For this week’s episode, Rebecca sat down with Troy N. Miller, who’s long served as the Off-Kilter podcast’s beloved “man behind the curtain,” aka executive producer. When he’s not producing Off-Kilter, the Zero Hour, Breaking Through, and other progressive podcast/radio programs, Troy serves as West Virginia organizer and special projects director at Social Security Works and at-large member of the West Virginia State Democratic Executive Committee. In what was Troy’s first time crossing over to appear as a guest on the podcast, Rebecca and Troy had a far-ranging conversation about the story behind the “21st Century Economic Bill of Rights” adopted by the West Virginia State Democratic Executive Committee last month; why it matters for states to adopt these kinds of nonbinding resolutions; myth versus fact when it comes to West Virginia politics; Troy’s path to getting involved with West Virginia politics; the role of progressive radio and podcasting in the larger movement for social and economic justice and how Troy’s decade in the progressive radio world has shaped him as an advocate; and lots more.
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REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome back to Off-Kilter, a podcast about the fight for economic liberation and what it will take to set us all free, powered by The Century Foundation. I’m Rebecca Vallas, and every week, as you know, I go behind the music with visionary leaders and lightworkers working to reshape America’s off-kilter economy into one where everyone can thrive and access the shared abundance we all deserve. And as I often say when I kick off these episodes, I think of it kind of like a weekly trip to the Marvel Universe, but the superheroes I get to talk with every week work with law and policy and everything that makes it happen.
And for this week’s episode, I’m so incredibly excited to sit down with someone who is usually the man behind the curtain, as he calls himself, for this very podcast. So, you’ve heard me maybe talk to him, you’ve heard guests reference him at different points, but he’s never actually come on the show before. I’m really excited that’s about to change. And that is Troy Miller. Troy is the West Virginia organizer and special projects director for an organization very close to my heart called Social Security Works. But more to the conversation we’re really gonna be having today, he’s an at-large member of the West Virginia State Democratic Executive Committee. He represents the Middleway Magisterial District on the Jefferson County Democratic Executive Committee. That’s a lot of words. We’re gonna understand a little bit more about what that means, but it’s basically state Democratic Party politics that he’s very, very involved in. And he serves as the lead producer on Off-Kilter and has for some time. So, Troy, I’m really excited that we’re finally doing this! I think I’ve been trying to get you on the show for a long time, and I feel like we finally found a topic you were willing to come on the screen to talk about. So, weird as it is for me to say this to you, Welcome to Off-Kilter. [laughs]
TROY N. MILLER: Well, thank you, Rebecca. It’s always a little bit strange to be on this side of the camera and the microphone, microphone for most of our audience, I know. And it’s a pleasure and an honor to be the executive producer of this program. And likewise, it’s a pleasure and honor to now get to join the rank of illustrious guests on the program. I don’t know if I get to join the ranks of illustrious ones, but nonetheless, I’m a ranking guest, and many of them are illustrious.
VALLAS: I love it. I love it. And therefore, by extension, I think one clearly proves the other. No, in all seriousness, Troy, I just wanna start before we even get into any of this, just with a note of just such gratitude, which I don’t often have the space to express in these podcast episodes. People probably hear me at the end of every episode noting you and your merry band of farm animals and my gratitude to you for all that you do to make this show happen week by week by week. But I have a lot of love for you. I feel sort of like you’re kind of my little brother in some ways.
VALLAS: And we get to spend a lot of time together, but I don’t often get to tell you how grateful I am for everything that you do to make this humble little podcast happen. So, just a lot of love, Troy. Thank you.
MILLER: It’s my, again, my pleasure and honor. And you actually do make it known pretty well when we’re talking off of the recording and everything, but it’s good for the public to hear that too, I reckon. [delighted laugh]
VALLAS: Well, so, let’s bring you out from behind the curtain. And I say you often call yourself the man behind the curtain. Anyone who’s ever been a guest on this show has usually actually seen a graphic that you have up, which is from The Wizard of Oz. And it’s the man behind the curtain, and that’s what you have instead of actually coming on screen. So, a lot of people have been on this show, and they’ve never seen your face, and they literally think of you as the man behind the curtain. So, let’s pull the curtain back. And maybe that’s actually the title of the episode. I’ll have to think about that. But before I say much more about you, I said a bunch of words that are part of your bio about what you do in West Virginia, but I wanna give you the chance to introduce yourself to Off-Kilter’s listeners as more than the man behind the curtain. What’s your West Virginia role? We’ll talk a lot more about that. But how did you get to it? How do you come to social and economic justice work?
MILLER: Well, it’s a huge question ‘cause it’s been so much of my life. And in some ways, I was, in terms of the last part of the question about how did I come to social justice work, in some ways I sort of born into it. My mother was very focused on social justice through many capacities in her life, from originally going to work as, or going to school to become a chemical engineer and an environmental engineer. She ended up not doing anything professionally with that because at that time she was starting to have kids, and she was working with sewage treatment. So, that was less than ideal, I think, and she decided to turn towards raising kids. But throughout that, then she studied theology, and she actually, when I was in middle school and high school, she was teaching at the local all-girls’ school, now defunct and closed in Wheeling, West Virginia. But she was teaching scripture to one group of girls and social justice to another. And she made it very, when my brother who is five years older than I am, he was…she engaged him with social justice work through volunteering at a Wheeling establishment, the Laughlin Chapel, which does a lot of great work for under-, what I would consider underserviced kids in the Wheeling area, sort of inner city in as much as Wheeling has one of those types of cultures, and afterschool programs for the parents who are working all the time. And that was sort of one of my first proxies to realizing how other people live in our society, I guess. And ‘cause I grew up in a very suburban middle-class home with all of the privileges and accommodations that come with that type of upbringing.
