts for the problems Bernie had attracting black electoral support in 2016, and what’s the way forward in addressing this issue?
The Senator was a first-time presidential candidate from Vermont. Newsflash: Vermont is not that ethnically diverse. He was working with what he had. Running for the first time, he didn’t necessarily have relationships with other communities in a deeper way.
Fast forward to 2018. The recent Harvard Harris poll that shows the Senator polling very high in the African-American community. Because he hasn’t stopped in his mission — running for president was the vehicle he was using to continue to push the agenda that he’s always pushed. Now, a greater number of people in communities of color, especially African-American communities, get a chance to see what the Senator was talking about and fighting for in 2016.
Politico recently published a critical story claiming that Our Revolution is disorganized and has failed to channel the momentum of the Bernie campaign. Can you speak a little bit to those charges?
They’re absolutely not true. Our Revolution has seen enormous growth. Again, people need to look at us through the lens of our mission, not through the lens of what they want to propagate. Since I took over — it’ll be a year for me in July — we are up to almost six hundred groups. That happened under my leadership. We have increased our recurring donors under my leadership. We’ve gone deeper, not just in growing our groups but in providing the tools that our groups need to sustain their work.
We have hundreds of candidates across this country who want our endorsement through our groups. That has not stopped, and it will continue. Why? Because Our Revolution has the Good Housekeeping seal for progressives. People want to be part of this movement. That article was more than unfortunate, it just was flat-out untrue. Our Revolution is growing in every way possible.
Another aspect of the Politico story was the revelation of anti-immigration comments made by a former Our Revolution staff member. Do you have anything to say about the substance of her comments, the idea that Latino immigration hurts native-born black communities?
Her comments were wrong. Our Revolution has had and continues to have a strong commitment to immigration reform and DACA. If you were to line up all of our pillar issues, the efforts we’ve given in terms of fighting for immigration reform and DACA is second only to Medicare for All.
We supported California’s SB54, the California Values Act, passing the first ever sanctuary-state legislation in the country; we’ve repeatedly pushed for passage of a clean DREAM Act; we’ve organized local-level support for our groups, fighting back on xenophobic and anti-immigrant legislation in their communities; we’ve organized on the national level through the Our Dream campaign, where we helped to organize a coalition of progressive groups to organize rallies and actions across the country. We’ve made thousands of calls, we’ve emailed 23 million people, and texted 100,000 people seventy different times, all around immigration issues on the national, state, city, and local level.
So you don’t believe that immigration from Latin America has a negative impact on native-born working-class communities.
No, I don’t agree with that.
Can you speak a little bit about the notion that the problem, regarding immigration and many other issues, is that there’s not enough to go around?
In this country, we have to deal with immigration reform and we need to think about immigration more broadly than just immigrants from Mexico and Central America. There are immigrants from Africa who are also being unfairly targeted by ICE, as well as DACA recipients who were born in Asia or the Middle East. Both parties have decided to play political football with this. We need to make sure that we secure the future of our DACA recipients, but also their families — because you can’t just deal with DACA and not deal with the millions of other immigrants in this country who need a way to be able to become citizens of this country.
We have to deal with the economic challenges we have in our communities, and a lot of times when people are suffering, or when people feel like they’re not getting their needs met, it’s human nature to want to blame somebody. And when you have leaders in office like President Trump, who puts gasoline on that kind of stuff, then the fear-mongering continues.
We cannot continue to pit one population of people, one group of people, against another to solve problems of income and wealth inequality. We can’t pit one group of people against another to solve problems of our justice system. We have to come together.
Stephen Covey put it best: “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.” We have to understand where each other is coming from to fix these problems. And Our Revolution will continue — nothing has changed. That article was totally wrong. We will continue our work on immigration reform and justice.
Our Revolution came out of the Bernie Sanders campaign, who considers himself a democratic socialist. What does that term mean to you?
Our Revolution was certainly inspired by the senator. The board has never sat down and said, “Our organization is a democratic socialist organization.” We are an organization that is trying to change the political dynamics in this country, to bend them to the will of everyday people, and we do that through the electoral process, through organizing. You’ve heard me say that a thousand times.
In terms of my own philosophy about democratic socialism, if democratic socialism means Medicare for All, if it means making sure that we reform the criminal justice system; if it means that a mother doesn’t have to cry herself to sleep at night knowing that her son was born with a congenital heart problem and it’s hard for her to get him health care; if it means making sure that people have a living wage in this country — if that’s what it means to be a democratic socialist, then I am one.
Okay, you had to know this question was coming: do you think Bernie Sanders will run for president in 2020? If so, what kind of effect would that have on American politics the second time around?
I hope the Senator does run again in 2020. He made his mark. He didn’t win that primary, but he won something far greater: he shook the foundations of our politics in this country forever. Our Revolution may or may not have existed, organizations like Indivisible and all the other people who just found their voice — I’m not saying they only found it because of Senator Sanders, but he did dare people to dream a bigger dream, and to see themselves at the center of this a new kind of politics.
He said the only way things are going to change is if millions and millions of people come together and demand that change. People hadn’t heard a politician or an elected official say those kinds of words to them in a very long time.
Some of this bubbling up certainly came because Mr Trump was elected president. But to sustain a progressive movement, it’s not just about what we’re against, it’s about what we are for. And Our Revolution is the personification of what we are for in this country.
The foundation is set. He hasn’t missed a beat in terms of what we’re fighting for. So, to run for president is to take this whole engagement — this whole people-power notion, the notion that everyday people can make a difference in the body politic — he’s gonna take that whole thing to the next level.
He upset the entire political dynamic in 2016 and that’s why so many people now are running. I’m in Oklahoma City right now. Oklahoma is a red state, and I’m sitting across the table with progressives who are volunteering their time; they work full-time jobs but are volunteering hundreds of hours to talk to candidates, to push for issues. Believe it or not, Oklahoma has a long history with socialism. You wouldn’t know that now, but it did. And I’m sitting and talking to people who really want to go back to their roots.
The excitement that’s going to be there about having [Senator Sanders] as the president of the United States is only going to increase. But the movement is not only about that. It’s really about having the force and the will of the people to change the dynamics of politics, to change the lives of everyday people. That was his mission in 2016; I suspect that that will be his mission again in 2020 if he decides to run. So, I do hope that he runs again.