In This Episode
In our final episode, Brian Beutler and author Heather McGhee look back at the highs and lows of President Biden’s first 100 days, and ahead to the path he’ll have to carve if he wants to overcome the politics of white grievance to implement a transformational agenda for a multiethnic democracy.
Brian Beutler: Let’s end where we began. Why do we care so much about the first hundred days of a presidency? Why did this term “the first hundred days” become a historical cliché? We know there’s nothing special about the number 100. If humans had evolved to have different numbers of fingers on their hands, we might focus on the first 64 or 128 days. What we care about is the early days, enough of them that a president has had time to establish a track record, but few enough that we’re still clearly in the first chapter. Setting a benchmark several weeks into a presidency, whatever number we use to demarcate it, serves a helpful purpose. It allows us to evaluate how well a new administration is functioning after it’s had a chance to find its sea legs, and whether it has established a foundation that will serve it well for the coming years. We began amid a flurry of executive actions, staffing changes, the transfer of Senate control into Democratic hands, and big ambitions for a precariously narrow governing majority. A lot has happened since then.
[voice clip] President Biden’s big week so far, and a big week to come.
[clip of President Biden] Folks, I have good news. Everybody is eligible as of today to get the vaccine.
[TV clip] President Biden announcing a new goal on greenhouse gases.
[news clip] We’re going to begin with a big announcement: President Biden approaching a podium outside the White House.
Brian Beutler: President Biden placed climate change at the center of national policymaking. He confirmed a historically diverse cabinet. He built a national COVID-19 vaccine distribution program that has been among the most successful in the world. And on his 51st first day in office, he did this:
[clip of President Biden] Today with the American Rescue Plan now signed into law, we delivered on that promise.
Brian Beutler: A 1.9 trillion dollar, the American Rescue Plan is the kind of accomplishment any president would love to log so quickly—broad based enough to make a meaningful and memorable difference in most people’s lives, multifaceted enough to encompass a range of challenges: vaccine administration, unemployment, stimulus, child care, health insurance. Most importantly though, it’s big enough to support the economy through what will hopefully be the final months of the pandemic, into a new dawn of rapid economic growth and human prosperity, and it passed Congress almost exactly as Biden proposed it. But Biden’s first 100 days also included missteps. Just two weeks ago, the White House announced it would keep President Trump’s historically low cap on refugees in place for another year. Biden reversed his decision in response to deafening backlash from his allies, but he won’t set the new cap until May. He’s made no move to end capital punishment at the federal level, despite having run against the death penalty, reportedly out of fear of political backlash. Biden also punted the May timeline for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan before committing to a date-certain withdrawal on September 11th of this year. It’s too early, I think, to call these missteps failures, but they do suggest that the administration may be too intent on husbanding Biden’s high approval rating, even when doing so requires them to make poor governing decisions. And here’s another point of ambiguity: very little of what’s happened these past 100 days gives us a roadmap for how the next 100 or 1,000 will go. And you heard why in nearly every episode of this show:
[overlapping voice clips] The filibuster. The filibuster. The filibuster . . . filibuster . . . the filibuster.
Brian Beutler: Our guests this season included some of the country’s most prominent voices on the biggest issues of the day: climate change, economic inequality, labor rights, voter suppression. And they all shared one view in common: the rest of Biden’s presidency will turn almost entirely on whether Democrats reform or abolish the filibuster. All of this progress we’ve discussed could be building to more. Biden could follow up on the success of the Rescue Plan by getting his jobs bill through Congress. He could respond to the wave of voter suppression laws coming online in GOP states with sweeping democracy reforms, including statehood. He could revitalize labor rates and set the country on a course to meet the kind of de-carbonization goals we’ll need to hit to save the planet. But most, if not all of these things won’t happen if the current filibuster rules remain in place. And whether Biden’s legacy stalls out or continues to build could have profound consequences for the country, his presidency, and the Democratic Party. Even if an economic boom awaits us, will voters reward Biden and Democrats at the polls next November if Congress spends the next 18 months in gridlock and Republicans spend that time waging endless culture war? Can the Democratic brand become synonymous with things like worker rights and equality, the things that make Biden personally popular if his agenda stalls, if the minimum wage stays flat? That’s the risk. Democrats preside over post-COVID prosperity, but gridlock returns, culture wars heat up, and the public, satisfied with the economy, votes on the basis of other issues. Voter suppression works. Republicans win back the House. Suddenly, everything, including the faithful certification of the 2024 election, becomes uncertain all over again. So there’s our ending note. Biden set, a very high, high watermark for his first 100 days, but it could drop quickly, and it’s up to Democrats, and Democrats alone, to prevent that. My guest this week is Heather McGhee. She’s the former President and currently a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the think tank Demos, and author of the new book “The Sum of Us.” Her book is a roadmap for progressives who want to overcome the politics of white grievance to implement an egalitarian agenda in a multiethnic democracy. We look back at the highs and lows of Biden’s first 100 days, and what a recipe for success in the next 100 and beyond would look like. I’m Brian Beutler, welcome to Rubicon.
