JOURNALIST AND CONTRIBUTING WRITER Kelly Candaele reports for LARB from the Democratic National Convention. His dispatches from the convention floor include interviews with members of Congress, authors and experts, as well as his own impressions on developing events.
In this first of the two-part series, he interviews John Heilemann, columnist and co-author of Game Change; E.J. Dionne, Cclumnist and author of Our Divided Political Heart; Sean Wilentz, Professor of American History at Princeton University and author of The Rise of American Democracy; and Congressman John Lewis, U.S. Representative for Georgia, 5th Congressional District. Also included is a video clip of President Bill Clinton speaking at the afterparty following his convention address.
Click here to read Part II of the series, featuring interviews with Eric Foner, the DeWitt Professor of History at Columbia University, and Stewart Wood, advisor to Ed Milliband, Leader of the British Labour Party.
Donkey Painting © Lisa Jane Persky
Columnist, National Political Correspondent, Co-Author of Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime
In his convention address, President Bill Clinton reminded Democratic delegates, and a good part of the nation, why he was twice elected President. He was able to articulate –in a speech that admittedly was too long – the differences between the Republican version of what our economy should become, and an alternative Democratic approach. Clinton brought the convention house down, and brought President Obama out of the wings to join him. The critiques of him notwithstanding, including his own failure as President in the face of pressure from Wall Street, Bill Clinton is clearly one of the most skilled politicians in American history.
I interviewed John Heilemann, author of Game Change, on the morning of Clinton's speech. We talked about the psychological and stylistic differences between Obama and Clinton, and why Clinton is being sent out on the campaign trail to shore up the President's demographic weaknesses.
— Kelly Candaele
President Bill Clinton's Convention Speech, September 5, 2012
Kelly Candaele: Do these national party conventions matter anymore?
John Heilemann: They certainly matter in the sense that, in prime time at least, there are large numbers of Americans watching them. The historical, old-fashioned conventions have been fading away for a long time. Back then, when people got nominated, it was after very few primaries and caucuses. The conventions were mostly about demonstrating strength and not about accumulating delegates. That model went out a long time ago. The party convention has largely ceased to be about actually nominating the candidate through a ratification process, and has evolved into a three or four day-long infomercial. They are highly scripted and carefully produced.
KC: Not so well scripted in Tampa apparently.
JH: It’s fair to say that sometimes things go awry in human endeavors. The truth is that most Americans who don’t actually pay attention to the primaries and caucuses start to focus on the Presidential election now, with the conventions. You’re talking about 20 or 30 million people watching in prime time; that matters, especially for the nominee.
KC: In your book Game Change, you wrote about the conflict and chaos of the 2008 campaigns: the internal bickering and fighting, the disastrous decisions that were made, the guesses about how effective particular political advertising would be. The conventions are supposed to be controlled and scripted, but the two campaigns in 2008 had many difficulties. How are the 2012 campaign teams different from four years ago?
JH: It’s a different race. I don’t mean to belabor the obvious, but when you have an incumbent President in the race it’s a different deal, and that wasn’t the case back then. Part of the reason that the 2008 campaign was riveting and so historic is that you had two open races going on at the nomination level, and not only no incumbent, but no heir apparent. There was no Vice President who was running for the Republican nomination. It was two wide open races. That hadn’t happened in 50 years. So there was a greater inherent level of unpredictability to that process, whereas this year you had one side where you knew who the nominee was and it was going to be the President.
Also, on the Republican side, there was a nomination fight with a high degree of chaotic, unpredictable developments that were a different kind than in 2008. I don’t think anybody would have assumed that over a succession of months, the following people would be, for periods of time, the Republican frontrunner: Michele Bachman, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum. That’s a pretty unusual cast of characters. The Republicans have generally operated on the principle of primogeniture, where you have one person who is next in line and is the front-runner, and that person gets the nomination.
It’s been a pretty exciting race, and I think we are going to have a general election that is exciting in a different kind of way than 2008. People forget, if it hadn’t been for Sarah Palin and the financial crisis and the Lehmann Brothers collapse, everyone assumed the 2008 election was going to be a snooze, because Democrats had so much of an advantage, and there was so much “Bush fatigue” in the country. People assumed that the Democrats would waltz to victory.
This campaign is very competitive, within the margin of error ever since Romney became the nominee. Both sides think it’s going to be razor close. The Republicans are very engaged and animated in trying to beat Obama, and the Democrats are engaged at trying to stave off a Republican takeover; you could easily see three, four or five states coming down to less than a percentage point dividing the two sides. There are people who are already preparing for the possibility of multiple Florida style recounts in this election.
KC: A rather highly placed political operative I talked to this morning suggested that this race was “Romney’s to lose.” He pointed out that despite the devastating economy in 2008 and all the other advantages that, as you point out, Democrats had in that campaign, 47 percent of the voters still chose McCain.
JH: I don’t really think that it’s either side’s to lose. It’s also hard for me to say that it’s Romney’s to lose when he’s running against an incumbent President who, in every personal metric, is viewed as more likable, more empathetic, more trusted; viewed as more empathetic to the lives of average voters. An incumbent who has the kind of Electoral College advantage Obama has, in a race in which almost no polling has had Romney in the lead ... to say that it’s his to lose is an overstatement.
