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How to build a progressive majority with Dorian Warren: podcast & transcript

Chris Hayes talks with Community Change's Dorian Warren about how voters can set the Democratic agenda from the ground up.

There are a whole lot of people running for president. Already, the candidates are beginning their nationwide trek, pitching themselves to the Democratic base. Each campaign faces the same struggle: how to craft a message that appeals to a coalition made up of people from all different backgrounds and walks of life. This candidate primary of town halls and stump speeches and campaign stops is crafting the future of the Democratic party from the top down.

But away from the national headlines is the crucial day in day out work of grassroots organizing. The art of stitching together a complex and diverse group of people who often have conflicting desires. So how does that political constituency get built and how do you turn that momentum into political power? President of Community Change Dorian Warren knows this work inside out, and explains how voters can set the Democratic agenda from the ground up.

DORIAN WARREN: If you put a working class, white guy in a union, he will behave differently politically-


DORIAN WARREN: Then if he's not. And part of that is because the union is the space, it's the institution to build a sense of linked fate. That my fate is somehow bound up with yours. We're not gonna agree on say 30 percent of things, but my fate is still more tied to you then we might think of the corporate villains.

CHRIS HAYES: Hello and welcome to "Why Is This Happening" with me, your host, Chris Hayes.

Well, the 2020 Democratic primary is in absolute full swing right now. Well actually that's not true, it's not full, full swing because there might be more people who run for president. Tiffany Champion has been toying with the idea. She's been writing these long meditative Medium posts as she's driving around the country just meeting normal folk, where she talks about her immigration policy. So you never know, she might jump in. Your favorite cable news/podcast host might jump in, although I don't think that's gonna happen. You know you never know who might jump in. Everyone's circling whether they're gonna jump in or not.

But one of the things that I think is happening right now that's really fascinating is there's a kind of a candidate primary, and that's about candidates and their sort of natural political talents, their biography, their record, which constituencies they have a kind of appeal to, their ability to fundraise.

Then there's this ideas primary that's taken place, which is extremely fertile. I mean there's lots of back and forth about the direction of the party, the vision that Democrats are putting out there. Amidst all these conversations, there's this constant talk about the base, the Democratic base. What's the Democratic base think? The base thinks this, the base thinks that, the base doesn't like this. And like any of these shortcuts that we use, any of these categories, which is something we talk about a lot on this podcast, it's a shorthand for tens of millions of people who are a incredibly diverse and heterogeneous group.

You know there are white landscape designers in Des Moines who are gonna attend the caucus. There are African-American women in South Carolina who are 82 years old who are gonna attend the caucus. There are 19-year-old, Californian, community college Chicano kids who are going to vote in the primary. We're talking about an incredible array of different kinds of people with different kinds of life backgrounds that stitch together what is the Democratic party in this sort of centered left and progressive base in this country right now.

It's one of the big challenges, in fact, is that for the Democratic party to win and for the center left to take power in the country, it has to find ways to stitch together lots of different people who are coming from different backgrounds and who have different identities. And so the way that is done, there's a few ways that it was done. You know we think about that happening through the process of politics and candidate messaging, right? From the kind of top down. That candidates find ways to weave together big enough constituencies that they can win a plurality of the votes and become the nominee of a party. And that's something that we saw in 2008, between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. That's something we saw in 2016 with Hillary Clinton's victory over Bernie Sanders, where she knit together a big enough network and coalition to defeat Bernie Sanders in that election.

But right now there's like 15 people running and the way that fundraising works, there might be 15 running all the way into the Iowa caucuses. There's another way I think to think about the Democratic base, or the progressive base, and that's kind of from the ground up, right? So, there's the candidates and their messages and what they're trying to do in terms of the ways that they sort of focus their appeal. But then there's the organizing work that happens on the ground, and that organizing work happens away from the spotlight of the national political media. It happens anonymously. It happens day in, day out in small community based organizations that are often stitched together through non-profit networks, that kind of harness their power collectively to put forward an agenda.

If you're trying to talk about what is the base of the Democratic party, that's a good a place to go as any. That's a part of the Democratic base when you're talking about these community based organizations, these sort of progressive grass-roots groups that do door knocking, that do issue mobilization, that are fighting on legislative initiatives, that are trying to set the agenda for the Democratic party. That's where a lot of the energy and activity of what you might call the Democratic base really exists.

So I wanted to talk to someone who's uniquely in touch with that, and in some ways it's a sort of interesting kind of yin-yang to the interview we do with George Goehl. George Goehl, who is the organizer from Indiana, who's been running a campaign where they organize in rural counties that were Trump counties and try to find sort of progressives and build up progressive infrastructure.

Today's conversation is with a guy named Dorian Warren, who's also an organizer, although he's many, many things. Dorian is a Renaissance man, he's just supremely multi-talented, as you'll hear in the conversation. He was a union organizer, Ph.D. studentm then a professor, and now runs an organization of community organizations called Community Change. So he's got all these great perspectives on how progressive mobilization happens. He's been on the ground at in the room, at a contract negotiation as a union organizer. He's academically studied the way that multi-racial movements get built, and he's taught about that. And now he's actually running an organization that has a whole bunch of community groups within it that are trying to do precisely the kind of work that he spent his academic career studying.

So he's got this incredibly unique perspective from all different angles about how does a political constituency, and a set of political demands, and political power get built and woven together among different constituencies at the grassroots level? And in some ways that question is as important, if not more, than who the candidate is. The power that gets built at the local level, the mobilization that happens at the local level, the voting registration that happens at the local level, the constituencies and social capital that are built at the local level, the enthusiasm that's built. All of those things that are happening independent of whichever the candidate is, those are gonna be there as part of the engine of what drives whoever is the nominee into this big cataclysmic battle with presumably Donald Trump in 2020.

So to get an understanding of where we are in this campaign that has nothing to do with the candidates, nothing to do with the caucuses, nothing to do with the early primary states, has nothing to do with any of that, but is as important to understanding where we are right now in terms of the building of a possible progressive majority in this country, I wanted to talk to Dorian Warren.

