Sen. Sherrod Brown on a "new progressive era" in America — and no, he's not running

Ohio senator visits Salon to talk history, try out lines for a campaign that absolutely, definitely isn't happening

Published November 7, 2019 7:00AM (EST)

Sherrod Brown (Nannette Bedway)
Sherrod Brown (Nannette Bedway)

Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio is pretty clearly not running for president, and said so again during his recent visit to Salon's New York studio to talk about his new book, Desk 88: Eight Progressive Senators Who Changed America.” That's true even though Brown's wife, journalist Connie Schultz, was prominently quoted in a New York Times article last month about the Democratic establishment's supposed unhappiness with the current roster of candidates.

"There's more anxiety than ever," Schultz told reporter Jonathan Martin, hinting that she had been "surprised" by some of the calls she's gotten from party insiders. What names have been suggested as possible late entries into the race, according to the subhead of Martin's article? Well, Michelle Obama — who double-triple-extra isn't running — and Sherrod Brown.

Brown seems, at least in theory, to tick a lot of relevant boxes. He's like a younger, less loopy and vastly more woke version of Joe Biden, recently re-elected in an increasingly Trumpy Rust Belt state. He has a good record on racial justice and women's rights issues, is tight with organized labor, and is difficult to pin down ideologically. (I would go with "very slightly left of center-left.")

Until I read the transcript of our conversation, I hadn't noticed that Brown had randomly dropped in a reference to the fact that he recently visited New Hampshire, which is a slightly curious thing for a senator from Ohio to do, at least one who's definitely not running for president. He also dropped in a line about President Trump that sounded an awful lot like it had been road-tested as a zinger for a stump speech: "Trump betrays workers in the Midwest while he's betraying our allies in the Middle East." I mean, that's pretty good, right?

So I would suggest that while Brown is not exactly running for president — he has no money, no campaign staff, no high-priced consultants and strategists, no standing in the polls — he's not exactly not running either. There hasn't been a non-candidate nominee since Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and such things aren't supposed to happen anymore. But the current president wasn't supposed to happen either.

So Brown is making the rounds promoting a really interesting and deeply wonky book about several of the senators who once sat at his current desk on the Senate floor, and how they changed history. Some are famous Washington figures, including the former Klansman and eventual Supreme Court justice Hugo Black, the legendary Robert F. Kennedy and the unjustly maligned George McGovern. It's worth the price of admission, though, to learn a little more about Glen Taylor, the singing cowboy and one-term Idaho senator who was arrested during the civil rights protests in Birmingham, Alabama.

But let's face facts: "Desk 88" is a pretext of sorts, albeit one that's worthwhile on its own terms. But a pretext for what? Brown told me that America is on the cusp of a "new progressive era," and explained what he means by that, including the interesting and/or baffling claim that nearly all the 2020 Democratic candidates qualify as "progressive," by his definition of that word.

Brown himself has often been called a progressive, but he conspicuously does not support Medicare for All or the Green New Deal. He never once mentioned Bernie Sanders' name in our entire conversation, and only referred to Elizabeth Warren in passing. He has said previously that he doesn't think Biden will end up being the Democratic nominee (although he made no such prediction in our conversation). So who will be? I guess it won't be him, since he's definitely not running.

My full Salon Talks conversation with Sen. Sherrod Brown is embedded below. Below that is a transcript that's been edited for clarity and readability.

Senator, you're the author of a new book — and you're not running for president.

I'm not.

Having interviewed you, Sheldon Whitehouse and Doug Jones over the last year or so, I'm starting to run out of Democratic senators who aren’t running.

I know! I was going to say, there aren't many left.

Your book is called “Desk 88: Eight Progressive Senators Who Changed America.” It’s a marvelous read for anybody who's interested in the history of American politics, the history of the United States Senate, the history of what we can broadly call the progressive movement. Before we get to the political lessons, explain the title. “Desk 88” — what does that mean?

