The Failed State of America

Jacobin magazine Executive Editor Seth Ackerman joins for a conversation with host Jeremy Scahill.

Photo Illustration: Elise Swain/The Intercept

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Bernie Sanders has suspended his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president, as the country continues to be rocked by Covid-19 cases and hospitals are struggling to obtain basic supplies. The U.S. has seen almost 20 million unemployment claims in just the past few weeks while new data is revealing that Covid-19 is killing African Americans disproportionately in some major cities. What we are witnessing in stark reality is that contrary to the rhetoric of American greatness, a mask now being lifted to reveal a failed state. On the new Intercepted: Jacobin magazine Executive Editor Seth Ackerman discusses the pandemic, capitalism, the suspension of the Sanders campaign, and the future of the U.S.


Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.

[Music interlude.]

JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill coming to you from my basement in New York City. And this is Episode 126 of Intercepted.

Well, this has been a pretty major week in both political developments and with the coronavirus pandemic. Bernie Sanders, of course, has suspended his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president and it seems likely that we’re going to be facing a choice between Joe Biden and Donald Trump on the ballot in November. We’re also seeing a continuing rise in the cases of infections and deaths from Covid-19 across the United States. And I think a lot of us have been walking around or sitting in our homes, feeling this ominous sense of what the future might look like for us, for our families, for this country, for the world. And I’ve also been thinking a lot about the claims of American exceptionalism or greatness and juxtaposing that rhetoric with the systematic failure to prevent unthinkable catastrophe for so many people here in the United States. 

We are nearing 20 million unemployment claims just in the past few weeks alone. We are seeing hospitals struggling to obtain basic supplies. We’re getting data showing that the virus is hitting African Americans disproportionately, and we’re watching both political parties unanimously voting for the most massive corporate economic stimulus in U.S. history. Now, I’m not alone in this observation but what we are seeing right now in bold, stark ways about our reality is that contrary to the rhetoric of American greatness, we are witnessing a failed state that placed all of its faith in the radical ideology of capitalism, the free market, at the expense of protecting the lives of our people. 

And I saw a tweet the other day from the journalist and academic Corey Robin describing a conversation that he recently had with Seth Ackerman, the executive editor of Jacobin Magazine, where Seth laid out some basic theses that he has been bouncing around about the U.S. as a failed state. So I thought it might be helpful for our listeners to flesh all of this out a bit more and to discuss what the suspension of the Sanders campaign means; what it means to have Joe Biden versus Donald Trump; what it means to have systematic failure of public institutions in the United States at the time of a pandemic. So Seth Ackerman joins me now. Seth, thank you so much for being here on Intercepted.

Seth Ackerman: Thank you. It’s good to be here.

JS: So I want to start just by asking you your assessment of what it means that Bernie Sanders has suspended his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president.

SA: Well, obviously, we saw this coming for a long time. I think that the analysis of why this happened isn’t all that mysterious. I think pretty much everyone has recognized or at least people who’ve got their eyes open, recognize that Bernie was in the lead for a while. He’s a very popular figure in the Democratic Party. There were always doubts about his electability. And then there was a bloc of voters who were intensely concerned about electability, took their cues from party leaders, and the party executed magnificently, this spectacle of endorsement and rallying around Biden. 

What it means for the future? I mean, I think that even the people who executed that magnificent spectacle probably themselves have some, some private doubts about Biden. And as far as Bernie is concerned, that I think is a big question. I mean, in 2016, there’s emerged a kind of a legend of Bernie’s unwillingness to campaign for Hillary Clinton. Obviously, the Clinton camp would like to be able to put as much blame as possible for her defeat on Bernie Sanders. And I think you have to assume that that kind of dynamic is going to play out this time, whatever happens. I mean, in other words, even before the election happens, you can already sort of see, I think, an effort at a contest based on the perception management game about is Bernie being sufficiently loyal to the ticket and supportive of Biden? Is he going to be and his supporters and all the rest of it? 

So, as far as the meaning is concerned, I have to say I’m a lot more optimistic maybe than some other supporters of Bernie Sanders. I think that I never expected him to get as far as he got. And I think that if you look just at the age breakdowns of the support for him versus the other candidates, and of favorability in general, you just have to assume that his kind of politics are a lot more likely to be the future of the party or American politics generally than Joe Biden’s. 

JS: I agree with your analysis that you have this incredible quick mobilization to consolidate the non-Bernie voters and power structures in terms of campaign infrastructure around Joe Biden and of course, Barack Obama played a behind the scenes role in calling people and offering counsel. And we don’t know the extent of how much involvement any particular powerful Democrats had. But it was clear that they did this incredibly quickly and as you say, it was very successful. But the flip side of that is now you’re stuck with Joe Biden. And it may be the case that “Joe Biden is not Trump and he’s Barack Obama’s good friend” is enough to beat Donald Trump. 

