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Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America

Written by Robert B. ReichAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Robert B. Reich


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: May 11, 2004
Pages: 272 | ISBN: 978-1-4000-4332-3
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt|Table of Contents


For anyone who believes that liberal isn’t a dirty word but a term of honor, this book will be as revitalizing as oxygen. For in the pages of Reason, one of our most incisive public thinkers, and a former secretary of labor mounts a defense of classical liberalism that’s also a guide for rolling back twenty years of radical conservative domination of our politics and political culture.

To do so, Robert B. Reich shows how liberals can:
.Shift the focus of the values debate from behavior in the bedroom to malfeasance in the boardroom
.Remind Americans that real prosperity depends on fairness
.Reclaim patriotism from those who equate it with pre-emptive war-making and the suppression of dissent
If a single book has the potential to restore our country’s good name and common sense, it’s this one.


Chapter One

Prelude: The Revenge of the Radcons
Wealth and Power

It might help you to know a few things about me so that you understand where I’m coming from. I was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and grew up in a rural part of New York State, near the Connecticut border. My father worked six days a week and my mother five days a week at their two clothing stores. We weren’t poor, but I remember my father worrying a lot about paying the bills. Another thing you should know is I was very short for my age. I still am. Both my parents were normal size, so my short height was something of a puzzle. But being a very short boy, it was natural I got picked on at school.

There’s no way of proving these things, but I suppose my early worries about paying the bills and being bullied had a few long-term effects. As an adult, I’ve been teaching and writing about the economy and government—that is, about wealth and power. I’ve also had the honor of serving under three presidents, most recently in Bill Clinton’s cabinet. In these roles I’ve tried to help people without much money get better jobs, and also tried to stop some corporations from abusing their power.

The market is where wealth is accumulated; politics is where public power is exercised. In a democracy, they are supposed to be kept separate. But in fact, people with a lot of wealth exert significant political power, and people with a lot of power can arrange things so that they end up with a lot of wealth. When wealth and power are concentrated in a relatively few hands, democracy can become a sham and a lot of bullying can occur. The great liberal Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis put it best more than sixty years ago: “We can have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”1 We are now losing our democracy, and we have to get it back.

I never used to think of myself as being a liberal. Compared to most students in the sixties, I was considered pretty conservative. I went to Dartmouth College, whose political epicenter in those days was about 25,000 miles to the right of Berkeley.

I rejected a lot of the values and politics of the student New Left of the sixties. Taking over college buildings and burning American flags seemed dumb to me. I viewed the Vietnam War as morally wrong but never drifted into the cynicism or anti-Americanism of some of my leftist friends, who started spelling America with a “k.” I always believed it possible to reform the nation by working within the political system—and still do. I spent much of my senior year campaigning for Eugene McCarthy, by then the only presidential candidate who vowed to end the war. And I’ve spent a big portion of my life since then in public service. While I’ve never refrained from criticizing our political leaders when I thought they were wrong, I’ve always had a deep love for this country. To me, America is a great, noble, continuing experiment. We haven’t achieved our ideals by a long shot. But the ideals are still worth working for: protecting the weak from the strong, overcoming prejudice, providing broad opportunity to everyone, creating a vibrant democracy.

My first full-time job after law school was working for Robert Bork at the Justice Department, in Gerald Ford’s administration. Bork, you may remember, was the person who fired the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox, during the Watergate investigation. Cox had been trying to get the White House to hand over tape recordings of conversations that would show if Richard Nixon was involved in the Watergate break-ins. Nixon finally handed over the tapes anyway, on August 5, 1974. He knew their contents would condemn him. Four days later, Nixon resigned. A few weeks after that, I arrived in Washington and reported to Bork.

Bork had been one of my professors at law school. I didn’t share his political views but I respected him. So when he asked me to come to Washington, I accepted. My job was to write briefs on behalf of the United States in cases that were to come before the Supreme Court. I stayed two years before moving to the Federal Trade Commission, after Jimmy Carter was elected president. Bork went on to become one of the most thoughtful radical conservatives in America. You may recall that in 1987 Ronald Reagan nominated him to the Supreme Court, setting off an intense battle over his confirmation. I quote Bork at some length in this book because his writing has been so influential among radical conservatives. I still disagree with him, but I still respect him.

