Multiracial Populism Will Deliver Climate Justice: An Interview with Heather McGhee

The outgoing president of Demos reflects on her Meet the Press moment, speculates on how youth activists can game right-wing media, dishes on how to play the inside game, and explains what her work on race says about how to make broad, popular demands.

Photo: Meet the Press.

Photo: Meet the Press.

In this installment of our interview series, we sat down with Heather McGhee, former president and distinguished senior fellow at Demos, a prominent left-wing think tank known for successfully promoting major climate legislation in New York State as part of NY Renews and elsewhere. Mx. McGhee is also known for her political commentary, making regular appearances on nationally televised talk shows such as Meet the Press in addition to being a regular contributor to NBC News. An increasingly prominent voice in the national political discourse on climate change, Mx. McGhee is currently writing a book on race in the United States, scheduled to be released later this year.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Johnathan Guy (interviewer): Many in the climate movement were introduced to you through your viral clip responding to Sen. Feinstein’s rebuke of child activists this past February. I think a lot of people gravitate towards the moment you had not only because it was rhetorically powerful, but also because it’s so rare to see a commentator on national television treat the climate crisis with the emotional gravity it deserves. Why do you think so few people in the media seem to feel the same urgency about the climate crisis that you do? How can that be changed?

Heather McGhee: Beltway insiders suffer from allowing reality to be defined by what the lobbyists want it to be. It's very difficult in this media context and political context to change the temperature on an issue. You've got over 150 members of Congress who have basically been paid and brainwashed to believe that they know more about science than the entire scientific community. Democrats are pulled into a debate about the existence [of climate change] rather than having an all-hands-on-deck sense of World War-level mobilization. I think that the Koch brothers and their ilk have been very successful at making climate change be seen as just one more partisan football.

Generally speaking, talking heads cover what politicians say and do, so more confrontations and more inciting of action by politicians, for good or for bad, will put climate change on the air, at least. When it comes to getting journalists who are expected to cover an issue without emotion and without bias to burst out of that bubble and react as a human being...the times that I've seen pundits react with humanity in recent years has been about children. I think about when Rachel Maddow broke down about the tender age of those in [immigration] prisons, or when I was on the air with Nicole Wallace and she got frustrated through her papers because we were talking about cruelty to children at the border. For me [on Meet the Press], I was thinking about my son, and the world that we are leaving him for no good reason. There is something profoundly compelling about the moral clarity of youth: the idea that adults are not being responsible for the care of their children, and the care of our collective children. 

I also think we should be pushing to have young leaders themselves be interviewed as much as possible. You'll find that Fox News is probably more likely to book them because they have a hard time getting more seasoned progressive pundits to come on, and enjoy ridiculing [youth climate activists]. But it's pretty easy to actually win a debate on Fox News if you keep in mind the audience and say something compelling to, say, a woman who's waiting tables as she walks by the TV, instead of thinking about the paid bully who's yelling at you in your earpiece. I really encourage activists to do media training and to pitch themselves to bookers on Fox News and right-wing radio. It's not pleasant, but at the same time, it can be very effective, and there's often a lower bar in terms of your experience. You sometimes have to be a more established pundit to be on network television, or even on CNN or MSNBC. [But] Fox News will often take someone who's an activist thinking that they’ll create drama, because they understand the way in which controversy and conflict lead to higher ratings.

JG: We’ve seen a flurry of climate policy proposals emerge out of the conceptual framework the Green New Deal has provided, including many put forth by presidential campaigns. This, of course, has spurred productive but often very confusing debate over what will actually be on the legislative agenda come 2021 and beyond. As the now former president of Demos, you’ve undoubtedly seen many exciting and transformative ideas go nowhere in the halls of power. What advice would you give climate policy entrepreneurs who are trying to be heard? 

HM: First of all, the Sunrise Green New Deal town hall tour needs to be put on steroids and needs to be decentralized so that people can set up their own sessions in their living rooms all over the country. The beauty of [the GND] being a conceptual framework is that it can actually be populated by the dreams and wisdom of people all over the country. What would it look like for mothers in the Delta to sit and say, "What do we want to see from a Green New Deal?" and have that be, you know, mixed with what out-of-work factory workers in Indiana think needs to be in it? So I would make sure to remember the outside game: both in terms of pressure and activism, but also in terms of policy. 