And you're from Chicago?

DORIAN WARREN: From Chicago, born and raised. Mother was a public school teacher. Strong member of the teacher's union. Some of my earliest memories are walking the picket line with her in the 1980s.

CHRIS HAYES: There are a lot of teachers. CTU is a militant union.

DORIAN WARREN: Yes and always has been.

CHRIS HAYES: Always has been and there were a lot of strikes.

DORIAN WARREN: Exactly, exactly. Two strikes in the 1980s under the first black progressive mayor, Harold Washington.


DORIAN WARREN: Yeah, I mean, you know, it's complicated 'cause he wasn't in charge of the school district but it was still Board of Education, who he appointed I think. It was like, we're still gonna go on strike and so ... and he was encouraging and supportive of it.

So anyway long story short, went to undergrad in Illinois, at University of Illinois and then found myself in grad school at Yale. Yeah, weird story.

CHRIS HAYES: Did someone kidnap you in the dark of night and take you to Yale, is that how you found yourself there?

DORIAN WARREN: You know, I had an undergraduate mentor who knew I was kind of an activist and I was headed into law school and she was like, "You should think about Ph.D. programs." Just to get the letter of recommendation from her for law school, I said I'd apply to Ph.D. programs and then when all was said and done, Ph.D. was free and law school was a lot of money.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, dude.

DORIAN WARREN: And then, so I went to New Haven and I loved New Haven, I didn't like Yale, but I ended up moving back home after three years and organizing with the Hotel Workers Union for two years.

CHRIS HAYES: Wait, how'd that happen?

DORIAN WARREN: Because I was burned out from school and the graduate T.A. Union effort at Yale, at the time, I became an organizer for that. It was run by the same union. So the Hotel Workers' Union represents all the Yale workers, the dining hall workers, the clerical workers, and then they were organizing graduate students, so I got to know the union that way and then I was like, "fuck this," I want to move back home, take a break from school. So I organized for two years and then decided to finish my Ph.D. and then launched, you know, my academic career.

CHRIS HAYES: So you already had the ... I mean you were ... Like you said your mom was a union member-


CHRIS HAYES: You were a son of black south side of Chicago, right?

DORIAN WARREN: Exactly, exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: You kinda had that world view politics, but-


CHRIS HAYES: What changed in you when you became part of a union drive? 'Cause I feel like there's a really interesting thing that happens to people's psyches. Even people with liberal politics, because of the ways in which a union drive is a kind of psychological experience?

DORIAN WARREN: Yeah, yeah, you know, I'll tell you this. My first campaign, my first political campaign ever was Jessie Jackson, Jr's special election in 1995 and I was really enamored with him. He was like ... and you covered him back in the day. He was a really diehard progressive in Congress. But I remember seeing the limitations of elected office. And so, when I joined the union, and I just knew collective action, solidarity, union organizing strikes was something different, and I think for me when I joined and then when I became an organizer, it was really a different form of power at the end of the day.

So let me fast forward. Like when I was working with the hotel workers to imagine 60 rank and file workers, mostly housekeepers, mostly women of color, at a negotiating table, with 30 hotel employers. Like that to me was a different kind of power. You know they were sitting there with the union staff, but they were really the leaders, leading that negotiation, which is just a different way of democracy and sharing power in this country, then say representative democracy, right, in terms of how we think of elected officials.

So I think there was something I always understood. Broadly speaking around the power of collective action that's different than supporting an individual candidate whose policies I might support, but then I feel disempowered for two years until election day.

CHRIS HAYES: But here's the thing though that I find. I've never been part of a union campaign, but I've covered them and I've been around organizers. One of the things that I think is hard and I think it's actually kind of almost a psychological personality disposition that is, forms part of the wedge between liberal and leftist, is you gotta get real comfortable with comfort and disruption and polarization. In fact, the point of an organizer, the reason the labor song is “Which Side are You On,” is to polarize a workplace.

When liberals ... well that's divisive, it's like, dude that's my job.


CHRIS HAYES: My job is to be divisive. It's to get people on one side or the other of stuff. You know I guess I just have a kinda lame conflict averse personality or just, I don't know, do we have to fight about this? But you got to get real used to that, like particularly if you're an organizer.


CHRIS HAYES: Like how easy was it for you to internalize that?

DORIAN WARREN: It was rough for me.

CHRIS HAYES: It was, that's not natural for you?

DORIAN WARREN: Now it's not natural for me. No, but the think about labor organizing ... Well, all right, two things here. One is any kind of ... whether it's community organizing or labor organizing, you have to take people's identities as they are and then reconstruct a collective identity. So there's a lot of invisible labor, lots of conversations, lots of getting people to do things together they normally wouldn't do to try to construct a different collective identity than how they show up at work or in school or in the neighborhood, right?

So that's like the more exciting part to me. It's really the social construction of race and identity on some level, right? Because you have to reshape someone's identity.

CHRIS HAYES: In real time?

DORIAN WARREN: In real time.

CHRIS HAYES: That's what you're doing.

DORIAN WARREN: And then get them to do things, to take action. And in the case of a strike, to get them to take the riskiest action, right? And in a non-union workplace where they can get fired and lose their livelihoods. That's the more exciting part. The harder part is the conflict. The harder part is actually going on strike and beating up the employer and the boss. But here's the thing about labor organizing that's different from other organizing the left. At the end of the day you have to get peace. You have to sit down and negotiate and then go back to work the next day.


DORIAN WARREN: That's different. That's a different kind of conflict 'cause you still have to work together 365 days of the year when the thing is over, as opposed to I think a lot of us, we can ... It's easy for me to run a campaign now and beat up on somebody, I never have to talk to them or negotiate with them.

CHRIS HAYES: But that's also why it's so discomfiting.


CHRIS HAYES: That's why workplace politics and the militancy of labor is so discomfiting, because you know like, in a campaign you're just gonna beat the crap out of the boss.


CHRIS HAYES: Who is the boss but also a human being.


