Robert Reich's Call to 'Reason'

In his timely book, Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America, Robert Reich calls the forces of darkness who have taken over America "Radcons." That's because the Bush breed of "conservatives" aren't conservatives in the traditional sense at all. They are radical ideologues who are committed to a Darwinian notion of the "reign of the rich" and unbridled corporate greed. Add a slathering of Victorian moral posturing, religious zealotry, and a view of rule by powerful elites.

True democracy is an obstacle to the goals of the Radcons. While pandering to the cultural wars to attract blue collar and church-going voters, the Radcons are deeply suspicious of democracy. Who needs democracy when you can rule by divine will and Supreme Court intervention?

Liberals will win the battle for democracy, Reich argues, if they get off their duffs and fight for it. In many ways, it is a commitment to the democratic process -- and the concept of one person, one vote -- that distinguishes liberals from Radcons, who would rather follow the Neo-Confederacy precedent of suppressing votes from non "Radcons."

"Centrism is bogus," Reich argues. It's up to the Democrats to attract the largest political block in America -- the non-voters -- by defining an agenda that leads the nation, rather than one that tries to mirror the latest poll.

"The big differences in American politics today are between those with courage and those without it, those who can inspire and those who can't ... On the other side is a large group of hard-boiled poll-watchers and ass-kissers who spend most of their time raising money from people and groups with a lot of it."

As you can see, Robert Reich has a lot to say -- and he doesn't mince words.

BuzzFlash: You have a new book out, Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America. Before I ask you a few questions about the book, let's talk about an article you wrote in the April 1 edition of "The American Prospect," in which you outlined the nightmare of a second Bush administration. Can you highlight some of that nightmare for us?

Robert B. Reich: I wish it were simply a nightmare, but I think that any reasonable person watching American politics would come to the conclusion that a second Bush administration would in fact incorporate a more radicalized version of what we've seen in the first administration. The reason is that the constraint would be removed. At least now, they know they have to face an electorate. That restricts their movement somewhat. But those constraints are off if they win a second term.

Their ideological extremism can have -- will have -- a field day. They will be less restrained in terms of going into Syria and Iran, for example -- perhaps even more bellicose with regard to North Korea, another member of the so-called Axis of Evil. Their attack on civil liberties through John Ashcroft's Justice Department and the Patriot Act will be followed by a Patriot II. They've already drafted it. They've already sought passage. It reduces civil liberties to an even greater extent. Their attack on the environment through their new source of emissions policies and the ridiculously entitled Healthy Forest Initiative will certainly be followed by a much broader-based attack on environmental protection in the name of corporate productivity and profitability.

They will seek Supreme Court justices who are intent on reversing Roe v. Wade. They already have in mind several of them. It's likely that Scalia and Thomas -- yes, Thomas -- will form the axis of the court from the center of the new court and will lead that Supreme Court further toward the right than we've seen a Supreme Court in living memory.

Meanwhile, on economic policy, the Bush administration is already planning more tax cuts for the rich. They want to phase out almost all taxes on capital gains. They want to get rid of the estate tax permanently. And they will continue to reduce marginal tax rates on the wealthy. This means that average working Americans will have to pay higher taxes, and it also means a continuation of wild budget deficits that imperil our economic future.

I think it's fair to say that the Evangelical Christian right-wing movement will demand that creationism be taught in our public schools, that stem-cell research be curtailed, that access to abortion counseling and contraceptives be restricted, and that prayer be reestablished as requirement in our public schools.

BuzzFlash: You also mention in that article that the Federal Communications Commission will allow three or four giant media empires, all tightly connected to the Republican Party -- and I'm quoting here -- "to consolidate their ownership over all television and radio broadcasting."

Robert B. Reich: Yes, it's already begun under the Republican FCC, and we are seeing a degree of media concentration we've never seen in this country. The danger, of course, is that we lose our public -- the marketplace of ideas. Even now, that marketplace is dangerously constricted and skewed toward large corporations and the rich.

