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The Losing Battle for the Working Class Vote

by Cedric Humphrey
February 9, 2021

This interview with Cedric Humphrey was conducted and condensed by franknews.

Cedric | I'm 22 years old. I'm from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. I'm currently a senior at the University of Pittsburgh, studying political science and economics. I'll be graduating in May — I’m down to days. 

I guess I've always been interested in politics since I was really young. I was captivated by Obama’s election, I think that is where my interest kicked off. Throughout high school, I did Youth & Government and that sort of thing. I have interned in the Pennsylvania State Capitol for two summers. It's just been my life for a while.

frank | You got to ask President Biden a question at a Town Hall that ended up really resonating with people. What were some of the wider sentiments you were trying to get at in your question? 

There were probably several underlying feelings behind that question. 

I think the first, and the biggest, was referencing back to when Joe Biden was on The Breakfast Club during the primary campaign. They basically asked him to explain why Black people should vote for him, and he kind of shrugged the question off and said, well, "If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.” 

That really bothered me. 

Just because Trump is not the answer, doesn’t make you the answer. 

And that is how I saw the campaign move forward, they ran a campaign against Trump rather than showing what policies Joe Biden wanted to enact. I don’t think that is how campaigns should be run. I think you need to present why you are the best candidate. To me, it seemed that votes, at least my vote, was being taken for granted.

The second thing I've noticed throughout the last year and a half is that the Democratic party is no longer speaking to me as an American citizen or as a person. I feel like they're speaking to my morality. They speak to what I should be doing and what they are going to do. And I don't think that makes you a good candidate. 

Politics increasingly exists on a plane of morality, material questions take a back seat. The more people just vote for the “good guys”, whoever the “good guys” are to them, the less either side has to run on material conditions. How do you think we move past that? 

I am interested to hear you say that. I'm only 22, so I've only really been breathing in and digesting politics for like 12 years. When you think about when this "culture war" within the parties really started, it was probably halfway through that first Obama term. My entire life has been this volatile political environment. I don't know anything besides that. So, how do we move past this? I don't know how to answer that just because that is American politics to me.

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I will say we have to start being able to hold our elected leaders accountable, and the electoral system that we have right now just does not do that. It does not give voters and the people power to actually exercise a public mandate on their elected officials. It's so hard to primary an incumbent. It's so hard to vote out somebody when you run the risk of getting them replaced with a Republican. The electoral system has a stronghold on the public's ability to hold their elected officials accountable. I think that reforming the system is the only way that we'll ever truly move past this culture war.

What do you want reform to look like?

I believe that we should change the entire electoral system. I'm a firm believer that we have a Constitution that's amendable for a reason. I mean, the first thing that we did was add 10 amendments to it.

I don't know why there is such resistance when it comes to talking about changing The Constitution or our systems. 

I think rank choice voting would seriously help, especially in party primaries. Just think about the presidential election. If you're in Iowa, you have 12 people to choose from. You definitely don't want some people and you would be okay with others. Rank choice voting would help with that. Congressionally, I think multi-member districts, meaning that some districts have a Republican and a Democrat coming out of that district, would help so that you're not assigning all of the political power to just one member out of a district. Some of these very, very close districts it would be more representative of the actual electors. Australia and New Zealand use that system. 

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I feel like a lot of times people think when you're thinking about changing the electoral system, you're trying to manipulate it so that you have more power within the system. I think if you manipulate the system to work truly, you don't have to worry about having to maintain that power because you'll get it politically off of being the best.

I don't know how we get there, but there are things we could do. And I think we should just talk about that more. 

When I was growing up I was always in these government simulations. Like you know, you're a Senator and you write a bill and you debate it. It's like a beautiful democracy. This is what we learn when we're 13, but none of this ever happens. We don't ever debate things in the public realm. You're told what somebody is doing and that it's wrong or that it is on the right side. We're not really like fleshing out these ideas. And I don't think that that's healthy for our democracy at all.

What do you think organizers and young activists need to do to push their agenda?

As far as pushing the Democratic party to the left, that's a doozy. They will come to the left on their own terms and at their own pace. I guess it comes down to maintaining control of the narrative around things like Medicare for all and the $15 minimum wage. When I was graduating high school four years ago, raising the minimum wage was seen as ridiculous, way more ridiculous than it's seen as now. Inflation hasn't gone up that much in four years, but people's attitudes about raising the minimum wage have slowly changed because we are refusing to stop talking about how it's a necessary thing for the survival of American families across the country. Keeping control of the narrative is really important, but we've got to break out of this two-party system for anything to happen in my opinion. I think effective mobilization looks like a third party taking hold of state legislatures across the country, and moving on from there. 

Is there a third-party gaining real momentum?

No. Nobody's gaining enough momentum. I'm interested in what the Libertarian party might become with the whole shake-up amongst the GOP. I think they have the potential to really grow from the situation. I mean there is, of course, the Green Party, bless their hearts. If I could, I would register to be in the Green Party and vote for nothing but the Green Party, but I can't bring myself to do that because I just don't see them really advancing. I guess they got close in 2004.

