“There’s Not Very Much Time”: Robert Reich’s Plan to Fix the Democratic Party

The progressive economist outlines his vision for reviving the economy, reinventing the party and resisting Donald Trump.

Joel Bleifuss

On Nov. 5, 2011, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich speaks to Occupy Los Angeles protesters after the Move Your Money March through the downtown financial district. (David McNew / Getty Images) 

One wonders what Bill Clinton thinks of the fact that one of the most relevant political thinkers of the early 21st century is Robert Reich. As secretary of labor, Reich tried to get the Clinton administration to address growing income inequality, but the new Democrats” would have none of it.

Democratic populism is the logical alternative to Trump’s xenophobia and hatefulness. If the Democratic Party has any sense at all, that’s what it will aim toward in the future.

Reich, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, began his career in public service as an attorney in the Ford administration, worked in the Carter administration and served in Clinton’s first term.

A longtime advocate of independent media, in 1990 Reich cofounded The American Prospect, a D.C.-based liberal magazine, and in 2013 narrated the award-winning documentary Inequality for All.

Most recently, Reich stepped up to the political plate with a full-throated endorsement of Bernie Sanders’ candidacy and a clarion call for a radical restructuring of the Democratic Party.

On Feb. 26, 2016, Reich tweeted that the senator from Vermont was “leading a movement to reclaim America for the many, not the few.” Explaining his endorsement at greater length, he wrote:

This extraordinary concentration of income, wealth, and political power at the very top imperils all else. … We have little hope of achieving positive change on any front unless the American people are once again in control.

As for Hillary Clinton, with whom Reich went on a date while an undergraduate at Dartmouth? He wrote that she is a woman for whom he has “the deepest respect and admiration.”

In these times of resistance to the incoming Trump administration and growing dissatisfaction with the Democratic establishment, In These Times spoke with Reich.

What are the most important lessons from the 2016 Democratic presidential primary?

The question is whether the Democratic Party is ready to reinvent itself entirely.

The primary showed that the real enthusiasm and energy in the Democratic Party is in what might be called democratic—small “D”—populism: a determination to make the economy and our democracy work for a vast majority instead of a privileged few. The torch of democratic populism was carried by Bernie Sanders. This is a first cousin to the authoritarian populism that dominates the Republican Party and is exemplified by Donald Trump. Democratic populism is the logical alternative to Trump’s xenophobia and hatefulness. If the Democratic Party has any sense at all, that’s what it will aim toward in the future.

The party is not currently a force for fundamental progressive change. It should be confronting Donald Trump and his hatefulness directly. It should be taking advantage of the enormous energy that was revealed in the Sanders campaign and is now even more broadly based because so many people are determined not to allow Trump to erode what has been accomplished over the past 50 years. But that can’t happen with politics as usual. That means an entirely different kind of organization. It should be an activist organization, a grassroots system for mobilizing and energizing voters between elections.

There’s not very much time. If progressives are going to have the kind of candidates we need going into the primaries for the midterms of 2018, we’ve got to get started.

How do we get good jobs back?

First, we need a reemployment system in the United States. People are losing their jobs and having to settle for jobs that pay less. That’s not because of trade, but because of technological change and the unremitting pressure from Wall Street on companies to show steady growth in profits and share prices.

We must have a system in place that helps people who lose their jobs get new jobs that pay as well as the old jobs—not just unemployment insurance, which goes to a smaller and smaller percentage of jobless Americans, but also wage insurance, relocation insurance and a variety of other measures that provide easy access to good jobs.

Second, we have to get very serious about moving from shareholder capitalism to stakeholder capitalism, in which communities and workers have a say in what companies do. There is no reason in logic or law why corporations should exist solely for the purpose of maximizing shareholder returns.

We have created a financial monster in which Wall Street is effectively running most of American industry, pushing companies to reduce payrolls, replace people with machinery, outsource jobs abroad and fight trade unions—while collecting a big share of savings from Main Street.

It sounds like you’re calling for a new legal framework to rein in that monster.

Yes, we certainly need a new approach to corporations.

What was the most important lesson you took away from your experience as secretary of labor in the Clinton administration?

What I learned most profoundly during those years was that we no longer have countervailing power in this country. Big business, Wall Street and wealthy individuals run our politics, our government and, thereby indirectly, our economy in terms of the rules by which that economy runs. For most of the 20th century organized labor was one of the most important countervailing forces. Other countervailing forces included local and state banks, cooperatives, retailers and small businesses. But now our entire political-economic structure lacks countervailing power, which means most workers have been stuck with stagnant or declining pay adjusted for inflation, and jobs that are less and less secure.

You can come up with great policies and great ideas but they mean nothing without countervailing power. The Democratic Party is nowhere near as bad as the Republican Party in terms of these issues, but the Democrats have too long been drinking at the same campaign trough as the Republicans. The huge populist wave we experienced this year, with Bernie Sanders on one side and Donald Trump on the other, is the logical outcome.

What thinkers do you turn to today?

I continue to read and re-read Thorstein Veblen, John Kenneth Galbraith and some of the great institutional economists of the 20th century and even the 19th century. One of my continuing frustrations is that we have two disciplines, economics and politics, which should be considered two halves of exactly the same system. It’s not possible to understand one without understanding the other, and yet our public intellectuals, and the books and analyses that we are provided, rarely ever expose these deep relationships.

One of our writers has called for a national strike on Inauguration Day. You asked your Facebook friends what they thought of this idea. What do you think of it?

I think it’s a good idea. I worry about demonstrations and “statements” as a substitute for action and organization, but sometimes demonstrations and statements can signal a mobilization that can have a real force and effect over time. If there is a chance that a general strike could catch on with a large cross-section of Americans, getting the attention of the major media and causing the Trump administration to see the extent of the opposition, that would be positive in terms of future organizing to resist Trumpism. But I’m unsure at this point whether it’s possible to get that kind of broad-based participation.

What should be the role of the independent media in covering the Trump administration?

We know from his campaign that Trump distorts the facts—lies. He does what despots through history have done: hold up a picture of reality that is anything but real and cover up what they are really doing. So it is doubly important for the independent media to be a source of fact and careful analysis and truth.

The Trump administration, like Trump himself, will be creating its own media vehicles, such as his tweets and rallies, and trying to intimidate the media, as per his threats to expand libel laws and target the independent press. The only guarantee we have of a democracy is an informed citizenry that knows what Trump and the Republicans are up to. It’s vital for the independent media to investigate what’s happening, to report it and allow people to know the facts.

Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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