CHRIS HAYES: And maybe you even like the person or you like the person that is the deputy of that person, you joke ... You know, it's the intimacy and proximity of that that is so electric, but hard.

DORIAN WARREN: Yeah, but it's just like ... think of it this way, I have fights with my partner, I have fights with my family.


DORIAN WARREN: And we go on, but it's 'cause we've learned the tools to fight to not take it personally in the same way and that takes work, right? I wasn't born knowing how to fight with my partner, in a constructive way, right? We learn that, those are growing pains. You might think of a union as a tool to have that fight when there's inherently unjust power relations at play.

CHRIS HAYES: That's a great way of thinking about it, because also that think you're saying about the partnership, right? So when you're working at the Hotel Workers Union and it's time to negotiate that contract and it's on the bargaining committee, 60 largely women of color-


CHRIS HAYES: We're gonna talk, sit across from the CEO and management and fancy lawyers-


CHRIS HAYES: That never happens in American life.


CHRIS HAYES: That's the only place it happens.

DORIAN WARREN: So then imagine if you're an immigrant woman or black woman who's done that, you've not only negotiated across from multi-millionaire bosses and their lawyers, but you've won, then imagine how empowering that is around a situation in your neighborhood with a local city council person, or even you know, with frankly an abusive spouse. It teaches you something about power and personal efficacy, and I've actually seen it, you know, from when I was organizing, but we see this all across the country when people, especially workers and especially women, are empowered around the boss, they're empowered in other spheres of their lives.

Now I haven't seen any research papers on this, I can't quantify this, but it's actually a really significant thing that people don't learn any other ... I don't find people learn in regular civic organizations in America. I think it is something unique to a union.

CHRIS HAYES: So you do this union work and then you decide you're going to go back to grad school, you get a Ph.D., and you're a political scientist who studies race and class basically?

DORIAN WARREN: Exactly, exactly. And new ways of organizing a multi-racial workforce. Like how do unions construct a collective identity among immigrant and native born? White, black, Asian, Latino, Latinx, those with disabilities. Like how do you construct a collective identity where people are willing to fight for each other? I mean that's the true meaning of solidarity, ultimately.

That's what I wrote about and that's what I did for a little while, but then I was really curious. Like what are the lessons learned? Both historically in this country, but also in this period. You know it was the early 2000s, so there's a lot of talk about the changing nature of the economy. We were going from manufacturing to service. This is really before the threat of automation and artificial intelligence and technology and all that. It was really like, "Okay so all the jobs are going to be service jobs," there has to be a different way to organize these workers and in particularly low wage workers in the labor market. So I was really curious to unpack what are the principals, what are the generalizable lessons on how to do this work well and how to organize in a new way.

You know this has been an Achilles heel in American democracy, right? Of what does inclusive populism look like? What does an inclusive democracy look like? We've always stumbled on questions of race and other forms of difference. That's really what animated my academic work.

CHRIS HAYES: That's so fascinating, 'cause what you're working on academically and what you're talking about being involved in on the front lines of union organizing, is literally the question of our politics at this moment.


CHRIS HAYES: How do we construct robust solidaristic pluralistic identities that bind people together to take on power hierarchies in which they all feel connected to and equal with each other. And that's hard.

DORIAN WARREN: It's the hardest work and we take shortcuts.

CHRIS HAYES: What do you mean by that?

DORIAN WARREN: Jane McAlevey has a book called "No Shortcuts" on how you actually do union organizing in a way that it involves hundreds and thousands of conversations.


DORIAN WARREN: That are very difficult to have. I can't tell you how many times we would do house visits. Because of labor law, as being union organizer, you can't be on the employer's property, right? They have a right to kick you off and bar you. So you have to go to people's houses and that's already a difficult thing 'cause no one wants to ... Who wants to talk to a union organizer after work when you're trying to be with your family.


DORIAN WARREN: And like just rest, right? You're exhausted.

CHRIS HAYES: Dude if someone showed up at my house at night-

DORIAN WARREN: Right, if I show up at your house at night and you don't know me, I'm like, "Hey, I'm from the union Chris, let me in for a conversation." You're going to be like, "Get the hell out of here," right?

CHRIS HAYES: Do you do those calls?

DORIAN WARREN: Yeah. So it's like you have to do it in person, that's the thing, right? 'Cause someone-

CHRIS HAYES: You can't tweet at someone? You can't be like #unionyes.

DORIAN WARREN: No and so it takes getting in the door, having a conversation and then asking to do it again and like working with someone through say, like most people we're not primed in America to really, really believe in collective action especially against an authoritarian workplace. That's just not what we're trained in school to do. So you have to convince someone that if they join with their fellow workers, who might look different, that they actually have power. And if they take this risky action, maybe it's just a rally at work but it could be a strike, that they can actually succeed, and they won't get fired. Even though you have to actually inoculate and say, "Yeah, there's a chance you might get fired." Those take lots and lots and lots of conversations and asking people to do things to put them in motion, to get them to turn out to something. That's not just a Twitter conversation.


DORIAN WARREN: Right, that's not just, "I'm going to call you out and write you off." Because a lot of it is persuasion and convincing someone to think about themselves in a different way. That takes a long time. It takes a lot of conversations and it's a lot of work. And it's slow and painful sometimes.

CHRIS HAYES: You also can't ... What I just heard from you, and I want to zoom in on this if it's okay ... You can't be like, "You're problematic. You're canceled."


CHRIS HAYES: If you're at the door with a worker.

DORIAN WARREN: The boss wins in cancel culture, like in this case.

CHRIS HAYES: That's really an interesting ... The ideas of canceled, called out or problematic or whatever, you've got to work with whoever the workers are and whatever views they have.

DORIAN WARREN: Exactly. My mother was a school teacher so it's a basic principle of education and pedagogy. You got to start where people are.

CHRIS HAYES: You just to work with them and invest in them.

