Sherrod Brown might run for president. If the three-term senator from Ohio enters the race for the Democratic nomination, he’ll do so as a progressive populist with a record of winning in the industrial heartland that handed Donald Trump the presidency in 2016. But Brown is a much more nuanced political actor than his critics and some of his supporters recognize. He’s an expert on trade policy who is also an expert on voting rights; a Yale-educated author of distinguished books about the inner workings of Congress who has also been described by historian Michael Kazin as “perhaps the most class-conscious Democrat in Washington.” I’ve been covering Brown for decades, and we’ve often agreed (for example, on media reform, stopping wars, and the vital importance of upending corporate models for globalization) and sometimes disagreed (right now, on whether Medicare for All should be a priority in the 2020 campaign). But I’ve always been struck by the ability of this former state legislator, statewide official, and member of the US House of Representatives to win elections as a pro-labor, anti-war advocate for civil rights and civil liberties in a state where the Democratic Party’s more cautious contenders have frequently failed. We’ve talked politics often, so here’s a sampling from our conversation after Brown took his “Dignity of Work” tour to the first-primary state of New Hampshire.
John Nichols: Can you define what “populism” means to you?
Sherrod Brown: I’ll first define what it isn’t. It’s never racist. It’s never divisive. It’s never anti-Semitic. It never gives tax cuts to rich people. It never plays off one against another—a worker in Bangladesh against a worker in France, or a worker in Mexico against a worker in the United States. What it is is government being on the side of working families, regardless of race, regardless of gender, regardless of occupation…whether it’s in labor law or the environment or consumer protection or whatever.
When you look at the phony populism of Trump—and of any number of politicians that the media, for whatever reason, have characterized as “populist”—that’s not the real definition.
JN: So what is Donald Trump?
SB: He’s the opposite of a populist, because he always looks out for the wealthy; he always looks out for the most privileged. And, just coincidentally, it’s… him, himself, for whom he’s looking out. I mean, that’s who he is. And look at that cabinet: They’re overwhelmingly plutocrats—they’re overwhelmingly people who have made money because of their politics and because of their connections. They’re people who always undermine democratic values.
JN: Trump is often described as a white nationalist. What’s your sense?
SB: Surely he’s a racist. People say, “Well, you don’t know what’s in his heart.” I mean, I don’t know what’s in anybody’s heart, really, but I know what his actions are. The actions were [such that] even the Nixon Justice Department filed suit against the Trumps on a housing-discrimination issue. We remember the Central Park Five ad he ran [calling for a return to the death penalty, after five young African-American men were arrested for the rape and beating of a jogger in New York—a crime for which they were ultimately exonerated]. We remember, obviously, him trying to discredit the first African-American president. We have seen his divisiveness after Charlottesville. We see him leading the charge on voter suppression. We see the anti-democratic, in-your-face combativeness—or worse—at these rallies when he calls the media enemies of the people.
JN: You’ve been especially concerned about his attacks on the media.
SB: It’s disturbing partly because I believe that the media are there to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable—and the media have saved our democracy in so many ways from descending into something that’s not so attractive. And we have a president who doesn’t believe in any of those institutions.
JN: You write books about American institutions, and about the issues they deal with.
SB: Yeah, first about Congress, then about trade, and now this book that will come out in October about progressivism in the Senate. I take pride in the fact that my name’s on a book. I write the whole thing; I don’t do “as told to…” It forces me to think more reflectively and introspectively about these issues.
JN: You come from Mansfield, Ohio, a historic industrial city. Do you think that’s why you focus so much attention on jobs, workplace issues, what you describe as “the dignity of work”?
SB: Yeah. My politics has always been centered in the dignity of work. My parents were not union members. But when I was in the legislature in my early 20s, when we were out of session on Friday, most Fridays, I would hang out at the steelworkers’ hall, Local 169 in Mansfield, or the UAW hall, Local 549 in a suburb called Ontario. And I just listened to workers talk about their lives. I’ve always done that, and it has informed how I think.
I mean, it’s easy in politics, especially in the Senate, to surround yourself with like-minded people who have the same privilege you have. And if you do that, you don’t serve the country well; you don’t serve your voters well.
JN: You told me a story some years ago about campaigning for Al Gore in an Ohio factory. Some union members were talking about not liking Gore’s stand on gay rights or gun control. You said, “But I’m for gay rights and gun control.” They all looked at you like you were nuts and said, “Well, yeah, we know that, but you’re on our side.”
SB: Well, you know, fundamentally politics is whose side you’re on. They knew how I fought on trade issues, on overtime issues; they knew how I stood with them when Congress tried to mess with unemployment insurance. Political scientists might [think Democratic candidates need to move to the center, or avoid certain issues, to win]. Consultants might. A lot of elected officials might. But I don’t see undecided voters that way. They’re always looking for the candidate who’s going to have their back or whatever the cliché is—be on their side, fight for them. I think those voters illustrated that.
JN: You have always identified as a progressive. Yet you haven’t signed on for Medicare for All or a Green New Deal. Those are vital issues for a lot of progressives. You’ve said, “I’m not going to take a position on every bill that’s coming out.” Why not?
SB: Number one, because I have my own proposals to make on climate and on Medicare, and my own proposals on taxes with the Patriot Corporation Act, which I think will be more comprehensive than any number of individual food items you might order off the menu—if I can mix metaphors….
