Digesting the Democratic Party with Bryn Behrenshausen

Editor's note: Bryn worked on the Hillary Clinton GOTV effort in the 2016 campaign, is an active participant in North Carolina state politics, and is one of Pantsuit Politics' most devout followers. He and I have often had short Twitter conversations about the direction of the Democratic Party and different ideas of what liberalism is or isn't in the modern era. I wanted a conversation that spanned more than 140 characters so I called him this week to chat. 

If you were a doctor, how would you assess the health of the Democratic Party right now?

I’d say we are pretty much healthy, we’ve got high cholesterol and some other things that we need to address immediately - we’ve got some things we need to work on. This conversation is going to happen any time you lose a presidency to another party and you’re recovering afterwards. I think people are over playing this. We don’t have one central figure to lead the party, but I am also of the mind that we don’t need to have one central leader. I think we need a couple leaders and those are emerging. Keith Ellison and Tom Perez are trying, and they don’t always go about things the way I would but they are making an effort to get out there and talk to people and that’s a good start. I think they need to get some more diverse people in that ring, I saw a lot of push back about them running around with Bernie Sanders because he’s not technically a Democrat. It’s a lot easier to move the furniture when you’re inside the house instead of shouting about where it needs to be from the outside. He needs to shit or get off the pot. You can’t use the Democratic apparatus - and I was sucked into that message of screw the Democrats – and not be trying to move the party in a positive direction. I’ve had some time to realize that that’s not productive.

I know you were one of the show’s most devout Bernie Sanders supporters early in the 16' campaign. Obviously that feeling has changed. Was this the first time you’d voted in a national election? What was your tie to the Democratic Party prior to 2016?

I voted before this election. I voted out of civic duty and wasn’t engaged. It was the 2012 election. Unfortunately I did not vote for President Obama in 2012. I voted for the Libertarian candidate in 2012. In order to understand how I became a Bernie supporter is to understand my background. My dad is a staunch libertarian and my mother voted with my dad. She was the stay at home mom, took care of the kids. They used to joke that she was internal affairs and he was external affairs. Neither of them ever had a good thing to say about Dems or Republicans, especially the Clintons. But obviously I got older and started questioning my beliefs about my own morals and beliefs on religion. I wouldn’t even say that was college that did it, my college wasn’t political. Everyone talks about liberal colleges; I went to a hick school in Central, PA. I took a class in state and local government and had a fantastic teacher that really brought home bi-partisanship, she was middle of the aisle. As I started getting more into the issues I started to form more liberal ideals and Bernie Sanders came along and being on Twitter and seeing the post of him taking the really brief press conference stuck with me. He came out and said “I’m running for president, Ok now I have to get back to work.” I started seeing other friends sharing posts, and I thought “He’s talking about all the things that I care about!” I was so pre-disposed to being against the Clintons and I failed to take it upon myself to learn about Hillary. I was drawn into that whole “against the establishment mentality.” All I heard growing up was nothing works. They’re all corrupt. They all suck. That’s quite a hill to get over when you are trying to vote into one of the parties. It resonated with me.

There’s so much talk of Sanders’ role in the future of the party because of this “Bernie v. Hillary" split. What, if anything, comes of that fissure? Do Democrats have to fix it, or bring along those folks for future success?

What I have come to realize is that we are a two party nation, and it’s going to take a significant amount of other things to happen to make that not the reality. In the immediate future if we want progressive ideas and progressive policies that the Democratic party is the best apparatus for that. I am no longer for this notion that he is going to be an independent. People can debate his effectiveness in office, but he does have the energy. We need to make sure that as Democrats that we have a message of things that we are for. I am very much against Trump. I spend a considerable amount of time criticizing Trump but that isn’t going to win us the election. That is proven. I did an exit interview when I worked with the Clinton campaign, and I said that I felt too much of our time was spent being against Trump, especially people who are engaged. The last thing people want to hear is “This guy sucks, vote for me.” And I think targeted messaging is important. We want a platform of Democratic ideas that can benefit everyone but things need to hit harder for certain groups of people. Talking about raising minimum wage in middle class suburbia doesn’t really resonate. When you have a town hall of all white people in middle America, a message of the importance of diversity isn’t going to hit home. It will carry more weight in those diverse areas.

What policies, not ideals or values, policies, are at the heart of the Democratic Party?

