Bernie Sanders’ Campaign Manager on Why Pundits Don’t Like His Boss
Faiz Shakir lets loose on partisan rancor, how MSNBC treats Bernie, and his dream to coach high-school baseball
April 2016, and the bad blood between the two Democratic presidential hopefuls, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, was near its peak. Calls for Sanders to quit the primary race were growing louder — as were accusations that the Clinton campaign had its thumb on the scales at the DNC. (The emails that would eventually prove the latter claim had been stolen from campaign chair John Podesta just weeks before.) Social media was a howling vortex of enraged Sanders and Clinton supporters.
And Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and his close aide, Faiz Shakir, were busy pouring oil on the troubled waters of their fractious party.
“Bernie usually finds a way to be helpful at the end of the day,” Shakir told Politico at the time. “That’s always been the case, whether it was the Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank. There are places where he might have, initially, some concerns. But at the end of the day, he’s found a way to be helpful.”
This delicate, diplomatic approach is still very characteristic of Shakir, who is now working as Bernie Sanders’s campaign director. Shakir doesn’t exhibit a trace of the vicious, win-at-all-costs instincts of prominent Democratic campaign operatives of earlier times, like James Carville or Rahm Emanuel; Shakir is a new kind of superstar in Democratic politics, with a long history of working to lead the party from the center to the left.
He’s 39 years old, the son of Pakistani immigrants, Muslim, grew up in Florida; he’s married, with two daughters, ages four and almost-two. The product of elite institutions (Harvard B.A., where he played baseball; Georgetown J.D.), Shakir has soft-spokenly risen to the top at every institution, every gig. He started out as a legislative aide to Senator Bob Graham and worked on opposition research in John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. Thence to the Center for American Progress (CAP), where, over seven years, he helped found the ThinkProgress blog, serving as its editor-in-chief until 2012. [Three days before this interview was published, ThinkProgress was summarily shuttered after CAP failed find a buyer for the site; Shakir declined to comment on the closure.] Stints as a top advisor to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid followed. Reid’s former deputy chief of staff, Adam Jentleson, told CNN, “Reid did not make a big decision without consulting Faiz. There’s no one he trusted more on how the progressive community would react on something and no one whose advice he took more seriously on pushing him to the left.”
Before joining the Sanders campaign, Shakir was national political director at the ACLU, where he helped launch a volunteer arm of the organization, People Power — “the grassroots army of the @ACLU taking the fight for our civil rights and liberties beyond the courts and into the streets,” according to its Twitter bio. GEN recently caught up with Shakir over the phone.
(This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)
GEN: I thought I’d begin by asking you about the end of “bipartisanship” in Washington. Because at the moment there’s no real sense of a benign relationship between the two parties. It seems to a lot of people, I think, that there’s no getting “back to normal,” whatever that is, or was.
Faiz Shakir: We obviously experienced this during the Obama years, when a lot of the really ridiculous criticism leveled on him by Republicans was that stylistically he just didn’t do enough to… give them nice hugs and invite them out to dinner, have nice tea parties with them.
As we all now know, at the very beginning of his presidency, the Republican Party deemed Obama to be an existential threat; they were coming off of the Bush years, where the Republican Party had lost credibility and a lot of moral high ground, and was really struggling. And the party made the decision at that time — as you can see when you look at the pundits, like most notably Rush Limbaugh, who said, “We want the Obama presidency to fail.”
They made a kind of strategic decision to say, “We are never going to partner with him, participate with him, never going to give him the legitimacy of having a bipartisan approach.”
And, you know, they stuck to that. In his first term, Obama had close to 60 votes in the Senate and a majority in the House. They made it very, very difficult. Mitch McConnell became a one-person logjam, using the filibuster in all kinds of ways that had never been used before. Essentially he implemented a 60-vote threshold for everything.
But it wasn’t always that way in the Senate. There used to be a time when senators understood that when something had general popular support, it should be voted on. You could vote against it, but people should vote, and then we should move on, and public opinion will work its will.
And our politics, over that period of time, really sank into an abyss, because the only things that would move were the things that had big money interests involved… while things that benefited the working class in this country became much, much, much harder to accomplish.
