Here’s what I take to be the central question of American politics in the coming years: How do you hold together, much less govern, a country undergoing as much demographic change as our own?
In 2013, America passed a milestone. A majority of infants under 3 were nonwhite. The Census Bureau thinks the whole nation will follow by 2045. In most states, white deaths now outnumber white births. And it’s not just race. The percentage of foreign-born Americans is nearing a record high. The percentage of nonreligious Americans has been rising for decades.
America is changing, and it’s changing fast. People feel that. And everything we know about identity and politics suggests this kind of transition will push America into a fragile and even dangerous place. Look at Donald Trump and the ideas that powered his rise — this transition has already pushed America into a fragile and even dangerous place. “Slowing massive demographic change is not fascist; it’s conservative,” warns Andrew Sullivan.
But the United States is far from the first polity to undergo these changes. So rather than looking to the country’s future with concern, it’s worth looking to some of the places that have traveled this road already, and done so successfully.
California, the most populous state in the union, traveled this path in the 1990s — and not without turbulence. This was the era of Governor Pete Wilson, of the harshly anti-immigrant Prop. 187 and protests and Supreme Court cases against affirmative action. But the state held together, and far from being ripped apart by the browning of its population, it remains successful, proud, vibrant, and governable. Its diversity has become part of its soul, part of California’s idea of itself.
Within California, Los Angeles stands out both for its particular size and demographics. LA has about 4 million people, making it more populous than 23 states, and it’s the third biggest city in the world by GDP. According to recent Census numbers, non-Hispanic whites now make up about 30 percent of the population, while Hispanics and Latinos make up 47 percent, Asians make up 11 percent, and African Americans make up 10 percent. If population change is truly an existential threat to a polity, LA should’ve cracked apart long ago.
Eric Garcetti is the mayor of LA. He’s its first Jewish mayor and its second Mexican-American mayor. He was reelected in 2017 with a stunning 81 percent of the vote. I’ve always found him to be unusually thoughtful on questions of diversity and national identity, perhaps because of the place he lives and works, and perhaps because of how many of those questions are bound up in his own biography.
I sat down with Garcetti in his office last week. A transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows. Our full conversation — which includes much more on LA’s homelessness crisis, among other topics — can be heard on my podcast, The Ezra Klein Show.
We’re speaking amidst Trump’s child separation crisis, which manages to merge both the administration’s policy toward immigrants and toward refugees. Walk me through how your family history intersects with these issues.
I’m a typical American, which is to say, like all of us, a mix of different things. On my father’s side, my grandfather, Salvador, was born in Mexico. He was 1 year old when he lost his father during the Mexican Revolution. And my abuela, my great-grandmother, literally picked him up and started walking, like a parent does to try to save their child.
And she went through the border between Mexico and the United States in El Paso, and then eventually got all the way to Los Angeles. What sort of life would they have had if my grandfather had been ripped out of his mother’s arms and they had been separated?
On my mom’s side, they lived in the Western part of the Russian Empire where Jews were allowed to live. And yet those Jews were victims of pogroms and forced conscription. The various great-grandparents on my mom’s side all came fleeing that oppression.
That’s what America’s been. A place that has been welcoming to the refugee, to the person who’s oppressed. Our darkest chapters are those in which we’ve closed our borders.
There are some in the country right now who see rising diversity, a rising nonwhite population, a rising foreign-born population, and they see that diversity as a strength. And there are people in the country who look at that same thing and feel that something is being taken away from them, they feel that there is a change happening too fast for them to really adapt to it.
How do you bridge that gap? Is that even possible for politicians to do?
I think you have to unite a country around common work. It’s very difficult to bridge cultural divides by sitting down and saying hey, we should just all get to know each other and can’t you tolerate this diversity more? I’d like to have a country that works together for a better quality of life for everybody across those lines. Some of those divisions begin to recede when we do that.
I’ll give you an example. Here in LA after the riots in 1992, people wanted to say, “Hey, let’s just get Koreans and African Americans together, and if they talked with each other and knew each other it wouldn’t be so bad.” That didn’t go anywhere.
