Current Affairs

Rhiana Gunn-Wright on Insurgent Left Policy-Making

In an interview originally recorded last year, Rhiana Gunn-Wright explores leftist policy, consensus-building, and when not to sweat the details.

Rhiana Gunn-Wright is currently the Climate Policy Director at the Roosevelt Institute. She previously served as the Green New Deal policy director for New Consensus, a progressive policy shop, and as policy director for Dr. Abdul El-Sayed’s Michigan gubernatorial campaign, and before that as policy analyst for the Detroit Health Department. This interview originally appeared on the Current Affairs podcast, and ran in the print magazine in the May/June 2019 edition, but remains quite relevant today. 

Nathan J. Robinson:

I first encountered your work on the Abdul El-Sayed campaign, where you put together this extraordinary state-level, single-payer plan, called “Michicare.” But—am I right—it’s not quite usual for an insurgent gubernatorial candidate to even have a policy director. Is that right?

Rhian Gunn-Wright:

Yeah, that’s right. It’s not usual for any gubernatorial candidate to usually have a policy director, but Abdul was really serious about it. I think it’s not really a secret—he’s kind of a nerd. And I am too. For him, it was really important to run on a pretty policy-heavy platform. In part, because I think that’s just who he is, and in part because it ensured that no matter what happened in the outcome of the race, that there was always something that we could leave behind, right? Because the goal was obviously, yes, to get him elected, but also to be part of this larger sea change, and talk more about the ways that we really can structure our world, and our economy, and our society, to be more just, and more fair, and better for people. So I think it was really important for him for that reason, and for me, when I came in. I also personally thought of it as an element of credentialing. He is Muslim, he was a first-time candidate, and he had never held elected office. So people needed to know that we were serious, and that we really did know our stuff, and that we were thinking really hard about how to solve the problems in Michigan. So that was also part of the logic, at least on my end, for the kind of policy onslaught that we unleashed.

NJR:

Yeah. Onslaught is right. People should look at these documents. They are still available online. They are really quite extraordinary. You produced a stack of papers on the Abdul agenda. Some of these are 50 pages long. You have an urban agenda, a rural agenda, a water plan, a health plan. I’m missing, like, five of them, right? 

RGW:

Yeah, I think we released 11 agendas. And I can’t remember if that was just the major ones, because we would also drop shorter pieces. We had an auto insurance one, that was a few pages. We had one around municipal internet, which was one of my favorite policies to write, and that was shorter. But yeah, we just kept putting stuff out [laughs]. 

NJR:

I want to talk about your municipal internet plan. Why was that your favorite?

RGW:

MI-FI, it was my favorite…

NJR:

MI as in Michigan?

RGW:

Yeah, M-I-F-I. We were also really into branding, and fun Michigan names [laughs], because you can do a lot with the letters M-I. So that was my favorite, because that was one I wrote entirely on my own. In terms of staff, I had this really great guy named Shaun, who is actually an intellectual property lawyer, who works a lot, and thinks a lot about the internet. So, he keyed us in on municipal internet, and the intricacies, and the legal framework through which you could do something like this. And then I worked on it. And it was just fun, because it was a topic that I didn’t know a ton about. But I was learning more, and thinking about how to make it work as a system, and how you could actually make something like this happen. It’s always nice to realize that there is a possibility for public intervention where private enterprise fails. I always find that heartening, because it just reminds me that we create the worlds that we live in, and that if we built it one way, then you can always build it another way.

NJR:

When I look through these documents you’ve made, it did distinguish the campaign. There are some candidates—there are even presidential candidates who don’t have a policy section on their website, and when you look through what you created here, what I like about it is that it’s so detailed. You could say some of it is wonky and technical, but it kind of shows a degree of respect for voters—

RGW:

Absolutely.

NJR:

—because it says, “Here’s the plan. Scrutinize it, ask questions, criticize if you like, suggest improvements,” but it’s hyper-transparent. Now you work[ed] on the Green New Deal with the New Consensus Project, and…released this document on the Green New Deal, co-written by you and your colleague, Robert Hockett, that explains the basics of the Green New Deal, giving the justification for it and a response to what I think is the big first question about the Green New Deal, which is: Why lump together climate change, poverty, inequality, racial injustice into one package, instead of addressing climate, and having that be one part of your agenda, and having some other part that addresses the other thing. Why put “Green” and “New Deal” together? 

RGW:

Yeah, so this was critique—that’s so funny that you asked about it—that actually brought me back to Twitter. 

NJR:

Oh no, did you get sucked back in? 

