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Q&A: Robert Reich on Saving Capitalism

December 5, 2017
by Melissa Batchelor Warnke
Robert Reich headshot

Robert Reich is one of the country’s most influential and prolific political analysts. While Reich has held a variety of high-profile media and advocacy positions and serves as the Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley, he remains best known for serving as President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor. Reich recently released a Netflix documentary called Saving Capitalism, a wide-ranging issue film that weaves together American economic history, Reich’s professional history, data visualizations, archival clips, and footage from his most recent book tour to make an argument about the relationship among free markets, big money, and governmental regulation. Saving Capitalism may wander too freely for some viewers, and those who want to see Reich confront crony capitalism’s supporters and beneficiaries are likely to be disappointed. He spends more time onscreen endearing himself to those he disagrees with than cross-examining them. But Saving Capitalism serves as a useful primer on how our political-economic system has been structured to continually degrade the poor and powerless.

You titled your latest documentary Saving Capitalism, which is also the title of your 2015 book. There’s a lot of disenchantment on the left with capitalism. Why save it?

I chose the title because I wanted to be provocative. Many people I talked with during my book tour who describe themselves as conservatives or Republicans didn’t like the title because they felt it suggested there was something wrong with capitalism. Many liberals and progressives didn’t like the title because they didn’t want to save capitalism. So it obviously was the perfect title.

In a slightly more serious vein, the question is not capitalism or something else. Capitalism is now global. There is no country that is not capitalistic in the sense of basing its economy mainly on ownership of private property and the free exchange of goods and services. Even communist China is capitalist in that sense. The real question is: what kind of capitalism? The Nordic countries—Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands—practice a very different kind of capitalism than we do, for example. Ultimately, the question comes down to one of power. Who has the power to set the rules of the capitalist game? And therein lies the most important and most overlooked question.

In the United States, the rules are increasingly set by big corporations, Wall Street, and very rich individuals. The rest of the country has little or no voice. That means the rules of capitalism, the rules of the game, are tilted increasingly toward those at the top. We are the most unequal of all advanced economies. We have the highest rate of poverty. We have the highest CEO pay. We have the most extraordinary concentration of wealth and power of any other advanced economy. This is really the issue.

Was there any point when you thought: “Ok, the history of capitalism in the United States. I somehow got it into one book, but I can’t do it as a 90-minute movie”?

Yes, and I give enormous credit to the directors Jake Kornbluth and Sari Gilman. I was skeptical at first. It’s an incredibly complicated subject. How do you boil it all down and keep people interested? That’s their magic, not mine.

Robert Reich and Jacob Kornbluth sitting on a picnic table

Robert Reich and Director Jacob Kornbluth/ Saving Capitalism Facebook Page

In one scene, you have a conversation with extremely wealthy businesspeople, serious capitalists, over a very collegial meal. Why was it important for you not only to include those perspectives, but to do so in a very warm way?

I wanted to show that it’s at least possible for people to discuss these things across different ideological lines. Remember the person sitting next to me?

Yes, she said, “I didn’t expect to like you.” [Laughs]

She didn’t expect to like me. [Laughs.] They were very angry with me because they felt I had disrespected them and even attacked them for being wealthy businesspeople and lobbyists. I tried to make it clear to them, and by inference tried to make it clear in the film, that the point is not to vilify wealthy, powerful people. The point is to reveal that certain behaviors such as stacking the deck or rigging the system, if you will, in their favor are irresponsible and must be stopped.

Only a small portion of them engages in these behaviors. But using great wealth to undermine our system of democracy is simply wrong.

You also spoke to a very conservative congressman, Dave Brat (R-Mich.). Can any person that far to the right genuinely change your stances at this point in your life and career, or did you just get people like Brat on the record in this film to fill out the picture for your audience?

