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The Case for Democratic Capitalism
An interview with former Representative Stephanie Murphy.
Stephanie Murphy was first elected to Congress from Florida in 2016, upsetting incumbent Republican John Mica who held Florida’s 7th congressional district seat for 24 years. Congresswoman Murphy served three terms and announced in December 2021 that she would not seek reelection. Congresswoman Murphy was the first Vietnamese-American woman ever to serve in Congress. During her tenure, she was Co-Chair of the Blue Dog Coalition and a member of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. Congresswoman Murphy completed her term and today is serving as a Fellow with the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, working in the private sector, and spending time with her family. This interview is another installment in The Liberal Patriot’s occasional series profiling uncommon leaders who advance shared American values.
—Christopher Hunter, contributing writer.
Christopher Hunter: Public life and elective office found you. You did not go in search of it. Why did you say yes to it all?
Rep. Stephanie Murphy: Even after serving six years in Congress, I still think of myself as a patriot, not as a politician. I love this country and have a debt of gratitude to it and believe public service is a way I can pay back that debt. The reason I feel indebted to the United States is [that] when I was just a baby, my family and I escaped persecution from communist Vietnam. We escaped by boat in the dead of night and ran out of fuel. A U.S. Navy ship found our boat and provided us with food, fuel, and water, which enabled us to make it to a Malaysian refugee camp.
From there, some politically courageous acts by some American politicians enabled my parents to be relocated to Virginia. Polling in America was pretty low for accepting Southeast Asian refugees. The Carter Administration made the politically courageous decision to lift the number of refugees the U.S. would take and went a step further and convinced the community of nations, through the United Nations, to increase the number of refugees they took. That’s why you see a Vietnamese diaspora now in places like Australia, Germany, France, and the United States.
The United States Navy rescued my family. And the United States gave me a chance to live the American dream. Public service is one way to chisel away at the debt I owe this country.
Hunter: When you first ran for Congress, John Mica was firmly entrenched in a district that was not necessarily considered competitive. You entered the race relatively late and you won. How?
Murphy: After the 2010 census and redistricting, an organization in Florida filed a court case for fair districts. The district John Mica had represented was one of the districts affected by the settlement of this court case at the end of 2015. The party was looking for a candidate to run. When they came in the spring of 2016 to talk to me about who I knew in the community who could run, I told them I would help them look. When I asked around, even the most ardent Democrats were not willing to be helpful. National Dems asked me in the course of these conversations if I would run, and I said no, I have two kids, two jobs, and I’m not interested in elected office. By the summer of 2016, the Democrats still didn’t have a candidate for this seat.
Then the Pulse night club shooting happened. A man walked into a nightclub in our Orlando community and took the lives of 49 innocent individuals in an act of hate and terrorism. I thought to myself, you can’t have people running for the highest offices in this country—flashback to the 2016 presidential [campaign]—spewing hateful rhetoric and you can’t have a government that doesn’t appear to be responsive to its citizens and not expect that to manifest itself somehow in your communities. John Mica cashed a check from the [National Rifle Association] two days after the Pulse shooting happened. That to me was all that was wrong with politics. I really thought if we wanted to change Washington we had to change the kinds of people we were sending there.
So I decided to get in the race, despite everybody telling me it wasn’t possible to beat him. That it was nice of me to try, that it’ll get your name ID up, and [you] could run another time when he retires. I had a lot of what I call courageous conversations with people who were condescending at best, if not just straight rude. At this point I had only four months until Election Day.
I believe that in a democracy, no one gets a free ride to election. There were clearly issues this community wanted debated and discussed and represented differently in Washington. I thought having that conversation in an election was the appropriate thing to do regardless of what the outcome would be.
I think I surprised everybody, even myself, when I won on election night. But it was a campaign worth having.
Hunter: You had been registered as an Independent prior to running.