RGW:

I did get sucked back in! Because it’s far easier to communicate with a lot of people on Twitter than on Facebook. So I just kept seeing a lot of these arguments about how this is too big because it includes inequity, because we’re trying to deal with justice, it should just focus on climate, why doesn’t it just focus on climate, so on and so forth. And I think there’s a few reasons for that. The first one is that the two are intertwined. We know that the folks who are the most at risk of basically living through the worst effects of climate change are people of color, especially low-income people of color. The second reason is that a lot of the intersections will be expressed in ways that deserve support from a climate plan, but unless they’re included specifically, or you’re taking an intersectional lens, they won’t be. 

So an example of that would be Detroit, which has shed a lot of its population, and now the residents who are left, who don’t have as much money, are stuck trying to pay for the cost of this big, aging system. And you could see something like this happening in say, a coastal community, where as climate change gets worse, the people who can afford to move will move, and the people that will be left there are people who can’t afford to move. And then, what are we going to be talking about it as? We’re going to be talking about it as a municipal finance problem. We’re going to be talking about it in the same way that you talk about it in Detroit.

NJR:

Well, I live in New Orleans, so this is a very highly relevant point here.

RGW:

So the cause could be climate change, but it’s going to appear as a municipal finance problem. It’s going to appear as a city going bankrupt, because their tax base is eroding. And then you add on top of that, they’re going to have to adapt to the effects of climate change, and this goes across the whole nation, with the heavier storms. So, for instance, imagine a city like Detroit, that now desperately needs to make updates to its stormwater system so that it can handle these heavy rains. And so, to me and everyone else who is working on the GND, why not address those together? Because in fact, that is a climate issue, and if you do have things like Medicare for All, where you’re unlinking employment from health insurance, if you are having a jobs guarantee program, that means that people can be mobile. That means that people who are stuck in that community can now move to places where we need them to move, in order for them to do certain types of work. Or, they can stay, and still be earning a living wage, and have that money going back into their communities, and into their tax coffers, so that places have a better chance of actually being able to afford the adaptations that they need, and to support themselves in the midst of the sort of changing climate. That’s one of the reasons. Another is that people don’t experience things as climate change, right? They experience them as economic loss: of a job, of a home, of savings. 

So we need to also be able to communicate what the transition will mean to them, and the benefits for them of transitioning to a green economy, and similarly, personal terms, in terms of jobs, in terms of equity, in terms of reinvestment in their community, because right now, it’s kind of separated. People understand that climate change will cost them something, and that a transition away from fossil fuels, or whatever else, will change the way that they live, but then, we’ll communicate about the benefits in a very national way, or a global way. We talk about emissions going down, we talk about us being able to keep warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius. But that’s not telling anybody what they actually stand to gain for themselves as we transition. So I think it’s also a political move, in the sense that for people to really act on climate change, or to feel empowered to do it, we also have to give them a vision of what their lives will look like after this transition, which we have to communicate in economic terms. 

And then the third reason is simply that a lot of the programs that we need to increase participation and job quality in our economy, to reduce inequity and inequality, are the same programs that you would need to support a green transition. I talked about Medicare for All and jobs guarantee in terms of allowing mobility. But also, it’s that you know that you’re going to have this transition, and you know that if you don’t think about it proactively, in terms of equity, and how it’s going to affect different kinds of people, you are knowingly allowing them to be excluded, because we’ve seen how market mechanisms work. We can’t ask a company who is focused on profit to also be thinking about equity. We can ask them, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll do it. And similarly, we can’t imagine that a government investment, which is going to be layered on top of a system that is inequitable right now, will all of the sudden make it equitable. We saw what happened in the New Deal. We saw what happened in World War II, which was communities of color actively being excluded from the benefits of that. We know that just because the government is going to invest in these new industries, it doesn’t mean that the outcomes will help everyone across the board. To ensure that you’re actually going to redress some of the harms that are going to be done, but also just simply make sure that everyone can benefit from and participate in the green transition, you have to be thinking about equity, or else you’re just planning to fail, leave those people out. I guess I just wish we were  more honest about that—which is that there is no way that you’re going to get equity in a system, and in a society like ours with so many centuries of discrimination and exclusion sort of layered upon each other. You’re not going to all of the sudden get better outcomes without proactively thinking about those things. 

NJR:

Whenever people critique the Green New Deal and say, “Well, it’s short on policy details,” I always think of you, because I always think, “Well, it’s not going to be when Rhiana Gunn-Wright gets through with it, because if you want policy details I can assure you they are coming.” The existing resolution is a statement of goals, but people like you live for the policy details.