But my more general commentary on where politics now stands: It used to be that you could agree on a set of facts, and just have a different opinion about how to address those facts.
Now — and I put most of the blame here on the Republican Party — they aren’t going to let you agree on the basic set of facts. That’s the case when you’re debating climate change, gun violence, it’s the case when you’re debating health care. All these issues. You can’t find agreement with them on a basic set of facts to inform the debate. And when you don’t have that, you know, then basically the entire debate is built on a waterbed. It’s just constantly in flux.
There are pockets, isolated bubbles of information on the internet that kind of service these domains, where facts don’t matter. And of course on the right, those kinds of domains pop up, and they have large audiences, and they cater to misinforming the American public.
“The entire debate is built on a waterbed. It’s just constantly in flux.”
That’s one question, and then there’s the separate question of, like, what’s even permitted to be on cable TV. And all that goes unsaid — even at a place like MSNBC, which prides itself to some degree at least on trying to stick to facts, there is a different sort of manipulation, based in what is permitted to be surfaced and discussed.
Oh, absolutely. This is where I feel so strongly… you know, obviously I speak as the Bernie campaign manager, and we, as a campaign, are disadvantaged by this tremendously. When you have a perspective on the major injustices facing American society and you are proposing these bold solutions to them, as Bernie Sanders is — we understand he’s iconoclastic in some regards, right? But he’s become less iconoclastic, I would say, as his views have become more mainstream within the Democratic party. And yet that mainstreaming is not evident on cable TV. It is not evident in the selection of the pundits who are asked to go on and talk about it.
So what you often have are the critics of Medicare for All, for example, or they are the critics of canceling student debt, they are the critics of various tax reform plans, who are invited onto those shows to give you their perspective… I would argue it’s the elite perspective. And rarely do you ever see the argument, or the punditry, that is supporting policies that would advantage the working class of America.
“[Sanders] has become less iconoclastic, I would say, as his views have become more mainstream within the Democratic party.”
The whole [cable news] booking operation, and I hate to say this, because there’s a lot of nice people who do bookings; I know that, and I talk to them. But it’s just a bankrupt and kind of corrupt operation, in that it constantly rewards those people who are known, who have been on a few times, who have been in the same social circles. What that ends up doing is failing to serve what should be the primary objective of these networks: to educate the public. That’s lost entirely… It’s really an unfortunate situation.
I don’t think many lay observers who watch MSNBC or CNN or even Fox know how the sausage gets made, and how bankrupt that process can be… I don’t think the networks do a good enough job of understanding the conflicts of interest amongst the people they’re constantly inviting onto the shows… I would say many of the pundits they’re bringing on have particular views of candidates, and they don’t do a good enough job of explaining that: “Hey… are you with Kamala?” You know? “Are you with Biden?” Just at least reveal this, and we will understand your perspective.
And yet they seem to delude themselves in the bookings of these panels, in terms of thinking, “Oh, this is a neutral, unbiased panel,” because maybe like four of them all kind of like Kamala, they all kind of like Elizabeth, they all kind of like Joe Biden. Well, guess what? They all dislike Bernie Sanders!
You haven’t really given us a fair shake at the start here.
Why do you think this is?
You know, it’s the working class of America that responds most to [Sanders]. And why do they respond most to him, it’s because they see credibility in him, somebody who has been consistent over the course of a lifetime, he doesn’t bullshit you, he gets up there, tells you what he truly feels, and a lot of his politics comes from a very moral place of what society should look like. Who’s right, and who’s wrong? — he says it explicitly.
There’s a sense in elite circles that the reality of politics is that you have to have X, Y, Z. You have to have the wealthy ruling class, who control the way politics is transacted, because it’s just better. They’ve all just come to believe that. And now here’s somebody trying to upend the entire structure, and I think what often ends up happening, and why they don’t like him, is because it feels to them like a personal moral condemnation. Like: I am getting chastised by Bernie Sanders because I have a show on MSNBC, and he thinks we have a corrupt media. I think many people take that personally.
