A condensed version of the following interview, conducted on April 6, was originally published at the Fordham Observer. Until I can afford to upgrade my website, unfortunately I am unable to upload the audio file of the interview.
Gunar Olsen: This is Gunar Olsen with the Fordham Observer, and I’m speaking with Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University and author of Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the American Dream. She appears regularly on MSNBC and NY1 to talk politics, and she’ll be on a panel about the election at Lucky Jack’s in the Lower East Side on April 14 ahead of the New York primary on the 19th.
Let’s start with the Democratic field. Compared to other Democratic primaries you’ve followed in your lifetime, where does this one stand in terms of substance, in terms of talking about actual issues, in terms of pursuing a progressive agenda?
Christina Greer: Goodness, that’s a loaded question. Well in the past I have to say, even in 2008, I can’t say the election was this exciting. If you all remember in 2008, John Edwards and Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton – and of course John Edwards had to bow out – and we were essentially going state by state between Clinton and Obama, and there was sort of a different division obviously in how they wanted to get things done but not necessarily in what they wanted. Yes, there were conversations about war, whether or not Obama supported the war; he did not because he wasn’t even in the Senate at the time of the vote. And so that was sort of the biggest issue there.
This year it seems as though there’s a much larger core of ideas and how to implement them and some real divisions within the larger party about what the direction should be and what a Democratic candidate should look like. Should they be more centrist, like a Hillary Clinton, or should be in some ways, to use Bernie Sanders’ own terms, more radical? And there are many Democrats who don’t feel comfortable with the radical candidate just because they know that bipartisanship is the only way we’ve ever gotten anything done in American democracy, but others feel like this is the time. If not now, then when? She’s someone who’s not going to essentially look like a Republican half the time and really go for what Democratic ideals should be.
So we’re actually at more of a division than many people anticipated largely because many people did not anticipate Bernie Sanders even making the inroads that he has. He showed up, especially as a 74-year-old, pretty obscure senator from a small state. Most people have never heard of him before, and now we see he’s created a national movement in much the way Barack Obama did in 2008.
Gunar Olsen: One of the issues that has come up has been reparations. In an interview with Fusion in January, Bernie Sanders said he doesn’t support reparations for black people. His statement set off – what I found to be – a really important back on forth on the left about reparations. Ta-Nehisi Coates quickly criticized Sanders. And then people further to the left pushed back on Coates: Cedric Johnson in Jacobin wrote “An Open Letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Liberals Who Love Him,” that got some good attention. Jacobin also ran a pro-reparations piece by Brian Jones. As usual, Adolph Reed said some things that were highly critical of Coates’ work. What did you make of this conversation?
Christina Greer: Well it depends on what you make of the conversation of reparations. I mean I think it’s an important conversation to have, but I think there are more important conversations to have about the institutions in which that money or those resources would be played out. What is the point of reparations in some ways if all the institutions will still be white owned and in some ways white supremacist? So I think that it’s an important question.
The fact that Bernie Sanders is entertaining the question says something about what he’s willing to do. I think a large frustration with people who aren’t supporting Sanders is that he never instigates any of these conversations. He’s always brought into the conversation often times reluctantly, and then he champions it, which is great, but he’s clearly not a leader on anything race related.
Gunar Olsen: One campaign tactic that Hillary Clinton has been using is the exploitation of identity politics, a type politics popular among social justice activists on college campuses, indeed especially here at Fordham. She’s been tweeting about intersectionality and recognizing her privilege. She’s using her gender to make the ‘elect a woman’ argument. Do you think these appeals are genuine? Do you think her policies will benefit the marginalized communities she’s claiming to help, or do you think, as Michelle Alexander wrote in the Nation, that “Hillary Clinton doesn’t deserve the black vote?”
Christina Greer: Well I mean Hillary Clinton is a complicated figure largely because she’s been known for so long. I’m actually still uncertain as to what exactly she believes largely because people are allowed to change, but we also do know that this is something she definitely desires.