RGW:

I know. When people are like, “What about the details?” I’m like, hold on, they’re like, “Are you sure?” I get why you wouldn’t trust me, you don’t know me, but you should know, I love a detail. I have not found a detail yet that I do not love. I talk about service delivery and public goods way more than anyone should. I love details. But I think I’m excited, honestly, as painful as it is, I didn’t think I would ever get to this place. I’m actually glad, right now, that we aren’t talking about prescriptive policy details, because right now we have to get consensus around these goals, and we have to actually listen. This is going to be such a big transformation, and the Green New Deal, even in resolution form—it’s an economy-wide transition, so everyone is going to be affected, so we actually have to take the time to talk to people, to listen to different groups, to hear the debates, to try to build consensus, and then move forward to try to figure out prescriptive policy details from then. Right now, I feel like if we were doing that, if we were coming out with prescriptive policy details, we would essentially be saying we have decided from on high how this should go, we’ll talk to you about it a bit later, but for now try to get on board. And that’s not the model that New Consensus uses, that’s not the policy model that I use. I think it actually shows that we’re being more judicious than less judicious, because racing to have details right now, that’s about nothing but impressing the press, it’s about nothing but trying to appear serious in a game that’s often rigged against you. So why not just take the time, talk to people, try to get folks on board, and have a truly participatory policy design process?

NJR:

That’s such an interesting point that I actually haven’t heard before. You don’t want a group of policy makers, in secret, going off and designing the plan, and going “look, we made the plan.” You [were] part of New Consensus, it’s about building consensus. I mean, the whole process of democracy is asking people what their needs are so that they can contribute.

RGW:

Exactly, it would mean that we went into some sort of secret chamber. Because also, the level of consultation that we need is very different to get without momentum, or without attention. Because then, people want to participate. They want to be part of it because they’ve heard about it, they get the goals, they want to see how they can help you reach them. Or, they want to express their deep concern that you are completely wrong, and an idiot, which is also fine. That’s very difficult to do if you’re not out in the open, talking about the policy, if you don’t have something like the resolution out there. So when people are like “Where are the details?” I say, honestly, since we couldn’t do that consensus-building process, it would be something like you said, we would decide among ourselves, this group of experts, what it would be. We shop it around to a few groups, and then we’re like, here you go. And that’s just not the way that we want to do this. It’s just not.

NJR:

This is what I really like about your work: You are a wonk who knows the detail, but you are not a “technocrat,” who thinks that a small group of people should be in charge of designing the future. And it’s not Rhiana Gunn-Wright’s plan for how to plan out the entire American economy. You are there to help people figure out what is best to do.

RGW:

We say we are here to identify a line, and mobilize expertise to figure out what the next version of the U.S. economy looks like that, and how the Green New Deal facilitates that, and how we reach the goals and the resolution and whatnot. People, and a collective, and really, honestly, listening, and trying to figure it out. And also trying to figure out second-order effects, because that’s the other thing: There are so many things that the Green New Deal will touch, you want to be able to hear from folks from all across the country how these things will affect their community, because I promise you, a group of people could never figure that out on their own, in their own little bubble. But people who are going to experience it are the best at figuring out, at looking at something and being like, that wouldn’t work here for these, these, and these reasons, you would probably see that happen, this might hurt this person, this might hurt this group. That’s really useful information, and too often, in our process, what we do is we say, “oh, we’re going to pass this,” and then the onus is on people who usually have the least power, and the least time to come out and mobilize against it, instead of policy makers trying—this is not a slam on policy makers. Often they have so many competing priorities, and not nearly enough resources, so I 100 percent get why you wouldn’t do a participatory process like this, because it takes a lot of time, and a lot of effort, especially if you have to move quickly. 

But still, the onus shouldn’t be on the people who are going to be hurt to tell you how they’re going to be hurt, after you’ve already started moving. The onus should be placed back on policy makers, whether they’re wonks, whether they’re think tanks, whether they’re in government, wherever they are, to actually go and try to figure out that information first, so that people can focus on their actual lives. At the end of the day, I get paid to do this, this is my job, right? This is my entire job. So, why should I ask you, who has two or three jobs, to come out and come to a protest about Medicaid work requirements, right? That should never have been on the table, because I knew it would hurt you. But I think often there are other times when it’s unintentional or whatnot, but still, the onus is on me and other people who get paid to do this work, to do that job for people, and not expect or ask people to do that on their own, and take time away from their own families, their own obligations, to tell us what we did wrong.

NJR:

Well, I am so excited to see what you’re going to do next, and how your work is going to develop. I recommend people read your Green New Deal document, which explains the basics, and gives the justifications, as well as to the policy documents you produced for the Abdul campaign, which are truly impressive examples of how real world progressive policy-making can occur, and really good models. And Abdul did not win, but you left a really impressive legacy in the form of these proposals. So congratulations to you, and thank you very much for joining me.

RGW:

Of course, thank you, I had a ton of fun.

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