But, I think those of us who have been warning about the fact that Joe Biden has a very right wing legislative record, as his own questions about sexual assault and misconduct toward women, has a lengthy record of lying or plagiarism. It’s why one of his earlier campaigns for the presidency was tanked. And the fact that the most charitable way of putting it is that he’s a gaffe machine. The other way of looking at it is that Biden frequently seems to not be aware of what office he’s running for, what room he’s in, or who he’s even speaking to. So my question now and you know, people get tarred “Oh, Bernie bros, and all you guys are doing is you’re trying to harm Joe Biden because you want Donald Trump to be president.” And most of the people that I know who were excited about Bernie Sanders are deadly afraid that what the Democratic establishment has done by coalescing around Joe Biden is increasing the chances that Trump gets four more years or more to further consolidate his authoritarian rule.

SA: What surprises and shocks me is the absence or the apparent absence, I don’t see it anyway, of the kind of panic on the part of the Democratic establishment or their supporters, just people who are party loyalists and who have a voice, have a platform. It’s understandable that if you’re Tom Perez or whoever, you’re not going to be expressing that kind of thing openly, but even people who are in positions who are journalists, who have a certain independence and can speak out and say, this is a bad idea, let’s not go down this path. I feel like there’s a — I get a sense of denial. I don’t know if in a way that is different from things I’ve seen in the past, of an unwillingness to face the situation that they’re in. 

And I agree that you look at some of those clips of Biden, and it becomes hard to picture this guy winning the presidency against an incumbent, number one. I think Donald Trump in 2016, his biggest handicap was that even people who liked him, even people who thought, I like the way this guy talks, they had their doubts about can this guy really be president? What if he — is he going to do something crazy? He’s going to start some bizarre war ’cause a depression or something like that. And once you’re an incumbent and you’ve had four years in power, and obviously Trump has caused one crisis after another, but if it’s a question of the devil you know versus the devil you don’t know, Donald Trump is no longer the devil you don’t know. And so once that baggage is gone from Trump, and we’re in the middle of what is, in fact, a real crisis, and you look at Joe Biden’s performances in these public appearances, which are, of course, increasingly rare, it just becomes hard to envision this. 

And what I don’t understand is why you don’t have people like I mean, I don’t want to name names in order to like denounce them or anything but, the people who are the independent voices of the Democratic establishment, people who are critical of Bernie Sanders and his movement and his supporters and were hoping for a different outcome in 2016 in terms of the support that Bernie Sanders got. Those are people that you would expect now to be expressing panic and I don’t see it. And I wonder what you think? Do you think that they are in denial that they actually aren’t panicking? Or do you think that this is a remarkable performance of concealing their actual feelings?

JS: Well, I mean, I’ll answer that just by pointing to a fact, which is that, less than an hour after Bernie Sanders had his call with supporters to announce that he was suspending his presidential campaign, you had dozens of former staffers for Hillary Clinton, who organized a Zoom video chat and the invitation was “Bye-bye, Bernard (HFA celebration toast.)” I mean, when you look at the way that the epitome stereotype of establishment corporate Democrats during a pandemic with Donald Trump in power, they organize a Zoom conference call to celebrate the candidate who forced Medicare for All and raising workers wages to the top of the discussion in this country, that’s what they want to be doing during this time is celebrating?

My answer to your question is, if you look at how Biden’s campaign and his surrogates, if you look at Hillary Clinton universe, at how they talk about the movements and the people that were behind Bernie Sanders, it seems like they don’t get it, that they somehow think that the never-Trumper, “traditional” Republican and moderate Democrats, that that’s going to be enough to beat Donald Trump and I really, I hope they’re right. I hope that Donald Trump is gone. But I don’t think that shitting all over working people, immigrant rights activists, climate change activists, and holding little Zoom cocktail hours to denounce or celebrate Bernie Sanders’ departure from the race is a good message to have if your main priority is getting rid of Donald Trump.

SA: Yeah, I obviously sympathize with the general sentiment there but I have to say that I find there to be something almost kind of, I don’t wanna say refreshing, but I think that there’s something almost healthy about the openness of I mean, it’s a little bit nasty what they did, but there’s an openness of a recognition that there is an actual difference, a split, a cleavage within the party between their type of politics and Bernie Sanders. There was a long time when there was an effort to sort of deny that — there was a long time when people who were against Bernie took the line, well, “there’s no real difference between him and Hillary Clinton or whoever. We’re all progressives, and he’s just sort of creating an artificial division.” I think there’s something healthy about that willingness to get up and say, “Look, we don’t like this guy. We don’t like his movement. We don’t like his politics.” 

