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Shaun King explains why he thinks the Democratic Party can’t be saved

Shaun King says he is leaving the Democratic Party.

The controversial racial justice activist and New York Daily News contributor, who supported President Obama in the 2008 election and wrote critically of both Democratic candidates before ultimately endorsing Bernie Sanders, announced in a column last Friday that 2016 would be his last election as a Democrat. After that, "I’m moving on," he says, "and hope you do, too."

King’s piece is unequivocal. "It has never been more clear to me that millions and millions of us do not belong in the Democratic Party," he writes. "Their values are not our values. Their priorities are not our priorities." He cites only a few specific examples: Hillary Clinton’s refusal to release transcripts of her Goldman Sachs speeches, the distribution of funds raised by Clinton/Democratic National Committee joint fundraising events, and the reversal of lobbyist donation rules implemented by President Obama.

But he argues in more general terms that the Democratic Party is dishonest: "Hillary Clinton and the DNC each wants us to believe that lobbyists and SuperPACs don’t expect anything from them in return for their money. This is the most basic, foolish, offensive lie they could ever tell." Further: that it is has been seduced by the root of all evil.

"Right now, the Democratic Party, which I have called home my entire life, is deeply in love with money," King writes. "Consequently, its leaders have supported and advanced all kinds of evil, big and small, in devotion to this love affair."

This gives you a sense of his disillusionment.

I spoke to King earlier this week about his departure from the party and his plans for the future. In conversation it became clear that he is more certain of the impediments of the present than the path toward the future.

He is convinced that the Democratic Party is corrupt, perhaps irredeemably so. He is less sure of what comes after. He sees possibilities in the Green Party, in a socialist party, in an entirely new progressive party, perhaps led or blessed by Bernie Sanders. When pressed, he is not entirely without hope for the party he says he is leaving. He wants to see how this election shakes out, and then he’ll make up his mind.

King finds himself where a small but significant number of progressives find themselves at present. Some are Sanders supporters, some are not, but all have come to believe that the Democratic Party represents an obstacle to their political ambitions. Few have a clear sense of what comes next.

While left-wing groups from the Green Party to Robert Reich to the socialists at Jacobin work to capitalize and build on this nascent movement, and party Democrats remain confident that nearly all will ultimately return to the fold, it is worthwhile to try to understand where Shaun King, and those like him, see themselves today.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Yes, Shaun King is serious about leaving the Democratic Party

Emmett Rensin: In your piece, you say you're leaving the Democratic Party after this presidential election.

Shaun King: Sure.

ER: Does that mean you'll hang in through the fall, vote for Clinton to stop Donald Trump, and then move forward?

SK: No. I wish I could I give a clear answer for that. I think in a lot of ways I'm still waiting to see how these next few months go. There are seven states left, and then DC and Puerto Rico. I want to see how things go there.

I still believe very strongly that Bernie Sanders is the best candidate to beat Donald Trump. I'll tell you and I'll tell anybody, if I thought [Clinton] was the best candidate to beat Donald Trump right now, I probably would have already thrown in the towel. I would have backed off, or eased up, because I still feel very strongly.

I don't want Donald Trump to become president. I don't know how the next few months are going to go. I've said it before, but Hillary can't win the nomination before the convention.

ER: Does that mean you believe Sanders can still win the nomination? If he did, would you stick with the Democratic Party?

SK: I think there's a very real part of me that cannot imagine a scenario, at this point, where the superdelegates will change so radically. I'm imagining that the Democratic convention is going to look a lot like Nevada. But if Bernie somehow wins the nomination, let's cross that bridge when we get to it.

ER: What if Clinton wins the nomination, and Sanders endorses her?

SK: I don't even know about that. I'm going to keep fighting for Bernie until he says stop, but as far as who I vote for and what I do in November, I honestly don't know. I will not vote for Donald Trump. I would never vote for Donald Trump. But I would — there is no situation or circumstance where I would campaign for Hillary Clinton.