There is also going to be an effort, already begun by Karl Rove and Tom DeLay, to redistrict states in order to maximize Republican gains and marginalize Democrats. Their goal is no less than to install the Republicans as a permanent majority in the White House and in Congress. In other words, in sum, you ain't seen nothing yet.

BuzzFlash: Getting to your book, you mention something on page 198 which is dear and near to our heart at BuzzFlash. We are constantly amazed at how many Democratic politicians play this defensive game of pin the tail on the donkey of the American public to determine what is perceived by conventional wisdom to be the so-called "center."

Let me quote from the book, because it was so exhilarating to read it expressed: "If you want to be a malleable politician, you campaign from the center. But if you want to be a leader, you define the center. You don't rely on polls to tell you where to go. At best, polls tell you where people are, and it's pointless to lead people to where they already are. The essence of political leadership is focusing the public's attention on the hard issues that most would rather avoid or dismiss. We know the problems that need fixing. Centrism is bogus. There's no well-defined consistent political center in America."

You go on to say, "Meanwhile, the so-called center" -- well, we're adding so-called -- but the one that's defined in conventional wisdom -- and I'm returning to quote -- "and you keep shifting further right...while Democrats keep meeting them halfway." And then you go on and talk about a hallway meeting you had with Dick Morris in the White House, and so forth. Can you elaborate on that more? Because it's always amazed us that in a country that's a democracy, that moves forward, that changes over time, there's this conventional wisdom that there is a permanent center of politics.

Robert B. Reich: It's a major fallacy that has bedeviled the Democratic Party for years. The largest party in America, by the way, is neither the Democrats nor the Republicans. It's the party of non-voters. Half of the public -- the eligible voters -- no longer even go to the polls, largely because they don't see any point. Democrats who want to simply go to the so-called center and respond to opinion polls run the danger of turning off more voters than they appeal to, enlarging the party of non-voters who might otherwise become engaged. You can't inspire people if you are going to be uninspiring. You can't create a political movement out of pabulum. The radical conservatives, to their credit, understand this. Democrats have got to get the message.

BuzzFlash: As you say at the end of Reason -- we may not all call ourselves liberals, but we share the same liberal values. What are those liberal values?

Robert B. Reich: First, the separation of church and state. We do not want to live in a theocracy. We should maintain that barrier and government has no business telling someone what they ought to believe or how they should conduct their private lives. Secondly, liberals are concerned about the concentration of wealth because it almost inevitably leads to a concentration of power that undermines democracy. The current degree of concentrated wealth in America is a direct threat to our well-functioning democracy. We can see it in the symptoms every day, in terms of campaign financial contributions streaming in to mostly the Bush campaign from corporations. We also see the enormous effect that large corporations have, and the enormous power they wield in Washington simply by virtue of their size and economic power. Liberals, thirdly, have always represented opportunity and equality of opportunity, whether it be access to affordable health care, or good education, or a fair chance to get a good job.

The liberal ideal is that everyone should have fair access and fair opportunity. This is not equality of result. It's equality of opportunity. There's a fundamental difference. So condemning the working class and the poor to lousy schools and to a health care system that is increasingly skewed toward the privileged violates these basic tenets of liberalism, as does a tax break that is overwhelmingly benefiting those who are already very rich at a time in our nation's history when the gap between the rich and everyone else is wider than it's been in over a hundred years. And finally, liberals believe in a foreign policy that is multi-national and collaborative, working through the United Nations, NATO and our major allies, seeking to prevent violence and war through spreading middle-class prosperity rather than through the simple assertion of our military might. Our moral authority is as important, if not more important, than our troop strength or our high-tech weapons. We are rapidly losing that moral authority, not only in the Arab world but all over the world.

BuzzFlash: From the polls we've seen, most Americans would agree with you. Is that what you mean when you say most people share liberal values even if they don't consider themselves liberals?

