Bernie Sanders’s Most Vocal Supporter Lets Loose

Briahna Joy Gray is among the prominent progressives trying to divorce Joe Biden—and Democrats as a whole—from centrism, even if that means going on the attack.

Briahna Joy Gray
Jason Kempin / Getty / The Atlantic

Briahna Joy Gray has spent the past year waging war on behalf of Bernie Sanders—and now she’s shifted her focus to attacking Joe Biden. At a moment when Democrats are calling for unity around the former vice president, Gray is an outlier, someone her critics accuse of inadvertently aiding Donald Trump now that Sanders is out of the Democratic-primary race.

The former Intercept editor joined the Sanders campaign in March 2019 and was immediately ubiquitous on cable news, advocating for progressive policies such as Medicare for All and student-debt forgiveness. But she is perhaps most visible on Twitter, where she specializes in Thunderdome-style attacks with Democratic-establishment types like Neera Tanden, the longtime Clinton ally and head of the Center for American Progress. In April, after dropping out, Sanders officially endorsed Biden. And Gray, the Sanders campaign’s national press secretary, declared her disagreement with her former boss. “With the utmost respect for Bernie Sanders, who is an incredible human being & a genuine inspiration, I don’t endorse Joe Biden,” she wrote on Twitter. “I supported Bernie Sanders because he backed ideas like #MedicareForAll, cancelling ALL student debt, & a wealth tax. Biden supports none of these.” In a subsequent interview, Sanders distanced himself from Gray, saying she is “not on the payroll.”

I asked Gray this week whether activists on the left sacrifice their influence by being unwilling to compromise with other Democrats, especially with the 2020 election just seven months away. Absolutely not, she told me. “Pretending like the scraps that are being thrown are meaningful concessions is an insult,” she said. “Accepting those scraps without pushing for more is extremely detrimental to the cause.” While many Democrats are focused on doing whatever it takes to beat Trump, Gray believes that now is precisely the right moment for the Democratic Party to take bold, progressive stances. This is both ideological and strategic, she maintains: Sanders’s policies are not only morally correct, she argues, but also wildly popular among voters. While she would never vote for Trump, she told me, Biden will have to win her vote with meaningful policy shifts. The question is how many Sanders voters like her are out there: People who aren’t persuaded by Biden’s platform, and who won’t vote for any Democrat just to beat Trump.

Our conversation has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Emma Green: I am sorry to say this, but I want to talk about Noam Chomsky.

Briahna Joy Gray: Ha ha, okay.

Green: He recently told The Intercept, your former employer, that “the failure to vote for Biden in a swing state amounts to voting for Trump.” He likened this to voting for the “destruction of organized human life on Earth, the sharp increase in the threat of nuclear war, [and] stacking the judiciary with young lawyers who will make it impossible to do anything for a generation.”

Agree or disagree?

Gray: The question doesn’t acknowledge the fact that Biden is still only the presumptive nominee, and not the actual nominee. There is still room to move his positions without actually jeopardizing the candidate in a general-election contest. Pushing Biden to the left makes him more electable. If he’s banking on securing independent voters, then he should be aware that a majority of independents are for Medicare for All, a wealth tax, a number of other so-called progressive policies that Biden has, up until this point, strongly resisted.

Green: Bernie Sanders has endorsed Joe Biden’s run for president, and obviously he did that before this summer’s Democratic convention. You tweeted that this was the wrong move. Why do you think he should not have endorsed Joe Biden at this point?

Gray: It was the wrong move for me—I personally was not endorsing Joe Biden. Bernie Sanders has considerations of his own: He is a sitting senator who has a lot of possible concerns about getting along with his colleagues and legislating and all kinds of internal pressures I can’t even begin to imagine.

I personally don’t think it is politically beneficial or, frankly, ethically appropriate for me to endorse Joe Biden, particularly at this stage, not that anyone is clamoring for my endorsement. The point of my tweet was to say that it is frustrating for a lot of supporters of progressive politics to see leaders in our movement seemingly fall in line with establishment politics without extracting any concessions on issues like a wealth tax, free child care, and Medicare for All. If these are in fact existential issues, then we need to behave that way, and not stop fighting.