What the top priority should be is jobs, but you know so many things are interlinked. Being the clean energy party, being the next generation jobs party. Being the economic party of the 21st century. How do we face unemployment, and low income jobs, and this growing economy where automation is an increasing reality? I think it’s important to understand that to say “what is next?” Trump convinced people that they were losing their jobs to immigrants, and to get more jobs we’ll just control immigration. For Dems we need to figure out what is our plan for providing jobs or income. Do we need to explore UBI to ensure everyone has their needs met, as we enter this next round of work? Does a job look like 40 hours a week? At least have that conversation within the party. There is a candidate that is running for congress in Mass, her name is Brianna Wu, and her big platform is we need to focus on jobs and how to handle jobs in the face of automation. I’m not the one who has the solution to this, but smarter people need to talk about it. We need to find a message for how are we going to get people jobs. With clean energy, here are all these jobs we can provide. If we can give people jobs and feel like people are getting something from it, hopefully we can get a win there.

How do you reconcile the idea that if jobs are at the heart of the party, it seems the dividing line, or the litmus test for what it means to be a Democrat or a progressive always seems to come down to social issues. One break from the party line on a social issue can really cause trouble from the tribe, so it if all the issues are weighted equally, can we be a party of tiered values?

We’ve had these discussions. If we could drop the social issues from politics, I’d love to have discussions about economics and foreign policy. If you care more about the social issues but are economically conservative you have no party, but what I want to see Is if you’re going to run as a Democrat, you’ve got to be pro choice. It needs to be firm, do you support a woman’s right to choose? It has to be yes. I don’t think it should be the central issue of anyone’s campaign really, if you are personally pro life, great, but it’s not the government’s role to limit a woman’s right to an abortion. You don’t have to be out there every day talking about it. It shouldn’t be this hard. Bernie has all these litmus tests for himself with Wall Street, and you’re not a real progressive if you don’t scream about Wall St. all the time, but when it comes to a woman’s right to make decisions about her own body, he says maybe we can be lax on that. I am trying to get better about diversifying along race lines and gender lines. When they hear that you’re willing to compromise on their rights, that’s a real affront to them. I would love to be cheering for Bernie, but when he does this, he has such a narrow set of issues, but everything else is “I don’t really care about that.” There are issues that he missed. Anyone can be a Democrat. There is no litmus test to being in the Democratic party. But if you’re going to run and get the financial backing and the grass roots energy from the party, but you’ll at least have to be pro choice.

Do we as liberals have an exclusivity problem?

We are seeing that in both parties right now. Within the GOP they are fractured on the Healthcare bill. Democrats are having the same problem legislatively. It would be interesting to see healthcare being debated as like one wing of the party being staunch single payer and the other wanting minor reforms to Obamacare. Part of the problem is everything is a national issue right now. All of these house races and special house races everyone is focused on them because it’s the next way to resist Trump and so everyone is still campaigning for their issues instead of listening to the district. Let’s have their representative respond to them. It’s this challenge of having a national platform they’re trying to move forward with while balancing that locality reality. Can we have a Bernie Sanders style candidate win in Montana or Kentucky? Probably not. It depends on the issue. I was saying today that I wish less focus was put on abortion. If you are not a real staunch and loud supporter of a woman’s right to choose and that we are going to shut you down.

Oh I don’t necessarily mean within the party, I mean culturally. I’ve noticed a lot of infighting because of stuff like what companies people patronize or where people eat. I’ve literally seen friendships end because one person found out the other ate at Chick-Fil-A. Is the list of rules to be a “good” liberal too long?

This is something I am challenging myself on. I am “woke” enough to not take offense to people saying you’re doing this wrong, or you’re using the wrong phrase. We should not be just destroying people for not being “woke” enough. I’m not the person who is going to say “You still eat at Chick-Fil-A? Well screw you.” I get it, they are a conservative company that I have problems with but if a buddy wants to get lunch at Chick-Fil-A, I’ll probably go. If it’s really an issue someone can always say, “Hey maybe we can eat somewhere else because I have a problem with this.” I don’t like Wal-Mart. I don’t like their corporate culture and they don’t treat their employees well. My wife, she shops there, I’m not going to tell her where to shop, but I don’t shop there. It’s up to you if you want to make that call. Everyone has their passions. Some people are more worried about Walmart, or using a credit union over Wells Fargo because they fund the Dakota Access Pipeline. Our problem is that we shout at people instead of explaining. Twitter is a big cause of that. It’s easy to bang out a snarky response to someone on Twitter rather than having a long conversation. I can have five tweets to explain my point or I can just say fuck you and move on. We have lost this kind of ability to discuss in better.

