Tavis: But first, tonight, more on the fallout from last week’s elections with Joan Walsh, editor at large for Salon.com and author of the forthcoming text, “Invisible – How Fear-Driven Politics Hurts America and Pulling Us Together Makes Us Stronger.” She joins us tonight from San Francisco. Joan, an honor to have you on this program.
Joan Walsh: Oh, my pleasure, Tavis, thank you so much.
Tavis: Speaking of fear driving us, I’ve been asking this question of others – how much of these results last Tuesday have to do, you think, with fear versus anger?
Walsh: Oh, I think it’s a lot of both, but I think that there’s a lot of fear at this point, which leads to anger. Fear leads to anger rather than to analysis or to enquiry. I think we see that there have been people riling up Americans, telling them that everything the Democrats are doing is putting Social Security at risk or Medicare at risk or their savings at risk, and at a time of great anxiety.
With all the misinformation and all the rabble-rousing and fear-mongering, I think people reacted defensively, like, I may not have much, but I want to hold on to it. I don’t want those other people to get it. That’s never a good reaction for Americans.
America is much stronger when we believe that we can do things for one another, with one another, and we have a common purpose in terms of rebuilding our country, putting people back to work, educating our kids.
We can still do that again, but right now I feel like the emphasis is all on fearing one another and really didn’t work last week for the Democrats.
Tavis: I suspect the comment most oft-quoted from President Obama in his press conference the day after last week is the “shellacking” that he and Democrats took at the polls. That was his word, shellacking.
Tavis: You have argued that the Democrats, in part, shellacked themselves. Tell me more.
Walsh: (Laughs) Well, I think for the last 30 years they have really made a lot of decisions that have moved them away from being the party of economic justice and equity for all of us to be much more the party of the rich. In many ways, their policies have been indistinguishable from the Republican Party.
We saw, sadly, in the ’90s, I know President Clinton now really regrets it, but we saw a lot of deregulation. We saw a lot of the deregulation that led to the Wall Street debacle, and we saw the party draw some conclusions from their troubles in the ’80s and their troubles with Ronald Reagan, and one of them was we need to raise a lot of money.
They needed some money, money’s important, we both know that. But that they could raise it from the wealthiest corporations, they could really raise it from Wall Street, the Democrats became very close to Wall Street, insurance, real estate. Those were the sectors where the Democrats really excelled at raising money.
So that presented a problem in that when it came time to rein those sectors in and say, “The party’s over, you guys have used our money and you gambled with it and you brought down the casino and we need to fix things,” I don’t think they were able to be tough enough, either rhetorically or in their policy responses, because these are their friends. These are their funders, these are their benefactors. So that’s one thing.
I just think that there’s been a real discomfort with being the party of the people. God knows you can’t talk about poor people in this country, and that’s sad enough because you and I both know we need to, but you can’t even talk about the middle class.
We’ve seen an incredible redistribution of wealth upwards, not just from the poor but from the middle class and even the – there’s an expression now, I love it – the “merely affluent.” People who are not millionaires, who are doing well, but they’ve seen money taken away from them and going to the top 1 percent of our society.
So I think that the Democrats really need to come to terms with do they want to fix this economy so that it works for more people, or are they really going to be on the side of the people who are the winners, who have rigged everything about our tax system, our labor law system, our social spending system to preserve their own wealth and to lock others out? That’s a big question.
Tavis: I couldn’t agree more, and I talk about it on this program often. If we can’t get a conversation about the poor, the growing numbers of poor, the weak working class, if we can’t get a conversation about that now, how will we ever, when will we ever get traction on that?
Because so many of those persons formerly of the middle class are now in with the poor, in with that weak working class.
Walsh: With the poor.
Tavis: Exactly. So if you can’t get a conversation about that in these times, when and how does that conversation about the poor in this country ever get off the ground?
Walsh: It doesn’t. If we really swing back and we have a Republican president in 2012 – which I don’t think we will, but anything’s possible; it’s been a rough two years – I think you lose that opportunity again. I think we had a tremendous opportunity with President Obama in the White House and Democrats in control of Congress.
Despite what I said before about their ambivalence about this stuff, they still are the party that is even grudgingly willing to talk about this. We also had the conditions – we’ve had some bad times in our country before, and the Gilded Age led us to the progressive era where we had labor laws and no child labor and the beginning of a fabric of social support for Americans who were working but might fall into hard times.