I think Romney could easily win. There are environmental factors that weight against the President. We have a down economy, which has been consistently down during his entire tenure. More than 60 percent of the public believes the country is on the wrong track. This is an incumbent President whose approval ratings have almost never been over 50 percent. That’s a vulnerable incumbent. A Republican should be able to win that race.
We have over eight percent unemployment, stagnant wages, stagnant income, stagnant GDP growth. On the other hand, you don’t have a generic Republican running against Obama. Every piece of polling indicates that for all of Mitt Romney’s personal attributes, when he got the nomination, he was the least popular Republican nominee in history, who over the past four months has only gotten weaker in terms of his personal favorability ratings. Now this could change after these two conventions, and we’ll see the lay of the land. Romney has been systematically weak on a lot of fronts, and he hasn’t been able to lead Obama in national polling. That’s been true for about 95 percent of the polls. Still, it’s always within the margin of error. But more importantly, in the battleground states the President has been comfortably ahead in some of them and narrowly ahead in others. I can’t handicap it in any other way than it’s a dead heat.
There’s a very small number of undecided voters. The Obama campaign thinks that there is a hard five percent that is undecided right now.
KC: Who are they going after in the narrower sense? Who are these supposedly undecided voters at this point?
JH: Well there are no undecideds in the Hispanic, black or female categories. It’s mostly white men that are undecided, and they are either white working-class men or white older men, and some older women and some working-class women. The minority population is baked in. Obama has had a 40 point lead with Hispanics for the past six months. The black vote is going to be 95 percent Obama to five percent Romney, or 97 percent to three percent. So it comes down to white voters. The Medicare ads and welfare ads that Romney is running are a recognition of the fact that in order for Romney to win, he has to get the President’s support among white voters down to about 39 or 38 percent. Then there is a chance he can win. Without that, there is no chance.
KC: Does it surprise you that Bill Clinton is playing such a prominent role at this convention, in an attempt to presumably keep those undecided voters in the Democratic fold?
JH: There are three politicians in America right now who have approval ratings over 60 percent. One is Michelle Obama, and the other two are both named Clinton. That the incumbent President sees it as a big asset to have on hand a former President of the United States with an approval rating over 60 percent — forget about any of the demographic breakdowns — doesn’t surprise me at all. It’s true there was a lot of animosity between Obama and the Clinton’s during the 2008 campaign, but that has been ameliorated over the past three years. Hilary Clinton has served loyally and successfully as Secretary of State, so I think there has been a lessening of the tension.
There is no question that Barack Obama is a very self-sufficient guy. But in this close race, Obama’s desire for self-sufficiency is outweighed by his desire to win. He’s very competitive. He doesn’t like leaning on people, but he likes losing even less, so he’s going to do what he has to do to get there. Bill Clinton A) is generally incredibly popular; B) is an incredible communicator; C) has special purchase with a lot of the white voters who are left in play; D) speaks more fluidly about the economy than any other politician on the planet; and E) is as good as anyone in describing to normal people the difference between a Democratic vision of the future and a Republican vision of the future.
KC: You say that Obama doesn’t like needing people. Other than a normal feeling that many people have of not liking to ask for things, what is that about?
JH: Obama is an unusual politician. There are very few people in American politics who achieve something — not to mention the Presidency —in which the following two conditions are true: one, they don’t like people. And two, they don’t like politics.
KC: Obama doesn’t like people?
JH: I don’t think he doesn’t like people. I know he doesn’t like people. He’s not an extrovert; he’s an introvert. I’ve known the guy since 1988. He’s not someone who has a wide circle of friends. He’s not a backslapper and he’s not an arm-twister. He’s a more or less solitary figure who has extraordinary communicative capacities. He’s incredibly intelligent, but he’s not a guy who’s ever had a Bill Clinton-like network around him. He’s not the guy up late at night working the speed dial calling mayors, calling governors, calling CEOs. People say about Obama that it’s a mistake that he hasn’t reached out more to Republicans on Capitol Hill. I say that may be a mistake, but he also hasn’t reached out to Democrats on Capitol Hill. If you walk around [the convention] and button-hole any Democratic Senator you find on the street and ask them how many times they have received a call [from the President] to talk about politics, to talk about legislative strategy, I guarantee you won’t find a lot of people who have gotten one phone call in the last two and a half years. And many of them have never been called.
I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t know what the root of that is. People have theories about it. But I know in practice he is a guy who likes to operate with a very tight circle around him, trusts very few people easily or entirely. He ran his campaign that way in 2008, he runs his White House that way, and he’s running his campaign that way in 2012. President Obama just doesn’t talk to too many people.
President Bill Clinton at the Afterparty Following His Convention Speech
KC: You would think that that way of operating would be devastating to a legislative agenda, but that has not entirely been the case.