So, when I went off to college, I ended up looking into foreign service and international affairs. I was really looking at one point to solve the crises in the Middle East. I got to Georgetown and pretty quickly realized that there were plenty of other people who had not only a better background than I, but more familiarity with the languages and the cultures and everything like that. And that same year, my freshman year, one of the service trips, one of the Alternative Spring Breaks that students can take was to the 18th Street Center Catholic Charities in Wheeling, West Virginia. It was one of the choices, along with a trip to Puerto Rico, or I think Haiti might’ve been on there. And I remember thinking, wow! That’s my hometown. I’ve done volunteer work at the Catholic Charities at the 18th Street Center. I’ve helped them tear down boxes and do all this thing. It’s a homeless shelter. I’m actually not sure if it’s a shelter that overnights people. But it’s a soup kitchen, and they do fantastic work there.
But it really started, at that point, I started looking more inwards and started looking at how international development can be used towards social justice, not just in the international context, but right here at home where we have places, and it’s so easy for…. What I sort of realized at that point was that as a West Virginian who had all of these opportunities and privileges afforded to me, I thought it was, I feel like it would be sort of derelict of my—and disrespectful to—my home and my upbringing to take all of that and say, okay, now let’s go and try to solve the problems in somewhere far off in the world that certainly needs the help but isn’t…doesn’t have the same connection to me and is almost kind of like turning my back on the communities that I grew up around and in.
And so, at that point, I started studying environmental and energy policy because one of the things that I identified is that West Virginia suffers very much from what’s in the economic development world referred to as resource curse, or more bluntly, sometimes Dutch disease because of how prevalent it is among former Dutch colonies in Africa. And what it is, is you have places that are incredibly abundant in resources. In West Virginia, everyone, I mean, this is, it’s, the Appalachian region is one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world. And with that, you have a lot of time and history and fauna that has been compacted over time and become coal and natural gas and oil. And that, and on top the timber, salt mines in the 19th century was a huge thing. I’ve done a lot of work studying into how the fur trade shaped the beginning of Appalachia. But the consequence of all of this is that you’re dealing with global markets when you deal with coal and natural gas. The prices get very high. The employers can pay much higher wages for people with high school graduates or GEDs. You don’t have to go to college to be making six figures in a relatively short time if you can stay safe and if you can endure in the rigors of these things. Consequently, other small businesses in the area cannot compete with those wages. Now, this becomes a very fundamental sort of economic conundrum. And then you throw in another facet of it where the entire economy is dependent on carbon-rich resources that we, I was also studying climate change at this time. One of the first times in my life where I truly despaired when I realized the political, the incentives through Citizens United and other policies too that would, that have provided an absolute bulwark to the decarbonization and adaptation and mitigation that we really need to have been doing over the last ten years, and we’ve started doing more of but….
So, all of this then leads me to graduate, and I graduate in four years, despite all of the despair wrapped in with these studies and trying to understand how people understand West Virginia. You know, another facet is anyone who’s from West Virginia who’s moved out of the area understands what it’s like to be asked about what your relationship with your cousin might be, or “You have all your teeth. That’s amazing” or “you don’t sound Southern to me.” Dear listeners, Wheeling is actually north of the Mason-Dixon Line. It’s north of Philadelphia on the map on latitude. There’s a reason I don’t sound Southern. [laughs] I’m, in fact, not from the South. And all of this perpetuates to this day of sort of what people conceive of West Virginia as versus what I full well know who we are, which is not one-dimensional. I think a lot of people have a lot of one-dimensional visions of West Virginia. And frankly, we’ve been defined by outsiders for most of our history.
I kind of wanna take a pause here ‘cause I just unloaded a lot of information and covered a lot of ground. And I wanna let you try to, if you wanna try to steer me back towards a particular facet of anything I just said, it might be helpful for all of us and the listeners. [laughs]
VALLAS: No, I love all of that as a starting place. And I’ll also just say there’s obviously more dots that could be connected in terms of getting you to the point that you’re at and the role that you play at Social Security Works and all the things. And in there also is your having spent ten years in the progressive radio world, and I hope we’re gonna talk about some pieces of those too, of that, too. But let’s actually really dig into the West Virginia piece here. And that’s really where you’ve started this, and that was really the inspiration for having you from behind the curtain onto the podcast. And I’ve never done an episode that digs in on West Virginia, one of the poorest states in the country and also one of, as you’ve been describing, one of the most misunderstood and really kind of widely stereotyped states in the country, particularly in ways that very much connect to that long history of poverty.
So, I wanna get into the really, kind of the substance and the policy and some other aspects, but I wanna give you a chance to just name as a little more foundation setting before we get into the West Virginia Economic Bill of Rights and some other kind of exciting things you’ve been really part of leading within the state. I wanna give you the chance to describe how you got involved with the West Virginia Democratic Party and to sort of translate and explain some of the words I offered by way of introduction in terms of how you’re involved with and what your role is within the West Virginia Democratic Party. So, talk a little bit about your role, how you got involved, and then I think let’s get into some of the pieces you just started to take us to.
MILLER: I guess I’ve been politically active in organizing. I, for many years, have found our political and party system in this country and in this state to be utterly broken. So, I generally was not trying to operate within a party system. And I sort of, I always knew that I affiliated with the Democrats closer than the Republicans. But even to this day, I still will go, you know, in the grand scheme of things, I’m a pretty moderate Republican by 1956 standards, for instance. I’m pretty well in the center of the global political spectrum. It’s just that in this country, everything has shifted so far towards a right area, the right-wing side to the base—we’ll talk more about this—but to the point where we have these conversations about whether government services should be making a profit or how we can make government services create a profit. And this is a bipartisan beginning point for our discussions of political possibility in this country. And I do wanna unpack that later.