[What did work] in diverse communities where Latinos and African Americans and Korean Americans lived, was, “Hey, we don’t have a park here in this neighborhood, let’s work on that together; there’s too much gang crime, what can we do to make this a safer street?” Then they got to know each other cross those lines.
But it’s the work that cemented them, not an idea of bridging culture. If you don’t have anything in common, trying to understand each other’s differences it very difficult. We need political leadership that is about uniting us around the common work.
Do Democrats know how to talk about diversity and national identity in a way that is inclusive of the uncomfortable as opposed to threatening to them?
I think Democrats are very good at speaking about the discomfort of what it means to be a person of color, of having a different relationship with the police department. But on the other side of it, Democrats have lost the more national vision of a national identity. We run away from too often just embracing patriotism, of speaking about the United States as a great nation and a great people and a great country.
If you want to lead this country, I think you have to believe in this country. You have to feel comfortable speaking about its people and embracing all of its people. And that doesn’t just mean all of its people in terms of ethnic minorities and talking about differences. It means embracing every one of us — even people with different political perspectives. We’ve not just become a narrow tent, we have become much more tribal within ourselves, instead of looking at the American tribe which I think is very important to define.
There can be a tension between the coalition politics of the Democratic Party and this rhetoric of national identity you’re talking about. As the Democratic Party becomes more centrally dependent on Hispanic voters, on African-American voters, on young voters — as it becomes a more diverse coalition where particular groups have particular needs and priorities — is it possible for it to still be speaking from a national place?
Absolutely. If you look at coalitions and only think about them as groups of people, you continue to segregate those people. If you look at representation and everybody belonging, as a value across everything that you do, it becomes universal.
In City Hall, if I say, “Okay, I need to have a Bureau of Latino Affairs,” in the past, that was the first step when people weren’t included at all in government, and that was a good first step. But now we’re beyond that. We should just accept as a value that when you enter a room and it’s a press conference with 10 men and there are no women, fix that. But a few specialized people dealing with gender affairs and women, who only do women’s issues, that’s why we get into so much trouble as Americans. It’s why people still are excluded. So I would say we have to start speaking in the voice of all of us, in a way that includes the values of each one of us.
So let me push you on that. You just gave a great example. You walk into a room, it’s a panel, there are 10 men on the panel, do you go on that panel or do you walk out?
When I hear people complaining about identity politics, it’s over issues like that. They hear that complaint and they think, one, why are you worrying about this at all? Stop worrying about panels, stop worrying about who’s on the television show, stop worrying about who’s getting an Oscar, this is ridiculous. Worry about the economy, worry about wages, worry about jobs.
But the other thing is that is also a place where some people feel a threat. If you’re a white man, and all of a sudden what you’re hearing is that there’s going to be gender equity across the government or across CEO boards, or that there’s going to be a real effort to make sure college campuses are more diverse, one of the things you hear is there’s going to be fewer places for me. It becomes zero-sum.
So how do you hold both those things together?
I just fix them instead of talk about them. I came in here as mayor and I looked at the boards and commissions that I appointed. And within six months I made them for the first time over 50 percent women. I think it was 53 or 54 percent women. And I have in my core senior staff a couple white men who are Republicans. You can’t be so doctrinaire that you’re going to exclude anyone’s voice because I think you suffer from it.
To have a deputy mayor who served as an elected Republican in this state enriches that table when we’re going around in unpredictable ways. You might have the African-American woman say something more conservative than anybody at the table, and you might have that Republican white male say something on immigration that stops everybody in their tracks.
You have to stop reducing us to these categories and false dichotomies. And if there’s one thing that drives me crazy in this moment in American politics, it’s the false cut between things. That we’re red states and we’re blue states and that we’re rural and that we’re urban and we’re coastal and we’re heartland.
I remember a speech someone gave like that a while back.
Exactly. And I do think there are two Americas. But I think it’s Washington and the rest of us. We can all feel threatened. You can feel threatened no matter what your color or gender or geography is. You really can. But that usually happens when people aren’t talking about the big issues and solving the big challenges we have. And I think it’s time for us to get off the false dichotomy and get back to what we need to be on offense about.
Let me pick up on Washington and the rest of us. When I was preparing for this interview I was looking at the politics of LA and I found that from 1990 to 2010, the Latino population here increased by 37 percent, and the white population decreased by 51 percent.