When it comes to the black vote, as I talk about in my book Black Ethnics, how can we really define that? Yes, there are large – 90 percent of African Americans vote Democratically in the general election, but that’s for complicated reasons. And the group is not a monolithic group, ethnically, geographically, financially, whatever it may be. Republicans have essentially written off black Americans, and so the choices are limited. But I think black people are very strategic voters, so when they’re looking at someone like Hillary Clinton, who in many ways is the presumed nominee, there’s a reason for many black voters to vote to protect their interests as opposed to take a gamble and vote for a possible candidate that might not make it.
You also can’t assume that just because one is black that they’re also liberal. So they may vote Democratically, but there’s still several conservative Democrats out there. If we think about southerners – not just black Southerners – but southerners period, we know that a Democratic southerner from say Texas is more conservative than probably a Republican from New York City. So when we have these labels, we also have to recognize that these labels are multifaceted and pretty complex depending on our geographic space and who and what we’re talking about.
Gunar Olsen: Both Michelle Alexander and Shaun King at the New York Daily News said that the problem with Sanders is that he’s running in the Democratic Party, a party dominated by right-of-center neoliberals like Obama and Clinton. When asked whom she is supporting, Angela Davis said that we need a new party. What is your take on Sanders in the Democratic Party or a third-party run?
Christina Greer: I think what this race is really showing us is that the labels we are using are in many ways inaccurate. In the old days, Sanders would be a Democratic, Clinton would be a Republican, and then the Republicans would just be off the pond. We have no idea where they would be because they have shown themselves to be so extremist on the presidential level. Now obviously on the local level it’s a little bit different.
We know that Obama is not a liberal. Lots of people have been disappointed. Unfortunately they weren’t paying attention to anything he said in 2008 because if you were looking beyond his skin color, you would know for a fact that he never said he was going to be a liberal, he never said he would implement liberal policies. His skin color is liberal but that’s pretty much it. And he’s a centrist Democrat, and that’s, in the past, who we’ve tended to elect to be our president, centrist Democrats. So when it comes to the comparisons of the Obama era and today, we also have to be real about why and how we voted for Obama, and for some people, with the excitement of voting for Obama, they weren’t paying attention to some of the rhetoric that was quite clear that they weren’t paying attention.
Gunar Olsen: So what advice would you give to (1) the Sanders campaign to pick up more delegates in the remaining primaries and (2) the Clinton campaign to keep up her pledged delegate lead.
Christina Greer: Well the Sanders campaign so far they’re galvanizing young people and they would just have to keep stressing turn out and that this movement is real and not be discouraged even if the math doesn’t look in their favor. For many people, if Sanders is their first choice, they are making the argument for themselves, saying well, he probably won’t win, so I’ll just vote for my second choice and that’s what happens quite a bit. If he can convince people to vote for their first choice, I think he’s got great momentum.
Similarly though for Hillary Clinton, I think she needs to convince people that she needs to be judged as 21st century Hillary Clinton, and that even though she may have cosigned on her husband’s record, is it a fair assessment for her to be judged a) for things that she said 25 years ago – Biden said some pretty horrendous things, I’m sure if we all look back on ourselves, we aren’t the people we are today, hopefully we’re not, we’ve evolved – and really convince people that she’s the smartest person in the room, which I do think, you know, is usually the case. But lots of people have such a bad feeling about her, and she’s actually not a great candidate. And in governance, that may be a different story, but as far as on the campaign trail, she just doesn’t know how to bring it home. If she can convince people that she has the CV that no one else in the world has, and that we should trust her, even though we’ve known her for so many years, then I think she can make those inroads.
Gunar Olsen: Let’s move to the Republican field. How do you explain the violence inflicted by Trump supporters on nonviolent protesters, particularly black people, at his rallies? What does it signify and what does it say about the United States? Do you think it could get worse?