But so, when Build Back Better was being lobbied for in all of this in my work with Social Security Works, we were really encouraging Senator Manchin to sign on with the bill as it was as Build Back Better. With that, one of the main points that we were really harping on is the provisions to lower prescription drug prices through Medicare negotiation. And at this point, we now know what ten are going to be the first to be negotiated. And that’s great. It’s a great starting point. The entire negotiations through Build Back Better, Senator Manchin was talking about how he wanted to control inflation and bring inflation down. So, we messaged and lobbied hard, a lot through rallies and billboard trucks and things like this to really help people raise awareness in the state about where Senator Manchin rhetoric was and what the policies that were in the Build Back Better plan would be able to do to address inflation. And you know this, but it’s worth restating: Year over year, whether inflation is high or inflation is low, drug prices are going up, outpacing inflation and driving that inflation. And that’s been true for basically my entire life. And it seemed like that message came through to Senator Manchin because what ended up coming through was the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes these provisions that are now included.
Through the rallying of all of that, I coordinated with local Democrats here for I think it’s pretty obvious reasons why we would be trying to organize Democrats around this in that Senator Manchin is our state elected Democrat, and people inside the party, along with people around the state, voicing to him what, you know. And one in four West Virginians…. I’m sorry, let me step back. I believe it’s one in four West Virginian children are being raised by their grandparents right now. So, the inflation on drug prices is actively hurting our childcare system. These are, you know, you have caregivers who are having to choose between their own medications and what they can provide for their children. You have 90 percent of West Virginians who are either on a prescription drug or live in a household with a someone on a prescription drug. So, these are salient issues. This is not even a hard pitch. People, everyone understood this, and Senator Manchin understood this.
After one of the rallies before this, back during the Build Back Better phase, I was, somebody asked me if I would run for the West Virginia Democratic State Executive Committee in my Senate district out here. So, now I will step back and say every state and parties within a state have organizing bodies. What those bodies look like on a state-by-state basis is different. Some places they’re a caucus; some places they’re an executive committee. Here in West Virginia, we have an elected executive committee. We elect, in the Democratic Party, two males and two females from every Senate district. There are 16 Senate districts, so it’s a pretty sizable body. I actually lost in my election in the Senate district. It was a, it’s a funny sort of quirk of how the election, how those elections work and how that worked, ‘cause I won enough votes to be in the top four, but because two of the winners had already been from our county, and they needed two of the winners to be from the other county, I ended up losing to people who got fewer votes in another county. And it’s fine. Those are also great candidates and all that.
After that, it was, people had kind of gotten to know me in the Democratic Party, and I was asked if I would run for an at-large position, which is then all of the elected people who are elected by Democrats in the state go to a county or a state convention and elect the officers, at-large members, a number of other, you know, our affirmative action committee members, a number of other officers and non-officers, if there’s a vacancy somewhere, because the Democratic Party in West Virginia has dwindled significantly, and we have Senate districts and counties where we don’t necessarily have candidates to put on the ballot, even internally. With that, though, comes tremendous opportunity. Because whereas in some states, I think of Massachusetts, for instance, or California, the Democratic Party is very, very, very strong. And consequently, people who have tried to join in, tried to bring in new energy, are sometimes rebuffed or treated as though they don’t know anything, and so they’re not necessarily welcome. They should wait their turn to come into these positions. And that, I feel like, is fundamentally anti-democratic, but it’s also the nature of institutions at some point. So, it’s a real double-edged sword because the Democratic Party here in West Virginia has become very weak.
It’s important to point out that this was not, the national media narratives in 2015 and 2016 is that this state is blood red, basically might as well always have been. There’s something intrinsic to the West Virginia nature. Maybe it goes back to the Irish-Scotch heritage of Appalachia, maybe the fierce independence of the Mountaineers, and they don’t wanna be told by government what to do, how to live. All of these types of myths. The reality is this state only turned red back in 2014. For 80 years, from the ‘40s until really the ‘90s was when Republicans even started winning any sort of position statewide, the Democrats had complete control of the state. And I think this is one of the things that people know. And when you look at our voter turnout, this, again, is not an overwhelmingly Republican state. It’s not that people are turning out in droves. We’re not looking at a 60 percent voter turnout. We’re not looking at even necessarily the national average of under 50 percent. We’re looking at closer to 30, 40 percent registered voter turnout. So, again, these are registered voters, people who have expressed through their registration interest in the political process, an interest in or concern about who they elect and all of this. But for whatever reason, for all of the barriers that other guests of yours have talked about on this program, too, they can’t get to the polling place. The mail-in ballots are difficult. Whatever number of barriers that exist for people fully able-bodied and not so much.
And it’s worth pointing out that in West Virginia, one out of three, one out of three West Virginian adults either qualify or are recognized as living with a disability. And I think you and I can both understand that that’s probably an underestimation because people tend to not report on these types of things. And I do think there’s a stigma and a point of pride of not claiming disability benefits. There’s, I grew up hearing horrible jokes about the West Virginians who were just lazy and relying on their disability, but they weren’t really hurt, and they’re out on their boat, things like this. All of this goes back to why the Democratic Party, how the Democratic Party has become so weak.
