Neoliberalism is the Bipartisan Consensus, Not the Lesser of Two Evils

by Kristoffer Hellén

Few intellectuals on the left are as widely respected as Cornel West. Because he is a decorated, recognized leftist intellectual and activist, West has been placed on a pedestal, and many on the left take his words as gospel. While many of West’s critiques of power are spot on, the left’s canonization of him makes it difficult to challenge him when he is wrong, and when it comes to the issue of neoliberalism, his framing couldn’t be more flawed. Every great intellectual has their blind spots and, whether intentionally or not, West’s views ultimately serve the establishment power structure. Rather than an attempt to cancel West, my critique should serve as a warning against elevating any individual to the status of moral beacons deserving of total deference.

My issue with West is that he routinely conflates neoliberalism with the Democratic Party establishment, while contrasting “the neoliberals” with Trump Republican “neofascists.” On the November 6th episode of The Dig podcast, West describes our systemic rot as the fault of “the neofascist wing of the ruling class, which is Trump and company, and the neoliberal wing of the ruling class, which is Biden and Harris.” 

I am not disputing that the Democratic establishment subscribes to a neoliberal ideology, but the idea that neoliberalism is a bounded partisan affiliation which excludes the Republican Party is simply false. West ought to know better, but his status as the left’s greatest intellectual has given validity to the idea that the term “neoliberal” has a partisan affiliation.

West’s incorrect partisan conceptualization of neoliberalism is not only wrong, but it is misleading. While the word “neoliberal” is etymologically related to the word “liberal,” it has no relationship with the current political usage of the term “liberal” and its modern association with the Democratic Party. Rather, it harkens back to the 18th century Scottish economic philosopher Adam Smith who advocated the removal of all tariffs and restrictions on free capital so that the “invisible hand” of the market could bring prosperity to all. In the post-WWII years of the 20th century, Smith’s ideas about the liberalization of capital were brought back into the spotlight by economist Friedrich Hayek and, later, Milton Friedman whose goal was to completely dismantle the social safety nets of FDR’s New Deal, which, it was argued, hampered free capital. Thus, neoliberalism is a “neo” form of 18th century economic liberalism and has no connection to the political “liberalism” of today’s Democratic Party.

Neoliberal economics gained political traction under Carter, but Reagan was the first president who made Friedman’s arguments the cornerstone of his administration. Reagan’s famous declaration that “the nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’” is a perfect summation of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism later became dominant in the Democratic Party with Bill Clinton and the Third Way Democrats, those “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” types who believed that the Democratic Party would have to kowtow to corporate interests and adopt Republican neoliberal policies in order to fundraise and stay competitive as a party. Since Clinton’s total abandonment of the Democratic New Deal legacy, neoliberalism as an economic ideology has enjoyed bipartisan hegemony. Thus, when people hear “neoliberal,” they should not think “Democrat,” but rather “the bipartisan Washington economic consensus.”

The stakes of not understanding neoliberalism are much more than semantic. Many leftists today rightfully condemn neoliberalism as the main obstacle to progressive legislation, but when the public is so misinformed and misled about what neoliberalism actually is, the concept loses all meaning. Cornel West, by contrasting the “neoliberalism” of Biden with the “neofascism” of Trump, has been the main voice misleading the public about what neoliberalism is. Regardless of his intent, language shapes how we conceptualize the world, and it is worth considering how the partisanization of these terms actually serves the ruling class. In 2020, West pushed the idea that the left must vote for Biden as an anti-fascist vote. Thus, while acknowledging the evils of Democratic neoliberalism, in his view, Republican neo-fascism was the greater evil. This partisan view obscures the many ways in which the Trump administration has been a proponent of the neoliberal agenda, for example, by cutting corporate taxes and deregulating the private sector. Pushing the view that neoliberalism is the “lesser evil” did not merely garner votes for Biden, it also manufactured consent for neoliberal hegemony by packaging it as a tolerable alternative to “neofascism.” This may help explain why West’s voice is not only tolerated by the bipartisan neoliberal establishment (CNN, Fox News, MSNBC), but in some ways has been elevated, for example, by featuring him on their networks.