Why do you think there’s been such a sharp change in LA’s demographics?
We’ve had an interesting history in this city. This was a place that was first a Spanish city, then a Mexican city, then an American city. We had one of the biggest Chinese populations, we were very accepting to Jews in the mid-19th century.
The Southwest has always been full of Latinos, a lot of us have been living here for four or five generations — most Latino families I know have lived here longer than the average American family that is non-Latino, which has come a generation ago in LA. So I’m not so fascinated by the why. I mean, who cares?
I care. I am fascinated by the why.
But tell me why?
I don’t know if this is true, but I suspect it may be. One way of looking at California in this period, where the country is becoming majority-minority racially, is that California reflects a successful navigation of that diversification of a country. This was a very conservative state not long ago; LA was a pretty conservative place for quite a while.
But another way of looking at it is that what has happened has been exit — a lot of people looked around and said, “This place is changing, I’m out.” The reason I brought it up when you say the division is DC and the rest of the country is that it’s much harder to leave your country than it is to leave the state.
There’s been a huge amount of Californians exiting for places like Texas, places like Arizona, and that may reflect people’s preferences about what kind of society, what kind of place they live in.
Now I don’t know if that’s true. But one thing I worry about when I frame California as a pure success story is that maybe it was a selection story. Maybe a lot of people left here because they didn’t like what they were seeing around them, and so instead of this being an example of a nationally usable model, it’s actually the thing we’re concerned about.
This is still an incredibly diverse city. We’ve got 30-some [groups] with the largest population outside their home countries, 63 percent of Angelenos are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. I just point to the success of California. This is a place that works, and a place where everybody belongs.
I don’t think people left because they didn’t feel like they belong. I think that if you talk to your average white resident in Los Angeles they feel very much that this is their home. Latinos feel that this is very much their home.
I think we spend so much time as a country obsessed about culture and belonging in the divisive way that we’ve lost the conversation about talking about that in the uniting way. You don’t have many people offering a vision of what the nation is. And the nation is different than the state. The state is a government and borders. Nation is the people. It’s what’s always made America very special.
On the one hand, we have the Republican Party that’s shredding those threads. On the other, we have a [Democratic] Party that too often can only describe each of the threads instead of the fabric itself. We need to get back to an America where we’re actually talking about that common fabric again, and we’re not trying to rip it apart.
I’m going to give you the softball to end all softballs here. Talk to me about that common fabric. National leadership focuses the mind. And right now there’s a lot of national leadership on our points of maximum conflict, and so it is priming all of us, it is giving us a lot of ways to think about the places in which we disagree and the places in which we’re having a lot of trouble navigating the changes in this country.
You are in a genuinely thriving city that is deeply diverse. So what does it look like not on a meta-level but on an actual level when you try to focus people on the places where diversity is working? What do those topics look like? When you describe that fabric, how do you describe it?
Well, I see it across America. When I was in Iowa, you drive through and you see Hmong- and African-run businesses and restaurants, and you see this isn’t something that’s just kind of a coastal phenomenon. And that I think that’s part of the difficult moment that people are facing. It’s coming to some places it hasn’t come to before, and there’s no place it ever comes to where there isn’t some cultural dissonance.
It certainly happened here in Los Angeles — the biggest mass lynching in American history was of Chinese Americans two blocks from where we’re speaking right now in the late 1800s. So these things are part of our history no matter where we are.
But I do think that here in Los Angeles, we’ve gotten to a point where you can live with that fabric not just as something that’s interesting but something that you feel is your own. So Los Angeles is majority Latino, but its Koreatown, where everybody embraces the Korean culture that’s there, abuts a big Bangladeshi community, and probably dozens of other cultures. And everybody kind of owns it. They feel like it’s theirs. They belong.
And I think that’s the big thing right now for America is there are too many people, on any spectrum or any kind of ethnic rainbow, who feel that they don’t belong.
Can you say more about the word “belonging”? You used it a few times, what does it mean to you?
It’s different than diversity, acceptance, tolerance. Diversity means we’re still kind of in our own narrow lane defined by our ethnicity, defined by our parents’ language or religion. I think most people do feel an American identity and they want to belong.