I think it was important to have Dave Brat in the film because, as you remember, he agreed with me and I agreed with him on the very central issue of crony capitalism, as it’s called. He got into Congress by taking on Eric Kantor, who was then a House Republican and the Majority Leader. He attacked Kantor as being too close to Wall Street. That intrigued me because I began to read and listen to David Brat. Although we are light-years away from each other on most issues, especially social issues, he and I are very closely aligned on this issue of money in politics. I think it’s important for people to see that this issue transcends the normal party lines and ideological lines. It underlies why so many Americans are so angry on both sides of the divide.

You must have interviewed many of the people in the movie before Trump was elected or even had the nomination. Is that right?

Yes, and the interesting thing to me is that we inadvertently foreshadowed Trump’s victory. You’ll recall the living room of the farmers in Missouri where they had a good-natured family debate about Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump. When we recorded that, most political insiders in Washington were saying the two candidates to watch in 2016 were Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. But what I was getting as I traveled around the country was the same thing I heard in that living room in central Missouri: Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders.

It surprised me at first because the two of them seemed to be on different planets. But in this one respect of taking on a game that was rigged and shaking up the system, they were saying much the same thing—or, at least, people were hearing much the same thing. Obviously, instead of draining the swamp, Donald made it deeper and bigger. But in 2016, people were seeing someone who would take the system back for them, just as they saw that in Bernie Sanders.

You backed Sanders in the Democratic primary. How do you think his message connects to the message of your film?

It’s very consistent. Ultimately what we find now in American politics is that the energy in both parties is in their anti-establishment wings. Bernie Sanders is still the energizing force in the Democratic party. I don’t mean to suggest that he and he alone provides that energy—there are others who stand for many of the same ideas and principles. But it’s the Bernie wing of the Democratic party that has the activism, the energy, the young people, the forward momentum, and the grassroots excitement, even today.

In the film, you talked about the importance of regular citizens being involved and getting politically active. Aside from registering to vote, what tangible actions can regular citizens be taking right now?

They can join up with others in a local group, for instance an Indivisible group or another group like that. There are thousands of them around the country. And they can begin to organize not only for the 2018 elections, although that’s very, very important—registering people to vote, small donations, and mobilizing the large number of people who don’t usually vote—but also focus on state and local elections. They can develop ways for younger people to get directly involved in politics and explain why that’s so important, particularly at this point in time. I say in the film that citizenship is much more than voting, serving on juries, and paying taxes.

It is the active practice of democracy. It is civic engagement. During the civil rights era and the anti-Vietnam era, that kind of engagement was as important as it is now.

Now, much of that organizing is happening online.

That poses a problem. It can’t be only online. People need to come together in person because there is something very important and valuable that happens when people join together in real time and space. They learn much more about each other and they learn about the power in numbers. It’s one thing to sit behind a computer and sign a petition. But there is nothing more energizing and empowering than getting together with people in an auditorium or a school gym or some other place where people have an opportunity to literally join together.

The other part of what I hope the film does is inspire people to go out and talk to people they disagree with. We’ve become so polarized that there’s very little social learning taking place. You choose your tribe and essentially only learn what your tribe is saying or believing. And that’s hugely dangerous for our democracy.

Robert Reich talking into a microphone

Screenshot of Saving Capitalism / Netflix

On the left, some people who have various marginalized identities are feeling so attacked and raw-nerved under this presidency that they’re afraid. Telling them to have conversations with people who may question their very humanity is asking a lot.

It’s asking a huge amount if it is indeed asking that we talk with people who are so opposed to us that they don’t respect our humanity. But most Republicans and conservatives I come across are not nearly that extreme. They call themselves conservatives and Republicans but they recoil from the kind of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia that we are seeing coming out of some Trump supporters and from Trump himself.

It’s important to keep in mind that most Americans are not haters. Even those who are on the conservative side of the divide are not the kind of people who are unwilling to listen, in my experience.

I spend a lot of time in so-called red states. Just last month I was in Western Kentucky and I accept almost any invitation from a public university in a red state to come and give a talk. I’m repeatedly reminded that most self-described conservatives and Republicans are not bad people. They are not white supremacists; they aren’t the sort of people who cannot be talked with.

Many of us have people in our own families who you don’t look forward to talking politics with, but very few of them are bigots.

