Later this summer, Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden will announce his running mate—and it’s widely presumed he will choose one of the many dynamic Black women who have risen to the top of the political sphere (and its adjacent headlines) in recent years. But as anyone watching the Biden camp knows, he already has a dynamic Black woman in his ear: Senior Adviser Symone Sanders, who made headlines of her own in March when she, along with Dr. Jill Biden, preempted security in wrestling protesters off the stage during a Biden campaign event in Los Angeles.
Those familiar with Sanders’ seemingly fearless brand of dynamism, her instinct to spring to action came as little surprise. The political wunderkind rose to national prominence at age 26 during her work on Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential run as the youngest National Press Secretary in U.S. history. Now 30, the CNN commentator is not known for backing down in a confrontation. In fact, the title of her first book, No, You Shut Up: Speaking Truth to Power and Reclaiming America, references to another well-publicized political standoff that took place on CNN’s New Day in August 2017, as Sanders appeared opposite former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli in the aftermath of the white supremacist uprisings in Charlottesville that resulted in the death of protester Heather Heyer.
Cuccinelli, a Republican and currently acting deputy secretary of Homeland Security in the Trump administration, predictably attempted to place the blame on “an individual organizer’s plot to disrupt what was billed as an innocent protest,” rather than white supremacy itself—despite host Chris Cuomo’s correct assertion that it was clear what the khaki-clad, tiki torch-bearing protesters meant by defending the legacy of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. As Sanders writes: “The debate got heated, and we began talking over each other,” when Cuccinelli countered:
“Can I finish, Symone? Will you just shut up for a minute and let me finish?”
“Pardon me, sir,” I began, my voice getting louder. (He was no match for me on that front.) “You don’t get to tell me to shut up on national television.”
Cuomo agreed, and he said so.
“Then how do you make them stop talking when they keep interrupting you?” Cuccinelli continued.
“‘Them’? ‘They’?” I said. “I’m sitting right here!”
The very public “othering” and attempt to silence Sanders was all too familiar to Black Americans—and the incident, along with Sanders’ growing political influence, proved pivotal when she inked her book deal in the fall of 2018, well before Biden’s April 2019 announcement that he’d be joining the presidential race with the surprise addition of the former Bernie staffer to his team. Around the same time, Sanders began teaching a course at the University of Southern California’s Center for the Political Future, where she is a resident fellow (as she also is at Harvard’s Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School). In fact, even as No, You Shut Up! was published in mid-May, less than a week before the murder of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, Sanders had no idea how prescient her call to action would prove to be.
“I really feel like this book is an analysis of the intersection of the political and the cultural moment we find ourselves in, and then how we can navigate through that moment,” Sanders told The Glow Up in the days following Floyd’s death, as both a pandemic and protests raged around the country. “I talk a lot about power, and I talk about the concept of “we” [in] the preamble to the Constitution: ‘We the people, in order to form a more perfect union...’ When that was written, the ‘we’ meant rich white men. Not even just white men; you had to be rich, white, and a man. And then, over the course of time, that ‘we’ has expanded but the ‘we’ still is not all-encompassing. So how can we expand that ‘we’? How can we truly take the reins of power in this country? That’s why the tagline is “Speaking truth to power, reclaiming America”: the reclaiming America part is about the ‘we.’
“We” are well past fed up; that much has been abundantly clear in recent weeks, as both local and federal governments and countless industries have been forced to reexamine their racial biases and divides. And whether taking to the streets or confronting the inequities in their communities or workplaces, Sanders is urging us to leverage that frustration into long-overdue structural change. While No, You Shut Up! chronicles her own journey into politics and civic engagement, she hopes it equally emboldens readers to activate their own power in dismantling an unjust system.
“What I hope that people take from the book [is] 1) how to infiltrate the apparatus of power and 2) how to expand that ‘we,’ regardless of what you do or where you are in the world,” she continued. “So if you’re a student; if you are a stay-at-home mom; if you are an environmentalist; if you are somebody who’s in politics; if you’re an executive; if you’re a writer; we can all be radical revolutionaries in our own spaces and places—and at this moment in time, we have to, regardless of where we sit on the ideological spectrum.”
Obviously, having occupied primary roles in both Bernie Sanders’ campaign and now Biden’s, Sanders knows a thing or two about the ideological differences that have divided the Democratic base in recent years. Now “actively working to help make sure Joe Biden becomes the 46th president of the United States,” Sanders says the campaign’s priority is to earn the votes of “actual real people, not the ‘Twitterati,’” specifically referencing “Beltway reporters who only report on and talk about what they see on Twitter.”
Nevertheless, we, of course, raised the issue of her candidate’s tendency toward off-the-cuff (and occasionally off-putting) remarks—as in the now-infamous The Breakfast Club interview in which a careless quip about the pragmatism of Black voters led many to believe Biden presumed our votes were already his to lose. A now-seasoned strategic communications specialist (she is principal of the 360 Group LLC), Sanders proved defter at addressing the gaffe than Biden himself.
“Things are bound to happen. Anybody who has a microphone on them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, you do enough interviews, you’re bound to say something that later you’re like, ‘I need to clarify,” she said, before adding, “He came out immediately and said, ‘Let me just be really clear: I have never and am not taking the African-American vote for granted.’ He has been very clear and was clear, in that moment, that Black voters were key to his winning the Democratic primary and will be critical to him winning the presidency.”
