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The Contender


The former New York gubernatorial candidate on misperceptions of big government, the poetry of politics, and why “it would be a tragedy if [Hillary] ran in an uncontested primary.”

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Image by Chae Kihn.

“A lot of politics plays at the level of myth,” says Zephyr Teachout, Fordham University law professor and 2014 New York gubernatorial candidate. She argues that archetypes comprise a “secret language of politics,” one in which she has become increasingly fluent over the course of her career. It’s a surprisingly literary insight from someone whose purview resides not in the arts and humanities but in the realms of law and government.

Considering her upbringing and early professional triumphs, her entry into the legal and political world seemed almost inevitable. Zephyr Rain Teachout was born in Vermont to Peter Teachout, a professor of constitutional law, and Mary Miles Teachout, a state court judge. She attended Yale as an undergraduate, and then Duke, where she earned a law degree and a master’s in political science. After working at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham, North Carolina, she helped pioneer political blogging and online voter outreach for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. A progressive, populist activist, she championed public financing of political campaigns. This new vision for the political system lay at the core of her gubernatorial campaign last year against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Teachout’s primary campaign was highly unorthodox given its minuscule budget, its focus, and its strategy. She ran for governor first under the Working Families party and later in the Democratic primary with her running mate, Columbia Law School professor and net neutrality pioneer Tim Wu. Teachout lost to Cuomo but won 34 percent of the primary vote, an impressive standing considering Cuomo had spent more than twice as much per vote. (Noting her opponent’s subservience to his private donors, she has called him “not a Democrat” and a “trickle-down Republican.”) But despite the final election tally, Teachout scored a victory: she mobilized voters against fracking, and when her pledge to ban it gained widespread support, Cuomo ultimately prohibited the hazardous energy-production practice immediately after the election.

While running for office, Teachout was also promoting her new book, Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United. A work of deep scholarship, it examines the history of American attitudes toward corruption and pleads for more sanity and decency in political life. As she explains, “It really was designed as a letter to Scalia and Kennedy,” the two Supreme Court justices most responsible for the current state of campaign finance in the United States.

Ultimately, Teachout’s political initiatives converge in their message—that the American people can seize back the reins of power from the monolithic encroachment of corporate interests. Teachout holds the belief that individuals want to be engaged with policy, and if given the chance, they will make their voices heard.

Teachout and I met at Junior’s diner near her home in Brooklyn. We sat at the counter where she abstained from the eatery’s renowned cheesecake and instead ate biscuits and gravy. She spoke with the precise diction of a law professor and the incisiveness of a politician as she explained the flawed Democratic response to the Tea Party, how poetry can energize politics, and the allegories that help elucidate political behavior.

Andrew Rose for Guernica

Guernica: Can you tell me about your work with Great Ape-Snake War?

Zephyr Teachout: I was in a legal working group. There were two of them: one was focused on arrests, and another one provided miscellaneous legal services that were not arrest-related.

Integrity is hard work. I do think the Internet makes it harder because of the temptations of performance. You can perform and have integrity, but it’s easier just to perform.

I think Occupy was incredibly important, especially when it was really focused. Great Ape-Snake War might not have had a mission statement, but it was clearly protesting the political and economic power of big banks. We knew what it was about because of the symbolism and the physicality of it. People say it didn’t have a focus, but I think about people and events in terms of archetypes a lot.

A lot of politics plays at the level of myth, and if you understand that, then you feel like you have access to the secret language of politics. People respond to political characters in archetypal ways. A fun game is to think of a politician and ask, “Which god is that? Are they like Aries? Are they like Athena?”

Guernica: Which god is Governor Andrew Cuomo?

Zephyr Teachout: [laughs] I’m not going to answer that. I came to believe that, really, Cuomo is not somebody who is in charge. He really works for his donors. His refusal to go on TV, to participate in debates— if you have integrity, a unity of thought and action, it’s not that complicated to speak on TV. It may be embarrassing, but your words will flow from your purpose. But when you have great disunity, it’s probably quite stressful. You have to be checking in and asking, “Who are you speaking for?”

