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Katie Porter thinks Democrats have a confidence problem

The populist Congress member from California talked with The Gray Area about some solutions to it.

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I have a longstanding unofficial policy on my podcast The Gray Area: Don’t interview politicians.

The reason is that most — and I emphasize most — politicians are so concerned about optics and messaging that they can’t help but speak in banal sound bites. It’s boring and predictable. And in theory at least, my show is an attempt to get beyond that stuff.

But I decided to make an exception for the California Congress member and Senate candidate Katie Porter. She’s served in Congress since 2019, and her style of working-class politics has always been interesting to me. Despite her Ivy League roots, she’s developed a pretty convincing populist appeal in Congress. Indeed, if you caught any headlines in the last few years with her name in them, it was probably about one of her whiteboard performances in congressional hearings.

Since she’s got a new book out, called I Swear, I decided to invite her onto the show to talk about her approach to politics, why the Democrats have a branding problem, and what’s wrong with Congress (spoiler alert: a lot, starting with its blind spots on wealth and privilege). Below is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity.

As always, you can listen and follow The Gray Area on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you find podcasts. New episodes drop every Monday and Thursday.

Sean Illing

There’s a ton in your book about class divisions and how they play out in Congress. We all know that Congress is full of rich people, but were you surprised by how much class shaped politics across party lines?

Katie Porter

I had a sense, as do many Americans, that somehow people serve in Congress and end up millionaires. What I learned as a candidate, even before I got to Congress, was that you get to Congress because you’re a millionaire. That’s where all the advantages are in our campaign process. Parties go to people who are themselves wealthy, who know other wealthy people, who have family who can help them. And so the problem starts at the candidate level and who’s deemed to be electable. It’s all deeply infused with class and money and privilege.

I suppose I had a misperception that Republicans were the rich people and the Democrats were working- or middle-class people trying to make ends meet. Maybe that’s true among the electorate, though I tend to think it’s not true; it’s definitely not true in Congress.

When we look at who is trading stocks in Congress, millions of dollars in stocks, it’s Democrats just as much as Republicans — it’s real on both sides of the aisle.

Sean Illing

This line in particular jumped out at me: “In the House of Representatives, the privilege of wealth divides ruthlessly. Ideological differences might be the most visible to the public, but the class differences cut the most sharply in our experiences.” Do you really think that class interests trump ideological interest in Congress?

Katie Porter

When we think about voting on policy, class is a part of it, but ideology is probably a bigger part. But when we think about who runs for Congress, who continues to do this job year after year, class is really, really important, and it makes a huge difference. So the folks who have existing wealth are the first ones to say we shouldn’t give ourselves a pay raise for the last 15 or 20 years. They don’t need it, because they’re not doing this job for the salary.

Sean Illing

It’s about access to power, right? If you’re making millions trading stocks and probably benefiting from insider information, if you’re leveraging all the financial opportunities being in Congress presents, who the hell cares if you get a 10 percent raise? You don’t need it—

Katie Porter

You don’t need it. But look, Democrats had control of the White House, the Senate, and the House last Congress and we did not pass a congressional ban on stock trading. So you just can’t blame that on Republicans — that’s on us, too. There are Republicans and Democrats who oppose this kind of thing, but there’s plenty of opposition and it’s a class issue more than a partisan issue.

Sean Illing

You know this is the kind of argument a lot of people on the left have made and keep making. That both parties are filled with millionaire power brokers who are performing for different constituencies but in the end serve the existing power structure. That’s an oversimplification, of course, but there’s some truth there, and you even poke fun at Nancy Pelosi in the book for strutting around in a $3,000 coat she jokingly said she just “found” in her closet. And of course Pelosi is worth well over $100 million, which I guess is the deeper point. But I’m sure you hear these sorts of complaints all the time — what’s your response to it?

Katie Porter

People in Congress want to pretend that this doesn’t exist, and I think that fails to serve us and the institution and, most importantly, the American people. So we all have the same basic title. We’re all members of Congress. We all get paid the same, with the exception of the speaker. We all get the same benefits. But we’re not all living the same kind of lives. I’ll tell you that.

Like a lot of people in Washington, I live in a studio basement apartment. And I’m grateful to be able to afford that. It’s the best place I’ve lived since I joined Congress. But I have colleagues who, when they got to Washington, the first thing they did upon being elected was purchase a condo, and I can’t imagine being able to do that. It’s a struggle for me to pay for my living expenses in California while I’m also having to pay for them here.

Sean Illing

You’re a product of elite academic institutions, but you don’t speak and act like a disconnected technocrat even though you’re trained like one. I think that’s part of your appeal. And while I believe the Democratic Party is more favorable to working-class interests than Republicans, the reality is that roughly half the country sees Democrats as the party of elites. Why is that?

Katie Porter

Part of it has to do with Democrats lacking confidence in their ability. It sort of feeds on itself. This existed before my time in Congress, but I arrived here and there was this fully entrenched attitude that if we just tell people who we are and what we’re fighting for in the most direct and simple way, they somehow won’t vote for us. I think the opposite is true.

I’ve won three really tough races in Orange County, standing up to special interests and pushing for expanded health care and things like that. I try to fight for climate change policy in a very purple area by being a straight shooter. I think we fail because sometimes we hide behind our policies, and while you see some of this on both sides of the aisle, I think it’s worse on the Democratic side because people want to sound important. So you get a lot of acronyms and mumbo-jumbo and people sound like they know what they’re doing, but we’re not fooling anybody, because the proof of whether or not we know what we’re doing is in people’s real lives.

The classic example of this recently was during the last election. Democrats kept saying that we don’t have a good message on inflation, and one of the suggestions was, well, don’t talk about it. As if people won’t notice when they go to the gas station or the grocery store. The solution here is to just stand on your two feet and say, Inflation sucks, it’s terrible, and painful, and hard, and I’m committed to fighting it and here’s how I’m gonna do it.

Sean Illing

Democrats seem so bad at basic politics, and I don’t get it. I heard you say that your office has a policy that all of your communications to the public should be at an eighth grade level, which is not to say dumb. The point is to just speak in common, accessible, relatable language. Why isn’t what you’re saying here just the obvious conventional wisdom in the Democratic Party?

Katie Porter

You have to be brave to tell people what you really think because there’s some chance they’re gonna disagree with you, or they’re going to tell you that they think differently. Maybe this partly comes from having been a professor teaching really technical stuff, like the Uniform Commercial Code, which is just as sexy as it sounds. But when you teach a class like that, you have to figure out how to bring it alive for people and how to make it real. So I guess I’m always thinking about my audience like a teacher.

Democrats operate from this position where they lack confidence in their ability to actually persuade people to agree with us, which I find a little bit nuts given that we know, from poll after poll, that we have popular policies on preventing gun violence to protecting social security to addressing climate change to helping with the costs of raising kids. So I don’t know where this attitude comes from. I just know it predates my time in politics.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click here, and be sure to follow The Gray Area on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.