Writer Joan Walsh

Salon.com’s editor-at-large weighs in on the presidential campaign.

In 1998, Joan Walsh became the first full-time news editor of Salon.com—the San Francisco-based website that was a forerunner to many of today's blogs on politics, culture and media—and became editor-in-chief in 2005. She's worked and written freelance for a variety of publications and authored three books, including the recently released, What's the Matter with White People?. She's also run her own business, consulting to foundations and nonprofits on education, community development and urban poverty issues. Currently Salon's editor-at-large, Walsh writes full time and continues to blog for the site.


Tavis: Joan Walsh is an editor at large for Salon and a political analyst for MSNBC. She’s the author of the new book “What’s the Matter with white People: Why We Long for a Golden Age that Never Was.” She joins us tonight from New York. Joan, good to have you back on this program.

Joan Walsh: Thank you, Tavis. It’s great to be back.

Tavis: I want to jump right in. First of all, unpack this title for me. It’s controversial; it’s provocative – “What’s the Matter with white People.”

Walsh: (Laughs) The title actually has I would say at least three meanings, Tavis, but we kind of get stuck on one, thanks to the campaign run by Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.

But one of the questions that I’m asking with the book is why it has happened that 90 percent of self-identified Republicans according to Gallup polls are white in a country that is now 62 percent non-Hispanic white. I really wanted to understand how that came to happen and I used my working class Irish-Catholic family to look at it and really explore it, and look at particularly the way the white working class moved away from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party.

What I saw in my own family and growing up in the ’60s and ’70s in New York was that the Republicans were very good at taking some of the chaos of the ’60s and the battles of the ’60s, using it against Democrats and convincing these white working and middle class people that government had become identified with the interests of minorities and the poor and was not working for them anymore, and luring them over to become the Republican base.

That aspect of the title gets a lot of attention because we’ve seen such a racialized campaign from the entire Republican primary, actually, the entire Republican campaign, but particularly Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney as they’ve used this old issue of welfare, which sadly has often been given a Black face.

They’ve dredged up some of the old dog whistles from the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s and really doubled down on a strategy of turning out their white base. But it may not be working for them.

Tavis: Well, even the subtitle for me, Joan, is no less provocative, for me at least, no less provocative, no less interesting than the title itself. The subtitle, again, “Why We Long for a Golden Age that Never Was.” There’ve been a number of studies out lately that suggest that there are many Americans, maybe even a majority, slightly, a majority of Americans who believe that our best days as a nation may be behind us.

That’s not a white or Black thing, but there are a lot of Americans who, for a lot of different reasons, think that maybe our best days, maybe the 21st century belongs to China or somebody else. It ain’t ours.

Walsh: Right.

Tavis: It ain’t ours. To that, you’d say what?

Walsh: Well, I think, you know, the tragic thing is that there is that loss of confidence in the future. But I would also say that there was a golden age to some extent for a lot of white people. Not all. We’ve always had poor white people.

But when I tell the story of my family, I really show how my Irish immigrant grandparents climbed out of poverty, desperate poverty, in the Great Depression, into the middle class really in one generation, and then their children, some of their children, at least, proceeded into what you’d have to call the upper middle class.

But the thing that I, growing up in my particular family, my father in particular was a very liberal Democrat, and he was always clear with me that government had helped us rise, that government, that the New Deal, made unions, it was much easier to unionize, created Social Security and a little bit of unemployment insurance for hard times.

The GI bill then made it very – not very easy, but easier for returning GIs to go to college or buy homes. But actually, it was easier for all of us – all of us white people – to go to college and buy homes because we were building public universities at an incredible, admirable clip, and we were insuring first-time homeowners. The federal government came in and did that.

We built those roads out to the suburbs where I wound up growing up after a short time in Brooklyn. So government created that golden age. But there are a couple problems in that story. One of them is that those programs that I just laid out, as you know, often didn’t help African Americans.

It was not such a golden age for African Americans or women, for that matter. The second problem is that when you talk to a lot of white people these days, white working class and middle class people, they don’t really remember or they didn’t get the narrative of how much government played a role in their lives.

So they don’t even understand the questions that perhaps African Americans and Latinos have about the help that was given to whites. We call it sometimes affirmative action for white people, because we made so many things possible in the ’50s and ’60s that weren’t possible for African Americans and Latinos.

But you’ve got this divide where white are like, “We didn’t get any help, what are you talking about?” and African Americans, they’re saying, “But yes you did. Look at that.”

Tavis: But therein lies the irony of the story for me – that the persons who are most attacking government these days, the Tea Party and others, are not filled with African American members. So how do you explain that? That the persons who have received such great help from whether it was the GI bill or whether it was Social Security and Medicare, all the things that you’ve laid out in the book.

Walsh: Right.

Tavis: How do you explain the fact that the people doing the attacking are, by and large, not people of color?

Walsh: Well, we really have a problem in this country with the idea of the deserving versus the undeserving poor, or certain “entitlements,” I don’t even like that word, being something that you deserve and that you worked for and other people getting a different kind of help.

I think every study shows that these people – we saw it with the Tea Party, where they would say, “Get the government out of my Medicare,” not realizing it was a government program. I think people don’t even accept the way government has helped them.

It’s kind of like the colorless and odorless oxygen of their lives, and somehow they’ve identified government as the .07 percent of the federal budget that goes to the traditional welfare program for poor moms and kids, which has been slashed, by the way, dramatically and tragically. So there’s really a failure to understand.