Integrity is hard work. I do think the internet makes it harder because of the temptations of performance. You can perform and have integrity, but it’s easier just to perform. So the temptations of social media lead to some dissonance.

Guernica: Let’s talk about your work on Howard Dean’s 2004 primary campaign. One of your colleagues said that your technology-driven approach may have been the reason John Kerry lost the presidential election.

Zephyr Teachout: I don’t like to take blame for Kerry’s loss. Obviously, I wish that Howard had won, but Kerry would have been better than Bush, to put it mildly.

I tend to focus on fixing systems, which is what I’ve been working on recently. Besides wanting to be governor, the two big systems I’ve been focusing on are campaign financing and our market structure. I’m teaching a class called “Market Structure and Democracy.” It’s designed to investigate the relationship between political power and economic power. Think Amazon, Comcast, Time Warner. What I see increasingly is that companies are playing political roles. We should actually have our research and our laws map that.

Guernica: Like with net neutrality.

Zephyr Teachout: One of the goals is to connect the net neutrality fight to Elizabeth Warren’s fight to Al Franken’s fight to the people who are taking on Monsanto to the Hachette fight against Amazon. They are individual fights, but breaking up big banks and advocating for net neutrality are actually variations on the same theme—anti-monopoly laws. So my current goal is to change the way we think about antitrust and anti-monopoly.

Guernica: It seems that you have some libertarian tendencies that mesh a little bit with things we see on the right—for instance, your appreciation of very small government.

Zephyr Teachout: There are two questions that often get conflated. One is the size of government and the other is the location of power within government. You can have very big local government. By big, I mean very engaged government. Do you measure it in terms of the number of laws? Number of employees? You could make arguments for either one. I tend to think the axis of the size of government is the wrong concern. But I do think that situating power more locally is a legitimate approach.

I would put it differently: there are some libertarians who are really anarchists, but others are more concerned about the distant relationship between themselves and power. They mistakenly think they want to get rid of government when instead they might just want to have greater access to power.

I think part of the reason the Tea Party has resonated is that people feel disempowered. The Tea Party says, “You are out of power because of big government.” Then some Democrats tend to respond by saying, “No, you’re wrong, you’re not out of power.” It’s a sense that doesn’t resonate with people’s lived experience. I think the correct response is, “You’re right, you’re out of power. But you’re not out of power because of big government, you’re out of power because of a handful of corporate interests that have taken over politics.”

Oftentimes people get it wrong when they say we need to educate voters first and then give them power. I tend to favor giving them power first.

I tend to be a kind of left federalist. There’s a value to more power of certain kinds being positioned at a more local level. You see that across the country. You see this return to localism on the right and left. If you combine that localism with [a stance against] corporate power, you see that I’m representing something that’s pretty mainstream now, which isn’t reflected in a lot of our parties.

Guernica: In The Nation, you wrote, “The essence of democracy is collective economic decision making.” How do we make sure that people are able to make these decisions?

Zephyr Teachout: I tend to think that knowledge is preceded by power instead of the other way around. The best example of that might be a jury. Jurors come in knowing nothing about a case. If they were sitting in the courtroom not as jurors but just as people who happened to be in the courtroom that day, they might fall asleep because they have no influence over the situation. Instead, what you see is that, because jurors have an extraordinary amount of power over the situation and of the people and the story in front of them, they tend to pay pretty intense attention to what’s happening.

Oftentimes people get it wrong when they say we need to educate voters first and then give them power. I tend to favor giving them power first. When people feel like they have power over a decision, they’ll learn about it.

You can’t just provide power, you also need public education. Again, I do have a sort of localist tendency on public education. Whether it’s No Child Left Behind or Common Core, both of these policies veer away from local decision-making. And these are negative trends. As a school board member, I might have particular views about the ways we might increase the economics curriculum in a local high school, but I’m not sure I should mandate that for the entire country.