President Obama has wound up with a legacy that was much diminished from his original ideas as a candidate

ER: You say in your piece that in 2008 you were an enthusiastic supporter of President Obama. Do you think he's been a successful president?

SK: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I think so. I respect President Obama a great deal. I'm probably to the right of Cornel West's critique of President Obama, but I'm also not that guy who thinks he is beyond criticism.

ER: But the president — and there are some places where this isn’t true, especially on foreign policy — but the president’s political positions are certainly closer to Hillary Clinton’s than they are to Bernie Sanders's. In the past eight years, how have your politics evolved in a way where now you won’t campaign and aren’t even sure you’ll vote for Hillary Clinton?

SK: I think we would have to go down each and every one of the president’s positions to really evaluate, what does the president think about health care? Yes, there is a thing called Obamacare — but was that what he campaigned on? What came out of the sausage factory, was that his dream? No. Of course not.

So is the president for universal health care? Well, he was. For years and years and years. And I don't know that he stopped being for universal health care. It was just that he used virtually all the political capital he had in his first term to get something decent through Congress, and what came out was very different.

ER: Isn’t this effectively the Hillary Clinton theory of politics? Her argument throughout this campaign has been, "We have to defend the president's accomplishments, and it's very hard to get things through Congress. It's instrumental. Sanders has no chance of passing this plan."

SK: I hear that, but I think of it like this: Had the president's idea been Obamacare, had his initial idea been, "Let's just require everybody to have private health insurance and make a few tweaks here and there and create a website for it" that wasn't anywhere near his original idea. His original idea was much more significant, a much bigger shift, than what ended up coming out of the other end.

My beef with starting your ideas small, like Clinton has, is that Washington washes your big ideas down to [something] that looks totally different than what you presented in the first place.

I love the fact that Bernie is saying, "No, no, no. I'm going to stick with my huge ideas having spent the past 30 years in Congress. I know how Congress works. Congress squeezes these ideas down to something very different. And if you start them off big, what finally gets through the mess of Washington is different but workable."

I think that Bernie’s ideas now, yeah, they do mirror more a 2008 Obama. But the way Clinton presents herself as a pragmatist trying to get things done — I have no idea who she is talking about. I don't know her record of getting amazing things pushed through Congress. I don't see that. I don't know that. For me, it's always better to start big and then begin making deals from there.

The Democratic Party can't be saved

ER: I want to bring this back to your piece, because your piece doesn’t seem to be saying, "I think Clinton is a bad candidate." It’s, "I’m leaving the Democratic Party." That’s a much more extreme position. Can you explain how you get there from believing Clinton in particular won’t be successful?

SK: Here's why: In 2008 President Obama came in and changed what lobbyists could do not only with his transition team but with the White House. Then he kind of enforced those rules on the DNC. And day by day this year, the DNC — and [DNC chair] Debbie Wasserman Schultz — they’ve repealed all of these really amazing changes that he put in place.

So when I say the Democratic Party, I mean this party. The president appointed Debbie Wasserman Schultz. That was his pick. When she repealed the rules change, allowing lobbyists to make huge donations and PACs to make huge donations to the DNC, the things he did not want to happen, he didn't say anything. And I think it was a bit of silent agreement like, Hey, we are going to make these changes. And for me, that's a deal breaker.

ER: So you believe fundamentally that the trouble is with money?

SK: Yeah. It is money. I think it comes down to that. The crux of my frustration is the idea that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. I absolutely believe with everything in me that politicians are incredibly influenced by Super PACs and the people who give them money. I've met enough of those people to know they give money for influence. They don't give it as a kind gift. They give it to influence policy.

ER: And you believe that’s inevitable? Money in politics was one of Sanders's central platforms. Sanders ran as a Democrat. Does that suggest that the solution isn't necessarily to leave the party — it's to support candidates like Sanders who reform the party?

SK: If any of us expect Hillary Clinton to get into office and then say, "You know what? I am totally repealing all of this stuff. From lobbyists, from Super PACs, all of that stuff. Even though those things had a huge role in my campaign" — if she did that, I would be shocked and I would be glad. But I have no reason to believe that she or Debbie Wasserman Schultz or anybody would do anything different than what they've done already.

