William Greider: The End of New Deal LiberalismJanuary 13, 2011
We were struck by a recent column by Mr. Greider, “The End of New Deal Liberalism,”(link here):
The power shift did not start with Obama, but his tenure confirms and completes it. The corporates began their systematic drive to dismantle liberal governance back in the 1970s, and the Democratic Party was soon trying to appease them, its retreat whipped along by Ronald Reagan’s popular appeal and top-down tax cutting. So long as Democrats were out of power, they could continue to stand up for liberal objectives and assail the destructive behavior of business and finance (though their rhetoric was more consistent than their voting record). Once back in control of government, they lowered their voices and sued for peace. Beholden to corporate America for campaign contributions, the Democrats cut deals with banks and businesses and usually gave them what they demanded, so corporate interests would not veto progressive legislation.
He continues, saying that President Obama is complicit in the shady dealmaking.
Obama has been distinctively candid about this. He admires the “savvy businessmen” atop the pinnacle of corporate power. He seeks “partnership” with them. The old economic conflicts, like labor versus capital, are regarded as passé by the “new Democrats” now governing. The business of America is business. Government should act as steward and servant, not master.
Dylan had the opportunity to speak to Bill for this podcast.
“Well, I’ve been singing this song for some years, and I’m repeating it again. We were all born as citizens, and we have partly by our own negligence but mainly by design, we have been stripped of our role as citizens and turned into mere spectators who can bounce up and down on the couch and get mad at the right and wrong things. We don’t act like citizens — we can, but it’s not easy, it’s hard work, but I really do believe we will change this when people everywhere begin to take themselves seriously again and act like citizens,” says Bill.
Democrats, he says, are equally complicit in lacking the motivation to push for change that could improve where our country is.
“This is a longer story about the decay of the political institutions and the mediating institutions that, in my view, are too close to the democratic party, and often for good reasons. But that side is largely disorganized; organized labor, which was and remains a principal voice for the working class, has been decimated in the last thirty years. I’ve covered it as a reporter, it’s an incredible story of how – and often with government collaboration by democrats in power. That’s happened. Nevertheless, there are a few institutions that could help lead. I think it has to come, literally, from the grassroots up. I see some signs of that but that’s my church. That’s what I’m preaching,” says Bill.
So, how can we possibly incite change?
“The reason I have faith in this, corny as it sounds, is I think that’s the story of American history. And I think if you go back over our two hundred years plus, you will see that it was always people of rather humble and oppressed status rising up and trying to force this country to live by its ideals. And some of those struggles took not just a generation but several generations — civil rights and liberation of African-Americans in bondage is one of the most dramatic example, but there are others,” says Bill.
Bill says that his more than 35 years of reporting on politics in Washington gives him not only perspective, but hope.
“What I’m trying to convince people to think about is ‘where are we in this storyline?’ We are not triumphant. We are not exultant. We are not the most generous and loving country on earth. I’m not searching for comparisons, because we’re Americans and we’ll take care of America. I get excited because as a reporter over many years, I know this is in people. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen people of very humble status — and they didn’t have any power at all — take themselves seriously as citizens. And then discover things within them that they didn’t even know were there,” says Bill. “This is a kind of universal possibility that I think democracy offers people. And that’s what I’m trying to teach,” says Bill.
“I can’t think of a more valuable lesson,” says Dylan. “We have been here before, this country has been through these kind of dynamics before, and there are solutions to these problems. They are not necessarily easy to do, but they are not necessarily complicated to do. The more collectively we can move ourselves up the educational curve to put the type of problems that we have today of concentrated power and wealth as this country has suffered in the past, and how someone like Teddy Roosevelt solved those problems in the past makes it seems more achievable that we can solve the problems of the present,” says Dylan.
William Greider is national affairs correspondent for The Nation. His book Come Home, America: The Rise and Fall (and Redeeming Promise) of Our Country describes the epic turning point in our nation’s history driven by financial crisis, economic deterioration and other fundamental adversities.
