I was on Wisconsin political radio.
Full interview and transcript from my chat with Kristin Brey on As Goes Wisconsin.
Here’s the show
Listen and engage with As Goes Wisconsin here
Annnnnd, as always, if you love independent media and want it to stick around, then who else will fund it but you? Become a sustaining member for $5/mo ($60/yr) here.
Here’s the hastily and lightly edited transcript:
Kristin Brey 0:10
Welcome back to As Goes Wisconsin with Kristen Brey. So one of the things that I've loved about the TikTok world is finding other like-minded people. I think the technical term on TikTok is mutuals, is that the correct term?
Yeah, so when you find someone else who is using humor, and short video to talk about political things, labor, politics, and lefty politics, and being in the Midwest, you become friends with them.
So my friend, John Russell, who's at @heyjohnrussell is here. He is an Upper Ohio Valley guy, a TikToker, and the author of The Holler which is an Appalachian-based independent media outlet for the fed-up working class. He talks about labor politics for rednecks and hippies and is biased in favor of working people. He's a dive bartender and an eater of the rich. What do the rich taste like?
John Russell 1:17
We have yet to find out. But you know, that's a collective action that we could all take that I generally advocate for on TikTok. So, yeah, if you're into it, let me know.
Kristin Brey 1:25
So welcome to the show!
John Russell 1:28
Thank you so much. I'm excited to be here. Big Wisconsin fan. Ohio is like Wisconsin except, you know, less hot dish and cool accents.
Kristin Brey 1:38
And you worry… the name of this show, As Goes Wisconsin, so goes the nation. It was originally actually as goes Ohio, so goes the nation, but you guys have been a one-party state for a little while yeah?
John Russell 1:49
Hey, hang on to what you got there Wisconsin. Before you know it, you could be you know, Missouri or Alabama of the North. That's what Ohio has been up to these recent days. No shade on my own home state. But change happens fast.
Kristin Brey 2:02
Yes. I want to get into all your work specifically. But how are the races looking there? As close as they look here?
John Russell 2:10
Yeah. Well, we have one really marquee race. I don't know do people in Wisconsin know Sherrod Brown at all (it sounds like I’m saying he’s up for re-election. He’s not. I’m talking about the Tim Ryan Senate race… just keep reading)? I wouldn't really expect them to...
Kristin Brey 2:21
People who follow politics know Sherrod Brown, and he is pretty, he is I think, in my view, been profiled a fair amount as someone who is fairly progressive in an otherwise red state and yet continues to have the support of voters there because of the way he talks about working-class issues. Is that a good summary?
John Russell 2:21
Very much! Sherrod Brown is our senior senator here. He's very progressive. He's always been really good on labor, organizing, but you know,
one of the things that's funny about him, he's just, it's like... you're not gonna get worked over by a guy who has like, food stains on their shirt, as a Senator, you know, he's very much that guy. I encourage all of your listeners to look up Sherrod Brown, he's a notoriously bad dresser. And honestly, I feel like that should be a litmus test for anybody running for office. If you dress badly, you're probably on my side.
Sherrod Brown has been doing that forever. It's been working. He's fended off, you know, endless right-wing nut jobs and is still our senator. But anyway, I just went to a fundraiser before joining the show here for Sherrod Brown and Tim Ryan. That's the closest race that we have the Senate race for Ohio. That one's gonna be a nail-biter. It's with grifter-in-chief JD Vance of Hillbilly Elegy fame. But that's the main race that we have going.
Kristin Brey 3:39
And that's still pretty close. Right? It's not?
John Russell 3:43
Kristin Brey 3:46
It seems like as far as high-profile senate races it's there (Ohio), here (Wisconsin), Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Arizona. Are those all?
John Russell 3:57
Nevada. Arizona. Yep.
Kristin Brey 4:00
So yeah, so we're holding our breath for another week. But regardless of what happens next week, I feel like you and I are going to continue doing what we're doing. And so let's talk about more of what you're doing. So first, I want to play I think you've had a couple of videos go do perform really well, as far as lots of views, and lots of comments. But this one, I think, was the most recent one. And I want to start there. So let's play that one.
Enable 3rd party cookies or use another browser
Kristin Brey 5:17
So you had 2.3 million views on that on just your TikTok. And I recently had, it's not 2 million views, but I would say because I've been doing the show, not making as many videos but I had a video last week that I made about our senior senator, which sometimes the thing with TikTok is it gets that many views not just because it's like, resonating with people, but because people are fighting in the comment section. For that video, did you get any productive conversations out of it?
John Russell 5:50
Oh, sure. It's always easier to go down unproductive conversations. I mean, I think the main thing that gets confused here, on my channel, I'm always talking about huge businesses. This is not mom-and-pop businesses, it's Walmart, it's Amazon. It's all the companies that are, you know, making billions and billions of dollars and using that to influence politics.