Yeah, where I view the disconnect is that as a culture, liberals have lost their sight of government. Because really that’s what all of this is about right? The idea that my party is in favor of a certain role for government. Where I’m trying to get is how do we transform back to a party that used to have a concrete idea of how government ought to run, and less on how people should think, or believe? Getting out of the idea of a right and wrong way to live, and more of a right and wrong way of governing. There are ways to continue to espouse a value system, but it has to be through government, not in spite of it. In my experience, what someone’s cultural values are have less bearing on how they may view government that most liberals tend to believe.

Many of the reasons I am a Democrat or a liberal is because I have a real problem with conservative ideology and specifically religious ideology. I don’t think we’re going to abdicate our social responsibility as a party to equality, to gender equality, LGBTQ equality, race equality, etc. As long as there is the religious right that is going to want to discriminate against those groups, the progressive left are going to be the warriors against that. Until the right side of the country grows out of some of those ideals, the left are not going to go back to just being a party of social safety nets. The word is that younger conservatives are more socially liberal. I would challenge that with some of the things I’ve seen, but if that holds true, the great because as soon as we get the right side more socially liberal then we won’t have to fight all the time. Democrats are focused on the people, and equality, and that is the main focus right now of the party. I don’t see that going away or not being a significant part of the party’s platform until we stop having to defend equal pay legislation, having to defend anti-gay “religious freedom” legislation. Trump is planning to sign some executive order on religious freedom in a nod to Mike Pence.

How do we get those conversations back to government related conversations though? Because they aren’t always that, the “Deplorables” line comes to mind.

She quantified it. And that rubbed people the wrong way, including people in my own family. She wasn’t talking about half of the Republican party, she was talking about the alt-right, Pepe types on Twitter. But she quantified it. Democrats believe in government solutions for a lot of things, we believe in protecting its citizens including discrimination.

I think a lot of the conversation is what as a society we deem right and wrong, and if you want to be an advocate for a societal change, put it in the context of government. We spend too much time saying, this is what we’d want the government to do, or what we’d want the government to look like. The smug liberal article, I had problems with it when I read it. I think there were some important points to take away from it. You are right in that we like to watch the late night comics who are shitting on Trump on backwards conservative ideology, and I consume quite a bit of it. If we want to start winning again we have to put that on pause and I want to represent what we want legislatively. That is something that liberals need to get better at. Republicans aren’t really any better about it. Donald Trump sure wasn’t talking policy on the campaign trail. I am in the camp that considers his election a fluke and not the norm. People are really pissed off at the government and try some crazy out there person. People want to hear specifically what you’re going to do. Here’s how we want you to change your life.

Conservative media tends to be the poster boy for tunnel vision attitudes toward politics. The ultimate echo chamber. What would you say to someone who say liberals also have a media problem?

Liberal leaning news outlets like MSNBC, the New York Times, etc go out of their way to bring in conservative voices, Trump alternate reality voices. They’ve hired Megyn Kelly, they have some conservative hosts. Look at NYT’s issue with the climate stuff. Liberals go out of their way to give alternate voices, even if its at the detriment to their own interests. Putting Jeffrey Lord on CNN, or hiring Corey Lewandowski. That is not raising the level of debate. That is just increasing the drama or peddling lies or half truths. Every news agency is going to mess up, but having people who are intentionally out there who are ignoring the truth or the facts giving them those voices, it just goes to show how liberal news outlets are trying. I see Joe Scarborough as a reasonable voice of what you might call a traditional Republican. I don’t have a problem listening to Joe Scarborough talk about policy. But when they have Trump die-hards coming on to spout this and that, their audience is not Trump supporters, they aren’t going to pick up viewers there. Liberal leaning news agencies don’t suffer the same level of bias that Fox News or Brietbart might suffer from. If we want to pick on places like HuffPo or the Daily Beast, those are absolutely liberally bent. If you read it with that understanding then that’s fine. The NYT, and the Post make conscious efforts to have moderate voice. You know the thing about the “liberal” news media is that facts aren’t liberal conspiracies. They report the news. Is it a reality that more of the people in the media lean to the left? Probably. I don’t think they’re starving for conservative voices. I don’t see the news as liberal news. MSNBC, Larry O’Donnell is very left. But again you have Brian Williams who is fawning over military weapons during the coverage of the Syria attack. Anyone who calls MSNBC a liberal news network when they are potentially going to bring on Hugh Hewitt to me is overstating it. Katy Tur, Kasey Hunt, their anchors are pretty straight up. Katy Tur was under attack by Trump and kept it professional. But not in the way that Fox News feels like state TV. You’ve heard Obama staffers say time and time again “we didn’t have a great relationship with the press either.” The press, if you’re a president, is  there to be hard on you. They aren’t just out to make conservatives look like idiots unless they say idiotic things.