DYLAN: Welcome to Episode 21 of Radio Free Dylan. I am Dylan Ratigan.
We have the pleasure today of being joined by Bill Greider, national affairs correspondent for The Nation, a man who has covered American politics, policy debate, political culture, you name it, for decades in this country, and has observations that if you listen to me and you understand my rhetoric revolving around the fundamental criticism of any particular corruption of the competitive model that would be represented by a real investment, a real distributed power, and a reward for those who can actually solve the problems of this country as opposed to work for those who can manipulate the government in order to get themselves more money or more power, I think you’ll like Mr. Greider.
You were saying earlier I understand that in all of your years of covering our government, you have not to this point seen of the level of the dysfunction that we’re all witnessing today.
BILL: Yeah. And I find myself saying crude things that 30, 40 years ago in my youth I would never have said, and that is that our government politics, the system as a whole really is captured now by capitalism, American capitalism; and gee, I would have shaken my head as a young man that that’s so radical and crazy and so forth and so on. But if you look at the system and how it’s behaving, and I’m including both political parties, I think that’s a terrible judgment to make but I think it’s fair.
DYLAN: Is it capitalism or is it the American definition of capitalism? And the reason I guess I make the distinction, because for me, capitalism is a value on capital, a value on not just financial capital but on human capital, on time, on talent, on resources, and that you want a system where if you’re going to be in charge of financial capital, the only way you can make more money is to invest it in a long-term project that yields value for other people. If you’re good at doing that, you should be rewarded with more capital. If you are somebody with an idea that there’s a competition among ideas to acquire those types of investments and if you are effective at manifesting that idea into reality that you can acquire more capital.
So the capital ultimately gets allocated based on those who are good at solving the problems of our society and it seems to me that the American interpretation of the word “capitalism” represents nothing of what I was just describing. That the American interpretation is quite simply a lawless environment where anything goes, and the only quest is to get money. And I think it was Henry Ford that said any business whose only product is money is a bad business.
BILL: I would say "amen" to everything you’ve just said; and in fact, I wrote a book four or five years ago in I would say the depths of the George W. Bush term but some would people say the heights, either way, describing what was wrong with American capitalism and its functions and many of the things you just mentioned but also how it could be reformed and in a way reinvented, returning to what were the core fundamental dynamics of original capitalism and never perfect but it was -- it is in some dimension productive for good reasons.
And I was never in the camp of let’s blow it up and start over, and I’m not now, but what we have now is a system partly because the government stepped back and let the good times roll and stripped away a lot of the moderating controls that were in law, in economic management, so forth and so on, and created a series of doctrines, which invited a kind of Milton Friedman worship of greed. If you go back and read Friedman, basically that’s what he said. There’s only one purpose in the business enterprise and that’s to make more and more money and everything else falls away, everything else. And he called this freedom and I argued it was servitude; and I think we’re seeing now the consequences of that ideology.
What really disturbs me now, and as you’ve noted I’ve been watching this play for a lot of years, is that neither party, despite appearances, is ready, is prepared, and has the courage to step back and say, “We got to rebuild the tent.” That is the government obligations, the obligations to society, to people in those enterprises as you mentioned from top to bottom, and restore those original creative values that we used to think of as the vastly productive American capitalism. That’s hard, hard work. It also bumps up against the realities of politics, the money flows and all the rest. But underneath all of my rants, there’s an optimist waiting for that to happen again and I think it will.
DYLAN: And the optimist that emerged 100 years ago, because this country has been to this altar at least once before, was Teddy Roosevelt…
BILL: That’s right.
DYLAN: …who bore witness to the consolidation of power and bore witness to the servitude or ineffectiveness of the political system and was able to very clearly draw a line between the consolidation of power, in that case inside of the banking and railroad and energy sectors.
BILL: "The trusts" they called them under those days.