Brian Beutler: It’s so great to have you on the show.
Heather McGhee: Good to be with you, Brian.
Brian Beutler: So let’s start with a look back. First, I want to know what has exceeded your expectations since inauguration, and what has disappointed you. But there’s a catch: you can’t include the vaccine rollout or the American Rescue Plan.
Heather McGhee: The whole plan? [laughs]
Brian Beutler: Just, the two biggest obvious successes, like we’re not going to talk about them yet.
Heather McGhee: OK, great. Well. What has exceeded my expectations has been the degree to which President Joe Biden, who is someone who was not always a narrative or intellectual leader on issues of race and racism, much less public policy, has nonetheless with, with actually great deftness managed to weave in calls for racial equity and an understanding of how public policy has created the disparities we see today through most, if not all, of his public pronouncements and executive orders and factsheets. It really reads like the people on his team are very much kind of moving past a sort of willful blindness or a color blindness about the extent to which the government has been responsible for creating the inequities in our society. And that is absolutely exceeding my expectations.
Brian Beutler: OK, and give me one area of policy, anything, where you think they should have dialed it up a bit. They didn’t, they didn’t really nail that one.
Heather McGhee: Well, I think that the Biden administration, the Democratic majority in Congress, owe their power today to grassroots movements that kept some of the most marginalized people in our society taking Herculean acts of citizenship over the past six years, eight years. And the fight for 15 is obviously one of them.
[clip of President Biden] If you’re making less than $15 an hour, you’re living below the poverty wage.
[speaker] But that may not be in your American Rescue Plan.
[clip of President Biden] No. I put it in, but I don’t think it’s going to survive.
Heather McGhee: It is a movement that has asked so much of some of the people with the least to give in our economy. And they have done it over and over and over again: striking, marching, testifying, changing consciousness—and to not move mountains to force sort of the maximum pressure on the Democratic caucus to deliver on a $15 minimum wage when the polling was with them, the movement was with them, you know, the campaign promises were there, was, I think, one of the biggest disappointments that, you know, is going to reverberate for a long time until it’s fixed.
Brian Beutler: So the reason I that set this up that way is I think, generally speaking, what we’ve heard on this show is, you get the pandemic in the Rescue Plan or are the two biggest things that have happened in the first hundred days, and I think with a broader sense of relief that there’s a competent government again, his nominees have been generally very good, they’re executing at a high level, climate change is woven into the calculation of everything they do. And so that’s been great. Then the Rescue Plan put obviously lots of points on the board because of how it came together, how big it is, just how good of a bill it is. But it also gave clarity, I think, to an economic vision that a lot of his critics found surprising. Right? Having a president who’s willing to say that:
[clip of President Biden] We can’t do too much here. We can do too little, we can do too little and sputter.
Brian Beutler: We had Mike Konczal on and he emphasized how:
[clip of Mike Konczal] Things like full employment matter a lot more than just worrying about the deficit. That it does reflect a real change this time. And I think that’s really important.
Brian Beutler: So these are just huge pillars of change. But they’re also, they’re also kind of unique. So even though they’re these big successes, it’s hard to know what they telegraph about how things will go in a non-crisis environment.
Heather McGhee: It does. Yeah, absolutely. And I think that from my conversations with folks in the administration, just from what I’ve observed as an ordinary citizen, they’re planning to continue to use a crisis footing because they’re naming inequality and racial injustice and the crisis of our democracy, the corruption in our democracy, as crises. And that’s a good thing, because I would agree with the administration that those issues are at a crisis point.
Brian Beutler, narrating: Heather rightly points out the corruption in government is at a crisis level. And one of my personal disappointments with the Biden administration and the Democratically-controlled Congress is that they haven’t signaled that they will rigorously and unapologetically uncover all of the corruption during the Trump years. You may remember author Ruth Ben-Ghiat from our fourth episode. She cautioned that Italian lawmakers paid a hefty price when they chose to ignore ousted President Silvio Berlusconi and all of his corruption. And he bears a striking political resemblance to Donald Trump.
[clip of Ruth Ben-Ghiat] The center left was sick of Berlusconi dominating the news, and so they wanted to turn the page. The center left didn’t pass any corruption reform and citizens got very angry. And so that’s a lesson for us. And you can imagine this fixation, you know, you feel with Trump and more Trump, Berlusconi more Berlusconi. But this was a mistake because Berlusconi came back in less than two years later, and then he was more corrupt than ever and there was no hope of any accountability.