When today’s leftists hurl the word “neoliberal” as a slur for establishment Democrats, they are reinforcing the idea that neoliberalism is a partisan concept and not an economic ideology. In reality, neoliberalism is a coherent worldview with true believers whose main goal is to deregulate the economy, end corporate taxes, and remove any social safety net for working people – those things neoliberals argue interfere with the invisible hand of the “free market.” Whatever their intentions are, leftists like West who continually describe neoliberalism as unique the Democratic establishment dumb down the public and herd them in a direction that serves power.

Photos: AP / Getty Images

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Post-Brunch Dissident Detox Hour 9/26: AOC's "Apology," Bernie vs. CBS, Biden's Border Policies Due Dissidence

Vote Your Conscience, But Keep it Real: A Vote for Biden is a Vote for Biden

by Kristoffer Hellén

As the DNC and RNC reality TV shows wrap up, an Orwellian mood fills the air. We are told from all corners that now is not the time to raise uncomfortable questions about Biden’s record. Right now, one thing matters, and one thing only: voting Trump out. Everything we say, do, and think must serve that end. Now is the time for total ideological conformity. Don’t step out of line! Any deviation and you may be a Russian agent! Trump is such an exceptional threat to our liberty and democratic values that anything other than a vote against Trump is simply irresponsible, if not treasonous! 

This hysteria is captured by a Pew Research poll this month which revealed that a majority, 56%, of Biden supporters are voting for him because “he is not Trump.” Meanwhile, “his issue/policy positions” ranked in fourth place, at a measly 9%.

Call me a heretic, but the emperor has no clothes. Do I have to be the one to point out the fact that in a democratic election it is not possible to cast a vote against someone? This is not a matter of opinion. American elections are not up-or-down, yay-or-nay referendums; one can only cast a vote for someone. Yes, you can call your vote for Biden a vote against Trump. You can call it an order for a pepperoni pizza, for all I care. Whatever you want to call it, a vote for Biden is still a vote for Biden.

Why, then, do a majority of Biden voters claim that their vote is not a vote for Biden, but rather a vote against Trump? Various memes have been circulating online that shed light on this question. One meme aims to decouple voting from support:

The meme claims that voting for Biden does not actually indicate support for Biden, but is strictly a repudiation of the exceptional evil that Trump represents. This may give solace to a voter who is uneasy about Biden’s abysmal record of building the system that led to Trump, but it is an opiate, a fantasy.

When you cast a vote, you cast a vote. Every vote carries the same weight, the same meaning. There is no way to add an asterisk to your vote, saying that it was cast unenthusiastically. A reluctant vote for Biden is exactly the same as a vote from his most ardent supporters, whether it’s John Kasich, or any one of the hundreds of George W. Bush administration officials who have boarded the Biden train. Again, that’s not an opinion, it’s an objective fact.

Those on the progressive left are being put under enormous pressure by liberals to settle and vote for Biden, never mind the fact that his candidacy was pushed by liberals under the pretense that he was the practical candidate who would appeal to the coveted moderate Republican voter. Instead of following through on this strategy and phone banking and knocking on doors in predominantly Republican neighborhoods to get out the vote, liberals are expending enormous energy shaming leftists with apocalyptic imagery should we fail to fall in line and not vote against Trump.

Many leftists have fallen in line. After all, voting against Trump is the will of Bernie Sanders. But is that really a responsible justification? Bernie’s relationship with the Democratic Party is long and complicated, and a recent article by Joseph Brunoli reveals a paradox: despite his status as a registered Independent, Bernie is actually more dependent on the Democratic Party for his power than most of his Democratic colleagues. Bernie’s main fear is being denounced as a “spoiler,” like Ralph Nader was, so he has gone to great lengths to demonstrate his loyalty to the party. I greatly respect Bernie, and the way he has awakened millions of Americans to the economic injustices that define our times, but he has his own reasons for promoting Biden and claiming that Trump is the “most dangerous president in American history.” We are sovereign citizens with a responsibility to stand behind our decisions. Justifying one’s vote with “because it is the will of Bernie and I trust him” is an abdication of one’s own will and morality.

