Cenk Uygur is the founder and host of The Young Turks, an online news program boasting more than 4.5 million subscribers and 50 million monthly views on YouTube.
Uygur has long been a vocal advocate of campaign finance reform and founded the organization Wolf-PAC to lobby state legislatures to ratify an amendment to the Constitution that would end corporate financing of elections.
He also co-founded Justice Democrats, the organization that propelled Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and “the squad” to their historic victories.
In late October, Democratic Representative Katie Hill resigned from Congress opening the door for a special election in California’s 25th district which will coincide with the March 3rd primary and determine who will represent the district for the remainder of Hill’s term.
After more than a decade of hosting The Young Turks, Uygur is stepping off the sidelines and taking the opportunity to run for Congress.
The Globe Post: The first question I have for you is, you know, you’ve said if elected, you won’t hold back criticisms of your Democratic colleagues. So my question is, what do you hope to accomplish in Congress with that kind of approach? And how do you see your candidacy fitting into the broader insurgency within the Democratic Party?
Cenk Uygur: Yeah, that’s a great question. So. I think the more pragmatic approach to change is to fight for large change, rather than incremental change. If you’re going to do that, you have no choice but to challenge Democratic leadership because Democratic leadership is at best a believer in very small change.
And so if you try to get the crumbs off their table, which is filled with nothing but crumbs, you’re going to get minuscule change. And I actually don’t think anyone could make a counter-argument. That’s obviously true. So the question is, if you’re an advocate of big change, how do you do that? And I think pleading with Democratic leadership is obviously a very, very poor strategy.
I think the correct strategy is to do a frontal challenge and say, ‘Look, I don’t think you’re serving your voters. I think you’re serving your donors,’ right? And I can prove it. I’m going to show you the donations you’re taking and the votes that match up with it. And the idea here is to put enough public pressure on the Democratic Party to get them to effectuate change.
It is actually what has always worked in American history. No one in their right mind that’s ever studied history thinks that Lyndon Johnson would have done the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act if Martin Luther King had not put in a ton of public pressure. And now in this day and age, Alex. Honestly, not just the corporate Democrats and the Republican Party, but the mainstream media pays very little attention to outsiders. Almost none. They are completely de-legitimized.
If a civil rights hero were to rise up now, I don’t think they’d get any attention at all no matter what they did. So the only thing that anyone pays attention to is folks with some degree of power already. Well, so that’s what leads you to Congress. And so I think that if you’re going to do this kind of pragmatic rebellion, it must be done but done from within Congress.
TGP: You’ve long been an advocate of getting money out of politics, both on your show and through Wolf-PAC. You’ve often said money in politics is the most urgent problem the U.S. faces today. So why is campaign finance an issue of such importance for you and how would you like to see our campaign finance system change?
Uygur: Again, I think that everyone would agree that money and politics is the one issue that affects all other issues. That is why it is the most urgent and the top priority. And so if I thought we could fix climate change or health care system without addressing money in politics, then I might prioritize those. But I think that if you want to pass those bills, you must get the money out of politics first.
And so, again, I actually don’t think it’s an arguable point. I think that almost everyone would agree with me. So why don’t they do it? Why don’t they aggressively fight back against Democratic leadership? Well, because of the culture of D.C. The culture is Democratic colleagues are to be cherished and beloved and must be protected at all costs. And defending them is the third rail in Washington.
Well, you know, that’s why you need an outsider like me to say I don’t care about your rules, and the only thing I care about is passing bills. There is no way in the world to pass progressive legislation without offending a Democratic leadership that is corporate through and through.
TGP: And you’re not just a political outsider, but you’re also an outsider of the district, California’s 25th. So can you give me a sense of how voters in the district are receiving you so far? And for those who might be sympathetic to your views, but skeptical of someone from outside of the district, how do you plan to win those people over?
Uygur: Yeah. So I’m going to represent people in the 25th district better than they’ve ever been represented. Why? Because I’m actually going to represent the voters and so the donors. So if you ask me, you got someone who lives next door to you but takes corporate donations and only serves corporate interests or you’ve got someone that lives 20 minutes from you. It is going to serve you with great fervor. I don’t think it’s a close question at all. I think it’s really easy.
I’d pick an honest person that’s running uncorrupted and that agrees with me as opposed to a corporate politician on either side that might live next to me for the moment being, but isn’t going to serve me at all. So my plan is to serve the voters. And I think that they’ll see that very clearly in the election. And I think at that point, it becomes a fairly easy decision.
TGP: You’ve supported policies like Medicare for all and a Green New Deal, which are often labeled fringe, radical or unrealistic by critics. Can you explain why you think these ideas aren’t as extreme as conservatives and moderates make them out to be?
Uygur: Yeah, of course. So first of all, the current system we have in America is fringe and extreme. That is clearly the case when you look at it on the world stage. We’re the only developed country that doesn’t have single-payer and our system costs twice as much on average as the rest of those countries combined. And delivers demonstrably worse results. So the current system we have is absolutely extreme.
