Norman Lear on What Progressives Have to Learn

I sat down with Norman Lear, the celebrated television writer and producer, in the wake of the 2016 election. We talked about the different turns his career has taken—from his time writing for classic sitcoms, to his founding role at People for the American Way, to his work on America Divided, the new documentary series on inequality in America—and about where we go from here, in Trump’s America.

Rebecca Vallas: You’re probably best known for your career as a TV writer and producer from popular shows like All in the Family and The Jeffersons to Sanford and Sons. But you later branched out to advocacy work, founding People for the American Way in 1981. What drove you to enter the advocacy world in that kind of a formal way?

Norman Lear: Well in 1980, there was a proliferation of TV evangelicals, the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons and Jimmy Swaggarts and so forth. They were mixing politics and religion, and I’ve been scared of the mix of politics and religion since I was nine years old. That’s when I took civics in school, and I was so in love with the founding fathers. I loved those guarantees of freedom and equal justice. I loved what we read about who we were and the promises we made.

RV: I’m struck by the People for the American Way’s organizational founding mission statement. You describe the organization’s goal as in part, “to promote a sense of community and tolerance and compassion for others.” What lessons might we draw from that, as we look back on one of the ugliest and most polarizing campaigns in recent memory?

NL: Well, in a sense, isn’t that mission statement representing organizations—left and right, as a matter of fact—that all cling to the wish of equality for all? As a matter of fact, I often think the right has taken those ideas and those words. If one asked oneself “who does the flag belong to, left or right,” I think the answer would have to be right. Who does God belong to? Right, if you had to make a choice.

I don’t believe that the right has been behaving in an American fashion or a Godly fashion, certainly not any more than the left. But I fault us on the left, for letting God go, for letting the flag go, for letting patriotism go. We’re not as at good at bumper sticker stuff as the right is. Our hearts and souls are there, but I wish our asses were too.

RV: During this election cycle I think many have actually pointed to Archie Bunker, the character that you wrote for All in the Family. He was a staunch conservative, a blue-collar worker, who wasn’t exactly shy about his views when it came to minorities and women and LGBT individuals and on and on. The show was set some 40 years ago, but people have been seeing Archie Bunker all over the 2016 presidential election.

NL: The Archie Bunker you just described, he didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. He just came out of fear. A fear of progress, a fear of forward movement—the idea of a black family moving in next door scared the hell out of him. That’s not what’s happening right now. We don’t have an Archie Bunker, ‘cause that would suggest heart and soul.

I don’t think the country knows Donald Trump really well yet, despite the celebrity. Or maybe better said, we know him the way we know all our celebrities, which is to say we know about them from the tube, from lights, from the glare, from the glisten. But do we really know them? Not the way the media plays it.

RV: Well even if it isn’t fair to make a comparison between Donald Trump, our next president, and Archie Bunker, do you see glimmers among his supporters, or some of them at least?

We haven’t had an honest discussion of what’s at stake.

NL: Well, yes, I think there’s a lot of the kind of sounds Archie Bunker made coming from the supporters. They don’t know the issues and they have reason to be afraid. This is where I thought of Archie, and of Donald Trump from the very beginning, as the middle finger of the American right hand. They were feeling desperate for leadership.

You know, this is a republic that depends on an informed citizenry. And we don’t have national conversations that really inform people. We’ve got media, and in the case of 17 people running for the Republican candidacy, just people bumper stickering each other. By “bumper stickering” I mean using these short phrases that wrap the other guy. We haven’t had an honest discussion of what’s at stake here.

RV: For people who do want to have that honest discussion of what’s at stake, and for people who care about addressing poverty and tackling inequality, there are a whole range of related issues that you explore in the America Divided series. Where do we go from here and what can we take away from this election?

NL: More of America Divided, more of what you’re doing exactly at this moment, more conversation, and more honesty.

You’re talking to a man who is well known for his views and everything else, but I was thinking, when I was with Dolores Huerta, who comes out of the farm worker’s movement, very close to Chavez, and she’s been active, gloriously active to this moment. And she’s been arrested like twenty times, for people’s protest.

