REVIEW: 'No, You Shut Up' by Symone Sanders

A wildly successful 30-year-old TV pundit and would-be WH press secretary just wants to be heard

June 13, 2020

If you're like most level-headed Americans and don't pay attention to cable news, you might not know that Symone Sanders has been on television. After reading her recently published memoir, you won't be able to forget it.

"Power is also the ability to go on CNN wearing whatever shade of fuchsia or tangerine or turquoise I want, speaking loudly and truthfully and daring someone to tell me to shut up," Sanders writes in the appropriately titled, No, You Shut Up.

It is a fitting political manifesto for these times—thin on substance, dripping with attitude and self-promotion. "I'm a young, intelligent, well-spoken Black woman who has already served as a national press secretary for a leading presidential candidate, a paid regular contributor on CNN, a political pundit and commentator, and a juvenile justice advocate," Sanders writes—in the book, not on her LinkedIn profile—while noting that her role at CNN involved "doing my part to speak truth to power," which she did "on a daily basis, from September 2016 to April 2018."

This is not to say that Sanders's professional journey from her hometown of Omaha, Neb., to the top of the Washington, D.C., establishment and her current role as an adviser to presidential candidate Joe Biden is not impressive. Her ascent to the elite echelon of political punditry was fueled by personal ambition and a strong social network acquired through church, family friends, volunteer organizations, grade-school mentoring programs, and a close-knit local community.

In other words, the sort of "civic society" that reform-minded conservatives used to talk about before Donald Trump. Sanders's story is a testament to how a vibrant civic society, largely removed from the apparatus of government, can enhance lives and foster success among individuals driven to succeed, even if the odds seem high.

"Accessing the apparatus seemed about as likely as making my way to Oz. But I didn't let that stop me," writes the 30-year-old senior adviser to the Biden campaign. "I'd find my way there in my Louboutins, ruby slippers be damned." Sure enough, she made it, to the point where she can fondly reminisce about the times she "sat next to world leaders and hung out with Diane von Furstenberg."

At the same time, the memoir laments that Sanders's level of success is "unreachable" in America today. It is an argument for how a "more equitable, inclusive society" can be achieved by refusing to shut up, telling the bad the people to shut up, and by giving Symone Sanders even greater access to power, presumably as White House press secretary. It's a role she wants and will probably get if Biden is elected.

"While standing up and acting on behalf of others, you also need to look out for yourself," Sanders says in the book, which is sprinkled with tidbits of career advice for ambitious young professionals, as well as ruminations on life's challenges that people face "even if you're not on TV."

It's a lesson that most liberal elites have taken to heart, refusing to allow their opposition to integrating their children's schools or building homeless shelters and affordable housing units in their neighborhoods to diminish their feelings of self-righteousness. It's why former Obama officials didn't think twice before accepting high-paying gigs at Uber, Amazon, and McDonald's.

Perhaps the most interesting anecdote involved Sanders's tenure as national press secretary for Bernie Sanders (no relation) in 2016. The author embraces a narrative in which the campaign hired her as a pep rally prop to defuse tensions with Black Lives Matter activists who had been disrupting their events, and initially didn't want her to respond to press requests that didn't come from BET or Telemundo.

No harm, no foul, though, because Sanders was also exploiting the campaign to advance her career. "Was I being used in the moment? Yes, definitely," Sanders says. "But I damn well knew I could also use the moment to my own benefits." That would explain how an ambitious operative could so easily transition from a candidate promising to burn it all down to a candidate promising to merely turn the clock back four years.

The book's timing is perhaps unfortunate, given how much has changed since it was being written at the start of the Democratic primary season. Especially among the ascendent coalition of radical progressives, there seems to be little patience for those who argue, as Sanders does, that America needs only to be "restored" or "reclaimed," as opposed to radically transformed—by abolishing the police, for example.

"We live in a culture right now where we can choose to isolate ourselves in echo chambers with people who think like us, look like us, vote like us," Sanders writes. She suggests this partisan isolation is an impediment to progress. But for many of the activists she hopes to engage in the political process, including a substantial number of New York Times employees, purging the public sphere of people who don't "think like us" is precisely the point.

"When you're speaking truth and spitting facts, sometimes the powers that be try to shut you down," Sanders writes, fiercely. It might not be long before she learns what it's like to be on the other side of that equation.