I think that clarifies things in a way that maybe is the best, most auspicious outcome of the whole Bernie Sanders saga of the last four years is the creation of sort of common knowledge in the public that there is a difference between the type of politics that you get from Hillary Clinton or Kamala Harris or any of the most of the other candidates, and somebody like Bernie Sanders. And what’s amazing is I mean, I wrote a piece about this a few months ago, right after Nevada maybe — and what was remarkable was how these normie Democrat rank and file primary voters, they love Bernie Sanders. I mean, even the ones who didn’t vote for him, most of them really liked him. And I say this, this is not just speculation. I mean, I’ve been looking really closely for an article I’m going to come out with about his favorability ratings versus Biden’s, which is different people’s actual vote intention. And you can see the people who didn’t vote for him, like him a lot relatively speaking compared to the other candidates. 

And these sort of rank and file Democrats, very often or at least in the early contests, they didn’t really perceive some deep unfathomable split in the party between Bernie Sanders and the other candidates. They thought, when they listened to Bernie Sanders, they thought, “OK, well, this is a guy who’s obviously, he doesn’t mince words. He doesn’t try to make his politics sound milder in order to be palatable for moderates.” But they didn’t see any fundamental difference between his politics and the politics of the other candidates. And that was sort of part of the problem for the Democratic establishment is that they desperately needed these people to start seeing Bernie Sanders as being an alien.

So I think that in the future, that revelation that it turns out that ordinary rank and file Democrats when they hear Bernie Sanders, a guy who calls himself a socialist, talks in class conflict type of language, when they hear that they think, yeah, that’s the kind of politics I like. Maybe this guy can’t get elected or something but that’s the kind of politics I like. That discovery about their own base — and this, by the way, includes African Americans, under the age of 50, African Americans preferred Bernie to Joe Biden. I think that discovery is, you can’t forget that. You can’t unlearn that fact.

JS: There does seem to be this pattern where during the primary and especially when it  intensified or narrowed down to Bernie versus Biden, this sense that you got from the Biden wing, the Biden and Hillary Clinton wing of the party, was when Sanders’ people would point out problematic aspects of Joe Biden’s record or lies that Joe Biden was openly telling — got arrested in Apartheid South Africa, was doing sit-ins during the Civil Rights struggle, etc. — there was this, but Bernie, but Bernie, what about Bernie, what about this? What about this essay that Bernie wrote in 1969, or the one he wrote in 1972? 

And it’s like, they don’t have Bernie to kick around anymore. This is the real game now. You’ve got Joe Biden versus Donald Trump and I think it was a big mistake for people in Biden’s camp not to come up with a better response to what is going to be a deluge of ads and attacks, some of which will be true, that are going to be unleashed on Joe Biden. It really seemed to be a collective, put my hands over my ears and yell, Bernie, Bernie, Bernie, Bernie, Bernie, I can’t hear you. I don’t know, what do you think about that?

SA: Yeah, I mean, throughout the campaign, the mantra was that well, Bernie Sanders may have good poll numbers against Trump in these matchups but wait until — he’s never been vetted. Just wait until the ads come and the attacks and the Fox News 24-hour attack machine. I mean, you’re right. The vulnerability on the part of Biden I think is much greater because the things that they were going to attack Bernie for, Bernie’s political persona and his brand and his shtick is all about, look, I don’t care about the bullshit. I don’t care about the personality politics or like gotcha stuff, and he doesn’t do that kind of politics when he’s running against somebody else. He doesn’t do that kind of negative politics. He sticks, maybe to a fault, maybe overly, to the same script. He wants to talk about one percent and healthcare and all the rest of it and I think that’s part of his appeal. People see this guy, and they think this guy is very sincere. 

So when he was going to be attacked by the Republican sort of machine, “You were part of an organization in 1973? The head of it said this nice thing about the ayatollah,” or something like that, Bernie Sanders could very credibly be like, yeah, who cares? Sorry, I’m gonna go back to what I was saying before about Medicare for All, and people will look at that, there’s no defensiveness about it. Whereas with Biden his whole appeal is the guy that he is, what a great guy he is, it’s really about who he is, his character. He’s like, middle class Joe who cares about your problems and he’s a personable guy and I just, personally, I find it difficult to hate Joe Biden on a personal level. There are other sort of mainstream Democrats that I feel like I love to hate but Biden, I almost feel sort of, you know, tenderness for this guy who’s a little bit out of his depth right now.

JS: First of all, I think it’s important to translate something for people that are not immersed in activism or organizing or left politics or members of the Democratic Socialists of America. For many, many, many people on the left, Bernie Sanders is the compromise candidate, and there are criticisms of Bernie Sanders from the left. Bernie has had a bunch of bad votes on some very important issues, and not just the gun votes that people like to harp on. But his Iraq war position was bad. His position on the war in Yugoslavia was bad and in support of a 78-day bombing campaign carried out, or in circumvention of the United Nations, like there are things to debate about Bernie Sanders. But for a lot of people on the left, Bernie Sanders was the compromise candidate, and they look at someone like Joe Biden say, this is a right wing guy wearing a Democratic party hat and I don’t want anything to do with that.