So you think you can support a candidate who does and says bigoted things without being a bigot yourself?

Yes. Many Republicans I run into and many conservatives voted for Trump despite his bigotry. They held their nose because they either found Hillary Clinton to be such an establishment figure they didn’t trust her, they wanted to shake up Washington, or because they were a businessperson. But very few of the people I have met who voted for Trump were happy to vote for Trump. I am sure there are some people who still to this day are fanatically behind him. But don’t assume that everybody who voted for Trump is a fanatic.

I was reading through Twitter trying to get a sense of how people were responding to the film. I want to read you two tweets that were written an hour apart:

“Holy crap balls, if you’re in some need of hope about politics watch Saving Capitalism.”

“Everyone should watch and realize how royally fucked we are because of our rigged economic system. Better start hiding stacks in the wall now.”  

Did you expect this wide range of reactions, from big hope to fatalistic despair?

It surprises me. I’ve heard the same kind of range of responses. There’s no question the film reveals some issues that should be of deep concern to people, and it comes at a very dark time in our history. But I wanted it to be hopeful in the sense that the last part of the film explores where I get my optimism from and why I’m optimistic about the future. We have shots of my students and classes, but also many of the people who the viewers met through the film who are coming together and giving voice to their concerns. That to me is a very hopeful message. But I can certainly understand how the other part of the message, how challenging this time is and what the underlying causes of Trump’s victory were, can be a downer for a lot of people.

The scene where you were speaking with your students was the most moving part of the film for me. You told them, “When I was in government I wish I had pushed harder. But at the time I thought I was pushing as hard as I could, as hard as I dared.” Can you talk a little bit more about that?

It was difficult for me. Many people have had the experience in their organizations or among their peers of not being able to get people to see what you consider to be the truth and respond appropriately. I was in the cabinet of a President who had, I think, the right values and instincts, and for two years the Democrats had control over both houses of Congress. But I felt deeply frustrated by my inability to get him and congressional leaders to take the kind of action I felt they needed to, given the gravity of the problem—the problem being of course that wages were stagnating and had been for years, that inequality was growing, and that inequality was undermining our democracy. It was a tough slog. In retrospect, I do wish I had tried harder.

At the time, I thought I risked being marginalized. I was already in the process of being marginalized; when you’re the one saying the thing nobody wants to hear, and you’re saying it over and over again, you do risk becoming marginalized. I don’t know that Bill Clinton would have fired me, but that was also in my mind. And I had two young boys who I was seeing very little of and who I missed terribly. I did the best I could. But I didn’t have as many allies as I needed, and sometimes I felt like a voice crying in the wilderness. In retrospect, you always wonder if you could have done more. I might have been able to. I don’t know.

Most people would say that you’ve done a lot. You’re 71 now and you’ve written 14 books, you teach at the University, you’re the chairman of Common Cause… I don’t need to tell you everything you do. [Laughs.] What keeps you motivated and pushing forward after so many years of coming up against people who may be unwilling to see your perspective?

Right now, I’m energized by my rage at what Donald Trump and the Republicans are doing to this country. I think it’s abominable, immoral. I think he is not just the worst president in my lifetime, but I think he poses a grave danger to this country, to our cohesion and our place in the world. So that rage is all I need to fuel me at the moment.

What do you hope viewers take away from the film?

I want people to reframe for themselves what’s happening in American politics and economics. I want them to see the connections between economics and politics. I want them to see that it’s not just Democrats and Republicans, but that there really is a huge surge of anti-establishment energy that is coming directly from a large number, if not a majority, of Americans. I want the wealthy and privileged in America to understand that they have got to accept, if not actually advocate for, fundamental changes that will get big money out of politics and restore our democracy. If they don’t, we are all endangered.

Trump is just the latest manifestation. If we don’t change direction, we will have Trumps as far as the eyes can see, demagogues after demagogues, becoming worse and worse. We are at a crisis point in our political-economic system. I want people to see that, and I want to motivate them to get active in 2018, 2020, and in their daily lives.

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