Christina Greer: Oh I definitely think it could get worse because it’s the fabric of this nation. We have a presidential candidate who’s essentially said, “We no longer have to live in the shadows.” And so the silent majority can now speak, and that means they can say pretty horrendous things about multiple people. These groups have been in existence, they’re not new, many of them though haven’t voted before or they reluctantly voted for a Democrat that didn’t satisfy their – or a Republican that didn’t satisfy their needs. And Trump is essentially saying, “It’s okay to say these inappropriate statements out loud, it’s acceptable because you’re with me now.” And I think a lot of people are feeling really relieved that he’s given them the permission to say and do things that they’ve felt for quite some time.
Gunar Olsen: So a question about the media. Glenn Greenwald wrote that the rise of Trump shows the danger and sham of compelled journalistic ‘neutrality.’ You were recently on a panel at the New School and you talked about the media’s role in the rise of Trump. What’s the connection?
Christina Greer: Well I think the media is complicit, and there are lots of people who disagree on this point. The fact is that he’s gotten $2 billion in free media since he announced. The only person who gets more free media is the president of the United States. So when journalists keep asking, “Why is Trump surging in the polls?” Well because you’ve been talking about him nonstop on air in a 24-hour news cycle, and so if you stopped doing that, we might see that maybe – it sort of depends on [inaudible] the dog. For a lot of people who weren’t paying attention or who didn’t think of him that seriously or they’ve heard every single journalist talking about him consistently, and so then they started to think about him more and more. And he’s already had a 10-year head start on many of the candidates because he’s a celebrity with his reality shows.
Gunar Olsen: What’s all this talk about a contested Republican convention? How could this play out?
Christina Greer: Oh I think it can play out, and if the Democrats aren’t careful, I think it will also play out in Philadelphia as well. So essentially there are lots of different rules in place. I mean I always tell my students, “The beauty and the curse of American democracy is that even though we have something written down, we always have a trap door where we can circumvent it.” So there are rules, the rules for Democrats are somewhat different than the rules for Republicans because Democrats have superdelegates. But Reublianas have to get to a certain number. If Cruz takes his win in Wisconsin and starts surging in the polls, we may see that neither Republican gets the requisite amount to actually win the nomination straight out at the convention. If that’s the case, it could be contested. That also means that Reince Priebus, who the head of the RNC, could exercise certain provisions in their bylaws where they could throw in a third candidate as well, someone obviously with the name like Paul Ryan or Mitt Romney have been thrown around, someone who’s a little bit more palatable to the vast majority of Republicans in the party. Unfortunately in America, we have such low voter turnout for the primary, many times these people are not representative samples of the larger party.
Gunar Olsen: Currently the frontrunners in each party — Clinton and Trump — are very unpopular among the general electorate. In a recent CBS/NYT poll, 57 percent of voters said they have unfavorable views of Trump and 52 percent of Clinton, the highest numbers since the poll began in 1984. (This is in contrast to Sanders, who has 60 percent favorable and 33 percent unfavorable ratings in a CNN poll.) How is this happening? And how strong is the argument that Democrats should elect Sanders because he has a better chance of beating Trump?
Christina Greer: Right, and I don’t necessarily think that Sanders has a better chance of beating Trump. I think Sanders benefits in many ways from what Obama benefited from in 2008, which is that he’s relatively unknown. So yes he’s been in the Senate but his record in the Senate is not terribly impressive. And so there’s not much to stick to him based on what he’s done or hasn’t done because that a) wasn’t his office and b) he’s been living the great life of a senator and been delivering for the state of Vermont as he should as a senator.
With Hillary Clinton, she has a lot more net negative largely because we’ve known her for 25 years, she was secretary of State, she did cosign some of her husband’s most draconian policies in the 90’s, and even some upstate New Yorkers have issues with her from when she was senator obviously and voted for the Iraq War.
So both of these individuals, Clinton and Trump, have large negatives, but we also need to look at the number of people who are actually showing up. So if we think about Washington state, I believe Bernie Sanders got 19,000 votes and won the primary. When Obama won the Democratic state of Washington, he got 1.9 million votes, so we’re seeing a huge percentage of the Democratic primary not showing up for a primary because many people when they about elections, they think about November, they don’t think about early 2016.
Gunar Olsen: What worries you most about a Hillary Clinton presidency, and what worries you most about a Donald Trump presidency?