So you’re talking to a man now, and this man is listening to himself, who’s never been arrested. So I want to dust myself off. For all my spouting, for everything I’ve done, why have I never been arrested? I’ve cared enough, I’ve wished to protest enough, so maybe in my 94th year I’ll get to do that too.

RV: Well, I’d be happy to join you if you let me know where to go and when.

A lot of people have been describing this particular election and the election result as really categorically different from any other presidential election we’ve had. You’ve seen a lot of elections in your lifetime. Is it fair to categorize this election, and the outcome and the next president, as truly unique?

NL: Well it is truly unique, but it isn’t alone. When Al Gore lost, it was the Supreme Court who decided that he would not be the next president. That was truly unique. When Nixon came into the presidency and when he left the presidency, my God wasn’t that truly unique! So we’ve been here before. And we’ll get through it, we’ll get past unique.

RV: A lot of the discussion throughout the entire election season and also going back into the primary, has been about deep economic anger. Anger about inequality, anger about kitchen table issues, not being able to make ends meet, and the rising income instability across this country. What is your read about what progressives should take away from the final outcome here?

NL: Progressives should take away that we have been an utter failure. And that we talk our game, but we’re not sufficiently active or dynamic or truly honest. We have a lot to learn.

We have a lot to learn.

If we see Trump making mistakes like who he might appoint to the Supreme Court, we can stand up as one. I’ll get arrested protesting someplace. And everybody does his or her part in the same fashion. We’ve got to be heard from. We’ve got to remember eternal vigilance, eternal and daily vigilance. This is the price of liberty.

RV: You purchased, some number of years ago, one of the first published copies of the Declaration of Independence, for many millions of dollars. And you did that because you said that you “wanted to help re-acquaint America with its birth certificate.” Why did you do that, and do you think there is anything to take away from that at this particular moment in our nation’s history?

NL: Because it was like a moving civics class. I’d like to join a fight, if there is anyone listening to me, to get the civics back in the classroom. To teach American kids what America is all about. Who we are as Americans. Because we lost all that.

We were in love with our country when we understood what it was to be all about. What its founders declared it wished it be. We’re not taught that in school anymore. I wish to God we could get a movement that gets civics back in the classroom, so we learn who we’re supposed to be and we start taking care of ourselves and each other that way.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. Listen to the most recent episode of TalkPoverty Radio for the full interview.



The War on the Poor Is Already Underway

It was just a little over two months ago that the Census Bureau reported the very good news that real median household incomes had increased by 5.2% from 2014 to 2015, and that the poverty rate had fallen by 1.3 percentage points. The bureau also told us that the percentage of people without health insurance coverage had continued to decline substantially.

That upbeat report is likely to be the last burst of good news that the poor will see for quite some time. Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, and the bellicose tribunes of the hard right are in complete charge of the federal government. Their hostility to such crucial anti-poverty efforts as the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid, food stamps, and substantial increases in the minimum wage is hardly a secret.

With both houses of Congress under Republican control, big tax cuts (heavily weighted toward the richest among us) are a virtual certainty. As a result, trillions of dollars in revenues will likely be lost and Congress will be on the hunt for spending cuts to offset them. Social programs will be among the first items in their sights.

We’ve already seen something of a blueprint for what’s coming: Paul Ryan’s wish list was in his 2015 budget proposal. Nearly 70% of its heart-stopping spending cuts would have come from programs designed to help moderate or low-income people. Last spring Ryan came up with another proposal—this one specifically addressing poverty. He recommended, among other things, cuts to unemployment assistance, a phase-out of the Head Start program, and rollbacks in the federal Pell Grant program, which provides desperately needed assistance to low-income students pursuing higher education.

Ryan’s poverty plans seem peculiarly designed to increase the hardships faced by the poor.

Trump’s approach will likely align with Ryan’s, since his fundamental take on poverty is that people are poor because they are not willing to work. In an interview with Sean Hannity last year, Trump was asked if he would be able to lift America’s 50 million poor people out of poverty.

