In a Web-exclusive interview, political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. talks with Bill Moyers about his new article in the March issue of Harper’s Magazine – a challenge to America’s progressives provocatively titled, “Nothing Left: The Long, Slow Surrender of American Liberals.”
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In the piece, Reed writes that Democrats and liberals have become too fixated on election results rather than aiming for long term goals that address the issues of economic inequality, and that the administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama too often acquiesced to the demands of Wall Street and the right.
As a result, Reed tells Moyers, the left is no longer a significant force in American politics. “If we understand the left to be anchored to our convictions that society can be made better than it actually is, and a commitment to combating economic inequality as a primary one, the left is just gone.”
Producer: Gail Ablow. Segment Producer: Robert Booth. Editor: Rob Kuhns. Footage & Stills: AP Images, CORBIS & Getty Images.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome. Take a look at this cover of the March issue of Harper’s Magazine. The headline of the lead story reads, “Nothing left. The long, slow surrender of American Liberals.” And to illustrate those morose words, there’s an exhausted knight, shield shattered, slumped backwards on an equally worn out donkey with a most disinterested demeanor.
This Don Quixote hasn’t got the strength to tilt at windmills, much less the Democratic party. Now this picture will stun many people including Democrats in the House of Representatives who at their recent annual retreat put forth a united front on issues ranging from minimum wage to jobs and immigration reform. And Republicans will scoff at the notion that liberalism is flying the white flag of capitulation, at least while a socialist president from Kenya occupies the White House.
But the author of the Harper’s article is onto something. He sees the populist, progressive wing of the Democratic Party giving up to the corporate wing putatively embodied in Hillary Clinton sailing forth surrounded by a mighty armada from Wall Street.
Adolph Reed, Jr., wrote that article and he joins me now. He’s a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, a long-time student of American politics and a prolific author, editor, and columnist. Adolph, welcome back.
ADOLPH REED: Thanks. It’s great to be back.
BILL MOYERS: Well, what do you mean nothing left?
ADOLPH REED: Well, what I mean basically is that if we understand the left to be anchored to a conviction that the society can be made better than it actually is and a commitment to combating economic inequality as a primary one, the left is just gone.
I mean, there are leftists around, certainly. There’s no shortage of them. And there are left organizations, and there are people who publish left ideas and kind of think left thoughts. But as a significant force that’s capable of shaping the terms of debate in American politics, you know, the left has gone and has been gone for a while.
I often note that, you know, working people in America got more from Richard Nixon than we got from Clinton or Obama. And it’s not because he was our fan, right, it’s because, you know, the labor movement and what has since been called the social movement of the ’60s were dynamic enough forces in the society that even Nixon, who called himself a Keynesian, felt that there was a need to respond to them.
So that’s how we got occupational health and safety, affirmative action like other stuff. So it’s not, and, see, this is the key point, I think, right. Because one of the ways that our politics have been hollowed and a source of the collapse of the left is a forgetting, right? A kind of social amnesia about what movement building is and how and what social movements are and how they’re constructed.
BILL MOYERS: In this piece you write, “If the left is tied to a democratic strategy that, at least since the Clinton administration, tries to win elections by absorbing much of the right’s social vision and agenda, before long the notion of a political left will have no meaning. For all intents and purposes, that is what has occurred.”
ADOLPH REED: Look, I’ve never wanted to dismiss electoral action. But the problem is that it can only be a defensive engagement for us now. Because the way that the center of gravity in American politics has moved right, we’re kind of dealt out of it.
So the only option that there is for us in the electoral realm is going to be finding the less bad candidate.
And what that means is in that there’s no possibility of being able to push any of the sort of progressive, egalitarian ideas that would’ve popped up in FDR’s campaign in 1944, right, or even Truman’s campaign in 1948.
What we can do is try to have some influence on the least worst, right. But, I would never argue that we shouldn’t pay attention to electoral politics. But I think we need to understand that that can’t exhaust the scope of our political activity.
And we’ve sort of fallen into a groove of putting all of our political hopes into electing Democrats and just seem to have a lot of, you know, difficulty just getting off the dime of about trying to build around campaign issues, right.
Like, single payer health care, right, was a moment that’s come and gone. I mean I’ve been pushing off and on over the years for universal free public higher education.
BILL MOYERS: You say that there’re not many ideas, not much fight, not much dynamism on the left. But there are people fighting for immigration reform, for campaign finance reform, for environmental protections, for fair wages, for women’s reproductive rights. I mean, aren’t these important objectives and don’t ultimately they add up to an agenda for change?
ADOLPH REED: 10:39:41:00 I’d say yes on the first question. Like, I’m not so sure about the second, right. Because, you know, the whole point of building a movement, right, is to unite the many to defeat the few.
I mean, like we can’t compete with the money that the other side has.
BILL MOYERS: Organized people are the only answer to organized money?