Brian Beutler: I feel like if I had to make one thematic critique of Biden and the Democratic majority of the first 100 days, it would be like they have a theory that they can defeat all the forces of reaction, authoritarianism, corruption, with sound economic policy and good governing. And they’re putting all their eggs in that basket. And it’s a high-risk strategy.
Heather McGhee: Mm hmm. As opposed to?
Brian Beutler: As opposed to a paradigm where they’re doing all the good economic work that they’re doing, but they’re engaged in a more thoroughgoing look back of what happened in the Trump years, trying to root out some of the longer-standing corruption. I mean, there’s, if you want to talk about this in terms of infighting within the Democratic caucus, there’s some dispute in there about whether the anti-corruption provisions of H.R.1 ought to survive—and that, and so that they are, they seem to put less weight, I think, on how important those issues are to the question of what happens in the future and whether, you know, whether we have fair elections in the coming cycles, whether a new authoritarian president might come in and reinstitute all the corruption that marked the Trump administration. And there just doesn’t seem to be a fullness of vision there.
Heather McGhee: Yeah, I think you’re probably right, Brian. I think they’re feeling like, you know, the house is on fire. And so they’re the firefighters, and, you know, the arson investigators are different people. And I think that that is, you know, probably reflects a degree of bandwidth and focus, but I also think it reflects a little bit of orientation. And we saw this at the end of the Bush administration, of wanting to be progressive and look towards the future, and do what is right, and show the counter case of how a government should be run. I think to a degree, I’m sympathetic to that because government is so essential to every single thing that the Democrats want and need to do to address all of those crises we discussed. And government itself is poorly understood and, you know, has pretty poor approval ratings among the American public and so the sense of being focused on delivering, as opposed to beating the drum that, you know, government has been corrupt—I can see how they could make the calculus that it’s actually more important to show good government than it is to continue to, as if they were in a campaign, rail against bad government. At the same time, I do agree that they’re ceding high political terrain on these issues of corruption and in fact, the message research around how to frame H.R.1 and the For the People Act is really actually, shows that framing it around corruption is the best way to get sort of bipartisan and cross ideological support. It would be a shame if Donald Trump remained the standard-bearer for draining the swamp, right? If he still had that as his motto, and not the people who actually want to root out corruption in government, which tend to want to obviously be, which tend to be Democrats. And there’s a way to do it, right? You can talk about the corruption in our democracy as the corruption of politicians picking their voters, the corruption of big money and secret money in politics, as well as the corruption of of gerrymandering, and of politicians who get into office and don’t think they can win again so they try to change who gets to vote and how. And that is all corruption. Right? And I agree with you on the basic point that, you know, that is high political terrain. It has always been as long as I’ve been alive and it will be, continue to be. And so we can’t, you know, take our eye off that ball, that we need to be able to both in the policy and the substance, and in the messaging remember the way people of all ideological stripes feel cynical about their government and want someone to come in and clean house.
Brian Beutler: One thing that’s been dogging me about this episode specifically is sort of how to temper what I think is totally valid enthusiasm for how things have gone so far, with the murkiness of what comes in the next 100, 1,000 days. So the two most consistent things we’ve heard from our previous guests are one) and basically how pleasantly surprised they are by how Biden has done out of the gate.
[speaker 1] I’ve been kind of surprised. It’s kind of been refreshing to hear how he sort of found a middle ground.
[speaker 2] My expectations were real high on climate, and I just think they’re really doing well.
[speaker 3] I would say I have been pleasantly surprised. I think Biden has actually been . . .
[speaker 4] So I was surprised he really went there on the policy.
Brian Beutler: And the other is that of all the high mindedness and righteousness in the world isn’t going to amount to much if, after the first 100 days, his agenda dries up because Democrats can’t bring themselves to get rid of the filibuster.
Heather McGhee: Yes. That’s right. [laughs] I agree.
Brian Beutler: So if you if you had asked me after Barack Obama’s first 100 days, how do you do and where things are going, I’d say: you know, he did it a lot, there’s the Recovery Act and the Ledbetter Act, and a whole bunch of other bills, and now they’re going to do financial reform and they’re going to do health care reform, and it’s going to take some amount of time, but he’s off to the races and we can see pretty clearly like where they’re going and what it will take to get there. And with Biden, I don’t have any sense at all because he doesn’t have the same kind of majorities. Like there’s one vision of the future where they get it together, get rid of the filibuster and do a whole bunch more stuff. And then there’s another realm where maybe they get one more bill through because they use budget reconciliation, or maybe they don’t do anything at all. And I don’t know how to weight those two possibilities and so it’s hard for me, you know, hosting the final episode of a Biden-first-100-days podcast to say: you know, they set themselves up for better things in the future. I wonder what your sense is.