Robert B. Reich: Exactly. The silent majority really is a liberal majority, even though the word liberal has taken a real beating over the last 20 years by radical conservatives. The fact is that most Americans support these basic values. They represent mainstream America. The problem is that the radical conservatives are better organized, have more money, and have monopolized more of the airwaves and broadcast media than liberals. Also, the Democrats have been so weak-kneed and have lacked the courage of their convictions.

BuzzFlash: You use some pretty strong language on page 200. You say the big difference in American politics today is between those with courage and those without it, those who can inspire and those who can't. Among the former, the late Paul Wellstone and John McCain, politicians with deeply held views who are passionate about what they believe. And then you go on to end that paragraph by saying, "On the other side is a large group of hard-boiled poll watchers and ass-kissers who spend most of their time raising money from people and groups of a lot of it." You seem to feel pretty strongly about that.

Robert B. Reich: Well, I do. I speak from experience. I've spent half of my adult life in public office. I have run for elective office. I've spent the other half of my adult life as a student and scholar of the American political and economic system. So I don't use those words carelessly.

BuzzFlash: You have a chapter in here called "Public Morality," and it begins with a very interesting anecdote about an experience you had as a student at Dartmouth. Since it's in your book, we'll just ask you to recount that, because it was absolutely fascinating what you learned.

Robert B. Reich: Well, I was a freshman at a time when the college handbook prohibited what was then called -- quote -- "lewdness and fornication." The case came before the student court of a fellow who, on spring vacation, had fornicated.

BuzzFlash: We should say this is in 1964.

Robert B. Reich: Oh, yes, this is 1964. This is long before the seismic changes that occurred in American sexual morality. No, this was standard. Dartmouth College represented the kind of parental rules that most colleges had. But at this particular instance, as a freshman member of the student court, we had to decide whether this young man who had made it with his girlfriend in Bermuda during spring vacation had violated those college rules, and therefore whether we were going to recommend to the dean that he be expelled. I was a naïve freshman who thought, well, he violated the rules technically, and therefore, he ought to be expelled, and cast the deciding vote. Well, years later, I was appalled to see this same young man, now much older, when we were both visiting the College. The memory deeply embarrassed me. Times had changed dramatically but also my own moral compass had shifted. I asked him what had happened to him when he had been forced to leave college, and he said that he had gone to Vietnam. He had been drafted. Thank God he had not perished there.

I use that example to illustrate the difference between public and private morality. Radical conservatives want to police bedrooms. It's not government's business what people do in their private bedrooms. But public morality is quite distinct. And liberals ought to be sounding the alarm about a breakdown of public morality at the highest reaches of corporate America in terms of the looting of corporations, executive salaries that are preposterously out of proportion to what they ought to be, and also corporate contributions and lobbying, and pollution of American politics. These are the real moral failings today, and they need to be understood as such. There is a crisis of public morality. Instead of policing bedrooms, we ought to be doing a better job policing boardrooms.

BuzzFlash: You came of age over the years between when this student was expelled and then meeting him after he had served in Vietnam.

Robert B. Reich: Well, thank goodness, the country has come a long way from the early 1960s when young people could be expelled from college for private sexual behavior.

BuzzFlash: In Bermuda during spring break.

Robert B. Reich: Yet at the same time, presidents could force young men to serve in an immoral and unjust war. We have come a long way. But there's a danger that we might take for granted how far we've come. Radical conservatives are bent on imposing a very crimped version of morality on the rest of us, while completely ignoring some genuine issues of public morality such as what's happened at the top of American corporations.

BuzzFlash: You preface your book with a couple of quotes, and they are about the title of your book, Reason. One is from Justice Louis Brandeis. "If we would guide by the light of reason, we must let our minds be bold." And then Edward R. Murrow: "We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason." In the early 50s the United States was driven into an age of unreason by Senator Joseph McCarthy. And Edward R. Murrow, of course, played a key role, along with CBS at the time, of exposing the senator and bringing about his downfall, an act of courage we have certainly not seen in the current time in journalism. America has gone through long periods of being seized by unreason. McCarthy certainly was one of those key times, the period before the Vietnam War protest reached full fruition. What makes you think, at this point, America can pull itself out of what you call the rad-con morass that we're in right now?