JH: There is no question that there is a lot of criticism of President Obama, that he has not achieved as much in three and a half years legislatively as he might have if he had employed different tactics, including more outreach and the kinds of things we have been talking about. On the other hand, if Barack Obama were here, he would point out that for 40 years Democrats tried to pass universal health care, and in the face of a determined Republican opposition, he somehow came up with a legislative strategy to get that bill passed, as well as passing financial reform, as well as passing the biggest stimulus in American history. It’s not that he doesn’t have legislative accomplishments to point to. Whether you think they are good or bad is a different issue. Those are all big lifts. An 800 billion dollar stimulus, near universal health care and financial regulation are all hard things to do in a very closely divided Congress, where much of the time Republicans had affective veto power because of the threat of filibuster in the Senate. So you can’t really ding the President too much for lack of legislative accomplishment.
KC: Any predictions about the race?
JH: My favorite political philosopher is Yoggi Berra. He said, “Prediction is always difficult, especially about the future.” The biggest problem with this campaign is that neither side, as of today, is campaigning in a way that will marshal a real mandate for dealing with the biggest challenges that the country faces after election day. They are campaigning in a very narrow gauge way, trying to motivate their base and, in what I do think will be a very close election, you are going to end up with a situation in Washington that is at least as polarized, if not more polarized, as the environment that we have had for the past four years. For a President who wins without a strong mandate, and to try to tackle the huge issues of entitlement reform, tax reform, the deficit in a hyper-polarized, hyper-partisan environment. . .It’s going to be really really hard. My prediction, to the extent that I have one, is that whoever ends up winning the election may regret that they didn’t campaign in a more future oriented and a more substantive way, because I think it may end up really hobbling either one of them when it comes to actually governing.
KC: You sound like a statesman.
JH: I’m an American. And I don’t think you can be an intelligent American and not look at the fact that some of these problems are not just large-scale problems that will command sacrifice from a lot of people. I don’t mean to sound grandiose about it, but people are going to have to bite the bullet on a lot of things. And the pain will have to be spread around to a lot of different groups. If you don’t call on people to sacrifice and be clear and make the case, you are not going to get that done. These problems we face are immediate and on the calendar, not abstract notions any more. The fiscal cliff is coming. It’s coming in December.
Columnist and Political Commentator, Author of Our Divided Political Heart
I’m used to listening to snippets of E.J. Dionne’s commentary on National Public Radio, or reading his political take on the world in the Washington Post. On the second day of the convention in Charlotte, the energy was ratcheted up in anticipation of First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech. In a break from convention caucus meetings and political networking, I had the opportunity to ride with Dionne to a bookstore several miles away from the center of town, where he was giving a talk about his new book Our Divided Political Heart. We talked as we drove through beautiful Charlotte boulevards, large charming homes set back thirty or forty yards from the road.
On the way we had a much longer talk than the ones they squeeze in with him on national radio. We discussed our country’s complex political history, our traditions of freedom and equality, and the fact that conservatives seem determined to unleash a new era of unregulated capitalism, threatening America’s long-standing tradition of checks and balances.
At Park Road Books, a thriving independent bookstore in Charlotte, people gathered to talk, learn and debate. It is those types of exchanges that Dionne believes are what helps to sustain a healthy democracy.
— Kelly Candaele
Kelly Candaele: Your book Our Divided Political Heart is a history of how, through political debate, we attempt to explain to ourselves the peculiarities and contradictions of who we are as “the American people,” with respect to our values, ideologies, political beliefs, and behaviors. Are we peculiar?
E.J. Dionne. In many ways, this is to talk about what American exceptionalism means and what makes us different as a people. People have been puzzled about this for a long time. Warner Sombart’s book Why Is There No Socialism In the United States? asks: What is it about our history and our values as Americans that makes us somewhat different than other peoples? I think some of the standard explanations are true, that we are a nation that didn’t have a national feudal system — we had a kind of feudal system in the south. White working class men got the right to vote before industrialization, and I think that creates something different about us. We didn’t have nationally established churches — we did have state established churches, but they went away. I think that contributed to making us a more religious people compared to other wealthy countries.
First Lady Michelle Obama's Convention Speech, September 4, 2012
KC: Daniel Walker Howe writes about this extensively in his book What Hath God Wrought, where he points out that religious denominations in early America had to actually organize and proselytize to bring in congregants and support themselves.
EJD: Very early on in the Great Awakening it was a people’s Christianity, where everyone could make their own decision about how to find Christ. It was a kind of low-church and non-theologically heavy brand of Christianity. Those are some of the things that make us peculiar. There are only a few counties in the world that end up being the dominant country globally, which we became during and after World War II. All those things make us somewhat different.
Having said that, I think there are more similarities between [Americans] and the Western Europeans than people on the left or the right let on. The New Deal did have — I think it was Richard Hofstadters’s phrase — a “social democratic tinge” to it, where there were rough class politics in America. We had fights over immigration and inequality throughout our history, but now you are seeing some of our friends in Europe having those fights as well. We’ve struggled with race and diversity throughout our history in a way that other countries haven’t: for us, it’s been there since the beginning.
KC: There was this debate in the mid 1980s with some of our most notable labor historians about whether we were somehow an anomaly, in that we didn’t have a so-called “class based” socialist politics, or whether we were “advanced” in that the Social Democratic parties in Europe themselves have become more like our Democratic Party: moderate, rather tepid, and jettisoning any fundamental challenge to the economic system. The British Labor Party is a prime example.
