Robert Reich: Balancing Revolution and Unity

Co-authored by Truman Chen

Robert Reich. Image via Creative Commons.
Robert Reich. Image via Creative Commons.

Stanford’s Rob Reich, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for Ethics in Society, couldn’t seem happier than he did last Tuesday when he had the opportunity to introduce his very own doppelgänger, the University of California’s Robert B. Reich, Professor of Public Policy, best-selling author, and former Secretary of Labor during the Clinton administration, to an audience of Stanford faculty, students, and community members.

Berkeley’s Bob Reich — as he would be referred to throughout the night so as to distinguish him from Stanford’s Rob Reich — spoke about his new book, Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few. He acknowledged, jokingly, that no one likes the title: conservatives don’t think capitalism needs saving, while liberals think it isn’t worth saving.

Although he’s an outspoken Bernie Sanders supporter, Bob Reich admitted that he believes Hillary Clinton and Paul Ryan (yes, Paul Ryan, despite the Speaker’s statement that same morning) will end up winning their parties’ nominations. Nevertheless, he insists that the American political system is on the brink of a major transformation.

It is likely that in coming years the major fault line in American politics will shift from Democrat versus Republican to anti-establishment versus establishment — that is, to the middle class, working class, and poor who see the game as rigged versus the executives of large corporations, the inhabitants of Wall Street, and the billionaires who do the rigging.
— Saving Capitalism, p.187

In Saving Capitalism, Reich also reexamines the theory put forward in John Kenneth Galbraith’s 1952 work, American Capitalism: The Concept of Countervailing Power. During Tuesday’s talk, Reich decried the increasing imbalance of power between the elites and the working people. He also declared the rise of populist candidates during the 2016 presidential election not a result of racism or xenophobia but rather a result of genuine economic anxiety and frustration directed at the elites who have not given enough attention to the worst off in society.

When it came time to take questions from the audience, a member of the audience asked Reich, who called himself a friend of Hillary Clinton’s since she was 19, if Hillary Clinton is “redeemable” despite her “close ties to Wall Street.” In response, Reich spoke of how he hears all the time now from Hillary Clinton supporters who say they’ve lost respect for him since he endorsed Bernie Sanders and of how he sees everyday on social media Bernie Sanders supporters who call the former first lady things like “the most corrupt politician ever.” He urged both sides to “tone it down” because “we’re looking forward to a major general election brawl and we need to stick together.”

In response to this attitude and after Thursday night’s Democratic debate, Reich took to Facebook to write:

I thought tonight’s debate between Bernie and Hillary Clinton was too belligerent on both sides. It’s understandable that both candidates would feel pressure to be more combative, but I worry that if this keeps up it will be harder for either’s supporters to enthusiastically unite behind the opponent as nominee just 90 days from now — when unity and enthusiasm will be essential in order to overcome a far greater Republican menace. What do you think?

Granted that Reich has become a figurehead in recent months of the Bernie Sanders movement, his earnest willingness to simultaneously protect Clinton is telling in that it reveals a problematic attempt to balance revolutionary rhetoric with party unity with the “establishment.” Reich posts regularly about the “revolution” on social media to his millions of followers (he has more likes on Facebook than John Kasich.) Thus, when he said at Stanford last Tuesday that he has “a great deal of confidence in [Hillary Clinton],” and that “she would be an exceptionally good president,” it becomes difficult not to suspect some disingenuity.

There is a need to take more seriously potential contradictions in at once advocating for Sanders on the basis of the necessity for radical reform while also expressing content with the possibility of a Clinton presidency. Of course there is the obvious assertion that there exists a larger chasm between the Republican candidates and the Democratic ones, but Reich is the very person who proclaims that the split between establishment and anti-establishment is even more pronounced.

The line between hailing the necessity for revolution and for unity is a difficult one to walk, and Reich falters on the latter in spite of his best efforts. Less than thirty minutes after the aforementioned post calling for unity, he posted the following more divisive post:

Bernie Sanders’s candidacy is not really about Bernie. It’s about a movement to reclaim our economy and democracy from the moneyed interests that have a choke hold on it. Bernie is the voice of that movement — which gives his candidacy purpose and urgency. Hillary Clinton’s fundamental handicap is that her candidacy is about her. She is not leading a movement. Which leaves her candidacy with only one real purpose — to elect her. And in many people’s minds, at least at this point, that purpose doesn’t feel particularly urgent. What do you think?

To be sure, there is an intuitive need for basic respect and decency in our political discourse. And Reich is also correct to point out that in the long-run, party unity will be essential for a victory against the Republican candidate in the coming general election. But the accusations launched between Clinton and Sanders, and their respective supporters, should be understood as natural extensions of each campaign’s values, not as gratuitous insults. That is, adherence to the fundamental tenets of the Sanders campaign necessarily discredits Clinton. One cannot in good faith declare that everyone but Sanders is in a money “choke hold” and simultaneously insist that we not be combative. If it is sincerely hoped for, as Reich does, that Sanders fundamentally override establishment politics, it must also be admitted that this enterprise will inevitably be combative, and there is no reason to assume or expect that this combativeness will not be uniformly applied to the establishment politician of his own party.

The central assumption underlying Reich’s understanding is that party unity can be salvaged if voices are lowered and tones are made softer. But this misses the point entirely: what is fragmenting the Democrats is fundamental in nature, and it is not something that can be patched up by a thin coat of politeness. This sort of wishful thinking marred by contradiction is not unique to Reich. Rather, given his popularity, it might be argued that he serves as an embodiment of more widespread deliberations that result from the contradictory and difficult nature of organizing an anti-establishment political revolution constrained within a ballot box dominated by the establishment.