Green: There’s an interesting theory of power embedded in what you just described. You argued that Bernie Sanders might have endorsed Biden because he needs to be able to legislate—to influence Biden from inside the room, so to speak. Alternatively, you seem to be arguing that activists gain influence from being in an oppositional relationship with people in power. Do you think activists on the left lose out by being combative with mainstream Democrats?

Gray: Politicians are supposed to represent the interests of the people who elected them, interests that overwhelmingly align with what Bernie Sanders was running on. I’m resisting your framing. There’s a real united front of consensus about the direction this country needs to go in, and the opposition is coming from a small handful of politicians that care more about the interests of their donors than the interests of the voters, even as they pretend their No. 1 concern is beating Trump.

No matter what progressives do, we’re going to get framed as somehow responsible for any negative outcome. Bernie Sanders was persistently asked, “Will you support the nominee?” He said yes, more vociferously than anyone else in the race. But he and his movement are still being held responsible for wanting Joe Biden to be a better nominee, or pointing out obvious flaws that might damage his candidacy.

The Democratic Party is telling us, it seems, that they’re more interested in shaming voters than actually putting forth the best nominee.

Green: Bernie Sanders has clearly pushed the entire Democratic conversation to the left. In March, for example, Joe Biden came out in support of free college for families making under $125,000 a year. Do you think that refusing to affirm moves like this disincentivizes centrists from compromising or moving to the left?

Gray: No. Pretending like the scraps that are being thrown are meaningful concessions is an insult. Accepting those scraps without pushing for more is extremely detrimental to the cause. Look, what we’re talking about aren’t fringe ideas that would hurt Joe Biden. He will be a better candidate and he will get more votes if he supports these policies. Why isn’t he giving us more? Why not just do the things the Democratic voters want him to do?

Green: Well, to a certain extent, polling backs you up on broad public support for these policies, such as a government-run health-care system, or expanding free or low-cost public college. But just to back up a little bit, Joe Biden is proposing a public option for health care, which would radically expand the number of Americans who can get health-insurance benefits. We’ve been in a political environment for the past decade where the Affordable Care Act barely passed, let alone a public option for health care. What’s the point of always hammering Biden for proposing this midway solution, rather than focusing on Republicans?

Gray: Because it’s a Democratic primary.

Green: But we're moving into general-election season now, right?

Gray: But we’re not! The Democratic Party would like us to believe that’s the case, and they behaved that way even before Bernie Sanders dropped out of the race. But we are, in fact, still in a Democratic-primary season. Biden is only the presumptive nominee.

We’re expected to be giving parades for policy positions that are more conservative than were offered up four years ago? We are living the status quo. At a certain point, voters are tired of having people—excuse the expression—piss on their leg and tell them that it’s raining.

And there’s all kinds of whispers and rumors about whether or not something might happen at the convention, which might mean Joe Biden isn’t even the nominee.

Green: Are you talking about the Tara Reade allegations?

Gray: There’s a lot of reasons why Democrats might want to substitute a different person for Joe Biden as the nominee. The Tara Reade allegation has been handled abysmally by the press. If anyone looks at this closely, then they will see reason for concern.

Green: So is your preferred outcome to have a brokered convention?

Gray: My preferred outcome is for the Democratic nominee to support the bedrock policies that will make them electable against Donald Trump in the fall. And my preferred outcome is for that nominee not to be so saddled with a historical record that it’s difficult for him to really run on anything. The party made a choice. Democratic officials and Barack Obama made a number of phone calls after South Carolina, convincing other people in the race to drop out and coalesce behind Joe Biden, knowing that Joe Biden had these vulnerabilities.

Green: You’re kind of making it out like Joe Biden is this Manchurian candidate, but the reason Sanders dropped out is because he had no viable path to the nomination based on his delegate count. It was voters who chose Joe Biden as their preferred candidate, right?

