Bill Moyers: What Election 2012 Reveals About America and Its Shifting Racial Faultlines
The election is finally over, so what happens next? Reihan Salam, a conservative blogger at National Review Online’s “The Agenda”, and long-time New York Times columnist Bob Herbert join Bill to assess and debate how the election revealed changes in American social and political culture. They also discuss what Obama’s re-election means for working families and people at the bottom of our economic ladder.
“I think this election really did demonstrate that there’s been a dramatic change particularly with regard to social issues and how folks talk about them,” Salam tells Bill. “I think that that has proven very sobering for a lot of folks on the right.” Salam is the co-author, with Ross Douthat, of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.
Herbert says, “I think the Republican Party is accurately defined as a party that looks out for the interests of the very wealthy. The Democratic Party less so, but I think they look out for the interests of the wealthy, too, before they look out for the interests of working Americans.” Herbert has been traveling the country for the past two years, reporting for his forthcoming book Wounded Colossus. He is now a distinguished fellow at the think tank Demos.
Full text of the transcript from the interview below the video:
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BILL MOYERS: It's the weekend after, and Barack Obama is back in the White House, Democrats are back in control of the Senate, and Republicans are back running the House. That's what prevailed before Americans voted, when deadlock reigned in Washington, little got done, and the country was frustrated and angry. Are we in for more of the same? The talk we are hearing in Washington sounds altogether too familiar.
So let's consider what's ahead with two people of different philosophies about what should be done. Bob Herbert was a long time liberal columnist for The New York Times until he retired last year and became a distinguished senior fellow for the national think tank Demos. He's been on the road for months now, reporting for his forthcoming book, Wounded Colossus.
Reihan Salam writes The Agenda – that’s a daily blog for the conservative National Review Online. He is a policy advisor at the think tank Economics 21 and a columnist for Reuters. He is also the co-author with Ross Douthat of the much talked-about book, Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream. ...
Bob, what will you remember about this election?
BOB HERBERT: Well, the first thing I'll remember is the way people turned out to vote in this election in the face of tremendous voter suppression efforts. And I just think they've been really American heroes because they stood up and said, "You are not going to take the vote away from us." Some people stood in line for six, seven and eight hours. Some had been in areas that had been damaged by the storm. And I just think that they were there upholding democracy. So that's the first thing that I remember about it.
BILL MOYERS: They were also there making delicious pecan tarts. Because when I voted the kids in the school were selling baking goods, and they were having a great time of it. What will you remember?
REIHAN SALAM: Oh, that's a tough one to say. I think that for a lot of conservatives and a lot of Republicans this was a very disappointing election that opened a lot of folks’ eyes to some of the deeper changes that have happened in the country, much more so in some respects than the 2008 election which I think a lot of folks wrote off as a one off, as a fluke, something that reflected very unique historical circumstances.
But I think this election really did demonstrate that there's been a dramatic change particularly with regard to social issues and how folks talk about them. So I think that that has proven very sobering already for a lot of folks on the right.
BILL MOYERS: With the exception of the civil rights movement have you ever seen change take place regarding cultural mores and behavior more than it happened with gay people and marriage equality and all of that which seemed to come out positively in this election? Have you ever seen change like this?
BOB HERBERT: Well, I think that what's important to note though is that these changes came about as a result of the gay rights movement which has been very fierce for a long time, and they've not given up. I think that that effort was very similar to the civil rights movement, and the women's movement and that sort of thing.
REIHAN SALAM: I have a somewhat different view. I think that when you look at the history of same sex marriage in particular it's an issue that a lot of folks in the official gay rights movement were skeptical towards. But then you had some folks at the local level in Massachusetts, places like that who really kept pushing the issue even though early on it looked like an issue that was going to be very unpopular and difficult. Yet they kept pushing it. And you've really seen a sea change in the space of really a decade--on this issue.