You've got to look far and wide when you look at the desks in the U.S. Senate where there's a little number down in the left corner. On your first day in the Senate, after you choose your desk, they give you a little notebook and have the list of people who held the desk. Everything's done by seniority in the US Senate in terms of where your office is, what your desk is. 

So when I was first elected, this is in 2007, nine of my colleagues and I were sort of scurrying around the Senate floor, looking to where we might sit. A senior senator had told me that senators pulled their desk drawers out and carved their names on the bottom before they leave. And so I did that. And by about my fourth desk, I saw a desk that said, “Hugo Black, Alabama; George McGovern, South Dakota; Al Gore, Tennessee.” And then it just said, “Kennedy.” 

So I walked over to Ted Kennedy, who was sitting at his desk four seats away or so, and I said, "Ted, come here a second." He walked over and I said, "Which brother is this?" He said, "Well, it's got to be Bobby. I have Jack's desk.” 

I chose this desk and then I just started — history matters to me, and I wrote this book in the same for some of the same reasons I wear this canary pin. This is a depiction of a canary in a birdcage. I wear this because it says to me that the power of government can be used to make people's lives better. 

I thought by writing “Desk 88” and highlighting eight progressive senators, all of whom were uneven, none of them were perfect. Their records weren't always something you can be proud of. Most of them, most of the time. I think if you understand history, it will give you hope today about where we go. Because we've had some dark times in this country. 

This is the worst president in my lifetime. I didn't know much about James Buchanan, but I assume he might be the worst president in history, worse than Trump. But this isn't the worst time in our country's history. It's not the Civil War. It's not the Depression, it's not the McCarthy days. I wrote this to say, look, government can be a positive force in people's lives: collective bargaining, civil rights, Medicare, all the things that these progressive senators have done. This can be a hope for the future.

I think the point you make about the mixed personal stories that you tell in this book is very important. For example, the first senator you talk about is Hugo Black of Alabama, who was first a senator and then a highly influential Supreme Court justice. And he had literally been a member of the Klan. Not figuratively, but literally. Yet he wound up as somebody who belongs in a book about progressive senators. That’s an important moral narrative, isn’t it?

Well, it's hard. I absolutely didn't defend his Klan days, of course. Nor did I cover over, or paper over them. He renounced his Klan membership soon after coming to the Senate. But he still had been a Klansman. He talked about how, in those days, Alabama was the big mules against the little mules. The big mules were the coal companies and the power company and the steel companies in Alabama and the little mules were everybody else. And he said, "I'd go wherever the votes were, wherever I could get votes. That's why I joined.”

That doesn't excuse it. But later, in the ‘30s, he became Franklin Roosevelt's favorite Southern senator. He sat at Desk 88, presumably, and wrote the 40-hour work week. Working with Sen. Robert Wagner of New York, he wrote a lot of the collective bargaining and minimum-wage laws, all the things that came out of labor law. 

And then to sort of complete the circle, in 1955, after Brown v. Board of Education, the first time the court really weighed in on civil rights on integration, Black was burned in effigy at his old law school in Tuscaloosa. He was rejected by the Klansmen of that day and became one of the great civil libertarians of the court. I think the lesson is, you can't forget or excuse the past, but you've got to embrace change and evolution. He evolved into being someone who was a strong progressive most of the time.

In the case of somebody who's more famous and closer to us in time, there’s Bobby Kennedy, who also sat at Desk 88. People remember him now, of course, for the 1968 presidential campaign and its tragic ending. I'm from California, and as a small child I saw him standing with Mexican immigrant farm workers at a time when that issue was way outside the mainstream. But he didn’t really start out as a progressive, did he? 

Well, he worked for Joe McCarthy. His dad probably got him that job. His brother John was absent, I believe, on the vote to censure McCarthy. His dad and his brother, the future president, were part of that wing of the party in some sense. too. But Bobby was — they always used the word ruthless about Bobby. He was tough. He was not always easy, but you can see his evolution. Really, it was his brother's assassination that that changed him so dramatically. And he had so much tragedy. Bobby came to understand one of the things I think politicians should all understand, which is how much you can do outside of the legislative chamber, outside of bills and amendments.

