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Reflection, Resilience, and the Path Forward: A Conversation with Tom Steyer

Tom Steyer ’79 is an American businessman, activist, and philanthropist who most recently ran for the 2020 Democratic nomination for President. In 2012, Steyer stepped down from Farallon Capital—a hedge fund he founded—to start NextGen America, a non-profit organization focused on youth mobilization for issues such as climate, immigration, healthcare, and inequality. Steyer has since spent much of his time and resources supporting these causes, many of which served as the central focus of his presidential campaign. After ending his White House bid, Steyer has endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden and remains focused on supporting climate action and encouraging young people to vote in the 2020 election. 

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The Politic: In an op-ed you wrote in The New York Times after suspending your campaign, you discussed how your experiences meeting Americans from all walks of life informed your current perspectives. When you think back to your campaign, what story do you think moved you the most?

Steyer: Well I think it is really hard to narrow it down to one story because the point about a story is its specificity. The great thing about the campaign is getting to hear directly from people, how they were living in America in the 21st century.

One of the stories that I will never forget is talking to a group of nurses in Iowa who are union members and employed by the state in mental health hospitals. Their treatment included not getting overtime because the state chose to describe all nurses as teachers and teachers don’t get time and a half, which of course is not fair. They got a raise which the state legislature then took away in order to use the money to build a new airport. They got beaten up on the job because they are not exclusively but predominantly women. The people staying in mental health hospitals sometimes get violent and they could get beaten up. Then they would be fired for not getting back to work fast enough, although they were hurt and medically incapable of coming back to work. 

There was a rule that if they spoke to anyone outside the system about what was going on, including me, that they would be fired. So, in a situation where people were doing some of the most difficult work, in what I thought of as a very idealistic and positive fashion, they were being treated absolutely terribly. I heard that conversation with people with different job descriptions, but that’s a question about jobs obviously: how they’re being treated on the job, how they’re being compensated, and the types of workplace safety and fairness. To me, that was shocking given that they were state employees and unionized.

What kind of influence did hearing these types of stories have on you personally?

Who you see during the day, who you look in the eyes, and who you interact with, really determines what you take in emotionally. I’ve been organizing full-time for seven years before I started my campaign and I had been doing political work before that. The campaign was more concentrated and more intense than the political organizing I had done for NextGen America. So it wasn’t the first time I had seen this, but to me, what you see and what you take in changes statistics. It’s so important to get out and see people across the spectrum of America, particularly the most vulnerable people, to make sure that it’s not a statistic but a human tragedy when something goes wrong. 

There’s that old saying that a million deaths is a statistic while one death is a tragedy. Everyone needs to get out of their milieu, and make sure that they’re meeting people across American society if they want to understand what kind of policies are fair, smart, effective, and just. 

I was doing impeachment town halls before this campaign for a couple of years, and I can’t tell you how many people stood up and said ‘if they repeal the affordable care act, I will die because I cannot afford my meds.’ It’s very different when you hear it face-to-face than from some theoretical construct about the importance of providing pharmaceutical drugs to people who are in need.

When you were on the campaign trail speaking to Americans, one of the issues that you emphasized the most was climate action. You’ve done some incredible advocacy work both through your presidential run and also through organizations like NextGen America. Why exactly has climate change been such a priority for you? What inspired you to commit to this cause?

Our climate plan was deliberately called a justice-based climate plan because a lot of times when people talk about environmental causes, they tend to look at them from a scientific basis. We look at them from a human basis and start with environmental justice. For as long as I’ve been working on this issue politically, I’ve tried to make sure that we start with the communities where it’s unhealthy to breathe the air or drink the water. I believe that if you start with leadership and partnership from those communities, you get the right policy. You do it in a just way, and you build the moral coalition that you need.

The reason that I focused on [climate] is because it is an area that I believe the government is missing, that American society specifically was messing up. It seemed that this [issue] was one that wasn’t getting dealt with. So 12-14 years ago, I started to try and figure out why we weren’t doing it and attack the problem in different ways. I tried to figure out why we were putting the health and safety of every American at risk. 

That risk was going to be disproportionate on the most vulnerable among us and on black and brown communities specifically. It seemed to me to be the broadest area of total failure of American policy and politics with the broadest ramifications—ones with justice at the heart of them. It seemed like something where somebody should be acting, and I’ve tried kind of serially to figure out what the problem was and to attack it in different ways until I realized it was a political problem.

It’s interesting that you bring up how climate change is talked about, and perhaps that it’s not being talked about in the right way. After ending your campaign, upon reflecting on how exactly climate change was talked about, you commented that discussion of foreign policy during debates lacked any mention of climate change.  On October 7, in an interview, you called the trade war with China a “classic mistake,” emphasizing the need for free trade. Given this, how should America reconcile these two issues? How should we be thinking about trade policy going forward with nations who are not taking sufficient steps to address climate change? 