It’s possible to disagree and yet still be respectful. I strongly disagree with, but know and respect, several of the radical conservatives I quote in this book—not only Bork but also Bill Bennett, a former Reagan administration official who has become the Radcon voice of public morality; Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, who has articulated much of Radcon foreign policy; and Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House. Their ideas deserve a fair hearing, and a clear case should be made for why they are dangerously wrong.

In the sixties (a period that in political and cultural terms actually ran from about 1964 to 1972), the New Left was the source of most of the political passion and intensity in America. Liberals were considered wimps—wishy-washy, bourgeois. The militant organizer Saul Alinsky adopted the definition of a liberal as someone “who leaves the room when a fight begins.”

Now it’s hard to find any sixties lefties, except maybe in the rarefied precincts of a few universities where aging radicals still debate Marxism and deconstruction. Most of the political passion and intensity these days are on the radical conservative right.

But the two extremes—what remains of the sixties left, and the Radcons—share much of the same sense of moral superiority, the same unwillingness to consider alternative points of view.* There’s an important difference, though: The left never gained the power in America that the Radcons now have.

In my view, both extremes are wrong. Liberals, on the other hand, doubt that anyone has a monopoly on the truth. That’s why liber- als place such a high value on tolerance and democracy. That’s why liberals have insisted on a clear separation between church and state. And it’s also why liberals worry about wealth and power. When wealth and power become concentrated in the hands of a rela- tively few citizens, the strong become stronger; everyone else, more vulnerable.

The word “liberal” was used by George Washington to indicate a person of generosity or broad-mindedness, as opposed to those who wanted to deprive Catholics and Jews of their constitutional rights.2 Franklin D. Roosevelt defined a “liberal” this way: “[S]ay that civilization is a tree which, as it grows, continually produces rot and dead wood. The radical says: ‘Cut it down.’ The conservative says: ‘Don’t touch it.’ The liberal compromises: ‘Let’s prune, so that we lose neither the old trunk nor the new branches.’ ”3 FDR himself expanded and altered the common understanding of liberalism. Before the New Deal, liberalism was mostly about protecting people’s freedom.

* Even some of the individuals are the same: A few lefties from the sixties transported their moral absolutism to the radical right in the late seventies and eighties and became “neoconservatives.” The term is generally applied to those who moved from far left to far right, but for the purposes of this discussion, I include them together with other Radcons.

But the Great Depression taught America that unemployment and bad luck could be just as harmful to personal freedom as tyranny. Protection against these required a larger role for government.

Henceforth, liberals were assumed to be in favor of a big government. But that’s way too simple. The government’s size or reach isn’t the issue. It’s what government does and whose interests it represents. Does it guard our civil liberties or intrude on our privacy? Does it protect the weak or promote the strong? I don’t want a big government eavesdropping on my private telephone calls or e-mail, checking the books I’ve borrowed from the library, monitoring my movements, telling me what I can and can’t say. I don’t want a big government pouring billions of dollars into big companies—energy behemoths, agribusinesses, pharmaceutical giants, whatever—because they’ve made large political donations. And I don’t like the idea of a giant military machine mounting “preemptive” wars without international backing. I don’t want a big government that’s the center of an intimidating, unaccountable empire.

Being a liberal isn’t at all the same as being in favor of big government, despite what Radcons claim. Most liberals would prefer a small government that supported and protected the little guy over a big government that did the bidding of the wealthy and powerful. Frankly, people I know are more worried that our democracy is being corrupted by an increasing flow of campaign money from rich people and corporations to politicians. I also don’t want a big government imposing any particular religious view on me or my kids, or on anyone else. In my view, government has no business telling people how to run their private lives or dictating personal morality. I don’t want government giving or withholding funds to promote marriage, discouraging childbearing by welfare mothers, or pushing religion in our public schools.

Again: Government’s size isn’t the issue. It’s what it does, and for whom.

radcons aren’t real conservatives

Here, briefly and in its most undiluted form, is the Radcon agenda for America:

• prevent sex before marriage

• ban abortion

• condemn homosexuality

• prohibit gay marriage

• require prayer in the public schools

• give large tax breaks mainly to the rich

• cut social services mainly for the poor

• “privatize” social insurance

• eliminate regulations on business

• allow pollution of the environment

• ban affirmative action

• impose long prison sentences and, for the most serious crimes, the death penalty

• make English the official national language

• invade and occupy countries that may harbor or help terrorists

• go it alone in foreign affairs, disregarding the United Nations and avoiding international treaties

• squelch dissent about foreign policy

• restrict civil liberties for the sake of national security.

