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"This is the fight": Demos's Heather McGhee on the upside to Trump's racial politics

Heather McGhee, left, with New York Times columnist David Brooks.
Heather McGhee, left, with New York Times columnist David Brooks.
William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images

Heather McGhee thought about changing the name of the progressive think tank Demos when she became its president in 2014.

The name sounded stuffy. Few people knew what the ancient Greek word meant. "People always ask if it stands for something or if it was an acronym," she says. "It was a bit of a mess, public relations–wise."

But McGhee ultimately decided that "Demos," which means the people of a democracy, was actually the perfect fit for the organization’s mission. Exactly who gets included in the body politic — figuring out what the "Demos" is — is really the central struggle of American politics, McGhee said.

"I think there’s something beautiful about the idea that becoming a Demos, becoming a unified people, is in fact our biggest project in this country. It’s not at the level of an incremental public policy. It’s about a fundamental level of who we define as an American," she says.

In the latest installment of The Ezra Klein Show, Klein and McGhee talk about her time working for John Edwards, discuss what the TV show The West Wing gets wrong (and right) about modern liberalism, and delve into the influence of money on politics. (You can listen to the interview here or subscribe to the show on iTunes.)

But their discussion is mostly about why overcoming racial divisions is the first and overriding challenge to any truly successful progressive movement — and why Donald Trump’s racialized rhetoric may help that effort by bringing the conflict to the surface.

"This is the fight. This is absolutely the fight as demographic change helps America fulfill its destiny as a people," McGhee says. "We can either say we’re meeting here to compete with one another or all the world’s people are meeting here to give lie to the idea of racial difference."

A lightly edited transcript from the interview is below.

The silver lining to Donald Trump’s racialized politics

Trump Ralph Freso/Getty Images

Ezra Klein: How are you enjoying 2016 so far?

Heather McGhee: As ugly as it’s been, I think these are the undercurrents of our politics all the time. So I’m glad we’re having them out.

EK: That’s interesting. What do you mean by that?

HM: Most people who support Trump will say, "He’s saying what he thinks." And what they’re really saying is, "He’s saying what I’m thinking."

This country is at such a moment of profound demographic change, layered in with economic inequality and tectonic shifts of how we live, that for our politics to not be explicitly related to that conversation and working it out just allows for them to be dog whistles and unconsciously exploited fears and anxieties.

EK: Do you think that when our politics explicitly engages in these questions we make them better or we make them worse?

In '08, there’s all this talk about Obama being a post-racial president. Then he gets elected and our politics becomes more structured by race. Now if you poll anything that touches on race, it’s sharply divided on racial lines. We seem to have, instead of working out racial disagreement through politics, added our political disagreements to race.

HM: There is a simple answer, which is that Barack Obama was an incredibly compelling candidate and that those who refused to vote for him may have had strong racial feelings, so the people who moved to the Democratic Party were those who were by definition willing to vote for a black man.

That’s sort of the simple answer. I think the more complex answer is that we’re hopefully near the endpoint of a three-generation reshuffling of our partisan affiliations by identity. One that began with the Southern strategy and has had valences around things we think of in non-racialized terms — how big you want government to be, how high you want taxes to be — but a lot of research has shown that those questions are, of course, questions that can fall on the fundamental building block of your identity, which in this country is race.

How racism caused the cost of college to rise

Woman with a megaphone in front of a blackboard Shutterstock

EK: This idea that the Democratic Party looks at racism as something that wholly hurts folks of color and helps whites. What do you mean when you say the left has to move beyond that?

HM: As a black woman and descendant of slaves in this country, I am by no means minimizing the harm racism is doing to black people in this country or the danger of deportation — the list could go on.

However, if you think of the well-founded economic anxiety and insecurity that many white families are feeling today … if our politics requires a sense of moral altruism from white voters to support the cause of racial justice, that’s a pretty high bar.

Fortunately, I don’t think the facts bear out the idea that white people benefit from the kind of racism that we have today and that people of color are the only people who are harmed. …

trump rally

Ezra, you and I both came up in the idea of a very economically progressive story that talked about the postwar period from the mid-'40s to the mid-1970s as an era of broad economic prosperity, of a compact between labor and government — and it was true. And then something shifted.

You can start telling the story of what happened in the mid-1970s as a story that doesn’t include race at all — about the Powell memo, about corporations learning to organize, about anodyne forces like globalization and technological change.

But the real story has to include race, how it was that the white vote shifted so dramatically after the civil rights era and a new racial formation of the conservative party [arose]. This question — do we order our society so there are big progressive public investments in all of us? That became a lot harder to say yes to when that public didn’t look like you. …

White voters became alienated from the idea of government and government benefits because they didn’t, in the conservative methodology, benefit them. It benefited the other. Has that hurt inner-city communities? Absolutely. But it’s also led to a tripling in the cost of tuition over the past generation.

EK: As I understand the argument, the point is this: The way in which racism has begun to have victims who are not just nonwhite is that it’s been used to discredit a broad variety of government programs and forms of government action that really were oriented to class.

That racism has been used as a form of class war that’s also been very bad for poor whites.

