Heather McGhee: A New ‘We the People’ for a Sustainable Future

“I don’t know about you, but I need to find a way to love this country.”

In her 2017 keynote, Heather McGhee touched on a sentiment that resonated with many if not most of the Bioneers audience members. In our current U.S. political, economic and social environment, how do we find ways to come together and to believe in a better future?

As the president of Demos — “a public policy organization working for an America where we all have an equal say in our democracy and an equal chance in our economy” — McGhee is an award-winning thought leader on the national stage whose writing and research appear in numerous outlets, including The New York Times and The Nation. In 2009, she helped shape key provisions of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act and currently serves on several boards and councils, including for the Center for Working Families and Consumer Reports.

Following is Heather McGhee’s keynote (video and transcription below), titled “A New ‘We the People’ for a Sustainable Future.”

Heather McGhee:

Demos is the Greek word for the people of a nation, and it’s the root word of democracy. Demos’ mission, as Nina said, is to work for an equal say and an equal chance for all. We address the intersection of political, social, and economic inequality because we know that the inequality of voice in setting the rules drives the inequality in economic outcomes, and we know that inequality has always been built on a scaffolding of racial and gender hierarchy. When we began advancing climate change solutions at Demos a few years ago, we wanted to do it with that understanding in mind. Climate change is the result of social, economic and political inequality.

We experience every day the one-two punch of climate change, where our extractive predatory economy has stripped wealth and resources from communities of color and poor communities around the world, and is now leading to climate change impacts that disproportionately impact those same communities. The mere fact that a crisis of this magnitude is being allowed to mount in full view for over a generation is as clear a sign as any that we do not have a functioning democracy where the public interest can prevail. Only in a broken democracy can big fossil fuel companies continue to put their next quarter’s profits ahead of the survival of the next generation.

At Demos, we are hopeful, though, that just as these interlinked inequalities have driven us to this place, if we abandon the dynamics of power that plague us, progress against one form of inequality will yield progress on others. That’s why we see an opportunity out of the crisis of climate change to use the economic transformation that we know is necessary, not just to reduce emissions but to reduce inequality, not just to increase energy efficiency, but to increase wealth in families and communities of color where households have less than a dime in wealth today for every dollar held by white households because of explicitly racist policies that prevented families of color from owning property throughout our history.

We at Demos are starting in our own backyard in New York. Demos is proud to be on the steering committee of New York Renews, a climate-equity campaign with a goal of eliminating 100% of human-caused carbon pollution by 2050 and 50% by 2030. That’s right. And most importantly, a goal of directing at least 40% of all the revenue from carbon pricing and other measures to the lowest wealth and most polluted communities in the state.

It’s upending the normal power structure in the state by bringing together a broad-based coalition of civil and human rights, environmental justice, small business, labor and democracy reform organizations, partners like the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, UPROSE, Working Families Party, Environmental Advocates of New York, the Service Employees International Union, 32BJ, and many others in a coalition of 120 groups that is guided by a vision. We see similar examples across the country, such as Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington state, and here in California. Another way is possible.

But it’s important that even as we move forward with policy solutions, we understand also the root causes of the sickness in our economy, our society and our democracy. We have to face the fact that a political movement is in power and has been for the past 40 to 50 years throughout administrations of both parties that is stopping us from seeing one another as a Demos, as one people, and stopping us from taking collective action to save our collective home, health and well-being.

We know that today, capitalism is writing the rules for democracy instead of the other way around. We know that these rules allow dozens of the most successful U.S. businesses to spend more on lobbying and CEO bonuses every year than they contribute to their country in taxes. We know that while the rules allow a small sliver of people to amass and keep unprecedented wealth, the rules haven’t evolved with the changing times in ways that would have given more families a leg up. Like responding to the premium on higher education with more college grants, not fewer, or responding to the necessity of both parents working, or the rise of single parents with guaranteed childcare, or portable real pensions, or a more generous unemployment insurance system in an era of easy layoffs and downsizing.

How is it that the feedback loop just isn’t working? That life is getting harder for most Americans over the past couple of generations, and our representatives haven’t responded? Well the answer is, that what’s happened in our democracy is that our democracy has become as unequal as our economy. Over the course of my lifetime an entire new industry has appeared, that of corporate lobbyists, for which there are now 24 for every member of Congress. The legalized bribery that is big money campaign contributions has increased by over 600% just since I turned 18 to over $2 trillion a year. Members of Congress now spend one out of every three minutes that they’re in office talking to rich people, asking them for money.

