Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Ezra Klein, Robert Reich, and Theda Skocpol

Ezra Klein
Ezra Klein, founder of Vox.com & now podcaster
Ezra Klein of vox.com has launched a podcast featuring interviews a variety of guests, and I've listened to two interviews so far, Robert Reich and Theda Skocpol. I recommend both, and based on these samples, others will likely prove worth listening to. And since these two interviews proved informative and provocative, they merit some comments.

Robert Reich: progressive, Sanders supporter, Clinton knower
Robert Reich served as Secretary of Labor during Bill Clinton's first administration. For this, he is perhaps best known. During the podcast, I learned that he went on a date with Hillary Clinton (she at Wellesley, him at Dartmouth), he worked for Robert Bork (Yale Law connection), and he was friends with John Kenneth Galbraith. Each point merits some further consideration. As for Galbraith, he was very tall, while Reich is very short. (I can personally attest to this as he campaigned in Iowa City for Bill Bradley in 2000, speaking at fellow lawyer Jim Larew's office. When Reich arrived, I could only tell by the slight commotion. He was hard to see. But, what he lacks in physical stature, he makes up in intelligence and general panache.) As to Bork, he liked Bork personally, but he disagreed with him about politics and antitrust. (He worked for Bork at the DOJ on antitrust issues.) And finally, despite what seems to have been a pleasant introduction to Hillary and a later friendship with Bill, Reich has endorsed Bernie Sanders. What gives?

Die-hard anti-Clinton folks or HRC conspiracy types will be disappointed. He shares not anti-Clinton animus.Instead, he believes that Sanders represents a movement that can transform American politics, and Reich argues, our politics needs some serious transformation. Here's where his thoughts become thought provoking and bear some discussion.

I agree with Reich that the growing inequality in society and the distorting role that big money plays in our politics are of primary concern. Both of us want to remedy this situation. He argues that Sanders represents change, while HRC represents the best management of the status quo. (By the way, he labels Hillary "a thousand times better" than any Republican alternative.) He argues that like Obama before her, HRC would work within the system and make more marginal changes. He believes that Sanders can bring about much more.

I disagree. He cites, for example, FDR as a role model. But FDR, who brought about a major realignment of American politics, did not do so as the head of a movement, but as a cautious, calculating, and canny politician. FDR would throw bones as to the right, such as austerity and balanced-budget nonsense (that extended the Depression as a consequence) while he crafted significant changes in our laws and political landscape. Lincoln, too, was a cautious, calculating, and canny politician who, like Roosevelt, was careful not to get too far ahead of this electorate or the Congress. (Consider Spielberg's film about Lincoln and the 13th Amendment, as well as Emancipation, as examples of this.) As Garry Wills argues, prophets, like Martin Luther King, Jr., or other activists, get out ahead on issues, politicians follow behind and put things in order. We need both. As head of a cause or movement, Sanders has hit upon a nerve, showing a base for progressive change (as Trump has discovered a base for a nativist populism). The energy and spirit of the Sanders movement are vital and could crucial to progressive success, but a movement alone can't get things done. Sanders, as a governing politician, would prove wonderful on the ideas and speeches, but weak on getting legislation enacted. (Sanders displays shortcomings on the realities of getting legislation passed, and progressives like Paul Krugman have had to call him out on this.) The president is the person who must work with Congress to get real results. Congress, by its very nature, makes sausage; it's not gourmet, but it feeds people. Sanders offers fillet minion, but Congress couldn't serve fillet minion in a million years. It didn't' during the New Deal, the New Frontier, the Great Society, or at any other time. (They do, some of them, seeming willing to try to serve pie-in-the-sky, but let's pass on that.)

Reich makes as good a case for Sanders as can be made and does so without any anti-Clinton animus, but it falls short, as does the Sanders candidacy.

Theda SkocpolTheda Skocpol, whom Klein also interviewed (separate podcast), is a respected political scientist at Harvard. Her insights, from political science as a discipline to the Tea Party to right-wing American politics in general, are insightful. But one thing I take from her and from many other sources is key. While Donald Trump is a joke with the potential for a disaster, the people who have voted for him have valid concerns. Not well expressed or understood (thus their susceptibility to Trump's demagoguery), but real. Elites and political parties this group at our peril and to the peril of our Constitutional system.

Ezra Klein did a good job with both interviews, and I look forward to more of them.

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