Having said all of this, the question remains, what do we do? The system has only given us two choices, and at this point we have to take what they’ve given us, and make a decision.

I will not tell you what you should do with your vote. I have no desire to join the chorus of vote shaming that has been so divisive to the working class. I am merely asking you to be honest with yourself about the reality that whoever you vote for, you are voting for that person and indicating your support for what they stand for. I do not say that to shame you. If you feel shame, it’s worth reflecting: is that shame your own? Do you feel uneasy about casting your support for a party that has made it abundantly clear that it would rather empower a fascist like Trump than a progressive like Bernie? Does it make you uncomfortable knowing that the Obama administration built the cages that the Trump administration is holding kids in? Do you feel conflicted supporting Biden because it’s important to have liberal Supreme Court Justices when Biden played such an instrumental role in getting the ultra-conservative Justices Thomas and Scalia confirmed?

What does your vote really mean? When you cast your vote, what are you consenting to? Perhaps it’s worth considering the possibility that the system doesn’t really care if you vote for Trump or Biden. As long as you vote for either one, you are giving your consent to such a system. You are giving it legitimacy. As the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci argued in the early 20th century, the system’s power is based less on its monopoly of violence than the consent it manufactures through its control over discourse, i.e. cultural hegemony. The system wants you to believe that the two parties are ideologically opposed. They want you to pick a side. That’s how they control you. Is this democracy or is this a hostage situation?

And before you shout out “But I’m voting Green,” consider how voting Green is also lending your consent to the system, because it bolsters the view that voting is the main arena of citizen engagement. The system is even more rigged against third parties than it is against insurgent candidates like Bernie, and would never allow a third party to reach 5%. But they want you to hope that it can. And when it doesn’t happen, they want you to blame fellow members of the working class for not falling in line behind their candidate. Divide and conquer.

As noted by Howard Zinn, civil disobedience is not the problem so much as civil obedience. So, while the system pushes with all its might to get you to cast a vote against Trump as a NEIN! against fascism, please be honest and true to yourself: if you cast a vote for Biden as a vote “against Trump” or because “it is the will of Bernie,” are you relinquishing your will and your morality because the system is demanding that of you? Is that not the totalitarianism of civil obedience that Zinn warned us about?

I don’t claim to have the answer for what we, the multi-racial working class, should do exactly. We can only determine that collectively, collaboratively, and from the bottom up. But before we face that question, it is necessary to sober up and dispel any illusion that we can vote our way to freedom. We can only liberate ourselves through an anti-colonial movement of resistance, and no anti-colonial movement has ever succeeded playing by the rules of the colonizers. Nelson Mandela never said “When those in power deny you of freedom, the only path to freedom is voting for the lesser evil.” He said, “When those in power deny you of freedom the only path to freedom is power.” Power is in the streets, not at the polls, and it is only in the streets that we can submit to the ruling class a referendum on their legitimacy to rule.

Photo: Via Rhonen Tivony / SOPA Images

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Post-Brunch Dissident Detox Hour 9/26: AOC's "Apology," Bernie vs. CBS, Biden's Border Policies Due Dissidence

How Liberals (Yes, Liberals) Hijack Discourse to Undermine the Left

by Kristoffer Hellén

How is the Democratic establishment able to exert so much influence over American society when its hypocrisy is so blatant? Why are so many Americans prepared to throw away any hope of progress just to “stop Trump”?

The Democratic establishment’s conquest of culture can be traced back to rise of neoliberal ideology in the 1970’s, which gave a cultural dimension to capitalism’s conquest of the planet’s resources, but gained mainstream hegemony under Bill Clinton, a “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” Third Way Democrat. Since the election of Trump in 2016, however, this cultural conquest has reached fever pitch, with liberal elites co-opting the label of “progressive” and launching a “resistance” against Trump, all the while (hypocritically) protecting the system. The hypocrisy of the Democratic establishment is no aberration. It is central to its exercise of power, and the more we study how Democratic elites manage discourse, the better prepared we are to resist it.