Combine that with the gerrymandering and a voting system that seemed hardwired to discourage registration and voting, a system that in fact was set up that way during reconstruction from the Civil War. And after progress with the Voting Rights Act is now getting worse, and you have a system that is democracy in name only.

Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels has found that: “The preferences of people in the bottom third of the income distribution appear to have no apparent impact on the behavior of their elected officials.” None. But something else has happened in our culture. Why did it somehow become publicly acceptable to evade taxes as if companies and rich people owe nothing to their neighbors or the country they live in? How did it become completely okay to assert that any kind of public help from healthcare to unemployment insurance, to solar subsidies, is unfair redistribution from worthy job creators to undeserving freeloaders? How did it become acceptable to demonize the class of people, who in different eras were known as the little guy, the little guy you root for. This, I believe, is where the increasing role of unconscious bias comes into our public culture in ways that are eroding opportunity and prosperity for all of us.

Since the Civil Rights Era we have had a deep and growing anxiety in this country about who is an American. Now why do I say since the Civil Rights Era? It seems almost counterintuitive. Well, two things happened at once in the mid-1960s: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 finally decreed that the law could not segregate or discriminate based on color, upsetting the social order, and the Immigration Act of 1965 liberalized our immigration laws. Do you know that until 1965, the United States had racial limits on who could legally immigrate into the country? There was a strict limit to the number of Asians and Africans, for example, and even a limit on southern and eastern Europeans. The Italians, Poles, and Greeks were considered too ethnic to become citizens. Northern European countries had no limit whatsoever. Think about how that. Think about how that shaped immigration.

So when that finally changed in the mid-1960s, the next 50 years saw an amazing transformation in the physical appearance of who is an American, and all of that exponential demographic change really began after the Civil Rights movement faded. So why does this new diversity matter to a political movement that relies on American’s feelings about public solutions to common problems, about economic fairness, public investment, taxes, jobs, and collective bargaining? Why does diversity matter? Why is it that no Democratic candidate for president has won the majority of the white vote since Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act? Is it because we are all, like Gary, racist? Well, not quite. But not no either.

The human brain naturally puts objects and peoples and ideas into categories. It’s actually part of our great intelligence. And it takes shortcuts to do these categorizations. That red round thing on the table over there is an apple and apples are apples, whether they’re Fiji, Macintosh or not. That orange round there on the table over there is an orange, whether it’s mandarin, navel or not. Apples we know are sweet. Oranges are tart. I can quickly make these categorizations as I’m walking through a room.

Our brain categorizes people by their physical characteristics as well. People. And to go beyond that, it finds shortcuts to give meaningful attributes to those categories. And most of these shortcuts and meaning-makings are going on subconsciously without our conscious awareness.

Now the problem is that our society has been so hierarchical along these lines of race, gender, age, and sexuality that the shortcuts that we are constantly primed to make have unequal consequences. I’m sure you’re all aware of the studies out of Harvard University of implicit bias where you’re asked to quickly associate words with faces. And those studies demonstrate that we are nearly universally less able to quickly associate darker faces with positive words. Though white respondents find it more difficult than people of color.

I want to pause there for a minute to ask, why do we take for granted, as part of our history, why it is that American society adopted this belief in a hierarchy of human value, that people with white skin are better than others? Racism is not inevitable. In fact, the very idea of racial categories didn’t take root until the 17th century. It’s important to remember — because so much of this history has been suppressed — just how essential to the creation of the American economy slavery was. And slave labor on plantation land expropriated from Native Americans. That is our economy.

The historian Edward Baptist, in his book The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, calculates that by 1860, slave labor produced 80% of the gross national product. Even in the north, our systems of finance and capitalization, our industrial textile mills, all sprang out of and fed into a slave-driven economy. Black lives were the original currency of America.

At our founding, those in power chose to make American slavery different from other forms, not just indentured labor but hereditary, inexorable, and they did it alongside these proclamations of equality and liberty that we now hold dear as our American creed, that it is self-evident that all men are created equal, that all men are entitled to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It’s a heart-stopping contradiction. The only way for men to write those words while owning other human beings was to create a belief system in which those people were not human beings.

So for our first centuries, African Americans were property. For the subsequent ones, and up until the late 1980s, in fact, explicitly racist laws conspired to deny African Americans of property. We live on one of most biologically and ecologically diverse lands on the planet. We have rainforests and deserts, this treasure that we sing about from sea to shining sea, and yet it is not ours. It has never been ours. We stole it, we killed for it, and we have not made amends.