Heather McGhee: Well, I think it is helpful to point your listeners towards something to watch, to know whether or not this administration will be a success on all of the goals that it set out, or not. And that is whether the Jim Crow-era relic of the filibuster remains. And it’s really not much more complicated than that. This majority was put in Washington to govern. The ideas and the policies that are still on the table, that are mostly wrapped up in the American Jobs Plan and American Families proposal are highly popular, with, you know, in the 60 and 70 range—most everything in it, from raising taxes to massive infrastructure spending, to paid family leave, and child care, and home health care, canceling student debt—which is still on the agenda and being discussed. All of this is, you know, 60, 70 percentage point popular stuff. This should be easy to do in a well-functioning representative democracy. And yet we have these structural barriers to democracy, most of which were either designed to maintain white supremacy or were, you know, sort of honed in their current, you know, super format—as is the filibuster today—to maintain conservative white rule. And it’s really a question of whether or not the multiracial democracy that this country has been for the past 56 years—since the signing of the Voting Rights Act—is going to be able to persist in the future as our country becomes more diverse and as an overrepresented minority of conservative white mostly men, is seeing their power wane and therefore getting much more brazen about rigging the rules to basically sort of reinstitute a white-male property requirement in our democracy. And that’s really where we see how racism and the structures of racism, the tools of racism, end up having costs for everyone.
Brian Beutler: So I want to talk about how—I think would be helpful for people to think about the future but I want to do it through the lens of your book: The Sum of Us. In the intro, you write about how coming up in the policy world, the consensus within that world was that egalitarian policy would advance racial justice. But we should not mention that because that’s leading with our chin. We don’t want to activate white identity. The zero-sum mentality is like very easy to gin up in people. And it’s kind of funny because the first excerpts that I saw of the book came from enthusiastic liberal wonks of that school who, I think they seem to believe that the book was an endorsement of that view. But then I read the whole thing and I started thinking maybe they . . . did they read it?
Heather McGhee: [laughs] You better read the book before you tweet about it! So here’s where I think it’s—I wanted my book to have a little bit for everyone. I wanted in many ways for this to be something that can help create a common story and conversation among, you know, the broad multiracial coalition that needs to be the enduring governing coalition for an America that survives, much less thrives. Right? And that’s a big tent and it includes a lot of different cultural backgrounds and ideologies. And my book has a very strong point of view, but it also comes from 20 years of working in that field and seeing those debates. And so on the one hand, you have people who were very much from that school, who are sort of white progressives, who want to just get good economic policies passed, and my kind of case that I made, that racialized thinking has turned white Americans away from vehicles of collective action, whether they’re government or labor unions and collective bargaining—and has basically sort of been the Achilles heel of the progressive project since the civil rights movement, is fodder for them. Right? So that white economist that I talk about in the beginning of in the introduction who says: let’s not lead with our chin here by calling out the racial implications—he would absolutely say: Hah! You’re right. Thank you for, you know, digging through the social science research to show that white people are basically too racist to want to do anything that’s going to help people of color, and so we should basically wave our hands and try to pretend like it’s not going to help people of color and just sort of sneak in some some spinach with applesauce. [laughs] But my book also has something for people who recognize the truth, that just because we—progressives—don’t explicitly talk about race, doesn’t mean race isn’t highly salient and functioning at a full volume in the white political imagination and the white political consciousness, nonetheless. Even when we talk about things in completely, quote unquote “colorblind or race neutral ways.” A) because of the way that Americans of all backgrounds live in a highly-racialized and highly-stratified society and b) most importantly and sort of with increasing ferocity it seems every year—the right wing is telling them that everything that the Democrats do is about race. And it’s not because of what we’ve done. They’ve been saying this since Nixon. Right? They’ve been saying this since Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act and the party became the party of civil rights. And so there’s this sort of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t, and I try to offer a different way forward, both on the level of what story we need to tell and in the level of what policies we need to embrace here.
Brian Beutler: I tried to kind of write out a two-sentence upshot of the book—
Heather McGhee: Thank you! We’ll see. I could use one.
Brian Beutler: Well, also, tell me if I missed it, because it’s a whole book and this is just a couple of sentences, but it goes something like: you can’t trick a critical mass of white people into joining a multiracial small ‘d’ democratic coalition by talking about broad-based economic and political reforms in totally deracinated terms. You have to both—as you put it—call people to their higher ideals and then persuade them that there’s a world of cross-racial economic solidarity that will be better for them than the zero-sum world. And that’s the challenge.
Heather McGhee: Great! Good enough.
Brian Beutler: OK, OK. So that thesis strikes me as posing a daunting kind of communications challenge where you stipulate on the one hand that many white people find the zero-sum story seductive and that it doesn’t take much actually for Republicans to activate white identity. And yet you posit that you can’t create the unbeatable, multi-ethnic coalition that we all kind of want to see without being pretty explicit about the racial implications of progressive policy. So how do you walk that line without doing the zero-sum people’s work for them?
