Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now into the second year of the Trump administration, and the last year has been filled with ups and downs, important victories, successful holding campaigns, and painful defeats. We’ve learned a lot, but there is always more to learn, more to be done. In this now-weekly series, we talk with organizers, agitators, and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world.
On March 9 and 10, the Congressional Progressive Caucus gathered for its strategy summit in Baltimore, Maryland. Members of the caucus and allies from left-leaning organizations and European left parties gathered to talk policy and power for the short, medium and long term. At the conference, I spoke with Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota about the new push for Medicare for All, how to talk about racism and economic justice, and why it might be time to think about a maximum wage.
Sarah Jaffe: I want to start with Medicare for all, what’s going on in the House?
Keith Ellison: I just switched in for John Conyers. What we’re going to do, we’re starting a Medicare for All task force, a single-payer task force, and Pramila Jayapal and I are going to help lead that effort. Debbie Dingell is there, Ro Khanna is there, Barbara Lee is there, we’ve got a team, and we’re going to really push. We believe that, in this moment, the most important thing to do is help build the public support and the public awareness and the public knowledge. That’s our goal.
We’ve got a plan to move out on all fronts and have our members do a tour, have meetings in their districts on single payer. We’re working with Bernie, but we believe that this is the issue and that the time for this issue has come. Now we’re all staunch advocates of the Affordable Care Act, but we’re looking further. We imagine an America where when you get sick you worry about getting well, not whether you might be in bankruptcy.
Sarah: So there’s energy within and without the Democratic Party pushing in this direction. You were just saying you’ve been in Congress for 10 years. Does it feel like there’s a momentum shift, and when did that start?
Keith: It started when people like Paul Wellstone were raising it, and people were like, “What’s that, what is single-payer? We don’t know what you’re talking about.” And all we’re doing is building, building, building up the momentum. No doubt Bernie’s run for president caught a wind and definitely escalated the awareness. But what is really driving this thing is the fact that you get sick, and can’t afford your medicine — I have a young lady who I work with every day, smart as a whip, super talented, but she has toxoplasmosis, so she needs Daraprim. So that little creep Martin Shkreli says, “Okay, $13 a dose is now roughly $750 a dose,” not to mention EpiPens and insulin! Something like insulin! It’s skyrocketing, all so they can commercialize it. And people are asking: Does it have to be this way? Is it this way in Canada? Is it this way in a whole bunch of other countries? Turns out – no. People want a better alternative.
This is wrapped up with this market power issue. Every time a Martin Shkreli screws somebody, we’re winning converts to single-payer healthcare, Medicare for All. So what we’ve got to do is get out there and say there’s an alternative. Particularly when the Republicans are so dominant that we’re not going to pass it, our mission needs to be to get out there, get out there strong, let people know there’s an alternative and they don’t have to suffer this way. They don’t have to mortgage the house so they can get an operation.
Sarah: We’re talking about market power. You made a joke about a maximum wage.
Keith: No no no! I didn’t make a joke about maximum wage. I made a statement about maximum wage. What I’m saying is, if you were to say, “Look, if you make more than 20 times more than the people who actually make the products and do the services of your company, then we’re going to tax you more. We’re going to tax you at all.”
Sarah: That would be a good start.
Keith: You’re going to be ineligible for certain programs. Or we could even do something like say, “Look, if you want to pay yourself more than 20 times your average worker, that’s fine, but if you give the workers an increase as you get them, then maybe we’ll think about that in terms of some sort of a policy benefit.” But this idea that you can leave people in poverty as you are stacking up dead presidents like nobody’s business has got to come to an end. I mean, the CEO of McDonald’s makes almost $4,000 an hour, and they’re fighting people getting $15 an hour.
Sarah: But they turned their logo upside down to be a W, so…
Keith: They care. Awww. But my point is these people are not only screwing over workers, they’re screwing over the environment. They’re clear-cutting forests so they can graze more cattle, and we all know that beef production is extremely abusive on the environment. They’re bad actors, you know?
I wasn’t joking about having a maximum wage. Why shouldn’t there be a maximum wage? I remember when Ford, GM and Chrysler came for $80 billion to rescue the American auto industry. Okay, well how much does the guy who runs Toyota make? Oh, he makes a few million a year. How much do you make? $28 million a year. Okay, stop right there, I’m going to tell you what your problem is right there. Your interests and the interests of the company are not aligned. To you, the company is just something like toilet tissue, you wipe some with it and throw it away when you don’t need it.