And then the inside game also matters, because moderate Democrats are who ultimately is going to be your target. They need to be lobbied right now. What I mean by ["lobbied"] is in part the kind of confrontation that we saw with Dianne Feinstein, but there's no pressing legislative or resolution deadline at the moment. So now is the time for policy folks who care about the Green New Deal to be having quiet off-the-record meetings with the staff of all the moderate Democrats who see it only as this sort of outside, unrealistic big idea. There's just a disconnect between the committee-based policy process they're used to and sitting in a member's office. Now is the time to actually go over the white papers with staffers and say, "This could really happen and there could be a piece of this that your boss really owns," whether it's the wind piece or the school retrofitting piece. There's a way to make it more bite-sized, and to give more members ownership over the policy ideas [of the GND].

JG: You’ve promoted the idea of “multiracial populism”. What does that mean in the context of building the political power (and will) to address climate change?

HM: It means that any public solutions and public debate about [economic] issues need to deal with racial inequality as well. They need to tell a story of why we got into this mess—whether [we're talking about] health care, or climate change, or mass incarceration—that makes it clear to working people that working people of other races are not their enemy. And that in fact, if we are united—everyone who struggles, everyone who feels shut out of power—then we can overcome the power of the 1%. 

You can tell that same story across different issues—and it's essential, because the right wing is simultaneously anti-government when it means redistributing or regulating, and they are racist. They managed to combine these ideas, to sell economic inequality to white voters by saying that black and brown people want something from government, and so let's get government out of the way to punish black and brown people. That's been the American story for much of our existence: this marketing of a zero-sum racial competition, elites telling working- and middle-class white people that they have nothing in common with working- and middle-class people of other races, and instead saying, "You should owe your allegiance to white elites, and to the white power structure."

The way that comes down in the climate context is that the overwhelming majority of climate deniers are white men. That's because they've been marketed the idea that addressing climate change is somehow a plot to remake the social order with them on the bottom instead of the top, and the mechanism for doing so will be a strong central government that has the power to reshape industries, the power to tax and regulate. That is, of course, what's necessary for swift action on climate change. But there's no reason why it should be seen as an inherent bad to white men. White men absolutely benefited from government throughout the history of America. So why now is government seen as a boogeyman? Because government was finally used to fully expand the promise of democracy after the Civil Rights Movement. That threatened the social order successfully, right? It did change the social order. Ever since then, the right-wing elite has made government into a racialized boogeyman. 

Now, the response to that has to be a multiracial populism: a politics that tells a very clear story about the concentration of wealth and power, but also talks about how those at the top use racism to divide working people from people who actually share their common interests across lines of race. We at Demos and Demos Action, along with Ian Haney López, Anat Shenker-Osorio and SEIU (Service Employees International Union), did a massive multi-state research project in the field with canvassers and door knockers during the 2016 election cycle. We used that story of calling out the division that the right wing is peddling as a weapon of elites inside of a [left-wing] populist narrative about the concentration of wealth and power. And it was successful: with people of color, who were happy to see racism named, but also with moderate, persuadable white people because it was playing on the same field as the story they are hearing constantly from the right wing. The right wing talks about race all the time, and so the left needs to answer. 

The lesson is to enter the racial conversation, but—I believe and our research shows—not only with the disparity story. This is the problem that so often old-style, socialist politics gets wrong. That story is about economic populism, and if you add race, it's [only] to say that it hurts people of color more. Right? Undoubtedly true. But when—God bless him, you know, I love him—but when Bernie Sanders brings in race only to talk about how much worse off people are, the white mind that has been conditioned to believe in black and brown inferiority hears statistics about black and brown inferiority. It actually just reifies that mental model. It doesn't say anything about the same story that [the old school left-wing] populist politician was just talking about, which is about corporate greed and power, right? It trails off at the end and starts telling a different story that's not even helpful. 

In contrast, what our race-class narrative work with Demos and Demos Action did was trying to unify the story: if this is a story about corporate greed and power, then let's talk about racism in that context as well. And you don't have to limit it to the United States, you can look at what is happening in England right now; the same right-wing forces in many ways, with Rupert Murdoch, etc., marketed the idea of Brexit as a way to control the immigration of threatening brown people. The very next day—just like the caravan [coming to the] United States and Ebola in 2014—the threat disappeared. What was left was economic chaos that a few people could really benefit from, and the unwinding of the power of government to meet our big challenges.

