As a regular CNN contributor, Daily Beast columnist, and prolific Tweeter, Sally Kohn is a familiar face and voice in today’s hurly-burly media world. Previously, she was an on-air contributor at Fox News. Sally made her progressive bones for 16 years in the trenches of community organizing. When Breitbart News caught up to her one late afternoon, she was putting a pot roast in the oven — making dinner for her partner Sarah and their daughter Willa.
Like NBC’s Chuck Todd, Sally agreed to a free-wheeling, anything goes Breitbart News interview without asking for a single precondition. What was supposed to time-out at an hour ended up lasting until it was time to remove the pot roast. The back-and-forth was intense, informative, exhilarating, and a blast. Sally’s obvious intelligence, knowledge, willingness to take anything on, and sense of humor was apparent throughout — even though we only agreed on a love of pork.
Below is part one of a two-part interview. Here we cover unions, welfare, the minimum wage, and the erupting tension between same-sex marriage advocates and religious liberty.
BREITBART NEWS NETWORK: You’re a New Yorker.
SALLY KOHN: I am now by way of Allentown, Pennsylvania.
BNN: A working class area.
SK: It is but I can’t claim working class roots. My parents were upper-middle class engineers. My grandparents come from working class stock, so I was raised on those values and I do empathize with the decline of the Rust Belt. That’s my childhood disappearing.
BNN: It’s not just the jobs but also culturally, the way men see themselves. Factories used to be a rite of passage for a huge swath of the country — men becoming men, working with your hands, working with other men. Now they’re waiting tables and doing service work. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it has altered our culture in a big way.
SK: There has been a destruction of the notion of what some might call “breadwinner masculinity.” But it’s not a failure of men being men, it’s the result of a radical change in the domestic and world economy.
Masculinity can come in different forms and in different jobs — which is a good thing. The problem is that those good jobs you would label as masculine-normative jobs, are also good-paying jobs. When you lose both it seems as though they’re connected. I don’t think there is. I think there’s a disintegration of an American-made, good job/good wage economy, which leads people to think it’s about masculinity or to blame feminism or immigrants.
It’s actually much deeper and more systemic.
BNN: I just see the cultural issue as one aspect of the overall loss of manufacturing jobs. When America’s men are waiting tables instead of making steel, the result is a different kind of man.
SK: And I see those as the loss of good union jobs. And I recognize that we’ve become so hyper-partisan now that we describe everything as being all good or all bad. So let me say that I don’t think that every union is good enough and I don’t think every government program is good enough. I’m certainly pro-union — I’m pro anything that stands on the side of workers making more money and having better safety and protections. We’ve seen wages decline with the decline of unions — is that a coincidence?
BNN: While I completely oppose public sector government unions, in a free society I have no problem with people in the private sector choosing to voluntarily unionize. Do you believe in any way that the dying or dead unions of the Midwest are a bit to blame for their own demise: the inflexibility and unwillingness to be realistic in the face of a world economy?
SK: We have seen worker productivity increase with time. We have seen post-recession corporate profits rise above the levels they were pre-recession, and yet wages are still stagnant. When you adjust for inflation, in some industries they are declining.
BNN: That’s all true.
SK: It’s also true that unions helped to ensure that didn’t happen sooner. Auto unions stemmed the tide of jobs going overseas, wage freezes, and benefit cuts. Where we’re at now would’ve happened sooner were it not for unions.
While we’ve witnessed CEO pay packages skyrocket from 40 times the average worker’s pay to 300 and 400 times, we still have a narrative that says workers’ pay can ruin a company. No one points to CEO pay as part of the problem.
BNN: This is good. I wanted to start with something we agreed on.
SK: Like ice cream flavors.
BNN: (laughs) I’m actually not a fan of big business and I think we can agree that the greed of some American corporations and some of America’s wealthy is appalling. That includes some CEO pay. Taking that kind of compensation and rigging that kind of golden parachute for yourself is not something I would personally do — especially in this economy. Where we disagree is that I would prefer to live in that imperfect world. I don’t want to impose my beliefs on others. The left, I believe, does and has made things worse by using government to “fix things.” I think that’s a much darker and less free world than an imperfect one.
SK: I don’t think the government can fix everything. Sure, I tend to align more with Democrats but I think of myself as a populist. So I do realize that outside of the DC/New York corridor, people have a lot more in common in terms of our politics, the economy, and what’s right and wrong with our country. And I think that aligns more with a populist idea that the hard-working American people should get a fair deal.
BNN: But how would you accomplish that? Income inequality, for instance.
SK: I don’t think corporations should be paying lower taxes than working people. And I don’t think they should pay low capital gains taxes. That’s an example of a government policy that incentivized the worker pay structures we see now — the reason we see exploding inequality.
BNN: If the government takes more money from companies and CEOs, I don’t see how that benefits workers. Forgive the upcoming buzzword, it’s not meant to be argumentative, but do you see the solution to inequality as a government redistribution program?