“I would,” said Trump. “I would create incentives for people to work. People don’t have an incentive. They make more money by sitting there doing nothing than they make if they have a job.”

That, of course, was ominous. The man who is now president-elect did not seem to know that the majority of those who are poor in America are children, people with disabilities, and seniors. Nor did he seem to understand that many adults who are poor actually have jobs and are working every day. There are also millions of people in America who are jobless but frantically seeking work, and millions more who are working part-time but would much rather have full-time employment.

Trump has never given any indication that he knows much or cares much about the poor. Early in his campaign he seemed to be strongly against a higher minimum wage, one of the most important weapons in the anti-poverty arsenal. A year ago, on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program, Trump said, “Our taxes are too high, our wages are too high, everything is too high.” And in one of the GOP primary debates, when asked if he would raise the minimum wage, he replied, “I would not do it.”

Since then, Trump has modified his position somewhat, saying variously that he would look at the possibility of a higher minimum wage, that people need more money, and that states should determine whether minimum wage levels should be raised.

It is, of course, always difficult to glean what Trump’s position is on any given policy. His approaches to policy matters are typically incoherent. But there is nothing that he and the rest of his party have said that would signal anything other than a relentless assault on programs that aid lower-income Americans. Paul Ryan has long been trying to undermine Social Security and Medicare—programs that are cherished by his own Republican constituents. Trump has said that he would protect the benefits of both programs, but who knows what he would do when the tax cuts kick in and deficits start to rise.

For those concerned about the well-being of lower-income individuals and families, it’s dismaying to hear how falsely the right has portrayed the state of the economy during the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Congressional Republicans have shamelessly bad-mouthed the economy at every turn, and their goal was not just to win elections. By trashing all things Obama, they have laid the groundwork for their campaign to undo many of the policies and initiatives that have helped so many Americans, including the poor, since the darkest days of the Great Recession.

This false portrayal of the economy was absorbed by an awful lot of voters. As Derek Thompson wrote in The Atlantic magazine:

“More than half of Republicans think that unemployment has increased under Obama. It has in fact fallen from 10% in 2010 to below 5% today. The labor market is in its longest continuous expansion ever, and the last 12 months have been the best period for wage growth this century.”

Memories are short. When Obama took office, the economy was hemorrhaging 700,000 to 800,000 jobs a month. Since 2010, the economy has grown by nearly 200,000 jobs a month. Twenty million more Americans have health insurance coverage as a result of the Affordable Care Act. Hillary Clinton may have lost Michigan in the presidential election, but if not for Obama and a willing Congress, America would have lost the automobile industry. Try to imagine the impact of that on Michigan and the rest of the country.

Sure, there are plenty of people who are still hurting. But the way to address the concerns of those who are struggling is not to demolish the policies that have already helped millions. We should build upon those policies, improve them, and make every effort to expand the economy and raise the living standards of those who continue to struggle.

What is difficult for so many people of goodwill to comprehend is that improving the lives of poor and low-income Americans is not the objective of conservative politicians. The overriding goals of Donald Trump and his allies in Congress are the same as the goals of the conservative movement throughout the modern era: to expand the wealth, status, and power of the privileged few at the expense of everyone else. That’s why big tax cuts for the rich are the top priority.

All of history tells us that the poor will suffer when Donald Trump comes into office. Just trace how the poor have fared under various administrations from, say, the beginning of the 1930s until now. There’s a reason why George H.W. Bush ridiculed his own party’s trickle-down theories as “voodoo economics.”

In contrast, here is what the policies of the Obama Administration have led to, as recently described by Bob Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

“For the first time since 1999, all three key indicators of well-being in the annual Census data moved decisively in the right direction in 2015. The number of uninsured Americans fell by 4 million from 2014 to 2015, on top of a drop of nearly 9 million the year before, with the uninsured rate falling to a historically low 9.1%. The typical household’s income rose by 5.2% or $2,798, after adjusting for inflation, the largest increase on record with data back to 1967. The poverty rate dropped from 14.8% to 13.5%, tying the largest improvement since 1968. Moreover, data to date for 2016 indicate further progress so far this year.”