Murphy: I was a registered Independent in large part because I worked at the Department of Defense, and we had an ethos at the Department that you didn’t look left, didn’t look right and ask, “Are you a Democrat or Republican?” You just said, what’s the mission and you worked together to achieve that mission. So I just registered as an Independent from that time on and I registered as an Independent when I moved to Florida despite the fact that it would lock me out of voting in the primaries.
We need broader participation in the primaries if we want different candidates to choose from and different outcomes.
When I first ran for Congress, I filed to be a member of the Democratic Party on a Monday, I announced on Wednesday, and I filed my paperwork to run on Friday. So I was pretty new to the party.
Hunter: A majority of Americans would probably categorize themselves as centrists or moderates, not partisans. You were a leader in the Blue Dogs when you were in Congress. How do you assess the changes in the political parties and the place of centrism and moderates?
Murphy: The political parties are undergoing a bit of a transformation. [New York Times columnist] David Leonhardt calls it a class inversion of American politics. This is the idea that Republicans are struggling with urban and college educated voters and young voters and Democrats are losing rural working-class voters and older voters. This has resulted in changing political perspectives and policies in Washington. It’s created a broader space for populist policies, whether that is the Biden administration promoting a worker-centered trade policy or key Republicans like Marco Rubio breaking with Ronald Reagan-style policies and embracing more of an anti-business approach.
Then there is the revisionist history on the part of the political parties about what the last 20, 30, 40 years of American leadership in the world has meant. I’ll take the Democratic Party for example. [President Bill] Clinton was someone who believed in globalization. His administration had an outward facing foreign policy and market liberalization approach. Now you hear Democrats talk about how that was a huge mistake and that those globalization and trade policies resulted in the gutting of middle America and of towns all across this country. That narrative isn’t too different from the Republican narrative about the last couple of decades. I find that to be a dangerous revisionist history because what that ignores is how many people are better off today and how as a nation, we’re better off today than we were before. It also is incorrect to lay the troubles of middle America or manufacturing towns at the feet of globalization as opposed to understanding that there are other factors at play, like technology. It’s also dangerous because we’re about to embark on another period of technological advances that are going to really change the way businesses and workers engage and if we misdiagnose the past, then we’re going to be unable to prepare for the future.
Both political parties right now are chasing this elusive working-class voter because they think that’s going to be the difference maker in this next election and in doing so are embracing policies I think will make our economic recovery coming out of the pandemic more difficult and it also prevents us from having economic policies that can embrace the opportunities that technology brings and be supportive in areas where there may be a need for worker support. I think we’re in this moment right now where people have the wrong diagnosis of the past and it leads me to think we’ll be inappropriately prepared for the future.
Where centrists come in on all this is in the context of the populism coming from the extremes of both parties. We need more pragmatists who are willing to advance policies that move this country forward rather than shouting from the wings. The systems and the echo chambers seem to be built to amplify the extremes. And those in the center don’t get the same coverage. That creates this disconnect between average Americans, the silent majority going about their day trying to take care of their family, making ends meet. When they do pick their heads up to tune in to politics, they don’t hear anyone who sounds or thinks like they do. That creates a disillusioned electorate. And the most dangerous thing in a democracy is a disengaged electorate. I worry about that for us as a nation and I wonder how we build echo chambers and amplification for normal messaging so that the silent majority knows that there are politicians and elected officials who are normal and are trying to serve their constituents and get things done as opposed to just hearing from the fringes.
It took me too long in my time in Congress to come around to understanding the necessity of media. I didn’t do a ton of TV or media when I first got elected because I thought, I’m not trying to build a Twitter following, I’m trying to do my job. And that meant doing my homework for committees, meeting with my constituents, understanding their issues, legislating to those issues, getting bills passed, working with the other side, and creating pragmatic progress. The media thing, not to say it was beneath me, just didn’t seem important. It took me a couple of years in Washington to understand that it was really important to not only get the good work done but for people to know the good work was done. But it’s hard getting centrists out on networks. One, there’s a disposition not to do it. Two, it doesn’t sell for the networks.
Hunter: What is the future for pragmatic politicians? I think about the Blue Dog Coalition, the Problem Solver’s Caucus.