DORIAN WARREN: You have to invest in them, and that's how you build power. First you have to believe people can change. And you have to believe that they can become their best selves. And then you have to do the slow, painful work of conversations, hard conversations, where you explore with folks based on where they are and you give them a vision of where they can go and why it will benefit them. A lot of my work as an organizer is teaching people their fates are linked with people that don't look like them. And if you can move people to that place where they're willing to take an action or vote a certain way or maybe strike the boss, that's transformative. And then you actually have persuaded people to not only realize their own power and share it with others, that's on the route to transformation of the country.

CHRIS HAYES: We've had other organizers, George Goehl, who I know you know and are friends with, on the show. We talked about organizing in a very different setting. And I grew up in a family of organizers. My brother's an organizer, my dad's an organizer. I always have this question about organizing that I want to ask you, if you will just stay with us one second while we take a quick break.

DORIAN WARREN: Absolutely.

CHRIS HAYES: I'm going to ask you on the other side of this.

So here's my question about organizing. And this goes something deep in different kinds of organizing, labor organizing, community organizing. There's this question of are you implementing the will of these folks as a follower, as a servant to their interests? Or are you really manipulating them to get them to do what you want to do? You come into a workplace and you have an ideology about the boss. You have an ideology about labor power. They don't necessarily have that. Maybe they like their workplace. Maybe it's not that exploitative. But you're not going to, as a labor organizer, you're not going to take that for an answer.


CHRIS HAYES: You're going to go on a series of exploration and conversations to lead them to what you're already ideological conclusion is.


CHRIS HAYES: I always wonder to the degree to which that's a good faith interaction, in the same way that when a Jehovah's Witness knocks on the door. That's a one-way conversation. You're not going to convince them to be an atheist. They already know the truth and they're there to get you to that truth.


CHRIS HAYES: How do you avoid essentially being, I don't know what the right word is, manipulative in this undertaking?

DORIAN WARREN: In all honestly, it's slightly manipulative. But it's the same as what school teachers do every day.


DORIAN WARREN: So there's a difference between saying, "Here is the faith, you have blind allegiance to it," versus the best organizers are more Socratic and are raising critical questions and actually developing people's critical consciousness to ask hard questions about power. And once you learn that skill, then you have a choice that you can actually make around do I want to join this union or not? Do I want to join this organization or not? You have a critical consciousness in a different way versus just the blind faith. And I would say the most progressive churches do the same thing.


DORIAN WARREN: They give you a moral grounding, but then they're asking critical questions too. I'll never forget as a youth going to a black church in Chicago on the south side and hearing a different interpretation. It was actually during the 1995 budget fight with Newt Gingrich who was trying to cut welfare programs. And I heard the minister talk about how Joseph and Mary were having premarital sex and had a out-of-wedlock baby. And it was a whole different paradigm shift for me. I was like, "Oh, huh, I never thought about it that way. Okay, I can understand politics through this moral lens."


DORIAN WARREN: And it's not asking me to blindly believe a myth of immaculate conception. It actually resonated with my experience.

CHRIS HAYES: So the other part of it that I think is really interesting and so relevant to now, because I want to segue us to what you do now and I think you're very in touch with what the progressive left and liberal grassroots is doing, is just the fact that because of the rise of polling and because of the shortcuts we take in punditry. And, god, I hate pundits. They're the worst.

DORIAN WARREN: Hey, hey, hey, watch it there, brother.

CHRIS HAYES: The worst kind of person. Anytime anyone calls me a pundit I'm like, "Okay, that hurts."

DORIAN WARREN: That is not a collective identity I want to share with other people.

CHRIS HAYES: Exactly. That is not my collective identity. The shortcut is to talk about public opinion like this thing that's organic and out there. And one of the points of organizing in any form is it's not a formed thing. Most people don't have super formed views on these political questions because their attention is focused on other things, which is how to make rent that month and how to care for their sick mom, and the fact that their son has a learning disorder that they're trying to get help for. It isn't to say they don't have political views.


CHRIS HAYES: People do have politics. There's just a lot of unformed stuff in what we call public opinion. The point is that that isn't just some natural resource that you basically dig out of the ground and then you put it in the oven, the coal-fired oven, to fire the engine of progress. You make public opinion in some ways.

DORIAN WARREN: Yeah. Wearing my political scientist hat for a second, so one of the things we know from decades of research is that public attitudes, public opinion, they're very unstable. Attitudes are unstable and malleable. And contradictory.

CHRIS HAYES: Hella contradictory.

DORIAN WARREN: So what we know about Americans in terms of the American welfare state, Americans are philosophically conservative but operationally liberal. So if I ask an average, white American, "What do you think of government support?," blah, blah, blah. They'll say, "Smaller government, lower taxes." This is also the result of 30 years of right wing rhetoric too. And then if I say, "Well, what do you think about social security?" "Oh, I'm all for it." "Oh, what do you think about this program? What do you think about SNAP?" "All for ...". So, programmatically, if you ask people, "Should we be spending money on programs?," they'll say yes.


DORIAN WARREN: But then if you ask a philosophical question, they'll say no. Well that's contradictory. So what do you do with that? And organizing is similar to market research, in my view. Consumer marketing figures out how to sell you things you don't want. You're not born wanting a pair of Air Jordans or a Coca-Cola. That is constructed. Or like an iPod.

CHRIS HAYES: I was born wanting a pair of Air Jordans, thank you very much, Dorian Warren. Dude, when I think about the fights I had with my parents over Air Jordans when I was nine years old ...

DORIAN WARREN: Oh, I did too. Oh my god.

CHRIS HAYES: And they were 100 percent ... I thought it was the most unjust bullshit in the world that my parents would not fork over $100, $100 in 1989 dollars, for a pair of sneakers for a kid ...

DORIAN WARREN: In 1989 dollars, right. Exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: ... that will outgrow them in three g*****n months. I was like, "What is this? Stalin's Russia? What is wrong with you people?"

DORIAN WARREN: But you weren't born wanting them. Somehow you saw some images, probably of Michael Jordan in the air, and you were like, ...