I'm talking less about gay marriage than about gay rights in general. So over a long period of time you have the gay rights movement so that you now have younger people growing up where it is normal to see gays in, you know, just any aspect of American life. I think the idea of marriage almost flows naturally from that.
REIHAN SALAM: I think that's a fair way to put it. I think that a lot of it-- I often think about this in the context of, when you look at a lot of other social issues or things you could-- for example, think about concerns about drone warfare that some folks on the right and the left have expressed, one of the barriers to that becoming a really big issue is that frankly there are not a lot of Americans who know people who live you know, in the areas most directly impacted by that.
Whereas there are a lot of Americans who have the experience of knowing, you know, a relative, a cousin, a brother, a friend who is lesbian or gay. So I think that that's a big part of the transformation. And it actually speaks to this larger issue of empathy and understanding in a society in which, you know, we live so far apart from each other, we live in such different contexts, we're able to be around people who look like us and think like us, so you know, I think that's one of the deeper barriers behind constructive change in our politics.
BILL MOYERS: Was this election a game changer?
BOB HERBERT: You know, I think that people should be cautious in assessing what may come out of this election. But what does strike me about it are the stark divides. And to me, it's so clear, people have been talking about obviously the racial and ethnic divides, the breakdown of the vote.
But there's also a very strong class divide in this country. And so I think when people are talking about change, what they want is a change in the economic dynamic in this country. So you have the middle class losing ground, you have the ranks of the poor expanding. And the number one issue in all the polls for most Americans is jobs. And people feel that not enough has been done about jobs.
But I don't think that we can get any kind of real healing in this country until we start acknowledging these deep divides. And we keep trying to paper over it. There's the ethnic, racial and ethnic divide and then there's the class divide and we're in trouble if we don't do something about them.
We need to be clear that this is a party that has been hostile to the interests of African Americans and hostile to the interests of Latinos in this country and hostile to the interests of working people in this country.
So you have to begin to address their concerns. And the Republican Party is hostile to their concerns.
REIHAN SALAM: Well, I respectfully disagree with that take. I think that Republicans aren't hostile to the interests of minority voters. But what I do think is fair is that when you look at the folks who voted for Mitt Romney, 88 percent of them were non Hispanic whites.
BILL MOYERS: Non-Hispanic whites.
REIHAN SALAM: Exactly, non-Hispanic whites, and what that implies is that when you're in these conversations among conservatives sometimes when you don't have people from these other groups who can engage in these conversations you miss a great deal.
And that's one reason why there are a lot of conservatives, myself included, who believe that we do have messages, ideas and strategies that would be relevant for achieving economic uplift and much else. But the problem is that when you don't have a more diverse group of people who are part of the conversation, then I think that it makes it very hard to translate that message to folks who are inclined to distrust.
BOB HERBERT: I would say that if you are going to target voters on the basis of the fact that they are African American or the fact that they are Latino and try to prevent them from voting on that basis, voter suppression, that is being hostile to the interests of those groups. And if you start talking about self deportation, that is being hostile to the interests of Latino Americans. So I think that, you know, I think that we really need to be clear about this because unless we understand it we can't begin to heal that wound. And that's a grievous wound in this society.
REIHAN SALAM: Yeah, I mean, I don't see it the same way. I don't see a lot of the efforts to reform voter ID laws and what have you the same way that you do, but I absolutely believe that your perspective is widely shared, and it's an important one. But I think--
BOB HERBERT: But didn't the governor of Pennsylvania say, when they were talking about the voter restrictions in Pennsylvania saying, "This is how we're going to win Pennsylvania for Mitt Romney"?
REIHAN SALAM: Well, no, there was a state senator who said that--
BOB HERBERT: Excuse me, a State Senator.
REIHAN SALAM: --this will allow Mitt Romney to win the election. Now, the implication of that is that the suggestion was that there's such pervasive fraud that he wouldn't be able to win without it. I do not think that is correct. But I think that actually when you parse what he was saying I think that's what he meant. And I think that you're actually illustrating my point in a wonderful way.