SA: I mean, he’s well to the right of where the sort of mainstream Democratic Party discourse was, at least when the primary started. And he seemed to be going out of his way, especially early on almost to debate the left. And when I say the left, I mean the left of the Democratic Party. The things that he would say, the contemptuous things about millennials, and I don’t empathize at all. I was a little bit baffled. I thought, I mean, this can’t be an accident. There’s got to be some strategy behind it, but I don’t see what it is.

JS: He told the immigrant rights activists who asked him a perfectly legitimate question about the policy of deportations under the Obama-Biden administration to go and vote for Trump.

SA: Yeah, well, sometimes this shades into like a question about the cognitive status sort of thing. I mean, I was just watching a clip of him maybe you remember this when he was in the Iowa State Fair, and some college kid comes up to him and asks him a question about gender and his answer was, there’s three of them and then when she asked him what they are, he goes, “Don’t mess with me, kid.” [Laughs.]

JS: Right, although I will say that the vote for Trump thing, I don’t think that that was a gaffe or some, you know, some consequence of a degeneration going on. I mean, I think that’s something that Biden seems to quite frequently say to people, but in the case of someone advocating for immigrant rights, I think it’s a particularly devastating example of how not to win people over or show you’re serious about their issues.

SA: Yeah, it’s just bad politics. I mean, nobody would give the advice that you’d say something like that to a person in that situation. On every level, this is not the candidate you’d want and you can see the establishment did not unite around him early. He was hoping that was going to happen. That was his sort of strategy was he was going to get the whole sort of party establishment behind him from very early on. They didn’t want to do it. They looked at him, they listened to him. They probably liked him, but he was not getting money. He was not getting endorsements for all of these reasons. This incredible, stunning, magnificent coup that they pulled off. And I think it’s completely legit. There’s nothing illegitimate about it. Bernie didn’t lose because the primary was stolen from him or anything. That’s politics, but they managed to pull it off really well. But it could end up being such a Pyrrhic victory for them. I mean, Biden, it could have been somebody else, could have been Kamala Harris or somebody like that. And this may end up being a disaster for them.

JS: What do you think is gonna happen going forward with the Democratic Party as an institution because it does seem like Trump’s ascent to the presidency did accelerate some realignment that already had been in the works where you see the kind of so-called Never Trumpers, even Karl Rove has said positive things about Joe Biden being the candidate. Do you see any meaningful reorientation of the party and what will happen with all of those people who got politicized because of the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, that the traditional Democratic party doesn’t speak to their issues or doesn’t offer a vision that they embrace?

SA: That is a very difficult question to answer. I mean, on the first part of it, the question of like, is there a realignment of some kind going on? I mean, it is remarkable. I just saw yesterday, today, maybe even a poll came out, General Election match-up poll. And you compare whites with a college degree and whites without a college degree and it was remarkable. I mean, whites with a college degree were for Biden by 30 points, and whites without a college degree were for Trump by 30 points. That’s how I remember the poll, anyway. Obviously, this is the direction in which American politics has been going for a while now. But you’re right, it has accelerated it a tremendous amount. So that at this point, the Democratic Party is increasingly this very odd, unwieldy coalition of upscale, whites, and especially older middle class or working class black people. And obviously that’s an oversimplification but it’s increasingly a coalition whose previous bases had a certain coherence and now it’s moving in an increasingly incoherent direction. 

And as far as what is going to happen in the future in terms of the Bernie Sanders support base, I think that’s a really important question. Because, the fact is that there is not, I mean — despite all the talk about this new generation of young progressive politicians — one thing that was different about Bernie compared to most of the other progressive politicians that have emerged is that he had a political profile that was seen as quite distinct from the Democratic Party. And that was on net an advantage for him. There were some people obviously who were turned off by that, people were diehard Democrats, they love being Democrats, they love the party. And the fact that he kept, always kept a certain distance from the party was a downside for them. But there were, I think, a lot more people for whom it was and especially young people for whom it was an attraction. 

And that, I think, is the aspect of his politics that you don’t see or haven’t yet seen replicated so much among the other progressive politicians. So, I mean, he’s not going anywhere. He’s gonna stay in the Senate, and hopefully  be an important voice on the left. But I think a lot now depends on the conclusions and the lessons that the other progressives, AOC and all the rest of them, end up drawing from this election however, it turns out. And that I think is a big question going forward is what conclusions will they draw from this whole story? And how’s that going to orient their politics in the future?