ADOLPH REED: Exactly. Right. I mean, that’s exactly right. So then the question becomes, well, how do we go about building the broadly based, mass movements that we need to try to have some effect on changing the terms of political debate, right? I mean, I’m a realist about this. I think that’s what the goal has to be for the rest of my lifetime anyway.
You say “the left.” Liberals, especially, are tied to the narrow strategy of electing at whatever cost, whatever Democrat is running. But, you know, Democrats won four of the last six presidential elections. Something’s working for them.
ADOLPH REED: What exactly have we gotten out of the fact that they’ve won?
BILL MOYERS: Winning is not enough, you’re saying.
ADOLPH REED: No.
I mean here’s an illustration of the limits of it. President Obama in the speech he gave a couple weeks ago, the ballyhooed speech where he mentioned the word “inequality” a couple times.
He leaves the podium in effect and goes straight to try to, you know, strong arm his own party to support fast track for Trans Pacific Partnership.
So, I mean, what we’ve got is, like, a bipartisan neoliberalism, right, that’s at the center of gravity of the American government. And to be clear, what I mean by neoliberalism is that, it’s two things.
It’s a free market, utopian ideology. And it’s a concrete program for intensified upward redistribution. And when the two objectives conflict, I mean, guess which one gets put — on the shelf? But both parties are fundamentally committed to this. And at this point, and I think we’ve seen this much more clearly since the 2008 election, the principal difference between Democrats and Republicans
Is the choice between a neoliberal party that is progressive on multicultural and diversity issues, and a neoliberal party that’s reactionary and horrible on those same issues.
But where the vast majority of Americans live our lives and feel our anxieties about present and future and insecurity is not about the multicultural issues over which there’s so there’s so much fight. In the very realm of the neoliberal economic issues to which both parties are, in fact, committed.
BILL MOYERS: So, I hear you saying, Adolph, that while social and cultural factors are important to us, economic issues are the fundamental existential questions. And that the neo-liberal parties, both of them, devoted to promoting the interests of multinational companies and capitalism don’t care what you think about cultural and social issues, as long as they control the process by which nothing interferes with markets.
ADOLPH REED: I think that’s quite succinct.
BILL MOYERS: When Obama spoke about inequality and then a little bit later championed fast-tracking the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Aren’t… Don’t you take some encouragement from the fact that soon after Obama spoke, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, minority leader of the House and majority leader of the Senate both said, no deal. We’re not for fast track.
ADOLPH REED: Right, right.
BILL MOYERS: You know why they did, apparently? Because 550 organizations in this country essentially representing the base of the Democratic Party said, no, Mr. President, we’re not going with you. And so Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi responded. You must take some encouragement from that.
ADOLPH REED: Oh, absolutely. Totally.
BILL MOYERS: So it’s not dead out there. It’s not a cemetery.
ADOLPH REED: Well, it’s not quite. But, I mean, the lesson I take from it, too, is that it’s the organization that sort of brings them to where we’d like for them to be, right? It’s a pressure from underneath. And, you know, and that’s what largely hollowed out, right? I mean, except for you know, I mean, some issues.
BILL MOYERS: Why is that?
ADOLPH REED: Because Wall Street controls the agenda. I mean, I go back again to the primaries in ’92. And I was calling friends of mine that I had, you know, long connections with, you know, again in the South, early on. And the word that came back was that Clinton’s people had come through and had said from the outset, look, our guy’s going to be the nominee. Don’t ask for anything. If you don’t get onboard, then you won’t have any access later, after we win.
So access, which is a kind of crack cocaine, has become part of the problem.
BILL MOYERS: Is this, you say both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, heavily indebted to Wall Street, to financial interest, something that many people didn’t pay much attention to when Obama ran in 2008. Is this why you suggest, not suggest, you in effect indict both of them for being nominal progressives?
ADOLPH REED: Well, it’s not just that they got the Wall Street money. I assume that it’s possible to get the Wall Street money and not do the Wall Street bidding. And you need to have, you know, money to win. But so I would say yes. It’s the fact that they’ve done the Wall Street bidding that is what leads me to say that they’re nominal neo-progressives.
BILL MOYERS: So does being on the left for you mean that it’s not enough to do things that soften the consequences of inequality, but that we have to go beyond those reforms to change the system that produces inequality.
ADOLPH REED: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: And how do you change it?
ADOLPH REED: I’d say the first step has to be a focus on changing the terms of political debate. Because we’ve got to be able to put that issue back on the table, right? I mean, the issue of economic inequality, back on the table. I mean, even you know, the Democrats who raise it tentatively and back away as soon as they do.
Gore, with his odd little populist flirtation that he offered in the spring or the summer of you know, 2000, which provoked this torrent of outrage from the right wing. Saying that he’s fanning the flames of class warfare, and that’s not what we do in America, right? The same things happen, you know, with Obama. I can’t even recall enough about the Kerry campaign, you know, to recall if he even made a gesture.