CHRIS HAYES: No, I saw my buddy, Cicero, had a pair. And he looked dope.

DORIAN WARREN: Exactly. But here's the punchline, I think on the right, when they think about public opinion, they're thinking about changing the temperature. Liberals or progressives think about taking the temperature. And public opinion is only ever a snapshot in time.


DORIAN WARREN: People change. Attitudes change. When Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, 75 percent of white Americans despised him, based on polls. Now we revere him.


DORIAN WARREN: Right. So people change. Attitudes change.

CHRIS HAYES: It's funny, too, because we've seen it on LGBT issues.


CHRIS HAYES: And we're seeing it on marijuana too. What's weird is that there's two things going on, which is that individual persuasion seems harder and harder. Persuadable voters seem like less and less of a thing because everyone seems so polarized. But persuasion as a collective entity over time does seem possible. So people are super polarized in their camps.


CHRIS HAYES: But then certain ideas have won the battle over time, thanks to a lot of organizing and persuasion work.

DORIAN WARREN: Exactly. And change in norms and laws.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. So those self-reinforcing.

DORIAN WARREN: So once the Supreme Court said we have marriage equality ...

CHRIS HAYES: That's interesting.

DORIAN WARREN: ... then people said, "Okay."

CHRIS HAYES: That that actually does part of the work.

DORIAN WARREN: Wait for attitudes to catch up.

CHRIS HAYES: That does part of the actual opinion work.

DORIAN WARREN: Yes, exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: That's really interesting. I hadn't thought about that, but that's a great point. All this gets to how up for grabs in some ways all this stuff is and how it can't be done without the substructure of organizing, institutions, points of contact, conversations, which is what you work now. So you were an academic. You were a labor organizer. You were an academic for a long time. You decided to leave academia.

DORIAN WARREN: I became a pundit for a bit.

CHRIS HAYES: You were a pundit for a bit, the disgraceful period that we won't mention. No, you're an incredible communicator. It comes very naturally to you. And, obviously, punditry, organizing and teaching, academia, are all different forms of communicating and storytelling. But you're now doing this thing that I think is fascinating, which is you run Community Change.


CHRIS HAYES: What is that organization?

DORIAN WARREN: So Community Change is a national organization based in Washington DC, founded in 1968 to be the living memorial to Bobby Kennedy, especially his attempt to electoralize the issue of poverty in America. And we work with over 200 grassroots organizations around the country to support their efforts to build power for low-income people and especially communities of color.


DORIAN WARREN: So we believe in building power from the ground up. And we serve this inside-outside role. So we connect these over 200 grassroots groups around the country to what's happening in DC and federal policy, as well as support them in local and state campaigns around social economic racial justice. That's the one sentence sound bite of what I do. I never imagined I'd be running an organization.


DORIAN WARREN: Which is a different things.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. I'm not surprised. I think from the time I met you, this seems like a perfect gig for you. Because you're a very charismatic leader, but you've also got these incredible overlapping backgrounds. But this position puts you ... Similar, I think, to our conversation with George Goehl where you're connected to people having the actual conversations, doing the actual work every day, everywhere around the country.


CHRIS HAYES: Where are we at right now? We're entering 2020. I hear things about the Democratic base. I read polling. I read campaign snapshots. And I thought to myself: "If I want to talk to someone about where we're at, the Democratic base, Dorian's as good as anyone because his organization is a confederation of all these different organizations that are actually just day-in, day-out working among the constituencies that we would consider the Democratic base.”

DORIAN WARREN: So where the base is, I think it's contradictory, honestly. On the one hand, I think the base, and particularly if you think of the immigrant rights movement, of black communities, of poor people, people are exhausted.


DORIAN WARREN: I feel every day, I just feel racially exhausted, being a black man in America. Like, "What am I doing?" So people are exhausted of fighting defensive battles for things we thought we won with certainty a generation ago, so whether it's around racial justice or immigrant rights or gender justice and having to fight these defensive battles to save healthcare or food stamps or to push back against draconian and racist immigration policy, jobs in the labor market, people are just exhausted from the defensive fights, on the one hand. On the other hand, I am sensing around the country this feeling of excitement and exhilaration around what it feels like is a potentially transformative moment in American politics. I think you've said this, I think I've said this, the 2020 primary, at least on the Democratic side, it's the ideas primary.


DORIAN WARREN: And it's not incremental policy ideas.


DORIAN WARREN: It is big, transformative stuff that I don't think we've really encountered in our lifetime. We did not have this policy or issue debate in 2008. We didn't have it 2000. Didn't have it in '92. When was the last time we had a political election cycle where candidates are putting big, bold, transformative policy ideas on the agenda? And so that's the flip side of the exhaustion is people want to be on the offense. They want an affirmative, positive vision of what the country should be and what the world should be. And there's an added sense, I think, in our lifetime, in this moment, of urgency because of the climate crisis. So I do think there is this combination of exhaustion but also excitement that we have to act and be bold in this moment, because we don't have a lot of time.

CHRIS HAYES: Do you feel that in the groups that you are connected to, the climate part of it? Let's say there's an immigrant rights group in New York called Make the Road that does amazing work, just totally.

DORIAN WARREN: They are amazing. They're one of our partners. And we're very proud to support them.

CHRIS HAYES: They are kick ass. They will straight up kick your ass.

DORIAN WARREN: Yes. No matter who you are.

CHRIS HAYES: It doesn't matter who you are, they will kick your ass. And they're just really an incredibly impressive group. But if I'm organizing on behalf of marginalized communities in New York City that have high levels of undocumented folks who are getting deported left and right and abused by the system, I don't know, climate seems a little remote in that context. So I just wonder how much that issue is present across these different issue spaces and different places people are coming from with extremely life or death pressing issues in front of them.

DORIAN WARREN: Yeah. I do think it's there. And I think it's been growing for the last two or three decades. If you go back in time to really the foundation of the environmental justice movement, particularly in black communities, of communities of color, and I would include immigrant communities here, you just ask, "Where do people live?" And it doesn't take you long to figure out, "Oh, they live really close to a toxic dump site."