Most open-minded Americans will grant that there are arguments for and against each of these positions. What defines a Radcon is not openness to the case for them but fervent certainty they’re correct and necessary, and disdain for those who disagree.

This list, of course, doesn’t cover all radical conservative goals. And not every radical conservative subscribes to every one of them. But most radical conservatives agree on most. The consensus among Radcons is strong because these goals are based on a common worldview—both about the forces America is battling at home and abroad, and about how these forces can best be overcome.

Most of this book is about why these views are wrong, what a vigorous liberalism stands for instead, and why our future depends on the latter. But it’s important at the outset to understand the roots of radical conservatism. Radcons, it must be noted, are very differ- ent from real conservatives. A real conservative is somebody like the late Senator Robert A. Taft, of Ohio, or Senator John McCain, of Arizona—someone who wants to conserve many of the things that are great about America: the value we place on hard work, our dedication to family and community, our love of freedom, our storehouse of generosity and tolerance.

From the Hardcover edition.

Table of Contents

Back to the Future

Prelude: The Revenge of the Radcons

Public Morality

Real Prosperity

Positive Patriotism

Winning: It Will Take More Than Reason

Appendix A
Discussion Guide to the Liberal Reawakening

Appendix B
Recommended Reading

Robert B. Reich|Author Q&A

About Robert B. Reich

Robert B. Reich - Reason

Photo © Perian Flaherty

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Richard and Rhoda Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton, and he served as an adviser to President-elect Barack Obama. He has written twelve books, including The Work of Nations (which has been translated into twenty-two languages), Supercapitalism, and the best sellers The Next American Frontier, The Future of Success, Locked in the Cabinet, and, most recently, Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future. His articles have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, the Financial Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. He is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause. His bi-weekly commentaries on public radio’s Marketplace are heard by nearly five million people. In 2003, Reich was awarded the prestigious Václav Havel Foundation Prize for pioneering work in economic and social thought. In 2008, Time magazine named him one of the ten most successful cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century, and The Wall Street Journal named him one of the nation’s ten most influential business thought-leaders.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Robert Reich

Q: Hey, provocative title. Before we get in too deep, why will liberals win?
A: Because we’re in the majority.

Q: But only 18 percent of Americans define themselves as being “liberal.” That’s hardly a majority.
A: True, but if you look at their responses to key issues–abortion, prayer in the schools, regulation of large corporations, affordable healthcare, education, the importance of working closely with our allies and not waging unilateral war–for example, it turns out most Americans take the liberal side of most arguments. (See Appendix A on page 209 and in press kit).

Q: But if liberals are in the majority, as you suggest, then why are conservative Republicans in control of Congress, most state legislatures, and the presidency?
A: Because liberals are unorganized. There is no liberal progressive movement–as there is a strong conservative one. The Democrats don’t really have a party, just a loose amalgam who get aroused during election time.

Q: Why did you write this book?
A: To reach people who share liberal values, even if they don’t call themselves liberals. People who are alarmed by the radical conservative ascendance, and the one-sidedness and shrillness of public debate, even if they’re not political partisans. I want to give them the courage of their liberal convictions by helping explain those convictions, and why they are so important today. And I want to inspire them to get involved, not just in this election, but in the long term.

Q: Okay, what is “the battle for America” you refer to in the title ?
A: The coming showdown between the “radical conservatives” who are taking over America, and liberals who have very different values.

Q: You’re referring to the upcoming election?
A: It goes beyond this election–to a larger clash of ideas and principles. Radical conservatives–Radcons–have been on the way to taking over this country for two decades–Congress, the Supreme Court, lower federal courts, state and local governments, even school boards. The current administration is the result–not the cause–of this Radcon ascendance. Even when the Bush administration ends, their movement will continue. And unless met head-on by a newly invigorated liberalism–based on reason, common-sense morality, and love of America–it will continue to grow.

Q: Aren’t you just jumping on the bandwagon with a book from the left that’s just as partisan as all those books on the right?
A: No. I use reasoned argument. I don’t demean or demonize the other side.

