Election 2016

Robert Reich: Don't Panic. Stay Active. Clinton Should Win. But the Aftermath Will Be Very Difficult.

The next president will need to address widening inequality and big money in politics.

Photo Credit: Steven Rosenfeld

Editor's note: Robert Reich has served in three administrations and written 14 books. He takes the long view on the 2016 election. While he trusts that Americans will reject a "madman" like Donald Trump, he has no illusions about the road ahead. AlterNet publisher and executive editor Don Hazen sat down with Reich in his Berkeley office on Friday for a discussion.

Don Hazen: There's tremendous anxiety pulsing through the country, lots of reports of panic attacks. What do you say to address the situation? What should people be doing?

Robert Reich: First of all, there's no better tonic than taking action. I think if people are engaged in this election, if they're making phone calls, getting out to vote, going door to door, even if they're not in swing states, they could still phone bank. That's not only making a positive contribution, but it's also contributing to keeping one's nerves in check.

DH: What do you think is going to happen? 

RR: The odds are still very heavily in favor of Hillary Clinton becoming president. My real concern at this point is Donald Trump's supporters continue to fulminate. Some of them will feel that the election is illegitimate. Trump will continue to fan those flames and that will make it even harder for not just Hillary Clinton to govern, but the entire process of government to move forward.

The most irresponsible possible action that anybody in public life can take is to undermine public confidence in our system of government. If I were not being prudent with my words, I'd say anybody who has the public's ear, who is undermining our democratic system, is acting in a traitorous fashion. I will mind my words, so I will not use the word traitorous.

DH: To accuse anybody individually.

RR: That's right. There's no question that it's going to be a real bad scene after next Tuesday.

DH: You're pretty confident.

RR: I'm relatively confident. Look, these polls, particularly this year, are very difficult to judge, because it's all a matter of turnout, and we don't know who's going to turn out. We know that in terms of early voting it appears that African-American turnout has been less than it was in 2008 and 2012. That shouldn't be a big surprise, because in 2008 and 2012 Barack Obama was on the ballot.

Hillary Clinton faces an enthusiasm gap. I don't know many people who are extremely excited about her candidacy. There are some. I think most people I know are voting for her because they think she has experience, and also because they're scared to death of Donald Trump.

D: In one of your columns you talked about the fact that the Democrats are in denial, and that everybody wants to get back to business as usual.

RR: It's not just Democrats. I think that the establishment Republican Party is also in denial. What we'll see after Tuesday for I think really the next year is an attempt by the establishment Democratic Party, and the establishment Republican Party to pretend that both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were aberrations. That they were kind of just perfect storms. To deny that there has been a fundamental shift in our political culture toward whatever word you want to use, anti-establishment, or populism, or fed-up politics, this is big and it's new.

The Democratic Party is already writing off Bernie Sanders, but Bernie Sanders, when you think about it, was an extraordinary phenomenon: A 74-year-old Jew from Vermont, not even a Democrat most of his life, a self-professed democratic socialist, gets 22 states in the Democratic primaries; something like 47% of the vote. Almost all the young people who voted, voted for him. This certainly signifies something, and it's something important. Donald Trump is an extreme version of something that had been growing in the Republican Party for many years. You look at his intolerance and bigotry and racism. You look at his insistence on huge tax cuts for the wealthy, and assumedly trickle-down results. Donald Trump's nastiness. These all have been hallmarks of Republican politics for many years. He does represent something that is new in the sense of a fierce rejection of the establishment Republican Party.

Both parties are having, and have experienced, civil wars. The Democratic civil war ended up much more peacefully than the Republican one has ended up, but for both parties, the civil war is not over. The Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party is going to continue to be larger and larger, because young people are going to constitute a bigger and bigger segment of the Democratic base. The white, male, angry Republican base is not going away. It's the most activist part of the Republican base. Both parties are going to have to face this.

DH: Is there overlap with the Bernie people and some of the Republic right-wing populists?

RR: There is one area of overlap, and that is both sides are deeply concerned about crony capitalism, as both sides call it. That is the dominance of money in politics, big money, corporate welfare, the favors that big money is able to get. Not only in terms of subsidies and tax breaks, but also changes in the rules that benefit big money, and the ways in which everything from anti-trust laws to bankruptcy, and even intellectual property laws have been bent to accommodate big money.