Several times a year I'll call up a hospital administrator or an insurance company CEO and I'll say, "You should raise your minimum wage to $15." I push them. I say, "I'll never embarrass you publicly, but I will applaud you if you do it." And over time, we've seen a number of big employers who have people in food service, custodial, security, sometimes data entry, sometimes bank tellers, making less than $15 that have raised their wage. Not just because I've called them, but it's an example of what we can do. We can do a lot outside the legislative process as progressives to make people's lives better — to use, in this case, my title, or use the power of government to improve people's lives.

Right. Isn’t the whole basis of the progressive movement a dynamic that involves people such as yourself in elected positions power, and also social movements who push somebody like you, or push somebody like the hospital administrators you're talking about to do the right thing, both for moral reasons and political reasons?

Yeah, that's a great question. These eight senators were unevenly progressive most of the time. Most of them were, but there was always a social movement behind them. Any number of them, Bobby Kennedy and those that led on civil rights, McGovern was there during part of that time. A number of these senators were. But it took John Lewis and it took the march in Washington and it took the sit-downs at the lunch counters and it took Rosa Parks. It took all that to make this happen. You need both. Although I would argue that the social movements create the elected official, you still need the elected official wanting to do it. And that's really why I think that 2020 could very well be the launch of a new progressive era. 

As Emerson said, "History is a battle between the innovators and the conservators." The innovators are people like us that progressives who want to move the country forward. The conservators, conservatives, want to hold on to their power and protect special interests. Progressives want the role of government to come down on the side of people. Conservatives want to defend the banks and the insurance companies and the drug companies and Wall Street and the gun lobby. 

When we win — progressives don't win very often, but when we win, we win really big. In the ‘30s we won Social Security, collective bargaining, so much. In the ‘60s, we won civil rights, voting rights, progress on immigration, a whole host of things that made the country better. Then the people of privilege pushed back, and we defended those victories. They may want to privatize Medicare, we stopped them. They may want to dismantle Social Security, we stopped them. They may want to compromise civil rights, we stopped them — but it's an ongoing battle and it takes, as you said, it takes the social movements out there pushing us forward and helping us defend.

Let’s talk about the word “progressive,” which is right there in the subtitle of your book. It has two historical meanings in American politics, which may intersect. You're largely using it in the sense it was used from the late 19th century to about the middle of the 20th century, in the sense of the Progressive Era, which we heard about in American history class. Today that word has become identified with a specific faction in the Democratic Party, and also outside it. So “progressives” are people who support the $15 minimum wage and Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. And that’s not actually what you’re talking about.

Well I think that I define — I think every one of these candidates that's running for president, with maybe one or two exceptions that I'm not sure of, that are people I don't know, are overwhelmingly progressive. Some want to get there faster. We all want to get to universal [health care] coverage. We all want to get to a system maybe 20 years or 10 years from now that looks like Medicare. But I want to build on the Affordable Care Act. 

I think when we talk health care, it's always essential — and none of the candidates are doing this part well enough — to say, "Wait a second. Democrats are arguing about how we get there. Trump wants to scale back. He wants to throw people off the Affordable Care Act. He wants to take away the consumer protections. He wants drug companies to make more money, not less."

We always have to make the contrast. Trump came within one vote of repealing the Affordable Care Act. He's now trying to do it through the court system. Trump and Barr and the entire Republican Party are trying to scale back that. The fight is about more and better care, more care and less expensive care, versus Trump taking it away. So I think that that's the debate we should be having. But I would put the entire spectrum of Democrats in the progressive tradition because we're, because regardless of who wins — and I think we're going to beat Trump. Regardless of who wins, I can see that new president leading us into a progressive era. If we win the Senate, and I think both are very much in reach.

You think the Senate is winnable?