Well it’s funny that you bring that up in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. My point then was that we continued to look at our international relations—our trade relations, our military relations, our diplomatic relations—in the context of a huge defense budget predominantly spent trying to keep open the trade lanes for oil and gas and for making sure that the largest American corporations can compete around the world. In fact, there are other incredibly important subjects to be considered, including climate and pandemics, where we have to be prepared to act together with other countries around the world and to cooperate. I continue to feel that we’re trapped in old and outmoded ways of thinking about our international relations that missed the point about what was going to be most important going forward and that was very stylized and very backward-looking.

I think climate and COVID-19 share the same need to respect experts, respect science, act on science, and act together in cooperation with other countries around the world. To the extent that your foreign policy and trade policy mitigate against any one of those things, puts you in a terrible bind. I think we should take this pandemic as a shot across the bow, I mean an incredibly painful and devastating shot across the bow, about what happens when you’re not forward thinking and when you let your foreign policy and military policy be determined by an attempt to deal with the problems of the past instead of the problems that actually confront us. 

Building on that, what do you think the President and Congress should be doing to respond and lead in this time of crisis, perhaps beyond spending packages?

I think we’re just starting to face the need to start to confront what we do when the health situation is under control. It’s clear that we’re not just going to reopen the economy. We’re not going to go from zero to sixty in a week. It’s just true. There’s going to have to be a gradual reaction, there may be bits and starts, but it is going to go from an across-the-board shelter-in-place to something that gradually moves back towards a more open economy. That’s going to take time. There are going to be a number of steps. There’s going to have to be capability established in testing and tracking, in terms of treatment, and there’s going to have to be ultimately a vaccine. So there’s a series of capabilities that need to be developed for us to move back towards an open economy, and there’s going to have to be a constant oversight knowing that we have never faced this before and therefore there’s going to be some element of concern in making sure that we don’t get too far out over our skis. Also, we cannot afford to keep our economy in total lockdown until we have a vaccine that has gone through all the testing and is 100 percent effective.

So I think that when you look at what the government should be doing, they should be going absolutely as hard as possible to develop that testing capability, to develop that tracking capability, to develop protocols in terms of how we move towards openness and what that really looks like industry by industry, and have awareness that there are going to be citizens who are more vulnerable than others who are going to have to be especially protected. So I think this is going to take attention to detail and foresight, and it’s going to take a lot of work to get this right. 

What we’ve seen so far from the Trump administration has been a failure to do any of those things. They are obviously very, very late. In fact, it’s been at the governor, state, and municipal levels that we’ve seen the leadership in terms of shutting things down, setting up protocols, and even getting personal protective equipment, particularly for people at risk who are frontline healthcare workers. So when we look forward, it may well be that this is not going to be a one-size-fits-all world. In fact, the way that we are going to come out of this is going to be determined differently in different places based on the facts on the ground. It doesn’t look to me as if we’re going to end up with national policy on these things. What’s turned out to be true is overwhelmingly the work that’s been successful has been led on a state-local level by governors around the country, and I suspect that’s going to be true in terms of opening up the economy as well. The federal government will be providing the bulk of the money, but in terms of the policy leadership and the foresight and the trust being built with people in terms of establishing what’s safe and practical, so far that has not come from Washington, D.C. And it wouldn’t surprise me if that continues to be true. 

As we think about the current administration’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, of course this is unfolding in the context of the upcoming general election. In addition to focusing on climate, much of your recent work has been centered around increasing voter turnout, specifically with younger voters. Given that many of these voters feel like Joe Biden represents a sort of traditional ‘establishment’ that has failed them in the past, what do you think needs to be done to unify the party and rally younger voters around Biden?

Democrats need youth turnout. NextGen America, the organization I started, is the largest youth voter mobilization organization in the country. I started it because I thought that having people under the age of 35 turn out was critical for a functioning and representative democracy. I think people have come to the realization that that is true, and in fact Democrats cannot win without them. Period. The end. So the idea is that youth turnout is important, that’s one of the world’s great understatements. It’s more than important. It’s vital and we can’t win without them.

I do think that Vice President Biden is committed to reaching out to young people. We’ve seen it in terms of his more progressive stance on student loan forgiveness. I think he is very much committed on climate in particular but I don’t think people know that yet. I think he will reach out specifically to young people on climate. It is his number one issue and he understands it, he cares about it, and he will prioritize it. In particular, I think he’s very aware that our climate policy was a justice-based climate policy that started with environmental justice because I don’t think you can separate economic, racial, and environmental justice from each other. It’s all one big issue. I think that Vice President Biden knows that in his bones, and he will be very aware and active on that score. I think you’ve seen it in his comments on the disproportionate impact of COVID-19. I think he gets this, and I think that he will understand—and does understand—the need to express what he feels about it. I think that young people are going to realize that we need a different kind of president. We need to restore trust in the presidency itself, in terms of having somebody who is honest, who is competent, and who is compassionate. 

