House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s exchange with a college student about capitalism and the Democratic Party’s economic agenda was arguably the most memorable moment of Tuesday night’s CNN town hall with the California congresswoman.
But it almost did not take place, because the questioner, New York University sophomore Trevor Hill, had agreed to ask Pelosi a “personal” question at CNN’s behest. His decision not to do so, apparently came as a surprise to CNN, including host Jake Tapper.
Hill first heard about the town hall from a friend who had been contacted by a CNN producer, he recalled in an interview with The Huffington Post. He submitted the same question he ended up asking on live television ― almost verbatim.
“According to a Harvard University poll last May, 51% of young voters between the ages of 18 and 29 no longer support capitalism. The Democratic Party inarguably failed to inspire young leftists during this election cycle, who voted in overwhelming numbers for the farther left candidate during the presidential primary elections,” Hill wrote in an email to a CNN producer. “What is the Democratic Party going to change going forward in order to capture and inspire the new generations of leftists who feel as though the party is failing to stand up for left wing economic values?”
CNN did not accept his submission, according to Hill.
“But they seemed interested in my biographical information that I had given them,” Hill said. “So they emailed me back, asked for a picture and stuff. And then they asked me, ‘Oh, do you want to know anything a little more personal about her? Maybe you could submit some extra questions.’”
Hill agreed to submit two questions that he characterized as “fluffy.” CNN selected one Hill had drafted based on the HBO comedy series “Veep.”
He recalled the question he was supposed to ask: “One of my favorite TV programs is the HBO show ‘Veep.’ In the show, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ character is subjected to a lot of ridiculous and embarrassing campaign events by her staff that she doesn’t enjoy in order to secure votes. I was wondering if you could relate to us a time when maybe you felt ridiculous or embarrassed on the campaign trail and if there is anyone you would like to call out for putting you in that situation?”
Hill decided not to pose the query, however, because he was more interested in whether Pelosi thought Democrats should embrace a more progressive economic platform.
“It would have been fun, but it definitely wasn’t what I really wanted to know,” Hill said of the “Veep” question. “And as a former Democrat, I had some stuff that I really did want to know about, like if they were going to make any effort to regain a lot of the voters they lost during the election cycle. So that was what I was more interested in. That’s why I asked my question.”
But given the dire circumstances ― I’m so sorry Mr. Tapper ― given the dire circumstances our country is in, I wonder if you would indulge me in a little bit more of a serious question about the future of the Democratic Party.
CNN did not dispute Hill’s version of events.
“To ensure we cover a variety of topics, we asked him if he had a personal (non-policy) question he wanted to ask the House Minority Leader,” a CNN spokeswoman said in a statement. “The question he originally submitted and then ultimately asked, was his.”
When Hill proceeded to ask Pelosi about whether Democrats planned to accommodate young people who believe in progressive economic policies, it seemed like CNN’s Jake Tapper was caught off guard.
“This is what we call in this business a soft landing. And it’s a lighter question from our friend Trevor Hill. He’s a student at NYU, he’s from San Diego,” Tapper said by way of introducing Hill’s question.
“Good evening congresswoman. Thank you for being here and thank you for taking my question. I was originally slated to ask a soft question ―” Hill began.
“Uh oh,” Tapper interjected.
“But given the dire circumstances ― I’m so sorry Mr. Tapper ― given the dire circumstances our country is in, I wonder if you would indulge me in a little bit more of a serious question about the future of the Democratic Party,” Hill continued, before asking his question.
Pelosi’s response, which included both a vigorous defense of the capitalist system ― “We’re capitalist and that’s just the way it is” ― and a critique of its current norms in the United States, ended up angering many progressives.
Pelosi’s critics were particularly peeved that she did not address whether Democrats are interested in taking the party in a more populist economic direction or otherwise offer proposals for remedying the flaws in capitalism she enumerated. In some cases, they also lamented what they regarded as her naive and paternalistic view of past business tycoons’ generosity, including an unnamed former chairman of the now-shuttered 20th century multinational Standard Oil of New Jersey.
The exchange became something of a metaphor for the larger struggle for the Democratic Party’s soul taking place between its leaders and its younger, more progressive voting base.
Hill’s personal story only heightened the political significance of his dialogue with the House minority leader. He told HuffPost that he abandoned the party when he felt its leaders’ sunny assessments of the economy were out of sync with his family’s financial suffering. Unable to pay their bills, his parents declared bankruptcy three years ago.
HuffPost asked Pelosi’s office on Thursday if she had anything to add to her Tuesday night response, such as addressing Hill’s query about whether Democrats would embrace economic populism going forward.