JS: Moving on to the bigger realities that we’re facing now in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. I saw online, Corey Robin, the author and thinker, put up some notes based on a conversation that he had with you taking a walk. And it was sort of five points that underscored a theses that he said you had offered about America as a failed state. This is why I wanted to talk to you. I’m wondering if you could just share with people kind of your overview of how you see this situation and why that conclusion.

SA: I mean, I’m sure there’s a lot of people listening who have had the same sort of observation, especially in the course of this crisis, the coronavirus crisis. Seeing one institution after another, American institution, failing in ways that you would not expect from, not only that you would not expect them in many cases from the richest country in the world or a rich, advanced, technologically advanced country but in some cases, you wouldn’t even expect them from a stable, well governed, middle income country. So I’ve sort of become a connoisseur of this. I’ve started filing away articles as I see them. And I think we’re talking about maybe doing an issue, a special issue on this for Jacobin, maybe later in the year. 

So, let’s go down the list. First of all, there’s these stimulus bills which are very important to get cash in people’s hands in order to salvage as much of the economy as possible as quickly as possible. That’s really important because if you the longer this goes on, even just in terms of days or weeks, the more businesses are going to go bankrupt and disappear so that they can’t revive after this is all over, the more people go bankrupt or lose their homes or become detached from the labor market and are no longer able to reintegrate in the economy. So speed is of the essence. Everyone knows that. The economists have all been advising that. And what do you see with the implementation of this stimulus? There has been, it has exposed an unbelievable breakdown in the infrastructure of the government’s ability to connect monetarily with the population. 

So on the one hand, you have, the IRS is going to have to process many of these payments, the $1,200 payment to everybody. And it’s been made clear, there was an article in Reuters awhile ago that this is just going to be impossible and that it may take many months, many months. Now you’re talking about X number of businesses that are destroyed, X number of workers who face disaster because of those months. And now, when you say that, when you point something like this out, people, Democrats will often or liberals will often say “Well, yeah, that’s what you get when you have, you know, Tea Party Republicans running everything. They hate the government. They want the government to fail. So that’s the result.” And they’re not wrong about that, certainly when it comes to the IRS, but then you look at the states. 

So a major portion of the stimulus is going to be implemented through the unemployment insurance system which is a state federal partnership. So it’s the state agencies that implement it and in state after state I mean, this has been known for a long time. Number one, the United States has such a decrepit unemployment insurance system just in terms of who qualifies, who is able to get benefits. We have a very small fraction of unemployed people who actually collect unemployment benefits because they make it deliberately as difficult as possible for you to access them so people give up and the benefits are so minimal, that there’s often not much of an incentive to go through all the hoops. 

That aside, just in terms of the infrastructure, just in terms of the ability to get the payments people are entitled to into their hands, in terms of applications and all the rest of it, California, New Jersey, there are a whole series of blue states where the Republican Party is, especially in California, the Republican Party might as well not exist in California. And yet you had a recent report from the California Legislative Analyst’s Office, which is like their version of the Government Accountability Office. It’s like a congressional analysis office that does policy work. They just came out with a report a while ago saying it could take up to a year for many Californians to get these benefits. 

Again, this is a stimulus intended to be getting cash into people’s hands as quickly as possible to rescue the economy. Many people probably have seen by now that there’s a bunch of reporting on the fact that the computer systems of the unemployment offices in this country apparently all run on this obsolete 60s era programming language called COBOL which nobody knows anymore, except for like, old retired former programmers. And the systems are all crashing, and like the governor of New Jersey just the other day, sent out an urgent plea on television. If anybody knows COBOL, please come and help, fix our computer systems because otherwise we can’t run our unemployment insurance. So I mean, this is the sort of thing that you would expect to see in a country whose basic state structures are sort of disintegrating. 

I saw the other day that there are deep — and this has not yet gotten the attention it deserves. There are deep and serious problems with the U.S. Postal Service. The Postal Service has always, in certain places, definitely in Brooklyn where I live, had difficulty just doing its job, meeting its service mission in terms of getting packages to people on time and so on. But now they are, it’s in such a state of apparent breakdown in many places. And this is especially concerning because now we go on to a different institution, a third institution, which is elections. So obviously, we are facing a situation in this country where we will not be able to have elections that will be perceived as legitimate by anybody unless we can implement some kind of a of a non in-person voting system. So vote by mail is the obvious choice. Well, vote by mail requires a functioning postal service. And the Postal Service has recently made it clear that the way things are going, they are simply not going to be able, even if the system were to be set up or the Congress were to try to do it or the state governments were to try to do it, they wouldn’t be in a position to get ballots to people and then get the ballots back because they’re so completely overloaded. 

