Writer Joan Walsh

The Salon.com columnist weighs in on the Supreme Court’s healthcare ruling, explains her text, What’s the Matter with White People?, and assesses the evolution of the race and class discussion.

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. She's also been a consultant 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. Her text, What's the Matter with White People?, is set for release next month.
Sponsored by:


Tavis: Joan Walsh is an award-winning journalist and columnist who serves as editor-at-large at Salon.com. She’s also the author of the forthcoming text, “What’s the Matter with white People: Why We Long for a Golden Age that Never Was.” Cannot wait to read that.

She joins us tonight from San Francisco. Joan, good to have you back on this program.

Joan Walsh: Thanks, Tavis, great to be with you.

Tavis: Since I don’t want to wait 15 minutes to ask this question, top-line for me what the text, coming in August, I believe, what’s the book about?

Walsh: Well, the book is about the nostalgia that a lot of white people have for that great middle class country that we lived in that never fully existed. It was great for some people; we did build a wonderful middle class. But we excluded a lot of people from the dream, and then in the ’60s, when we began to try to extend the American dream to all Americans – women, minorities, non-white people – things started to fall apart.

I think for a lot of white people there’s a kind of mistaken cause and effect. It’s as though things fell apart because we tried to extend prosperity to more people, and as you know very well, race became a deeply divisive issue. It always was, but it became divisive in different ways, and the Democratic Party was really pulled apart by that.

So I kind of went back for my own edification and my own learning to understand the Democratic Party of my youth. I grew up in New York, in an Irish-Catholic working class family. I saw these divisions in my own family, where some of my family members went from being Kennedy Democrats to voting for Nixon, the man Kennedy had defeated in 1960.

I really felt like I needed to understand it in a personal way, in a historical way, in a political way, because I think it’s really going to be important that we learn to talk about race and class in a different way as we move into a truly multiracial America in the next decades.

Tavis: Can’t wait to read that, as I said a moment ago, when it comes out later this summer. I thank you for the segue, because speaking of the American dream, that’s what this healthcare debate is all about.

Mr. Obama and his supporters believe that it is a protection of, an extension of, an expansion of the American dream. The right, of course, sees it the exact opposite, as an attack on freedom of choice and on liberty, government intruding too much into our lives – you know the argument.

Walsh: Yes.

Tavis: What’s your sense, though, of how the right, the political right has played this since the decision came down? Have they done about what you thought they would do and say?

Walsh: Yes, maybe a little bit crazier. I think the attacks on Chief Justice John Roberts have been tragic and awful, people going so far as to suggest that an illness caused him to change his mind, or medication, as well as people just being very angry and calling him a traitor.

There’s such anger, Tavis, that it really points to the fact that I think a lot of Republicans believed that they controlled the court and there was only one way this ruling was going to come down, and that’s a little bit worrisome.

We don’t want the court to just be an arm of one party or another, so some of the personal anger and nastiness has surprised me. On the other hand, I think President Obama is probably going to be kind of lucky on this one. The ruling helps him politically, but also his opponents are such incredible disarray.

The House Republicans want to repeal it, they want to run on this, they want to appeal to that base, and let’s say it – it’s a white, older base that doesn’t quite understand the way healthcare works, but they’re worried that some people are going to get something for nothing.

Then you’ve got Mitt Romney, and I think he’s got to wish that this would just go away, because we both know Obamacare is Romneycare, and so he’s really kind of vexed. He’s putting a good spin on it, but he’s got to wish that this just, that they could turn back the clock, they could shut off the court and they could just move on to different issues, because he doesn’t know how to fight this.

Tavis: He might be vexed by it, but if I said to you, to your earlier point, that what this is going to do is to galvanize his base, those persons who weren’t altogether Romney fans, they don’t really like him, but they hate Barack Obama and they hate Obamacare, as they call it.

So if I said to you it’s going to galvanize and rally his base and in that regard it’s a short-term victory for the president but maybe a long-term victory for Romney, you’d say what?

Walsh: I think that’s interesting. I think that you’re right – Mitt Romney has had a really hard time galvanizing the base. The base does not like him. He was not the choice of the base, and we all know that. So the question becomes, does pandering to the base and being anti-Obamacare and hoping that they forget that it’s Romneycare, does that pay off for him?

It may. On the other side, I think that the president has an opportunity to kind of re-sell this to the American people. Polls are already showing that – I can’t understand this psychologically. You and I could have a long conversation about it, Tavis, but the Supreme Court decision makes people like the law better. So whatever – whatever works.

I think that the president has done a wonderful job in the wake of the ruling really laying out how this helps people, how many people it helps, and making it an issue of fairness and, again, the American dream.

So we both know that the bill, the Democrats got off on the wrong foot, they were flat-footed in the summer of 2009. They really let the opponents define the bill and call it death panels and everything else. I think they’re getting a chance to kind of, in a very sober, serious and inspiring way, tell Americans what this bill is going to do for them, what it’s already doing for them.

I think also galvanize the president’s base, because people get disaffected at times and it doesn’t go as well as we may have hoped in 2008. But this is a big deal. I’m going to leave out that other word that Joe Biden used. This is a big, big deal, and I think it gives the president a chance to go back to his base and say, “Look, it hasn’t been easy, but look at the things I’ve done.”

I’ve felt a different kind of excitement and activism in the last weekend, where people are really saying wow, you know what? He hasn’t done everything, but he’s gotten a lot done. So I think it works on both bases.

Tavis: My mother and other PBS viewers no doubt appreciate your self-censorship, so. (Laughter)

Walsh: Thank you, I was raised right.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah, so thank you for that. I suspect, though, and this isn’t rocket science, obviously, this is pretty much politics 101, I suspect, though, that this will also raise higher on the campaign agenda or the political agenda during the campaign the issue of Supreme Court appointments.