I think they will realize, and I think that it’s up to the Biden campaign and the vice president to reach out and make sure that people can see and feel and understand this, that he is somebody who is those things: honest, competent, and compassionate. And that if he were president right now, there would be fewer people dying. We would have reacted very differently, and I think we would have been in a different situation. This is going to be a campaign that is run in the context of COVID-19, and it’s very clear that much like when I was talking about foreign policy, you need to listen to the experts, act on their advice, accept science, be proactive, and organized. That’s something that the Obama-Biden administration was, and something that a Biden administration will be. 

So yes, there’s a communications task here and there’s a need to make it clear, but I can’t over-emphasize how critical this is. NextGen will be involved for sure; we can’t be on campuses physically because many of those campuses are closed, but we have to make sure we’re doing online grassroots organizing. We’ve always been a huge online presence, but we’ve got to make sure that when it’s 100 percent online, that we get the same interaction and achieve the same goals as when we were allowed to be physically present.

If your efforts to increase voter turnout with NextGen prove successful and Biden prevails in November, could you ever envision yourself fighting for these issues as part of Biden’s government, and if so how?

I have said—and the national press has always been skeptical of this but it’s always been true—that I will do whatever I can do that I think has the best positive impact. And for sure I want to be part of the group of people working to make the kinds of changes that I think are necessary in our society; there’s no question about it. We are in a crisis, obviously, but we’re in multiple crises. And I think what COVID-19 has done is expose a lot of the weaknesses in our society. It exposes weaknesses and it accelerates trends, and so I don’t think there’s any chance that we’re going to go from X situation to a huge health and economic disaster and then go back to where we started from. We’re going to go to a new place, and I think it’s really important that that new place be just, sustainable, and forward-thinking. This crisis is going to reshape American society, and I think we have to make sure that we reshape it in a way that encompasses those three things. I definitely am very interested in working on that. 

I think that this is a pivotal election, for goodness sake, there are generational elections. 1932, 1980—they happen every generation or two. They really reset people’s allegiances, and for sure this is one. You could say this just cements 2016, but I think this is different. We’ve had a chance to see what this Trump administration stands for, and it’s kind of like 1932. There were people who were absolutely dead set against President Roosevelt, and there were people who were absolutely dead set for him. The question is, what are the numbers? And so that’s what this election is going to be about and that’s why the turnout of young people is going to be so important. It makes me even more committed to working between now and November 3. 

I think you can see that President Trump is using COVID as a smokescreen to try and push through all of the political things he wanted before, including easing up on any kind of regulation about pollution, secretly starting the Keystone XL pipeline, and pushing voter suppression around the country, most recently in Wisconsin. He’s using this as a smokescreen to attack a woman’s right to choose and to do all of the things that he’s always wanted to do. And all of sudden it’s going to be under a guise of the importance of COVID. So when I think about November 3, 2020, it’s kind of the bottom line:

Where do we go from here? 

I’m expecting that Americans are going to see it the way I see it and the way Joe Biden sees it, and we’re going to have a sweeping victory of historic proportions to get rid of what I see as a toxic, elitist, unfair, and unjust Republican administration. 

As we begin to wrap up, our editors came up with a bit of a lighter question for you: I’m not sure if you’ve seen the sketches, but you were portrayed by both Will Ferrell and Pete Davidson on Saturday Night Live. Which impression of you did you like better and why?

My brother called me up, I have two older brothers, I’m the youngest of three, and my middle brother called me up after Will Ferrell portrayed me on Saturday Night Live. He said, “Ok, it never gets better than being portrayed by Will Ferrell so just shut up and enjoy it.” So I kind of agree with him. It never gets better than being portrayed by Will Ferrell on Saturday Night Live

Is there anything else you’d like to add or say to someone who will be reading this interview?

This is a tough time. It is a tough time for everybody in the United States. It is differentially tough for the most vulnerable people amongst us who are suffering much more. But it’s also the cliché: it’s a shame to waste a crisis, every crisis is an opportunity. This is our chance, in every way, to rethink the society that we want to be, the people we want to be, and what we stand for. And I believe that is incumbent on every American to participate in this politically. We must make sure that the answer we come back with is something that redresses a framework for American society that started with Ronald Reagan. It is time for us to go back to the ideas of justice and equality that are at the heart of American society, as well as freedom. 

For everybody who’s reading this, and for everybody in the Yale community, this is a crisis we cannot waste. This gives us a chance to undo the mistakes we’ve made. It will expose the injustices in our society, and it’s on us to think in a transformational way about how we want to come out of this, about who we are, and about getting America back on the path of leading the world intellectually and morally. 

That’s our responsibility as a generation, that’s our charge, and I want to participate in that transformation.