It’s hard to admit all of that, to hold all of that, while at the same time holding a vision of we the people, and of a country and a population that is worth fighting for and creating solidarity amongst. You know, we have this myth of American innocence. I really commend to you a new book called Hitler’s American Model, which goes right to the heart of puncturing that myth. World War II, is it not, is our shining example of when America saved the world, when America, the good guys, went and defeated the bad guys, the Nazis.

Even today, when Nazis are marching down our streets, it’s become very easy for a bipartisan consensus to say, well at least not that. We know that the Nazis are the bad guys. That’s what we know. If one thing we know for sure it’s that the Nazis are the bad guys.

My friends, why is it not common knowledge to us that when Hitler and his regime looked for a model of a way to create a society where citizenship and humanity was cabined only to whites in every single legal policy, economic piece of infrastructure, they looked only to us as the model. So how is it possible that we can say with a straight face that we are the good guys and the Nazis are the bad guys?

And yet, I’m an American. And yet, I, the descendant of enslaved peoples, am proud of my fellow people. How do we hold that? Because if we can’t hold a vision of an America worth saving, we won’t. And if we don’t hold a vision of an America worth saving, if we don’t both admit the truth of our racist, sexist, hyper-capitalist past and present, while also reconnecting on a human level with our neighbors and our families, then we will continue as a nation to fall prey to a political ploy that keeps a right wing in power and rapes our planet.

Now, this political ploy is powerful, and the strategy took its modern form in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement, when President Lyndon Johnson signed that Civil Right Act, integrating public accommodations and in so doing, in his own words, gave away the South. And I want to repeat it again, because most people don’t know it, and I hope it’s a paradigm shift for us all: No Democrat has won the majority of white voters since that day.

Now, I could tell the story of what has shifted in our economic rules to create this current era of unprecedented inequality without talking about race, and many do, but when we acknowledge that government investment is essential to a strong middle class, to prosperity, to the possibility of shaping our economy in the public interest, we have to ask why, since the Civil Rights Era, has the US retreated from the public supports that made our levels of mobility and security the envy of the world?

In a way, what’s happened to our entire economy since the end of the Civil Rights Era is what happened across the American South, after integration when white towns drained their public swimming pools rather than integrate them, destroying a public good they once enjoyed. For three generations now politicians have stoked white anxiety about who the public is, successfully linking government to undeserving minorities and gaining support among white voters for cutbacks in public spending and regulation, for withdrawal from public solutions and collective bargaining. My friends, we need a we to survive, and that is exactly what racism destroys.

So now, we have to admit that we are in a moment of racial panic. But it is challenging us to shed the self-imposed color-blindness of our movements and engage forcefully in this question: Who is an American? What are we to one another? We have to admit that this question is harder for us than it is for most other countries because we are the world’s most radical experiment in democracy. A nation of ancestral strangers met here with the audacious promise that out of many we could become one. Everything depends on the answer to this question: Who is an American, and what are we to one another?

Politics right now is offering two visions of why all of peoples of the world have met here on this land. One in which we are nothing more than competitors, and another in which perhaps, just perhaps, the proximity of so much difference will finally force us to admit our common humanity.

I don’t know about you, but I need to find a way to love this country. And one of the things that helps me do that is because of the beauty of who we are becoming, the fact that by the time I am, goddess willing, nurturing my grandchildren, there will be no racial majority in this country. The fact that here today, there is someone in this country claiming citizenship who has a tie to every single community on the globe —that is the we the people that I can believe in.

The other side is saying the demographic changes are the unmaking of America. We must proclaim that they’re the fulfillment of it. We must declare that what they say is a threat is, in fact, our country’s salvation. For when a nation founded on a belief in racial hierarchy truly rejects that belief, then, and only then, will we have made a new world. I believe that that is our destiny, if we have one. To make it manifest, we must challenge ourselves to live our lives in solidarity across color, origin, and class. We must change rules that disrupt the very notion that those who have more money are worth more in our democracy and our economy. In short, we must emerge from this crisis in our republic with a new birth of freedom and make it our task to finally knit together a Demos, one people, out of this nation of many.

Keep Your Finger on the Pulse

Our bi-weekly newsletter provides insights into the people, projects, and organizations creating lasting change in the world.