When I talk about national identity, that comes from the Greek word for birth. We’re not all from the same family, we’re not a blood nation or an ethnic nation, we’re a civic nation. There’s something that we do share through our birth. We share through our life here in America. And that’s the piece to me that’s missing. Right now people feel lonely, isolated, cut out, and when politicians say “Oh, you can blame that person as to why,” that’s very resonant for a lot of people. That’s Trumpism.
But over time I think we all get traumatized by that, and we do hunger to go back to a politics of addition and multiplication. Americans want to think of themselves as fighting for the underdog and being generous to one another.
I don’t think that people feel free right now. And it’s not the freedom that we talk about, the negative freedom, the right to my gun or the right to my reproductive rights or to marry whomever. People don’t feel the freedom anymore to live a good quality of life. The freedom to send their kids to college.
Those two things right now — a sense of belonging culturally to a nation and a sense of freedom economically — I think are the twin pillars of what I call this “age of anxitement.” It’s anxiety and excitement at the same time. These amazing things that are happening that we’re still, I think, optimistic and excited to see and be a part of, but there’s tremendous anxiety that goes on top of that. “Technology’s great, but will I have a job? They’re curing diseases, but can I afford my health care?”
How do you foster belonging? Is that something that leaders or governments have the power to do?
By demanding a common compact again, expecting that we all have a responsibility to give to each other and to this nation, that it is through our own labor and through our own hearts and through our own work that we will stay great.
Here in Los Angeles, you look at people living in tents on the streets, and we give them a way to participate — whether it’s volunteering or voting for the two biggest measures to build housing for homeless and to provide services for our homeless in the city’s, and I think this nation’s, history.
I gave a graduation speech recently, and I said, If you’re rabidly anti-Trump, when’s the last time you sat down with a Trump voter for a while and just listened? Not got into a debate but just listened. Do you know somebody from the military? Have you ever talked to a vet? Just to hear what their life’s like. They either get fetishized as all superhero, SEALs, medal of honor winners, or people don’t know them at all. And most people who serve in the military are somewhere between those two caricatures. Have you ever sat down with somebody who’s trans? And understood her journey?
We just don’t do much listening anymore. I think if we’re going to get people to belong, and feel like they belong, they have to feel listened to.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of listening because the debate we’re having over identity politics and political correctness, when you really hear what people are getting upset about, a lot of it seems to me to come down to listening.
You don’t hear me, you don’t see me.
Yeah. That, or, conversely, somebody saying, “I’m offended by you saying that I don’t understand your experience because I’m a white man.” There is a question I think that we all have to answer a lot: When we hear someone say that something is wrong for them, how much weight do we give it? Or how much do we look at it from our own lens and say, “Well, that’s not wrong for me. That’s never bothered me. Those microaggressions, I don’t think I would even notice them if it happened to me.”
And this is on both sides. A lot of people hear pain from white male Trump voters and they say, “This is ridiculous, you’re part of the most dominant group the world has ever known.” There’s a real question of, when is listening merited and when is somebody demanding you listen to them to cover for them not having to change their own views?
Politics and political discussions are so often about the process of dehumanization. And we have to find a way to rehumanize through politics, which is just the engagement of people, one another.
The best advice that was ever given to me was my predecessor on the city council, a woman named Jackie Goldberg, once told me you can’t dismiss people’s fear, you have to understand it. She was talking about affordable housing, how sometimes people say, “I don’t want affordable housing built next to me.” It’s been the most important lesson for me. I don’t dismiss fear.
We had protests over a proposal for emergency shelter in the Koreatown section of Los Angeles, and I could have heard all those protesters and said, “Oh, you guys are a bunch of bad people, you just don’t understand.”
That’s the problem with politics today. We don’t humanize one another. We don’t have to agree with it to first hear where it comes from and to feel it. Because you will never transform yourself or that person if you don’t understand where it comes from.
And so I always say, I never dismiss people’s fears. I listen to them and try to understand them. I may still stick to my point but I get where you’re coming from. That actually makes sense what you’re saying. Let me tell you why I think this solution, though, is the best way forward for all of us. And we’ve lost that ability.