Not that many months ago I went to visit David Brat, who you may remember beat Eric Cantor in 2014. First time in history that a sitting majority leader of the House has been displaced in a primary. David Brat, whom the Conservative Digest places among the two most conservative members of the house. I went to talk to him about this issue of money in politics, and he sounded exactly like Bernie Sanders.

DH: How do liberals and progressives reach those people? How do we reach the Trump supporters?

RR: That's a good question. To me, the biggest challenge coming up in the future is to get big money out of politics. We're not going to do that simply by reversing Citizens United. That's necessary, but it's not sufficient, because money was already flowing big time into Washington before Citizens United. We've got to get a Supreme Court that is sensitive to these issues. And I think there's reason to believe that the four Democratic appointees, the Supreme Court at least has some sensitivity, because they were in the minority on Citizens United. I don't know how they would vote if a Buckley vs. Valeo came up again, but maybe they would be cognizant of what has happened. Hopefully they will be.

My point is that we can't only rely on the Supreme Court. We've also got to pass laws that constrain big money in politics, and that requires a very loud coalition of the part of the anti-establishment left, and the part of the anti-establishment right, where there is overlap on this issue. I think it's possible when the dust settles on this immediate election, to create such a coalition.

DH: How do we address the bubbling up of anti-immigrant sentiment, racism, misogyny, the coarseness that's come out in this election? The idea that, for example, Trump is ahead by 30 percent among white, non-college-educated women who seem to tolerate or are willing to accept a lot of things that progressives find really appalling.

RR: Racism and other forms of intolerance have been in America forever. What's new is the permission granted by Donald Trump to express all of it. Plus, the desperate economic straits of a lot of people that have made them ripe for this kind of message. We're not going to eradicate racism and bigotry in America. We can reduce the conditions that give rise to it. I'm talking about the downward economic escalator that so much of the white middle class has been on, and the working class have been on for the last 35 years. That has got to be a huge goal of the next administration, and I think also in the country as a whole.

I wrote a book seven years ago called Aftershock, in which I attempted to explain not only the Great Recession by reference to what happened in the Great Depression, and in the years before each, but also projected forward that we would not really see our economy get out of the Great Recession in terms of wage stagnation. That that [consequence] would create breeding grounds for a demagogue to come along.

DH: You were prescient about what’s happening now.

RR: Unfortunately, I was prescient. I wish I hadn't been, but demagoguery is the handmaiden of economic stress, and we know it historically, and we've got to reduce those stresses.

DH: Hillary Clinton talks a lot about her version of a 21st-century New Deal. Would her proposals, for infrastructure and a new energy system, be enough of a game-changer with the economy?

RR: No, my suspicion is that what she's going to try to do, and what the Democratic leadership will try to do, is make a deal with Republicans to dramatically reduce taxes on repatriated corporate earnings, profits, stored abroad. As long as some of that repatriated money goes into an infrastructure bank that can thereby be drawn upon for this wide variety of infrastructure projects. Because the scale of what she's talking about now in the budget is not big enough. It's $50 billion a year, $250 billion over five years. I agree with you that the scope is certainly impressive, but the scale financially is not big enough.

DH: We’re back to what can we expect after Election Day.

RR: I think all of our expectations should be held in check. I think that Paul Ryan is going to be the last Republican standing, and he is going to be under a lot of pressure from House Republicans to do crazy things like impeach Hilary Clinton. The wiggle room that both of them have is going to be very narrow, domestically. 

We're talking domestic policy right now, and the question is what kind of deals will the Republican House be willing to make. I offered a possibility just now. I don't think it's a good idea, by the way, and that is using repatriated, the idea that lower tax, a tax holiday on repatriated earnings, such as we had in 2004, but with the added wrinkle that those earnings have got to be put into an infrastructure bank. I've heard Republicans talk about that in a positive light, so that may be one area. It's hard to come up with too many other areas. Can we broaden and widen the current income tax credit? Maybe, but that's going to cost a great deal of money.