The victimhood propagated by conservative media is troubling too. With the media diet I have, I never feel like an immigrant coming into this country is hurting my chances of moving up, or making my money, I don’t feel like someone practicing Christianity is somehow restricting my ability to be an atheist. I don’t feel like because people of other religions exist that I feel threatened. They already feel victimized. You are the victim of liberals. You are the victim of immigration. You are the victim. I don’t feel like MSNBC perpetuates that idea.

Are there conservative viewpoints that you find compelling?

I have been raised to fend for myself. I have personally conservative fiscal values. I pay for what I need to. Anything left over I put into savings and divvy it up however I want. I have good money practices in general. I don’t know if it’s conservative or liberal, but personal fiscal responsibility is something I lean to. And when it comes to foreign policy it’s a little hard to figure out what the go to is. I am not an isolationist, but I am not an interventionist. Square that, I don’t know? I might have some more conservative views like having an adequate military. Jill Stein wanted to cut the military down to a quarter of its size, I think that’s crazy. I think the military expansion that Trump and McCain are calling for isn’t really necessary. I believe in government. But I’m not a big government person, I’m an efficient government person. I would be open to closing agencies that aren’t needed anymore with a compelling argument. I am for trimming government waste. When I hear about the amount of money that gets dumped into the Pentagon simply for bureaucracy. I will give credit to conservatives, they want to trim government waste. But I don’t think that means simple talking points, just slashing away at budgets haphazardly. It kind of depends on the issue. The roles are reversing right now. The Dems are heralding in states rights, and Trump is talking about sweeping federal policies when it comes to enforcing immigration with local police forces. Fed government shouldn’t be telling them how to police. I like nationwide standards for things. I am a big public education proponent. Do I think we maybe need some more tailoring to neighborhoods and states or whatever to make sure education is applied properly at the local level? Someone in FL shouldn’t have a fundamentally different education from someone who lives in Maine, or Wisconsin. It’s all different levels of what is state controlled and what is not. I don’t think discrimination laws should be states issues or marriage laws should be a state issue. Some states just abdicate their responsibilities.

What do you want your party to look like in 2018 when the midterms roll around?

 I want a party that is organized and running candidates in every house race that we can. I want a fund raising apparatus that supports all those candidates that are running. We have to put our resources and distribute them smartly. Anyone that runs as a Democrat, if they can meet those certain criteria to run they should get funding. Distributing info on who is running and where, so that we have the best chance of picking up more seats. We are hurting at the state level too. We need to take back state houses. Less infighting in 2018 within the party. I would like us to put away the 2016 primary. If I have to have one more argument over Bernie and Hillary. Hillary is done. She ain’t running anymore. Josh Barro pisses me off so much about the Clintons. We have other people to focus on. What I really want to see is turnout. We need to accept that our generation is failing its civic responsibility to be engaged and informed and vote. We need to put pressure on our friends and peers to be informed enough to vote. Are you registered to vote? We need to start making it more of a social faux pas that you didn’t vote than it is to talk about politics. Our generation takes for granted our democracy. I know I did. People say “I don’t want to read the news, it’s too depressing. I don’t need to be bothered with that.” Life was simpler and more enjoyable when I didn’t care. The hardest thing was arguing Samsung vs. Apple. You don’t need to be an activist but you need to be engaged. Don’t take it for granted. When I see 25% millennial turnout when all of us are complaining about Trump. I’d like to see 90% millennial turnout. Realistically it would be nice to see 40 or 50%. The pressure needs to be on, high voter turnout in the midterms. If we ever had a better catalyst than Trump I can’t think of one.