Where did you get that greedy? And how did you create a philosophy that protects your greed, so that if I say you shouldn’t be that greedy you get to call me a name? Because they do, they call us names because we say your incalculable greed is not acceptable. That’s fine. We get to be called communists when we say that about them. Why don’t we call them what they are, which is avaricious and greedy? And not tolerate it? You can open up your company, you can even make a profit, but why do you have to make more than 21 times your average worker? The CEO of McDonald’s. You’re telling me they can’t make it on … I don’t know, if the workers are making $15 an hour…
Keith: You notice I said “if.” Why can’t the CEO make $300 an hour? That’s still a lot. If you told them they only can make $1,000, they’d be like, “Oh no no.” It’s ridiculous. And this is the world we live in. And you know, one of the panelists was right. We don’t even really know who these people are. We don’t know who they are. We don’t encounter them.
Sarah: That’s why we know who Martin Shkreli is. He becomes the face of it.
Keith: But we don’t even encounter these people. Your average working-class person busting out on $7.25, they know lawyers, because their son had one. They might even know a doctor, they go see the guy. But they don’t know who owns McDonald’s because they guy who owns McDonald’s, he don’t fly commercial, so there’s no way that they were working in the airport and they saw the guy. Unless you work at Mar-A-Lago, you don’t see these people. And so, we’ve got to figure out a way to make them famous in a bad way.
Sarah: One of the most compelling moments that I’ve ever seen was being at the Walmart shareholders meeting and watching the workers confront the CEO. And then the chairman of the board ran.
Folks were talking earlier about people being afraid to talk about racism under Trump. I wonder if you have thoughts about how to do that without saying, like Hillary Clinton unfortunately did, “half of these people are deplorables.”
Keith: Most of us talk about racism from a very capitalistic standpoint. And what I mean by that is racism is what working-class white people do to working-class black people.
What if you looked at racism another way? Racism is what the big bosses use to manipulate everybody against each other. That’s another way of looking at it. Same kind of thing. But what does it profit a working-class white person in the antebellum South to be for slavery? That’s keeping you in poverty. But you say, you’re white. We’ll let you walk around in poverty, they’ve got to stay here. It’s the classic pitting of the have-nots against the have-very-littles. And this is the way they do it.
My view is that we’ve got to engage in real conversations with each other. We’ve got to ask who benefits from all this racism. Who loses? All of us! Because when Florida purged black voters in the year 2000, the whole country got George W. Bush, which led us into a war with absolutely no justification. The whole country got a prescription drug benefit that enriched Big Pharma, this happened to everyone of every color. Racism helps elites control everybody else. Therefore, our fight has to be solidarity.
But we’ve got to do a lot of public education to help everybody understand what’s happening here. Why is it that the states we associate with the most intense racism are the southern old Confederate states and are also the poorest states? But make no mistake, they’ve got rich people in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana — very rich. But the reason they’re able to maintain that wealth is because everybody at the bottom is at each other’s throats.
Now I’m not saying that there’s not racism in the upper Midwest. There’s plenty of racism in Minnesota. I know that — I’m from there. And there is racism in Maine. I’m not trying to say these people are off the hook. But I’m saying that you show me a section of the country that has the most inequality, I’ll show you the most racism. And that’s just how it works. But I think we’ve got to look at it that way.
We all see the world from our own angle, right? We’ve got to do a lot of public education, we’ve got to help people understand that these puppets have strings, man, and that we’re being manipulated. But we’ve got to find the right language to do it. I think it’s well within our power, and the success of the progressive movement depends upon it. We’ve got to learn how to talk to working-class white people about racism and not get them so damn defensive that they don’t even want to have a conversation.
And here’s the other thing — and I’m sorry for going on. In the popular media, who is the racist? It’s always the poor, ignorant white person, it’s always that guy. In March 2018, the chief racist in America is Donald Trump, a billionaire who comes out of the chute talking about how Mexicans are rapists, Muslims are terrorists, black people are all bad, tweeting stuff about black people committing crimes. Why is that? My theory is that if you do not actively promote racism, it doesn’t work as well. You have to promote it, you have to make people suspect each other, because if you don’t it won’t take. It doesn’t self-perpetuate on its own: It is promoted.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.
Sarah Jaffe is a Type Media Center Fellow, co-host (with Michelle Chen) of Dissent magazine’s Belabored podcast, and a columnist at The New Republic and New Labor Forum. She was formerly a staff writer at In These Times and the labor editor at AlterNet. Her previous book is Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt, which Robin D.G. Kelley called “The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.” You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.