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A Liberal Dose

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and cartoonist Ted Rall on reviving liberalism

Pity the poor liberal. Having won most of the major legislative and judicial battles of the 20th century -- from pure-food laws to Roe v. Wade -- and having moved the hearts and minds of Americans toward tolerance and diversity, this bedraggled creature has spent more than a generation on the retreat.

Call him a Democrat, call him a progressive -- by any name, his cause is in rough shape. Republicans, their most conservative wing setting the tone, now control of all three branches of the federal government, most governors' mansions and a growing number of state legislatures. The very word "liberal" is a campaign-trail insult, and the edifice of progressive taxation, social safety net, civil rights and international multilateralism that is the liberal's monument is being demolished before his eyes. The liberal is baffled: These are things he thought people liked.

It's enough to inspire some soul-searching, even calls to action, and this pre-election summer has brought several fresh efforts in book form. One is Robert B. Reich's Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America (Knopf); another is Wake Up...You're Liberal! How We Can Take America Back From the Right (Soft Skull Press), by Ted Rall. The former, by a former secretary of labor under President Clinton, is published in hardback, with rough-cut pages and a stately, block-lettered jacket; the other (notwithstanding the George McGovern foreword) is a paperback spattered with distressed type and ink-blotted drawings by its cartoonist author. But both Reason and Wake Up! sport color schemes of red, white and blue, and both try to explain how American's progressives won the 20th century but lost the past two decades -- and more importantly, how they can regain the country.

Reich and Rall both focus on the Democratic Party's failure to keep fighting, as it once did, for social and economic justice for all Americans. In opinion polls, most Americans profess the liberal values of tolerance, fairness and equality. But whether through a political cowardice that breeds a Clintonian centrism, or thanks to the increasingly corrosive power of money in politics, Dems have lost the allegiance not only of the middle- and working-class "Reagan Democrats" who abandoned the party in the '80s -- even as their own standard of living declined -- but even in some ways that of the working poor, many of whom see no reason to vote.

Reich, 58, contends liberals will win because they've got common sense on their side; what they must do is politely and rationally -- but forcefully -- change the terms of the national political debate. Where radical conservative ("Radcons") sniff at the private morality of the bedroom, liberals should target the public morality of the boardroom -- and the halls of Congress; redefine prosperity not as a fatter gross domestic product, but as a higher quality of life for the greatest number of people, with a stronger social safety net; and re-mold patriotism to emphasize leading by example (and with real international aid) rather than at the point of a gun.

Rall, 42, says that while Democrats do need more populist policies -- a higher minimum wage, grants instead of loans for college tuition -- what they might need more is an image transplant. Bashed by conservatives, liberals need to start bashing back, and start acting like they really give a damn. One of his chapters is titled, "The Case for Dirty Politics."

As he detailed in his memoir Locked in the Cabinet, Reich left the White House after Clinton's first term, disillusioned by his boss' mushy centrism and failure to fix health care or reform welfare in ways that didn't hurt the poor. In 2002 he ran unsuccessfully for governor of Massachusetts. He's a professor at Brandeis University, writes for publications including The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal, and appears regularly as a guest on political talk shows. Rall's political columns and cartoons run in about 60 weekly newspapers around the country (including City Paper)

Linked by conference call, the two authors recently exchanged views about liberalism, globalism, civility and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, whom many liberals dismiss as "Bush Lite."

What is a liberal, and why do so many Americans reject the label?

Robert Reich: Four basic values have described American liberalism for over a century. First, a concern that church and state be separated. Secondly, that concentrated economic power be prevented, so as not to undermine our democracy and create pockets of power and subvert democratic government. Thirdly, that we have a system of social insurance that guards people against the possibility that they may fall on hard times through no fault of their own. That principle has been embodied in Social Security and in unemployment insurance; it needs to be expanded to health care. And finally, liberalism has stood against intolerance globally and for international law and international human rights.

Ted Rall
: The only reason that most Americans don't identify themselves as "liberal" is simply because the word has been smeared. If you look at from the turn of the century, when the industrial revolution needed to be tamed, and child labor was eliminated, the work week was shortened, to the New Deal, which arguably saved the United States from a communist revolution in the '30s by taming capitalism, to increased individual civil rights for African Americans, and women, and then gays, the story of the 20th century is that of liberal values triumphing over conservatives who every step of the way tried to stop them.

So how do conservatives get away with the smear?

