A Conversation with Robert Reich
Q: Hey, provocative title. Before we get in too deep, why will liberals win?
A: Because we’re in the majority.
Q: But only 18 percent of Americans define themselves as being “liberal.” That’s hardly a majority.
A: True, but if you look at their responses to key issues–abortion, prayer in the schools, regulation of large corporations, affordable healthcare, education, the importance of working closely with our allies and not waging unilateral war–for example, it turns out most Americans take the liberal side of most arguments. (See Appendix A on page 209 and in press kit).
Q: But if liberals are in the majority, as you suggest, then why are conservative Republicans in control of Congress, most state legislatures, and the presidency?
A: Because liberals are unorganized. There is no liberal progressive movement–as there is a strong conservative one. The Democrats don’t really have a party, just a loose amalgam who get aroused during election time.
Q: Why did you write this book?
A: To reach people who share liberal values, even if they don’t call themselves liberals. People who are alarmed by the radical conservative ascendance, and the one-sidedness and shrillness of public debate, even if they’re not political partisans. I want to give them the courage of their liberal convictions by helping explain those convictions, and why they are so important today. And I want to inspire them to get involved, not just in this election, but in the long term.
Q: Okay, what is “the battle for America” you refer to in the title ?
A: The coming showdown between the “radical conservatives” who are taking over America, and liberals who have very different values.
Q: You’re referring to the upcoming election?
A: It goes beyond this election–to a larger clash of ideas and principles. Radical conservatives–Radcons–have been on the way to taking over this country for two decades–Congress, the Supreme Court, lower federal courts, state and local governments, even school boards. The current administration is the result–not the cause–of this Radcon ascendance. Even when the Bush administration ends, their movement will continue. And unless met head-on by a newly invigorated liberalism–based on reason, common-sense morality, and love of America–it will continue to grow.
Q: Aren’t you just jumping on the bandwagon with a book from the left that’s just as partisan as all those books on the right?
A: No. I use reasoned argument. I don’t demean or demonize the other side.
Q: You call for a “positive patriotism.” What’s that?
A: The Radcon’s negative patriotism is based on contempt for what’s not American. But positive patriotism is based on what we owe one another as members of the same society. We show our love for America by serving our nation, paying taxes in proportion to what we can afford, and helping one another in need. Real patriots don’t shelter their income in Bermuda tax havens, for example, or allow millions of their fellow citizens to go homeless. Positive patriotism also understands that our national security depends as much–if not more–on American leadership and moral authority in the world as on our military might.
Q: You also call for “public morality. “
A: Government has no business policing private sexual behavior. That should be left to a person’s own conscience. But government must guard against abuses of power and trust, such as we’ve seen on Wall Street, in executive suites, and with the corruption of American politics by big money. Radcons want to police bedrooms; we should be better policing board rooms.
Q: You call for “bubble-up” instead of “trickle-down” economics. What do you mean by that?
A: Radcons want to grow the economy by giving tax breaks to the rich, on the assumption they’ll invest their extra money in American factories, equipment, and inventions. But we’re in a global economy now, and the and rich will invest anywhere around the world they can get the best return. The only national “asset” that’s uniquely American is our people–our capacities to be productive because we’re educated and healthy. Instead of giving tax breaks to the rich, we should be investing in all Americans.
Q: How are radical conservatives different from traditional conservatives?
A: Traditional conservatives cared about fiscal responsibility. They wanted to protect and preserve the institutions of government. They didn’t want America to unilaterally attack foreign nations or get bogged down in foreign wars . They didn’t want government interfering in the personal lives of citizens. Radical conservatives are just the opposite in all these respects: They don’t care about deficits. They couldn’t care less about preserving the institutions of government; for them, the ends justify almost any means. They favor military solutions to all sorts of foreign problems–even if America has to go-it-alone. And they want to police our bedrooms, snoop on ordinary Americans, and take away our civil liberties.
Q: Why has “liberal” become a bad word?
A: Radcons have demonized liberals, and sought to portray them as Leftists of the 1960s– advocates of sexual license, drugs, and “blame-America-first” anti-Americanism. But Radcons are conjuring up phantoms. Most sixties’ Lefties are by now middle-aged, middle-class suburbanites who long ago gave up their student radicalism. (Besides, sixties’ Lefties despised liberals back then almost as much as Radcons despise them now.)
Q: How would you define liberalism?
A: They are the ideals at the heart of our American democracy: a separation church and state; equal rights; the protection of civil liberties; the prevention of concentrated wealth and power; equal opportunities for people regardless of family wealth, race, or ethnicity; and building a system of international law.
Q: Why is liberalism needed?
A: More urgently than ever–to stop the abuses of power and unconstrained greed at the highest reaches of America; to police the barrier between church and state; to prevent the nation from becoming a two-tiered society comprising a few who are very rich and a majority who are barely making it; and to unite the world effectively against terrorism and hate.
Q: And why do you think liberals will win this battle?