Heather McGhee: So thankfully, we at Demos, in partnership with a whole bunch of allies in the movement and co-chaired by Anat Shenker-Osorio, and Ian Haney Lopez, you know, did the work and did the deep research starting in 2017, and then actually ongoing to this day at the grassroots level across the country of people who are using this on the doors and testing it in communities and on different fights across the country, were able to come up with a general framework that we call the race-class narrative, which does something a little bit different than just talking about racial disparities—which is often how people have been sort of conditioned to talk about racism. It’s like if we’re calling out racism, we’re saying, you know: people of color are disproportionately likely to X, Y and Z. Right? And the problem with that way of telling the story is that a) it reifies the sense of a hierarchy of human value, and because the American understanding of structure and policy and the racism in our policymaking that created those disparities is close to zero, it just actually reinforces stereotypes in the white imagination and often depresses people of color who hear it. And so it doesn’t actually foster that sense of sort of cross-racial solidarity. And so what we set out and discovered was that if we lead with a shared value that names race and class, and then like, for example, let’s say we’re talking about—whatever your race, gender or religion, most of us work hard for our families. Like every child, regardless of where they’re come from, deserves the opportunity to pursue their dreams. That kind of thing. Right? Like reminding us of our common humanity, which is actually an important place to start, and then saying that racial scapegoating is a weapon that economically harms all of us. And so you are actually putting a shot in your listeners arm and inoculating them so the next time they hear that racial scapegoating—which should be in about 30 seconds, right, in today’s media environment—they have antibodies for it. Right? They have antibodies that say: oh, wait, wait, no, no, no, that is not true, that it’s brown and Black people and immigrants and rioters in the street that are stealing the American dream, that is not true—When I hear that I should try to follow the money, I should recognize that that’s a tool of the elite that’s used to divide us. And so it’s a way to marry the populism with the sort of call to racial solidarity. Right? So you say things like: greedy politicians and the corporate lobbyists that fund them pit our communities against each other based on what we look like or where we come from, making us believe that we can’t all have what we need. I began to refer to this idea of what a multiracial coalition can win—which are these solidarity dividends. And that’s the idea that, you know, our biggest problems we’ve got to solve together, and that racial division and scapegoating and the political division that happens because of it, is standing in the way. And so things like cleaner air and higher wages and better-funded schools, student debt cancelation, debt-free college—these are solidarity dividends that we can only win with a multiracial coalition, and that would have a benefit for nearly everybody. That is a way that has been tested in all—you know, from Minneapolis to Michigan to Florida to Maine—that can create a story that calls out the bad actors. The big problem is the way the right wing has weaponized race to distract and divide white Americans from seeking common solutions to the common problems that people have across lines of race.
Brian Beutler, narrating: Coming up, we look at how Biden can, and already has, applied race-class narrative language into his messaging to the public. And we look at what the Democratic Party risks if it leaves the filibuster intact. When we return.
Brian Beutler, narrating: Welcome back to Rubicon. My guest is Heather McGhee. She’s the former President and currently Distinguished Senior Fellow of the think tank Demos, and author of the new book “The Sum of Us.” In our last episode of Season 2 of Rubicon, we’re evaluating the first 100 days of President Biden’s presidency and the high expectations everyone has for his next four years. Before the break, we were talking about the race-class narrative, which Heather co-developed to help Democratic candidates talk to their voters about shared values. I asked Heather how she would apply the race-class narrative to an issue that a lot of you took interest in this season: student debt. In our sixth episode, we talked to writer Matt Yglesias about whether President Biden would fulfill his promise to forgive at least $10,000 in student debt. At the time that Matt worried about potential fallout.
[clip of Matt Yglesias] You know, student debt—I don’t know, man. Like, it just—the biggest problem with it, I think, is that it feeds into a caricature of Democrats as mostly concerned with, like pointy-headed people’s problems rather than working-class people’s problems.
Brian Beutler: What’s the race-class narrative version of that sales pitch, and that anticipates that as soon as Biden unveils a student debt plan, whether it’s at $10,000, $25,000, $50,000, the right is going to turn that around and say that’s just giving free money to people who are derelict on their debts, or whatever.
Heather McGhee: So I think, you know, as I said, you start with the, you know, the common value, right? The idea that every, you know, the greatest dream of every family is to see their kid, you know, surpass them and have a shot at the American dream, and we all know that college is the ticket to the middle class and yet a greedy elite has shortchanged the resources we all need to fund our way to college in the smartest way possible, which is to do it publicly together as an investment in our common future. Right? And they’re pitting us against each other to make us believe that we can’t afford to do the right thing for the next generation. Is basically the way I would do. Is to talk about the way that the people who want to maintain the status quo have robbed us of the resources that we need to fund public college, which is what has happened. Right? We’ve largely had an increase in tuition because of government cutbacks to state funding of public college. And the solution is well within reach. But there is an elite that doesn’t want to extend the promise of the American dream to everyone. And so they’re trying to pit us against each other. But we’re not going to fall for it.