We let people die if they don’t have insurance. It’s unbelievable and totally barbaric and it costs more. Way more. My job is to help get this country back to moderation as opposed to the insane extreme health care system that we have now and that the whole world acknowledges is totally broken and ridiculous. So I don’t accept any of the corporate mythology put out in Washington that, oh, we have to pay twice as much, otherwise, you’re extreme left. Preposterous. Corporate executives have to make hundreds of millions of dollars, otherwise, you’re being extreme. Ridiculous.
It's time we finally call corporate political donations what they actually are:
— Cenk Uygur (@cenkuygur) December 4, 2019
I don’t accept any of their baseline assumptions. And on a Green New Deal, you know what’s extreme? Heating up the planet until we can’t live on it anymore and we have mass migration issues and we lose city after city and the planet goes on a path to being uninhabitable. That’s incredibly extreme and the current path that we’re on. What would be a moderate path is to act quickly and decisively to make sure that we get off of that path and back to sanity, believing in science and making sure that we protect the planet. And by the way, while we’re doing it, create millions of new, higher-paying jobs in renewable energy and in infrastructure.
TGP: A lot of folks on the insurgent left like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, they refer to themselves as democratic socialists. But you’ve repeatedly said that you’re a capitalist. So can you tell me why you make that distinction and why that label isn’t as important to you?
Uygur: Yes. So, first of all, I think a lot of this is wordplay and not at all important. The reality is we live in a mixed economy, as does every nation on earth. So the real question we should be dealing with is what sectors should the government be involved in and what sectors should they not?
So there you realize that differences are actually very small. None of the democratic socialist are saying the government should make sneakers or hamburgers. All they’re saying is we have the public sector controlling things that affect our life, like the police and the fire department.
They should also control another thing that clearly affects our lives, as in our ability to stay alive, which is health insurance. Nobody is even talking about taking over the entire health care industry as they do in the UK. We’re just talking about a tiny sliver, which is the health insurance industry. So is that the big debate between democratic socialist and capitalist? See that’s why I don’t think it’s much of a debate at all.
Three days after the Santa Clarita school shooting, high school students from another school in the district asked me how I'd end gun violence.
This is what I told them: pic.twitter.com/VGDV7FUA92
— Cenk Uygur (@cenkuygur) December 3, 2019
So in terms of why I call myself a capitalist because I believe in incentives and disincentives and I believe that in the political realm, I believe it in the economic realm. But unfortunately, we are not at what I would consider anywhere near normal capitalism. Not what Adam Smith described. Not what any economist has described.
We have now become extreme in this country, again and it’s unfortunate. It goes back to the same issue, money in politics. Corporations logically decided that ‘hey, you know, the best investment we can make is bribing American politicians’. It’s really easy. It’s fairly cheap and it gets a massive return on investment. So they logically decided to purchase our entire government and they have. And so that has led to crony capitalism, and by the way, corporatism and corporatism is an enemy of capitalism.
Once you start these multinational corporations, they have a natural incentive to kill off competition, i.e. capitalism. So we’re not having any of the right conversations right now. Mitch McConnell is not a capitalist. He’s a corporatist. And as I describe myself as a capitalist, I think the biggest threat to capitalism is not democratic socialism at all, which just tweaks it or reforms it. The biggest threat is corporatism, which is what most of Washington believes.
TGP: So the last question I had for you is a foreign policy question. The United States has a long history of interventionism in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Latin American countries like Venezuela and Chile. So as a progressive, do you have an alternative vision of how the United States should be carrying out foreign policy?
Uygur: Yes, absolutely. First of all, we should not participate in any coups in another country. Have we learned nothing from the dozens of mistakes that we have made in that regard throughout American history? So I think what we continue to do in agitating against progressive leaders in Latin America is outrageous. It should cease immediately.
So was there a coup against [Bolivia’s] Evo Morales? Definitely. Was there a great injustice brought to bear by corporatists in Brazil against Lula da Silva? Definitely. And again, it’s painted as extreme left. Lula had an 80 percent approval rating in Brazil. Does that mean 80 percent of Brazil’s extreme left? That’s preposterous.
So finally, the really important point here, we need to do a Marshall Plan for Latin America. We know what works and what doesn’t work. This is not a matter of feeling good. It’s a matter of being practical. When we did the Marshall Plan for Europe and Japan, we rebuilt our enemies into our greatest allies and trading partners.
It was the biggest foreign policy accomplishment, not only in American history but arguably in world history. And yet we learned nothing from it and went right back to disastrous wars that are totally counterproductive. Whereas if we did a Marshall Plan in countries like Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, we would actually have less undocumented immigrants, we would have less migration and we would have healthier trading partners. It’s both the moral thing to do and the practical thing to do.
TGP: Is there anything that I’m missing or that you’d like to say before we wrap up?
Uygur: Cenk2020.com. Currently, my main corporate Democrat opponent has an average donation of $2700 coming largely from corporations. My average donation is $28 dollars. This election is going to be a tremendous test of people power versus corporate power. I’m not sure that there’s ever been a better test of it. So she’s going to rely on corporations to power her campaign and I’m going to rely on people, both in small-dollar donations and volunteers to power my campaign.
We broke the record for the most amount of volunteers in a single day in a congressional campaign. We had 1200 volunteers signed up in the first 24 hours. So that’s why I mention on my website Cenk2020.com. And I think that this is going to be such an interesting battle to determine which way American politics is going to go in this country.