The Senate is absolutely winnable, especially if this just keeps going with Trump, if there's one new thing after another and he becomes even more unhinged and angrier and more unreasonable. Because Trump is only talking to his base. And the math of that is that it will slowly shrink. By 2020, I really think there's a real chance to launch a new progressive era when we really do advance on health care, when we do understand that child care should be a public good. When we move forward on education, on wages, fix the overtime rule, all the things that progressives believed in for decades.

Speaker Pelosi made headlines the other day by suggesting that she thinks the 2020 candidates are pushing too far to the left ideologically, or appear to be. She seemed to be talking about Liz Warren and Bernie Sanders specifically, and she said that the way to win in Rust Belt states was not to present these bold policy visions, but to focus on more granular kitchen-table issues. I would argue you know quite a bit more about the Rust Belt states than she does.

First of all, I think Nancy Pelosi — one of the things I say in this book is that Lyndon Johnson was the greatest legislative leader of the century, except maybe Nancy Pelosi's better. She's so good. She is so good at this. And I just want, on impeachment, I trust going the way she wants to go at the speed she wants to go. I love the picture when she's standing up within the Cabinet room, and it shows how President Trump has essentially lost his mind that he thought that picture made him look good when all the generals were looking down at their hands or their shoes. I just think that tells you everything.

I just lost my train of thought there. But I think what Pelosi was telegraphing — and I haven't asked her this and I likely won't — is that they need to still ... They can present these progressive visions, and I like the progressive visions of the future they're painting, but they've got to talk through the eyes of workers. They've got to go back to the dignity of work, to respecting and honoring work. And when I say the dignity of work, it's not white male firefighters only. It's also people that prepare your food at a bank building or people that clean your offices or people who work in hospitals and do data entry at an insurance company. It's all these thing, whether you punch a clock or whether you're caring for kids or whether you're working for tips.

I think if they bring it to that, and really do understand that's where most people are in this country. They don't think about big government programs. I don't think the voters think, left to right, liberal or conservative. They think, “Are you on my side?” And if you fight for workers while characterizing Trump as betraying work — because Trump betrays workers in the Midwest while he's betraying our allies in the Middle East. And pretty clearly Trump, by any measurement betrayed workers. We've got to show we're defending workers. I don't much care what else our candidates say if they make that construct right. I don't let them off the hook. They need to run for office seeing the world through the eyes of workers, and they need to take the oath on Jan. 20, 2021, through the eyes of workers.

Leaving aside issues of policy difference, isn’t it historically important to see something like the Bernie Sanders campaign, which is absolutely the result of social-movement politics, or the emergence of a national leader in Congress who was a bartender two years ago — and is now my congresswoman, as it happens? Aren’t those things powerful symbols of the rebirth of the progressive movement?

Oh, yeah. I think you've seen, first of all, one of the things about this book that I acknowledge right from the start is that I’m writing about eight white men. Only men have held my desk. I would also contend if the Senate 50 years ago had started looking more like America, we would have had longer, stronger, and more frequent progressive areas. I hear people romanticize the past, and I look back to the ‘50s when the Senate had 95 white men and one white woman and they couldn't pass civil rights. I won't romanticize the past. I think you learn from it, but I think if there were more people — you mentioned your congresswoman and Nancy Pelosi and Catherine Cortez-Masto in Nevada, one of, I believe, four states that have two women senators.

We just have a different looking place. All of that's good. It's clear to me that women and young people and people of color are the future and electorally they're the future in terms of social movements and pushing progressive causes outside of Congress. And they're also the reason we're going to beat Trump in 2020.

One important thing in your book is the sense of how much the Republican Party has degenerated, but also how long the trends that brought us this president have been in play. I mean, the dog-whistle racism, the red-baiting, the scurrilous attacks on opponents — you see that with Richard Nixon in the ‘50s, with Lee Atwater in the ‘80s. In that sense, where that party is now is nothing new.