That was the good news. The bad news is that President-elect Donald Trump and a like-minded Congress are barreling ahead with plans that will undo much, if not most, of that very substantial progress. Unless advocates for the poor in and out of Congress mobilize for a fight like they haven’t seen in decades, an awful lot of poor people will face many long years of extreme—and I do mean extreme—suffering.



The Uncommon Compassion of ‘Moonlight’

Moonlight—Barry Jenkins’s coming-of-age tale about gay black love—is personal.

The film was inspired by In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, a stage piece written—and shelved—a decade ago by playwright and MacArthur “genius” Tarell Alvin McCraney. Moonlight’s storyline divides the life of its main character, Chiron, into three parts: his childhood in the poor Liberty City projects of Miami, Florida; his teenage years balancing his mother’s crack addiction and his peers’ intensifying homophobia; and his early adulthood selling drugs in Atlanta, Georgia.

Audiences can draw a line from McCraney to Chiron in several clear-cut ways: mothers struggling with addiction; dope dealers doubling as father figures; and—given that McCraney, like Chiron, is gay—black queerness. But this narrative also speaks to other gay black men, like me, who can probably see at least a sliver of themselves in Chiron.

In light of the persistent whiteness of major Hollywood films, Moonlight’s incredible blackness and queerness feel almost overwhelmingly refreshing. More often than not, the only options available to black characters involve saving or suffering. Jenkins, however, pulls something about our lives into focus that many audiences don’t really care to understand: the dignity of black bodies, including gay black bodies.

At a time when black lives are silenced more than they’re seen, Chiron’s story carries a potent political urgency. Without moralizing about social misery or giving audiences a reductive takeaway, the film lifts up the fullness of black lives—even if the people living them are poor or dealing drugs or gay.

The film lifts up the fullness of black lives—even if the people living them are poor or dealing drugs or gay.

It is Moonlight’s sensitivity to black life that contributes to its expert handling of pain and healing. Its earliest scenes are set in the 1980s, when the war on drugs was at its most vicious. But the film blasts away myths about poverty, race, sexuality, and how they all intersect. Naomie Harris, for instance, who plays Chiron’s mother Paula, recently told NPR that she was initially skeptical of portraying a crack-addled black woman, due largely to the tropes that beleaguer people of color all too frequently. She found, however, that the movie treats addiction as “a way of coping with pain. We all have pain, but we might be dealing with it in ways that are more socially acceptable.” She continued: “To really play this part, I had to learn to love her and have compassion for her, by really realizing that actually she’s doing the very best that she can with the resources she has at that time.”

One of the film’s many strengths is its nuanced rendering of worlds that Hollywood typically reduces to stereotypes. Take a dinner conversation between a young Chiron, neighborhood drug lord Juan, and Juan’s girlfriend Teresa. After being teased at school, Chiron asks the pair—whom he often runs to in his moments of crisis—a blistering question, delivered simply and sadly: “What’s a faggot?” What unfolds is an ineffably moving meditation on identity. Juan explains that the term, a favorite of Chiron’s tormentors, is used to make gay people feel bad. He also assures the boy that there’s no hurry for him to figure out his feelings; he’ll know when he knows. It’s key that Juan—a drug dealer, a black man, the sort of person films usually flatten onscreen—is the one to nurture this self-knowledge. In marking human potential and staring down homophobia, Juan picks apart expectations of black masculinity.

Jenkins repeatedly loops back to this theme. In the film’s third chapter, we’re introduced to an adult Chiron. Heavily muscled and wearing massive gold fronts, he’s essentially become a cliché of machismo. But it doesn’t last for long, because Kevin—Chiron’s first love and first-love-lost—returns, shaking up pernicious and paper-thin notions of what black sexuality can look like. Or as writer Ta-Nehisi Coates said, the film gives “a softness that black boys are often not given credit for actually possessing.”

It is about empathizing with the concrete stories around us.

