Sally Kohn, Populist Progressive

by Betsy Woodruff
CNN’s new contributor, no fan of Obama and Clinton’s, puts herself squarely in the Warren camp.

Sally Kohn will never be conservatives’ favorite Democrat. The Fox News alumna — and, according to a report from TV Newser, newly minted CNN contributor — is progressive enough to work for Roger Ailes’s network without anyone ever questioning her liberal bona fides. And that’s why, when she takes jabs at the institutional Left, conservatives should pay attention.

First, though, a bit about Kohn: Though not a household name, she has become fairly well known as a TV pundit over the last few years. She tells NRO that she stumbled from college at George Washington University to community organizing to cable news in general to, specifically, a Fox News gig without much forethought or strategizing. She grew up in an upper-middle-class family in Allentown, Pa., a ragged-around-the-edges Rust Belt enclave where most people were not as well off as her family. “One of the greatest gifts they gave me was understanding that,” she says.

From Pennsylvania, she headed to D.C. And while flipping through a GLAAD mailer one day in college, she noticed an ad for interns at a community-organizing group. It seemed like a good fit; though she was interested in activism and policy, partisan electoral politics had never grabbed her the way they do so many GW students.

“I wasn’t that into politics with a capital P, party politics, electoral politics,” she says. “It just didn’t get me up in the morning.”

So community organizing it was. “It felt like a way to change the world that wasn’t as raw and transactional as party politics,” she says. “It put regular people at the front of political change, instead of glossy candidates and high-paid consultants.”

From her various positions at national organizations, she traveled around the country and helped direct local efforts. One of her proudest accomplishments, she tells NRO, was collecting stories from Blue Dog Democrats’ constituents to marshal support for the Affordable Care Act.

But that’s not to say Kohn is nostalgic about the first years of the Obama presidency. “I think the job of independent and small-p political organizations is to hold elected leaders’ feet to the fire,” she says. “We didn’t do that. The first two years, we kind of gave him a pass. We were dazzled. We believed the rhetoric.”

A collection of factors kept many leftists from pressuring Obama more during the first two years of his presidential term, when Democratic control of the House and Senate gave progressives unprecedented clout in Washington. And right when it mattered most, Kohn says, the Left dropped the ball.

“This White House has a really hard time with criticism, including from the left,” she says. “They didn’t like being criticized, and they implicitly and sometimes explicitly kind of threatened the institutional Left with excommunication if they were too independent or critical. And with some exceptions, the Left stayed in its lane and did what the White House told it to.”

Blistering criticism from the right made it easier for the Left to acquiesce to the White House’s expectations, she adds.

“The operating principles of the Left in that moment were based on the idea that he’s, like, ‘I got this,’” she says.

But he didn’t. And on top of that, Kohn and others thought he conceded too much to Republicans in negotiations. So, by the close of 2009, Kohn was feeling a little disenchanted with the White House and the Left.

Within a year, she’d been discovered — speaking on a panel about art and activism — and had her first appearance on Hannity. It wasn’t too long before she signed with Fox.

“About a year later I saw Roger Ailes on the street outside of Fox,” she says. “I waved at him, he waved at me, we had a meeting, he offered me a job. It went like that.”

And now she’s part of the camp of progressives interested in the Left’s newly invigorated focus on populist economic policy. When I asked what she thought of the Elizabeth Warren mold — especially in contrast to Hillary Clinton’s political trajectory — she laughed.

“What do you think I think?” she asks. “Love it!”

She adds that she places herself squarely in the Warren camp of the progressive movement: claiming victory on social issues, at least in the long term, and prioritizing policy solutions to economic inequality. “I’d be like a camp counselor in her camp,” she says.

So it’s not surprising that she’s not a participant in the emerging Hillary hype. Obama was Clinton 2.0, she says, citing his choices for Treasury secretary and chief of staff. “Do we want Clinton 3.0?” she asks. “Those of us on the left would say no.”

“I do not look at the current crop of figures in the Democratic party and get tingles running down my spine,” she continues. “The modern Democratic party does not seem to be something that creates the space for progressive populist ideas.”

While the conservative movement allows diversity and has a wide ideological spectrum, the institutional Left, she believes, has become increasingly centrist, partisan, and corporate.

“You have very vocal, very vibrant, well-funded, visible parts of the Right that basically want to abolish government altogether — Kevin!” she says, laughing, referring to National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson. “You don’t have that extreme equivalent on the Left.”

And that’s a bad thing, in her view. There aren’​t progressive equivalents of FreedomWorks and Heritage Action to push the Democratic party’s agenda. And although she wouldn’t necessarily associate with their leftist equivalents, she thinks their existence would be healthy.

That’s a bit of the background she’ll bring to CNN: frustration with the president, frustration with the institutional Left, frustration with the Clinton machine, and, yet, enough affability to still get along with Sean Hannity.

“You can rise a lot faster in this business if you say really nasty, asinine things about your political opponents,” she says. “Oh well.”

— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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