DORIAN WARREN: So there's environmental danger all around. Or if you think of New York and Sandy, who was most affected by the storm in terms of who had the resources to be resilient, when their homes were destroyed, and who did not? It takes you to low income communities, communities of color, immigrant communities. So there is, I think more now than ever, a fusion of climate justice issues with a range of other racial and economic justice issues. And I think the Green New Deal and the conversation were having about that idea is actually accelerating it.

CHRIS HAYES: That's interesting.

DORIAN WARREN: Because I think people can see themselves in it in a way that's different than how we've talked about climate change before.


DORIAN WARREN: Because it links jobs. It links economic security. It links all these things in three words, which is what the right is really good at doing, and we haven't been on the left.

CHRIS HAYES: There's interesting things happening. And politics is such a complicated, layered set of forces, institutions. There's tens of millions of Democratic primary voters and there's hyper-engaged folks who are hosting the living room get together for Cory Booker in Iowa.


CHRIS HAYES: That's one. But that's a small percentage of the voters, but they have a outside influence. Then there's donor class. There's the think tank world. There's all sorts of policy elites. I guess one question I have is there's a sense in which things are moving to the left, I think. And I always wonder how much of this is a vanguardist effect? Meaning, is it that the activist class and the think tank class, which is not like the rich, donor class necessarily, it's a different part of this coalition, are they moving to the left and pushing people? Is that a real thing that's happening at the grassroots on the ground? Is that even a dumb question because of all the troubling we just did about public opinion?


CHRIS HAYES: How do you think about that?

DORIAN WARREN: I think it's two things. I think you're right in some ways about the vanguardist nature of this. But let me give you two different examples, one that'll be controversial. The first is if you think of ... When I was a political scientist, I was doing research on inequality and reading all the latest social science on income inequality and wealth inequality and wage stagnation, all that stuff. And it never broke through really in popular discourse until movement moments. So you had Occupy Wall Street, and then, when Occupy started to die down, you had this crazy thing called the Fight for $15, of workers who were like, "You know what? I work at Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald's, at Burger King, and I'm going to go on strike for a day to raise attention and put $15 on the agenda." By the way, at the same time, liberal economists were saying $15 was too much, just you'd be happy to get to $10. So that was a combination of ...

CHRIS HAYES: That's interesting.

DORIAN WARREN: ... workers, mostly workers of color, in the fast food industry, with support from a very progressive union and some community organization, SEIU and some others, just basically saying, "You know what? Let's just go for it. Because the progressive, smart people and pundits, they're saying we should ask for $10. We're going to $15." And then they did it.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. I do remember how $15 was like, "Oh, well why don't we just give every worker a Cadillac?"

DORIAN WARREN: Yeah, it was crazy, right? Then once they actually won in places, because at first when people, when they started going on strike, people were like, "Oh, okay, this is like a public relations thing." Then they won in SeaTac and then Seattle and then San Francisco and now we're a couple of years in and the sky hasn't fallen. So it's totally shifted the conversation.

CHRIS HAYES: What it did was they won, then it created a real world experiment, which created data, which again, to be open minded here, if it had actually tanked the economy, would have been a good lesson.

DORIAN WARREN: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: I think we all agree that there is a level at which a minimum wage would begin to actually hurt an economy because that everybody in every job has to make $100 an hour in America, in 2019, you'd probably start to see some real dead weight effects, but what was amazing about that was they actually then the real world thing and then the data comes back and lo and behold, all the predictions of job loss didn't happen.

DORIAN WARREN: Yes, that's right, and now there's a race to the top in the Democratic Party. If you're running for mayor or governor, and you basically have to be a record supporting $15.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, that's true.

DORIAN WARREN: The union part's dropped off, unfortunately, but you're, you got to be on record. But here's the more controversial point. I think the reason why we're seeing such boldness and audaciousness around transformational policy ideas is frankly, Trump. He busted the door open to not give like no craps, right?

So like I think people on the left have learned, okay, well if he can just be out there with the white nationalists, white supremacists agenda and not only do it unabashedly and win, the electoral college at least, and then keep doubling down on it. What is stopping progressives, right?


DORIAN WARREN: Like, all right, let's just go for it.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, if the taboos have been broken down on one side, break them down on the other.


CHRIS HAYES: I think that's a really-

DORIAN WARREN: It doesn't have to be asymmetrical in terms of boldness around policy ideas.

CHRIS HAYES: But the other part of it too is that I think there's this fear that I've seen set in among, again, kind of punted class, commentator class, but I think also political professionals that this will wrench the party out too far in really electorally toxic directions.

One place I think you see this is on the issue of reparations which has become a sort of central issue and my feeling about reparations is that the moral substantive case is essentially rock solid. It is, like these people were injured at tremendous cost. The injury lasted through decades and decades and decades. The injury is real and cognizable under law. We should make reparations for it. That's distinct.

There's lots of things that are right on the merits that are genuinely unpopular and, again, that changes over time, but I think fair to say, from the polling I've seen, not a super popular idea, particularly among white people. That's an example where, again, this push and pull of public opinion are you trying to change the temperature, take the temperature? I'm starting to see this conversation of fear that the kind of game theoretical dynamics of the primary are going to lead people who adopting positions that even if the right on the merits are going to end up being politically toxic.

DORIAN WARREN: Yeah, but that's not new. That's every four years.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. You're saying that fear is just an eternal fear?

DORIAN WARREN: It's an eternal fear, and it depends on where you sit and how you see the political math. There is always a strategic choice and it's sometimes it's really hard choice. I'm not going to say this is easy. If you go, say, hard on racial justice or gender justice, the upside is you mobilize more people of color or more women and you might alienate, right, a certain percentage of those who don't see their identities included in that vision, right? So that's always the risk. I don't see enough of the pundits and the prognosticators, let's see the math, let's actually be a little rigorous.