President Obama tried removing lobbyists from donating. Then they put all those things back into place. If Hillary is the nominee, whether she becomes president or not, she’ll be the face of the party. And I don't just disagree with her on war or campaign finances; there is also the death penalty. There are 10 different issues that I disagree with her. And her as the face of the party, I disagree with. I think there are millions and millions of progressives who are finding themselves uncomfortable in the Democratic Party, and I'm one of those people.

So what's next — the Green Party, or a new party under the banner of Bernie Sanders?

ER: Let’s talk about moving forward. Do you think there’s a real opening for a third party?

SK: If Bernie does not get the nomination, and I have serious doubts there is real way he will, we have polls showing that people are more willing historically than they have ever been to consider a third-party candidate. The Washington Post/ABC News Poll shows that 44 percent of Americans said they would consider a third-party candidate. People don’t like these two candidates — Clinton and Trump — but I don't think it's just them. I think it’s the parties. It's the way politics go.

ER: Do those numbers translate? In the past it hasn’t been as high, but you have more than 30 percent in past elections saying they’re open to a third party, and in the general election only 2 or 3 percent voted for any of them. There are obviously huge barriers to third parties actually winning.

SK: I'm thinking about it a lot, actually. I think a lot of us think about it way more than we say. Literally several dozen people a day send me messages on Facebook or Twitter or email or whatever just saying, What does that look like? And not just regular Joes, but influencers, celebrities, activists, and others who feel like to be a part of the Democratic Party requires them to compromise their integrity. And they mean that.

It's just not like, "I hate Hillary." That's not enough to fuel the creation of something new or the renovation of something that is already there. It has to be, "We stand for something significantly different than what this party stands for; we have a very different strategy for how to approach things."

ER: In your piece, you mention starting a new progressive party. Why not join an existing one?

SK: I really respect Jill Stein and the Green Party. There's the Working Families Party, too. There are dozens of grassroots parties all around the United States. So that’s a route.

But I think another option is to start a new party, a brand new party that is built on the movement Bernie Sanders created. I think there is fuel. Unless you've been a part of it, it's hard to believe it's a moment, but the millions, the 10 million people that supported Bernie Sanders, would like to go in a different direction with politics. Even if it's just a third of those people who decided to go in a different direction, it could be a really influential force, and not just in a presidential election.

ER: People will argue that it’ll be influential mostly as a spoiler.

SK: I don't buy that. People call people in third parties that, but they are just people who believe, substantively, that they can't stand for what the major parties stand for.

ER: What about the argument that the best use of the Sanders movement's energy is to keep trying to reform the Democratic Party? Maybe not with Clinton, but beyond that.

SK: Our current legal system did not start in 1970 or 1990. Our current laws and structure and Constitution and other things, these things that were the basis, the foundation of our current legal system today, were created during slavery, were created during a time of gross, ugly inequity of the highest magnitude.

What has happened since the abolition of slavery is that you've [made] a little tinker here, a little tinker there. And if we go back, we will find [with the] Democratic Party, its roots and foundations are not always this beautiful thing. The same is true of the Republican Party.

There's a real part of me that feels like there would be something amazing — and this is what the Green Party is attempting to do, and it's what I'm hoping we can do — is to say there is something powerful about starting from scratch, not making adjustments from what was created a hundred years ago but create something fresh from the beginning and see what happens.

There is one thing that happens when you renovate a building, and there is another thing that happens when you build it from scratch. And both have great merit, but I'm feeling like, particularly in light of changing demographics of America, the advent of technology, that a newly created party from scratch, not of a deviation from the thing that already exists, could address issues of economic, environmental, and racial justice in a really intelligent way that the current Democratic Party just is not going to do. I am just at the point where I have lost almost all faith that that is possible with the current party system.