EJD: The cliché, which is true, is that we are a people bound by ideas and not by blood or soil. And because we place such a heavy stress on our ideas, particularly the founding ideas of the country, it is inevitable that we have fights, generation after generation, over what that history and tradition means. This book may reflect, in an odd way, the fact that I’m Catholic, because tradition really matters, and how you use tradition matters. So in a way, it’s about the fight over the meaning of the American tradition. The example I cite in the book shows us that what we are doing now is not entirely new. When Lincoln gave his famous Cooper Union speech, his whole purpose — and he did months of research — was to show that the founders, like himself, believed in the ultimate extinction of slavery; that both he and Stephen Douglas, when they were debating, were obsessed with placing themselves in the tradition of the founders. So what we are going through now is not peculiar.
But I do think there has been a particular tendency on the right going way back — and you can see it in the pre-confederate south — to use the Constitution not as a guide to a set of values but almost as an anchor to hold us back to the late eighteenth century. This is different than the progressive side that honors the Constitution, but sees it as fundamentally a charter for a steadily more democratic country and not as a charter to keep us in the past. There was a letter from Madison that argued that we should not be bound by a great reverence for the past or the great names of the past, that the founders were a pretty adventurous lot. They were conservative in many ways and mostly wealthy people, but what they did was adventurous. The whole spirit of the document was I think, forward looking. What you have on the conservative side is an attempt to lock us into a past that we have in many ways transcended, and happily so for the country.
KC: You point out in Our Divided Political Heart that there is what you call a “principled conservatism” going back to Edmund Burke, and even Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, where there are these “organic” institutions and cultural practices that shape and restrain economic markets in ways that are important to sustaining a community.
EJD: Since the book was published, some conservatives have countered that I was not distinguishing between government and community. They say they do believe in vital local communities and churches and people doing things voluntarily for each other, its just that where government is involved, they begin to have a problem. What I argue is that drawing an absolute line between government and community is also not within our tradition, that when you go back to the very beginning of the corporation, the corporation was designed to marry private interests with public interests. To get things done in the public interest, the government is often called upon to express the wishes of the community. To me, in a self-governing democratic country, it’s a fundamental mistake to draw an absolute line between government and community. I think what modern conservatives have done is venerate the market over every other value that, historically, conservatives have held. They’ve let go of so much of what I have always liked about conservatism: the belief in local community, the belief that religious institutions have an important role to play in a society, and in a limited power for government which I think most liberals agree with. There’s a lot of the conservative tradition that is attractive, but I think they’ve chucked much of it away in their absolutism in opposing government and in venerating the market.
KC: The big issue we face is when tremendous economic change, driven by the so-called “market,” dramatically undermines communities.
EJD: Yes, it often takes government to protect the interests of the community. What does it mean when a plant in a town in western Pennsylvania shuts down and throws three thousand people out of work? That ravages the fabric of the local community, a fabric that has been woven over a very long period of time.
KC: It’s capitalism, which, as Marx pointed out, is a revolutionary force.
EJD: Capitalism can destroy some of those very valuable local institutions. There is a limit to the state’s power to stop all of these innovations. And yet, I do think we want the state to be aware of the problem and do something where the state can preserve local community. Our conservative friends are mostly silent about this. In a must less complicated way, I’ve always defended AmeriCorps whenever it was up for cuts. It seems to me it is a small but concrete way government can strengthen the local community, because all of those volunteers work for these most local of institutions, including church-based charities and community organizations. So to say the government always disrupts and destroys communities I think is just empirically wrong.
The GI Bill, for instance, was written in close cooperation with the American Legion, and it in turn strengthened the veterans movement. Similarly, the National Labor Relations Act, empowered people inside firms to form unions, and unions are a form of community the right doesn’t like to talk about. Historically, unions were not only bargaining associations at work, but formed all kinds of benevolent associations, including educational associations, that were aimed at the self-improvement of working people. It’s a tradition we have almost entirely lost.
KC: There is the tradition of Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, and Lincoln that you write about: politicians that attempted to harness the inherent power of the market tied to the states role in encouraging economic development. Now you have one side that says the government should simply get out of the way and our society and economy will flourish. Meanwhile, Obama has fought to assert some balance in how government gets involved in the economy, but with somewhat tepid regulations.
EJD: I’ve always been interested in Hamilton, Clay and Lincoln. I read a book by Jacob Javits, a liberal Republican Senator from New York, that he wrote during the Goldwater insurgency to try to counter it — obviously unsuccessfully. Javits, with one of the most liberal records in Congress, always had to justify what he was doing in the Republican Party. He argued that if you look at the Republican tradition, that it was the tradition of national action. He went back to Hamilton, Clay and Lincoln, as well as Teddy Roosevelt. So I ask the Republicans: Why have you forgotten this tradition of national action?
They argue that any attempt to regulate the market is “un-American.” I use Hamilton, Clay and Lincoln to show that that is absolutely untrue. The very first fight between Hamilton and Madison was over whether a bank of the United States was constitutional. So what does this do to originalism if a couple of years after ratification the original guys who wrote the original document disagree about it so strenuously? If you look at Clay’s American System, it was a system of national planning within the framework of capitalism. For Lincoln, obviously the Civil War was in part about the legitimacy of defending the national government, but with the land grant colleges, and the Homestead Act and establishing the National Institute of Sciences, Lincoln also saw a powerful role for government. It’s important for us to go back and look at these traditions and see that these forms of intervention are, to use the cliché, as American as apple pie.