DYLAN: And the people came to understand that the reason that they didn’t have a job, that the reason that so many of their friends and those around them were struggling was because these trusts, the oil trust, the banking trust, the railroad trust had consolidated all the resources.
DYLAN: What’s curious to me is how it is clearly a consolidation of resources once again inside of the financial realm.
BILL: Well, not just financial --
BILL: No. I mean look at what’s going on now and it’s a titanic struggle. It’s at least as intense as what went on in the 1890s and 1900s in the technology fields, communications, and the critics in those days, they referred to the trusts which were really another name for monopoly or oligopoly so that the companies would get big enough to reach over their whole sector. They didn’t usually swallow everything 100% but they get 60% and that’s enough to be able to ride the ups and downs and profit in either case and wipe out any competitors who begin to approach your size.
We are now in that same stage. Look at the Telecommunications Act of what, 1996, is that right?
DYLAN: Yeah, ‘96.
BILL: And it was going to tear up AT&T and let the good times of free competition flow. And what did we start with, seven or eight phone companies?
BILL: What are we down to now? We have three big ones and lots of little guys but -- and communications, broadcast and cable and now this new, the web-based internet phones, et cetera, all of that is in a fight now for who will wind up on top. And I would mention uncomfortably in this venue that an NBC merger with Comcast is one of those fights. Net neutrality on the internet is another dimension of those same fights.
I mean I’m going to be writing about this soon, I hope. It’s not a partisan issue actually and this is what I say to some of my lefty friends and I think they don’t know the history. Antitrust law started in the 1880s, 1890s?
DYLAN: 1890s, the Populists out in Nebraska, William Jennings Bryan, right?
BILL: Well, and it wasn’t just the populists. It was small business. But you’re right, that’s the most I make to my liberal friends today. Antitrust law, which was headed right at the trusts in the monopoly power, originated with farmers, small yeoman farmers mostly, and small businesspeople, and their political label didn’t much matter but it was easy enough for Teddy Roosevelt and other republicans to say, “Yeah, this isn’t right.” These guys are getting ground up because the megacorporations of that day have got their arms around their throat. That’s not quite where we are today but it’s close enough that people need to sort of take a deep breath and say we got to do a lot of things that sound old-fashioned but are in fact modern.
DYLAN: Back to the future if you will. I have a question for you about not just your lefty friends but the entire democratic party, which is the theoretical archetype, and I emphasize theoretical based on my observation of that political party’s behavior, but theoretically the home in which the interests of the little guy, the modern day farmer if you will, the modern day small business that is being taken from their home, taken from their job by these oligopoly/monopoly businesses that are by the way natural if you do not have controls to break them up. Teddy Roosevelt knew that. He was one of them. He grew up with J.P. Morgan. He grew up with the Rockefeller kids. He knew that they put their pants on one leg at a time and that they were no smarter than the farmers but were simply nursing from a different piece of the economy.
And yet, as we watched the financial crisis come through in 2008 and the obvious consolidation and theft that that represented, as we watched the healthcare debate which at least provided an opportunity to come up the learning curve, to understand the oppressive nature, the controlling nature of an employer-based healthcare plan which basically says if you don’t have this type of a job, if you don’t do this type of work, well then we’re not going to provide for your healthcare, as if the type of work that you do in some way and your status in society and the type of job that you can get is determinative as to whether you’re worthy of healthcare, and obviously, the employer-based healthcare system makes it harder for people to quit particularly if they have families.
BILL: Absolutely, and it therefore makes them vulnerable to pressures from their own employer to say, “Okay, we’re going to cut back your wages or working hours,” et cetera, et cetera. If we’re going to cut back your benefits, what does the guy do? Say, “Well I quit? I can’t.”
DYLAN: Can’t because the healthcare is tied to the employment which gives that undue leverage that a monopoly would have over human beings.