ER: So what would your new party look like? What’s the platform? Is it Sanders-style democratic socialism? Universal health care, public college tuition, significantly scaled-back international presence?

SK: Yeah. Against the death penalty, very, very strong environmental policies. A strong, honest racial justice platform. Because I don't believe the Democratic Party when it comes to issues of racial justice, of prison reform. I believe President Obama's heart, I believe him, but I do not believe the Democratic Senate or Congress on a lot of these issues.

ER: Let’s talk about that, since you came to prominence largely as somebody invested in racial justice issues. You don’t believe the Democrats can make progress on those issues?

SK: Nope.

I don't believe the Democratic Party on issues of racial injustice. That was before this campaign. You know Bob McCulloch, the district attorney of St. Louis, who I loathe, who I fought tooth and nail to ensure nothing like this could happen in Ferguson, is a lifelong Democrat. Jay Nixon, the governor of Missouri, who I thought did a terrible job managing so much of what happened there, a lifelong Democrat. I wouldn't be surprised if we found out that Darren Wilson is a lifelong Democrat.

We see police departments and others all throughout this country are still basically a part of what they believe is basically the Democratic Party. ... Up until last year, Hillary Clinton was receiving private donations from private prison lobbyists, and that's disgusting. Some of her biggest supporters, to this very day, are still members of private prison lobbies and others, and eventually, only when she was pushed, she said, "Okay I won't do that."

For me, I don't feel comfortable at all that the Democratic Party, as we see it, has a true racial justice platform that comes from their heart and soul. I feel like a new progressive party could do so much better with that.

ER: What about the charge — and you hear this in a lot of places — that the people you’re talking about, Sanders's people, are prioritizing economic issues over racial equality? There’s a narrative in this election that sort of pits these angry white men for Bernie on one side against a diverse coalition on the other. You don’t buy that?

SK: I can only speak for myself. A couple thoughts there: This kind of notion, mostly people I know, people I work with daily inside Bernie Sanders’s campaign, are people of color. The supporters that I interact with and the campaign officials and staff members and surrogates that I interact with, are almost always men and women of color. Be it Symone Sanders, the press secretary, Nina Turner or Killer Mike or Rosario Dawson, people that — the guys from Young Turks or others — I interact with a lot and see some of Bernie's most fervent supporters are men and women of color.

That narrative hasn't been told, but that's the truth. Once you look at people under 44, Bernie wins with all demographics with all people under the age of 44, and then he loses big when you go over 44 and look at African Americans and others. When you go under 35 or under 27 and look at African American or Latino or whatever, he crushes it.

ER: And you believe there are enough people there and enough energy there to start something new?

SK: Yes. It could be a new coalition, but an official, new coalition, of the dozen or so parties that exist. Or it could be millions of us migrating to the Green Party.

I can only speak for myself, but I have loved the freedom of being a part of Bernie's campaign and of knowing that almost every idea I have is shared by his campaign. I believe a progressive party could be shaped around those ideals. And that doesn't look like the Democratic Party to me.

Maybe something wonderful will happen at the convention, and we'll see, but I think there’s value in saying, "No, we're not tinkering with the ugliness that has already been created; we're starting from scratch, with structure, with tone, with substance."

ER: And you believe that party could be successful?

SK: I think it would certainly be an uphill battle to make that into a movement that goes beyond what, for example, the Green Party has been able to do so far. But I think we're in a really weird time with two candidates, and two parties, that a huge volume of people are frustrated with, disgusted with. I think we're at a weird time where, if it were ever possible to do something new, it would be right now.

ER: Or after the current election.

SK: Yeah. I want to see how these last few states go, see how the convention goes, and then, when I make up my mind, I won't be nebulous about it. That's not my style. Wherever we go, wherever I go after the convention, I'll go pretty hard for it. And no matter what, that's going to be me fighting hard against Donald Trump.

What that means, for me, in terms of who I vote for or what shape this takes specifically, I really can't say yet. And it's not because I refuse; it's because I sincerely don't know.

Obama is one of our most consequential presidents