Murphy: Blue Dogs are below 10 members this Congress. Blue Dogs ebb and flow in size. I used to say the Blue Dog Coalition membership was the canary in the coal mine for the Democrats. When we have a small Blue Dog Coalition, that means we didn’t as Democrats win enough purple/red seats to be in the majority. It’s critically important, whatever you want to call these centrists, to have a group that is willing to vote against their party to advance the interests of the people. During my last two terms, I was in leadership of the Blue Dogs and we were the at the center of trying to forge compromises but willing to take a stand in order to advance pragmatic legislation.
It’s not easy to take a stand. Congress is structured to have everybody vote party line. That’s not necessarily helpful in advancing legislation that represents the will of the vast majority of Americans. Because both parties often get pulled further toward their extremes unless there’s a counterbalance in the center.
Whether you want to call them Blue Dogs or any other name, we have to have a group willing to be the counterbalance within their own party for the middle in order to be able to make pragmatic progress.
And as long as the majorities in successive Congresses are narrowly held, which they’re likely to be given gerrymandering, there is an opportunity for small groups of steel-spined centrists to make a difference and ensure progress for the country.
Hunter: You have been an outspoken advocate of capitalism and free markets within your party. Some on the right and left, but mostly the left, say capitalism and the existing system are not helping them. Meanwhile Democrats get labeled as socialists, which has a uniquely adverse effect politically in Florida.
Murphy: Having escaped a genuinely socialist country, the socialist republic of Vietnam, and watched my family that remained suffer under government control of market systems, I think it’s clear in my mind that the two pillars of strength for America are our form of government, democracy, and our form of economics, which is free market capitalism.
I believe in democratic capitalism which means the guardrails for our economic system are set by elected officials responsive to the needs of average American people. I am concerned about the future of both our system of government as well as our economic system because they are under pressure right now. It seems on some days the Republican Party is trying to dismantle democracy and some might argue that there are factions of the Democratic Party that are trying to undo capitalism. I’m deeply concerned about it.
I’ll never forget the media attention I got for announcing at an event that I was a proud Democrat and proud capitalist. Fox News went nuts—“my gosh, look at this unicorn, a Democrat that believes in capitalism!” It ran on a loop in that section of conservative media and I ended up putting out an op-ed to explain my belief in democratic capitalism.
At the same time we’re having an inflection point around our politics and the political makeup of our parties, we’re also having an inflection point around our economic policies. After decades of political aversion to industrial policy, the last Congress sent President Biden a handful of bills to sign into law that can be thought of as industrial policy. We sent bills over that would make investments in infrastructure, and manufacturing, and the environment, and some of these bills were even bipartisan. Then you also look at the effort going on right now in this Congress with the select committee on China which in bipartisan ways is also endorsing a form of industrial policy as a counterweight to Chinese competition. Ironically, it’s being led by a Republican who is, for the sake of national security, in full embrace of significant government intervention in business. Meanwhile, you’re also hearing from Janet Yellen who basically said “make no mistake, national security will be what drives our economic policies, economic consequences be damned.”
So there is this strange convergence of Democratic and Republican policies as it relates to government industrial policy and picking winners and losers. I think it’s stunning that we’ve gone from export controls to now outbound investment controls. They’re written pretty broadly, about technologies and products and services that have dual use and touch a lot of different industries.
This is an inflection point in our economic policy that I think should be concerning because government, after all of this time, hasn’t gotten any better at picking winners and losers. Will their well-intended policies have significant unintended consequences for our economy and American businesses? They’re trying to do a very difficult thing, which is to try to encourage American businesses to run faster, to be better than the Chinese, at the same time they’re knee-capping a lot of these industries with these restrictions.
The consequences couldn’t be more important. It’s not just the future of our economy but also our national security tied to the success of government intervention in business.
