Raw Deal

A small minority of American industrialists never accepted the New Deal. In particular, they viewed our basic retirement insurance program, Social Security, as un-American. The journey of the anti-Social Security agenda from a fringe idea, disparaged by mainstream conservatives, to its modern apotheosis in this year's frightening privatization effort is ably chronicled by columnist Joe Conason in his new book The Raw Deal: How the Bush Republicans Plan to Destroy Social Security and the Legacy of the New Deal.

Conason explains how a few multimillionaires funded far-right think tanks that relentlessly pushed for the abolition of Social Security, cleverly re-branding the effort in terms of "privatization" and then "personal accounts." These ideas migrated from the far-right to the mainstream. Or was the mainstream migrating to the far-right? In any case, we interviewed Conason, whose writing appears regularly in Salon.com and The New York Observer, and who can be heard every Friday from 2 to 3 p.m. on the Al Franken Show on Air America Radio, to shed some light on this and other issues.

Obviously, you conceived of this book when Social Security was under a much more immediate threat than it is right now. Do you think that Social Security privatization will be attempted again, and could you hazard a guess as to when?

The urge to privatize or abolish Social Security is a generational goal of conservatives. It's something that they have wanted to do since the very beginning of the program seventy years ago, and it comes in waves - the first big wave was the Goldwater campaign in 1964, which was defeated, to a degree, on this issue.

The second wave was an attempt when Ronald Reagan became President, and that was defeated because progressives controlled the House of Representatives, led by Tip O'Neil, and stopped any notion of cutting or privatizing Social Security then.

Twenty years later, George W. Bush became President, and the conservatives behind him were, I think, even further to the right than Reagan, were determined to do that during his presidency. Clearly they've had two setbacks - one when the stock market tanked in 2001 after the Social Security Commission had tried to come up with a privatization plan - and now, following the last election, he tried again and it has, so far, failed again. I have no doubt that they will keep after this. The one thing you can say about conservatives, particularly this generation of conservatives, is that they're extremely determined to achieve their goals. They're very self-confident, and they have a strong belief in what they're doing, and they happen to be backed, in this case, by the powers financially. My guess, then, would be that if they maintain control of both houses of Congress next year that they will come back to this within the term.

Clearly there was a mobilization effort around this issue that seemed pretty effective. What would you suggest is the most effective way to try to stop the privatization campaign, should it come around again?

The mobilization that took place last year around this issue was effective because those who might have wavered on this issue, really in either party, have been held to account very specifically by activists. In other words, I'd say if there's a member of Congress in Florida or Pennsylvania who had said, "I think privatization is a good idea" or "I might vote for that," that information was immediately transmitted to a large network of activists who then mobilized people to let that member know that that was an unacceptable position. In my view, it worked. What it meant was that you had a block of members of Congress who were not going to move on that issue.

So if Social Security privatization comes up again the way to prevent it is to flood the wavering congressmen and senators with emails?

Well, other ways too. If they show up at a town meeting, be there. Phone calls, letters to the editor - all of the tactics that were used by progressive organizations, specifically the Campaign for America 's future, AFL-CIO… Rock the Vote was involved, a lot of groups got involved - there was a broad spectrum of tactics that were used to try to make it clear that not only were most people opposed to this idea, but they would not forget a member who would try to do this.

You were a very articulate defender of President Clinton during the impeachment hearings. Now you have conservatives looking very hypocritical saying that perjury isn't really such a big crime. Obviously, you can speak to that, but I'm also wondering if you could speak to the reverse accusation - that you are taking a harder line with Scooter Libby.

There's a difference between thinking that perjury is a serious crime and that President Clinton perjured himself, and that even if President Clinton perjured himself in the Paula Jones case, that that was an offense meriting impeachment. I don't think anyone is calling for President Bush or VP Cheney to be impeached over this matter yet.

Secondly, what is the nature of this perjury - what is it about? President Clinton was tried for perjury in the Senate and found not guilty. So, to me he had to pay a fine, he was disbarred for a period in Arkansas, he did not escape the embarrassment or sanction for lying about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. I don't think he should have escaped sanctions for it - I believed he should have been punished for what he did, but not impeached. If Scooter Libby lied before the grand jury and before the FBI in order to protect a conspiracy to expose Valerie Plame's identity, he should be punished. I don't have the slightest qualms about that. The hypocrisy is completely on the other side where people once told us that no matter how insignificant the underlying reason for the lie is, even if we have a perjury trap and invade someone's private life, that they should answer to the full consequences of that before the law, to now say that perjury and obstruction of justice are not important crimes here - that's absurd! It's hard for me to imagine that they can go on television and say this without laughing.

You talk a lot in the book about how Social Security privatization was an idea that's been hatched and nurtured by right-wing think tanks over the years. What do you see as the major progressive policy shift that we should be pushing?

The most important thing right now is what's called the Apollo project. It's the transition to a different kind of economy. All the benefits that would flow from that, not just for the environment, but for employment, for health - this is what I think is the fundamental project of this generation - weaning ourselves from the petroleum and carbon-based economy and figuring out how we're going to have economic growth and raise standards of living around the world without destroying the planet in the process.

You go on the Al Franken show. Do you think that liberal talk radio is successful thus far, and if not, do you think that there's something about the way it's being done that's causing it to fail? Do you think that a little more anger from the left to mimic the right might be more effective?

Air America, I think, is doing well - it will improve and do better. People should keep in mind that it took a while for Rush Limbaugh to catch on. It took a really long time for Fox News to. I also think the fact that the right is so angry about Air America already…it's a really good sign.

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