There's so much distrust that-- and of course people aren't inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Let's interpret what he said in the most favorable possible light because there is legitimate distrust that is rooted in the fact that these are communities that don't generally talk to each other.
BILL MOYERS: But you know, I brought you together because both of you from different perspectives have been writing about the people at the bottom of our economic ladder. Is anything going to change for those people?
BOB HERBERT: You have nearly 50 million Americans who are officially classified as poor. You have another 50 million who we call the near poor or just a notch or two above the official poverty line. That's almost 100 million Americans, and that's almost a third of the entire population. If you talk about college graduates from about 2005, 2006 up until now, only about 50 percent have full time jobs of any kind and many of them are not jobs that require a college degree. And when college graduates are taking jobs that high school graduates used to have, that pushes the high school graduates out of the work force. And we know what's been happening to dropouts, I mean, they're just almost completely left behind.
We have not paid enough attention to this employment crisis in this country and we have not paid enough attention to the families who are struggling and losing their grip on the dream. I don't think either party has done a decent job in this area. I think the Republican Party is defined, and I think accurately defined as a party that looks out for the interests of the very wealthy. The Democratic Party less so, but I think they look out for the interests of the wealthy, too, before they look out for the interests of working Americans.
REIHAN SALAM: I think that we certainly have had a deep employment crisis since 2008. But I think that to my mind the crisis started much earlier on. I think when you look at the Bush years for example, if you look at the recovery that we had during that period of time, the housing boom I think actually masked some of these deeper problems.
So for example during that era you saw really dramatic losses in manufacturing employment, yet you had employment in housing construction. And so there were a lot of folks who thought, you know, "Gosh, this is something that can sustain people, a lot of these kind of men who are really struggling to get on the economic ladder."
And I think that when that went away we really saw that there was this hollowing out of the middle class, that had been going on for a very long time. And so I think that, you know, the problem is that it's not just this immediate crisis is a huge deal and I would want us to do more about the immediate crisis. But I think that there's a deeper hollowing out. And to my mind a deeper hollowing out is really about something I always like to talk about which is about networks.
When you're talking about human capital, building skills, all of these other things that, you know, we want folks to do in order to thrive in a changing economy, you've got to do that by having relationships, by being embedded in stable communities.
And in my opinion the really big issue is that when you look at mass incarceration, when you look at a lot of other social changes, when you look at family breakdown, I think that these are things that are kind of like an undertow that is shaping what we're seeing happening above the surface. And I think the problem is that policy has a very hard time dealing with some of these things. It can make a big difference on, for example we can throw fewer people in jail and destroy fewer communities and fewer lives that way.
BILL MOYERS: California just to steps to weaken their three strikes and you're out policy. That's a step in the right direction.
REIHAN SALAM: And you also have folks on both sides of the political aisle who are making progress on that.
BILL MOYERS: But in terms of Washington politics it looks to me as if all the blood, sweat and tears of this campaign, all those billions of dollars ended up with the status quo.
The Republican leadership in Washington said the day after the election, "No new revenue, no new taxes."
And many conservative activists are not yielding an inch despite the election results. Let me play for you an excerpt from a video that was put out by one of the leading conservative activists at the Heritage Foundation which is sort of the granddaddy of conservative think tanks.
MIKE NEEDHAM: President Obama’s re-election is a devastating blow. But it’s not a decisive defeat. We are in a war. We’re in a war to save this nation. And abandoning our post will condemn it to a future of managed decline. To win this war we must remain committed to fighting President Obama’s agenda. We’ll work with our friends in Congress to remain true to our conservative principles. In 2014 there will be 20 Senate liberals up for re-election. A strong, constitutionally conservative Senate is critical to this fight. And in 2016, with a deep bench of committed conservatives, let’s choose a nominee who can best articulate our shared conservative values.
RONALD REAGAN: You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. If we lose freedom here there’s no place to escape. This is the last stand on earth.
