This interview is part of ourEconomy's series on the US election.
Shahid Buttar is running to represent California's 12th congressional district. He is challenging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has not faced a Democratic opponent in 30 years.
In March, Buttar came in second in California’s nonpartisan blanket primary, winning himself a place on the ballot in November.
A graduate of Stanford Law School, Shahid Buttar built a national progressive legal network at the American Constitution Society to help correct the conservative bias in federal courts. He also worked for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, advocating digital rights for policy issues such as mass surveillance and encryption.
Buttar endorses a Green New Deal, Medicare-for-All, guaranteeing housing for all Americans, and dismantling the military-industrial complex.
Last week, we interviewed Shahid Buttar, to discuss how the pandemic has affected his insurgent campaign and why he believes a change of leadership is required to combat America’s socio-economic crises.
Freddie Stuart: Thank you for joining us Shahid. Could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself, and the congressional race that you're running in?
Shahid Buttar: Thank you for that. I'm an immigrant to the United States; I was born in the UK to a family in the South Asian diaspora. I'm running for Congress in San Francisco to replace Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the Democratic Party, a committed moderate to center right conservative certainly by international standards.
When I look at our entirely dysfunctional national government in Washington, I see unfortunately, the elected representative of our city, the most progressive city in the US, actively enabling conservative interests – including a criminal president.
At the end of the day, particularly as an immigrant, I'm very concerned about a number of the values that I think many Americans take for granted. And one of them for me is democracy. Unfortunately I see the Speaker undermining our democracy, and I'm running to vindicate it and defend it at a time when it's in crisis.
Aaron White: Insurgent grassroots campaigns, especially those challenging central establishment figures, often rely on bringing in new voters, often young voters. How has this current pandemic affected your campaign strategy?
Shahid Buttar: Yeah, thank you for raising that. The challenge for us particularly is that we can't knock on doors. We just took second place a month ago – one of the two winning positions in our jungle primary – which puts me in the position to be the first challenger from within the Democratic party that Nancy Pelosi will have ever faced in a November election, over the course of her 30 year career.
Now, given our results in the primary, we have to double our support twice in the city. In the primary phase we were supported by 14,000 Americans, we won 33,000 votes from San Franciscans, and we have six months to double that twice. We put in place a field plan to do it, and estimated how many volunteer shifts we'd need to get there – and then a pandemic hit, which requires a very sharp pivot in many different ways.
The first way that we responded was to suspend voter outreach entirely, and pivot to mutual aid. Particularly in those first weeks people were challenged: how to get food? What is the future going to look like? How am I going to pay my rent? Frankly for us, it was more about how we show up and be helpful at the moment.
I did have an opportunity to volunteer with different community groups that were working around food security or health security for frontline workers serving unhoused populations especially. But the campaign operation really just focused on calling first our volunteers, and then voters to make sure people knew where they can get a free meal, and how they can qualify for the state program to defer rent payments, for instance.
So that was our first pivot. While we were doing that, we were putting in place the infrastructure and the digital tools to enable distributed phone banking. And this gets to the heart of your question. Since we can't knock on doors, we have to flood the phones. And that's what we're doing. Over the course of the last month we put in place those tools to provide an experience not unlike the Bernie dialer which many volunteers around the country participated in to help fuel Bernie's campaign.
When I look at his campaign and people plugging in on the phones. We often only had a few weeks to cover entire States, well we still have over six months and just a single city. So this is absolutely within reach. We're glad to be joined by hundreds of callers on the phones already, we're going to grow that to thousands. And with that kind of support from around the country, I frankly don't think that Nancy Pelosi has a chance this November and I'm looking forward to proving that.
Freddie Stuart: Nancy Pelosi has recently come under criticism, particularly with the now infamous ice cream shot that was done on late night television. But I wondered if you could speak a little bit more to how Nancy Pelosi herself typifies an ideological shift that's taken place within the Democratic Party over the last 40 years?
Shahid Buttar: Absolutely. That is ultimately the central rationale for my campaign. I've seen Nancy Pelosi enter Congress as a progressive, and over time, particularly as she has attained a leadership position within the Democratic Party, abandon San Francisco's interests in order to privilege her perceived interests of the rest of the party. That has meant defending the most right wing, most conservative Democrats, even against challenges from more progressive Democrats, which are meant to be closer aligned with the Speaker's stated values.