I think of it as a new populism. In Europe, populism is sort of a dirty word, but we have this wonderful history of populism in America, including the abolitionist populists and the white and black populists working together in the nineteenth century. Of course, there are the racist populists; those exist as well. But I think it’s a question of trying to find the best parts of our history. Somebody I find extremely compelling is Charles Sumner, who was both an active abolitionist and also a big anti-monopolist who saw the connection between concentrated power and concentrated white power.

Guernica: You’ve been a vocal opponent of the Keystone XL oil pipeline project, which Congress approved earlier this year [this week, President Obama vetoed the the same bill]. Can you tell me about that?

Zephyr Teachout: New York City is one of the most vulnerable cities in the world to climate change, so I see Keystone as the central threat to New York.

Fundamentally, this is a presidential decision. [When the bill failed in the Senate last year], I think it was great for people who care about the future of energy policy. Instead of having the bill pass, there was intense scrutiny on the way every single member of the Senate would vote. The failure of the bill created a little moment of celebration.

History is a series of mistakes. Now the task is to plan for those mistakes so those of us who are populists can actually take over the reins of power when the right mistakes are made.

I’m sure you’ve heard me talk about all the mistakes Andrew Cuomo made [regarding environmental issues]. That should give us hope because, if those in power never made any mistakes, we’d be done for as a democracy. But people keep making mistakes. History is a series of mistakes. Now the task is to plan for those mistakes so those of us who are populists can actually take over the reins of power when the right mistakes are made.

Guernica: Your book Corruption in America explores the gap between the way the framers of the Constitution viewed corruption and the way that the Supreme Court sees it. Could you talk a bit about that divergence?

Zephyr Teachout: There are all these terrible things in our history as well as great things. The purpose of the book is not to say that the framers got everything right. It’s to say they got a few things right. One is an approach toward human nature that saw people and their political leaders as being capable of human love. There’s a tendency, especially among academics, to see politics as deeply dirty and deeply egotistical. So this positive approach actually returns to an old psychology.

I’m delighted that other people are reading the book, but it really was designed as a letter to Scalia and Kennedy.

Guernica: What was it like for you to write the book?

Zephyr Teachout: One of my editor’s insights for writing is physicalizing ideas, taking an idea and giving it a material expression. Corruption in America is bookended by Benjamin Franklin’s hot air balloon. But that was a way of making you feel present. You have to find a way of creating a physical sense of hope.

It’s funny, I feel like I wrote a fine book and I ran a great campaign. I feel much more comfortable in politics than I did in book writing. Book writing is so hard. Politics felt easy compared to that.

Guernica: Stepping outside of the realm of politics for a moment, what role does creative writing play in your life?

Zephyr Teachout: I love poetry so much. During the campaign when I felt my language getting stale, I would go and read some poetry.

I love Yeats. I love James Merrill. I love Theodore Roethke, Whitman, E. E. Cummings. I was exploring the classic American poets. Certainly my language [while campaigning] wasn’t necessarily poetic, but it just helps because political language can be so dry.

This is not a curlicue on the campaign, this is the essence of a theory of education: kids need art and music and creativity. That’s fundamental to who we are as people. These current fights about test scores are in some ways a fight about who we are and who we can be. Creativity is essential to any kind of joyful living. Sometimes I act, sometimes I draw, I paint, I write poems. I can’t imagine living without it.

I think that most people have deeply creative sensibilities, and they aren’t necessarily encouraged by our education system. If you think art is a competitive forum, then you’re going to stop doing it if you’re not good. But if it’s not competitive, it’s something that you’ll keep doing.

Guernica: I don’t think people expect politicians to have such an artistic side.

Zephyr Teachout: I’m not from the arts, I’m a law professor. But I think we need more poetry in politics. I think the reason you see so many people dropping out of politics is because there’s an anti-poetic strain in modern political discourse. I think that’s the reason a lot of people were so excited about Barack Obama. Having more candidates come with a creative and artistic sensibility would actually bring more people out to vote.