My question to you in the face of the obvious oppression that’s represented by the financial system, in the face of the obvious oppression or enemy of freedom; if what we’re talking about fundamentally is freedom, are you free or are you not free, to the extent to which the things or the structures deny freedom of human beings, how can you explain the behavior of Barack Obama and Democratic leadership since they’ve had accumulating power really going back to 2006?
BILL: My explanation is that the Democrats have been really for two and a half, three decades in retreat from their supposed values, the inheritance really from a new deal of liberalism, and they’ve thought for many years they could sort of get in both beds at once: be the voice of working people, that’s what they used to be known as, and the little guy, and also partners with the largest, most powerful business financial interests in the country. I’m old-fashioned. I don’t think that straddle works. You can try it for a while and the Dems did. They have and they still are, but it doesn’t work because they refused to take on the core of the problem you just described.
You won’t be surprised to know that I am among what our president calls those purists, sanctimonious liberals who are disappointed in him on healthcare reform for instance. Yes, I am and the reason I am is because he had an opportunity and so did the Democratic Congress not to go to a full nationalized or universal system but to begin a dynamic that might indeed lead to that if events and facts argue for it, and that is if he’d gone --
He could have done it a couple of different ways. The most discussed is the public option. Public option really was intended to set up a competition within the healthcare field that would be not everything but a publicly run and partly subsidized healthcare for people who weren’t in any of those categories you described. They were floating free or they couldn’t afford, et cetera, et cetera, and that one hopes would produce a competitive pressure on the healthcare providers, especially insurance, drugs, et cetera, to challenge and face this cost inflation which they have ridden quite profitably for many years. That’s the heart of the problem.
And it’s not that we have more older people and that we have more expensive technologies. Those are good things. Those aren’t bad things. But this would have begun that long-term reform. Instead, I think he, and I know in the Congress, they said, “That’s a bridge too far. We won’t go there." Instead, we’ll make deals with the insurance industry. We’ll make deals with the drug industry and with other providers, sectors, and then we’ll require everybody to go out and buy insurance, and that will keep the insurance industry happy because we’re giving them 30 million new customers.” You know the story as well as I do. That’s a crushing disappointment to me and to a lot of other people.
DYLAN: Crushing. I mean that is insulting beyond people talking about being insulted, “Oh, my goodness. If they went do a National Healthcare Plan, what would that say about us?” There’s nothing more insulting than basically enslaving the people to drive money into a private enterprise that is one of the largest political donors in the world. It is putrid and disgusting and honestly repulses me in many ways against this president and Democratic leadership.
BILL: Well, I don’t want to get personal about this president.
DYLAN: But let me go to the other side of the aisle for a second.
BILL: But essentially, I agree with you, but you and I could repeat the same story in financial reform.
BILL: And I think it has the same elements as fundamentals. We want to do something here that demonstrates that we really are upset by what happened, but we don’t want to damage the existing structure of the financial industry, the pinnacle at the top of what, a dozen, eight, ten megacorporations that are banks?
DYLAN: Well, it’s only three or four now. It was eight or ten but the big banks used the crisis to eliminate half of them so now it’s four.
BILL: Right, which is part of that monopoly drive, isn’t it?
DYLAN: Of course.
BILL: And too big to fail is a government-certified monopoly process.
BILL: And that legislation did not change that.
DYLAN: No, no. It made it worse.
BILL: It didn’t attempt to change it.
DYLAN: It made it worse.
BILL: And it just kicked it over to the Federal Reserve, which was co-author of the disaster, and said, “You guys figure it out. You’re smart. You understand this banking stuff. You make some rules that will stop this.”
BILL: And, you know, you don’t have to be left or right or neutral or anything else to see that. And so that’s my little…
DYLAN: But here’s the challenge.
BILL: They shout at people, “Hey, nothing has changed that matters,” you know.
