Senator Elizabeth Warren pushed for structural changes to the U.S. government in Wednesday’s presidential debate, saying she would make college free and eliminate private insurance altogether. We speak with Anand Giridharadas, editor-at-large at Time magazine and author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, about Warren’s debate performance and the issues facing the 2020 candidates. He joins a roundtable discussion with Sunrise Movement co-founder Varshini Prakash, She the People founder Aimee Allison and Ana María Archila, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We’re continuing our roundtable discussion about last night’s 2020 presidential debate. This is Elizabeth Warren speaking about her plans to implement Medicare for all and free college, among other programs.
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Who is this economy really working for? It’s doing great for a thinner and thinner slice at the top. It’s doing great for giant drug companies. It’s just not doing great for people who are trying to get a prescription filled. It’s doing great for people who want to invest in private prisons, just not for the African Americans and Latinx whose families are torn apart, whose lives are destroyed and whose communities are ruined. It’s doing great for giant oil companies that want to drill everywhere, just not for the rest of us who are watching climate change bear down upon us.
When you’ve got a government, when you’ve got an economy that does great for those with money and isn’t doing great for everyone else, that is corruption, pure and simple. We need to call it out. We need to attack it head on. And we need to make structural change in our government, in our economy and in our country.
SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: Senator Klobuchar, you’ve called programs like free college something you might do if you were, quote, “a magic genie.” To be blunt, are the government programs and benefits that some of your rivals are offering giving your voters, people, a false sense of what’s actually achievable?
SEN. AMY KLOBUCHAR: Well, first, the economy. We know that not everyone is sharing in this prosperity. And Donald Trump just sits in the White House and gloats about what’s going on, when you have so many people that are having trouble affording college and having trouble affording their premiums. So, I do get concerned about paying for college for rich kids. I do.
But I think my plan is a good one. And my plan would be to, first of all, make community college free and make sure that everyone else besides that top percentile gets help with their education. My own dad and my sister got their first degrees with community college. There’s many paths to success, as well as certifications. Secondly, I’d use Pell Grants. I’d double them, from $6,000 to $12,000 a year, and expand it to the number of families that get covered, to families that make up to $100,000. And then the third thing I would do is make it easier for students to pay off their student loans, because I can tell you this: If billionaires can pay off their yachts, students should be able to pay off their student loans.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Senator Amy Klobuchar responding to NBC moderator Savannah Guthrie. We’re bringing Anand Giridharadas into the discussion, editor-at-large at Time magazine, former correspondent and columnist at The New York Times. His new book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. His recent cover story for Time magazine, “Bernie Sanders Wants to Change America. But He May Have to Change Himself First.”
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Anand, your take on last night’s debate, in particular, this discussion of the economy, and especially how the woman at the center of this debate — right? — 10 candidates, she’s in the midde — Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is far outpolling all of the other candidates, here in this debate?
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: I think it was a two-hour discussion, much of it, about how change is made in America and what kind of change is necessary. And hovering over it, I think, is another question that they are dealing with, sometimes skirting around, which is: Why is Donald Trump president? Is Donald Trump president because of some lark, because he’s a really weird guy who managed to squeeze his way in there? Or is he president because of 30-, 40-year megatrends of this country that left a majority of people feeling mocked by the future, and led to the collapse of institutions that made him possible?
And so, in this race, you have a bunch of people who I think think that, who I think think he’s not the whole disease here, he’s the symptom. He’s the boil on the diseased body politic. And then you have some other people who I think really — like Biden, not in last night’s debate — who emphasize Trump is our problem. So, if you break it down that way, among the — Elizabeth Warren is, you know, with Bernie Sanders, the leader of the camp that says this is a diseased body politic. Right? Trump is what you would expect to erupt if you neglect people for this long.
And so, when you have the exchange that you did, part of it is about incrementalism versus more fundamental change. Right? Do you do free college for everybody or Pell Grants, doubling this, tripling that, the old kind of Democratic Clintonian stuff. But I think another part of it people are not talking about enough is, mapped onto incrementalism versus fundamental change is impossible for people to understand versus easy for people to understand. The reality is, they are competing — one of them is going to compete against the president, who, in my view, is not a good human being and can probably barely read, but is good at simplicity, simple ideas that resonate, that tickle people’s reptile brain. And I think you have a bunch of people here who want to do the right thing for this country, but who I think need to think harder, most of them, about matching the president in that level of elegance and simplicity.