Reich: First, they're very well organized and very disciplined. Second, they are very well funded. Third, they dominate talk radio and talk television. Fourth and finally, radical conservatives have turned themselves into a grassroots movement, by creating an alliance between right-wing evangelical Protestants and big business. It's a formidable political movement, and it has grown dramatically over the past two decades.

Liberals tend to be less organized; Democrats are notoriously disorganized. Liberals and Democrats tend to reject or at least be suspicious of authority. And in general, Democrats and liberals tend to focus on single issues, such as the war on Iraq, or the environment, or freedom of reproductive choice, rather than the overall assault on liberal values that's being undertaken by the right.

Ted, you write that liberals are seen as wimps.

Rall: The attitude unfortunately of Democratic leaders and mainline Democrats in the media and on the ground seems to be more self-questioning, less self-assured, at least in public. And I think voters are often looking to "cast" their candidates, in the same way that a casting director casts an actor in a role. Currently, for instance, we see George W. Bush perceived as being a man of strength and personal integrity by much of the electorate, partly because of a performance on 9/11 that never occurred. There's this myth that he was strong and brave, and yet he really hopscotched all over the country that day, hiding. Charitably, you could say that was a good idea. But he wasn't exactly Charles de Gaulle coming into Paris while people were still shooting. And so why do these myths occur? They're repeated by the right with such stridency and self-confidence, through talk radio and all these other venues, that eventually the lie becomes true.

Unfortunately, the left and liberals and the Democratic Party, which are not the same thing but have a lot of intersections, all sort of share this lack of focus, this unwillingness to give back as good as they get. For instance, we're not willing to engage in the kind of insults of names that Republicans do by slurring the name of the Democratic Party by dropping the "ic" and calling it the "Democrat Party," just to irritate us linguistically. We wouldn't do that to the Republican Party. And maybe we should! The other side has made politics so brutal and take-no-prisoners that we have no choice but to engage in that same style of warfare. Otherwise we're just going to continue to suffer defeat.

Is there something attractive about the right, though?

Rall: The right has been able since the Reagan revolution to express a certain kind of political dynamism that the left hasn't. The liberals have won so many battles throughout the 20th century, that by the time Reagan came along, he was able to propose ideas that were little more than unraveling those [earlier] ideas, but he was able to repackage them as revolutionary. He wanted to get rid of the progressive tax code -- it's not new, it's old, but it looks new. People like Ann Coulter, they're packaging themselves as revolutionaries, and it's compelling, because you see liberals on the defensive, constantly trying to defend the old victories of civil rights, and women's rights, the progressive tax code. And these other guys look like they're moving forward. That fits in with something that's very American, that we need to feel like we're doing new things.

There's a lot of discussion lately about civility in public debate. Doesn't the right get a lot of mileage out of being down and dirty?

Reich: We don't need to use Republican smear tactics or character assassination. Those are first cousins to the very kind of intolerance and mindlessness we are trying to fight. I do believe, however, that we need to be more aggressive, have the courage of our convictions, and fight harder. I spend part of my time defending liberal ideas on right-wing radio and television -- yelling programs. I'm certainly willing to raise my voice, and I'm not intimidated. But I'm not going to use their ad hominem attacks and mudslinging. It's not what I believe in, I don't think the public likes it, and I think it demeans what we are trying to say. I don't believe Ted is suggesting that we do that either.

Ted, your book suggests a little mudslinging might help.

Rall: I'm not suggesting the character-assassination stuff. I think it's more about calling these people what they are. Right now, you have an administration that's established a concentration camp in Guantánamo Bay. That's dangerous -- that's right-wing extremism. It's not wrong to ask the question, "Are these guys fascists?" But in terms of attacking people's personal lives, or imputing things to them that they haven't said, or my least-favorite political tactic -- trolling for individual quotes in a speech so they can be taken out of context, which is something that liberals and conservatives both do -- I dislike it intensely.

Speaking of civility, what did you think of Fahrenheit 9/11?

Reich: I think it's very effective propaganda in the best sense of the term. It simplifies reality, but I don't believe it radically distorts reality, except perhaps with regard to the relationship between the Saudis and the Bush family. That seems to me a little bit of guilt by association. I didn't see any evidence that Osama bin Laden was a friend of the Bush administration or in any way protected by the Bush administration. But that aside, I thought the film had a lot of punch. Never underestimate the effectiveness of satire. Rush Limbaugh has perfected the art. Liberals and Democrats often tend to be too sober and somber.