There were two races in particular this year, aside from ours, where the speaker frankly betrayed core ideals of feminism, reproductive liberty and choice. Nancy Pelosi supported anti-choice, reproductive authoritarian Democratic incumbents in both Illinois and Texas – Dan Lipinski and Henry Cuellar – against challengers from young progressive women of color, who would have offered the party more sincere representation, more feminist representation and in the face of those challenges, Nancy Pelosi stood as she always has, on the side of the past.
As the elected leader of the Democrats in the House, Nancy Pelosi could, on the one hand, support the needs of the future and the bold paradigm that is supported by the majority of Americans – bipartisan majority support universal healthcare in the United States. But our elected Democratic Speaker of the House does not. And not only does she not support universal health care, but she actively stands in the way.
One set of issues that reveal in stark relief the pattern of the Speaker's representation more than any other, is the calamitous collapse in federal spending on affordable housing. She is a wealthy landlord, so it's no surprise that she would not be looking out for renters interests. The Federal Government has abandoned spending on affordable housing – creating a preventable housing crisis around the United States, particularly here in San Francisco. At the same time, with Speaker Pelosi’s support, our military spending has continued to climb through the roof. And just to be explicit about this, the money that we squandered on fraudulent weapons that can’t respond to our national security needs, vastly eclipsed whatever savings we gained from abandoning renters. I see in that contrast, the Speaker's priorities revealed.
She is ultimately an agent of Wall Street, and an agent of the Beltway. What San Francisco deserves, what we deserve, is an elected voice in Washington fighting for our city's values. And that's what I've been over the last 20 years. I fought Bush's wars; I fought Obama's deportations and drone strikes; I fought Trump's corruption; and across all three of those administrations I had to also challenge Nancy Pelosi's complicity. I'm tired of doing that as a constituent. I'm looking forward to doing that as her replacement.
Aaron White: Building upon what you mentioned concerning the housing crisis, could you describe what you propose should be done to guarantee affordable housing to all Americans in the US? Particularly within the context of a current pandemic – are you in favour of rent and mortgage moratoriums?
Shahid Buttar: Yes, absolutely – rent and mortgage freezes and forgiveness. A lot of people think of a moratorium as a delay in payments that then continue to accrue. Unfortunately, a lot of San Franciscans and Californians generally are facing that future now. With the economy effectively shut down, working class Americans can't work. They can't get to their jobs unless they've been deemed essential. If people can't work, it is not only unfair to expect them to produce monthly payments for their housing, but it creates a social risk because so many people can't work right now.
The threat of mass evictions, let's be clear about this, especially during a pandemic, creates not just the moral travesty of homelessness that rests on all of our shoulders, but specifically a vital public health contagion vector. Here in San Francisco, I've rarely been as grateful to be a San Franciscan as I have over the last month. Our local and state leadership was quite prescient in responding to the needs presented by the pandemic, not only instituting the delay in payments, though I do favor a freeze as well, but they also issued very early shelter in place orders.
What they did not do was make any pretense of serving our unhoused population, which was placed at risk unnecessarily – housed in congregate settings which expanded the risks. Now finally, San Francisco is making moves to put people in hotel rooms which are conveniently empty because there's effectively no travel at the moment. That's a no brainer policy, and it took a long time even for our progressive leaders here to figure that out. They still have yet to support the freeze and forgiveness on payments.
To the first part of your question about housing generally. The vision I have for housing is one shared by for instance, Ilhan Omar and Bernie Sanders in their Green New Deal for Public Housing. What they envision first is a substantial investment in retrofitting existing federally owned housing stock and there is a lot of it, though not nearly enough.
The Faircloth Amendment prohibited the Federal Government from buying housing under its own auspices, which really created a neoliberal alternative in Section 8 that we've been limited to over the last generation. I want to repeal the Faircloth Amendment to ensure that the Federal Government can purchase housing again. I'd like to develop a model of social housing that has housing owned by the government, but accountable to the residents and communities. That's a combination that we haven't actually had in the United States before. When we've had federally owned housing projects, they were notoriously unaccountable to residents, and that created any number of predictable problems. Responsiveness with public ownership is the key to getting to that vision.