BILL MOYERS: This is issued the day after the election of 2012. It's a declaration of war to win the election of 2014 and 2016. What does that augur? What does that portend for getting things done?
REIHAN SALAM: Well, I've got to say, I think that after the 2004 election there were a lot of folks on the political left who were very dispirited by the result, and some who were very surprised by the result. And I think that in our-- the way that I see our political process is that we've had some deep and enduring disagreements about a lot of things for centuries.
And our political parties are very flawed vehicles, but they're vehicles for working through these disagreements, sometimes reaching compromises but also making the case for the country. So when you say that we spent that money and got basically the same result, here's what happened. There are a lot of folks who poured their blood, sweat and tears into making that case as vigorously and energetically as they could.
And it's also a learning process, particularly for folks on my side of the fence that, you know, we made that case. And I think there are a lot of ways in which it just didn't translate very well. So for example this whole message at the Republican National Convention of, "You didn't build that," that was the kind of thing that resonated for someone like me. It didn't resonate for either of you guys I imagine.
And my sense is that the problem is that what they were really trying to talk about is the importance of civil society, the importance of that space between government and individuals where characters are formed, where new ventures are started, where we try and experiment and we try-- and I think that that space is really important, it's just that conservatives don't have the right language for talking about it. So I think that--
BILL MOYERS: Well, you think that's the right language, what we just heard?
REIHAN SALAM: Look, I think that what we just heard, you know, I've got to say I'm a lot more sympathetic to it than I imagine other folks are.
BILL MOYERS: I'm sure you are. I mean, you are philosophically a conservative.
REIHAN SALAM: But I think that the message-- look, people have fallen into despair. There are a lot of folks on the political right just as there were folks in the political left the day after Election Day in 2004, and I think that part of this is about keeping people engaged and motivated to keep making the case. Now, I do think that Speaker Boehner did say that he was open to new revenue, it is an open question about how many folks in this caucus will be.
There are a lot of Republicans, Tom Coburn, the rock-ribbed conservative senator from Oklahoma has also been very open about it. So I think that you are seeing some people who are very firmly on the political right who are saying that, "Look, we're willing to give an inch on revenues if we can also make some reforms on the spending side."
BOB HERBERT: I think we're missing the point when we look at the political parties. We should keep our eye on what's happening to working families. And working families have been hurting since at least the 1970s. And they've been hanging on by, you know, one manner or another that is really not fundamental.
The fundamental way families make money is through work and savings and buying a home and accumulating wealth. But what's been happening is that first you had wives and mothers that went into the workforce. Now, ultimately this was a good thing for women to be in the workforce, but it initially started because families did not have enough income.
Then people began maxing out their credit cards, building up incredible amounts of debt. Then there was the housing bubble where people starting using their homes as ATMs for example. And then ultimately came the crash. But they've been hanging on by hook or by crook. And they've been doing this because they haven't been getting a fair wage for a day's work and because there's been a concerted effort to prevent them from organizing and negotiating on their own behalf, primarily through labor unions.
So what has happened is and both parties have collaborated to some degree or another-- both parties collaborated in the, I think, in the demise of the clout of big labor. The Republican Party has been at war with labor and the Democratic Party has not fought strong enough on labor's behalf. And the Republican Party has also fought to keep people from being able to make their case at the ballot box.
So we need to understand that there are these attacks, these sustained attacks on the interests of working people. And those attacks have been working out. I agree wholeheartedly that this jobs crisis did not start with the Great Recession which started in December 2007. It started long before then. And until we look at what's happening with working people and specifically decide what steps we can take to help them, all this chatter about the different political parties is not going to mean much.
I don't think the parties are actually going to ever take the lead in turning this situation around. What I think is very important is for people outside of the political process, for people who are not elected officials to organize working people and organize those who are working on behalf of working people and then to mobilize to bring pressure on public officials and the political parties to actually bring about meaningful change.