KC: Liberals and leftists always seem to be on the defensive. We can’t get a public option in health care, can’t get meaningful labor law reform passed, financial regulation is rather anemic. How do you respond to those who say, “Hey, look, liberalism is not going to cut it,” which is another way of saying, “What we really need to do is find a way to control this corporate dominated economic system we have?”
EJD: I would say that when we worked best — when the progressive movement, broadly conceived, worked best — there was a healthy interaction between liberal reformers and the activist left. You always had people outside of capitalism critiquing it, and reformers ended up buying a significant part of their critique. I think populists were an intellectually serious tradition in our country, and they paved the way for the progressives. Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were quite conservative reformers in certain ways, and yet the language they used to criticize economic concentration sounded like it could have been borrowed from an Occupy Wall Street encampment. The reforms of the New Deal preserved capitalism, and yet they accepted that capitalism needed a lot of reform and regulation. I think in this period, the conservative movement is more powerful than it was when they were facing FDR. It’s one of the reasons FDR was able to go farther, because conservatism got discredited for a while with the failure of Coolidge-Hooverism.
Obama had the misfortune of taking power after the crash, but before all the negative impacts had been felt on the country. By the time Roosevelt took over there was no ambiguity. Unemployment was up to 25% and the whole country blamed the conservative side, or certainly the Republican side. Obama didn’t have that luxury. He made some mistakes early on in not realizing how powerful and intransigent this conservatism was going to be, but I think objectively it was stronger than it was in FDR’s day.
And look what Lyndon Johnson did. He established a system of socialized medicine for senior citizens. That’s what Medicare really is. It’s not as if the liberal reform side is incapable of adopting many of the ideas in a moderated form of the organized left. In every industrial country in the world, socialists and social democrats have adapted to capitalism rather than overturn it. I don’t see a revolutionary socialist movement that is going to supplant the market. At some point we have to live with that reality.
Above: Placards Outside the Convention Floor
Below From Left: Santita Jackson, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Jesse Jackson, Sr.
Professor of American History, Princeton University
Politics involves an argument that occurs on several levels. There is the competition that takes place within, between and around political parties. There is the argument about what party should lead the nation forward, which will be decided on November 6. At the same time, a good part of the debate is about our collective past.
In this campaign, many of the themes that have been articulated are related to how we view the history of our nation. Were we founded as a “Christian nation?” Have we been an “exceptional” country, unburdened with the baggage of aristocratic privilege and class struggle? How have we reconciled our fundamental values of equality and freedom? If our “founders” were here today, would the lessons they would presumably impart to us be ones we could agree on? Since the emergence of our party system grew out of disagreements among “the founders,” it is highly unlikely. Thus to engage in a political fight is also to engage in a fight about how we interpret our history.
Sean Wilentz, Professor of American History at Princeton University, is one of our country’s most eminent historians, having produced monumental studies of the working-class political culture in New York in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (Chants Democratic) and the rise of Jacksonian democracy through the age of Lincoln (The Rise of American Democracy — Jefferson to Lincoln). He has also written about the dark origins of the Tea Party movement for the New Yorker and a recent book on Bob Dylan.
Wilentz has not shied away from partisan sparring within the Democratic Party. He testified on behalf of then President Bill Clinton during his impeachment trial, and forcefully supported Hilary Clinton during the 2008 presidential primaries. This interview does not re-hash that well-known controversy.
In a recent article in the New York Review of Books, Wilentz called for a more subtle understanding of the relationship between the political left and liberals in the United States, and the tension between advocacy and governance.
— Kelly Candaele
Kelly Candaele: You’ve written a book titled The Age of Reagan where you outline the political and social dynamics that explained his political ascendency. Are we still in the age of Reagan despite the election of Barack Obama?
Sean Wilentz: I think about this a lot. When I wrote that book, I didn’t want to get into predictions. We historians don’t go there. But I had the feeling that with the 2008 election something profound had changed. And it’s not altogether clear to me that this was untrue, that the politics that came out of the 1970s and led to the rise of Reagan haven’t played themselves out. By the same token, one couldn’t have foretold how events would unfold under Obama or what was going to happen with the continuing financial devastation after 2008. All of that was unpredictable. What’s interesting to me though is that a process that I think, overall, had come to hurt the Republican Party has only continued over the last four years; that is, the party’s continued move to the right.
There’s a certain irony that Republicans just nominated Mitt Romney, who is not a movement conservative by any means, but who has had to kowtow to the party’s right wing a great deal. The GOP also nominated Paul Ryan, who is a perfect example of the ideological and political forces unleashed during the age of Reagan and that have pushed the party to further extremes. So the Republicans’ fitful lurch to the Ayn Rand right, a dynamic that really began after Ronald Reagan left office, is still going on. We may see in November if it has played itself out.