So I mean, the Postal Service is the sort of thing that’s kind of like the backbone of any functioning, modern society, and the ability to hold elections, which obviously, this is not the beginning of our problems with elections, clearly. I mean, this is another thing where people in other countries are just baffled by this. How is it that the United States is not able to hold an election without it turning into a disaster? Just a couple months ago, we had the Iowa caucuses which were just an absurd farce and probably exposed the fact that they’ve always been an absurd farce, we just didn’t know about it because it was never close enough to make a difference. 

So we’ve had one election after another that’s been botched. And so there’s a deep lack of administrative capacity, state capacity, and this affects one core institution after another in this country whether it’s the bureaucracy that deals with taxes and payments, welfare benefits and all the rest of it, or the post office, or the elections, and we could come up with more examples. So this, I think, is the sort of phenomenon that the term failed state or state failure really does apply to.

JS: It’s interesting to watch and obviously, we’re in the midst of a presidential election campaign and I do think that Donald Trump holds a unique place in the story of the coronavirus pandemic for the way that he handled it. I mean, it’s a grim designation. He’s been the absolute worst person in this country. I don’t dispute that at all. At the same time there’s been this attempt to kind of lionize Andrew Cuomo, for instance, the governor of New York and there’s a lot of conspiracy buzz, “oh, he should be replacing Biden at the convention, and he really should be the one to run against Trump.” 

Or you have Bill de Blasio, who endorsed Bernie Sanders. He’s the Mayor of New York. Both Cuomo and de Blasio, at least in the initial phases of it, in the case of Andrew Cuomo, were disasters in how they handled this. Cuomo just signed a budget that is one of the most racist and repressive budgets he’s signed and he did it in the midst of a pandemic. We have coronavirus spreading like wildfire through prisons, not just in New York City, but across the state and around the United States. So, the big picture Democratic line is we need to replace Trump with compassion and unity and competence. And at the same time, some of the most powerful Democrats in the country have been pretty shitty in how they’ve handled this pandemic.

SA: That’s why in that note that Corey posted about our conversation, this is how I got onto this question of these institutions that liberals in this country they see as really being what America is about. So for them it’s Ivy League, instituting Ivy League universities, the big charitable foundations, the New York Times, MSNBC and Rachel Maddow. These are kind of the institutions that most liberals look at and say, you know, our mission politically ought to be to make as much of America as possible work as well and be as much of a force for good as these institutions. And so it ends up being a blue state versus red state thing. And I think that there is a profound conviction on the part of many people or a desire to believe that these problems make you shake your head in disbelief that this country is going through are all the result of those people, in those places in the red states, and people who are very different from us. 

But that’s why I find it so fascinating to look at how this stuff goes down in blue states. I mean, like you said, I mean look at New York State is one of the most liberal, one of the most Democratic voting states in the country. Obviously, we have a Democratic Governor. Like you said we have an epidemic of coronavirus in our prisons and no obvious solution to it. We have in the state, obviously a massive crisis of public health. And right now, New York State, the great, relatively highly educated, Democratic voting blue state is the world’s epicenter of the coronavirus and its spread. 

I would also add that Cuomo just a couple months ago, I think came out with this, what he’s going to do, maybe he’s already done it. I haven’t followed it. But he doesn’t like the fact that there is a political party that goes on the ballot in New York called the Working Families Party that gains influence and tries to push politics to the left, that’s annoyed him for many years. So he just decided, well, what we’re going to do is we’re going to, I think, it was double or triple the number of signatures that this party needs to get on the ballot. Now, this is something I’ve written about in the past. I won’t go into it in great detail, but this is another thing where the United States is completely unique. No other democratic country makes it so that opposition parties have to jump through these hoops that the governing parties, the Democratic and Republican parties don’t have to jump through. 

And I think that this is actually the beginnings of maybe an explanation of why this country so uniquely suffers from these profound problems. Oh, I would also mention the New York City subway, by the way, which as many people know, has been a complete disaster in terms of being on time, in terms of a million other things. This is, I think, the beginnings of an explanation of it. If you have a political system in which political competition is repressed so effectively, so that on the one hand, you’re only allowed two choices in terms of political parties, but even then, most of the time, you’re not even given two choices, because in most places in this country, most offices are not even competitive. I mean in the New York State Legislature in the last midterm election, I forget what it was but some enormous percentage of state legislative seats were uncontested. There was just one person on the ballot, sometimes only one person on the ballot in either primary. So there’s literally one person that you could choose. 

So I think that is starting the beginnings of an explanation of how America got to this point is in part, it’s an absence of sort of democratic pressure from below. And one of the reasons we have this absence of democratic pressure is because of our political system. But that absence, the fact that politicians don’t feel sort of the hot breath of popular discontent down their neck, or at least it’s not as pressing for them, I think, is one major reason why the government fails us so systematically.