REIHAN SALAM: Bob and I have fundamentally different view about the origins of this crisis. I think we do agree that there is a real crisis, that it's been in place for a very long time. My own view is that when you look at the biggest, most important, most crucial sectors of our economy, the health sector and the education sector, these have been the sectors that have been tremendously burdensome for middle income families.
When you think about a middle income life in this country I think you think about some modicum of stability. You think about having health insurance, you think about having access to a decent education. And I think that actually those sectors, our efforts to help, our efforts to subsidize, our efforts to actually introduce regulations and controls in order to, you know, perfect our health and education systems, I think it actually really backfired in lots of ways.
They prevented us from having a lot of the innovation that we need that would drive down costs. And I think you see a similar dynamic in housing. Housing is a domain where you're absolutely right, a lot of Americans have built wealth through accumulating housing wealth. But I think that actually our efforts to improve and perfect the housing market I think really backfired. Now, this is a very deep and fundamental disagreement. But I think that, you know, that's certainly the perspective that I have and a lot of folks on my side of the aisle share.
And I think that it is frankly difficult to reconcile with Bob's view in a lot of ways. Because, you know, we tend to think that experimentation, trial and error and actually more entry and more innovation is actually the way to address some of these problems--
BOB HERBERT: One of the ways to address some of these problems is to have a more equitable sharing of the wealth in this country. So I'll give you just one quick example. In 2010 93 percent of all income gains went to the top one percent of Americans. Now, how is anyone who's in a working class type family, and I use working class in the broadest sense. How are they supposed to begin to make headway if they can't get a bigger share of the advances that are being made over the course of any given year?
REIHAN SALAM: I see that as a byproduct of a broken economic model--
BOB HERBERT: We agree that this model is broken.
REIHAN SALAM: And my own view is that actually a more market-oriented decentralized model that would allow for more entry would actually give people more access to the skills--
BOB HERBERT: But isn't that what we've been doing, this market oriented model? Isn't that what we've been doing, at least since 1980, increasingly market oriented?
REIHAN SALAM: I've got to say I disagree pretty strongly. I think that particularly in the domains of education and health I think that we've seen a dramatic expansion not only of public sector spending but also of regulation which I actually think is a bigger deal. I don't object to spending as such. If you look at societies in northern Europe like Sweden and Denmark, these are societies that are very market, in some ways more free market than the United States.
But the issue is actually the regulation that protects incumbent firms. When you're looking at powerful incumbent firms whether they're public sector firms or private sector firms I think-- I actually agree that they have way too much power. So I actually agree that when I'm looking at elites in our society including financial elites I think that they really have in a lot of ways rigged the system in their own favor. I just think that actually markets are a cure for that rather than the disease.
BILL MOYERS: Let me ask both of you if you think President Obama is going to be able or committed to the changes that you think are important? He's already being pointed in different directions. Here's a story by David Ignatius, a very respected writer for "The Washington Post" saying, "Mr. Obama, take big risks, get it done. A successful second term is less about ideology than results."
This column by William Saletan on Slate who says, "Cheer up, Republicans, you should be happy. You're going to have a moderate Republican president for the next four years. His name is Barack Obama. He's in the same mold," says William Saletan, "As Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and he stands where the GOP used to stand and will be standing once again." Now, if you can see the tensions there that people are reading into and out of Obama.
REIHAN SALAM: I have a quite different perspective from William Saletan. I think that actually President Obama in passing his health law really took a big gamble. Because he really wanted to complete the project that he saw as having been started, some could say 100 years ago, some could say with LBJ with Medicare and Medicaid, it was very important to him. And so even when it was very clear that he was suffering some political consequences he thought, "It is crucial that we complete the welfare state in this way--"
BOB HERBERT: I agree with that.
REIHAN SALAM: "--and continue to build and enhance it." And I also think that frankly the model of the Affordable Care Act is not in my view very sustainable and I think that over time you're likely to see progressives work to introduce new modes of cost containment that are going to involve a somewhat heavier hand from government.