So, when you talk about healthcare, never having to think about healthcare again because it’s just off the table like it is in Britain, is a really simple idea people can understand. Right? It’s as simple as the wall, actually. It’s as compelling an idea as the wall, just good versus bad. Pell Grants, [inaudible], block grants, Medicaid, once you get into that — I think these people don’t know who they’re talking to sometimes. I think they don’t understand that most people are not their staff. Most people do not know what these things are. So I think Warren was particularly commanding, because despite having all those plans and all those things, didn’t actually use those words a lot, used moral language.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Elizabeth Warren on healthcare. Let’s go right now. She and Bill de Blasio were the only ones who raised their hands —
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: — when it came to eliminating private health insurance, calling for Medicare for all.
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: I’m with Bernie on Medicare for all, and let me tell you why. I spent a big chunk of my life studying why families go broke. And one of the number one reasons is the cost of healthcare, medical bills. And that’s not just for people who don’t have insurance. It’s for people who have insurance.
AMY GOODMAN: There you have Elizabeth Warren.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: I have — I’m on Obamacare. My kids are on Obamacare. I can barely understand what it is. The number of times we’ve had problems, because we forget to sign up or — our daughter actually was enrolled, and then she was disenrolled when she was born because we hadn’t sent in her Social Security number, but we actually didn’t do that because she didn’t have one yet, because she hadn’t been born, but you have to enroll before they’re born. So, for a few months, an infant, the most vulnerable moment of their life, like didn’t have coverage maybe, or maybe did. We’re not sure. I am fairly capable, financially and otherwise, of navigating that, and I can barely, barely handle it. And that’s the fix, right?
So, I was just in Britain. I was a student in Britain many years ago, and I got sick and went to the doctor. And, you know, I wasn’t a citizen, didn’t — I mean, I was living there for eight or nine months. And at the end, I was like, “So, how do we settle this up?” And they’re like, you know, “By you walking out.” And, A, that was good because I was a student, so I didn’t have a lot of money, so that was good. B, it wasn’t just a policy. There was an expressive value in that interaction. The society, the whole country, was telling me something in that moment, that it tells its people every day in those moments, which is that “This is on us. Your health, your well-being is on us.”
And I think what’s really interesting, you have, you know, I think, Cory Booker talking in a lot of populist language last night, but then, when you got to each policy, it was like, “Well, but…” You know? And I think there’s been a lot of conventional wisdom in the Democratic Party that the more moderate approach to things gets you more addressable votes, because there’s just more — you know, gets you poaching people on the other side. And I actually think we are seeing a shift in that idea, with Bernie, with Warren, perhaps even with others, of understanding that pure, simple, undiluted ideas, like never think about healthcare again because it’s just taken care of, actually may get you more Republican votes or moderate votes, or just excite your own people more, because, frankly, people are busy. And precisely because of this economy, people are working two or three jobs. People are struggling to take care of their kids. People do not sit around studying what block grants are.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, your piece, I mean, on Bernie Sanders, one of the things that, I mean, Elizabeth Warren ended that last — started the last clip by saying that she’s with Bernie on Medicare. Your piece for Time magazine is “Bernie Sanders Wants to Change America. But He May Have to Change Himself First.” What did you mean by that? He’s going to be in the debate this evening.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: He is. So, I spent eight days on the road with Bernie in April. And it was a fascinating experience, going all over the country, 6,000 miles. And I would say I had two major observations.
The first is, I think Bernie has built a movement. You know, people throw around the word “movement” casually in this country, but Bernie has an actual movement, right? Which is like a group of people who actually do things together, know each other, are willing to fight, put skin in the game. Bernie has that kind of movement, in a way that maybe no one else in American life does. I mean, I think Trump has some kind of mass — like terrifying sort of mass movement of a different kind. But Bernie has a real organized civic movement. And that’s a real accomplishment. I also think he, using that movement, changed the conversation in this country, in a way that, you know, fewer than maybe a dozen people in our history have really changed the conversation. Right? There are just a lot of things we weren’t talking about in the mainstream — maybe this show was talking about, but not the mainstream conversation — that we’re all now talking about.
I think on the other side of the ledger — the piece was not a political horse race piece. It was a piece about character, the person. And one of the things that started to be fascinating to me is: What does it do to a person to fight a lonely 40-year crusade, where in the last two years of that crusade people start to listen to you? What does that do to your soul? Right? If it’s not too early in the morning to talk about the soul. What does it — what does it do to a person?
And I think part of what it has done to him — and this is not just me spitballing. I spent a lot of time talking to his people, on record, more off the record, just understanding the guy. And this is a person who I think saw something and said something about America that was not fashionable to say for a really long time, but, in that process of fighting that lonely fight, has hardened, I think, has closed off, is suspicious, sees all reporters as corporate media out to get him, even though, you know, like a very large number of people in the media — trust me — actually don’t love the billionaires they work for, and are very sympathetic to the broad thesis. You know, someone who loves the people but doesn’t have a lot of place in his life for people. You see last night — you can see the people who actually delight in shaking hands with people, connecting with the fleshy humanity of people. And this is someone who really is averse to human beings when they’re not by the 3,000 in a room.