This hijacking of discourse is something that can currently be observed in the news, on social media, and in our daily interactions. At the moment, I can observe at least three cases of cultural co-optation that are playing out in real time:

1. The Karen Meme

“Karen” is that upper class liberal who says “Black Lives Matter,” but then calls the cops on the black guy in their neighborhood. Karen is the woman who cannot possibly be racist because she voted for Obama. She’s not the trailer trash Trump supporter who is openly racist (that has its own meme: Becky). Establishment Democrats are purposely trying to conflate the two and take pressure off themselves by making #resistance liberals think Karen is a Republican archetype.

Remember Amy Cooper, who called the police on the birdwatcher, Christian Cooper, and said “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life”? She was not a Republican Trump supporter, as commonly perceived, but a liberal who had donated to Mayor Pete.

2. The Concept of “Gaslighting”

Liberals love to say that Trump is “gaslighting” Americans, but what do they really mean by that? Gaslighting has a very specific meaning. It’s a tactic that abusers use to make their victims doubt their own perception of reality. And because gaslighting is such a big part of the Democrats’ strategy to colonize the population, it’s very deliberate how they muddy the meaning of the concept.

The truth is, much of what Trump does is exactly what his base wants him to do: he antagonizes liberals. Liberals patronizingly deny Trump supporters their agency by labeling them the victims of his “gaslighting.” They engage in this manipulative practice while at the same time offering up no constructive policy platform, which is the only thing that could win many Trump supporters over. Of course, they have no intention of improving the lives of working class Americans, and any perception that they do is a product of their gaslighting of their own base.

3) “Liberal” vs. “Neoliberal”

Every time I call out “liberal” hypocrisy, I invariably get people swooping down to correct me and tell me what I really mean is “neoliberal.” But pushing the idea that liberals have nothing to do with neoliberalism actually serves neoliberal hegemony. Neoliberals implement neoliberal policies from positions of power. “Liberals” support neoliberal politicians because “they’re better on social issues,” “we have to beat Trump,” or whatever other reason is trending that week.

In this way, mainstream liberalism is neoliberalism, and because liberals give legitimacy to neoliberals, liberal culture is a legitimate target for criticism. Trying to make a distinction between the two and defending the term “liberal” shifts the debate to a conceptual battleground that distracts from the righteous anger of those being plundered by neoliberal policies.

These are some current examples of elites’ management of discourse, but the co-opting of culture by despotic regimes is a colonial strategy that can be traced back to the 18th century Enlightenment in Europe. While offering lip service to the liberation of society from the darkness of superstition, the “enlightened despots” of the 18th century used Enlightenment discourses as a tool to centralize their empires. For example, in the Russian Empire, Catherine the Great implemented a policy of official “toleration” of her non-Orthodox subjects by institutionalizing the major faiths of the empire. The Muslims of the empire would no longer choose their own leadership and carry on an autonomous negotiation of power vis-à-vis the state, which could break down into open rebellion any time the state overreached, but would henceforth be led by a head Mufti chosen by the state on the basis of loyalty. Because of their official “toleration,” the state then expected complete loyalty of its Muslim subjects, and punished disloyalty with brutal military force. A monument to the “enlightened” Catherine now stands in the city of Kazan, the center of Russian Muslim culture. This imperial strategy of native cooptation was further developed by European states throughout the 19th century as a tool of social control and economic exploitation as they carved up and plundered most of Africa and Asia.

A historical background in colonialism is necessary to understand the Democratic establishment’s strategy of colonizing society through the co-opting of discourse, i.e. language and culture. As Michel Foucault emphasized, “discourse” does not describe reality, but in fact creates reality, and by managing how we describe reality, the Democratic establishment is able to exercise social control. It is a colonial strategy designed to aid in our economic exploitation, while convincing us that they are agents of liberation. It is designed to make us feel we are sovereign citizens, when in fact we are colonial subjects.