With regards to Bidenomics more broadly, no one in my district is buying it. I think it’s a precarious place to be running on your economic policies when average Americans are still struggling with buying household goods, paying rent, finding a job that they can work forty hours a week and still make ends meet. These are challenges I see in central Florida but I think these are challenges that exist across the country. Running on big bills that take time to implement in the face of the economic realities of the American people is a really risky political approach.
Hunter: The “I’ve got a plan for that” approach is so tone-deaf, so disconnected from on the ground reality.
Murphy: And the Biden administration is possibly the worst at it when it comes to economics. When people were facing higher costs at the gas station, at the supermarket, the administration kept saying it’s just “transitory inflation.” I say this with all the respect for the president, but too often we use faculty room speak instead of factory floor speak. You can’t tell people who are paying higher bills that it’s transitory.
There have just been so many miscues and with each one the administration has undercut the faith that the voters had put in President Biden when they elected him. They elected him in hopes of a little more stability, less drama, more empathy, and a more seasoned national security approach. And in all of these areas, early in the Biden administration, they failed the American people. The Afghanistan withdrawal was a national security fail both for us as a country but also for our Afghan allies. Those images of people falling from U.S. cargo planes and the U.S. military service members who lost their lives in that withdrawal made an indelible stain on the Biden administration that they have yet to recover from.
He was supposed to be the empathetic president in difficult economic times—but he was not communicating, like Clinton, in a “I feel your pain” kind of way. The economy was a mess, inflation was growing, and the White House kept coming out insisting that unemployment was low. But that didn’t connect at all to what people were feeling from an economic perspective. That’s great that unemployment is low. That means when I need to have lunch somewhere or get my car fixed or have somebody service something for my house, there’s nobody to do these things and so it costs me more to have services in addition to the fact that inflation is costing me more for the goods. And nobody at the White House talked to either one of these pain points. The things they did say didn’t connect to what people were feeling.
For every area that people had voted for this administration, they have had these colossal fails in every one. And every time there’s a fail, the American people are like “wow, we’ve put faith in you for these strong points you had and this administration hasn’t demonstrated any of that.” That is really scary because if we have the alternatives of Trump and Biden as it appears we’re going to, I’m afraid voters are not going to make the same decision they did last time and that for our country is dangerous. I believe a second Trump term would be dangerous for America.
Hunter: You served in the Defense Department following 9/11. The current focus of U.S. national security energy is on China and Ukraine. As is always the case, we face multiple threats and challenges. Can we walk and chew gum at the same time?
Murphy: On U.S.-China policy, the Biden administration has continued a policy that began in the Trump administration to manage China’s competitive potential and to limit China’s competitive technological edge. The reversal of the conventional policy prioritization of now putting national security as a guiding principle irrespective of the economic impacts makes this particular national security issue really important. It’s going to be interesting to see how some of these policy proposals will get implemented in practice. The reality is that so much of American businesses’ supply chains are deeply integrated with the Chinese economy. The United States has created a situation where in the absence of the rest of the world joining us in a lot of these policies, are we going to be displacing businesses out of the United States? It deserves careful consideration, incremental steps, and a lot of evaluation to course correct as necessary.
On Ukraine, it is critically important that we continue to support the Ukrainians and I am dismayed to see the growing anti-Ukraine movement among sitting members of the House and of the Senate. Western nations need to be willing to stand up for democracy and to stand up in the face of tyranny and disregard for sovereignty and territorial borders. I don’t think that Russia should be allowed to do this without consequences. But will we be able to get the supplemental package across the finish line this fall? It’s unclear. That may just result in further demonstrating that America is an unreliable partner on the global stage and I think that hurts us in so many other ways outside of the current Ukraine conflict.
On both Ukraine and China, I believe we are in a meta fight for what system of government and what values will govern this next century. Is it autocracy or is it democracy? Will it be free markets or will it be government controlled markets? Our system is the best system. Democratic capitalism has extended freedoms and opportunity for so many people here in our country and across the globe. It’s important that we prevail in this conflict of ideas. But you prevail in the broader war by winning smaller battles. And I am concerned we don’t have the will as a nation to continue to be committed to these values that have benefited us.