I think the lack of momentum also comes down to the rules that allow people onto ballots which are really crazy all across the country. It is different from state to state. The rules for being allowed on the presidential debate stage are really strict. The amount of votes that the Green Party would have to get a presidential election to even be on the debate stage at the next election is insane. You can't get there without being on the stage first. So, I don't know if there's one party right now that is effectively capitalizing on people's discontent. 

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What do you think effective third party messaging looks like? 

It would start with equity. I think that bridges the race versus class debate. You can't have equity without considering both race and class. I think that if your messaging was to be centered around that, that could work. 

I also think that we just have to start talking about the real problems facing people.

There is always all this talk about this “average American.” Campaigns are all about “average American this” and “average American that”, but who we picture when we say that is totally skewed. If we really were to get an actual idea of what the life of an average American looks like on a day-to-day basis, how much they make, and what their real needs are, if you were able to actually speak to that person and meet their needs, that is incredibly effective. I think a third party could win if they were able to do that.

When people talk about the “average American,” their mind goes right to average income. Well, the average American’s income is an upper-middle-class family, but that is because there are billionaires in this country that make so much money that they shift the average American’s status. If you look at the median American instead, they are so far below what the average American makes. 

There is a kind of delusion about what is actually happening in this country.

I think voters recognize that which breeds the discontent with the Democratic party we've seen over the last several years. They are speaking to the wrong person.

I wonder to what extent people, those controlling the narrative and those controlling the policies that shape the narrative, refuse to accept the obvious failure of their ideas and their actions.

I agree. I think a lot of people felt that sentiment with Joe Biden during this election. The inability to reckon with what you've done was obvious. You have been in the Senate for 40 years. You were vice president. You have a track record. To not be able to stand on that resume says a lot. 

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I know you were supportive of Bernie during the primaries. Arguably as the candidate that tried to run on an equity message along the lines of what you described, what do you think went wrong, what do you think went right? 

A lot went right. I think most of it went right. This question really took the heart of where my real break up with the Democratic party came from. You really could not convince me that Bernie's downfall was not the result of a concentrated effort by moderate Democrats to push him out of the race. You just can't tell me that. Especially now after I see Buttiegeg getting a cabinet seat, Kamala Harris selected as VP, and Klobuchar basically running the inauguration. Those are promises being kept. At least that is what it looks to me.

So, what went wrong? I mean, the Democratic primary system is not in favor of somebody who was running without establishment party support. I think that's what really went wrong because he came out of the gates so strong that even I was surprised. And slowly, it goes downhill. Then South Carolina happens and it's all she wrote. And everybody knew it was happening, but nobody talked about it. Like none of the mainstream news sources talked about it. 

I don't really know what else Bernie was supposed to do? He got the most donations ever. He had unilateral support amongst an entire generation. I think the Democrats are scared of that, simply put. They have to be scared of the amount of support that Bernie Sanders has from people under 30. That has to scare them for what the future of the party looks like. 

Where do you think that unilateral support came from? Amongst you and your friends and your family in Pennsylvania, was there a particular message that stuck out, or do you think it was anti-establishment energy more broadly? 

I'd say it's definitely the energy amongst my friends. I have a lot of friends that are into politics but on a surface level. You can't really expect that much more out of people who have maybe voted in one election ever. So for them, I think it was the energy. 

For me, it's really the money. It's the money, the money, the money.

Refusing to be beholden to corporate donors and not needing to rely on large sources of funding to run your campaign gives you flexibility and freedom to do things that we may have never seen before in American politics. That was really the big point for me. That made me think, okay, Bernie is for real.

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As you have been watching the first couple of weeks of the Biden administration, and of Democrats controlling the government, do you feel hopeful? 

Hopeful is an interesting word. I think I'm a realist, so I am not expecting too much. We'll see if we get better healthcare for the average American. We'll see if we cancel student debt. But, really, I don't know what I should be hoping for. I mean, Biden really ran a campaign on a return to the status quo. I don't know what to be cheering for. I was told that I'd be receiving a $2,000 check if they won Georgia. We'll see if that happens. 

What I am really waiting on is for the Democrats to listen to their constituents. They have still not given one of the most deserving demographic groups in America, college students who were claimed as dependent on their parents' taxes in 2018, a stimulus check to date. 

I have friends that are working full-time during a pandemic, who are not financially supported by their parents, and they have been ignored and ignored and ignored throughout this entire pandemic. They are the workers who are delivering your food day in and day out, and they're getting no assistance. I don't know how a 45-year-old couple with two kids that makes a hundred thousand dollars a year has gotten more stimulus support than my friend renting a studio apartment in Philadelphia who literally works at a Chinese restaurant every single day, even though she has pre-existing conditions that make her more vulnerable. That comes back to this idea of who the average American is. Are we really giving support to the people that need it?