Gray: Yeah, voters chose Joe Biden as their preferred candidate after months of concentrated media attention saying that he was the most electable candidate, not talking about any of his vulnerabilities. Of course, if you’ve never heard of Tara Reade’s allegations, if it’s never been framed up to you on the mainstream news that Joe Biden has these vulnerabilities on trade, if the only explanation you’ve ever gotten is that Trump won because he’s racist, you are going to believe that Joe Biden is the most electable candidate. When Bernie Sanders won Nevada, the most diverse state to have voted so far at that point, he got Chris Matthews breaking down about how there’s going to be a Communist revolution in the street and people are going to cut off his head in Central Park.

So yes, at the end of the day, it was incumbent on Bernie Sanders to overcome those challenges and to figure out a way to get his message across, and obviously we were unsuccessful there. But to pretend that the voters were operating in kind of a neutral, unbiased media climate is also inaccurate. People need information to make informed decisions, and unfortunately the media climate meant that was not the case.

Green: Let me push back for one second. Biden has a long-established base of support, huge popularity in South Carolina, and huge popularity among black voters. He was vice president of the United States. It makes sense that he was seen as a front-runner. Don’t you think it sells voters short to say that it was a media conspiracy that made them vote for Biden?

Gray: I didn’t say it was just a media conspiracy that made them vote for Biden. I’m saying that’s a part of it. Absolutely, him having name recognition from being the former vice president to our very popular first black American president factors in as well.

Green: You spend a ton of time fighting battles on Twitter. I wonder how useful you think Twitter battles are in our politics.

Gray: The reality is that, as much as people say Twitter isn’t real life, it is real life for journalists, and journalists write about what’s happening on Twitter, for better or for worse. Twitter becomes a place where playing fields have been leveled, in a way that didn’t really exist before. I think that’s why some establishment figures get very frustrated and hot-headed about Twitter and talk about Bernie Bros and get very overwhelmed. It’s a place where you can’t ignore criticism. Valid or invalid, it’s there in your face. And having a blue check doesn’t insulate you against it, and being able to retire to a gated community doesn’t insulate you from it. It’s democratizing.

Green: Do you think that vitriolic back-and-forths on Twitter are good for American politics—for our sense of comradeliness as American citizens?

Gray: When I tweet a basic truism that 68,000 people a year die out of a lack of health care and I’m told I’m being divisive, that says a lot about my critics and not very much about me. My goal is to be comradely with workers who don’t have paid leave, to show solidarity with families who don’t have anyone to look after their kids in this pandemic—to fight for someone I don’t know, as Bernie Sanders has put it.

If the Democratic Party continues to shape itself as a corporate-friendly party, lower-income voters are going to face a difficult choice between a racist faux populist who at least is giving lip service to the needs of working-class people and a kind of Bloombergian liberalism that is beholden to financial interests antithetical to those of working people. That’s a position I don’t want us to be in. It is incumbent on the Democratic Party to show voters that there will be a noticeable difference in their lives if they choose the Democrat over the Republican.

Green: If faced with that choice between, as you say, a racist faux populist who at least talks about the needs of working-class people, and a Democratic candidate who’s beholden to financial and corporate interests, what’s your vote?

Gray: I’m never voting for a Republican. Are you asking me if I would vote for a Republican candidate?

Green: Would you?

Gray: I of course wouldn’t vote for Donald Trump. And I’ve got to admit, it’s pretty frustrating that I would be even asked that question.

Green: Would you stay home?

Gray: I’ll be voting for Bernie Sanders in the primary, and I encourage everybody to do so, because that’s where leverage lies. My vote in the fall is contingent on whether Joe Biden supports Medicare for All, canceling student-loan debt, canceling medical debt, having a wealth tax. The message isn’t that I’m never going to vote for Biden. The message is that Biden should do what the majority of Americans want him to do.

Green: I think that’s a good landing spot. I hope you and your family stay healthy out there.

Gray: Same to you and yours. And I’m very appreciative of the fact that Bernie Sanders dropped out when he did so that he could preserve enough money to make sure his employees have health care through the fall, because he’s a man of principle.

Green: It’s good that you have it. Let’s hope you don’t have to use it.

Gray: Amen.