DYLAN: Right. So here’s the challenge though. So if we look at healthcare and banking as the canary in the coal mine that tell you that if you have identified the problem as you and I have as consolidated wealth and power in the hands of a few depriving freedom and investment from the vast majority of Americans in a mirror image or a version of a mirror image of what Teddy Roosevelt ultimately had to deal with between the 1890s and the 1900s and ultimately breaking the trusts, and we were all looking to Barack Obama and the Democrats to deal with the monopoly power of the employer-based healthcare system, the monopoly in the insurance companies in healthcare or the banks and we didn’t get it, so now you look, “Okay, what is my alternative?”
But I want to read what you write about the alternative ‘cause I agree with you. So you say okay, I’m disenfranchised. The Democrats are telling me that they’re for freedom and fairness but their actions actually certify oppression, economic enslavement, and control. So I need somebody that’s not them that’s going to really deal with this and break up the modern day trusts, break up the modern day monopolies to release freedom and creativity once again into a country that I love.
So I looked to the other side of the aisle and I find the Republicans, and here’s what you write about the Republicans.
“Republicans, armed with strong conviction, are resurgent with what amounts to ideological nihilism. Leave aside their obvious hypocrisies on fiscal rectitude and free markets. Their single-minded objective is to destroy what remains of government's capacity to intervene in or restrain the private sector on behalf of the common welfare.”
When the one group is as we just described and your alternate path in a two-party system is what you just described here, which I completely agree with your assessment, you find yourself in quite the pickle.
BILL: Well, I’ve been singing this song for some years and I’m repeating it again. We were all born as citizens and we have partly by our own negligence but mainly by design been stripped of our role as citizens and turned into mere spectators who can bounce up and down on the couch and get mad at the right and wrong things, but we do not act like citizens. We can and this is not easy, it’s hard work, but I really do believe we will change this when people everywhere, I do not care about their labels, begin to take themselves seriously again and act like citizens.
Now, that sounds fuzzy but in the practical, concrete, present sense, it requires people to take down incumbent politicians of almost any stripe and put a little righteous fear in the hearts of both political parties. That happened quite spectacularly last fall and I’d not say I appreciate the results but I respect the fact that people did that.
And yes, there was money piled on and we know all the contradictions, but I’m not in the school that dismisses the Tea Party as some sort of a think tank concoction. I think it was quite real. I think it was deluded about a lot of stuff but nevertheless quite sincere. And I asked a good question in the piece you’re quoting from, where are the ankle biters of the left who will do the same for the Democratic Party?
DYLAN: Where are they?
BILL: Where are they? Well, few of them are in motion, but this is a longer story about the decay of the political institutions and mediating institutions that in my view are too close to the Democratic Party and so often for good reasons, but that side is largely disorganized. Organized labor which was and remains a principal voice for the working class has been decimated in the last 30 years. I’ve covered it as a reporter. It’s an incredible story of how and often with government collaboration by Democrats in power if you could believe that, but that’s happened.
Nevertheless, there are a few institutions that could help lead. I think it has to come literally from the grassroots up and I see some signs of that, but that’s my church, that’s what I’m preaching. And the reason I have faith in this Dylan, as corny as it sounds, is that I think that’s the story of American history, and I think if you go back over 200 years plus, you will see if you read the true history that it was always people of rather humble and sometimes oppressed status rising up and trying to force this country to live by its ideals, and some of those struggles took not just a generation but several generations. Civil rights and liberation of African-Americans in bondage is the most dramatic example but there are many others.
DYLAN: Women's suffrage.
BILL: Women's suffrage took even longer and the ability of workers to organize themselves in their own interest and speak for themselves and make voice demands. That was illegal 120 years ago. The Supreme Court said you can’t do that. It’s against the Constitution.
So what I’m trying to convince people to think about is where are we in this storyline. We are not triumphant. We are not exultant in our freedoms. We are not the most generous, loving country on earth. I’m not searching for comparisons ‘cause we’re Americans -- we’ll take care of America.