SK: Although I’m happy to defend taxes, I’m not talking about a tax structure that would give the government more. What I am talking about is going back to a structure that incentivizes an allocation of resources to the worker. A higher capital gains tax is an incentive to pay your workers more.
I’m very Elizabeth Warren-ey on this, Statistics show that this new generation is not going to better off than their parents. That’s not because American values changed — our spirit, willingness to do hard work. What changed was that we no longer have an enabling environment that makes starting a business in America attractive: roads, schools, infrastructure, the GI Bill. That’s how we did things in the 50s and 60s, but have since cut away at.
Do I think the government should take care of people? No. I do think the government should take care of those who have few choices of their own: the extreme poor, seniors, the handicapped.
What you can’t have is people who succeed and then pull up the ladder of opportunity and their tax dollars with them.
BNN: I still don’t see how increasing a CEO’s taxes — giving that money to the government — would increase someone’s wages — the people who have been stuck for decades.
SK: Obviously that is not going to help everyone right now. But at a time when you have conservatives complaining about persistent unemployment and calling for a cut in food stamps; that strikes me as incredibly cynical. Though I think it’s getting better, we do agree that the economy isn’t working for everyone. Americans are struggling and conservatives want to cut the things that help them survive?
BNN: You and I both want to help the poor. But I see food stamps and welfare as a double-edged sword. I am all for helping people who are physically and mentally incapable of helping themselves. We’re a great country. We should and do do that. I’m all for helping people temporarily because I’ve needed temporary help. But I do worry about welfare benefits working like a drug that undermines the human spirit. On welfare today, I see people who can afford cable television, a place to live, air conditioning, and plenty to eat. That’s a pretty good way to live for not doing anything,
SK: It’s a shitty life.
BNN: You can live comfortably.
SK: You need to meet some people on welfare.
BNN: I spent a few of my early years as one of the working poor in an inner-city, and believe me there are a lot of people that say, “This is good enough.” Worse, some just don’t know any better — the generational thing.
SK: Before I got into media I spent 16 years as a community organizer and never met a single person who wanted to be on welfare. It’s a crappy life:. You don’t have a lot of money. You don’t have a lot of food. Your healthcare is bad. I give all credit to Ronald Reagan for misrepresenting what life is like on welfare.
BNN: You can survive and not work, and what that can do the human spirit is heartbreaking.
SK: If we had an economy where we had zero percent unemployment, and where the affordability of childcare kept pace with wages, I would say you were right. But we don’t. People can’t get jobs. I have a child and I know how much I have to make to break even on childcare, and it’s more than the minimum wage. I’m lucky, I can afford babysitters. If people can’t afford childcare or the gasoline to get to work — if it costs more to get to work than what you make at work — that’s a disincentive. And that’s a reality for a lot of women.
BNN: It’s different in different states. I’m looking at it through a local prism while you seem enamored with federal government solutions. Some states are doing great. Some not so great. Why not let the states dictate policy, work as laboratories. It seems as though the entire concept of federalism has vanished.
SK: I’m old school on that topic. I believe in community control.
BNN: That’s probably from your community organizing days.
SK: That’s right. And it’s why I’m big on something called participatory budgeting where the community comes together to prioritize part or all of the government budget. I like community control across the board — as much as possible.
BNN: What about an issue like the minimum wage. I’m not saying they should, but as an example, because they are going through an energy boom, South Dakota could probably increase its minimum wage. It might make sense economically. But a state not doing as well — a minimum wage increase could hurt job opportunities.
SK: Well, we’ve been talking about jobs and welfare and trade issues, that’s going to lead me to talk about the federal government.
BNN: Fair enough.
SK: And like I said, I do believe in community control. But on the issue of federalism and states’ rights I come out of a tradition concerned with expanding individual rights — civil, gay, and women’s rights. Sometimes the states were ahead of the federal government on those issues, sometimes they were woefully behind. And were it not for the federal government, institutionalized discrimination would have lasted longer than anyone believes it should have. I’m grateful to the federal government.
BNN: It is unfortunate the term “states rights” has become synonymous with racism, which has turned the idea of federalism into a cultural negative.
SK: Actually, “states rights” was a coded term in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Basically, though, I don’t trust anyone who says the federal government can do it all or who wants to leave everything to the states.
BNN: I separate the economics, which I would leave as much as I could to the states, and the Bill of Rights, which is the purview of the federal government. That’s an easy line to draw.
SK: At the risk of generalizing, there’s the fact that the folks who most oppose the federal government and taxes come from the same Red States that are disproportionately the net beneficiaries of the federal distribution of taxes. But the Blue States, who support the federal government, are net contributors and take a net loss.. How can they resent government so much? Explain that to me.
BNN: Speaking as someone who might come from a state like that, for starters, we probably don’t know about that net benefit. It’s a cultural thing with us: Freedom, liberty, self-determination, and not being told by our government that we have to buy things like, say, health care. It’s not about how much we get back, or the benefits.
We don’t want the government spending our money for us, even if we do come out ahead. It’s never about the money.
SK: When people complain about taxes, it does sound like it’s about the money.