Q: You call for a “positive patriotism.” What’s that?
A: The Radcon’s negative patriotism is based on contempt for what’s not American. But positive patriotism is based on what we owe one another as members of the same society. We show our love for America by serving our nation, paying taxes in proportion to what we can afford, and helping one another in need. Real patriots don’t shelter their income in Bermuda tax havens, for example, or allow millions of their fellow citizens to go homeless. Positive patriotism also understands that our national security depends as much–if not more–on American leadership and moral authority in the world as on our military might.

Q: You also call for “public morality. “
A: Government has no business policing private sexual behavior. That should be left to a person’s own conscience. But government must guard against abuses of power and trust, such as we’ve seen on Wall Street, in executive suites, and with the corruption of American politics by big money. Radcons want to police bedrooms; we should be better policing board rooms.

Q: You call for “bubble-up” instead of “trickle-down” economics. What do you mean by that?
A: Radcons want to grow the economy by giving tax breaks to the rich, on the assumption they’ll invest their extra money in American factories, equipment, and inventions. But we’re in a global economy now, and the and rich will invest anywhere around the world they can get the best return. The only national “asset” that’s uniquely American is our people–our capacities to be productive because we’re educated and healthy. Instead of giving tax breaks to the rich, we should be investing in all Americans.

Q: How are radical conservatives different from traditional conservatives?
A: Traditional conservatives cared about fiscal responsibility. They wanted to protect and preserve the institutions of government. They didn’t want America to unilaterally attack foreign nations or get bogged down in foreign wars . They didn’t want government interfering in the personal lives of citizens. Radical conservatives are just the opposite in all these respects: They don’t care about deficits. They couldn’t care less about preserving the institutions of government; for them, the ends justify almost any means. They favor military solutions to all sorts of foreign problems–even if America has to go-it-alone. And they want to police our bedrooms, snoop on ordinary Americans, and take away our civil liberties.

Q: Why has “liberal” become a bad word?
A: Radcons have demonized liberals, and sought to portray them as Leftists of the 1960s– advocates of sexual license, drugs, and “blame-America-first” anti-Americanism. But Radcons are conjuring up phantoms. Most sixties’ Lefties are by now middle-aged, middle-class suburbanites who long ago gave up their student radicalism. (Besides, sixties’ Lefties despised liberals back then almost as much as Radcons despise them now.)

Q: How would you define liberalism?
A: They are the ideals at the heart of our American democracy: a separation church and state; equal rights; the protection of civil liberties; the prevention of concentrated wealth and power; equal opportunities for people regardless of family wealth, race, or ethnicity; and building a system of international law.

Q: Why is liberalism needed?
A: More urgently than ever–to stop the abuses of power and unconstrained greed at the highest reaches of America; to police the barrier between church and state; to prevent the nation from becoming a two-tiered society comprising a few who are very rich and a majority who are barely making it; and to unite the world effectively against terrorism and hate.

Q: And why do you think liberals will win this battle?
A: Because most Americans share these mainstream liberal values. Polls show a majority want to ensure that top corporate and Wall Street executives act in the interests of small investors who have entrusted their savings for college and retirement to them. They want money out of politics. They support a progressive system of taxation, good public schools, and social insurance for those who slip and fall in a new economy that’s inherently unstable. Most Americans are in favor of abortion rights, privacy to do what they want in their own bedrooms, civil liberties, and religion separated from public schools. And they want a foreign policy that effectively guards against terrorism by engaging and involving all our major and long-standing allies. They want an America that leads the world because of its moral authority, not one that aspires to control the world through military might.

Q: Is John Kerry a “liberal?”
A: By these standards, he is.

Q: But if most polls show that Americans are liberal–even if they don’t call themselves “liberals”–why do Americans keep electing Radcons?
A: Radcons are better organized than Democrats and liberals. They’re tightly disciplined, they’ve developed dedicated sources of money and legions of ground troops who not only get out the vote, but also spend the time between elections persuading others to join their ranks. They’ve devised frames of reference that are used repeatedly in policy debates (among them: it's your money, tax and spend, political correctness, class warfare). They have a system for recruiting and electing officials nationwide who share the same world view and who will vote accordingly. They have a platoon of talk-show hosts and opinion-makers, with a well-developed system for disseminating their messages. And they’ve developed a coherent ideology uniting evangelical Christians, blue-collar whites in the South and West, and big business–an ideology in which foreign enemies, domestic poverty and crime, and homosexuality all must be met with strict punishment and religious orthodoxy.