Hunter: What was it like to serve on the January 6 committee and what are its implications?
Murphy: I was really proud to serve on that committee. I believe we needed to understand what happened in the run up to and on January 6. During the course of the committee work, I came to fully understand that January 6 wasn’t a spontaneous rally that got out of control. Rather, it was the culmination of months-long efforts by the sitting president to ensure he could remain in office despite the will of the American people. I think the January 6 committee laid out a lot of the narrative and facts, often in the voices of Republicans who were courageous and did the right thing putting constitution and country over self.
The January 6 committee had an impact. We saw it in the 2022 election. We saw it recently in a special election. American voters are rejecting election deniers. We helped to spur along the Department of Justice efforts. At the very beginning you saw the Department of Justice prosecuting the small players, the people who showed up on January 6, engaged in acts of violence, and committed crimes at the behest of the former president and they were prosecuting those people, average Americans who believed the lies that were told to them by powerful people and acted upon them. I’m glad to see the Department of Justice has moved to the next phase of prosecuting some of the powerful and wealthy people who did the planning and the lying. What kind of justice system would we have if our justice system only goes after working Americans and lets the powerful go without being held to account? What we were doing on the January 6 committee, what the Department of Justice is doing, should be and is separate and apart from politics. It wasn’t for any political outcome. And it’s important the Department of Justice can maintain that independence from our political system.
I do think people’s opinions are pretty much baked in at this point. We are one impeachment, one January 6 select committee, and two indictments all on what happened with January 6, and I don’t think anyone’s opinion on what happened is going to change right now.
Republicans and Trump’s allies will want to say these indictments are politically motivated. The reality is that it was a grand jury of average Americans who were presented with evidence and found probable cause that crimes were committed, and they were the ones who made the recommendation to charge. It wasn’t a prosecutor or a politically appointed person at DOJ. It was average Americans doing their civic duty serving on grand jury who made these decisions. It’s really dangerous that Trump and his allies are trying to discredit the legal system.
Hunter: Florida has experienced political changes. Democrats seem to have become marginalized. What is the future look like in Florida?
Murphy: We have a couple cycles of rebuilding to do. It takes some time for a state of 20 plus million people and growing to build a political infrastructure needed for Democrats to be able to win statewide. We’re not quite there yet. Usually Democrats in red states get to a point where they realize they need to put up a candidate who can actually win the state and that becomes important. I don’t know how many more losses we’ll need to get the party to a place where it chooses better as far as the candidate. In the meantime, it’s important that we build political infrastructure in this state and that Democrats do more talking to some communities where Republicans currently have real strongholds. For example, the south Florida Hispanic and Latino community. The conservative media, WhatsApp, and all kinds of channels the English-speaking electorate doesn’t tune into are the primary sources of information and disinformation for that community. It’s important that Democrats speak to the community too. There are a lot of areas where Democrats have to do a better job talking to voters before it’s an election year. I believe our brighter days are in front of us, in Florida and throughout America.
Hunter: What about your future?
Murphy: I’m teaching a class called Going Deep on the Intersection of Business and Politics at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics. I’m teaching it because we’re at two inflection points, first, as far as politics and political parties are concerned, with the inversion of the parties and growing populism, and, second, we are at an inflection point in the business world where industrial policy is being pursued, national security trumps economic outcomes, and populist policies are resulting in revisionist history about what has made our economy strong and successful over the last couple of decades. Both of those things have an intersection that I think it’s important to explore so that we might come up with better policies and more informed leadership to lead this country into this next century focused on policies that continue to strengthen our economy and create opportunity for all American people.
In addition to teaching, my present focus is finding ways I can continue to contribute to the discourse in this country and focusing on two small kids who are going through the tough years of childhood and being a bit more present for that. But I also look at the fact that we’re a country run by a bunch of octogenarians and I’m someone in my mid-40s. I feel like there’s a lot of time to have a different chapter that might involve public service again.