It would be a mistake to imagine these cases of discourse co-optation as debates taking place on neutral ground between disinterested actors. Culture is a central battleground that the left has to be prepared to contest.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla

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Post-Brunch Dissident Detox Hour 9/26: AOC's "Apology," Bernie vs. CBS, Biden's Border Policies Due Dissidence

Chalk Dust of the Revolution: Reflections of a Chalkstar

by Kristoffer Hellén

Yesterday I returned home after two weeks on the road, clocking in 2,300 miles. My trip had one purpose: to chalk Bernie’s name at as many colleges as possible across California. I managed to make 45 Bernie chalks, which, on top of the 24 chalks I did prior to my trip, comes to a total of 69. At first my goal was 50, but now I’m well on my way to 100. Next week I will set out again. I don’t plan to stop chalking until I’m physically unable to.

What sparked this ambitious project? Since March I’ve spent about 500 hours tabling for Bernie in Santa Cruz, California. When people see me tabling, they don’t usually stop, but I get them thinking about Bernie. I start conversations. I inspire people with my self-sacrifice of sitting out on the street for hours on end. After all, the power is in the streets. It’s an act of great humility, putting oneself completely at the mercy of the public, sitting in full confidence that Bernie is on the side of the people.

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At City College of San Fransisco. Whenever anyone compliments my chalkwork, I invite them to help fill it in. People are surprised because they’re not used to such grassroots artwork. When it’s done, I give them the leftover chalk and invite them to help maintain it.

I’ve come to appreciate the importance of getting Bernie’s name out in public, which is why I’ve pushed a visibility-centered grassroots strategy from the beginning. In the struggle to displace the hegemony of neoliberal ideology and bring about a new age of progressive hegemony, there are three main arenas of struggle: the mass media, social media, and physical space. The commanding heights of the mass media is thoroughly on the side of establishment interests, as Noam Chomsky proved in Manufacturing Consent. Social media, meanwhile, has been largely won by progressivism, despite all the establishment attempts to reel in its revolutionary potential through algorithms and outright censorship. The third arena is physical space, and this is the crucial battlefield where Bernie’s revolutionary movement will win or lose.

The question is, how to win physical space for Bernie. The problem with tabling is that one cannot table continuously. Placing Bernie banners in prominent spots is effective, but it can be difficult getting the permission of property owners. What if I could have a continuous presence on the street? And not just be present in one place, but fifty places, or more, all at once? I found out, there’s a way. Through the power of chalk.

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My chalk in downtown Santa Ana. Photography credit to Jenny Lynn (AKA Steady Jenny)

My first chalks were in downtown Santa Cruz. They were well received, but were washed off within a day. Next, I decided to try the local community college, Cabrillo College. It was my best chalk yet and, much to my amazement, it lasted a week, then two weeks, then a month. The chalk was located in such a prominent place that it had surely been seen by a majority of the students. Just to think of all the conversations it had started, and to think how easy it would be to destroy my chalk with water, yet people had respected my artwork. They respected Bernie. It was surprising, but also made sense for an institution as working class as a community college. It seemed like a much more efficient form of activism than talking to people at my table. Such a humble medium as chalk, mere dust, seemed to be a material of revolutionary potential.

 

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A Bernie chalk in Florida inspired by me.

Seeing the revolutionary potential of chalk requires reassessing a lot of the mythology that drives grassroots activism. There is a tendency among activists to believe that one-on-one voter contact is supreme and there is no such thing as mass activism. There is a tendency to rely solely on forms of voter outreach that can be recorded and quantified. But this form of activism has an elitist aspect to it. It’s based on the assumption that all voter contact should be mediated through a designated “activist” or “volunteer.” And those who are volunteers have a tendency to be people who are retired or well-to-do, which excludes working class people who have no time for activism, yet are the people with the most intimate knowledge of our broken system. Chalking represents a philosophy of organizing that cuts out the middleman and places confidence directly in the working class. The idea is that the working class can figure out what its own interests are. We merely have to stimulate conversation among the people, and that can only result in raising working class consciousness. Chalking is the perfect catalyst for stimulating conversation among the people.