But you know, a lot of what happens in that video, is people thinking I'm talking about the owner of my bar, which for the record, I love this man. And he is, you know, in the same class boat as I am. He's not out there making money hand over fist. But I think the power of new media I mean, when I first started TikTok your account was one of the ones that I was, you know, basing things off of. Because I think when you're just talking in a relatable way, in a humorous way, and you stick a reframe on there, just a different way to think about things. To me, that's one of the things that if that's repeated over and over again, can get us out of this... just senseless, short-term politics. I mean, so many, of the things that people get worked up with just have no bearing on key questions like how is your life doing? Are you making enough money? Are you fairly compensated in your job? What kind of power do you have? Those things have left the political conversation. But I'm finding a lot of that conversation on places like TikTok.
Kristin Brey 7:18
And how much does the conversation change on TikTok, on your newsletter, versus a conversation that you have not only just in your bar but moving back to a small town in Appalachia?
John Russell 7:37
Yeah, that's really interesting. I mean, the internet is such a double-edged sword, you know. I joined Facebook in 2008, I was like, “oh, cool, I can keep in touch with my high school friends when I go to college,” and then you fast forward, and we're like... democracy might be over.
So it's like, you can make a really good point on the internet, and once it gets so much traction, it kind of becomes a thing of its own. And then you have all these side conversations that you're not able to really, the downside of it, is you're not able to engage one on one, in some of the things that are coming up in the side conversations like you would be if I were having that same conversation face to face in the bar.
And moving back, just for context where I grew up and where I live now, our congressional district (the Ohio 6th) there's not another congressional district in the country that has experienced a more intense voting behavior shift in a shorter period of time.
This place where I am, where my bar is, right now, used to be union working-class Democratic voters. It's now one of the most intense Trump districts out there. But one of the reasons why I can kind of have these conversations in my bar is because that working-class identity is still alive and well in the voters here. It's just that Trump and that movement kind of tapped into it and gave them all the wrong villains to be mad at.
But if you go face to face with somebody at the bar, where you're off the internet, where you're relating to a person, and then you really start asking them, you know, could a company run without its workers? Do you feel fairly compensated? That can really inspire change in voters with completely different opinions which might be hard to do in media silos or on the internet. So it's not all bad around here even though the politics get pretty dicey sometimes.
Kristin Brey 9:39
Well, and that's what I think... as we have had a lot of different candidates on the show, the difference between actually having conversations versus what gets maybe a lot of clicks on a video, and what is you know, "woke" lingo, because you've worked in campaigns, right? And the last cycle, you were working on campaigns. And so how much do you feel like the messaging that comes down from the Democratic Party, is responsible for the fact that they're not reaching the people who are in your town and in your bar, and that the reflection of the Democratic Party now being educated, middle class and higher income, white folks, for the most part. And that shift versus high school graduates, or non-college-educated, white working-class folks totally feeling like this party isn't getting me at all?
John Russell 10:41
I think media has so much to do with this. Because when I tell somebody in my bar that, you know, I am, on the left, their immediate response to that is what they've been told by a right wing media network of what somebody on the left is, that has nothing to do with, with who I actually am. Right?
So, you know, I can tell somebody in the bar, you know, I'm on the left, and what that means to them, is just this crazy cartoon character of, you know, senseless things. They think I'm, you know, in a pizza basement with a bunch of kids locked up or something. And I'm really not exaggerating here. You know, it's the power that right-wing media has had. They've invested billions of dollars into it and had 40 years to perfect it. So many people tune into it. And the one message that they've stayed on is just this ridiculous caricature of everybody who's not on the right.
So I think when you're face to face, and they are talking to somebody, to their surprise, that doesn't have devil horns growing beneath their sleek mullet. It kind of busts this myth of people who they think they're supposed to hate. It's kind of why, you know, you wouldn't think that a dive bar is the best place to talk religion and politics. But I think that's the kind of stuff that we have to do to dial down some of the political violence and the anger and things that are bubbling up and a real threat right now.
But that's one of the things that can happen in person that's harder to do on the internet at scale. And one more point on this, I just think, you know, on the left, we've always had a media problem. We want to address it with, you know, Air America or something. That's the example that people always say. But there hasn't ever really been a time when we could point to an example of a successful media network at scale. And I think that's changing with so many, hundreds, thousands even, of Tiktok creators out there who are making good points in a way that makes people think I mean, that right there is a media network. And I think it's important.
Kristin Brey 13:18
That's interesting because I've so often felt like TikTok is, as most channels are, but specifically on TikTok because of the algorithm of how you're constantly fed things that it thinks you are going to want to see, so I can see like you said, I can see tons of creators, I like their videos, it's things that I haven't thought about that way before. It's a really good point. But am I really the person that should be hearing it?
I think that comes back to in general where we are because my question before you brought up the new media of TikTok is, does that same stereotype exist? While the right or the far right typically sometimes thinks that we have devil horns, I would say there are a lot of stereotypes that are not so becoming of the other side either. And how much does that get broken down? Well, we got to go to break but John Russell will be here when we come back to answer that question. Stick with us on As Goes Wisconsin.
Welcome back to As Goes Wisconsin with Kristen Brey. Our guest this half hour is John Russell, who's an upper Ohio Valley guy, TikToker, and author of The Holler, which is Appalachian-based independent media for the fed-up working class.
