Cenk Uygur is the host and co-founder of The Young Turks, a progressive online news show that boasts over 3 million subscribers on YouTube. He sat down for this interview before a live broadcast of his show from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy Junior Forum on November 14, 2016.
Harvard Political Review: Do you see any positives that can come from a Trump presidency?
Cenk Uygur: That’s totally up to Trump. He claims that he’s against corruption. If he actually gets money out of politics, that would be wonderful. I am super skeptical, but I’m going to give him a chance. Another possibility is he’s such a wild card that there’s a five percent chance that he could actually get peace between Israel and Palestine. He’s at least willing to break the mold in a way that might lead to a different result. The same result has sucked for a long, long time. There are a couple of things where he might, because he’s so different, accomplish something that others haven’t.
HPR: What role do you think the mainstream media has played in the division that we currently see in our country?
CU: I’ve got a lot of issues with the mainstream media, and I think that the main one is that they actually largely work for the same establishment that the heads of the Democratic and Republican Parties do. In terms of leading the division, it’s in their focus, and it’s in the questions they ask rather than the answer. They don’t try to find a way to actually unite us, because if they were going to do that they would ask questions about why we’re so angry about the system. But since they’re part of the system, they don’t want to ask that question. Instead, they have “analysts” from both sides, and they have them in conflict because they think conflict drives ratings. That also is used to separate us.
I remember when I was on MSNBC, if I got a couple of guests that agreed, they said, “well no, that’s not going to work.” I actually didn’t even want to know what their opinion was. I said I wanted to find out on air. And they’re like “no” to that. Basically, it has to be scripted. That’s part of the problem.
HPR: You said before that it was a populist mood in the US that got Donald Trump elected. Where do you think this populist mood came from? Is it unique from the mood that got Obama elected, and do you think that it is going to last another four years?
CU: The system is in fact rigged. Not in the way that Donald Trump talks about it, but in that it is the donors that are giving the money to all of the politicians that are literally setting the rules on behalf of the donors. If you’re a middle-class working American in Michigan or Wisconsin, you didn’t set those rules: those rules are set against you. A lot of people on TV and a lot of people in Washington think they’re clever and that the American people aren’t going to catch on. Well, it turns out they’re not that clever, and they did catch on. They’re angry, and they know that they’re productivity is high but their wages are low, and they know that they’ve been squeezed in the middle, and so that’s where the populist mood comes from. I think it’s different from the one that was around in 2008. And will it be around in four years? It’ll be much stronger in four years.
HPR: You also talk about how it is populism that ultimately helped Bernie Sanders gain momentum. Do you think that populism is necessary for a progressive agenda to make it to the White House or to succeed?
CU: Right now, absolutely. No question at all. Populism is sometimes used as a dirty word by the establishment for understandable reasons–because they don’t want populism, they want the status quo. But populism is not a bad word: it literally means “things that are popular.” A populist progressive will landslide Donald Trump in 2020. I would say, if the democrats made a mistake and put up another establishment democrat against them, that’s the only way they could lose. But we’re not going to let that happen. There’s no way an establishment democrat is making it through the primaries in 2020.
HPR: In those four years, do you think that whatever force is behind the electorate–whether or not it’s populism–is going to push a progressive agenda, a radical alt-right agenda, or something that is more mainstream? Does this depend on how a Trump presidency goes?
CU: I think that what is now described as a liberal agenda is actually completely mainstream in America. I don’t say that because I’m a progressive; I say that because of the polling. If you look at polling on almost any issue, American people are very solidly progressive. That’s why I think a populist progressive is far more likely to win than a populist right-winger. In fact, it’s a total aberration that Trump won this time around. It was because the Democratic Party establishment worked overtime to crush the natural tsunami that was coming from the left. This would have beaten Trump handily. A poll came out the day after the election and said Bernie Sanders would have won 56-44. That’s a landslide. That’s 49 states.
HPR: What do you think needs to happen in order for this populist streak to go away? Do you think Trump needs to be successful?
CU: The way that populism “goes away” is they win–
HPR: But, did they not just win?
CU: No – that’s a great question. You see, that’s the heart of it, because right now, fake populism won. What’s Trump doing right now? He’s handing off all of his cabinet position decisions to a lobbying firm called Dentons. He was monumentally full of crap. He’s going to put in all the guys that the lobbyists want. It’s not going to be real populism. It’s just going to be establishment, except, instead of the entirety of the republican party and the donors, it’s going to be centered around one guy: Donald Trump. Whatever is to his advantage, is there any realistic chance that Donald Trump is actually going to work for the American people and change the rules in a way that benefits them and gives power to them instead of him and his friends? Inconceivable. Real populism is when you actually do that. And when you do that, well, we have guys like FDR, and you wind up doing a course correction and get back to democracy.
HPR: Populism obviously can be dangerous, as it has been in other countries. How would you qualify the kind of populism that isn’t dangerous and doesn’t lead to dictatorship like we’ve seen around the world?
CU: Here, I might disagree with a lot of people who teach this stuff. Almost the entirety of the establishment keeps insisting that populism is a bad thing. That’s because they’re all elites. Populism is not the danger. If it turns out that it is used to further one person’s power and there’s an authoritarian streak to it or it becomes dictatorial, that’s the problem. There’s no reason why populism has to lead to authoritarianism. It does often times on the right, and sometimes on the left, but not because it’s popular. There’s no logical nexus there. It’s only if the person in charge starts to grab power that they’re not supposed to have. As long as you keep it constitutional, it’s supposed to serve the people.
HPR: What do you see as the future of politics?
CU: Right now, politics is run basically by money. 95 percent of the time, whoever has more money in a congressional race will win it; 19 out of 20 times, if you have more money, you’ll win. The logical thing for a politician to do is to go suck up to donors. They’re going to do that. That’s how the system is built. The future of politics is to create a different set of incentives, to fix the system by rewriting the code. If you don’t rewrite the code, you will always get the same result: the result that the American people are pretty much furious at now, which is a system that’s rigged by the donors for their own benefit. How do we rewrite the code in America? Easy. It’s called an amendment. An amendment is above the Supreme Court, so it would get rid of Citizens United, Bellotti, Buckley v. Valeo, and it would rewrite the code to bring democracy back. That is inevitable, because the anger among Americans is only going to rise. It’s not going to be evaded until you actually fix that system itself.
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