I wasn’t sure that my chalk at the community college was making a difference until my friend, Alekz Londos, who had helped me fill it in, overheard a group of students walking by downtown discussing my chalk work. Of all the conversations he could have overheard, it seemed like confirmation from the universe that I was doing something important. It’s then that I realized I needed to expand. Silicon Valley was closest, but why stop there? I started dreaming of a statewide chalking tour. My hope was that others would imitate me and I would spark a nationwide chalking movement, but I didn’t see it happening. People were intimidated by my work and didn’t feel they could replicate it. I felt a lot like Bernie, who really didn’t want to run for president, but because no one else with progressive bona fides was stepping up to the plate, felt he had to.

 

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At Merced College a group of students embellished my work, which I invite because chalks belong to the people. The conversation it sparked continued long after I left.

I started looking for hosts and once I had a host lined up in Bakersfield and San Diego, I decided to set out. I figured that once I started my journey and promoted my project on social media, the movement would help me along the way, and that’s exactly what happened. In two weeks, I did not spend one night in a hotel. I stayed with Bernie supporters. People who supported my project threw me gas money and I raised over $700, almost exactly enough to break even. This would only happen with a candidate with a grassroots movement behind them, and Bernie Sanders is clearly that candidate. Along the way I had three encounters with police who came close to citing me for vandalism. Yet if what I’m doing is criminal, the movement that has supported me and been fully complicit in my project must be criminal too. And then who are the laws for? Not the people.

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At Irvine Valley College, the police arrived and made me wash off my chalk. I figure that for every chalk that doesn’t last, one will last far longer than you would ever have expected, and it all averages out.

Chalking is an essential part of the progressive movement because it shows that this is much more than an economic revolution against the billionaire class. It is, in fact, a cultural revolution, a rejection of the neoliberal culture that atomizes us, pits us against each other, and makes us believe that success must come at the expense of others. Chalk inspires people because of the great care that goes into it and because the result is vibrant and stunning. It demonstrates that Bernie is the only candidate who inspires artwork, and that has to count for something. The beauty is not only inspiring, but serves a practical protective purpose as well. I’ve witnessed a stumbling homeless man walk around my chalkwork, in addition to a group of twenty students, a breathtaking act of respect.

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On special occasions, I draw a bird instead of a star.

During my chalking journey, Rivan Canderin from the Arts and Culture team of the Bernie Sanders campaign reached out to me acknowledging my good work, and I prepared the following statement, which I think summarizes my project:

“Chalking for Bernie is much more than a form of art. It is an expression of an outlook on life that aligns fully with everything Bernie’s campaign represents. It’s an understanding that true power is in the streets. It’s a willingness to be completely down to earth. It’s the courageousness to put oneself at the mercy of the public, to be completely vulnerable. It’s the humility to get one’s hands dirty. It’s an act of placing trust in the people and honoring our right to determine our own destiny. Each chalk is a meditation on the self-sacrifice that Bernie makes every day to serve a higher self, the ‘Not Me, Us.”

Every Bernie chalk is a small revolution. It is a protest against the media’s unfair coverage of a good man. To counteract the media’s false narratives, we must make our support publicly visible. If the media gave Bernie fair coverage, it would not be necessary to chalk. But if the media gave Bernie fair coverage, this would not be a revolution. Every Bernie chalk shows the public that Bernie is the only candidate who inspires art, and the candidate that inspires art is the candidate that deserves to win. A revolution will only succeed if it’s led from the heart.

Just as the power is in the streets, the chalk is in the streets. Hence, the power is in the chalk. Bernie does not complete the revolution. He only provides us the outlines. The people have to fill out the revolution. The only question is: will the people pick up the chalk?

The revolution will not be televised. It will be written in chalk. The chalk dust of the revolution will wash away, but the lines will be etched in the history of the people’s liberation.

Pick up the chalk.”

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Another chalk inspired by me.

If you support my project, the best thing you can do is imitate me. I don’t want fame, I want to start a chalking revolution. I use Crayola sidewalk chalk from Staples. It’s not as hard as it looks. I just make outlines of the letters and fill them in. The second best thing you can do is toss me some gas/chalk money at paypal.me/chalkbernietome. It will help me chalk every corner of Northern California and the Central Valley. I’m only getting started.

UPDATE: Check out our podcast interview with Kristoffer in which he takes his chalking project to Iowa as the Caucus approaches! Listen below:

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