There is a way in which listening to people’s fears, it sounds real good. And then you hear that the fear is that when Mexico is sending their people, they’re not sending their best. Or you hear the fear is that MS13 is streaming over the border. Or you hear the fear is that affirmative action is leaving no space for white kids in colleges. Or, from the other side, you hear the fear that the government is not big enough. You hear that the fear is that the state is not providing literally everyone health insurance when that sounds ridiculous to you.
And the media, my industry, we do not help with this, we report the scariest things everybody says.
But I do think this is a time, and now it’s on both sides, of unbelievably intense fear. The right became very afraid under [President Barack] Obama. The Tea Party was a movement of fear, of a country changing. The left is very afraid under Trump.
And in 2020, you’re going to have a lot of people running on the Democratic side, very plausibly including you, who are navigating a country that is very afraid of itself and each other. How do you speak up for people who need to be spoken for while navigating the very powerful fears of those on the other side?
You can only embrace fear for so long. You got to understand where it comes from, and then you got to think through a way out of that, where you give people hope. Where you say there is a role for you and a place for you in the future economy, and I understand why you fear that.
There have been much darker days in American history, for sure. The fear was so great that riots in cities were every day, political leaders were being killed. I mean, let’s not forget those moments. But if you look at America, it always rises back to hope.
You’ve been very public about your interest in running for president in 2020, or at least you’re considering it. And what’s come up in that conversation a lot is that, well, mayors don’t run directly for president. It would not be strange for the governor of Montana to run for president, even though it’s a much smaller state than LA is a city, but there is a surprise that comes up in the conversation when they hear mayors — and you’re not the only one — are considering running for president. What do people miss about being mayor, about running a city, when they don’t see it as preparation for national office?
I would love to see Washington, DC, not just the White House, be taken over by a group of mayors. I was recently in Boston for the US Conference of Mayors and we had 25 of the top mayors from maybe the 50 most populous cities, and we had a great dinner together. We talked about climate change, about immigration, about regulation.
At the end of the night, some of the mayors actually asked each other, “By the way what party are you from?” Two hours went by in common conversation from a group of American political leaders who then asked, “By the way what party are you?” And didn’t even know! For instance, the mayor of Cincinnati, I think, found out the mayor of Miami was Republican and vice versa, but they hadn’t started there.
Mayors have to run things. We don’t fix imaginary problems, we fix real ones. We have ports and airports that we run, so we understand international trade intimately. Homeland security, we have in Los Angeles 10,000 police officers and deal with that, I think, in a much more immediate and intimate way than most governors do.
We have to run economies, we have to literally make trains run on time, we have to invest in infrastructure. We understand environment and energy — I run the largest municipal utility in the country, so water and power issues and the future of green power.
Americans are sick and tired of that side of partisanship that won’t allow people to think independently and get things done, and that scores successes how many tweets and retweets you get rather than the projects you complete.
When I hear the more idyllic vision of local government, I wonder if it isn’t because a city is going to be filled with people who choose to live there, it’s a smaller unit than the national government.
I think the counterargument to what you’re saying is that running a place that is more unified, that does have more of a common identity and a common sense of place, isn’t great training for the level of fractiousness we’re now seeing at the national level.
Nationally, you have people who have decided to live in incredibly different ways, who are listening to mutually exclusive information to sources, who are seeing the world in a mutually exclusive way, and their conflict is all coming together in Washington, DC. Are there really lessons from running cities for managing that level of national discord?
Well, let me flip it the other way. If we surrender to a Washington-style of politics, we might as well surrender this country for good. And I’m serious. If we’re going to say all we can look for in our national leaders is people who understand that this is the age of division, we might as well pack up and surrender this country altogether.
I’m not so Pollyannaish that I think that mayors can go to DC and everybody’s going to put down their arms. But everybody lives in a local community where they still understand democracy. They don’t love everything that happens in their local community.
Our challenges are deep, from homelessness to traffic to poverty, so we don’t say that life is great in all of our cities. But we’re working hard on solving those things, not on scoring political points. And that’s the contrast.