And what I think one of the things that as a party we need to come to terms with in this state is that two things have happened over the last 30 years. One, it’s not like the state was doing a boom economy in the 1990s or the 1980s. There’s really been a concerted effort by the mine owners, for instance, to automate away a lot of the jobs. It’s a tremendous myth that regulations have destroyed these jobs in West Virginia. The reality is most of the coal mining jobs in this state were destroyed or automated away before even H.W. Bush was elected compared to our peak in the ‘50s. All of this again goes back to, we’ve also, I mean, people may not realize we are down to two members of the House of Representatives based on our population right now. In the ‘50s, we had six. No other state has seen this type of population decline, and what I would argue is, the apathy that comes with it. Because no matter who has been in charge, there’s this lip service to turning our economy around, to helping create better opportunities for West Virginians, for helping people to come back to the state, giving people tax breaks to come work here, all of this stuff. But none of it has actually been effective, and I think so much of that is because our problems are so much more systemic than these simple sort of patches.
What kind of conventional economics, I guess, or mainstream economics, how we look at it of you adjust these things, and then those numbers go up, and then the economy’s good, right? That’s the type of, and it doesn’t matter. One side can say you have to do X, Y, Z things, and the other side say we cut taxes and that’ll do it. And all of it is just kind of ignoring some of the more fundamental root issues of what does it mean to be in a very rural state that has lost a lot of population, that has lost a lot of its tax base as a result of that, that maybe it hasn’t done a good enough job like Alaska of capturing excise taxes from our resources as they leave the state such that they could be reinvested in the state? And that brings us into 90 years of what I would consider malfeasance with blips of genuinely good policy. West Virginia was the first state to establish a public school system. But what is, where does that leave, right now, this is absolutely under attack by proponents of vouchers, proponents of charter schools, proponents of…. And I never wanna come off saying home schooling is a bad thing, but there is a faction of people who promote home schooling as a means of destroying our public education system.
[big sigh] Once again, if you wanna jump in and kind of ring me back in, all of this goes to say how I got involved with the state executive committee. And I was fortunate enough to win that, to win my contested nomination with the state executive committee last year. And as I came on, I knew that one of the things I wanted our party to adopt is this 21st Century Economic Bill of Rights in some form or another.
VALLAS: And that’s exactly where I think this is just a perfect segue way to. And Troy, I really appreciate all of that foundation laying, sort of your observations about the myths and the folklore versus the reality of not just the history of West Virginia politics, but, I mean, you bring this, you bring a perspective. And part of why I’ve been looking forward to this conversation with you is you bring the perspective of someone who grew up there and who knows it as someone who really is, deep in your blood, in your bones, a West Virginian and someone who has worked on policy and politics at a national level and has that observer perspective as well.
And so, I really appreciate everything that you just shared, which I feel like is just a perfect foundation and kind of onramp to where I know you and I both really wanna go with this conversation, which is something that’s really exciting that I would actually describe as sort of a glimmer of hope within what might otherwise seem like a somewhat bleak picture within a state that consistently ranks as one of the poorest states in the United States. As you’ve noted, it’s also famously got a long history of political leaders and aid workers and other people who are not from the state, sort of, quote, “discovering” West Virginia and its challenges and often using it as a poster child of extreme poverty, of people living on less than $2 a day, of just like real hardship and squalor. You described before, and I think a lot of people probably resonate with this, there’s often among folks who wanna do social justice work, maybe come from homes like yours, like mine, where we were sort of raised, we were bred to be people who are gonna work on these issues, some people often think you have to go overseas to do that kind of work. And yet West Virginia is one of those examples of the kinds of places that sometimes people can go and literally have their life changed by seeing the kinds of conditions that can exist within our own country, that we allow, that we allow to exist within a country of such abundance.
And what I wanna do to sort of segue into this next part of our conversation is just to name that part of what got you and me talking about having you on the air versus keeping you behind the curtain after producing the show for years and years is that the West Virginia Democratic Party Executive Committee recently passed—and this is what I’m describing as a glimmer of hope—a 21st Century Economic Bill of Rights. You authored the resolution that actually triggered the body to take it up. To connect this to some more history that folks are probably more familiar with, it’s modeled after Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Economic Bill of Rights, which he presented in his State of the Union address in 1944. At that time, I’ll quote FDR here for completing sort of the history here, he famously said, “We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people, whether one third, one fifth or one tenth, is ill clothed, ill fed, ill housed, and insecure.” And that was really what was underlying that Economic Bill of Rights that has really persisted within the history that most folks involved in economic justice, economic liberation work, social justice work in some way are probably familiar with. Back to West Virginia, you’ve been describing some of both the myth and the reality of what’s going on in one of the poorest states in the country and some of its political history, right? Because it’s no accident that it has the economic makeup that it has. But talk a little bit about what this 21st Century Economic Bill of Rights includes. I wanna give credit to two people that you thought it was very important to give credit to: Harvey Kaye and Alan Minsky with the Progressive Democrats of America who wrote the underlying rights that are enumerated in it. And that’s a concept that has spread to states across the country. But talk a little bit about this 21st Century Economic Bill of Rights and maybe tell the story behind why you thought it was important for West Virginia to take this up.