Because its characters are whole, complex, and deeply human, there have been delusions that Moonlight is somehow about everyone. But that erases the experiences of its marginalized characters and strips the film of its power. A film can be both great and not about everyone. Moonlight isn’t so much about conjuring up a mythic story about a common humanity as it is about empathizing with the concrete stories around us—or around some other people in some other city, living lives that aren’t like yours, but are as real as yours.

About halfway through the film, teen Chiron has a moment of physical intimacy with Kevin. Immediately afterward, Chiron shrinks back, apologizing. “What have you got to be sorry for?” Kevin asks him.

Moonlight points to a vision—for all the Chirons out there, in particular—where there’s nothing to be sorry for in living one’s own story. And Jenkins, with art and empathy, proves there’s nothing to be sorry for in showing those deeply personal stories.



Workers Don’t Need Trump to Give Them A Voice. They Need Unions.

As this election made clear, a lot of Americans are angry. They feel left behind by the economy, and isolated and unheard in our democracy.  Some of this frustration is understandable—wages have hardly budged in decades, inequality is near record levels, and money dominates our political system (and those who don’t have much of it are usually ignored by politicians).  That’s a recipe for frustration and alienation, and President-elect Donald Trump seized on it.

Trump promised economic security in part by scapegoating people of color and immigrants, and his supporters took the bait. Now we’re facing an administration that will make it exceedingly difficult to protect Americans’ basic rights—especially as its policy prescriptions “to rebuild the working class” prove hollow.

The long-term solution to current political and economic dissatisfaction is to give workers a productive way to advocate for themselves, not reassert race-based class structures. That means it’s time to rebuild unions.

Unions—more than any other organization—give people a real say in the economy and in politics. They help raise wages, reduce inequality, and boost economic mobility.  But even more importantly, unions help people feel their own agency. They provide workers—particularly those with less education and lower incomes—with the means and opportunity to stand up for themselves and participate more fully in our democracy. Union members are much more likely to vote, take political action, join other groups, and be more charitable.

Unions serve as an alternative source of power that workers control—not the government, and not the wealthy. That’s why they’re one of the first things that authoritarian leaders go after.

President-elect Trump has proclaimed that he “loves” so-called “right to work” measures, which weaken unions by cutting their funding and membership. Trump’s victory will likely embolden right-wing opponents of organized labor who see a chance to weaken unions nationwide, just as they recently did in Wisconsin and Michigan.  These reactionary measures will need to be fought with unified progressive support.

Typically, countries seeking to stay on a democratic path strengthen their labor movements. It was true in the aftermath of fascism and World War II in Germany and much of Europe, and more recently in South Africa in the aftermath of apartheid.

Countries seeking to stay on a democratic path strengthen their labor movements

But in the United States, the union membership rate is at its lowest point since 1935.  Polls show that a majority of workers would like to join a union, but our labor protections are so weak that it carries real risk.  For example, if an employer fires a worker for supporting a union (which is still illegal) they aren’t even required to pay fines. The only punishment employers face is back pay for the worker—and even that doesn’t include earnings from other jobs after the worker was fired. It’s such a mild repercussion that it’s a joke among business owners—they refer to it as the cost of their “hunting license.”

Even if the federal government moves against unions, cities and states can still act to strengthen worker power.  They could give workers a formal seat at the table in determining the minimum wage, or assign them a role in setting pay scales across an industry or region.  Cities and states could also actively encourage membership in worker organizations.  For example, jurisdictions could fund worker training that is provided by worker-led organizations, or create new benefits for gig economy workers that worker organizations help manage.  Since states control many elements of corporate law, they could even require corporations to put workers on their boards. That would ensure that they have some input on important decisions, such as whether to offshore a plant.

Now is the moment for progressives to get behind an agenda that rebuilds worker voice and power.  Unions do that in a way no other organization can.



The 2016 Election Exposed Deep-Seated Racism. Where Do We Go From Here?

This wasn’t an election. It was an exposure.