Rall: I didn't think I'd agree with the Secretary about his analysis of Fahrenheit 9/11, but I do. I think I'm the only liberal among my friends who defends the Bushes about the Saudis. I mean, after all, it's the oil business. They're the Saudis. Obviously there's Saudi money in Texas and these guys would have known each other a long time and would have done business together.

It's a powerful film, though. I didn't understand why the policy of detention was omitted; it's the biggest sin the Bush administration has committed, and it was left out. But there's a broader truth there, which is you have an administration that took advantage of the 9/11 attacks to promote a pre-existing domestic and foreign policy agenda that really didn't have anything to do with 9/11, and then didn't really go after the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks and distracted us from the fight, and that there's been a tremendous human cost both in Iraq and here in the United States. That last half of the movie with the mother from Flint [whose son was a soldier killed in Iraq] is devastating. I cried when she collapses in front of the White House. That's the real cost of these policies.

Moving to economics, many liberals oppose NAFTA and other international free-trade agreements. Why do you favor them, Mr. Reich?

Reich: Liberals have always been in favor of internationalism and multilateralism. It's through trade that poorer nations have the opportunity to get richer. If we block their trade with us, they have no capacity to improve their citizens' well being.

Trade doesn't necessarily mean and should not mean a reduction in the standard of living of Americans. Right now the gains of trade are lopsided. They go overwhelmingly to Americans who are in managerial, professional or technical jobs, mostly with college educations. The people who are most hurt by trade and who are not getting the benefits are people who have only high school degrees and used to be in manufacturing jobs. The problem is not trade; the problem is a system that fails to adequately and fairly allocate the benefits of trade, and which doesn't prepare enough of our people for good jobs.

Rall: I don't believe the United States has a moral obligation to be concerned about the living standards of the citizens of other countries. The duty of the United States government is to ensure higher living standards and security for American citizens.

I also think that without a [truly] global economy, free trade is a sort of structurally inherently doomed concept. While capital is extremely mobile -- you can open a sneaker factory in Indonesia -- labor is stationary. If you are an ambitious young man or woman coming out of college, and you read that the highest salaries in the world are in the United Arab Emirates, you cannot just board a plane and go there, because of citizenship requirements. Without open borders, if labor can't be as fluid and mobile as capital, what you're going to have is capital chasing cheap wages all over the world.

Reich: Trade should not be a zero-sum game. The liberal tradition has always viewed international economics as a positive-sum game in which winners outnumber losers. The problem we face is that though America gains from trade overall, the gains are not distributed fairly. If they were distributed fairly, more of our people would support trade and it would be a less contentious political issue.

With the Democratic National Convention upon us, how are John Kerry and John Edwards doing by the standards you lay out in your books?

Rall: I'm very excited about the choice of John Edwards. I was a Howard Dean supporter early on. He was great at mobilizing the younger voters, who the Democrats really need this year. They were really pivotal in '92, and I think they will be this year. But I think that the choice of Edwards goes a long way towards remedying the disappointment that many younger people who I've talked to felt that Dean didn't make it.

I've been waiting to criticize, I've been examining this ticket very closely in this campaign, and I feel that Kerry/Edwards really, honestly, they're doing things right so far. They haven't unveiled too many new policy initiatives. The ones they have on medical care are relatively modest; they're not going to scare off anyone. I think that they're playing that right, because it's still early. What I hear a lot of my Democratic friends say is, "What is John Kerry going to do different? Is he going to pull us out of Iraq?" He can't, probably. Is he going to eliminate the Bush tax cuts? He probably can't and he may be stuck with a Republican Congress. So it might just be [that Kerry offers] a sort of less additional damage, but not really affirmative reasons for hope. And I hope that he has something up his sleeve for that.

Reich: John Kerry is a thoughtful and a progressive leader. John Edwards is deeply concerned, and has already elevated public discussion, about the widening gap between the privileged and everyone else. They are on the right track and will put America on the right track. I believe they're going to win in November!

But that's not the end of the challenge for progressives. In fact the real challenge begins after Election Day. No president and no vice president can accomplish much that's good unless they have a large and well-organized, well-mobilized and highly energized public behind them. Every one of us, everyone reading this paper, everyone who considers themselves a good citizen ought to be building a progressive movement at the grass roots. We need to make sure that President Kerry and Vice President Edwards have that.

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