JS: Obviously, it’s sort of the huge elephant in the room, the way that our healthcare system in this country is structured and the fact that so many people do have health care that is linked to their employment, now they’re going to be losing their jobs, and many of them are going to be in a situation where they’re going to be looking at exorbitant Cobra to try to spend money they don’t have on insurance that is not good. And you also have the overwhelming of the bureaucracy by people who are by necessity going to have to file for unemployment. But this issue of the healthcare system that has been built up and supported by both major parties in this country and this linking of people’s health, to their employment or their accumulation of capital.

SA: I mean, in some ways, the story of this year so far, believe it or not, it’s only been three months. But the story of this year so far is incredible especially in terms of  this healthcare issue. Obviously it was the centerpiece issue of Bernie Sanders, both campaigns. And one thing I remember, I look back on was the Nevada caucuses. So in advance of the Nevada caucuses, there was a tremendous amount of anticipatory gloating, or at least optimism on the part of people who are anti-Bernie that the powerful Culinary Workers Union in Nevada, which is a very big militant union that has a very active membership, heavily Latino, and plays a big role in Democratic politics in that state, including in the caucuses. 

The Culinary Workers Union had a leadership, which was dead set against Medicare for All, and was communicating that to their members. And this was going to sink Bernie Sanders because after all, the message from the leadership of the union, which, of course, the leadership of the union thought it was a great thing that they could attract people to the union by offering a health insurance plan when many people would otherwise not have one. So it’s that sort of desperation that people have that can attract them to the union. And the argument that the leadership was using with their members was the same one that you were hearing from people like Pete Buttigieg. Bernie’s Medicare for All plan is terrible because you won’t be able to keep your health insurance, you will lose your private health insurance. I mean, this is obviously for reasons that require no explanation. This is bullshit on the most cosmic level. 

Obviously, the fact is that Medicare for All is a public plan that everyone receives. It’s more comprehensive than at least in Bernie’s version than any private health insurance. So nobody could possibly lose out from, I mean, maybe in terms of taxes, people with upper incomes or whatever, might, on balance, pay more. But in terms of your coverage, nobody could possibly end up being less well covered under Bernie Sanders’ plan than they are now. That’s just not possible. But so they required this incredible suspension of disbelief in the discourse to perpetuate this idea that Bernie’s plan was somehow an electoral liability because people were going to be terrified that they were going to lose their insurance, and that was the talking point that was given to those workers in Nevada. 

And, obviously, we all know what happened. They all defied not all, but in their large majority, they defied their union leadership and voted for Sanders in the caucuses by overwhelming margins. In many cases, to a large extent because of that Medicare for All issue as they made clear in interviews and in speeches at the caucuses. That was a major attraction for them. And when people would ask, reporters would sometimes, rather baffled reporters seem surprised that these people would not realize the danger of Medicare for All, that they would lose their insurance. I mean, for one thing, there’s the fact that their insurance plan is actually not so great and certainly not as comprehensive as Bernie’s Medicare for All plan. 

But the main thing was reporters would ask these people these questions, “Well, what about this, what about what your union leadership is saying?” And they’d say, “Well, what if I lose my job?” And it’s as if it had never occurred to any of the people, the messaging people in the Democratic Party, the consultants and all the people who were crafting this line, it never occurred to them, that for ordinary people, if you lose your job, you lose your health insurance, and then you’re screwed. And so there is no “you get to keep your insurance if you like it,” that just doesn’t exist under our current system. And then what happens right after the primaries? You have this cataclysmic loss of jobs. We have another 7 million today, the healthcare situation, the health insurance situation, forget about coronavirus, just somebody gets hit by a car, God forbid or somebody falls down the stairs or they get some sort of illness or they have cancer or whatever. There are now, I think it’s 15 million people, 16 million people, just in the last three weeks have filed for unemployment insurance. Those are 16 million people that potentially have lost their insurance, and many of them are going to find themselves in unfortunate situations medically, and God knows what’s gonna happen. 

So this is an ongoing catastrophe. And actually, I have to say that given the obviousness of the importance of the I mean, it’s such a layup, for Medicare for All as a policy, as a message, as a political platform. I’m surprised, I mean, I’m not surprised that Chuck Schumer isn’t pushing for Medicare for All. I have to say, I’m surprised there hasn’t been at least more controversy about it. I feel like even Bernie Sanders, Bernie Sanders has not made it as much of an audible issue given the incredible potency of it, I would imagine that you would expect. And I’m not 100 percent sure why I don’t really have an explanation for that. But I think that you’re right. This is one of the core issues when it comes to state failure. And it’s certainly one of the issues that people in other countries, they are aghast when they hear, they find it difficult to believe, when they hear stories about how our healthcare system works. How do Americans do it? That’s not possible. Well, I mean, that’s yet another area of state failure.