“Leader Pelosi’s statement was an indictment of shareholder capitalism and how it’s falling short,” Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Pelosi, responded in a statement. “We hope that Mr. Hill and other young people interested in economic inequality would join efforts in each of their states to fight for a living wage as Leader Pelosi leads the fight for one at the national level.”
Below is a complete transcript of Hill’s conversation with Pelosi:
JAKE TAPPER: This is what we call in this business a soft landing. And it’s a lighter question from our friend Trevor Hill. He’s a student at NYU, he’s from San Diego.
TREVOR Hill: Good evening congresswoman. Thank you for being here and thank you for taking my question. I was originally slated to ask a soft question―
TAPPER: Uh oh.
HILL: But given the dire circumstances ― I’m so sorry Mr. Tapper ― but given the dire circumstances our country is in, I wonder if you would indulge me in a little bit more of a serious question about the future of the Democratic Party.
What I’ve seen on NYU’s campus and what I’ve seen in polls all over, in CNN even, a Harvard University poll last May showed that people between the ages of 18 and 29 ― not just Democrats, not just leftists ― 51 percent of people between 18 and 29 no longer support the system of capitalism.
That’s not me asking you to make a radical statement about capitalism but I’m just telling you that my experience is the younger generation is moving left on economic issues. And I’ve been so excited to see Democrats move left on social issues. As a gay man, I’ve been very proud to see you fighting for our rights and many Democratic leaders fighting for our rights.
But I wonder if there’s anywhere you feel the Democrats could move farther left to a more populist message, the way the alt-right has sort of captured this populist strain on the right wing ― if you think we could make a more stark contrast to right-wing economics?
NANCY PELOSI: I thank you for your question. But I have to say, we’re capitalist and that’s just the way it is.
However, we do think that capitalism is not necessarily meeting the needs with the income inequality that we have in our country.
And let me just tell you this ― I don’t know how much time we have ― about 40 years ago, no less a person in terms of capitalism than the chairman of the Standard Oil of New Jersey said ― that he talked about stakeholder capitalism. Capitalism that said when we make decisions as managements and CEOs of the country, we take into consideration our shareholders, our management, our workers, our customers and the community at large. At that time, the disparity between the CEO and the worker was about 40 times ― 40 times more for the CEO than the worker. As productivity rose, the pay of the worker rose, and the pay of the CEO rose. Everything rose together.
Around 20 years ago it started to turn into ― maybe 15 ― 20 years ago it started to turn into shareholder capitalism where we’re strictly talking about the quarterly report. So a CEO would make much more money by keeping pay low even though productivity is rising. The worker’s not getting more pay and the CEO is getting a big pay because he’s kept costs low by depriving workers of their share of the productivity that they created. And as I call it. a right angle going in the wrong direction.
The disparity between the CEO and the worker under the shareholder capitalism is more like 350 to 400 to 1 ― from 40 to 1 to 350 to 400 to 1.
That income inequality is an immorality and it is not even smart from an economic standpoint, because it doesn’t grow the economy. The more money you put in the pocket of the worker for the productivity he or she has produced, the more money they will spend, consume with confidence, inject into the economy and grow the economy.
So what you talked about and what you talked about are the same thing. The stagnation of wages and the financial instability that families are feeling tied with with seeing priorities that are not necessarily ones that they have ― well, they care about it but it’s not a job, and being able to have a home home and send your children to school and have a dignified retirement are what we want for all Americans. And capitalism should serve that purpose.
The capitalist system has been well served by the so-called safety net. It’s not just a safety net for individual workers. It’s a safety net for capitalism. Because they can go through their cycles, and we have unemployment insurance or all kinds of benefits as a safety yet that enable them to go through cycles. But instead ― and there’s some enlightened corporations which say, ‘I’m keeping my whole staff through thick and thin. At the end of the day, I have a productive, trained, loyal work force.’ So we have to change the thinking of people. I don’t think we have to change from capitalism. We’re a capitalist system.
The free market is a place that can do good things. Actually, Adam Smith ― Wealth of Nations, the invisible hand ― he was more compassionate. He wrote two books. His other book was about our responsibilities to each other, as well as Wealth of Nations. I wish he had written one book where he incorporated all of it together.
I hear what you’re saying about young people. And may I say we have our Eric Swalwell, heads up something called our Future Forum, where young members of congress in their 30s, late 20s ― I think they’re all, some of them have graduated to 30s now ― go around the country and listen to young people. Perhaps he can visit you at school as well. But thank you for sharing.