What would a Clinton administration be willing to give up in terms of budget, particularly entitlements in exchange. Paul Ryan has had his eye on the big entitlement programs, Social Security and Medicare for many years. Barack Obama almost made a deal with regard to chained CPI. I think that would have been a miserable deal, but that may be something that she starts looking at.

DH: You recently wrote about the fact that 82 percent of the population think we're on the wrong track, 56 percent want sweeping change. Is that all because of economics? Is there some progress if inequality shrinks?

RR: It's not going to shrink on its own, Don. Even the relatively good economic news we've had recently is not showing any change in that long-term structural problem of widening inequality and stagnant wages. Wages are going up a little bit, but the typical family is still worse off adjusting for inflation than it was in the year 2000. Most people have not seen increases in their earnings, relative to what those earnings were 30 years ago. We also have this diabolical problem of labor participation that is shrinking. Even today, the latest jobs report showed that the number of people who are of working age and in the labor market continues to shrink. We're now down to about 62 percent. That bodes ill for the bottom 60 percent of the population.

That again is going to be a political morass if we don't tackle it directly. I think there are two big, closely related challenges that Hillary Clinton will have to take on, assuming she's the president, and God forbid if Donald Trump is the president he will have to take on, although I doubt he will. One is big money and politics, and the other is widening inequality. Both of them are closely related, because the big money in politics is coming from the fact that you've got so much income and wealth at the top. Both of them are generating deep cynicism about the capacity of our system to function.

That cynicism, unfortunately is well founded. When people talk about the rigged system, it is rigged. It's not rigged because there are villains out there. It's rigged because everybody is maximizing their own self-interest, politically as well as economically. Widening inequality in a rigged system means more rigging.

DH: This is where some people start clamoring for a third party...

RR: We are in an election. We have two major party candidates, and a third party now at this point has no chance. We're whistling in the wind. If we're talking a third-party candidate, a lot of work has to be done. There's no third party candidate since the second World War that's got any electoral votes, except George Wallace, and that was because he was a regional third-party candidate.

DH: And a racist on top of that.

RR: Ross Perot in 1992 got no electoral votes. In a winner-take-all system such as we have, the only way a third party has any chance is if there is a fundamental breakdown in the dominant two parties. It could be argued that both of those dominant parties are now in the process of breaking down, so that if there is a chance for a third party, it's an anti-establishment, populist third party that incorporates let's say the best of Trump's authoritarian populism and Bernie Sander's progressive populism. Is that conceivable?

If we continue to go in the direction we're going, and there's no change in terms of inequality widening, and big money taking over our politics, and people feeling as frustrated and angry about politics, with good reason as they now feel, then we might see the conditions very ripe for such a third party.

DH: Ok will that will have to be a topic for another day. Right now, people are panicking about the prospect of a Trump presidency and Republican Congress.

RR:  I completely understand the panic, because I don't remember a time when we were this close to have a madman be president. Even if there is a one-in-three chance, or a one-in-four chance, that is enough to get a lot of people spooked. I keep telling myself that the American public is basically sensible, always has been. There have been a number of occasions in our history when capitalism got off track, and our democracy seemed to be getting off track, and we pulled it back on, both of them. I think there is room not to panic, but there's room for concern. A reasonable person would be concerned right now.

DH: That goes back to your 2004 book, Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America. You still believe that? I know you're an optimist, but we're not doing so well at this moment in history.

RR: I disagree with you. If somebody had told me in 2004 that a black man was going to be president, that a social democrat was going to almost win the Democratic primary of 2016, that gay people could marry all over the country. I would have said you're smoking something.

Let's have a sense of how much has been accomplished. Bernie Sanders' victory is significant, and it's not about Bernie Sanders. I think if Elizabeth Warren had run she would have had remarkable response from America. I spend all my days, or most of my days around people between the ages of 18 and 26, not just here at Berkeley, but I visit at the University of Chicago, and at various other places around the country, and I've never seen a generation this progressive and activist, since the '60s.

DH: That is true. One hopes that they will be voting.

RR: Yes, and the big enemy is cynicism, and cynicism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If people become too cynical about the system, then basically the monied interests are going to take it all. That's a concern, but young people are not cynical. The reason young people generally don't vote is they have a lot on their minds, and if they aren't inspired they don't vote.

DH: Let's hope they have more inspiration in the future. Thank you.

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.

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