Since at least the mid-1980s, the pursuit of the archetypal suburban swing voter “Reagan Democrat” has been a key part of the Democratic message. The strategy was simple: these socially moderate to conservative white suburban Americans were largely sympathetic with Democrats on economic issues, but voted for the GOP in part because they believed Democrats were interested in pursuing racial justice. at the expense of issues they saw as more relevant to their own lives.
The result of this thinking was a “color blind” approach to talking about economic policies and programs – emphasizing a “rising tide lifts all boats” message that obscured or ignored racial disparities. But for both ideological and strategic reasons, this “colorblind” posture is no longer effective for Democrats – and, McGhee says, may in fact backfire.
“Since the Obama era, the racial sorting of voters has included white voters moving to the Democratic Party. Due to their progressive views on race, ”she said. “What maintains the progressive coalition is, yes, obviously, the feeling that the government can – and must – be a force for good and to face our great crises. But also the coalition … thinks that we duty talk about race, and do not want to see politicians without the courage to tackle these obvious inequalities head-on.
In this way, while the Biden administration’s massive investments in the economic growth of the middle class have been compared by some to the liberal heyday of Franklin D. Roosevelt, this comparison lacks an important difference. The New Deal era was defined by policies that were “either explicitly, as in housing subsidies, or implicitly, due to segregation in education and housing under the GI Bill, for whites only. McGhee says. In contrast, she sees the Biden era as “a massive replenishment of the pool of public goods for all.”
What explains this change? What has changed in American policy that has prompted Democratic leaders to directly address the racial components of economic problems? And what is the hidden story that led to the divestment in public goods as black Americans began to be included in what America saw as the “public”? To sort it all out, POLITICO Magazine spoke to McGhee. A condensed transcript of this conversation follows, edited for length and clarity.
Let’s talk about swimming pools. It’s a living metaphor you use in your book and a story I didn’t know. Can you explain the importance of public swimming pools?
Heather McGhee: In the 1930s and 1940s, the country experienced a boom in the construction of public facilities – public libraries, parks, schools and swimming pools. But they weren’t normal pools. These were large, resort-style pools that could, in many cases, accommodate thousands of swimmers.
In many ways, it was emblematic of a broader ethic at the time: it was the government’s job to ensure an increasingly high standard of living for its people. You saw it in the New Deal-era social contract, which included massive housing subsidies, high labor standards, wage floors, the GI Bill – which put a generation of men in the property and in colleges and professionals. And it was all either explicitly, as in housing subsidies, or implicitly, because of the segregation in education and housing under the GI Bill, for whites only. These massive public investments created America’s large middle class on a largely uniquely white basis.
Public swimming pools were also often separate. And in the late 1950s and early 1960s when black families began to successfully litigate [for integration], claiming that their taxes paid for these public pools and that they wanted their children to be able to swim in them as well, many cities across the country have chosen to empty their public pools rather than integrate them.
This meant that white families were losing a public good that they cherished. This meant that the whole community was losing a public space and a common good that could foster social cohesion. This meant that white families with enough money started building their own swimming pools – that’s when we really started to see this phenomenon in the suburbs – and those private members-only swim clubs have popped up all over the country. Black families often had to do without it – as did white families who couldn’t afford it when what was once a public good became a private luxury.