There’s also the sense that he’s not a traditional politician in the stylistic sense of that word — he doesn’t dress like them, he doesn’t put on his makeup and he doesn’t brush his hair, and he doesn’t go around glad-handing, he doesn’t do the off the record phone calls — “How’re you doin’?” — and everything, all the niceties, that people have become accustomed to, particularly in elite circles.
What would you expect of a person who is in a corrupt political system — who hates that corrupt political system, refuses to take its money, hates everything about it — what would you anticipate the characteristics of that individual looking and feeling like?
Well… they would look a lot like Bernie Sanders.
He’s critiquing a system in which many of those reporters operate. Frankly, he’s critiquing a political system in which he operates.
So… I’m going to push back on this a little bit, because, you know, as a lifelong Democrat who has become steadily disillusioned… I personally feel that the Overton Window has just moved clean off the building at this point. It’s just, you know —
So when I look at your career, I see somebody who is struggling to stay on the left, as everything kind of moved past you to the right. The organizations that you’ve been involved in can easily be perceived as part of the problem in the party, the problem of the chumminess, and the clubbiness —
Yeah, yeah. Yes, I think that is certainly what has happened… I agree with part of your diagnosis, there. Over the course of my trajectory, in my involvement in politics, and one of the reasons I now work for Bernie Sanders, is that there’s a lot of injustices in society, right? But one of the absolute core and main ones is the influence of money. And the influence that money has across the spectrum, in skewing societal investments and attitudes across the board.
That particular injustice is the hardest one to reckon with, because the problem of money, and how it governs so many parts of our lives, makes it hard for people to stand up against it or to criticize it. You only really get pain and very little gain, if you’re trying to work within the system, in criticizing money. You’re constantly going to be diminishing yourself, your influence, your own ability to effect change, if all you’re doing is constantly railing against the influence of money in the system.
But it is the thing that requires our national attention. It requires our anger, our frustration, our devotion to changing.
What is the relationship of the Democratic Party now, the way you see it, to the critique of wealth in the political system?
Because of Bernie Sanders, there’s more of a reckoning within the party about this. It was the case that for many years there was a trajectory of a Democratic Party and a Republican Party, both competing alongside each other for more and more support of the elite class of society.
Now you see even a DNC that’s trying to reform that, you know — as in requiring, as the basis for entering onto the debate stage, maintaining some degree of a grassroots threshold. Why are they doing that? Because of the influence of Bernie Sanders. What he did is kind of force the party to reckon with it: “How are you making your money?” and, “How is that changing the policy choices that you make?”
And over time, people are begrudgingly saying, “Yeah, he’s got a point there. He’s got a point.”
It doesn’t come easily, but the fact is that more and more people understand that his diagnosis of the problem is accurate, and you can do something about it. Most people, you know, they’re gonna campaign for popular support, but are they going to do anything when they’re in the White House? It takes an incredible amount of courage and conviction in order to confront power in this way.
“What he did is kind of force the party to reckon with it: ‘How are you making your money?’”
My family are Cuban, and so their idea of, like, capital-E evil was socialism, because of what happened to Cuba; and what people learned, in the 1950s, about what had happened in Russia, and so on. Like, to my parents, you know, socialism meant mass executions, the ruin of a place they had loved —
So I came up with this idea that all -isms are suspect, that any bad guy can get hold of power no matter what sort of flavor it comes in, and abuse it. In any case, I think a lot of older people, like me, have these associations from childhood… So they hear “socialism” they’re, like instantly, it’s just so visceral, like, you know — “socialism bad.”
Even if older people might think, Yeah, I want things to be fair, rich people should be taxed more, I want society to be more equitable, with proper public schools for everyone — the kind of socialism they have in Denmark — maybe we would like that. But people want to know how it will impact their lives exactly; what steps will be taken to prevent the abuses that always seem to come with radical change?
Yeah. Obviously, it’s been a struggle with some older people, and that’s part of the reason. I also think, though, that the only reason you’d cling to what is otherwise a quite unpopular label, is that it’s core to your conviction that society right now does not serve all the people, it serves the elite class. One reason you know Bernie Sanders is serious is that he clings to that unpopular label because for him, it defines who he believes should have power, and who he believes should not have power.