JG: It often seems difficult to make everyone buy a “win-win” vision when some folks seemingly aren’t willing to give up benefits the status quo gives them. I think of Trump’s “Pittsburgh, Not Paris” rhetoric when it comes to climate change specifically, and Josh Hawley’s “cosmopolitan elites” speech more recently. There’s this way in which the Right makes a guileful argument to working-class whites that they don’t have any privilege and therefore have nothing they need to concede: that they can have all of the narrow economic benefits right-wing populism provides white people while needing to make none of the racial-egalitarian or ecological living commitments that left-wing populism prescribes. How do we counter that?

HM: I think that we need a combination of an economic argument and a moral argument. Fundamentally, the way that whiteness works is that it subverts the moral order. It recognizes that everyone wants to believe that they are a moral person. We want to be the good guy in our own story, right? And so [whiteness] uses tropes of criminality to create the sense that, in fact, the white abuser, the white supremacist, the white dominating power in our society who has terrorized and murdered and stolen is actually the good guy. In the cowboy and Indian story...who's [portrayed as] the good guy? Today that's being used again. 

I'm raising that to say that that morality still matters, even to people who those on the Left would say are obviously immoral and depraved: people who are supporting putting children in cages, people who are ignoring the climate-related deaths all over the country and all over the world. And–I think Reverend Barber does this very well—there are ways to create moral bridges. Even just the example of the abuse of immigrant children at the border...that is an entirely unpopular policy, even among Republicans. [Trump] has a two-to-one disapproval rating on how he's handling the border.  

That's an insight that we need to not forget: that white people are being sold a bill of goods which is still trafficked in moral terms. It's in economic self-interest terms, yes, but it's also in moral terms. It's really hard now, where there is a manifest evil operating in our politics, when we have a white supremacist in the White House, and where the dominant right-wing media is verging on Nazism, to remember that the average white person being courted by that narrative is reachable morally. To remember that they have not just said, "I embrace evil." That is not their own narrative about themselves, right? Morality still matters to people who are being marketed a whiteness story that is the opposite of what's really going on in the world.

JG: Lastly, I want to continue on this thread and talk a little bit about something that came up in an interview Sunrise Movement leader Varshini Prakash recently did with Ezra Klein. She cites you as making the point that racism is really what held the Reagan coalition together. Now that this coalition appears to be showing cracks, what opportunities, if any, are presented to the Left? And how do we exploit them?

HM: Well, I think about the fact that Trump's closing argument in 2016 was an economic populist argument. The incantation at the rallies, even more than "lock her up," was "drain the swamp," right? His closing ad was about Goldman Sachs and global economic elites, which, granted, absolutely traffics in anti-semitic tropes. But we have to remember that part of the appeal of Donald Trump was not only the racism. His most effective appeal was the idea of disrupting the status quo. 

I say all the time that change has been the only constant message that voters have sent since the financial crisis, and in many ways since the Iraq War and Hurricane Katrina. The insight that most people believe rightly—that the people currently in government are profoundly corrupt and incompetent—unites left and right. The right-wing media has told white men that the biggest problem in our society is immigration. But those same men also believe that the loss of over 40,000 factories since 2000 is one of the biggest problems facing our society. And you know what? I agree. We need to create a Green New Deal to fundamentally reshape and revive industrial policy in this country. 

So, I do think there's an opening on climate through a populist critique. As I write about in my [upcoming] book, white people have paid some costs as well. The central parable of my book is a story which happened all across the country, not just in the American South. In the 1950s and 60s, when integration orders required towns and cities to integrate their public pools—we used to have 2,000 grand public pools in this country, it was sort of a New Deal era, great middle-class quality of life signifier that towns and cities across the country had invested in—many of those pools were drained and shuttered rather than integrated. Of course, when that happened, white families lost out on a public resource as well. 

So much of the story of racism in our multiracial democracy has been a story of white people cutting off their noses to spite their own face. And I think that's [also] what we see in a very dangerous way at a global scale right now, with the way that white identity politics is being used to promote climate denialism. With multiracial populism, we can fight it.

Johnathan Guy is a graduate student at UC Berkeley studying wealth inequality, social relations, and decarbonization. He is active in Sunrise Movement and the Democratic Socialists of America. He tweets @johnathanjguy.

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