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Interview: Ex-Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm on the state of US politics today

The state's first female chief executive sat down with the Buenos Aires Times to discuss media bias, immigration, gun control, the 2016 election and more.

Monday 12 March, 2018
Former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm speaks at a Center for American Progress Event in 2010.
Former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm speaks at a Center for American Progress Event in 2010. Foto:Center for American Progress

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Jennifer Granholm was the first female governor of the state of Michigan, where she served two terms from 2003 to 2011, at the height of the 2008 recession. A Democrat, Granholm also ran a pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC during the 2016 presidential election.

Michigan, the home of the American auto industry, has suffered horribly over the last 50 years due to changes in technology and international trade, such as the implementation of NAFTA (North-American Free-Trade Agreement) in 1994. As governor, Granholm experienced these consequences firsthand, changes that were magnified even further when the financial crisis hit during her second term.

Granholm became a household name in the United States through her prominent involvement in the US government’s response to the crisis, when she demanded federal aid be used to bail out Michigan companies. She returned to the spotlight in 2012, when she gave an impassioned supporting the re-election of then-president Barack Obama at that year’s Democratic Convention, one of the most memorable moments of the event.
 
She is now a professor at the University of California at Berkeley’s school of public policy, where she teaches and studies climate change and clean energy. Granholm is also a contributor to CNN.

Between classes, Granholm spoke exclusively with the Buenos Aires Times on a range of topics, including the fight against climate change, current US posturing on international trade, the partisan gap in the country and progress on gun control.

How are you feeling about the world’s and the United States’ progress in combating climate change right now?
The Paris Agreement is a great thing. Unfortunately, it's not great that we are not a part of it any longer, but I have great hope because there are about 2,500 mayors and governors who have said that, despite the Trump administration's pullout from Paris, we are still in. That means they are still committing to reaching their greenhouse gas and carbon reduction goals. For me, this is a huge opportunity for us to pivot away from the federal government and really empower the state and local governments to do their parts, despite what the Trump administration is doing.
 
The private sector is really leading in this as well. Facebook and Apple, as they are looking for additional sites, including data server sites, are insisting they are powered by 100 percent renewable energy. The combination of both the cities and the governors and the private sector are all moving in this direction means that we have not abandoned Paris, it's just a much more distributed form of achieving those goals.

When do you predict renewable energy will be more economical than fossil fuels? How long will it be until we see that reality?
I see it today. Installed wind [power] today is cheaper than stuff powered by coal or even than natural gas in many cases, the price of natural gas having bumped up a bit. When you think about it, wind is free, the sun is free, it's just a question of how you get the technology in the ground and how you pay for those upfront costs of the turbines or the solar panels. But the cost of solar, the cost of batteries to store energy and the cost of wind has dropped so dramatically in the first decade of this century that today it is cheaper than fossil fuels.

You're going to see that economics, in many cases, will cause this flip to happen, just because it's cheaper. The reason why it hasn't gone below fossil fuels in every case is often because of geographic barriers—maybe there's not enough wind, maybe it's too far removed from the grid. But the bottom line is we're going to get there. I don't know that everything is always going to be powered by 100 percent renewable, that's probably unrealistic, but I think by 2030, maybe 2040, you're going to see a huge leap in energy powered by renewables.
 
Argentina and the United States both have vast untapped natural resources, especially in natural gas. What do you say to those who argue we should take advantage of the resources we’ve already mastered, for economic and security reasons, and worry about renewable energy farther down the line?
In countries and in states that really have access to a great supply of natural gas, in particular, this is a great moment. Great! Let's develop that. But know that you shouldn't be blocking the policies and certainly should not the contiguous development of renewables.

Capitalism is going to dictate that everything will flow to the cheapest option. In the past, natural gas was cheaper than all the other options. That's not the case anymore. The question is really: Who is going to get their technology answer to cause their particular brand of energy to be the cheapest? And I think right now there's so much invested in the private sector in bringing down the price of solar, in removing the soft costs of actually installing the solar, in bringing down the price of materials so you can have huge wind turbines which are much more cost-effective. The technology options for renewables are very vast. For fossil fuels, not so much.
 
I hope Argentina, and other countries, are committed to this renewable future, because that's a huge economic opportunity, too. If you look at the number of jobs right now in the US in solar, it's by far more than in the oil and gas industries. Hopefully, countries see that as an economic opportunity as well.

You’ve been in politics for decades now. Do you believe post-Parkland really is a new moment in the fight for greater gun safety in the US?
I hope we are. The reason this is a bit different is because of this generation. Those kids are Gen Z, and they are such digital natives that they are killing the old, antiquated NRA MO online. They are smart, they are inspiring and they are utterly fearless. And it's that clarity and fearlessness that's different than what we've seen before. Those kids in Sandy Hook couldn't talk, they were just little people. Fort Hood was a military base, [at the church in Sutherland Springs, Texas] there were too few. These kids, they have started something that has caught fire.
 