That was a common thread of the 2016 Facing Race conference in Atlanta, Georgia, where more than 2,000 activists, community organizers, and journalists from across the country gathered for two-and-a-half days to talk about racial justice. While many people are still scrambling to make sense of Donald Trump’s win over Hillary Clinton in last Tuesday’s presidential election, for the maligned and marginalized, it’s less tricky to pluck out the heart of the mystery.

“I was stunned that I was stunned,” civil rights scholar Michelle Alexander told the audience. Alexander pointed out how widely entrenched—and ignored—black suffering continues to be in the United States. She catapulted the issue to national attention in 2010 with her book The New Jim Crow, which focused on mass incarceration’s heavy toll on black families. But we see this systemic racism tightly woven into other issues too, including the school-to-prison pipeline, the legacy of redlining, and crumbling infrastructure in cities like Flint, Michigan.

Barack Obama’s presidency offered a glimmer of hope that the country was ready for a long-overdue reckoning with this pain. But last week’s election and its aftermath say the exact opposite: After having had a black man in the White House for seven-plus years, white Americans pulled rank. Or as CNN’s Van Jones put it, the election results were “a white-lash against a changing country.”

Exit polls are hardly perfect, but they can reveal important trends. For instance, more than half—58%—of white voters preferred Trump, while 88% of black voters cast their ballot for Clinton. And perhaps more interestingly, while 94% of black female voters supported Clinton, 53% of white female voters showed a preference for Trump. This isn’t to say that all white voters who decided to get behind Trump did so as a direct statement of racism. But, at the very least, Trump’s murky brew of misogyny and racism wasn’t a deal breaker for a broad range of white voters. That shines a light on a galling indifference to the misery and oppression of others.

So where do we go from here?

Alicia Garza, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, made it clear that group-specific siloes aren’t the answer. It’s tempting for groups already on the social and political fringes to retreat into enclaves to protect our own, but—especially at a time like this—we have to keep a close watch on the overlapping ways in which oppression operates. “We’re all being attacked, and our movement needs a broader front” in order to keep the needle of progress moving, Garza said. Because at the end of the day, whether you’re black or brown, “we’re all going down together.”

There was also a call for progressive white Americans to do more for, and to do better by, their non-white allies.

“I’m done with ally-ship. I’m done with people who allow themselves the distance of ally-ship,” said Roxane Gay, one of the keynote speakers and the bestselling author of Bad Feminist.

White allies ought to walk the walk.

“The people who are calling for healing and reconciliation are well meaning but dangerous, because they’re delusional. They know better. They don’t want to do better,” she added. Gay spoke specifically to what she sees as the performative ally-ship of white progressives. Beyond merely donning solidarity safety pins and parroting Martin Luther King, Jr.—a favorite of many a white progressive—white allies ought to walk the walk. Have those prickly conversations with other white people. Donate money to groups looking to extinguish racism. Stop focusing exclusively on whiteness when talking about post-election anxieties, when people of color are the ones who have been feeling the stab of these anxieties most.

And while white people need to “get their shit together,” Gay said, people of color should have an eye to “infiltrating” what are overwhelmingly white spaces. “We need to think about running for office. Run for city council. Become a member of Congress. Get inside, and suck it up.”

Indeed, Trump’s upset in the presidential race has cracked wide open just how persistent and pervasive American racism has always been. This is a point that many black Americans have been making in the wake of the election. Whenever the United States has seemed to bend toward a more racially inclusive brand of democracy—from Reconstruction to the Civil Rights Movement to the Obama era—what has often followed has been an equal and opposite push to reclaim a whiter status quo. We saw it in Jim Crow, and in Richard Nixon’s anti-civil rights administration in the 1970s, and we’re seeing it now. This is America, being America.

There’s a long fight ahead of us. And as Linda Sarsour, the Advocacy and Civic Engagement Coordinator for the National Network for Arab American Communities, drove home on the final day of the conference, it has to be all hands on deck. Our future may depend on it.

“All we have is each other. Ain’t nobody got time for part-time progressives,” she said. “Everyone has a role to play in the movement.”