MILLER: Well, yeah. And I will give a lot of credit to Professor Harvey Kaye and Alan Minsky at the Progressive Democrats of America. I think it was last March, they coauthored a article that went out in Common Dreams that really called on all Democratic officeholders and parties to adopt this second Economic Bill of Rights, 21st Century Economic Bill of Rights. I think at that point it had six points. And listeners may also remember that Senator Bernie Sanders talked about this during his ‘15-‘16 campaign and ‘20 campaign. It is part of a legacy. And I think one of the things that really, I grabbed onto this immediately when I first heard about it, one of the problems that we have here in West Virginia is that as one party has taken more and more and more control, we’ve had members of the other party, of the Democratic Party, join their ranks and sometimes be elected as a Democrat one month and two months later say, “We’re joining the majority. We think it’s the only way we can get things done. And by the way, we always stood on these things, and the Democratic Party has lost its way. It’s gone too far left.” They’re concerned about choose your culture war issue, right? Choose the most hyperbolic thing you can say about a Democrat. And this is what people would say as they’re joining the Republican Party as an elected Democrat. And our governor right now was elected as a Democrat, endorsed by Senator Joe Manchin, and joined the Republican Party. He was a billionaire coal baron, so it seemed frankly pretty appropriate at that point. But again, the history of West Virginia is that the billion-, the coal barons have interests with both parties, and they do not care so long as they can be, so long as they have elected officials who will say things like, “Regulations are killing jobs, and the only way to bring back coal mining and other things is to lower the taxes on them,” which has always just been such an abs-, it’s like a, right now, the proposal to pay for $14 billion here by taking $14 billion from the IRS and acting like that’s an offset, even though you’re destroying a revenue source, and therefore it’s not an offset, right? Same sort of logic was you lower excise taxes on resources that you can only get from this state.
So, part of it is the old saying: If you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything. And so, I see this, and I’ll just read off the ten of them here. “The West Virginia Democratic Executive Committee affirms support for a 21st Century Economic Bill of Rights, affirming the right to a job that pays a living wage; the right to a voice in the workplace through a union and collective bargaining; the right to comprehensive quality healthcare; the right to a complete cost-free public education and access to broadband Internet; the right to decent, safe, affordable housing; the right to a clean environment and a healthy planet; the right to meaningful resources at birth and a secure retirement; the right to sound banking and financial services; the right to an equitable and economically fair justice system; and the right to vote and otherwise participate in public life.” I think that these are all very sort of middle-of-the-road things. I think these are American values. I don’t think that this is a, this should be at all a partisan thing.
And I’ve seen some interesting responses where, you know, one sort of progressive Twitterer weighed in and said, “Well, no wonder that the West Virginia Democrats support this. This is very moderate,” right? This is just saying that they won’t take, they won’t get in the way of you having a job that pays a living wage, right? And you and I can understand that there’s two ways to understand rights. There’s negative rights that say the government isn’t going to prevent you from having these things. The right to free speech, for instance, is really a negative right that says the state is not going to interfere with your…. It’s not necessarily guaranteeing that the state is going to provide a platform for everyone, but it’s not going to interfere there. I think these are affirmative rights. I believe that these are absolutely not saying that the state won’t interfere with your access to broadband, but will actually facilitate your access to broadband.
These are, I think every one of, as I was reading through these points, I could think of different episodes of this program where each of these things has been highlighted as an economic justice issue, a disability justice issue. If you can’t participate in public life, right now, if you don’t have broadband, phew, Lord knows through the pandemic, I don’t know how you were going to school. And I know that there were people sitting in McDonald’s parking lots and Starbucks parking lots using the free Wi-Fi in order to get their education, which is also not necessarily fully guaranteed right now.
Now, the other criticism I’ve seen from it is, “Well, this is nice. This is a lot of nice words. Is there any enforcement?” And one has to go, well, no, not at the moment. First of all, we’re a state party. We can’t actually create laws like that. Well, can you throw somebody out if they don’t believe that? Maybe we can get there. I don’t, we’re not there yet. But what it is saying, and I haven’t talked to a single person within the party who hasn’t said, “This is great. Thank you. Now we know what we’re organizing around. Now we know what we can, what we’re, how to make the conversation happen without having to respond to the other side’s categorization of us.” And I think part of this, part of the problem is that since the 1990s, right, Newt Gingrich and others within the Republican Party were very, very, very good about taking control of rhetoric nationally with the Contract for America and various other, right? The whole choose your topic, it’s been colored by the Republican narrative.
It’s Obamacare. Okay. Well, that’s been turned around. And he took, he decided to make that an affirmative thing. But that was not how that was intended, and we ended up with that as our rhetoric anyway, right? Same thing with death panels, right? And now Joe Biden has started talking about a Republic-, or any commission to discuss cutting Social Security benefits as a death panel. And that’s, I think, really brilliant rhetorically, but is nonetheless, we had to take their rhetoric and turn it around. The Democrats have been playing reactively for how they’re defined. And I see this at every level of government where the news cycle is, “This side does this, and Democrats say this about it.” And it’s never the Democrats out ahead of an issue defining it on their own and forcing the other side to react to it. It’s never— And so, I really am looking forward to when Republicans start trying to attack these things and say, or anyone. I mean, whether it’s a Republican, a Democrat, or anywhere in between, no, Americans don’t have a complete, a right to a complete cost-free public education. You don’t have the right to medical care. You don’t have these very basic rights that, to paraphrase Senator Sanders, the richest country at the richest time in our history should be able to offer these things. And again, I go back to what I was saying earlier about this perverse sense of government services exist to make a profit and/or exist to make certain numbers go up. And if it’s not, if those numbers, if those measures aren’t going up, then you might as well cut the program.