Christina Greer: A Hillary Clinton presidency, I worry that she’s a hawk. We see that Obama presented himself as a dove, and Hillary Clinton presented herself as a hawk in 2008. We see that Obama has a lot of hawk in him when it comes to foreign policy and also middle of the road policies when it comes to the welfare state and poor Americans. I think Hillary Clinton will be more hawkish than our current president, that does worry me because if obviously we think about interacting, intervening abroad, that does have real economic consequences domestically when it comes to education, infrastructure, and our day to day lives.
With Donald Trump, everything worries me because a) not only does he not have a record but I do think he has narcissistic, megalomania qualities and you can’t really take him at his word. So one day he’ll say he’s for something and the next day he’s against it and the third day he says he’s for it again. So I don’t feel comfortable with a person like that interacting with Putin or Kim Jong Un or our allies at the UN because tough talk and big talk in the boardroom is very different when you’re talking with heads of state where you can just call them pigs, and obviously his gender politics I think are probably the nadir of American politics and we probably haven’t seen someone so [inaudible] ever in our democratic history.
Gunar Olsen: So speaking of foreign policy, while Bernie Sanders was the only candidate to decline to speak at AIPAC, Clinton seemed like she was trying to position herself to the right of Donald Trump on Israel. Although Sanders reaffirmed his support for guaranteeing Israel’s survival, he did call for an end to the blockade of Gaza, criticized Israel for controlling water in the West Bank, and for mounting disproportionate responses to attacks. How does this affect his campaign? And more broadly, do you see Sanders’ speech as the beginning of a trend of national politicians who aren’t afraid to strongly criticize Israel?
CG: I don’t think it’s the beginning of a trend. I think that for people who are progressive in this country, it’s refreshing to hear a candidate not actually cater to this particular group, which Democrat and Republican candidates always cater to this specific group. So he is one in very few that I do not think are this national trend because many Democrats and Republicans alike believe that to get the support of AIPAC financially but even just on paper means a lot, not just in the campaign phase but also in the governance phase. Keep in mind the position of Israel in the Middle East is a very strategic position, and many world leaders want that relationship as strong as possible for all the things that we do in the dark.
Gunar Olsen: Since you teach a course on campaigns and elections, how would you design a primary system to either maximize or minimize the ability of an outsider candidate, like Trump or Sanders, to break through?
CG: I don’t think that democracy is set up to minimize people. I think if the public speaks then we should listen. My issue is that it’s only a small percentage of the public speaking. I really wish we could figure out a way to get more people involved, to actually turn out to vote. We know that there are costs to voting, not just $2.75 to take the subway to your polling station but trying to find childcare and healthcare and get off of work if you’re working two minimum wage jobs and you could lose your job if you leave early to go vote. So we really need to think about the strategies that other countries utilize that are really effective where they have weekend voting on a Saturday and a Sunday, or certain states where you can vote for two weeks or early voting or make it really easy to just mail in your ballot.
Some people argue that it shouldn’t be easy to vote, but we make it pretty difficult for people and it’s a pretty complex system. We’re a highly educated people, and I talk to my students all the time, and they’re even still confused about where they should register. Do they go online? Should they have to show up? There are a lot of intricate processes. They’re really confused about the date in New York: we’re voting in April for the presidential primary in June, for the congressional primary in September, for the state legislature primary, and then in November for the general election. Many people don’t understand what all these dates mean, and so it’s a larger education process that also needs to happen to explain to American voters what all these different levels and layers of American government really mean because they don’t really know who they’re turning out for. And part of the problem is that we have such an incumbency advantage for people who have already been in office. Many people aren’t inspired to turn out for someone who’s already been in office for 20 years and they just assume well they’re gonna be in office anyway and they essentially run pretty much unopposed every single time they’re up for office.
Gunar Olsen: Again, I’ve been speaking to Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University and author of Black Ethnics. She’ll be discussing the election at Lucky Jack’s on April 14th. We will link to your book and the panel at the Observer’s website. Thanks so much for chatting!
CG: Thank you, Gunar!