HM: That’s exactly right.

Take, for example, the cost of college. Ronald Reagan ran to successfully marry the public image with government spending with undeserving minorities who were either undeserving because they were criminal or because they were lazy, like the welfare queen.

If you have a broad rejection of government spending — as the famous Lee Atwater quote goes: Once you start talking about cuts instead of saying the n-word, it’s a lot more subtle but you get the same effect.


Now, that is true, but what’s also true is that white families need government too. In fact, government helped create the white working class. And nowhere is it more vivid than in the rising cost of college.

We’re releasing a video at Demos that shows how racism has raised the rising cost of college. The main driver is a massive set of cuts at the state level — about a quarter of every dollar per pupil — and what’s been the background driver of all these cuts? The conservative ideology. …

It’s not really clear why a base white conservative really wants a small government or spending cuts. Why am I driven to the polls to cut spending? It’s in large part, and lots of research shows this, that government spending has been racialized. …

What does this point to in terms of strategy? That progressives can’t point to saying government this, government that, without dealing with the underlying racial dynamics. You can’t deal with the Bernie Sanders expansion of government that make us look more like Denmark when our people don’t look like Denmark.

Even if you want an entirely economic agenda, that requires you to do the hard work on race.

EK: I think what’s being said here is that modern conservatism is a second-best compromise between a donor class that wants lower taxes and less regulations and a second group of lower-class whites that doesn’t want to be paying taxes where those benefits are going to voters of color or unauthorized immigrants or "the other."

In many ways it seems like, in his rhetoric if not his policy proposals, that Donald Trump is trying to pull that apart by attacking the donor class. That he’s going to have a huge state, but he’s going to make sure that the money will go to you — the people who Made America Great — rather than, implicitly, people of color.

HM: When people ask me, "What do you think of this election; are you just horrified?" I say, "Yes, of course I’m horrified, but I think this is an important part of our political growing up."

Donald Trump by making dog whistles explicit … is signing the divorce papers for what has been an unholy marriage in the conservative coalition. My response is to respond to the false patriotism of Donald Trump with a true patriotism. I’m a very patriotic person — even though I’m a black, liberal woman. [laughs]

I’m very patriotic because I believe if America is exceptional it’s because of the great diversity of our people, and I believe it’s time for a new story about who we are as a country that says our diversity is our greatest asset. That who we’re becoming demographically — a pluralistic nation with no racial majority — is not the unmaking of America but the fulfillment of it.

We are a country that is not united by race or creed or religion or any other identifying factor. So we have to stop denying that’s who we are and actually say that’s what makes us great. That requires a whole different set of social institutions, that building a sense of solidarity and community is itself work and should be the work of our politics. In his best moments, the president was able to do that — to wrap that plurality in the flag — and it’s not surprising you’re seeing a backlash with Donald Trump.

But this is the fight. This is absolutely the fight as demographic change helps America fulfill its destiny as a people. We can either say we’re meeting here to compete with one another or all the world’s people are meeting here to give lie to the idea of racial difference.

Who does the Democratic Party represent?

Democratic Party diversity

EK: When you look back at The West Wing, President Bartlett didn’t get anything done at all. The stuff he really worked to get done was the most small-bore — add mammograms to Medicare, make college tuition deductible. In the Bush era, liberals felt so connected to that vision of politics.

Then Obama came in, and the stuff he passed would have looked ridiculous on that show; he never even would have attempted it. The Democratic Party’s ambitions between 1996 and 2008 rose really dramatically — there was a sense within it that they were culturally out of step with the party, but to win and hold power they had to compromise with a political center that wasn’t where they were. And the more recent incarnations of the party are quite emboldened from that period.

HM: They need to be. Half of the American people can’t pay a $400 bill that arrives on their doorstep without going into debt or selling something. We have an existential crisis to humanity in global climate change. This is not a time for small ideas — school uniforms and things like that. This is a time when our political system has become so out of touch with not just the wishes but urgent needs of the vast majority of the American people that big structural change is needed.

At Demos, we do a lot of research in partnership with political scientists on just how inequality in our democracy is creating inequality in our economy — and what a feedback loop it is. …

EK: Who do you think the Democratic Party serves?

HM: The very cynical part of me thinks both parties serve the people who pay them — fundamentally, the people from who they can raise money. And it really can’t be overstated what a small slice of the American people actually give in any significant amount to federal candidates, and how distorted the demographics of that population are.

Over 90 percent of the gifts from the candidates came from majority-white neighborhoods. It shouldn’t be a surprise that then 90 percent of our elected officials are white, even though the country is about 40 percent people of color. So we have a lot to do.

EK: So what does a less cynical part of you think?

HM: [Laughs] The less cynical part of me, when I think about who the Democratic Party serves, thinks that what unites people to the Democratic Party banner is an idea of a government that works in the public interest — an idea of linked fate across race and identity. And in many ways that’s easier to say now that it was 20 years ago. There is more ideological coherence to the Democratic Party now, and that’s a good thing. Because particularly on economic issues, that bolder more progressive vision is more in line with what working- and middle-class families want and need.

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