Q: Why have the Democrats been so ineffective, by comparison?
A: The Democratic Party has had no analogous movement to animate it. Instead, every four years party loyalists throw themselves behind a presidential candidate who they believe will deliver them from the rising conservative tide. After the election, they go back to whatever they were doing before. Other Democrats have involved themselves in single-issue politics–the environment, campaign finance, the war in Iraq and so on–but these battles have failed to build a political movement. Issues rise and fall, depending on which interests are threatened and when. They can even divide Democrats, as each advocacy group scrambles after the same set of liberal donors and competes for the limited attention of the news media. As a result, Democrats have been undisciplined, intimidated or just plain silent. They have few dedicated sources of money, and almost no ground troops. The religious left is disconnected from the political struggle. One hears few liberal Democratic phrases that are repeated with any regularity. In addition, there is no consistent Democratic world view or ideology. Most Congressional Democrats raise their own money, do their own polls and vote every which way. Democrats have little or no clear identity except by reference to what conservatives say about them.

Q: Isn’t the Democrats’ real problem that it failed to respond to an electorate grown more conservative, upscale and suburban?
A: No. The biggest losses for Democrats since 1980 have not been among suburban voters but among America's giant middle and working classes–especially white workers without four-year college degrees, once part of the old Democratic base. Not incidentally, these are the same people who have lost the most economic ground over the last quarter-century. Democrats could have responded with bold plans on jobs, schools, health care and retirement security. They could have delivered a strong message about the responsibility of corporations to help their employees in all these respects, and of wealthy elites not to corrupt politics with money. More recently, the party could have used the threat of terrorism to inspire the same sort of sacrifice and social solidarity as Democrats did in World War II–including higher taxes on the wealthy to pay for what needs doing. In short, they could have turned themselves into a populist movement to take back democracy from increasingly concentrated wealth and power. But Democrats did none of this. So conservatives eagerly stepped into the void, claiming the populist mantle and blaming liberal elites for what's gone wrong with America.

Q: So, how will liberals win the battle?
A: By creating a political movement. Liberals can win if they revitalize the Democratic Party by mobilizing the religious left, coming up with real solutions to the downward slide of working-class America, organizing women and minorities and the young, and showing how much of America’s growth and prosperity has gone to the top 1 percent, who now control much of America.

Q: And you’re optimistic?
A: Yes. It’s already beginning. Not only do most Americans share liberal values, but liberals have reason on our side, which is more than the Radcons can honestly claim. Winning will also depend on our passion and courage.

Q: Is there any precedent for this in American history?
A: Yes. In 1900, America faced many of the same challenges we face today. As today, vast fortunes were being amassed by a tiny group at the top, but median wages had stopped growing and the poor were getting poorer. Like today, new technologies (then, team engines, railway locomotives, the telephone, steam turbines, electricity) were transforming America, pulling people into large cities and pulling immigrants from abroad. Robber barons and Wall Street magnates were consolidating their empires. The richest 1 percent owned more than the remaining 99 percent put together. Government was effectively up for sale to the highest bidder, and politics had sunk into the swamp of patronage. America also turned imperialistic. As the century closed, America seemed to be turning its back on liberal democratic ideals. But as the new century dawned, the air began to crackle with reform. What happened? Indignation, which had been rising steadily, suddenly exploded and flooded the country. Common morality simply couldn’t abide the way things were going. Average Americans who loved this country, and believed in its basic liberal values, rose up to correct what had gone wrong. It happened then; it will happen again.

Q: By the way, what are you doing these days?
A: When I’m not helping John Kerry get elected, I’m a professor of social and economic policy at Brandeis University. I’m also co-founder and an editor of a liberal political magazine called The American Prospect.

From the Hardcover edition.



“We’ve got Reich, they’ve got Coulter. We win. A brilliant and passionately argued book. Read it.” —Al Franken

“Passionately written, politically charged. . . . Compulsively readable.” —The Plain Dealer

“Valuable. . . . Sharp and fresh. . . .Part memoir, part explication of the contending and contentious ruling ideologies of Red and Blue America—radical conservatism and liberalism at odds—and part call to arms. . . . Not . . . an attack book, but a positive one, a call for a rebirth of a liberal ascendancy.” —Chicago Sun-Times

“Utterly lucid and engaging.” —Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickle and Dimed

“Appealing. . . . Mr. Reich explodes a number of fallacies on the left . . . and the right. . . . Eminently wise.” —The New York Times

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