You're going to see young people saying, ‘Alright you old idiots, move out of the way, we are ready to take the torch. If you can't move then we will.’ And that is so different and inspiring, and hopefully, this is a moment that has really created a tipping point that we will not go back for.
 
You go down all these polls and it's overwhelming how much the real people think. In the past, it's been a question of intensity, and the gun owners were more intense. But I think now even the gun owners want rational change on guns. If it doesn't happen in Congress this time, these young people will have inspired people to run, and maybe this is the one election where young people are going to show up at the polls in proportion to their numbers. Maybe now this is a moment where people see their obligation to save the country from this older generation that has done nothing. So I'm hopeful.

The mainstream media in the US often say the partisan divide is the deepest it’s ever been. Do you agree?
It's worse than ever before, for sure. It's been amplified and stoked by social media and all that, the democratisation of news channels, fake news. I’ve never seen it so siloed and partisan. It's as though people are completely living in parallel universes, and that's damaging. The middle has just disappeared. Everybody has retreated to their own partisan corners. It's just such a shame. Part of it, too, is I just can't understand how people can't see that Donald Trump is a complete embarrassment. My father voted for Donald Trump, and we can't even talk about it. He was a fiscal conservative, didn't even care about social issues. But for whatever reason, watching too much Fox News, getting his social media feed from the Russians, I don't know, it's just amazing how he's moved so far to the right. I'm sure he would say the same thing about me being moved to the left.

How worried are you about the influence Russia had on our election?
In Michigan, Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump by 11,000 votes. The number of votes in Detroit, particularly of African American men, were down into the tank. Detroit turnout was down by something like 40 percent. Uncover all of the social media messaging to Detroiters, particularly African American men, and you find that they were bombarded by several messages by either the Trump campaign or the Russians. One was voter suppression ads, so pictures of Aziz Ansari's head photoshopped, holding a sign saying, 'Text your vote here, avoid the lines.' Of course, you can't do that. Or an African American woman who was holding a sign that said, 'First-time voter? You don't vote on Tuesday, you vote on Wednesday.' Then all of these messages to African American men saying don't vote for Hillary Clinton, vote for Jill Stein. There was this “blacktivist group” that was a Russian paid-for group that was really focused on diverting votes that would've otherwise gone to Hillary to Jill Stein.

The social media streams have got to get their act together. Facebook has to stop this. They are being used in a really nefarious way. And it's happening right now. 

As governor, you focused on protecting the livelihood of workers in Michigan, but you’re also a Democrat. How do you feel about Trump’s posturing when it comes to NAFTA and international trade?
In Michigan, in every community, we have the hulking remains of a factory that stands as a symbol of having seen jobs go to Mexico, China, etc. That's been very real.
 
On NAFTA, we've got to enforce it better. You don’t throw it out, because that would suggest we're afraid of trading. Withdrawal only plays into the hands of Russia and China. All they want us to do is shrink and to be afraid of the world and to cover ourselves. That's great for Russia, they don't have to worry about the strength of NATO or the United Nations. They only want that to happen. And of course China, they're just rising up so fast that we're basically ceding the territory to them if we're saying we're not going to trade. It sounds like we're afraid of it, we're not afraid it and we've got the best products.

We've got to send our products elsewhere, but we've also got to hold our trading partners to the same standards as we abide by ourselves. That means they're abiding by child labour laws, environmental rules, all of that. We've got to make sure that other countries aren't cheating, to have a tiger at the World Trade Organisation and not a pussycat. All of that is very important, and the ratting he's doing about that is actually not a bad thing.

What do you think about the current immigration situation in the United States?
It's a moral issue. A DACA fix has to happen, there has to be a solution to permanent immigration. They've got to lift the cap on the visas, especially the special purpose visas, but they've got to have a rational way of making sure people are able to reunite. All of the things Democrats have been talking about in Congress have to happen, and if they don't happen in this administration it will serve to usher them out more quickly.

So many of the people who are anti-immigrant come from states that have no immigrants, and so there's a huge sense of this fantasy of what it means to have immigrants in your community. The president has only stoked that by highlighting these one-off stories of people who happen to be immigrants who committed a crime.

A lot of times people link immigration to trade because they're afraid of immigrants coming to take people's jobs, it's not so much trade but fear of immigration. Those immigrants are not coming to take good-paying manufacturing jobs, they're coming to pick the vegetables that are in your salads and things like that. So when he says that, that's using the fear of the other as a way of getting an economic agenda through that he wants.
 
Two years later, how are you now thinking about the 2016 presidential election?
I have deep respect for [Hillary Clinton], and I think we'd be in a completely different place if she had prevailed. I've gone through my stages of grief and, while I'm not quite at total acceptance because of all of the Russian manipulation of the election, I'm really focused on the future and not looking in the rearview mirror. I'm encouraged by what is going to be a large number of Democrats who will raise their hand to say I want to save my country. There are going to be some great candidates, so that I'm very excited about.

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