KC: You wrote at the end of your book The Rise of American Democracy that during that period there were two distinctive democracies, Northern and Southern, and that the hopes and despairs of that time are still unsettled 140 years later. In what ways, if any, are we still dealing with the aftermath of the Civil War?
SW: In some ways Americans are always fighting the Civil War, or at least the issues that came out of the Civil War. What we have seen — and this is part of the dynamic I was talking about earlier — is that in the 1960s, the Democratic Party overcame the contradiction of being the party of liberalism attached to the Jim Crow South; at the same time, the Republican Party became the party of the conservative white South. In many ways, the Republican Party has become an updated version of what the Democratic Party was in the 1880s. Some of what we associate with the Confederacy, quite apart from slavery, is very much a part of the dominant ideology within the Republican Party: advocating a highly restricted federal government which has as little a role to play in people’s lives as possible. The Republican Party, which began as the great party of nationalism, had receded into this other way of thinking, which all comes out of what happened in the 1960s.
KC: As you watch the current campaign, you see television ads attacking Obama on welfare, which has brought up the issue of racial division as being the central strategy here. How important are racial dynamics and the attempt to create these divisions in this campaign?
SW: What race allows you to do is undermine the idea that the federal government is actually doing things for you. This goes back to the “welfare queen” stuff that was racially coded from the 1960s on. It’s one way of saying, look, your money is really going to help other people, people who are less worthy or deserving than you are. And when it’s not going there, it’s dedicated to enlarging and enriching government bureaucracies. It’s an inverted vision of class war: not the masses against the classes, but the masses against the government. The Republicans play that with great finesse and they are doing it now. It’s one of the lessons that came out of the convention. “We Built It” means, in effect, that the government has had nothing to do with enabling and stabilizing economic growth. In other words, apart from the military, the government’s great skill lies in wasting your money. To the extent that that is still racially coded — you can plop it onto immigrants or any population that you care to — it is a visceral argument that plays on people’s fears and resentments.
KC: Is it going to work this time?
SW: I don’t think so. I still think that the President, certainly, is going to succeed in this election. Especially after seeing the Republican Convention where the star seems to have been Clint Eastwood, who is now the most talked about speaker. It is hardly what the Republicans could have wanted.
KC: You wrote in 2010 about the alarming rise of the Tea Party. What’s your assessment now of their influence?
SW: The Tea Party began to arise at the very end of the Bush administration — they didn’t call themselves that at the time — but it was the latest turn of the Republican Party further to the right. It originally arose out of displeasure with President George W. Bush and with what Bush had done to prop up the financial system when it was on the verge of collapse. This struck a lot of Republican ideologues as heresy. Also, Bush’s pharmaceutical prescription plan [. . .] to these people, it was terrible. The last two years of the Bush administration created tremendous opposition on the right within Bush’s own party. That’s one of the reasons why Bush is not very visible these days. It’s not just that he left office with low popularity numbers, or that he prefers to shun the limelight. It’s also that a lot of Republicans think he is a secret liberal. That’s the Tea Party people. Now I’m not sure exactly what the Tea Party is, but it has become a vehicle for some very wealthy heavy hitters in the Republican Party to push the party further to the right.
KC: Let me ask you about the recent article in the New York Review of Books. You wrote about how some historians — Michael Kazin in this case — miss this idea of liberal political integrity, and that liberal politicians today don't act on initiatives merely because they are pushed to do so by the outside left. They have their own agenda and beliefs. It struck me that you were really writing about leadership, how leadership matters and the difference between governance and advocacy, or at least the tension between the two.
SW: Yes that’s right. I think there is a misperception today, even among many Democrats, that change occurs in America when radical movements or social movements come along agitating about issues that are of great moral and economic urgency, and that a portion of what has been called “the power elite” respond to that. That’s supposedly what liberals do — respond. What’s missing is that liberals have been in the lead not simply in terms of getting things done but actually in conceiving how injustices might be righted. The civil rights movement was, of course, a strong example of a social movement pushing liberals along. The Democratic Party had to go through a sea change in the 1940s and 1950s. So I think that there is a lack of appreciation for liberals “working within the system.” Also, to effect change requires laws. And laws of the sort we are talking about rarely pass easily.
There is always great resistance to change. Effecting change requires political savvy, political might. And here again is where liberals — the likes of Lyndon Johnson for instance — are so important. LBJ left a divided legacy, but in terms of racial justice, he did more than any President other than Lincoln. He accomplished this not as an eloquent speaker, or because he was some moral exemplar, but because he knew how to exercise power. If you read about how the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 was passed over tremendous opposition — a combination of southern Dixiecrats and Midwestern conservative Republicans — you see how leadership operates not simply in inspiring people, but in getting things done.
KC: Could anyone have been a “transformative” President given the lack of support Obama got from leaders in his own party, and the degree of polarization and gridlock that is now a reality?