And it makes me think of Robert Kennedy Sr. before he was assassinated in 1968 who gave a great speech that I think about a lot, where he talks about what the gross national product can measure, and it can measure the bombs that we drop. It can measure the ambulances on our roads. It can measure the quality of our roads, how much we’re spending on textbooks, all of these types of things. But what it can’t measure is the quality of our play. It can’t measure the quality of our leisure. It can’t measure the actual quality of education and the civic leaders and civic participants that we’re fostering through our expenditures on education. GDP and gross national product are both incredibly limiting measures. And if we use those alone to dictate our policies rather than looking at, you know, asking the hard questions of, “Well, what does it mean to have the right to a clean environment?” Well, is it just how many pieces, how much, what the parts per million concentration is of a given poison or whether it’s PFAS or another one? Or are we actually working not to just limit the poisons but to create a proactive, you know? So that we’re not necessarily having to just measure things constantly to say, “Oops, now that’s too dangerous, but it was just under too dangerous before,” right? How do we proactively stop another Flint, Michigan from happening? How do we proactively say that, hey, maybe our municipal water services shouldn’t exist to make shareholder profits at all? [laughs] You know?
VALLAS: Troy, I’m gonna jump in there, and I’m just gonna, I’m gonna pull on, there’s so many threads, but I’m gonna pull on one in particular, which is you named— And as I’m saying this to you, for our video viewers, it’s Halloween. And so, yes, I’m wearing a witch hat, and now I have a black cat sitting in my lap, which is just perfect. I didn’t stage the cat part. But anyway, I’m, yeah, this is on-brand for the day that we’re recording. But Troy, you described this Economic Bill of Rights, which as its history that is so connected to FDR, which also has real connections to a lot of Martin Luther King Jr.’s work, which also has resurfaced most recently in a national way with Bernie Sanders. But not a new idea, right? A very old idea. But as you noted, a very moderate idea, [chuckles] a very common idea of eally not radical as much as it might sound or seem radical with the way that the center of gravity has shifted politically in this country, as you were describing at the outset of this conversation. Really not a radical idea. Part of what was coming through for me when you were describing that is it’s because, as many have said, these are human rights, right? That’s what these are.
VALLAS: These are based, this is an enumeration of basic human rights. And they are basic human rights that anyone would say they want for themselves. They’re basic human rights that anyone, I think, would say they want for their family, for their loved ones. And if you were to extend the circle just a little broader, it’s probably basic human rights that most people would say they want for other people that they care about or that they see as part of their circle. Maybe it’s their community, however they define that. Maybe it’s their tribe or their whatever the “us” is in how people think about an us, right? These are basic human rights.
And I think why I find activities, exercises like the one that West Virginia has now just moved through and that you led folks through like taking up something like this, an Economic Bill of Rights that, as you noted, doesn’t have teeth, but which makes a statement, why I find that to be so powerful and part of why I was interested in having this conversation with you on the air and not just off the air as we were, is for that very reason. Because it is a moment of recognition of those basic human rights, and it is a statement that really kind of forces people to ask the question, well, why wouldn’t I be for this? Or who isn’t for this? Or what are, most importantly, the things standing in the way of all of these rights being realized for everybody as opposed to just for some people, which is the way that implicit in FDR, actually, explicit in FDR’s comment, but also in today’s economy, is the reality that whether it’s one third, as he said, or one fifth or one tenth of people for whom those rights are not actually realized.
So, I wanna kind of have a little bit of time to talk with you about a few other things, but I just wanna name for anyone who wants to learn more about what West Virginia has just done, we have a link to this in show notes. We also will have a link to the Common Dreams piece that you mentioned, with credit to Harvey Kaye and Alan Minsky, and any other resources, Troy, that you think folks should have access to if they wanna learn more about how to bring this to their state or how to get involved in West Virginia and what you folks are doing there. But I wanna make a little bit of space to talk a little bit about you, Troy, because you knew I was gonna make you do that, and it’s something I like to do with everyone I have on this show, go a little bit behind the person and behind the work outside of that work that we’ve been talking about but also pretty clearly true since you’ve been a producer for the show for a long time. You have a long history in progressive radio. You used to produce Thom Hartmann’s show. You also were a major contributor and a researcher to a bunch of his books. How did you get into the progressive radio world? And I’m curious if you wanna speak a little bit to how it’s shaped you and your work and your thinking as an activist. Bonus points if you wanna give any thoughts to what you see as the role of progressive radio in the movement for social justice.
MILLER: I, yeah, I’m happy to answer that. And what I’ll say is it was sort of coincidentally, as many things in our lives happen, it was actually a friend of mine, college roommate, who was writing a piece for In These Times about Social Security and the fight over chained CPI, if you remember that back in 2012, 2013. I’m sure we all, many of us do. And he had met our friend Alex Lawson, who is the executive director of Social Security Works. He’s also a co-founder and co-owner of We Act Radio, which is one of the homes of this program. And he asked my friend to intern at We Act Radio, and he wasn’t too keen on some of the engineering side of things. And so, I ended up sliding in there because I was fresh out of college, and nobody was replying to my résumés and cover letters. And so, I ended up getting a contract gig with We Act Radio here, well, not here. I’m in West Virginia right now, but our home station in Anacostia at the corner of Martin Luther King Avenue and formerly Good Hope Road, soon to be Marion Barry Avenue. And I really fell in love with the community radio aspect of it and the independent radio. I love the engineering of it all. That came very naturally to me. And I had, for years, had kind of been under the impression that one of the major malfunctions with our political system is our media landscape and the sort of, you know, it’s very simple how our media landscape works. They have 20, we have 24-hour networks that are ostensibly on one side or another that are there entirely to sell advertisements. That is the business model. They want to have you watching for long enough that you watch through the Dawn and the Lockheed Martin and the Northrop Grumman and whatever other commercials. And but that’s what they do. They sell ads. And so, they’re not actually there to inform or even entertain us, right? The entertainment is only there to bait us in through watching the ads to buy the products so that they can make money, the advertisers can make money, and the whole system can go around.