There are some discrete things that we can do in the meantime, and these are realizable pieces of the platform that I'm looking forward to moving in the next Congress. The first is federalizing an initiative that began here in San Francisco. San Francisco and New York City are the only two cities in the country as far as I know, where local leadership has approved civil representation as a matter of right for people facing eviction.
Let me explain what that means. In the United States, by decree of the Supreme Court many years ago, anyone facing criminal prosecution who can't afford a lawyer gets a public defender paid for at public expense. What the law in San Francisco and in New York does is expand that class of beneficiaries beyond people facing criminal prosecution to include people facing eviction. The rationale is that, if you might be homeless, you should have representation – no one should be pushed into the street simply because they didn't have a voice representing them in a process vis a vis a landlord. That's law here in San Francisco, and it could be law across the country. I think the key is a granting program to make resources available to states to hire lawyers to serve as tenants representatives to people facing eviction. That's an easy step forward, that will make a huge difference in the lives of the people at the margin.
Another no brainer here is just restoring the budget for investment in the neoliberal existing housing subsidy program. Those are the community development block grants through HUD – the agency for Housing and Urban Development. We need to start by reinvesting in block grants to states to provide incentives to property developers to include affordable units when they're developing new properties.
A third piece is this Green New Deal for Public Housing – retrofitting existing public housing stock to make it more attractive and sustainable. And then finally, getting to a new era of social housing, where we have the Federal Government making substantial investments in direct ownership of large properties or small properties, with flexible management structures that are accountable to the communities that live in those properties.
Freddie Stuart: I'd like to turn now to another aspect of the current crisis that is particularly scary, which is the intensification of what Shoshana Zuboff and others have called “surveillance capitalism”. As someone competing for a congressional district in San Francisco, you are closely aligned to, and must feel the influence of Silicon Valley. So firstly, how do you view the trend to tech solutionism, with Google and Facebook etc. offering to provide solutions to the current crisis? And also what you would tangibly look to achieve in Congress to counter the advancing hegemony of these surveillance capitalists in our society?
Shahid Buttar: You're asking me a question that's very near to my heart. In fact, this to some extent is the discrete reason I'm running for Congress. It was 2018, in the spring, and I was working at the time at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) – the world's most prolific digital civil liberties organization. One of our long-running struggles is challenging government surveillance, and the threat that it presents not only to privacy, but also to dissent, and through it, democracy.
I watched Speaker Pelosi undermine a proposed surveillance reform on which myself and my colleagues were working. And that was the discrete point when I started thinking about running. Watching for maybe the half dozenth time Pelosi standing on the side of authoritarianism, promoting surveillance capitalism, undermining government transparency, undermining constitutional rights – standing, as she always does on behalf of military industrial interests in this case, rather than we the people of the United States who she's sworn an oath to represent in Congress.
In the context of the pandemic, I am certainly alarmed. You raise reference to the Google and Apple project on contact tracing with their phones. I want to make a sharp distinction here between companies whose business model is selling information -– advertising driven companies, particularly Facebook, Google come to mind, versus companies that make their business model inherent in selling products – and Apple comes to mind there.
I want to contrast their competing positions as it relates to privacy and data protection. One of the very first things I did when I got to the EFF is defend Apple publicly because the company was defending its users in the face of an FBI attempt to force Apple to hack its own users. And this was an incredibly important issue. And you never saw Google or Facebook take an analogous position probably because their business models are ultimately in tension with the privacy interests of their consumers.
I offer that just to help increase the granularity when we talk about big tech. Because it's not just big tech, it's big advertising driven corporate surveillance entities. Corporate surveillance is the precursor to online advertising. And that part of the business model is the problem. That's the ultimate issue here.
When we think about contact tracing by Google or Apple – that program is very different from the kinds of programs that Edward Snowden revealed where the government was hacking companies. The program BULLRUN comes to mind. Which revealed national security agencies' practice of hacking big companies to take data about users whenever the company refused to give through a legal process. Which is just to say, whatever a company gets, the government can get to.
The reason I raised that is because even though this current program has different goals in mind, the same recommendations that we've made in the national security context should still apply. These programs should be transparent. People should have a right to opt-in. There should be limits on the use of this information; there should be limits on how long it is retained; there should be limits on who it is shared with, and under what circumstances. All these kinds of parameters are the sort that do not exist in the national security context. There are no limits on use, or retention, or dissemination – it's just open season. And so whether it's in the national security context, whether it's in the public health context, any data collection, must respect the user's right to opt in. So people should be affirmatively allowed to consent to participate, not forced. They must also be subject to transparency, and not just in the aggregate, but people should answer questions about particular outcomes that are driven by algorithms to make sure that we don't have decision making by avarice.