I think we saw some experiments, like this, and you can take away different lessons, but I think we saw this with Stacey Abrams, I think we saw this with Gillum in Florida and I think we saw it with Beto in Texas, up to an extent, of really going there. You might wonder in Georgia with Stacey Abrams who you had on this podcast a little while ago, which was amazing.

CHRIS HAYES: It was a great podcast.

DORIAN WARREN: Would she had gotten even that close if she wasn't as progressive?


DORIAN WARREN: Right. I don't think so.

CHRIS HAYES: No. I think Abrams is the best example just because her out performance of previous statewide Democratic candidates was so vast. So I agree with that. I think more of what I'm trying to get at is as you watched this coalition attempt to put together a pluralistic, vibrant coalition that feels connected to each other, it's exactly where we started this conversation when you're walking into a workplace and when you're doing your academic work on how do you construct an identity, in real time, collectively, among these different people coming from different places where they all feel included?


CHRIS HAYES: But at the same time is cognizant of the fact that often the way those identities got constructed, center white men, center cis white men, are exclusionary and all kinds of ways like balancing those two things is really hard. I'm not sure I'm seeing that being done. I don't even know, maybe it's like a thing that you can do are just going to play out naturally? That's my big question.

DORIAN WARREN: I think there's no easy answer here and I would especially be quick to add, there's no magic messaging.

There's no magic set of words that's going to work. This is about deep organizational and institutional infrastructure and having those hard conversations and recruiting people to something over time, right? It can't just be two weeks before election day that the Democratic Party shows up in black communities and says to black people, "Okay, now turn out." There has to be, and this is why I'm such forever a die hard labor movement person because we know if you put a working class white guy in a union, he will behave differently politically than he's if he's not. Part of that is because the union is the space, it's the institution, to build a sense of linked fate.

Even if you don't, you don't have to agree with everything.


DORIAN WARREN: But it's like doing that work day in and day out to provide a sense of shared and linked fate that my fate is somehow bound up with yours. We're not going to agree say on like 30% of the things, I might not agree on reparations, but I know my fate is still more tied to you than we might think of the corporate villains, for instance, whomever the villain is or the opponent is. That work takes a long time.

CHRIS HAYES: It's not messaging.

DORIAN WARREN: It can't just be like some magic messages. The best example I've seen of someone who can weave together a narrative, not a set of talking points, but a narrative around a broad social justice vision, I would go back to Jesse Jackson's '84 and '88 DNC convention speeches. Where he is literally telling you what the rainbow coalition is and he paints a picture where everyone can see themselves in it. It's actually one of the best pieces I think of American rhetoric to this day.

I would argue Barack Obama didn't even do that, ever, in any of his campaigns because what Jackson does in '84 and '88 is he talks about the experiences of black people, but he weaves it into mosaic, right? This American quilt. He talks about white workers, he talks about farmers, he talks about gay people. He had this ability to, and again, it's a narrative, it wasn't a set of talking points. It wasn't. It was a story, right? It was a story people can see themselves in and it was a hopeful story, right? That gave people an aspiration to be their best selves.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, Jamelle Bouie wrote it, actually wrote a great Slate column on exactly that. When people were having the sort of post Trump debate about is it economic anxiety? Is it racial grievance? He sort of talked about, look the way the Jesse Jackson actually a pretty good model for the way forward.

I think one of the lessons to me in the political realm and one of the lessons of Jesse Jackson and I think Stacey Abrams and union organizing is you do have to show up. You cannot write people off.

You can write some people off in that someone shows up and they're screaming, calling you an N-word, you don't have to go up there and try to try to break the law.

DORIAN WARREN: Yeah, there's limits and boundaries, but yes.

CHRIS HAYES: Generally, like places in the country, constituencies, you got to go to those places, you've got to make your case and Stacey Abrams, who again, part of the proof of concept there, and one of the first things she said in my conversation, she's like, "I went everywhere and I talked to all kinds of people who I left that day knowing I didn't get any votes."

DORIAN WARREN: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: "But I was going to go there and talk to them because they're Georgians too and, it's my job to try to listen to what their problems are and maybe try to get them some healthcare, whether they voted for me or not." I think that ethos is just such an important one that can sit alongside with, let's not fetishize and completely center the mythical white working class voter who was Obama-Trump, who's the one totemic key to us persuading so that we can restore our majority.

DORIAN WARREN: Let me throw this at you too because I think there's also a different kind of conversation we should be having about race. If you go back to W.E.B. Dubois, famous black activist, sociologist, who wrote this book, the definitive book on black reconstruction, the reconstruction period in America. He had this thing about the psychological wage of whiteness of which then came another book called The Wages of Whiteness, which basically argues, right, that white working class people have this. The thing that substituted for being a wage earner for being a worker and being exploited was whiteness.

I think what's happened in the last 30 years is not just wage stagnation but white wage stagnation, right? There's like this declining value of whiteness that has been happening and that's the real thing underneath all the racial resentment, Trump voters. There's a way in which the loss of privilege feels like harm.

I just want someone to say that, right? I bet you a whole bunch of, you know, white working class folks actually want people just to say that and then say, "Okay, but here's the vision of how your fate is actually linked to these people that don't look like you. But like here is a different vision of how like we can all rise too." And I'm not doing it well.

CHRIS HAYES: No, that's a great, because I mean, what you're seeing is you're, you're kind of like giving a woke re-characterization of the “you can't see anything anymore.” There's so much discrimination against white people these days, which is the reactionary vision that Trump feeds and we know from Michael Tesler work. He's been on the show is, the basically are white people discriminated against as a polling question is your best predictor of a Trump voter?

You saying the whiteness wage premium it was not a material benefit but a psychological benefit that was conferred on you because you saw yourself centered in all stories. Everything was marketed to you. You had an inherent superiority that was conferred on you as a white man, particularly from every single direction. So even if your job was shitty and even if you are not making a lot of money like in the domicile of your home you ruled, in the kind of national imagination you were at the center. All that stuff confers real, tangible psychological benefits, even if they don't show up in your bank account.

DORIAN WARREN: That's right.