You're going to see for example the reintroduction of the idea of a public option for folks under 65. I think that what you're going to see is a deepening of the progressive project under President Obama who has a tremendous amount of leverage right now. Now, that happens to be something that I don't favor. I don't think that that's the right way for--
BILL MOYERS: Bob does. Bob doesn't think he's going to be progressive enough, right?
BOB HERBERT: That's exactly right.
REIHAN SALAM: Right, and perhaps that’s true from Bob's perspective. I don't think the President Obama's views are identical to Bob's. But I tend to think that--
BOB HERBERT: That's an understatement.
REIHAN SALAM: Yeah, but I do think that Barack Obama--
BILL MOYERS: You've been quite critical of Obama during the first three years.
REIHAN SALAM: But I think that Barack Obama is very much a progressive. I do not think that he's an Eisenhower Republican or a Gerald Ford Republican. I think that he's someone who really does want to deepen a larger social transformation. I'm also somewhat, I also believe that he really does believe in this idea that public investment is what will likely grow the economy.
BOB HERBERT: When I grew up President Obama would have been considered a moderate Republican I suppose. Maybe somebody would have said he's a liberal Republican and I might have taken issue with it. I think that we're, you know, with President Obama we know what we've got. And I expect more of the same. I think that he's going to try and make a deal with the Republicans on this fiscal cliff thing.
And I think it's the wrong way to go. I do not think that austerity and more tax cuts are going to do anything to help working people. I think it's actually going to harm working people. I think it'll end up throwing more people out of work. We should just let the Bush tax cuts expire and we should end the war in Afghanistan and bring those troops home.
And we should start to use the additional money that's available for the investments that will put people back to work. And then ultimately, not in the short term, then ultimately begin to take care of, bring down some of these budget deficits. But I don't think that that's going to happen with the political parties as I said. So I think that it is important right now, immediately, right after the election for folks outside the government to begin to mobilize to put pressure on President Obama and the Democrats not to cave in their negotiations with the Republicans and try to achieve some grand bargain that ultimately is going to hurt working people.
BILL MOYERS: But let me ask you a personal question. As you look at how America has changed over the last 30 years and the elections seem to reinforce those changes and even represent an acceleration of those changes, how do you think about the country right now? What do you think about America?
BOB HERBERT: I think of it on two tracks. On the one hand I grew up in a time when I thought it was the best time possible to grow up in America. Jobs were plentiful, a college education was affordable. And even though there were a great deal of problems we know that blacks and women had to fight against treatment that was hideously unfair and that sort of thing. You had the feeling that the country was moving in the right direction because you had the civil rights movement, you had the women's movement. Later you'd have the environmental and the gay rights movement and so forth.
So it was terrific. And so life in America is much better now generally than it was half a century ago, there's no question about that. But now we're going backwards. On some of these cultural issues we may be going forward, but if you look at what's happening, what the controversy was over women's rights for example and abortion and birth control, and that sort of thing, I just think that the country is in a period of economic decline and it's declining in other ways as well. And so I think that we need, that there should be an urgency in the effort to arrest that decline.
REIHAN SALAM: I see three different Americas. You have one group of folks who have college educations who are forming families and stable relationships, who have folks who can look out for them, beyond the state, who are really flourishing, who are a big part of why America continues to be such a rich country. And they're raising children in those stable households.
You have another group of folks who are at the bottom, who really are very socially isolated. They don't oftentimes have strong connections to each other. And I think that they're badly in need, of economic and also social uplift.
Then you have this group of folks in the middle, folks who have high school diplomas but not a college degree, you saw a lot of folks in these in the Midwest. These are folks who've been really buffeted by economic change. And this is a group of people who are looking more like those folks at the bottom than they are like folks at the top. You're seeing dramatic changes in family formation.
And I think that that's what I worry about the most because that broad middle group is the group that has to be the basis of shared growth and prosperity. And when those folks don't have those social connections they need in order to make investments in their own future, I think that's dangerous for all of us, and I think it's not something we think about enough.