If you could comment on the Center for American Progress… there’s this obvious schism in that organization that seems to mirror the schism in the party at large, between centrists, and leftists —
It didn’t always use to be that way, though. I mean, first of all, my own politics — I came into the Democratic Party. My first job was working for Senator Bob Graham, Democrat from Florida, and immediately from there I went off to work for the Democratic National Committee, where I was an opposition researcher during the Kerry-Edwards campaign of 2003–4.
So that’s how I got into politics. And from 2005 — the next chapter, after Kerry lost — I worked for the Center for American Progress, where I helped launch the blog, ThinkProgress, and I worked there for the next seven years.
Over that time, we pushed the Center for American Progress, a wonderful organization that moved the Democratic Party, quite frankly, and had a lot of political success by becoming bolder — particularly with respect to criticizing the Iraq War, but also more than that, moving the climate change debate, standing up to a lot of the national security concerns that came out of the Bush White House. CAP was at the forefront, and ThinkProgress was at the forefront, of kind of leading the party.
And it was great. I enjoyed the job. It was part of my progressive ideology, it moved the Overton Window. Challenging the status quo: “Hey, there’s a space that we need to occupy again. And be pushing people towards it. “That’s where my own heart has always been, as I left CAP and went on to work for Pelosi, and then Harry Reid, and the ACLU, and now here with Bernie, it’s always been a core belief of mine that politics continue to need bold pushing. Constant pushing.
The status quo is insufficient, it’s… speaking for myself personally, I come to politics not because, like, “Oh, I love working in politics, and I would do it anytime, anywhere.” The reason I come into politics and I work in it is because there’s so many injustices. It is the injustices that drive me. If politics was a utopia, and we had a well-functioning government, and people were being treated fairly, and properly and rightly by the government, then I would be off… coaching baseball, doing something else with my life.
Oh, coaching baseball. I would be coaching a high school baseball team. That would be my dream. That is what I would love to be doing.
Maybe you’ll get your chance, eventually…
Yes. One day.
Yeah. Once all this is sorted out.
I’d love to have a teaching job in high school, and coach the baseball team. I’ve always thought that — you know, my high school baseball coach was a great inspiration to me, and helped change my life in ways that — you know, I’m sure he changed many people’s lives — and that would be fun. I mean, I’d find personal enjoyment in it, but I’d also have the opportunity to have some good societal impact. That is what I would actually want to do. But it is the injustices here that call me and drive me and keep me motivated.
Tell me about your baseball coach. What’s his name, why so much love?
Baseball — first you have to start with the sense that baseball is a game in which you fail a lot. You can essentially make outs 7 out of 10 times at bat. If you get 3 out of 10 hits, you’re in the Hall of Fame. So imagine that. Means you’re gonna be failing a lot. You have to overcome adversity. You have to do it as a teammate; a good teammate, to others.
And, in order for you to succeed, the people around you need to have the opportunity to succeed; most importantly, the way you comport yourself off the field matters as much as the way you comport yourself on the field. It’s one consistent thread, to treat people well, show up on time, you know, those kinds of things put you in a position to succeed when you’re on the field.
He believed in that strongly, and so he developed — he felt like one of his most important jobs in life was building the character of the individuals who were on the baseball team. It wasn’t just, like, hit the ball and, you know, run a few bases. It was to build a sense of mental toughness that you needed to have in order to succeed… that kind of ability to traverse adversity, and appreciate people in all kinds of roles in society; to not look down, but to look up and say, “Won’t we all benefit when we are all in this together?”
Wow! And you became like a baseball star. Right?
Not initially. My parents were immigrants; I was born here in the United States, but my parents did not know a damn thing about baseball. I came to the game very late in life. I started at the age of 12 years old. Most people start, you know, at the age of five or six. I came into baseball having watched it on television; I watched the Chicago Cubs. So I’m in high school at 15 years old, right? Years later, I’m trying to still figure out this game, and it was landing with Coach Dooley, and he helped me not only, as I mentioned, off the field, become a developed character, in respect for people, but also become a particularly good baseball player.
And so he saw something in me. I became starting shortstop and became a better hitter over the course of that time, and then ultimately got recruited and played college baseball for four years. So… it all worked out. And it would not have, had I not had this good, positive influence in my life.