We Act Radio doesn’t operate under that model. We are very much there to inform and advocate. One of the things that at We Act Radio I realized, because we are in southeast D.C., much of which has now moved to Prince George’s County through the violence and subtleties of gentrification, but the issues that people were facing who would come into the radio station and start talking to me, one of the few, at that time, one of the few white people over there on that side of the river. And we’d talk, and every story I heard was, I could think of another analog from back home. I could think of another analog in West Virginia. I could see that the incarceration rates, the prevalence of drugs, the heavily policed communities, the poverty, the lack of access to resources of bookstores, libraries, good quality food, all of these things.
And one of the ways, the only way we can change these things—and I’m gonna tie this all together into the work with, I’ve learned a lot through my work with Thom Hartmann as a researcher and an editor and a writer—one of the things that we worked on was the hidden history of oligarchy, of American oligarchy. And one of the things we, I think, kind of simultaneously learned through that, although it’s hard to know how much Thom seems to always have known, is that the American Revolution—and this is the words of our founders, Madison and Adams and others—the American Revolution really didn’t start with Lexington and Concord. The American Revolution started with the writings of John Locke and others. The American Revolution started with the idea that people who weren’t the king, people who weren’t nobility, could also own property, and that those people who are property owners have a right to civic participation. This is important because we have this misconception that the American Revolution bequeathed all of these rights to all men, and it’s actually much narrower than that.
It really was, the revolutionary thought, was about property rights among the common man, right? And that, you see that through Thomas Paine’s writing on agrarian justice, and…I’m drawing a blank on the person’s name, oh, Tocqueville, his writings on what America looked like in the early 19th century, late 18th century. But it’s really about the propertied class, and we’ve kind of glossed over that in our history. But as a consequence of that, we also gloss over the fact that whole groups of people were considered property as part of that whole deal. These are sort of original sins of the American Constitution, but nonetheless, the revolutionary idea that common people could be property owners and have political rights that are guaranteed and affirmed through our Bill of Rights, through our Constitution, and protected through these things, that took 70, 80 years. It took sort of the saturation through the American colonists starting to get this sense that they would then take up arms and fight for these rights that they had come to believe as salient.
So, the Economic Bill of Rights, as we’ve seen, what happened here in West Virginia is, it didn’t start when I was elected. It didn’t start with that Common Dreams article. It started with FDR’s enumeration of these rights. And before that, Abraham Lincoln was also really starting to talk, understand that there…. And FDR, I think, said it best and most succinctly, “A necessitous man is not a free man.” And you don’t, you actually cannot fully realize your political rights if your economic rights are also not secured. You have to have these freedoms from want and necessity, or else you are not going to be able to fully participate in civic life the way people who talk on podcasts tend to be able to, but many listeners end up not being able to be because they’re listening in between jobs.
VALLAS: Yeah. Which also is, it’s restated in pretty much every discipline, right? I mean, if you take it to psychological and social science, it shows up as Maslow’s hierarchy, right?
VALLAS: If you get beyond the base of the pyramid where your basic needs are met, you don’t get to pass go and collect $200 and start the journey that ultimately leads to self-actualization, right?
VALLAS: Whether you think about that spiritually, whether you think about that in a secular way, right? It is that base of the hierarchy. Which actually is a segue into another question I have for you. And so, I think you’re probably gonna bring more back into radio here. But let me add this layer, which is, I sometimes like to ask guests, the ones who are up for it—and I know you are—how spirituality fits into your work and into your worldview, whether that’s some kind of religious connotation that comes to mind when I say that word, or whether it’s spirituality without religion, something that’s more about a sense of larger purpose. I’m curious if you wanna add that, ‘cause I feel like that’s part of where you’re starting to go with this.
MILLER: Yeah, I mean, I was, as I started off the beginning of the conversation, I was raised Catholic. My mom studied Catholic theology. I was raised Catholic, and I was very much steeped in the Catholic social teachings and liberation theologies. I am not a practicing Catholic these days, but I nonetheless can recognize that this is very much where my, where I, where my thinking has been shaped from, very much like Pope Francis, for what it’s worth. But I find the institution can be troublesome at times. That’s a whole nother hour or five at least. But that all does go back to the, you know, again, I think if we can look at sort of even the secular story of what we acknowledge in the gospels and Jesus’s life and all of this, and I look to Acts of the Apostles in particular. The message of the New Testament is that love thy neighbor as you’d love thyself. And that goes, that crosses every spirituality. It’s karma. That’s however you wanna call it, of any of these things. And I think that is what we’re individually called to do. I think then the question becomes, are government and public places supposed to do this, or is it the role of private charities? I’m not going to answer that here. But I do think that, I think it’s very interesting that we are told again and again that we live in a Christian nation and that then also, that is the reason why we need to privatize all of our services. It’s an incredible dichotomy there. But internally to anyone’s theology, I won’t criticize, except for it doesn’t make too much sense to me. But that is where I’m coming from in terms of my spirituality. And beyond that, it is one of those things where I’m very comfortable to talk about these things to anyone. But it is a very highly personal and how it translates in a format like this, I’m not sure. That being said, it is, to go back to what you’re saying about Mas-, throughout these fields and how people….
MILLER: I think that is what our government should be striving for, right? When we’re trying to, it’s not indoctrination to create good civic-minded and engaged people. And I don’t think you can have quite that with people who are not able to self-actualize. And again, these are very abstract sort of concepts. What does it mean to self-actualize? And I think we need to be having these conversations as a society.