And so, all of that, to me, left a question mark about — he got himself to an amazing place, but now he’s got, you know, nearly a couple dozen people in this race. Does he have the human skills to actually grow and take this to the next level and connect with the people who are not his diehards?
AMY GOODMAN: What is your sense of that, Ana María Archila?
ANA MARÍA ARCHILA: Well, I feel tremendous gratitude towards Bernie Sanders for the tenacity that he has just lived his life by, and his ability to stay the course, to try to lay out so clearly who the real culprits of so much of our pain are, which is like the biggest corporations and the role that they play in our democracy and in our economy.
At the same time, I have found myself feeling worried about Bernie’s inability to perhaps grasp some of the changes in our political discourse. The ways in which young people, young undocumented people are saying, “Undocumented and unafraid and unapologetic,” what they’re saying really is “I am not going to make excuses for my existence and my life. I expect you and the political leaders in our country to put people first and to not make excuses for a system that has failed.”
So, I want to see Bernie talking about, more boldly, not continuing the criminalization of immigrants, not succumbing to the politics of militarizing the border. And I think he, in the same way that he struggles on race, has struggled on immigration. I still, you know, fundamentally believe that he would hold corporations accountable in a way that almost no other elected official, with the exception of Warren, probably would.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who spoke about LGBTQ rights.
SEN. CORY BOOKER: Look, civil rights is someplace to begin, but in the African-American civil rights community, another place to focus on was to stop the lynching of African Americans. We do not talk enough about trans Americans, especially African-American trans Americans, and the incredibly high rates of murder right now. We don’t talk enough about how many children, about 30% of LGBTQ kids, who do not go to school because of fear. It’s not enough just to be on the Equality Act. I’m an original co-sponsor. We need to have a president that will fight to protect LGBTQ Americans every single day from violence in America.
AMY GOODMAN: That was New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. And by the way, the issue of trans rights, it was the first time it was addressed in a presidential primary debate. Aimee Allison, the significance of this?
AIMEE ALLISON: It was an amazing moment — wasn’t it? — to have both Senator Booker and Julián Castro, who mentioned trans rights in the context of reproductive justice, both acknowledge —
AMY GOODMAN: Saying trans men can have babies.
AIMEE ALLISON: Yeah, that’s right, bringing humanity to a very vulnerable population. And it is a direct result of the amazing organizing happening on the ground for black trans rights.
I think what this means is that in a presidential contest, as we go forward, the acknowledgment of African Americans, in the diversity that it has, shows that Cory Booker is speaking directly to black voters. Just a reminder, black voters are 25% of the Democratic Party. It’s impossible to have a path to victory in this primary without enthusiastic support of black people and black women, in particular. I think elevating trans rights is an indication that, you know, both Senator Booker and Julián Castro are acknowledging the diversity in the community, and they’re speaking broadly to not only just LGBTQ individuals, but recognizing the intersectional nature of the issues. I mean, some of the issues we’ve talked about today — the environment or other — the economy — without putting a racial justice or gender justice lens on these issues, they fall flat. But by bringing out LGBTQ, not as just support gay marriage, but to bring in a racial lens, shows that Senator Booker is both speaking to the base but also showing quite a bit of complexity in his understanding of the issue. I think it was a great moment in American politics.
NERMEEN SHAIKKH: Well, I want to go back to Varshini Prakash on the issue of climate change again. Your response to the fact that the Green New Deal was not mentioned? We have a very brief 30 seconds, please.
VARSHINI PRAKASH: Yeah. I think, you know, it was another disappointing moment. We were hoping that one of the candidates would mention it, and also tonight, considering that tens of thousands of young people have been out calling for a Green New Deal. We’ve had demonstration after demonstration. And that conversation about the Green New Deal is largely what has propelled climate change to top the charts as one of the most important issues on the Democratic side. So, we’ll certainly be looking for that tonight.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you all for being with us, Varshini Prakash, founder of the Sunrise Movement; Ana María Archila, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy; Aimee Allison, joining us from the debate site in Miami, Florida, president of Democracy in Color, founder of She the People; and Anand Giridharadas, editor-in-chief [sic] of Time magazine, his new book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Editor-at-large. I want to be clear: I do not run that magazine. I’m not qualified to run anything.
AMY GOODMAN: At-large.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Of course, tomorrow we’ll cover the second debate. That’s tonight in Miami. And tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us, with Nermeen Shaikh.