Brian Beutler: How has Biden stacked up as a sort of like, he should be the chief exponent of this way of talking to the public—at least so far?
Heather McGhee: Yeah, it’s a super good question. I have to say that I have been really surprised. You could have knocked me—
Brian Beutler: There it is again!
Heather McGhee: We have bingo. Is this a Rubicon bingo? I’ve been excessively surprised.
Brian Beutler: Every, every, every episode.
Heather McGhee: On January 26th, actually his first presidential address on race, he was signing a set of executive orders on racial equity, he actually said—he talked about the disparities of COVID, he talks about the racial justice moment—but then he also said that for too long we’ve allowed a narrow view—
[clip of President Biden] A narrow view of the promise of this nation to fester.
Heather McGhee: We’ve bought the view that America is this zero sum game.
[clip of President Biden] A zero sum game in many cases. If you succeed, I fail.
Heather McGhee [overlapped by a clip President Biden, word for word] If you get ahead, I fall behind. If you get the job, I lose mine.
[clip of President Biden] Maybe worst of all: if I hold you down, I lift myself up. We’ve lost sight of what President Kennedy told us when he said a rising tide lifts all boats. And when we lift each other up, we’re all lifted up.
Heather McGhee: And then he goes on to say that: of course, if we have racial equity and if communities have what they need to thrive, won’t it be better for all of us?
[clip of President Biden] Does anyone doubt that the whole nation will be better off? Just imagine, instead of . . .
Heather McGhee: Now, as someone who just wrote a book about this, who, you know, I didn’t know whether or not anybody in the White House had had read it by January 26th, it was extraordinarily gratifying to see because I think it is deeply dangerous as a country that is trying to knit together a multiracial demos, right—a multiracial people, a citizenship that a citizenry that see themselves in one another—for us, us as progressives, to keep the aperture about racism so narrow that we inadvertently reified the zero-sum paradigm of racial competition, the idea that is predominant and white folks minds because it has been sold and marketed and packaged by elites generation after generation, that progress or people of color has to come at their expense. And so the more that we can tell the truth about the way that racism has been so predominant in our policymaking and our politics, that it has distorted our ability to solve big problems. It has—as I talk about in the pool in the book—drained the pool of public resources rather than have an integrated set of Americans who benefit from public goods. I think the more that we do that, the more that we are taking the gas out of the right-wing’s desire to immediately have white Americans look at: well, what’s it going to cost me and why do they get this instead of we get this. And particularly, frankly, a white president who, you know, is in many ways, you know, kind of an avatar for the kind of white voter who has not been with the Democratic Party for generations now, needs to be the one to say: hey, guys, we’re all in this together, it’s not going to cost you, you know, this is something that we can do that’s going to be great for everyone, for your children too, don’t believe, you know—I don’t know what folksy word he would use about, you know, the black community would call like the ‘okey doke.’
Brian Beutler: He has that malarkey word.
[clip of President Biden] That’s a bunch of malarkey.
Heather McGhee: Exactly! “Don’t believe the malarkey, you know that your greatest enemy is the struggling Black family down the street as opposed to the, you know, the boss that’s cut your hours and shipped your job overseas.” You know?
Brian Beutler: So here’s how I tie these themes back to the future of the Biden presidency: it seems to me that proving the concept of the solidarity dividend requires a world where change is happening.
Heather McGhee [echoed by President Biden] Yes!
Brian Beutler: Right. Like whether it’s health care or voting rights, you need tangible, popular change to happen to demonstrate to the white voters who we were just talking about that what’s good for Black and brown people is also good for them. You need the change to happen. But you also ideally, you want to be coming from Democrats, right? So that people know that one of the two parties is the one that improved their lives. I think about these like these minimum wage referenda that pass overwhelmingly. Or even in Florida, the felon enfranchisement initiative that passed overwhelmingly. These initiatives pass on ballots where Democrats lose. And I feel like unless the change is coming from Joe Biden and the Democrats, you’re going to have a hard time connecting in people’s mind that the Democratic Party is sort of synonymous with those things. They’re sort of, you want them to see the whole party the way they currently see Joe Biden. Does that make sense?
