Ezra Klein, “What ‘Drained-Pool Politics’ Costs America,” New York Times, Feb. 16, 2021

“The American landscape was once graced with resplendent public swimming pools, some big enough to hold thousands of swimmers at a time,” writes Heather McGhee in her new book, “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.” These pools were the pride of their communities, monuments to what public investment could do. But they were, in many places, whites-only. Then came the desegregation orders. The pools would need to be open to everyone. But these communities found a loophole. They could close them for everyone. Drain them. Fill them with concrete. Shutter their parks departments entirely. And so they did.

It’s a shocking tale. But it’s too easily dismissed as yet one more story of America’s racist past. McGhee shows otherwise. Drained-pool politics are still with us today and shaping issues of far more consequence than pool access. Drained-pool politics — if “they” can also have it, then no one can — helps explain why America still doesn’t have a truly universal health care system, a child care system, a decent social safety net. McGhee, the former president of the think tank Demos, offers a devastating tour of American public policy, and she shows how drained-pool politics have led to less for everyone, not just their intended targets.

I asked McGhee to join me on my podcast, “The Ezra Klein Show,” for a discussion about drained-pool politics, the zero-sum stories at the heart of American policymaking, how people define and understand their political interests, and the path forward. This is, in my view, a hopeful book, and a hopeful conversation. There are so many issues where the trade-offs are real, and binding. But in this space, there are vast “solidarity dividends” just waiting for us, if we are willing to stand with, rather than against, each other.

Excerpts from transcript:

HEATHER MCGHEE: So I look at the racialized history of our unique-among-advanced-economies unwillingness to provide universal health care, and it’s just overwhelming, the evidence. From the very beginning, Truman tried to have a national health insurance plan. The segregationist Dixiecrats in his party opposed it. And then, of course, to Obamacare and Medicaid expansion. I actually didn’t realize until I began researching the book that white Americans are pretty vehemently opposed to Obamacare and have been. Support for it has never reached over 50 percent. It’s still an unpopular plan among white Americans, even though if you break down the individual policies, white Americans are supportive of it.

But if you think about Medicaid expansion, which is still a fraught battle — we still have a dozen states that have refused to expand Medicaid. And as soon as, not incidentally, a states’ rights theory was used to knock down the Medicaid expansion that should have been universal across 50 states, you had a new Mason-Dixon line of states mostly in the old Confederacy that refused to expand Medicaid.


HEATHER MCGHEE: That’s right. But I mean, deep must that zero-sum story be to have white Americans, the majority of whom have voted against the party of the New Deal that largely built the white middle class since that party also expanded to become the party of civil rights too — they’re cheering the gutting of public investments that they, in fact, would benefit from. And yet ever since integration, we have had white political majority that has cheered on the cutting of the social safety net, the ratcheting down of welfare to virtual meaninglessness, and the attacks on unions.


HEATHER MCGHEE: The zero-sum story — I go back in the book to the beginning — where did we get the zero-sum story? It’s not an obvious thing. It’s not an obvious belief system. It’s not a natural sense of group competition, and it’s more widely held among white people than other people. And so I went back to the founding and the pre-founding of this country and showed how it was used to justify the first economic policies of this country, which were stolen people, stolen land, and stolen labor. That zero-sum racial hierarchy created the scaffolding.

I do believe that since it’s so aggressively marketed to white people through the lens of racial hierarchy, it’s very clear to me that a white person can feel that way about other white people as well, that resentment and that desire to distinguish among the various small gradations on this ladder of human value. But it’s that ladder of human value that was first mapped onto the American psyche as a racialized project.

Though disdain and distrust that particularly white Americans have for people who are poor is a very racialized view — it’s the idea that there’s something inherently wrong with people who don’t have enough money. It’s also — of course, the whole thing is very rich. When you say that people are so resentful of people getting things in an unfair way, I mean, that’s what the entirety of the white spoils system has been in this country.


HEATHER MCGHEE: It’s a book about the economy, but I do include a chapter on democracy, because on the list of nice things that we can’t seem to have because of racism, a functioning representative democracy is pretty high up on the list. And so I traced the history of all of the ways that, from our founding, elites attacked the bedrock of what is a pretty bold and beautiful idea, which is self governance and representative democracy, in order to keep room for racism and slavery and racial subjugation.


HEATHER MCGHEE: No, I think that is right. When you create this hierarchy of human value, and you feel that there are only so many rungs on that ladder, and if someone gets on your rung, that means you have nowhere to go but down — that can apply to immigrants, different kinds of immigrants over different time, that can apply to women coming into the workforce, et cetera. But I will say that for me, it was important to note that the zero-sum racial hierarchy is a story that has been relentlessly packaged and marketed and sold by people who benefit the most from the economic status quo. It is not something that is a predominant white working class idea on its own.

Everything we believe comes from a story we’ve been told. And whether it’s Rupert Murdoch and the desire for a billionaire to have a propaganda mechanism where the zero-sum story is really the core narrative that finds a new example every hour to the person with the biggest bull horn in the world for four years, to Donald Trump, and everything in between, the conservative orthodoxy around makers and takers and freeloaders and taxpayers and Reagan’s shifting of the narrative of what was wrong with Black people from white oppression to cultures of Black poverty — all of that is a story that political and economic elites have sold for their own profit to a white majority that then continues to vote for their perceived racial interest instead of their class interest with Brown and Black Americans who are often struggling from the same economic challenges.

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