JS: When Joe Biden, when his handlers put up tweets for him that say things like, no one should have to pay for a coronavirus test. And then people rightly say, well, then why should they have to pay for insulin? Or why should they have to pay for cancer treatment? The fact that there is no good answer that the Biden handlers and Biden himself when he appears, can offer to that question, to me is a very ominous sign of where things are heading in the months to come in this election, that you don’t have a good answer for how am I going to pay for my insulin? It’s a really big problem.

SA: Yeah, I mean, not just why not insulin? Why not cancer treatment? Why not the like, treatment for coronavirus? Everyone’s like, yeah, if you get tested, we’ll pay for it. But what if you test positive and then you need a whole battery of medical attention. 

JS: Biden is saying that coronavirus treatment should be paid for, but he’s not defining what that means and I think this is what you’re getting at. I mean if you, my neighbor two doors down for me the other day, died in his home, elderly immigrant and his son comes running up and he is a taxi driver himself and he left the door open and he’s running and he’s struggling with his mask to run up there. And why didn’t that man go to the hospital? He doesn’t have insurance. He didn’t have insurance. He had underlying conditions that were not being treated because he couldn’t afford it. And then he got sick with the virus and he died in his home. And what I think you’re saying is or what I hear you saying is if you have a very narrow qualification for getting your health ailments paid for as a right, how on earth do you justify not paying for underlying conditions of people that are vulnerable to coronavirus?

SA: Or even associated conditions. I mean, what if you have coronavirus, you go to the hospital, you test positive. But it also turns out that you’ve got a heart problem that needs immediate attending to that’s not related. I mean, does that mean that you’re going to go bankrupt? Because your attending physicians are going to be giving you treatments that you’re not gonna be able to pay for and the government’s not gonna pay for? The whole thing is so grotesque, coming up with these very elaborate and I’m sure administratively very difficult to implement probably, systems to ensure that on the one hand, we can say that nobody is gonna have to pay for their coronavirus treatment while making absolutely sure that we don’t cover people in some, in a more comprehensive way. 

And one thing that’s, I think, important to remember is that it’s not just that Biden et al are opposed to Medicare for All. It’s important to remember that the healthcare industry has united in this lobbying operation, forget what, it’s Partnership for America Health or something like that. And their position is not just that they’re against Medicare for All, they are opposed to any extension of public insurance of any kind, under any circumstances. So even sort of halfway measures, maybe raise the Medicaid eligibility to a higher income level or something like that, or reduce the Medicare age of eligibility. They’re 100 percent hard against that. And you’re not going to get Democrats standing up to that lobby which, by the way, has hired some of the luminaries of the Obama administration as their spokespeople and lobbyists.

JS: Yeah, but if we want to go down that road, too, I mean, Jay Carney is the PR hack for Amazon right now attacking people who are demanding worker protections. And the lawyer for Amazon that smeared a warehouse worker in Staten Island is a fundraiser for Joe Biden. I mean, then when you start to talk about the healthcare industry, and the cross pollination with the Obama-Biden administration. It’s just like your head will spin around.

SA: What’s so strange about this is that, I remember in 2016, I had the sense that Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, she was not a very good candidate, obviously. But they sort of handled their left, the people to their left, they handled it pretty well in the sense that they were adept at sort of knowing what to concede verbally, knowing which parts of the left’s program was sufficiently popular that you had to pay lip service to it, and which parts they could easily sort of go after and say, we don’t like this. 

This time, I feel like it sort of slipped out of their control so that, as the Democratic Party electorate and discourse have moved even further to the left, in the last four years, they’ve ended up somehow in their own positioning and Biden’s positioning and that of the establishment sounding increasingly, uncompromisingly right wing or uncompromisingly hostile to any kind of progressivism, so that you do I mean, these associations just look so bad. Like you said, the Amazon guy, all these comments from Biden. We really get a sense that it’s sort of slipping out of their control in many ways. And it goes back to my question of why don’t you hear more panic from the Democratic party establishment?

JS: On that note, I’m gonna leave it there. Seth Ackerman, thank you very much for joining us. 

SA: Thank you. 

JS: Seth Ackerman is Jacobin Magazine’s executive editor. You can find him on Twitter @SethAckerman.

JS: And that does it for this show. You can follow us on Twitter @intercepted and on Instagram @interceptedpodcast. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our lead producer is Jack D’Isidoro, our producer is Laura Flynn. Elise Swain is our associate producer and graphic designer. Betsy Reed is editor in chief of The Intercept. Transcription for this program is done by Nuria Marquez Martinez. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.

Next week we are going to be bringing you episode one of a great new podcast series about a police killing in Chicago. It’s called Somebody. Until then. I’m Jeremy Scahill.

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