Once I'm in Congress, my goal there particularly relates to reviving and resuscitating antitrust law. My very first object of study, when I trained at Stanford Law School 20 years ago, was antitrust law. I saw it as the solution to protecting any number of things, particularly the rise of corporate America. I worked on Wall Street in the 90s. And so I saw the precursors to the 2008 financial crisis, and I've long recognized that corporate America needs to be reined in by antitrust laws. That hasn't been effectively used in 20 years.
A progressive foreign policy puts human rights before corporate resource extraction.
Aaron White: Another topic I'd like to expand on pertains to the military-industrial complex. You mentioned briefly beforehand how both Democrats and Republicans in the United States have been complicit in its expansion, especially figures such as Nancy Pelosi and the now presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden who voted for the Iraq war and the Patriot Act. Can you explain what a progressive foreign policy would look like, and what policy proposals you would like to push while in Congress?
Shahid Buttar: Absolutely. This is another area that is very important to me as an immigrant to this country. I feel that I am in a position to represent not just the voices of San Franciscans, but ultimately a global community that has long been impacted in very unfortunate ways by an abusive militaristic and belligerent unilateral US foreign policy.
There's an organization called Project Censored which publishes an annual volume of stories that are underreported in the US media. The 2017 volume includes a chapter that I wrote, titled Ike's Dystopian Dream and it's a reference to a vision shared by President Dwight Eisenhower. It's the speech where the term the military-industrial complex was coined. And the context of the speech is incredibly important. I often invite people to listen to it again, it's on YouTube.
He says in the speech very clearly that he felt compelled to create an industrial arms industry to fight the Nazis. He says that this arms industry and the profit motive inherent in security will threaten democracy in America. It will threaten our rights and our liberties. He says it will transform the spiritual character of the United States and every town in it. It's an incredibly visionary speech.
And one of the things that alarms me most is just how completely America forgot it. This was broadcast on national TV at the birth of the medium, there was probably no speech more widely seen on the planet in its era. It wasn't that long ago, only two generations, 65 years ago since its architect warned us to stay knowledgeable and alert about the abuses of our military-industrial complex.
Here is just a short rundown of some of the things that we have done: serial interventions in dozens of countries around the world to steal resources that were under their soil, particularly fossil fuels. In addition to those wars for profit, we've also seen any number of human rights abuses, and I want to talk about one set of them in particular, and that is torture by the CIA. The CIA is a central figure in this serial abuse of our military-industrial complex, and it hides behind executive secrecy. Not just hundreds of detainees in the context of the war on terror, but I want to rewind the clock back to Latin America in the 80s and 90s, where tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, often in paramilitary execution style by death squads trained by the US military. This is a pattern in which we have long been complicit.
A progressive foreign policy puts human rights before corporate resource extraction. A progressive foreign policy is knowledgeable and alert about the potential abuses of our arms industry.
Let's talk about the budgetary impact of the military industrial complex. There's a particular fighter plane, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. This fighter platform will cost over $2 trillion dollars over the lifecycle of the program. It has been beset by problems with respect to delivering products on time in conformity with the spec. For years, the plane literally could not be flown because it was pieced together with specs from different service branches it didn't actually have. It didn't operate. They had to re engineer the plane because they were literally building it while they were designing it which is for anyone who's been involved in any design process of any kind, an obvious recipe for cost overruns.
And I would just ask, what is the point of spending $2 trillion on a fighter plane that can't fight a virus; that can't keep the Post Office open, and that can't fight climate change? Those are our three greatest national security imperatives at the moment – a pandemic, climate chaos and preserving the integrity of our elections and ensuring that our republic continues beyond November.
A fighter plane doesn't give you any of those things. So when they tell us we don't have money for Medicare-for-All during a pandemic, when there is an actual national security threat that we are grappling with, the policy that would most directly address it is universal health care – that's a national security policy I can get behind. That's a progressive, maybe not foreign policy, but at least national security policy.