Then we know the Depression gave us the New Deal, and there were a lot of us who believed that the silver lining of the horrible mess of 2008 was going to give us a new era of reform where we could reckon with what our economy had become and we could begin to talk about how to make it work for more people, how to get our schools to work so that our kids can get jobs and they’re not just thrown out or thrown into prison.
How to create real middle class jobs again, how to create social safety nets for all of us, so that if we fall on hard times we land someplace, we’re not on the streets. I thought we were going to have that conversation, Tavis, and I think you thought so, too, and it didn’t really go that way.
Tavis: We’ve talked about the role that fear played in these elections and we talked about – you talked about – the role that anger played in these elections. What role did money ultimately play in these elections, and for that matter, going forward do you see any way that we’re ever going to have a real conversation about campaign finance reform?
Walsh: Oh, it’s going to be a while, but we have to have it. What we saw – the Citizens United decision, if that seemed abstract to people or not necessarily related to their daily lives, that was very wrong.
The explosion, the flood, the tsunami of money that we saw in this last cycle, Tavis, was shocking even to me. I expected the worst – it was worse than the worst. You have these Karl Rove groups and you have all these industry-funded groups, they don’t need to tell you who they are, they don’t need to tell you what they’re doing, and they flooded the airwaves.
I think that cable TV did a decent job of showing you these cookie cutter ads that they were cutting against Democrats around the country, often either distorting the person’s record or rather using that generic fear and smear, whether it’s about Muslims, whether it’s about taking away your healthcare, whether it’s about raising your taxes.
They have their issues, and with that kind of money it’s like a factory of lies. They created these political factories of lies and they were just churning out these cookie cutter ads and fill in Tavis Smiley and fill in Joan Walsh’s name and put her picture there.
They went out all over the country like that, and it was very hard for Democrats to compete against that kind of an onslaught.
Tavis: We both know and have to concede, obviously, that President Obama was not personally on the ballot last week. Having said that, what we do also know is that the coalition that he pulled together in 2008 did not show up for him this time around.
No one supports President Obama in this country, no group, more than African-Americans. There are about 40 million Black folk in this country. For all the begging that he did on Black radio for Black folk to turn out, only roughly four million – 10 percent – of Black folk in this country turned out. They didn’t get his last Tuesday.
There are a lot of reasons for that. It’s hard, I think, to motivate people to get to the polls when they feel let down in a lot of ways by what’s happened over the last couple of years. I raise that to ask this exit question. What does the president do now? If he’s concerned about the shellacking he took, if he’s concerned now about how he compromises and moves to the middle to deal with Republicans, what does he do now about his progressive base?
Walsh: Well, we’ve got a fork in the road, and it may seem like he took one side of it towards compromise, towards conciliation with Republicans, a while ago, and he did. But he’s going to have another chance. I wrote today this piece that you’re referring to, I really framed this issue about whether he compromises on extending the tax cuts just for the middle class, which is what he wants, or gives it all away, $700 billion, to the wealthiest Americans.
It’s a formative choice, Tavis, and I think he’s got some decisions to make. He’s got to go back to his African-American base. He also lost support among youth – youth didn’t turn out.
Tavis: And women.
Walsh: And women stayed home or even drifted slightly to the Republicans. So I think he’s got to remind people what he said was at stake and what he said he was going to do in 2008, but also really talk in a language that lets them know that he’s on their side, not the side of the wealthy, not the side of Wall Street, and that he’s got a vision for our society that’s about inclusion and putting people back together, not continuing to shovel more money and wealth and opportunity upwards to the very wealthy.
He’s got to make clear he’s on our side, and he’s going to have to – he’s a great speaker, that’s not the problem. But the vividness with which he discusses the challenges before us and the suffering, frankly – the suffering that we’re seeing in our cities and in our suburbs everywhere, he’s got to get out there. He’s got to see it, he’s got to feel it, he’s got to express it.
Tavis: Editor at large of Salon.com, Joan Walsh. Joan, as always, I appreciate your insights. Nice to have you on the program.
Walsh: Thank you, Tavis. I appreciate it.
[Walmart - Save money. Live better.]
Announcer: Nationwide Insurance proudly supports Tavis Smiley. Tavis and Nationwide Insurance – working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. Nationwide is on your side.
And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.