And before we went to break I asked you as far as these dangerous stereotypes that I would say the right has of us as horn-wearing lefties. But also, I would say that there has been a stereotype built around MAGA folks, far-right folks, small-town Appalachia folks. How much do you think those are also as outlandish and dangerous as what gets labeled as "lefties"?
John Russell 16:07
It is a really good point. And I get pushback from a lot of liberal friends for you know "defense" Trump voters around here. But there is a fine line to me, between the billionaire-funded media that is influencing most of the opinions of anybody who's walking into my bar, and the actual person walking into my bar because what makes me able to talk left-wing politics in an Appalachian bar is that I constantly focus on putting the working class in the same boat because, at the end of the day, we are in the same boat.
To me, if you have to work for a living, if you don't have the luxury of not working, then you're working class and you fundamentally share the same interests. And for a lot of the political problems that we're solving, they come down to power between classes. If we're going to confront climate change, that means breaking the power of billionaire oil companies, you know? And go right on down the list of any issues.
So to me, we need to organize working-class power. And that doesn't mean just working-class liberals, that means working-class people who are currently under the spell of right-wing media. And if you believe in organizing the working class, to me, you can't just immediately write off half of them who are currently under the spell of Fox News. It's our job to go out there to talk down to them in the bars, to make content on social media that resonates with them. Because yes, there are some that are way too far gone, they come into my bar. But most of them in my experience, are mad that they are working their life away, giving their one and only life, spending it away from their family, giving it to a massive company, Lowe's, Walmart, Home Depot, and barely getting by.
And anytime somebody is in that situation, then somebody who wants to come in and organize the working class to improve their lives, which should be the goal of the Democratic Party, they have an in right there. And we shouldn't retreat from these areas. We shouldn't lead with the stereotypes of Appalachians. We should come up and identify with that person first as two people who have to work for a living and want that work to pay off and get them a little slice of the American dream that's still possible. And that works, anecdotally, in my bar, and I think a lot more of it has to happen.
Kristin Brey 18:49
And so is that the goal of The Holler? Of @heyjohnrussell
John Russell 18:55
World domination? Yes.
Kristin Brey 18:59
But that's it? It's to organize working-class people?
John Russell 19:04
Yeah. You know, I think Wisconsin I suspect probably shares a lot of this, but society here changed so fast. The pathway to a good job closed up. A lot of towns that had middle-class wealth just completely vanished, and in came all the problems that come with not having any money. And, you know, our local papers died and all of that. So my hope for this is to provide a little island, a media island, in a sea of right-wing media to say, well, we're going to leave all of that senseless stuff. We're going to have a conversation how normal people talk. It's going to be fun, and funny, but also substantive. And we're gonna focus on what we can all do together to improve our lot as people who have go to work for a living because as long as we have that in common, that is where organization and collective action can start.
So my hope would be to headquarter that right here in the place where there's a proud history of working-class organizing and rekindle whatever is left of that. And also to, you know, send Republicans packing.
Kristin Brey 20:18
Was this always like, clearly your issue? Because you've been involved in politics for a while. You went away for college and came back. One of the things I've realized, since getting back to Wisconsin is, and I'm sure it's probably also an issue in Ohio, is population. Working age population and getting people to stay or move back and have a healthy working population that's attracting talent, and keeping talent. And that to me, is similar to I think, organizing working people should be a nonpartisan if not bipartisan goal because that is how you have a working economy. And when you look at the social sciences of where people actually want to live and follow that for policy. And so for you, was it always this? Or was there an aha moment that came to "Oh, this is the crux of the problem?"
John Russell 21:16
There were several. I mean, I grew up here in the Ohio Valley on a farm. I wasn't the best student, but I welded up a crazy machine in a farm shop that really did punch my ticket into college. And I went to Cornell University, which was a massive culture shock, because I showed up there in cowboy boots and a greasy ballcap, you know, looking like the biggest bumpkin you ever saw. And it was good in so many ways, but here's one thing that sticks out.
There was a frat party there where people were smashing a perfectly good car for fun. And I saw that, and those people will go on to run hedge funds and massive companies. They're the people who are going to be at the Fed. They'll be in our seats of government. They're going to be on Wall Street. They are right now. And they were smashing a car for fun that people would have killed for around here.
And so that was part of having a foot in both of those camps. I came from this place, where a lot of our policymakers made decisions that wreck the lives of a lot of people around here. And those people around here are not in the halls of power. Yet the same people who made those decisions are running right-wing media networks, keeping the people here divided and at each other's throats over meaningless issues. So this has always been home to me, I wanted to come back here and say, "I've been on the other side, and they're not your friends. So what we should do is get together and get a little something that's nice for you, for ourselves."
Kristin Brey 23:04
This goes so quickly that I think we're going to have to have a regular segment, The Holler segment, and have you back on because I think the overlap is there, even though we are 1000 miles… I don't even know how far the Ohio Valley is from us.
John Russell 23:17
Culturally we're next door.
Kristin Brey 23:18
Yeah, exactly. All right. John Russell, thank you so much for joining us today. We'll have you back soon. And we'll tag all the places where you can find John on our website. All right, stick with us this is As Goes Wisconsin.