SW: It’s a term that I distrust. Presidents who intend to transform the country never say they are going to do so. Abraham Lincoln, who fully intended to transform the country by putting slavery on the road to extinction, would never have boasted that he was going to be a “transformative” President. Lyndon Johnson, who had a great deal of self-regard, wouldn’t have used that term. It’s not like Babe Ruth: you can’t call your shot. It strikes me as a merchandizing term, a kind of branding. And all that’s going to do is disappoint people. Some of Obama’s followers, in 2008, turned him into a figure that nobody could be. They projected him as someone who is above politics — a kind of hologram of a social movement leader. He was going to transform the very way in which politics was conducted. And that was bound to be disillusioning, above and beyond the polarization in Washington, because of how politics works. You don’t change this country’s politics by being above politics. I think the President actually understood that but that he made a different misjudgment, one he has tried his best to correct. This had to do with his reading, or misreading, of the political lessons of the last 20 years, and particularly the last 10 years. The largest fact has been the steady move to the right of the Republican Party. But this flew in the face of the idea of post-partisan politics. A large part of the conceit that Obama would be a “transformative” President was based on the fantasy that he could somehow end the partisan battles instigated by the baby-boomer in the 1990s. I think that it was a misreading of the political realities, certainly since 1994.
Now, the passage of the health care reform bill was very important. It was historic. Yet even then, the White House negotiated a great deal away, losing the public option early on. I think it took a while for the President to understand that a different kind of politics was necessary — but by the time he did that, the Democrats had lost control of the House. The Republicans were able to demonize healthcare — and demonize him — even though he tried to act as the soul of reasonableness.
Staying On Message
KC: Well there is a certain way in which he simply doesn’t like certain aspects of politics — in a way that a lot of people can understand. I mean he gives the impression he doesn’t relish politics in the same way that LBJ did.
SW: Let’s not be too hard on the President. I think the health care bill is remarkable no matter how you look at it. Still, I just think there was a certain missed opportunity. You had the Blue Dogs, but many if not all of them, as well as others, could have been brought along. For that matter, the Democrats in the Senate could have headed off the filibuster fiasco by altering the rules when they assembled in 2009. And don’t forget that President Obama came into office with exceptional public support. The point here may be that liberals usually have only a very small window to ever get anything done. FDR was luckier than most: he had between 1932 and 1938, when, in part because of his own misjudgments, politics turned in a different direction. There are these small windows, and liberals have to take advantage of them. Johnson understood that. So I think the window on Obama closed too early for him to fulfill the promise of being “transformative,” whatever that means. The same, by the way, was true for Clinton, although he still managed to get a lot done during his last six years.
KC: These windows occur during times of social and economic crisis.
SW: Yes, but also they are related simply to politics. There is always a resistance to change in this country. We fought a civil war over that. The forces of stasis are always very strong. But there are these periods when the forces of change manage to gain political ascendency. And sometimes — as in 1860, or in the early 1960s — the crisis emanates from the breakdown of politics. A social or economic crisis did not spark southern secession: the election of Abraham Lincoln did.
KC: Maybe this is a question about what constitutes American political or intellectual culture. But does it surprise you that a second-rate novelist and what I regard as a second-rate philosopher like Ayn Rand has become a central topic of conversation in 2012? It seems to me that a much more interesting and vibrant strain of American individualism was Emerson.
SW: I don’t think people have a clear idea of the distinctions between these different kinds of individualism. There is a very healthy individualism that is at the core of American liberalism. Ayn Rand is about selfishness. Her objectivist philosophy holds that self-interest is the motor of social as well as individual happiness. I don’t think America needs more selfishness. A lot of people latch on to Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead when they are young, in their late teens and twenties. It’s a young person’s enthusiasm. But usually people outgrow it. Paul Ryan seems to have outgrown it, in those cases where he is trying to reel back some of his earlier statements of enthusiasm. Ayn Rand was, after all, a pro-choice atheist. Still, the core of Randism that he preaches is based on this adolescent idea. Philosophically, the Republican Party has yet to provide a social philosophy which I think people find compelling, apart from the idea that wealthy people create wealth and therefore have to be rewarded in order to keep the country going. That is basically what it comes down to.
When they say that “we own the country” they really mean: They own the country, and the owners of the country are going to do best for everyone else by squelching the evil federal government. But time and again Americans have had to learn the lesson that that’s not the way the system works. We’ve learned that repeatedly since the early nineteenth century, through one fiscal and economic crisis after another, when it has become necessary to exert some balancing, guiding hand. In this sense, the Reagan era does have a half-life that is continuing, although now it is much more radical.
KC: Can we have a more egalitarian society with the evisceration of the labor movement — with private sector unionization at seven percent? We can use the tax system to create some balance, but how robust can that be with a union movement in decline?
SW: The tax system is crucial. The great change that Reagan made was to lower marginal tax rates. When we were our most prosperous in the 1950s after the war was over, we had top marginal tax rates twice as high and higher than they are now. We are never going to get there again, but by bringing those down, Reagan changed the tax and fiscal system in ways that have severely narrowed policy debates. Still, under Clinton and, in a different way, under Obama, it has been possible to move in a very different direction — a fact Republicans recognize to their horror but some Democrats slight. The boom of the 1990s, for example, benefited Americans across lines of income, race, and ethnicity in exceptional ways. It’s possible to guide the system in more egalitarian directions, I have no question about that. Still, even after Clinton and Obama, liberals often seem as beleaguered and divided as ever, which hurts them badly. It goes back to the window thing. When liberals have opportunities, they need to make the most of them. And make no mistake, even with the labor movement weakened, the health care debate was and is fundamentally a class issue. Today’s reformers don’t talk about it in the way that the Knights of Labor or later labor radicals would have talked about it. But it is at bottom an issue of class fairness: that the privileges of wealth and access ought not to determine so greatly how long one lives, and the quality of one’s life.