A: Because most Americans share these mainstream liberal values. Polls show a majority want to ensure that top corporate and Wall Street executives act in the interests of small investors who have entrusted their savings for college and retirement to them. They want money out of politics. They support a progressive system of taxation, good public schools, and social insurance for those who slip and fall in a new economy that’s inherently unstable. Most Americans are in favor of abortion rights, privacy to do what they want in their own bedrooms, civil liberties, and religion separated from public schools. And they want a foreign policy that effectively guards against terrorism by engaging and involving all our major and long-standing allies. They want an America that leads the world because of its moral authority, not one that aspires to control the world through military might.
Q: Is John Kerry a “liberal?”
A: By these standards, he is.
Q: But if most polls show that Americans are liberal–even if they don’t call themselves “liberals”–why do Americans keep electing Radcons?
A: Radcons are better organized than Democrats and liberals. They’re tightly disciplined, they’ve developed dedicated sources of money and legions of ground troops who not only get out the vote, but also spend the time between elections persuading others to join their ranks. They’ve devised frames of reference that are used repeatedly in policy debates (among them: it's your money, tax and spend, political correctness, class warfare). They have a system for recruiting and electing officials nationwide who share the same world view and who will vote accordingly. They have a platoon of talk-show hosts and opinion-makers, with a well-developed system for disseminating their messages. And they’ve developed a coherent ideology uniting evangelical Christians, blue-collar whites in the South and West, and big business–an ideology in which foreign enemies, domestic poverty and crime, and homosexuality all must be met with strict punishment and religious orthodoxy.
Q: Why have the Democrats been so ineffective, by comparison?
A: The Democratic Party has had no analogous movement to animate it. Instead, every four years party loyalists throw themselves behind a presidential candidate who they believe will deliver them from the rising conservative tide. After the election, they go back to whatever they were doing before. Other Democrats have involved themselves in single-issue politics–the environment, campaign finance, the war in Iraq and so on–but these battles have failed to build a political movement. Issues rise and fall, depending on which interests are threatened and when. They can even divide Democrats, as each advocacy group scrambles after the same set of liberal donors and competes for the limited attention of the news media. As a result, Democrats have been undisciplined, intimidated or just plain silent. They have few dedicated sources of money, and almost no ground troops. The religious left is disconnected from the political struggle. One hears few liberal Democratic phrases that are repeated with any regularity. In addition, there is no consistent Democratic world view or ideology. Most Congressional Democrats raise their own money, do their own polls and vote every which way. Democrats have little or no clear identity except by reference to what conservatives say about them.
Q: Isn’t the Democrats’ real problem that it failed to respond to an electorate grown more conservative, upscale and suburban?
A: No. The biggest losses for Democrats since 1980 have not been among suburban voters but among America's giant middle and working classes–especially white workers without four-year college degrees, once part of the old Democratic base. Not incidentally, these are the same people who have lost the most economic ground over the last quarter-century. Democrats could have responded with bold plans on jobs, schools, health care and retirement security. They could have delivered a strong message about the responsibility of corporations to help their employees in all these respects, and of wealthy elites not to corrupt politics with money. More recently, the party could have used the threat of terrorism to inspire the same sort of sacrifice and social solidarity as Democrats did in World War II–including higher taxes on the wealthy to pay for what needs doing. In short, they could have turned themselves into a populist movement to take back democracy from increasingly concentrated wealth and power. But Democrats did none of this. So conservatives eagerly stepped into the void, claiming the populist mantle and blaming liberal elites for what's gone wrong with America.
Q: So, how will liberals win the battle?
A: By creating a political movement. Liberals can win if they revitalize the Democratic Party by mobilizing the religious left, coming up with real solutions to the downward slide of working-class America, organizing women and minorities and the young, and showing how much of America’s growth and prosperity has gone to the top 1 percent, who now control much of America.
Q: And you’re optimistic?
A: Yes. It’s already beginning. Not only do most Americans share liberal values, but liberals have reason on our side, which is more than the Radcons can honestly claim. Winning will also depend on our passion and courage.
Q: Is there any precedent for this in American history?
A: Yes. In 1900, America faced many of the same challenges we face today. As today, vast fortunes were being amassed by a tiny group at the top, but median wages had stopped growing and the poor were getting poorer. Like today, new technologies (then, team engines, railway locomotives, the telephone, steam turbines, electricity) were transforming America, pulling people into large cities and pulling immigrants from abroad. Robber barons and Wall Street magnates were consolidating their empires. The richest 1 percent owned more than the remaining 99 percent put together. Government was effectively up for sale to the highest bidder, and politics had sunk into the swamp of patronage. America also turned imperialistic. As the century closed, America seemed to be turning its back on liberal democratic ideals. But as the new century dawned, the air began to crackle with reform. What happened? Indignation, which had been rising steadily, suddenly exploded and flooded the country. Common morality simply couldn’t abide the way things were going. Average Americans who loved this country, and believed in its basic liberal values, rose up to correct what had gone wrong. It happened then; it will happen again.
Q: By the way, what are you doing these days?
A: When I’m not helping John Kerry get elected, I’m a professor of social and economic policy at Brandeis University. I’m also co-founder and an editor of a liberal political magazine called The American Prospect.
From the Hardcover edition.