Heather McGhee: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, yes, we need Democrats to get credit for and make lasting durable distinctions with the Republican Party on: is your life better because of what we’ve done in power? And that’s why I think things like Joe Biden signing a piece of paper and wiping out tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt is a pretty BFD and he should do it. And, you know, I think about all the great things in the American Rescue Plan, and how many of them are not necessarily going to get that last mile into the communities that they need to get into, and that people won’t be aware that they’re available. Like the FEMA grants for COVID funerals. Right? For funerals of people who’ve lost people to COVID. People don’t know that that exists. Right? That’s just one example out of thousands from a bill that’s already passed, that it’s going to take organizing and public education for the administration and Democrats to get credit for in a way that’s good for politics, obviously, but it’s also good for our understanding of what government is and can be in our lives. That’s why I think that creating a highly visible, right—as visible as the military recruitment centers in every county in the country—way for people to sign up for a job helping to rebuild this country in some way, as a massive expansion of national service and job corps that the president has already talked about in a bunch of different realms, whether it’s COVID response or asking the Department of Interior to rebuild the Civilian Conservation Corps—and doing it in a way where that experience of signing up to help rebuild this country instead of delivering groceries and takeout food to people which are kind of the available jobs these days, might actually bring someone from rural Kentucky into a closer relationship with someone from the east side of Baltimore. And that these kinds of big marquee experiences—and there’s a reason why I’m sort of talking about things that like young adults can do—I think are the opportunity that the Biden administration has to be firmly associated the same way that FDR and the Democrats were with the New Deal, with these things, these life-changing benefits. And I think it’s fully within the power of the administration, but it takes organizing.
Brian Beutler: So you mentioned student loan reform again. You mentioned this provision in the bill that already passed. What do you see happening if this rapid pace of change that we’ve seen over the first 100 days cannot continue because of the filibuster?
Heather McGhee: I think that the cynicism of the most engaged parts of the Democratic base—and I don’t just mean people who are very online, but I mean people in the movement for Black Lives and people in the fight for 15, and people in the fight for the reunification of families, students and young people who have organized at a record rate and turned out a record rate—if they don’t begin to see their core demands met, then I think we have a really terrible midterm. So I think in many ways, the the Democratic fear of getting rid of a minority veto for fear that they won’t be able to use it when they are again in the minority is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The most likely thing to put the Democrats in a minority in the future is letting the filibuster stop them from doing what people elected them to do.
Brian Beutler: I think that there are some people who think or hope that it won’t really matter much what happens between now and next November if there’s a booming post-COVID economy, that Democrats can just ride that to victory. And I’m not sure they’ve grappled enough with how risky it will be to spend 18 months or whatever it is with Republicans spinning endless zero-sum nonsense about whatever, you know, Dr. Seuss or Mr. Potato Head—and when the only thing Democrats respond with is like a bunch of failed cloture votes on things like the minimum wage.
Heather McGhee: [laughs] Yes. You just, you just described a pretty apocalyptic scenario to me honesty, politically. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s just, it’s not, I don’t see the path to a continued Democratic majority that still has the filibuster stopping us from enacting the agenda that is popular with 60 and 70% of the country across the board. I just don’t see it. We unfortunately are the party that is the party of governance. And so we’ve got to be able to govern and we can’t let, particularly this tool—that was honed in order to preserve white supremacy and segregation and to defeat civil rights—be something that we care about more than civil rights today, and more than economic justice today, and more than a real recovery. Because that scenario you just talked about, that some armchair experts think is going to be in the future where the economy becomes, quote unquote “roaring back” is still going to have people with massive amounts of debt, both student debt, rent debt, medical debt—it’s going to have usually a 2:1 unemployment rate, Black to white. It’s going to have Black and brown families having less than a quarter of wealth for every dollar owned by the average white family, and Black college graduates having less wealth on average than white high school dropouts. It’s still going to have people being paid too little for their work and not enough opportunity to advance and to have the basic needs of running a family—from child care to health care, to costs of transportation and housing and higher education—met in a way that is affordable and efficient, which is to do most of those things publicly. All of those things, even if our unemployment rate writ large is lower, even if our GDP and the stock market is spinning upward, we’re still, like without the things that a filibuster stops, we’re actually going to still have about 40 to 50 million Americans who are desperately economically stressed. And that is a massive problem because Democrats have will have very little to show for as a response to something that remains profoundly compelling, which is if it doesn’t matter who’s in office for your wallet, then how about it matters who’s in office for your sense of self-worth, for your sense of belonging, for your sense of status, for your sense of who’s in charge and whose side they’re on—and that’s where we talk about the psychological wages of whiteness, right? Where these symbols of status matter more than actually having health care. And the more that Democrats concede to process, right, to the legislative process in stopping us from delivering the material gains that working families of all backgrounds desperately need, the more we are open to the next phase of Trumpism.