Somebody has to say to Washington, DC: Enough is enough is enough. You are not here for yourselves, you’re not here for your party, you’re not here for your special interests — you are here for America. And I think Americans still do that at their local community. Because it’s where their family lives, it’s where their job is. It’s where they pray. It’s where they play. We have gotten away from that I believe in the leadership of our nation’s capital.
You’re going to like the first half of this question and not the second.
So just ask me the first half!
We’re sitting here, and I see a picture of you and President Obama leaning against a wall. And when I talk to you I hear a lot of the arguments President Obama made when he was running the first time. When he was running in 2008. That we’re not a red and blue America, that we’re not urban versus rural, that these are false divisions, that Washington needs somebody to come there and say you’re not here for yourself.
I look at Obama’s presidency, and I see somebody who really did believe all that. Really did believe that there was a way to call people to their higher selves. And when he left, American politics was more divided than when he came. He left, and Donald Trump was what followed him.
What is your explanation for why this is the aftermath of the Obama presidency?
Look, I’ve not only deep respect but friendship with President Obama. He’s been a friend and a mentor and somebody I worked extremely closely with.
There is no question that he lived in, and we’ve had, two or three decades steadily marching toward greater and greater partisanship. Ironically, at a time when Americans are marching more and more away from parties, the loud minorities who cling fiercely to them are heard more loudly than ever before. But if you look at voter registration, if you talk to millennials, people don’t want to be party people anymore; they want to be individuals, they want to serve, they will make up their mind each election.
I don’t pretend that will reverse itself overnight. Anybody looking for a savior in 2020 to deliver a reversal of that, that cavalry’s not coming. But I do believe that if we focus on those things that are working at the local level and demand that they be everywhere and build a grassroots constituency for that — from ending gun violence to combating climate change to making it easier to get things built and building out a crumbling infrastructure in America — then I do think that will shift.
We’ve got to at least tilt it in a different direction. And I think President Obama, President Trump, were at what I hope to be the tail end of that momentum toward greater partisanship. It won’t go nonpartisan overnight. It may take many presidents and Congresses to get there, but I hope the American people rise up and demand that because I see that still happening at the local level.
I’ll say that I’m more pessimistic than you. I think we are not nearly at the tail end of the partisanship; I think it’s getting worse. I take your point about people calling themselves independents, but they’re voting like partisans.
But I always wonder about the counterfactual Donald Trump. The Donald Trump who came in and worked on infrastructure the way he said he would and did his tax cut bill, too, but didn’t come in with the travel ban and the more divisive culture war stuff. I do wonder if there isn’t a version of an agenda that is a little bit more the local, trash pick-up agenda. The roads and infrastructure agenda.
One of the dynamics of politics as I see it is that we are very focused on the things that arouse the most conflict. There’s a dynamic that pushes politicians to come out stridently on things where there’s a lot of excitement.
So, on the one hand, it seems to me a plausible path toward bringing down tensions is to run a somewhat more boring both campaign and presidency. On the other hand, there are obvious reasons why more boring campaigners and more boring presidents have trouble politically. I’m curious how you think about that theory or that tension.
Look, I think that’s spot on. But I don’t think that the small things make you boring. When I was out there running for mayor, we talked about big visionary things, like let’s go after the Olympics, which we did, and we won the Olympics.
But people really wanted to know that their streets were going to be paved. They were passionate, it was sexy to them, it’s the biggest thing. When we were able to come in with my administration and say, “back to basics first, do your core job first,” it liberated us to also go after the big things, like trying to end homelessness, be a part of solving climate change, being able to go after the Olympics, raising the minimum wage.
I think it would be a relief to the American people, for someone to come in and to say, in a dynamic way, let’s do our core work first. Let’s get that back. Let’s think about where people live, and their health care, and whether they can pay for college, and what their housing struggle is. Let’s talk about where your job will be in the future. I think the American people would find it incredibly attractive to have a conversation about where they actually live. I don’t see those as unexciting. And I think anybody who sees those as small things doesn’t understand the American people. I’m not saying you said this, but those folks who would say, “Oh, that’s not what presidents do,” it’s condescending to the American people.
The American people live their life trying to make their family unit, their block, their local community a little bit better. We spend 99 percent of our time there. Not 99 percent of the time in Washington or in international relations.
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