BILL MOYERS: You remind us of how leftist, progressive, liberals, a lot of everyday folks were swept up in the rhetoric and expectations surrounding Obama’s campaign, his election, and his presidency. I’ll bet you remember election night in Grant Park in 2008.
ADOLPH REED: Yeah, I do.
BILL MOYERS: Here it is.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is our time to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids, to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace, to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth that out of many, we are one. That while we breathe, we hope.
And where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people. Yes we can. Thank you. God bless you. And may God bless the United States of America.
ADOLPH REED: The clip is interesting, right? Because you think about the clip and his utterances, right, were a collection of evocative statements. But there was no real content there, right? I mean, he didn’t say, I’m going to fight for X, and I have—
BILL MOYERS: Against inequality or for equality—
ADOLPH REED: Right, right.
BILL MOYERS: —or for wages, or—
ADOLPH REED: Right, right. So it was as he said himself in one or both of his books, his move is to encourage people to imagine a better world and a better future and a better life for themselves through identification with him.
BILL MOYERS: And you say in your article that his content, essentially, is his identity.
ADOLPH REED: Correct.
BILL MOYERS: I can imagine that if President Obama were sitting here talking with you or you were at the White House talking with him, he’d say, Adolph, I understand your diagnosis. But what you have to understand is that pragmatism can be and often is an effective agent or tool or weapon in the long-range struggle for social justice.
And I know you’re impatient, I know you believe in this restructuring of society, but we’re not going to get there with the wave of a wand. And it takes just as it did in the civil rights movement, a long time for me to get here to the White House, it’s going to take a long time for this country to get where you would take it.
ADOLPH REED: Right. Oh, I am absolutely certain that he would say something like that. I admit that this is kind of treading maybe, into troublesome water, but among the reasons that I know Obama’s type so well is, you know, I’ve been teaching at elite institutions for more than 30 years.
And that means that I’ve taught his cohort that came through Yale actually at the time that he was at, you know, Columbia and Harvard. And I recall an incident in a seminar in, you know, black American political thought with a young woman who was a senior who said something in the class. And I just blurted out that it seem, that the burden of what she said seemed to be that the whole purpose of this Civil Rights Movement was to make it possible for people like her to go to Yale and then to go to work in investment banking.
And she said unabashedly, well, yes, yes, and that’s what I believe. And again, I didn’t catch myself in time, so I just said to her, well, I wish somebody had told poor Viola Liuzzo, you know, before she left herself family in Michigan and got herself killed that that’s what the punch line was going to be, because she might’ve stayed home to watch her kids grow up. And I think—
BILL MOYERS: This was the woman who on her own initiative went down during the civil rights struggle to Selma, Alabama to join in the fight for voting rights and equality, and was murdered.
ADOLPH REED: Right, exactly. I’m not prepared to accept as my metric of the extent of racial justice or victories of the struggles for racial justice, the election of a single individual to high office or appointment of a black individual to be corporate CEO. My metric would have to do with things like access to healthcare—
BILL MOYERS: For everybody.
ADOLPH REED: For everybody, right? And this is something else, by the way—
BILL MOYERS: Not just a symbolic victory for one person?
ADOLPH REED: Right. Because the way politics has evolved since the 1980s is that what we get now is the symbolic victory for the single person instead of, right, you know, the redistributive agenda.
And fact of the matter is, that, right, if you take the simple numerical standard, since the majority of black America is working-class like, you know, the majority of the country. And since black Americans are disproportionately part of the working class, then a redistributive program that secures and advances the interest of working-class people will disproportionately benefit black people.
BILL MOYERS: What do you tell your students? Obviously they must be concerned about the lowered expectations of the economy, about the high cost of their college, the loans they own, whether or not they can get a decent-paying job. What do you tell them to do about the future?
ADOLPH REED: The students who come to me who want to be activists, I mean, one thing I tell them is that, look, if you want to do this kind of stuff, we’ve got to approach it like a Major League Baseball player, where if you are successful three times in 10, then you go to the Hall of Fame, right? Because you get beaten a lot, right?
BILL MOYERS: As an organizer, as an activist—
ADOLPH REED: Yeah, right.
BILL MOYERS: —as a champion of a cause.
ADOLPH REED: Well, I mean, especially on the left, right?
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
ADOLPH REED: Right, because all the resources are kind of stacked up on the other side. So you lose more than you win. And I don’t embrace, like, a cult of beautiful defeat. It’s always better to win than it is to lose. But you’ve just got to, you know, not have expectations that are too high. And to just keep pushing, right? And trying to broaden the base, right? ‘Cause that’s a work that there is for us to do now.
BILL MOYERS: Your cover story in Harper’s, “Nothing Left, The Long, Slow Surrender of American Liberals” is must-read. And I thank you for being here with me.
ADOLPH REED: Oh, thanks very much for having me.