Yeah. Fido's yap turned into a Doberman bark, turned into a Doberman bite. I mean, it's hard to talk party when there were southern Democrats in the ‘40s and ‘50s who were worse than the Republicans, on race and other issues.

Very much so. And there were definitely Republican progressives at one time, at least in your use of the word.

In the Senate we had Pearson of Kansas, Case of New Jersey, Javits of New York, Brooke of Massachusetts, Mathias of Maryland. People that were really progressive. There was a Dayton congressman named Charlie Waylon, strong against the Vietnam War and strong on civil rights when some Democrats in Ohio were not good on those issues. But that's sorted itself out for whatever reason.

There are always more progressives. The conservators are the people that want to hold onto their wealth and privilege and money and status. And they're a small number of people. How do they win? They appeal to fear. McCarthy in the ‘50s, race in the ‘60s, immigration now, terrorism, all the things they try to scare people about. Just like they're doing now, calling Elizabeth and others “socialists” and saying that’s painting the whole Democratic party. These are the same people that called Medicare socialism, and earlier than that called Social Security socialism. We pushed back on that. One of the things that George McGovern said was that you can't study history and not be a liberal. And he was a history professor.

The more history you understand, the more you understand how important it is that progressives win because so many of the best things we have as a country — Social Security, Medicare, prohibition on child labor, civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, workers' compensation, minimum wage, Pell grants, safe drinking water laws, clean air laws — all those things came from progressive senators and congressmen and women pushed by the public. This pin really symbolized to me that it's not politicians doing these things. It really is people in their union halls, in their church basements and their civic organizations and their civil rights groups and their PTAs, pushing Congress in a more progressive direction. And that's really what “Desk 88” is about. 

So what do you think of the critique that starting around the time of Bill Clinton's presidency, the Democratic Party began to move away at times from what you're talking about, from its roots in working people, in social movements, in labor unions. It became too dependent on Wall Street, on big donors and corporate bundlers and high rollers, and that that created an internal conflict within the party that hasn't worked itself out.

Absolutely. I agree with that critique entirely. One of my first major votes in the House when I was a congressman was against NAFTA, and you could see the damage NAFTA did. My state had such job loss, not entirely because of NAFTA. It's automation, it's trade, it's a lot of things, but we had such job loss. For 14 years in a row, we had more foreclosures in my state each year than the year before. My zip code in Cleveland, where Connie and I live, had more foreclosures than any zip code in the United States in the year 2007. And the residue of that still exists in our neighborhood. So it's clear that too many Democrats forgot that we're the party of labor, the working-class party. 

I didn't come to this right away. I'm a doctor's kid, and I learned politics as a young state legislator, going out to union halls and talking to workers about their fears and their hopes and their kids, where if they had a good union contract, they could buy a car, they could buy a house, they could send their kid to North Central Technical College or Mansfield OSU. I began to understand that if something goes wrong in my life, I had enough of a safety net. Something goes wrong in these workers lives, unless they had a strong union they didn't have that safety net. And the role of luck in the role of all that. I think that Democrats need to think more about that. What the roots of our party is, where and whom we fight for. It's whom you fight for and what you fight against. I think Democrats are relearning that lesson, frankly.

I need to let you go, but I want to turn briefly to impeachment, One of your former colleagues from across the aisle, Jeff Flake, said recently that he thought if there was an impeachment trial in the Senate, and if it was a secret ballot, that 35 of his former Republican colleagues might vote to convict the president. Is he just joking or bluffing?

He's not joking or bluffing. I think he means it, because I know Jeff well enough to know he wouldn't joke or bluff about it. I don't know. I do know that a whole lot of Republicans privately say to me, they know Trump's a racist. They know he's a misogynist. They know he doesn't have much depth in terms of understanding things. They are very concerned about the Russians. They all know that. The question is, do they have the courage to do something about it?

Unfortunately, we know the answer to that, don’t we?

Yeah. Yeah. Well, so far they don't.


By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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