It’s the Economy, Stupid! (and Morality and Patriotism and.... )

In a New Book, Robert Reich Offers Persuasive Critiques, but Unimaginative Solutions

By Ari Melber

Published May 28, 2004, issue of May 28, 2004.
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Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America

By Robert Reich

Knopf, 272 pages, $24.

* * *

Robert Reich has played many roles: professor, writer, bureaucrat, labor secretary and political candidate. Now he is joining the ranks of celebrity-authors peddling punchy, polemic, liberal books for this active political season. His goal is to reach people who may not consider themselves liberals, but who are “alarmed” by the rise of conservative extremists and the “shrillness of public debate in America.”

Reich charts the rise of radical conservatives — whom he’s termed “Radcons” — from extreme figures in the 1970s to the dominant leadership of today’s Republican Party. He argues that their growing network of politicians, donors, media pundits and Christian fundamentalists succeeded by coordinating their efforts to shrink government and “shape the public debate around their idea of evil.”

“To Radcons, global terrorism and domestic degeneracy are symptoms of a deeper threat: an evil that exists around the world and also within each of us, an evil that was released in the ’60s and never eradicated,” Reich explains. He laments how Robert Bork and Bill Bennett used this conception of evil to define “public morality” and to attack private behavior like adultery and homosexuality.

Reich argues that many liberals are so focused on tolerance that they have abandoned the moral high ground. He urges them to take it back by framing economic issues in moral terms: Corporate abuse is harmful and unethical; most political donations amount to shameful, legal bribery; exorbitant executive compensation is an unjust abuse of power; and tax evasion is a cowardly breach of the social contract.

The problem with this approach is that voters are more interested in adultery than in tax evasion (even if the Ten Commandments forbid both). Controversial social issues are wedge issues precisely because they cut directly to core beliefs, and moralizing about the economy is unlikely to win over cultural conservatives.

The Radcons did not stop at morality, Reich warns; they want to claim the flag, too. He finds their patriotism too narrow, political and triumphant; it is heavy on symbols, light on sacrifice and yearning for a “cultural purity America never had.” It is odd that the party known for its antipathy toward the American government is considered the most patriotic. Reich chastises liberals for being silent or embarrassed when they should be embracing patriotism — and enhancing it with real sacrifice and public service. He advocates a two-year requirement for young people to serve in homeland security, Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, and he fuses this appeal with a superficial review of foreign policy since September 11, 2001.

“Reason” closes with a game plan for winning. Liberals, Reich writes, must apply “morality, prosperity and patriotism” and take a unified message to the American people. It will be hard, because he has discovered that “there is no Democratic Party,” and there are too many single-issue liberal groups competing for similar supporters, donors and media attention.

The critique is persuasive, but Reich’s solution is unimaginative: All the groups should unite as “ground troops” to reignite the party. Reich’s electoral analysis is even fuzzier: He asserts that the Constitution gives the presidential candidate with the most votes all a state’s electors; in fact, each state decides how to award electors. (Currently Maine and Nebraska are the only states that award electoral votes by congressional district.) Reich devotes only one paragraph in this section to his 2002 loss in the Massachusetts governor’s race; he bemoans his late start and admits that he may not be a very good politician. This is a shame, since he could have contrasted the political strategies in the book with his own campaign experience.

In the end, Reich is still confident that “liberals will win the battle for America” if they follow his advice to “take back” morality and patriotism. This is a far cry from the book’s opening chapter, which disapprovingly quotes Newt Gingrich’s proclamation that modern political debate in America is “a civil war” in which “only one side will prevail.” Reich concludes with a similar attitude, but there is a fundamental problem with viewing all political debate as a battle for total control of America — or its symbols and values. Our democracy was founded on competition and compromise, our patriotism can bridge political differences and our faith should transcend them. Many Americans are tired of the politics of ownership and division; they expect a little more from their leaders, and a lot more from their thinkers.

Ari Melber, a former legislative aide in the U.S. Senate, is a contributor to “MoveOn’s 50 Ways to Love Your Country.”

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