Brian Beutler: It’s almost like there’s an analogy between the need to convince people that whatever their intuitions tell them about racial division in America, that there is a positive sum to be yielded out of cross-racial solidarity. There’s a similar kind of like intuitive thinking in politics that once you’ve won power, you should not wield it as much as possible because you need to sort of husband this political capital and if you go out and do things, you’re spending it down. Where everything we have discussed thus far points to this idea that in order to build a coalition that will sustain Democrats through big headwinds coming in future elections, they need to build political capital by spending almost. Like there’s a positive sum to be gained from going out and doing all the stuff they’re scared to do.
Heather McGhee: Yeah, it’s not spending. It’s investment.
Brian Beutler: Right.
Heather McGhee: You’re investing your political capital and it’s having dividends. Solidarity dividends, right? [laughs] Absolutely. I mean, listen, we can make it very simple: make people’s lives better. We’ve tried in a bipartisan way to leave it to the quote unquote “market”—which is just leave it to the whims of rich people—for 50 years now and pretty much every single quality, lever of quality of life has gone down. It is now time for the party that wrote the formula for broadly-shared prosperity and that created the middle class in the New Deal era, to get back on the job and make people’s lives better. And don’t apologize for it. Right? I mean, what’s the point? What’s the point of having power if you can’t use it on behalf of people?
Brian Beutler: It’s funny because I think the people who get this best are actually Republicans. Like there’s a reason they have decided that the right thing to do every time they’re in the minority is filibuster the hell out of it. And I wonder if Democrats ever think like: I wonder why Republicans keep trying to stop us, like, what is the reason, what are they so scared of? And if Republicans really thought that these things were going to be so politically toxic for Democrats, that Democrats were going to overreach so far that they were they were going to like, never be able to face down voters again, they would just let it rip. But they’re trying to stop it. Why?
Heather McGhee: Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, that’s exactly right. You know, I think there is, I so to that point, my concern in many ways about Democrats not fighting hard enough to govern beyond the rules of reconciliation, is that many of our most active supporters will grow even more cynical about whether Democrats in power really care about their health care costs, and really care about their student-loan debt burdens, and really care about the crisis of police brutality. And that often happens, right? Is that people in power take it for granted the people who put them in power, and are always thinking about the marginal difference of white moderates. Right? Are always thinking about the potential white backlash and I just don’t think that is going to work. I believe that the crucible of the Trump era, the crises of inequality and climate change and the corruption in our democracy and racial injustice and structural racism have fundamentally changed the American people and the Democratic Party in ways that have created a new political calculus. And it’s beautiful to have a president who is such a deft politician in many ways, that you see those changes and the opening of possibilities in where he has moved ideologically and in terms of his ambition. Movements have made this moment for the Biden-Harris administration, and a reckoning with who we are as a country and the extent of our cruelty, the extent of racism in our politics and policy-policymaking, has awakened the hearts and minds of tens of millions of Americans who want to be part of a permanent, multiracial, anti-racist governing majority in America. And It is that coalition that waded through high water in November and January to do the impossible against a rigged system of gerrymandered districts, and a Senate that is completely built to keep minorities in power in the face of a multiracial democracy. And yet, here we are, with this moment to rewrite the rules of our economy and our democracy to make the American dream more possible for everyone. And I don’t think you can put that surge that has happened in consciousness, that was awakened not only by the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Aubrey, but also by the pandemic and the experience of feeling in a visceral way that—frankly, I don’t think most Americans had ever had to feel—which is that we need each other. And there is such a thing as society. There is such a thing as government. And that we’d be willing actually to change our lives all the way around, in order to protect our neighbors. And all of that has created the conditions for the kinds of politics at the state, local and national level that we haven’t seen, you know, certainly in our lifetimes. I think we’re there. I think that the American Rescue Plan and the COVID response has been a massive refilling of the pool of public goods. And I think the only thing that might make this administration a 100-day administration, as opposed to an eight-year administration that fundamentally saves America and saves the course of this nation’s history and saves the planet, are these little vestiges of a lingering white supremacist control over the greatest democracy the world should ever see: the filibuster, the type of voter suppression and corruption in our democracy that is being waged by a party of the minority over a multiracial democracy. We can get rid of those things. We can rewrite the rules to make democracy real in this country. And it will be a win-win, even for many of the terrified and manipulated white voters who are seeing the Biden administration and the Democratic Party as a threat—it will be a win-win if we get out of our own way and do what we know to be the right thing to do, and just have the courage of our convictions to do it.
Brian Beutler: I keep coming back to the same basic idea too, that the reason to hope that they will do these things is almost because they must. There’s no other way out.
Heather McGhee: That’s right.
Brian Beutler: All right. I’ll leave it there. Heather McGhee, thank you so much for joining us on Rubicon.
Heather McGhee: Thank you, Brian. Good to be with you. Thank you for the show.
Brian Beutler: Rubicon has written and hosted by me, Brian Beutler. It’s produced by Andrea Gardner-Bernstein. Veronica Simonetti is our audio engineer. Production support from Olivia Martinez. Thanks for listening.