You know, another dimension here that I just want to touch on is the domestic facing side of that military-industrial complex – and that's policing and the surveillance capitalism that you asked about before. Particularly immigration enforcement after having abused people around the world, in the service of filling the pockets of weapons contractors, particularly our military-industrial complex, turned its sights on the American people. Our chickens have come home to roost, particularly in the form of paramilitary police around the United States.
And all of those examples: CIA, human rights abuses, wars for profit, surveillance capitalism, paramilitary policing, mass incarceration, all of these are examples of our civilizations' ignorance, having forgotten the warning that we were given on national television. As a student of history, I understand the incredible importance of that speech.
But you can't find a Democrat to recognize that. Because as you described, there's never been a war that Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi haven't voted for. They are cheerleaders of this sorted attack on our rights. And as a constituent, as a constitutional lawyer, as now a candidate for Congress; having already sworn an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic – I'm very eager to do the job that Nancy Pelosi has refused to do.
Freddie Stuart: I appreciate you trying to bring some perspective to that history of US interventionism. I would point anyone listening to this in the future to the recent podcast we did for openDemocracy on the US military industrial complex, which included that speech from Eisenhower.
But to bring us back to the current moment for a second, obviously you're trying to win your race, but you're also looking to push the narrative with more progressive ideals. I wondered how confident you are that Biden, as the Democratic nominee, can be pushed by the popularity of progressive campaigns like yours and Bernie Sanders, to shift his political stance to the left?
Shahid Buttar: I can't prognosticate as to his likelihood to meet us halfway. But I will say that if Democrats want to win the next election, they're going to need the young people who overwhelmingly support the progressive vision that Joe Biden has not supported in his time in Congress.
As an architect of mass incarceration, as a cheerleader for wars, as the quarterback that put Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court, Joe Biden has disappointed me more or less at every turn in his past, I can't remember a set of issues where he has actually impressed me. He's had plenty of chances to do it.
I do hope that he takes that opportunity to meet us halfway; because if he doesn't support universal health care, if he doesn't support climate justice, it's entirely predictable that he will lose the election. We can't have another four years of Trump, but to be fair, if Biden is the president without making those pivots, I don't think he'll be much better.
Whether it's a President Trump or whether it's a President Biden, I'm anticipating that when I go to Congress after replacing Nancy Pelosi, I will be fighting whoever the president is from the left. And I would much rather have the opportunity to support a president with a meaningful commitment to the American people, which neither of them have seemed to exhibit.
I think you're right to lay the question before Biden, will he remain committed to his corporate principles and putting corporate interests before communities? In which case he will lose the election. Or he can at least start to adopt some of these positions he has refused to adopt in the past, positions favoured by the majority of Americans, starting with universal health care and including a more progressive approach to the abusive, extractive, foreign policy that he has been so effective in engineering over the last generation.
If he takes that opportunity to adopt new positions to keep his ear to the ground and listen to the future; I think there's a real opportunity here. If he doesn't, I fear that future very much.
Aaron White: One final question. If you do take down Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats remain in the majority, that'll leave a spot open for a new speaker. Do you have an idea of who you'd like to see take the reins?
Shahid Buttar: Absolutely. Here in the Bay Area, the leader of our congressional delegation is Barbara Lee. She is a stalwart champion of civil rights. She voted against the war in Iraq. She voted against the Patriot Act. She has always stood on the side of the American people.
The Progressive Caucus is the largest caucus in the Democratic Party. And there's lots of voices in it. I'm inspired by everyone in the “squad”, and also representatives Ro Khanna and Pramila Jayapal. These are inspiring, insightful, and experienced voices in the House. Barbara Lee is probably the longest serving among the ones that I would describe as willing to challenge the Washington establishment.
I sometimes hear from folks who don't pay a lot of attention to politics – oh, what will San Francisco do when we don't have the Speaker anymore? And the first issue there is the Speaker has never done anything for San Francisco. So San Francisco derives no benefit from her being the speaker.
Secondly, the Bay Area can retain a leadership position here. And if Barbara Lee were the speaker, the Bay Area would actually have sincere representation instead of simply theatrical representation that is co-opting our region’s sensibility. Barbara Lee is a much more sincere representative of the Bay Area's political convictions than Nancy Pelosi has been. And so I'm very eager to get Barbara Lee the gavel after replacing Nancy Pelosi in the 12th congressional district seat.