How Can Progressives Succeed In Trump Country? Ask Tom Perriello.

The former Virginia congressman can wow journalists. But can he succeed within his own party?

WASHINGTON ― There is a moment during this week’s “Candidate Confessional” podcast interview with former Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.) in which I drop my journalistic objectivity.

Perriello is talking about corporate monopolies or automation or how craft beer can resurrect the Rust Belt, and when he is done, I just kind of lose it. I lean into the microphone and blurt: I would vote for you!

Those weren’t my exact words. It turns out I was a lot more inarticulate than I remembered. I do know that I was embarrassed enough to beg our podcast producer to edit out my exclamation. And if I had more gravitas or a better job title than “podcast co-host,” maybe the producer wouldn’t have forgotten my request ― because you can hear this awkward blurt at around the 45:45 mark.

Here’s what I actually said in response to Perriello’s eloquent policy monologue: “I thought. I mean. Yeah. That. I would have voted. I mean that’s convincing there.”

Thankfully, my podcast co-host and boss at the time, Sam Stein, talked over me (not an unusual event). But in my defense, there is good reason for this swooning, and other journalists and commentators have fallen hard for Perriello too.

Here was a politician who talked policy in a way that felt lived, rather than vetted by an army of consultants or inspired by skimming a few headlines from Jacobin. Perriello’s policies seemed formed by talking to voters from all corners of the country. He is actually interesting. He’s our guy. This is the one. The future.

He’s also a loser. And journalists love losers (most of us are socially awkward losers ourselves). There’s a reason this is Perriello’s second appearance on “Candidate Confessional,” a show devoted to losing. He keeps coming up short on Election Day.

Tom Perriello addresses a forum with fellow Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam on May 2, 2017.
Tom Perriello addresses a forum with fellow Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam on May 2, 2017.

After his upset win in 2008 in a congressional district that had been essentially owned by Republicans for years, Perriello gained notice for sticking with his progressive ideas in the face of often threatening opposition. We talked to him about his difficulties and defeat in 2010 during our previous season of “Candidate Confessional.”

Perriello, who has a long resume that includes years of peacekeeping and human rights work in West Africa, went on to join the Obama administration, where he served as a special envoy for the Great Lakes region of Africa. He hadn’t thought much about seeking elected office again until Donald Trump’s victory: He called election night a “conversion experience.”

Deciding to run for governor of Virginia, Perriello jumped in late to the Democratic primary, where he faced Ralph Northam, the state’s lieutenant governor. Northam had already picked up just about every meaningful endorsement, and in June, Perriello lost the primary to him.

Perriello did not do well in the Democratic strongholds of northern Virginia and Richmond. But his progressive ideas did win over the more rural parts of the state. He isn’t shy in his feelings about Trump nor in the idea that his approach to Trump voters should help shape the Democratic Party going into the midterm elections next year and the presidential race in 2020.

“It was very important for Democrats not to just address Trump, but the forces that gave rise to Trump in the first place,” he told us early in the podcast. “Because it’s very important to understand he’s not a leader. He’s just not. He’s a manipulator and rider of trends.”

It was very important for Democrats not to just address Trump, but the forces that gave rise to Trump in the first place. Tom Perriello

In other words, there are opportunities for Democrats to control the debate and capture disenfranchised voters, whether they live in cities or in rural enclaves. We asked Perriello about whether racism or economic despair drove Americans to vote for Trump. He didn’t think we had to choose.

“These two things have always gone hand in hand and reinforced each other,” he said. “And Trump understood that and was able to play on that trend. So if [Democrats] don’t admit the structural and overt racism part, we’re not doing our jobs as progressives. But if we then get reductionist and say, therefore, all of these voters out there are just about racism and there is no economic problem, we are losing touch not just with Trump voters, but actually with the vast majority of our own coalition that is struggling economically.”

Perriello said Trump used racism far more effectively in white suburbs than he did in rural communities. He also noted that rural voters were more progressive on issues like corporate monopolies than one might realize.

“We talked a lot about monopoly in this race, because basically, if you looked at the Clinton recovery in the ’90s, 73 percent of new businesses were created in small and medium-sized towns,” Perriello said. “If you look at this recent recovery, 80 percent plus was in the big cities ― zero percent in small towns and counties.”

Still, Perriello continued, the voters from cities and small towns had a lot in common. Both wanted to see more investment in trade schools. Both wanted to see criminal justice reform happen and mental health services improve. But some of these interests just aren’t pushed by big party donors, he said. Too often, these kinds of issues can be ignored because of gerrymandering, voter suppression and the sway of donor cash.

And it’s still hard to convince voters who see all this to go out and vote. “Part of what makes someone not bother to vote is that they think the system is rigged and corrupt, and they’re right,” Perriello said.

Listen to the full interview at the top of this story.

“Candidate Confessional” is produced by Zach Young. To listen to this podcast later, download it on Apple PodcastsWhile you’re there, please rate and review our show. To subscribe, visit the following: Apple Podcasts / Acast / RadioPublic / Google Play / Stitcher / RSS