And to go bring this back into the media conversation, I think programs like this are so important because these conversations aren’t happening in other places. One of the fastest growing markets for media in the country right now is Hispanic conservative talk radio. And I’m not here to say whether that’s a good or a bad thing, but I will say that I think it’s, you can point to the nature of Florida as a swing state and which communities have become the swing communities and say, well, you know…. [sighs] We have these commercials in West Virginia for the West Virginia State Lottery, and they always end with, “You can’t win if you don’t play.” And I think about that a lot in terms of the media landscape and whether, you know, where Christian talk radio, also very huge. And so, is it any surprise that these are sort of the salient parts of our discourse in that we’re talking about things as though not privatizing a whole series of a part of our government is the radical position?
As though, I mean, I find it tremendously un-American, this concept that the American government can’t do anything good, can’t provide services, and shouldn’t provide services. That the American government’s business is to protect our borders and stay out of everyone’s way, I find to be tremendously offensive. I think it sells us all short, and I think it yields a society that is nothing more than an oligarchy, that literally just what the rich decide is what we end up having. And we have multiple studies over the years that’ve shown that’s what’s happening. When the wealthiest in this country want a piece of legislation passed, it is more than likely going to pass. If it’s a very popular piece of legislation up for debate and the rich people don’t support it, it’s about a coin toss. You know, it might happen. It might not. And the media is central to all of this.
And so, when we have a media that is majority there to sell advertisements, I don’t think it’s any surprise that we end up with a society that is, where everything is based on how much one can consume, right? And one’s dignity is sort of hinged on that. And we don’t even talk about the, we wanna praise everyone who has pulled themselves up by whatever bootstraps and ignore the fact that many people don’t have any bootstraps, and then we’re going to chide them for not spending enough money in our economy, not working hard enough to have enough disposable income to spend money in our economy, right? And then when they do have enough disposable income to spend money in our economy, we blame them for inflation [laughs] and say, “Oh, no! We have too many employed people.” It’s…. [sighs]
I’m sorry, I went on a little bit. But right? All of this is so much entwined with my work with The Zero Hour, with Richard Scott, with Thom Hartmann, with you, with Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner with MomsRising, all of these groups. And they, all of these shows are talking about different things, but they are quintessentially, or rather, they are essentially some of the only places where you can hear a counter-narrative that isn’t based on driving ad sales all on its own. And that’s not to say anything about the politics that are on any of these other places. But when you’re watching and, “Coming right back after this spot,” and then you watch through all the ads, that’s what you were there for.
VALLAS: And I feel like this throughline through all of that—and honestly, some days I wonder if this is what the show should be called, and maybe it will be at some point. I don’t know—is “It doesn’t have to be this way,” right?
VALLAS: Because that’s the thing that sort of, to bring this back to where we started, pulls back the curtain, right, and helps people see that the collective limiting beliefs that we allow to constrain us don’t actually have to be there if we don’t accept them as a group, right, and if we dare to dream in a way that we haven’t been told is permissible. But, Troy, I’m gonna have to do what you always do—
MILLER: I know. We’re out of time, and I’m normally the person telling you we’re out of time.
VALLAS: You say, “We’re out of time!”
MILLER: But I just wanna quickly say, one of the metaphors I use for that is it’s like, we’re all kind of, if people understand how a black hole works. And when you’re in a black hole, you can’t see past the event horizon. And so, it’s like sometimes to me, programs like this are kind of flashing the light past the event horizon in the hopes that people will start to realize that, oh, there is a system out there. There’s a whole universe out there, aside from this singularity that we’ve allowed our political process to become.
VALLAS: I love that metaphor. And the one that often I think of somewhat consciously in producing the show is Plato’s Cave, right? Which people might remember studying in school.
MILLER: Yeah, exactly.
VALLAS: And you see the shadows on the wall, but you’re not really sure where the light is. And the glimpses of the light can help you find the way out of the cave. It’s kind of a meta point to end this conversation on, but you know I’m not gonna let you get away without telling me your walk-up or hype song so Kings can put it in the playlist.
MILLER: There’s so many to choose from, and I’m constantly listening to whatever music is going to hype me up. But the one I think I’ll throw out there is a song by the Warren Haynes Band off the album Man in Motion. The song is called River’s Gonna Rise. And if I remember correctly, he wrote it shortly after or during what was called the Arab Spring back ten, 12 years ago at this point. And it starts off with a line that, you know, “darkness hides the faces of we who hold the power.” And it goes on from there about how the river’s gonna rise and wash our struggles away. And it has a great groove, kind of somehow combines like a Motown feel with sort of a harder driving thing. And so, I think that would be a good addition to the playlist.
VALLAS: Amazing. Please text it to me so I can listen to it this afternoon while I’m driving to D.C. from Charlottesville and needing a little bit of hope.
VALLAS: I appreciate you so much, Troy. This was such a fun conversation for me. And the man behind the curtain, everyone, Troy Miller, West Virginia organizer and special projects director for Social Security Works. He’s also an at-large member of the West Virginia State Democratic Party’s Executive Committee. You can find lots more in show notes about a bunch of the things we just talked about, but most importantly, West Virginia’s new Economic Bill of Rights. Troy, thank you for taking the time. [theme music returns] Thank you for all that you do to make this podcast happen.
MILLER: Thank you so much, Rebecca, and look forward to the next one.
VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s show. Off-Kilter is powered by The Century Foundation and produced by We Act Radio, with a special shoutout to executive producer Troy Miller and his merry band of farm animals, and the phenomenal Kings Floyd, who keeps us all in line week to week. Transcripts, which help us make the show accessible, are courtesy of Cheryl Green and her fabulous feline coworker. Find us every week on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your pods. And if you like what we do here at Off-Kilter Enterprises, send us some love by hitting that subscribe button and rating and reviewing the show on Apple Podcasts to help other folks find the pod. Thanks again for listening and see you next week.