And with Biden the only Democratic candidate left to potentially unseat Donald Trump in November, Sanders implores us to stay focused. “Because Donald Trump is gonna be Donald Trump; he’s going to be a liar,” she stated flatly, referencing the series of mistruths and outright mishandling that were partly responsible for the unchecked spread of COVID-19, which has now caused well past 100,000 deaths in the U.S.—with Black and Latinx people most affected.
For many, Biden is far from a flawless candidate. Aside from historically being more moderate than some feel the current moment requires, the elder statesman has maintained a relatively low profile during the pandemic; an anomaly for an already radically different campaign year. Nevertheless, his slow and steady approach to campaigning is paying off, especially as Trump spins even further out of control. In the past week, Biden surged past Trump in the polls (yes, even a Fox poll), while New York magazine’s Intelligencer published an article titled, “What If I Told You Joe Biden Is Actually Running a Great Campaign?”
“We’re going to continue to call out the lies when we see them [and] when we hear them. Vice President Biden is going to continue to speak the truth over lies,” Sanders declared. “He’s gonna give you facts, but talk about his plan for the American people, his plan for Black voters in America—and that is how we’re going to connect with folks and that’s how we’re going to win this election.”
And who will presumably be at Biden’s side for that hopeful win? While acknowledging the former vice president’s promise to choose a woman as his running mate, which he has said he will announce “around August 1,” Sanders remained coy about whether it will be a Black woman. (Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar recently bowed out of consideration, reportedly telling Biden “this is a moment to put a woman of color on that ticket,” according to CNN.)
“What I’ll say is that we have heard the concerns of voters across the country—specifically the concerns of Black women and Black people who have said they would like to see a Black woman on the ticket,” Sanders shared. “We’ve also heard the concerns of Latino voters and operatives and organizations who say they’d like to see a Latina on the ticket. And what I say to that is we hear you, there is a process, and the process is underway. We have to let the process play out.”
“But at the end of the day, that person will be someone who can mirror the relationship that he and President Obama had; someone that he could designate presidential authority to like Obama gave to him,” she added. “Because the task before a Biden administration—especially given this pandemic—it’s gonna be a humongous undertaking and he’s gonna need a governing partner. A number of Black women could potentially be that governing partner; will it be a Black woman? We will just have to wait and see.”
What Sanders is firm on is the need for young people to be as engaged at the ballot box as they have been in the protests already inspiring transformative changes.
“We need young people now more than ever,” she said, paraphrasing the words of former South Bend, Ind., mayor turned presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg as she noted: “Young people have actually been a key part of every piece of change that has gone on and happened in this country. Every movement, every monumental thing; it has been young people that have been the lynchpin helping make it happen, and that is no different than right now. And it is going to take young people—specifically young Black folks—to not only get Donald Trump out of office and elect Joe Biden, but to help enact this bold progressive vision to create a Justice Department that is truly about justice and is the people’s lawyer, not the president’s lawyer…To ensure that we have a recovery effort that speaks directly to Black People, to women, to young people, to young Black folks, especially; to entrepreneurs, to young people who have lived through now two financially devastating financial crises…
“We have to talk about the power of young people and that’s something Vice President Biden often talks about,” she added, reminding us that the veteran politician was only 29 years old and running against an incumbent when he entered federal government. “He knows what it’s like to be a young person that wants to have their voice heard and exercise their power; he did it. And now we need young people across the board—young Black folks, especially—to exercise that power.”
In analyzing what many have perceived to be the apathy of the younger voting base and others identify as frustration, Sanders acknowledged that as a millennial who was first able to vote for the 2008 Obama/Biden ticket, hers was perhaps the last generation of Democrats to see their electoral participation translate into change. “There is a generation of young people who have not seen that,” she conceded.
“There are young people who say, ‘We have been voting, we have been participating, but Black people are still losing their lives in the custody of police officers. There still viral videos of our deaths on the internet, on the news. It is harrowing,” she continued. “And so, for a generation of young people, they don’t feel their power at the ballot box. They feel like there are other ways to go about it. And I would say for parents and anybody that has a young person in their lives, and to young people themselves: We have to understand that while the ballot box is not the only tool in the toolbox for social justice, it is a very important tool; a tool that if we do not use, the protests and the advocacy, and the ballot initiatives, they won’t make a difference. Because who is in elected office—the people who are the governors, and the mayors, and the presidents, and the city council folks—and who those people appoint, they matter. I just think that’s never been more clear and more viscerally true than now. We can see it; we can absolutely see it,” Sanders concluded, her urgency echoing the epilogue to No, You Shut Up!, where she writes:
It may not feel like it every day, but I promise you, we have the power. We can do this. From the office to the classroom, to the ballot box and the strike line, we have the power. Whether you live in a rural community or an urban center, our voices can and do change things. Find your place, ladies and gentlemen. Rise up. This is our country and our participation is mandatory for change. It is our engagement that is the source of the gains we have made and can continue to make in our country toward a more equitable, safe, healthy, and hopeful future for us all.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Symone Sanders’ No, You Shut Up: Speaking Truth to Power and Reclaiming America is available at booksellers now.