There’s too heavy a focus on the individual sentences of the campaign: “If we could just figure out the right message!” There’s something very sec, very dry about a lot of career politics. I’m on a current kick to get more artistic people to run for office. To take on the powers we’re up against in this increasingly feudal centralization of power requires a certain amount of faith that impossible things can happen.

Guernica: It seems as though your work on the death penalty, the Dean campaign, your creative personality—they all came together for the gubernatorial campaign.

Zephyr Teachout: I did feel like, “Oh, this is what I’m built for. It feels very natural.” A combination of working in politics as well as teaching and being [an actor] certainly helped. I became so much more comfortable in front of a crowd. I felt like I was calling on all those other experiences.

Guernica: Would you consider running again?

Zephyr Teachout: I would love to run again. But I don’t have any particular plans in mind. What I see is that you can become so focused on the idea of running that winning becomes your motivation, as opposed to what you stand for being your motivation.

If you look at Clinton’s career, she has not spent it fighting power. I think it would be a tragedy if she ran in an uncontested primary.

I care enormously about structural things— antitrust, campaign finance reform. I don’t see those kinds of changes happening in the next couple of years in New York. However, they could happen in 2016.

Guernica: Speaking of 2016, what are your thoughts on Hillary Clinton?

Zephyr Teachout: If you look at Clinton’s career, she has not spent it fighting power. She has had plenty of opportunities to show that she’s someone who’s willing to fight for greater equality, so I don’t think she’ll do it as president. The pressure at that level to serve wealthy interests is even greater. I think it would be a tragedy if she ran in an uncontested primary.

Guernica: People have floated Senator Elizabeth Warren’s name and Senator Bernie Sanders’s name. How would you feel about their candidacies?

Zephyr Teachout: I hope they all run! If Elizabeth Warren ran, she’d run to win. I think she could win.

Guernica: Is campaign finance reform likely in New York in the future?

Zephyr Teachout: It depends on which future you’re talking about. After 2016, I think it’s quite likely that if we have a Democrat running for president, that will lead to a greater voter turnout. New York is such an overwhelmingly Democratic state. The job for the next couple of years is to work with those lawmakers who publicly said they support public financing of campaigns and to remind them to push for it. It’s easy to say that you support it when you’re in the minority party.

Guernica: Politically, what will you focus on going forward?

Zephyr Teachout: A lot of my focus is going to be on public education. I think we’re at this real inflection point. Public education is so important—resisting privatization and charterization, high-stakes testing, and defunding. It’s important for New York, but it’s also important for the country. What happens in New York affects national policy in very significant ways.

Guernica: Do you think there might be a rollback of the Common Core?

Zephyr Teachout: I think it will be rolled back. It’s a lot harder to push forward other things, like energy policy. There’s a big dream out there about wind and solar power. I think a lot of the reason people are attracted to the Keystone pipeline is because at least we’re doing something. There’s a fear that society will collapse if it’s not acting. To contrast those actions with other actions is important in making it feel plausible. Maybe we must have the size of the dream meet the size of the threat.

This is what’s so hard about our current politics: things poll well, but people don’t believe that politicians are telling the truth. Politicians might mention renewable energy, and the public will think, “That sounds good, but I don’t believe they’re going to do everything they can to build those towers.” Or with campaign finance reform—they don’t think that we actually intend to change the way money works in politics.

Then citizens don’t get very engaged. They think, “Maybe that politician is just naïve.” Or, more often, people think that the politician is just part of a system, and whether they’re lying or not doesn’t matter. One of the most dangerous things about Fox News isn’t that it’s right wing but that it’s nihilistic. It takes away the capacity to believe in politics.

What were they thinking in 1900? Were they thinking the American system’s broken and we should just give up? Why do we feel powerless but Pussy Riot doesn’t? Why do we feel powerless but the protesters in Hong Kong don’t? Why do we feel powerless? There is a strange feeling of powerlessness among us, even though we do have power.

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