KC: A good number of historians who came out of the ferment of the 1960s both wanted to be good historians but also to have a political impact. Is there any danger for an historian in terms of intellectual integrity or quote unquote “objectivity” to combine those things?
SW: It can be a danger, sure, if you find yourself writing as a cheerleader. Another tack is to be much more pessimistic; history always falls short of how you think it ought to have worked out. Once you approach history that way, you do a disservice to the dead, who were not necessarily thinking along the same lines that you are. History can be enormously instructive for understanding the world in which we live. That’s one reason why we study history. But to imagine a usable past in a very instrumental way, to advance a particular political position — there I think you can run into real problems. One can be objective — sticking to the evidence and logic — without being dispassionate. I think this is a problem in Howard Zinn’s work, where American history comes across as a very simplistic, if rousing, drama of radical good guys and privileged bad guys. It’s a moral or political dramaturgy, which is not how history happens. To the extent that historians who came of age during the 1960s and ‘70s — and I’m one of them — saw social movements as the engine of political change, I think we have learned to think much more subtly about how politics operates across the board. Some historians think that there is the noble left and then there is everything else. And that’s just not the way American politics works — or how American history works.
U.S. Representative for Georgia, 5th Congressional District
Kelly Candaele: What was your sense of what you saw in Tampa at the Republican Convention?
John Lewis: I watched most of the major speeches and it was something that reminded me of another period in our history. It didn’t recognize the distance we have come and the progress we have made; except for Secretary Rice, there was very little said about social justice, poverty and the hunger that still exists in America and around the world. The convention failed to recognize what I consider basic human rights, not just the issue of civil rights, but human rights: the rights of women, the gay community, seniors. Very little was said about protecting the environment.
They didn’t speak about the sense of community. I think major political parties and leadership talk more and more about community. You know you don’t live alone. You all live in the same house, what I consider and call the American house, but also the world house. And we have to learn to live together.
KC: Do you think the Republican strategy of playing upon welfare as an attempt to appeal to racial divisions is going to work? Will those images divide the electorate politically?
JL: It’s just outright lies and distortion to run an ad that suggests that the President is trying to undo what Congress did on welfare reform. But there is a racial connotation there. During another period when we spoke of welfare there was always the image of these poor black folks trying to get some handout from the national government. I think the Republican Party is appealing to some of the worst aspects of our dark past and we cannot go there. We cannot allow them to go there.
KC: What is the reason for writing your new book now Across That Bridge. Your previous book Walking With the Wind explored your early life and involvement with the Civil Rights Movement.
JL: I wanted to speak about the things that I learned and discovered during my past involvement since [the] 1960s. Before we went on marches, we prepared ourselves, we studied. We studied the philosophy and the discipline of non-violence. We studied what Gandhi was all about and what he attempted to do in South Africa and what he accomplished in India. We studied Thoreau and civil disobedience and what Dr. King was saying. So we came to the point where we believed in this idea of the beloved community — of a beloved world. We believed we could come to a point where we could lay down the tools and instruments of violence and division and separation, and create a community.
Center: Congressman John Lewis
KC: Was that attitude derived from study, or from life experiences, or from practicing what the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr called a “spiritual resistance against resentment?”
JL: It’s a longing for something better. That as human beings you accept this idea that there is a spark of the divine in all of us. You have to respect the dignity and worth of every human being. You cannot go around abusing any human being.
KC: Why do you think you became the person to carry that message?
JL: I allowed myself to be used I think, more than anything else. I often ask why, why. But I truly believe that I came under the influence of individuals like Martin Luther King Jr., and reading and studying the life of Gandhi. And my faith told me that there is a better way, and a more humane way. It’s something I believe in and I don’t know exactly where I got it from. But I believe in something called the spirit of history. You have to be in tune with that spirit and let it use you and let it guide you.
KC: From everything that has happened to you — the terrible things that have been done and said to you as an African American activist and leader — how do you overcome the anger or rage that might result from that for many people?
JL: You come to this point in your life where, in spite of it all, you have what I call an executive session with yourself. You say, I’m not going to become bitter, I’m not going to become hostile, I’m not going to hate. Hate is too heavy a burden to bear. I might have a sense of righteous indignation but I’m not going to hate or become hostile, because in the process it will destroy you. And you have to be at peace with yourself.
KC: Who inspired you other than King?
JL: There was a young minister — he is no longer young now as he is in his eighties — but he was our teacher in Nashville. He is retired in Los Angeles and his name is Jim Lawson. He was the man who conducted the early non-violent workshops in Nashville. He later became a student at the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University. There was something about this man. He had the ability, the capacity to imbue us with the philosophy of peace and love. And he would tell us over and over again that if you are struggling to build a beloved community — the good society — and if that is the end, if that is the goal, then the means to do so cannot be one of bitterness and division.
Photos and video by Kelly Candaele. Donkey Illustrations © Sonia Nicklés