CHRIS HAYES: Those have been reduced over time, which feels like you have lost.

DORIAN WARREN: Well it's both. It is actual wage stagnation and the stagnation of the psychological wage. I just think if we don't give people a story, they will make one up. I am not the person that's saying we need to center the white working class and everything we do. I'm not saying that, but we need at least to offer a story that can acknowledge like, yeah, when people are privileged-

CHRIS HAYES: I hear you.

DORIAN WARREN: ... and when they lose privilege, it actually feels like crap, right? It feels like shit. So let's like say it and then offer an alternative vision, right?

CHRIS HAYES: Dude, here I am, I am as lucky and privileged as a human being can be on the earth of 2019 almost. I mean, you know, it's a rounding error, those above me, right? In the relative scheme of things, anyone who has more privilege than me. If someone like calls me out for something on Twitter, I'm like, oh, this is, I cannot. That feeling there is just a real visceral feeling. Oftentimes you work your way to being like you know, that maybe that's, they were right on that. But the feeling is real.

People that have way, way, way, way, way, way, way less privilege than I do, even if they do have some of the same privileges I do, as straight white men moving around of America, finding some progressive left liberal way to talk about that. That isn't just the reductive economic argument, which I think is part of the problem too.

DORIAN WARREN: Yes, that's right.

CHRIS HAYES: Because just to be like, well it's your wages. That's actually that's actually not getting at the thing.

DORIAN WARREN: No, it's much more than that. It's America. It's never been just about wages.

CHRIS HAYES: That's totally right. That's what makes us different. So are you hopeful right now? Are you feeling, what's your feeling about where we're at as this process starts to gear up that is increasingly ... You and I were talking the other night at a social function and you know, the people that I am in kind of constant back and forth with, who work in all different spheres, in different industries, in different parts of politics or you know, public defenders. There's a certain point at which the campaign starts to just colonize every conversation, which we're heading into. Where are you feeling as we head into that?

DORIAN WARREN: I am feeling like I'm a walking contradiction. I'll just say it like that. Right? I'm terrified every day of what will happen in 2020. Before Michael Cohen said it, I was saying that even if the president lost, he wouldn't leave office, right? We have to plan for that. What's our scenario planning around that possibility? So I'm partly terrified, but I'm mostly super hopeful because I do feel, and the people I talk to every day what I'm seeing and hearing, we are on the verge of a transformational moment. I do think that we have to act like that. We have to believe it and we have to therefore prepare for it.

We're seeing some of it in terms of the ideas, but what do we have to do now? Let's say we have a huge realignment in the electorate in 2020 and progressives sweep. Can we actually plan now for the backlash that will come in 2022? Can we like do that thought experiment because it's going to, that's how America works.

So let's get out ahead of it for once and think about, okay, if we have a transformational moment, how do we make 2020 like 1932 in a sense, right? Where it ushered in a period, in great economic crisis by the way, but it ushered in a period of incredibly bold new ideas and policy implementation. This thing called the New Deal, which is why we can still refer to it now when we say Green New Deal, right?


DORIAN WARREN: Because it's still resonant, you know, almost a hundred years later, which is kinda crazy if you think about it. So I'm really optimistic that we're on the verge of a transformational moment, but it depends on what we do now to prepare for it.

CHRIS HAYES: Dorian Warren is the President of Community Change, he is a Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, he's co-chair of the Economic Security Project. He's lived a whole bunch of different lives and all kinds of different venues with a really distinct, unique perspective.

Dorian, thanks so much man.

DORIAN WARREN: Thanks Chris for having me on. I love this podcast.

CHRIS HAYES: Once again, my great thanks to Dorian Warren. He's the President of Community Change. As you can tell from our conversation, I've known Dorian for a long time. We are friends, full disclosure. He is just a fantastic guy and I love talking to him. You can talk to him forever. So it was a great delight to have him join the podcast.

You can send us emails, #WITHPod. We always love to hear your feedback on the show and if you'd like this conversation, some other conversations you might want to think about. We had a conversation actually the previous week with Kwame Anthony Appiah, on his book, Rethinking Identity, which is about the sort of roots of what we call identity and identity politics and also how we build pluralism and multiracial, multiethnic coalitions together.

There's my conversation with Stacey Abrams, which was a live conversation. It was our second ever live WITHpod and another practitioner, right? Another person who has theorized about how do you build these coalitions? How do you knit people together from different backgrounds to make a majority or get close to a majority and then put it into practice? When she ran that incredible race in the state of Georgia, she's got some incredible insight.

Then as I mentioned at the top of the program, Organizing in Trump Country with George Goehl, which is also about grassroots organizing among a very different constituency, which is going to try to find those people in the areas of the country that are quite conservative, quite red, quite Trump-friendly, who don't have those values and trying to find those people and bind them together and pull them into a larger network and coalition that can mobilize political power for progressive ends and anti-racist ends explicitly in those parts of the country.

Those are all great conversations. I think you'll learn a lot. This is obviously one of the main topics we return to time and time again. It's the great challenge of our age, right? It's the great question, the great project, right?

Building just equitable, pluralistic, diverse, multiracial, multiethnic, American democracy, it's the project that we're all engaged in, in real time every day, and it's never actually been done or realized before ever in the history of the country. So we're out past the frontier of the possible as I speak.

Related links:

Community Change

"Keep Hope Alive," by Jamelle Bouie

"No Shortcuts," by Jane F. McAlevey

Make the Road

"The Wages of Whiteness," by David R. Roediger

"Black Reconstruction in America," by W. E. B. Du Bois

Jesse Jackson's 1984 DNC speech

Jesse Jackson's 1988 DNC speech

Related Listening:

Rethinking Identity with Kwame Anthony Appiah (March 12)

The Democratic Response with Stacey Abrams (Feb. 26)

Organizing in Trump Country with Goerge Goehl (Jan. 8)

White Identity Politics with Michael Tesler (Oct. 30)

"Why is this Happening?" is presented by MSNBC and NBC News produced by the "All In" team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here by going to