BNN: Let me go back to the Bill of Rights and paraphrase Ann Coulter: I was not considered a raging, bigoted homophobe until the idea of same-sex marriage came along. For most of my adult life, even as a conservative, I was to the left of most Democrats on the issue of gay rights. I never understood why gays couldn’t serve openly in the military, and since I first heard of the idea some 20 years ago, I have been in favor of committed same sex couples enjoying all the rights and benefits of marriage through civil unions. Good heavens, there’s a same sex couple in my family that has been together longer than both of my dad’s marriages combined.
SK: (laughs) No comment!
BNN: See, I do get this. My opposition to same-sex marriage isn’t based on rights or benefits, but something that just came up today… In the state of Idaho, Christian ministers who are not affiliated with a church, but do perform marriages as a business, are being told by the government that if they don’t perform same-sex marriages they will be out of business, fined heavily, or face jail time. This is why I oppose same-sex marriage. I knew this was coming. You have the government forcing Christians to violate their conscience and say things they don’t believe.
SK: This is a private business, not a church. If you form a business you form a business. If you want to be a church, be a church.
BNN: May I ask you a trick question?
SK: If I can ask you one.
BNN: I look forward to it. Here’s mine: What if the government comes along and treats you, Sally Kohn, like these Christian ministers. You’re in business — the business of commentary — what if the government says you have to serve Christians in your commentary; that you have to be fair and present both sides of the same-sex marriage debate? You provide a service to the public. Should you be exempt from having to say things you don’t believe — from serving everyone equally?
SK: It’s hard for me to answer a question when I can never see that happening, but one example is conservatives requiring abortion workers to say things they don’t necessarily believe.
BNN: Can I say something here.
BNN: You just made a very good point.
SK: I thought we were going to argue. What do we do now?
BNN: Let’s try this: Whether it’s an abortion clinic or a Christian minister, how is it okay for the government to force people to say things they don’t believe and to violate their conscience?
SK: You know the question I’m going to ask you: If this were an interracial couple, would you defend this?
BNN: There is nothing in any of the world’s great religions that makes that okay. And I don’t compare sexuality — heterosexuality, homosexuality — to race. I just don’t.
SK: The reality is that when anti-miscegenation laws were being struck down, in the name of mainstream religion, there were some mainstream religious leaders and institutions fighting to keep them in place.
BNN: Liars all. I’m in a mixed-race marriage. I wouldn’t have anything to do with a faith that could in any way be interpreted as opposing miscegenation.
SK: But it did happen, and years from now I think we’ll look back the same way on the religious arguments against gay marriage. The point is that we don’t want government playing an arbiter in the role of religion. You have to treat people equally.
BNN: Which brings me back to my original question: As a columnist and commentator, you don’t treat people equally and the government isn’t compelling you to do so. When Christians are forced to violate their conscience and others like yourself are not, people are not being treated equally.
It’s even deeper than that, when you ask a florist or minister to participate in a same-sex marriage, you are asking them to sacramentalize something that their faith says is a sin.
Let me be clear that the Bible doesn’t discriminate against homosexuals. The Christian bar for sexuality is high for all of us. And the sin is not who the person is as a human being.
SK: It’s a bit of leap to go from a church to florist. You’re not talking about a church, you’re talking about a business.
BNN: What I’m talking about is a Christian human being.
SK: I’m not questioning the deeply held beliefs of anyone. But to say that my religious beliefs allow me to break the law and the spirit, values, and principles of our country — that’s just wrong.
The fact that we even have to have this conversation breaks my heart. In this country I love, we don’t do this. We treat people equally. Someone walks into your business and you don’t serve them — that’s discrimination, plain and simple.
BNN: You don’t think it’s discrimination for the government to force people to violate their faith? The very first “rule,” if you will, written for America was that the government shall not infringe on the practice of religion. But now Christians are going to be forced to participate in something we believe is a sin. Not to put too fine a point on it, but many believe this is about our immortal soul.
SK: There are people who believe vaccinations are a sin, eating pork is a sin, miscegenation is a sin… I do not bow to them. In a perfect world we would have a debate about whether or not churches should be exempt from performing same-sex marriages.
BNN: You’re saying you would consider forcing churches to perform same-sex marriages?
SK: I’m not saying I would or wouldn’t. My point is that I’m a realist. That fight isn’t worth fighting.
BNN: How about the government forcing a Muslim business to sell pork because people in the community want to eat pork.
SK: That’s different. There is no fundamental right to eat pork.
BNN: There’s no fundamental right to be married.
SK: As far as that, I’m on the third side of this debate. The government should get out of the marriage business. So there’s something I want government out of. And let me go back and say that eating pork should be a fundamental right. I love pork.
BNN: Finally, common ground.
In part two, Breitbart News asks Sally questions the media never asks the political Left: Do we really want an alleged sexual predator as America’s first First Gentleman, where would you draw the line on allowing illegal immigrants into the country, and why are liberals opposed to giving poor, inner-city children vouchers to attend private schools?