And I get excited because as a reporter over many years, I know this is in people. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen people of again very humble status and they don’t have any power at all, take themselves seriously as citizens and then discover things within them that they didn’t even know were there. I’ve seen working people. I’ve seen business managers. I’ve seen black people in the ghetto. I’ve met Indians on Indian reservations. This is a kind of universal possibility that I think democracy offers people and that’s what I’m trying to teach.
DYLAN: I can’t think of a more powerful or more valuable lesson or a better note upon which to conclude this conversation, Bill. Thank you for giving us some time to have this conversation.
Thank you for the journalism that you perpetrate on behalf of everybody in this country each and every day and thank you for your friendship and accessibility to someone like myself as we all collectively attempt to utilize the resources that are available to us to draw attention to the fact that again we have been here before, this country has been through these types of dynamics before, that there are solutions to these problems, that they are not necessarily easy to do but they are also not necessarily complicated. They just may be hard to do. And the more I think collectively we can move ourselves up the educational curve to put the type of problems that we have today of concentrated power and wealth as this country has suffered in the past, and how again someone like Teddy Roosevelt solved those problems in the past, makes it seem more achievable that we can solve the problems of the present much the same as you are inspired by the individuals you are referencing.
I think we can also take inspiration from the history across the board as you referenced in that these problems, as unique and disturbing as they may seem at times, are in fact fairly universal and running in a cycle that while incredibly alarming and scary and disruptive is also a cycle that has an antidote. And I agree with you that it is an antidote that surely not only will emerge but will emerge with great effectiveness and release great opportunity. I think what we all don’t know is how long it will take and from where it will come, and that I suppose is why we all come to work each day to attempt to continue to see what the next chapter holds.
Bill Greider, national affairs correspondent from The Nation. Thank you so much.
BILL: Thanks a lot, Dylan, for having me.
DYLAN: Welcome back. One thing that struck me in our conversation with Bill Greider, who is the national affairs correspondent for The Nation, is when we talk about moving toward the middle, being less partisan, et cetera, et cetera, we have to be very careful that we don’t simply come to agree to a bunch of false ideals that both parties want us to agree to because it serves the interests of those who control them. It’s critical that we understand that the distinction between moving beyond left and right doesn’t mean that you make the left and right just sort of stop fighting or that you in some way find some common ground between the left and right where they both believe the banks should control your life or they both believe that the monopolies should control your life, but that we find common ground on the fundamental values for which we believe this country stands and for which we expect any politician or to which we expect any politician to adhere, and how we cannot look to Teddy Roosevelt 100 years ago who approached the room on the very simple basis that in fact it was not a free or competitive market if it was controlled by one or two or three or four single players, that those single players were in fact oppressive to all humanity, all freedom and all opportunity exclusively for their benefit. He also recognized that the politicians were doing little or nothing to prevent it and in fact, in many cases as they are doing today, were working on behalf of the Rockefellers and the Morgans and the Carnegies to help them secure continued controL and prevent any real competition in this country.
And I ask you to look to the story of Teddy Roosevelt and the extraordinary disruptive change of breaking up those monopolies that he had to pursue in order to save this country from total annihilation at the hands of greedy, noncompetitive, cheating weasels who tend to be the types who end up at the top of these organizations because quite honestly, in a truly competitive environment they can’t cut it, which is why they’re paying off the government so that they don’t have to do it, and then they lord their money as if they have accomplished something when all they have accomplished is they have participated in one of the most evil and destructive systems that currently exists in the world. And if that is something to be proud of and you have money for that, well, let me redefine the word “pride” and let me redefine that which would be prideful for me. And let us seek our pride in being great at solving the problems of others and the expectation that money is a little more than a reflection of the quality of our work, that it is not an end in and of itself and certainly not an end to be achieved by virtue of stealing it from someone else.
If you haven’t spent time reading and checking out Bill Greider, do take the time. He is on The Nation. I’m Dylan Ratigan. That’s it for Radio Free Dylan.