Robert B. Reich: Well, three things give me hope. First, we do have reason on our side; that is, the progressive left of America has better arguments that are more in line with traditional American principles. But reason obviously is not enough. I'm also led to be hopeful because most Americans -- and I give evidence in the book on this point -- share these liberal values even though they may not call themselves liberals.

Finally, I'm hopeful because George W. Bush has achieved something that has not been achieved at least in 30 years, and that is radicalizing and mobilizing the left in America -- energizing people who, for years, have turned their backs on politics. Many millions of Americans are now beginning to get involved. They see that the stakes are too high. The purpose of writing the book is to provide people with even more of a reason to get involved, to fortify them, and to give them even more courage of their conviction.

This is a time when progressives, liberals, people who share these values, need to become more involved than they have at any time since the Vietnam War. This election may be the most important election since the election of 1932, in terms of setting the agenda for the future. But involvement should not end with the upcoming election in November. Even if John Kerry is elected, we need an active, mobilized, energized and organized left to support him and to encourage him to bring to the nation the kind of leadership on a whole host of issues that the country needs. A president can't do it alone. In many ways, the biggest challenge comes after election day.

BuzzFlash: On page 190, you bring up the issue of populism: "But in the last several decades, liberalism lost its populist roots. It lost the language and passion of populism." Again, democrats seem on the defensive about populism. There is the perennial debate about whether Al Gore was "too populist" in the 2000 election. The Republicans seem to have no problem at all in playing a game of cultural populism and cultural values populism, and accusing the Democrats of populism while playing that game. Why are the Democrats so afraid of appealing to the 99 percent of American people who aren't in the top income bracket?

Robert B. Reich: I don't know frankly. I mean, I hope it's not because too many Democrats have drunk at the same trough of campaign contributions as Republicans and have lost, therefore, their courage and their willingness to stand up for average working people. That's why I am so bent on urging Democrats and urging all of us who share progressive and liberal values to stand up and be counted, and to get more involved in politics.

The populism that Republicans use is an artificial, superficial populism. It's a populism that doesn't really respond to the deep needs of working Americans. In fact, the median wage for workers without college degrees continues to drop, adjusted for inflation, particularly when you consider the erosion -- the steady erosion -- of health benefits.

Republicans want to blame affirmative action. They want to blame women and feminists. They blame immigrants, just like they want to blame the French and Germans and anyone else who was not with us in our war in Iraq. The blame game is a cheap and dangerous form of populism. It doesn't respond to the underlying issues, the underlying problems. It simply channels people's anger toward others. It's divisive. It separates Americans from one another and it separates us from the rest of the world.

The kind of populism that Democrats used to espouse was a populism that focused on the genuine needs of working people for better jobs, for health care, for better education, for better opportunities, and the needs of people around the world for expanded opportunities as well. And that's the kind of populism we need.

BuzzFlash: Let me ask you one closing question. If the Democrats have the courage to lead and to move the country in a direction rather than respond to where they think the country is -- how do they get that message out, given that the media -- such as Fox News and other networks -- tends to mirror the White House line?

Robert B. Reich: Well, never underestimate the intelligence of the American people. Bush's job ratings are plummeting. Most Americans think the country is off track. I think John Kerry has a very good chance of winning this election, even though Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and all of the right-wing media establishment continue to spout the Republican line. The Internet is becoming increasingly important. And it's an alternative way in which many people are getting their news and information. I think populists and progressives of all stripes are beginning to look to the Internet more and more. Once access to the Internet extends to America's broad working class and poor, we may have the condition for a much more robust democracy. In the meantime, we have to simply trust the intelligence and wisdom, and innate fairness, of Americans. Apparently they are beginning to learn how fundamentally incompetent, arrogant and right wing this administration is, and how dangerous it is for our future.

BuzzFlash: Thank you, Robert, for this interview and this wonderful book, Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America.

Robert B. Reich: Well, thank you.

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