Tavis: How complicit, though – the flip side of that argument is this question – how complicit, Joan, has government been in making it easy for people to make legitimate arguments against it?

Walsh: I think government has been somewhat complicit. I think that Republicans like to talk down government while they go and get their pork for their districts, and we’ve also seen in the last couple years, Tavis, a lot of studies showing us that the red states are actually the welfare queens, the ones that get the most federal subsidies, and the blue states, which have that reputation, are actually more self-sufficient.

So you’ve got Republicans colluding. I think something else happened in the ’60s that was kind of problematic for Democrats, where Democrats got blamed because they were in charge when some of the unraveling happened, and we did have more crime and there were some troubles. So Democrats began to run away from their own history.

They ran away from that New Deal and Harry Truman story and JFK story that my dad told me and they competed to be the party of smaller government, they competed to shower benefits on business and particularly Wall Street. They became, in many ways, the party of Wall Street.

So Democrats weren’t doing a very good job articulating the interests and looking out for the interests of the white working class or the working class of any race.

So the two parties kind of erased this legacy of what government had done to build this middle class that was the envy of the world.

Tavis: To be sure, there are a number of African Americans – I think of Detroit immediately in the auto industry, but there’s so many other examples. The teachers union.

Walsh: Yes.

Tavis: So many African American women went into the teaching profession back in the day because –

Walsh: Yeah.

Tavis: – they could not do anything else. So I don’t like people beating up and demonizing and stigmatizing and attacking unions, and yet I’m the first one to tell you that the unions have been complicit, oftentimes not being as aggressive as they ought to be, even in the Obama era, defending their own flanks, defending their own position.

So how complicit have they been in us not getting back to that golden era, as it were?

Walsh: Well, I think that union members who are active in their union tend to vote democratic, but not to a person. I think the union movement, frankly, has gotten much better, but it was very slow to recognize the new workers that they had to organize among African Americans and Latinos and women.

There were splits in the labor movement that were very costly and divisive. My grandfather’s own union, the steamfitters union, didn’t even accept African American members until late, and some other unions had a hard time accepting that they should be organizing this new workforce.

So you developed fissures in the union movement, but at this point I think you probably saw white union members in particular, some of them, at least, voting for Scott Walker in Wisconsin and John Kasich in Ohio, not realizing that especially public sector unions were becoming the new welfare queens.

Cops and firefighters and teachers have become the new slackers and moochers who don’t deserve what they’re getting. So you’ve got this – in my opinion, because I’m an optimist, you’ve got this kind of opportunity for Democrats and people who care about social justice to talk to the white working class and say everything they’ve been saying about African Americans to you, building this new Republican majority, everything they’ve been saying they’re starting to say about white people.

Tavis: But to your point, though, there are any number of questions I can ask; there are any number of ways, rather, I could inform your question, “What’s the Matter with white People.” If I had an hour on TV just to run down a bunch of questions, I would love to ask white folk –

Walsh: (Laughs) I’ll come back.

Tavis: I got a bunch of them that I would love to ask. But the one I do not understand, whether one is a Democrat or Republican, so this is not to demonize or cast aspersion on Republicans, but it is to state a fact. We now live in the most multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America ever. I do not get what the white people in the Republican Party think they’re going to do long-term if they don’t figure out a way to expand their base. Do you have an answer?

Walsh: No. I think there’s going to be a real battle. If Mitt Romney loses, and it’s too early to say that’s going to happen, but I think that they’ve decided to double-down on a certain kind of strategy of turning out their older white base and just not thinking about the future. They have made decisions over the years, Tavis, and you know this too.

Richard Nixon in 1960 got about a third of the Black vote. The Black vote once was Republican. When the civil rights movement happened, that all shifted. They had an opportunity with Latinos. Most of the time I live in California, and I remember discussions in the ’80s and the ’90s where it was like there was a real opportunity George Bush and Karl Rove saw it for the Latino community to be appealed to on the issues of maybe small government and family values and all those sorts of things.

They wrote off that possibility, quite frankly, with some racism and with really seeing every Brown person, every Latino, as an illegal immigrant who was wrongly here. They’ve done the same thing to the Asian community. The Asian American community used to be very Republican, many coming from communist countries, hostile to government, and they’ve been driven into the Democratic Party by again, subtle and not-so-subtle racial appeal.

So they don’t have a future in this, they don’t have a long-term future in this country, but I think they believe that if they can do what they did in 2010, suppress the Black and Brown and Asian vote, suppress the young vote and turn out their older white base, that they can hold on to power.

They can undo the things President Obama has done that are good things, hold on to power, hold on to corporate power, for another – maybe another generation, even. It’s not a permanent strategy, but it could keep them in power for a while.

Tavis: Well, it’s short-term; it’s myopic, even if it does work.

Walsh: Yeah, and it’s ugly.

Tavis: Yeah.

Walsh: And it’s ugly.

Tavis: The new book from Joan Walsh is called “What’s the Matter with white People: Why We Long for a Golden Age that Never Was.” She tells a wonderful story about her family in the book and the generations of their presence in this country. It’s a wonderful read and I’ve only scratched the surface tonight in this conversation, so you might want to pick it up for yourself.

Joan, good to have you on the program. Congratulations on the book, thanks for your time.

Walsh: Thank you so much, Tavis.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

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Last modified: October 9, 2012 at 11:16 pm