I would say this, too: that if I run, I’ll be the only Democrat on the stage—regardless of how many are on the stage, or the people that are thinking about it—who will have voted against the Iraq War, who will have voted against [the Defense of Marriage Act] and for marriage equality, who will have [received] a lifetime “F” from the NRA [after a quarter-century in Congress], and who will be pro-choice 100 percent over the years. And who voted against NAFTA. My progressive bona fides are well-known. They’re deeply held. I do them in a state where those positions are difficult politically. My position on guns probably has hurt me in my political career. My position 20 years ago for marriage equality probably cost me votes…. My position against the war was in the minority—surely in the view of my state’s newspapers and most pundits. My position on trade has been condemned by pretty much all of the media. And, as I said, I’ve done all of those issues in a political environment that might be a little harder in Ohio than it is on either coast.
JN: So where are you on health care?
SB: First of all, I want to help people now. And I know that Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi has a reasonably good chance of getting a plan for Medicare [eligibility] at 50, or maybe 55…. I think that’s good. I like the idea of expanding and building on Obamacare, not repealing it…. I want to get to universal coverage. I also want to do a public option. Senator [Sheldon] Whitehouse from Rhode Island and I wrote the original public-option language in 2009. I’ve been working on Medicare expansion starting with Senator [Ted] Kennedy in the late ’90s. So I’ve always worked toward that. I think we have a real opportunity, especially if Democrats win in 2020 in the Senate and the White House, to expand Medicare dramatically.
JN: You have a long history of opposing military interventions, going back to your high-school days when you protested the Vietnam War.
SB: That sort of ripened in 2002, when Bush was clearly about to go to Congress and force a vote with erroneous information—or, putting it more bluntly, he and Cheney lied. I organized with [Representative] Jan Schakowsky from Chicago night after night after night on the floor of Congress, reading letters, working with this new organization called MoveOn.org, bringing and sharing letters—she from Illinois, I from Ohio—on the House floor in opposition to the war…. When somebody from Cleveland or Toledo or Columbus or Akron or Steubenville would write to me, I would say, “Jane Smith from Gallipolis, Ohio, said the following.” We tried to build a movement that way, to make opposition to the war a lot more personal.
JN: You pay a lot of attention to what going to war means for working-class families.
SB: Yeah, I mean, politics far too often speaks with an upper-class accent, I guess, and the decisions to go to war are no different. I mean, they’re made by affluent people who have good salaries and good benefits—and, more often than not, the people who do our country’s fighting are working-class and poor kids who didn’t have the same opportunities, or decided that they needed the economic opportunity of joining the military, or they just wanted to serve their country. But I think people think more about defending their country than attacking in the Middle East. And so I’m always acutely aware of class differences and who does most of the fighting and dying in our wars. And it’s not usually doctors’ kids or CEOs’ kids or grandkids; it’s working-class kids from Appalachia or from East Cleveland, Ohio…. I guess the whole point is: We really need to consider who’s fighting our wars—and who’s left behind, who the family members are—as we make these momentous decisions, and don’t act cavalierly about sending somebody off to war.
JN: So how should the United States engage with the world?
SB: The first thing a new president should do is re-engage with the world, starting by either literally or figuratively going to Brussels and assuring our allies that NATO matters to us: that we want to be not the policeman of the world, but a leader in the world with the moral authority that our nation often has—and, of course, sometimes falls short on. Second, I think you go to Paris, again literally or figuratively, and get back into the Paris accord on climate change. Third, I think you re-engage in the Middle East with a way to rebuild the [diplomatic] model to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. And I would argue, too, even with my background and opposition to these trade agreements—or maybe because of that—that we need to engage in bilateral and multilateral trade talks. But when the fork in the road comes on trade talks, you can either go with corporate trade models or worker trade models. We always in this country have gone with corporate trade models. There’s no reason we couldn’t go with a worker trade model. I mean, Trump acted like he [wanted to go] that way, but he never really—I mean, he personally never—did, because he doesn’t think about workers.
JN: During the Georgia recount last fall, you said, “If Stacey Abrams loses, [the Republicans] stole it from her.” You said that as a former Ohio secretary of state who had run elections.
SB: Well, when I was secretary of state, Republicans were not hostile…. But that was then, and today we have a national Republican Party that’s hostile to voting, that suppresses voting, that changes the rules. And that’s not just in the South—it’s in the North, too. They purge too aggressively; they change voter-registration hours; they cut back on early voting; they don’t enforce civil rights. In Georgia, it was clear to me, having run an election system for eight years, what that secretary of state did and what Republican politicians around the country were doing. They can’t win on the numbers. Demographics are changing too rapidly for Republicans to win elections if they’re going to continue to appeal to race and anti-immigrant fervor and [employ] divisive, hateful rhetoric. If they’re going to do that, the only way they can win is by changing the rules. That’s how they win elections, and it’s clear in my mind that happened in Georgia.
JN: How will you decide whether to run for president?
SB: I think that the most important thing is to beat Trump, and I’ve got to figure out if my role is to be in this race to be the one to do it, or to just keep talking about our “dignity of work” message. Other Democrats are using that term, and that’s already a victory, as far as I’m concerned—because if Democrats start talking about the dignity of work, whoever the nominee is beats Trump.