I’ve been seeing a number of articles, and as a matter of fact saw something you wrote about this. So you have to take into consideration the age of the justices now. Ruth Bader Ginsberg at almost 80, of course, is the oldest member of the court.

But you start to look at the ages of these justices and you start to figure out pretty quickly that this election matters for a lot of reasons, but it particularly and especially matters, as it always does, but particularly now, for Supreme Court appointments, yes?

Walsh: Absolutely, and I don’t want to get carried away with – I think that Chief Justice Roberts did the right thing, but he is a conservative and he will be looking for ways to – he sees the world the way he does, and we saw it in Citizens United.

I think we’ve had a number – a number of us were really quite honestly, I think, frightened last week at the possibility of this ruling, not just because it strikes down the healthcare law, which would have been a disaster in a lot of ways, but because there really has been this incredible precedent of the court, a pattern of the court sort of overreaching.

Talk about judicial activism, which they didn’t like in the ’60s and ’70s. They like it now, and so you had Bush versus Gore, which really was a terrible decision. I’m not a lawyer, but I’m an American. That was a terrible decision. It really thwarted the will of Florida voters.

You had Citizens United. You have these cases where the court has kind of gone beyond what was even asked of it in Citizens United. They could have simply said, “Hey, that documentary they wanted to come out with, that is protected speech.”

They didn’t have to strike down the whole law. They looked to go out and do that. So I think that the court is going to be, for people who are kind of fence-sitters and maybe not certain that the president has done all that they had hoped, I think you’re going to get to October and November and people are going to really look at what happens if we give Republicans another shot at more appointees, because they have taken the court to the right, and we will see rulings that we don’t like already, even with this court. It will not be the democracy we want if we have more conservative justices.

Tavis: For the sake of argument, let me flip it completely now in the other direction.

Walsh: Sure.

Tavis: You mentioned a moment ago that this, you conceded that this will likely or possibly galvanize Mr. Romney’s base, but you also suggested it might rally and excite Mr. Obama’s base.

Let me talk about a particular slice of that base. You’re in San Francisco, so you know progressive causes rather well.

Walsh: Yes.

Tavis: It’s easy on balance, or it’s easy on the surface, I should say, to be excited about what the Supreme Court did because it protected what did, in fact, get through. But this law is so far apart from what the president campaigned on, what he said he was going to do, it’s nowhere near single-payer, it’s nowhere near real universal coverage.

So I wonder to what extent progressives might be emboldened to push the president if he wins a second term to go a little farther, or quite frankly, to get back to doing what he said he was going to do, or whether or not the excitement and the enthusiasm of a victory in the court for what did get through is going to be enough and the president gets off the hook once again.

Walsh: I don’t think he’s going to get off the hook. I think you’ll see in a second terms – this has been a divisive question among progressives, but I’ve always said if we want to have a more progressive president, Barack Obama, we need to give him a more progressive Congress.

But I also think, and I’ve said all along, that people on the left need to continue to push this president. They need to push him now, they need to push him in November, they need to push him hopefully next January, to make good on some of his promises.

On the other hand, by not standing up for either single payer or public option, by not fighting harder and defining his world view, talk about the American dream, talk about what it’s going to take to get us there, whether we go back to the stimulus battle, really to defend the role of government in creating prosperity and the role of government in building the middle class that we did have in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s.

Government did a lot of things right, and you have Democrats like President Obama and Bill Clinton, for that matter, who I admire, who ran away from the role of government. They saw that the Democrats got blamed for all that chaos in the ’60s and they didn’t want any part of it, and they really kind of lost the story of the way the Democratic Party created the middle class from FDR to Harry Truman to Lyndon B. Johnson.

We need to get the president talking like that again. I think he needs to talk like that to win the election, but I think we need to continue to push from the left on issues of single payer.

I’m terrified about what’s going to happen with the supposed Medicaid expansion. I’m really afraid that as good as this ruling was, it wasn’t perfect, and that a lot of people may be stuck in some of those red states where you’ve got governors saying they’re not going to implement it, they’re not going to take the federal money.

So it’s a tough country. It’s a tough country, but progressives don’t accomplish anything by biting their tongues and not pushing.

Tavis: I’m glad you raised that issue of Medicaid, because I was going to ask and I will very quickly here, what really does happen to the poor? So for all the talk about healthcare, the Supreme Court rejecting this Medicaid expansion really does leave the perennially poor, those most vulnerable, it leaves them out in the cold.

Walsh: Well, it makes it impossible to expand coverage. People who have coverage are going to keep it, but it’s not very good. I think the irony that’s blown me away this week, and I don’t know if you’ve caught any of this, is certain Republicans talking about why they don’t want to expand Medicaid because it’s not good enough. It’s cheap. The reimbursement rates are too low.

As though they care about the poor, right? As though oh, it’s not good enough care.

Tavis: Yeah, right.

Walsh: Well, okay, actually, you know what? I agree with that, so let’s increase funding for Medicaid. But that’s never going to be your solution, so I think there are a lot of people who are going to remain in the shadows and it’s going to be unfortunately the state-by-state patchwork that it is, where really, your rights as an American are determined by the state you live in when it comes to health.

You may die in one state and live in another, and that’s just wrong, but that is where we are.

Tavis: Well, it’s going to be a long time between now and November, and these issues, of course, are going to ebb and flow between now and then, and I suspect between now and then we’ll get a chance to talk to Joan Walsh once again from Salon.com. Joan, good to have you on the program. Thanks for sharing your insights, as always.

Walsh: Thank you, Tavis.

“Announcer:” Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: June 27, 2016 at 6:02 pm