I’ve just returned from three weeks in “red” America.
It was ostensibly a book tour but I wanted to talk with conservative Republicans and Tea Partiers.
I intended to put into practice what I tell my students – that the best way to learn is to talk with people who disagree you. I wanted to learn from red America, and hoped they’d also learn a bit from me (and perhaps also buy my book).
But something odd happened. It turned out that many of the conservative Republicans and Tea Partiers I met agreed with much of what I had to say, and I agreed with them.
For example, most condemned what they called “crony capitalism,” by which they mean big corporations getting sweetheart deals from the government because of lobbying and campaign contributions.
I met with group of small farmers in Missouri who were livid about growth of “factory farms” owned and run by big corporations, that abused land and cattle, damaged the environment, and ultimately harmed consumers.
They claimed giant food processors were using their monopoly power to squeeze the farmers dry, and the government was doing squat about it because of Big Agriculture’s money.
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I met in Cincinnati with Republican small-business owners who are still hurting from the bursting of the housing bubble and the bailout of Wall Street.
“Why didn’t underwater homeowners get any help?” one of them asked rhetorically. “Because Wall Street has all the power.” Others nodded in agreement.
Whenever I suggested that big Wall Street banks be busted up – “any bank that’s too big to fail is too big, period” – I got loud applause.
In Kansas City I met with Tea Partiers who were angry that hedge-fund managers had wangled their own special “carried interest” tax deal.
“No reason for it,” said one. “They’re not investing a dime of their own money. But they’ve paid off the politicians.”
In Raleigh, I heard from local bankers who thought Bill Clinton should never have repealed the Glass-Steagall Act. “Clinton was in the pockets of Wall Street just like George W. Bush was,” said one.
Most of the people I met in America’s heartland want big money out of politics, and think the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision was shameful.
Most are also dead-set against the Trans Pacific Partnership. In fact, they’re opposed to trade agreements, including NAFTA, that they believe have made it easier for corporations to outsource American jobs abroad.
A surprising number think the economic system is biased in favor of the rich. (That’s consistent with a recent Quinnipiac poll in which 46 percent of Republicans believe “the system favors the wealthy.”)
The more conversations I had, the more I understood the connection between their view of “crony capitalism” and their dislike of government.
They don’t oppose government per se. In fact, as the Pew Research Center has found, more Republicans favor additional spending on Social Security, Medicare, education, and infrastructure than want to cut those programs.
Rather, they see government as the vehicle for big corporations and Wall Street to exert their power in ways that hurt the little guy.
They call themselves Republicans but many of the inhabitants of America’s heartland are populists in the tradition of William Jennings Bryan.
I also began to understand why many of them are attracted to Donald Trump. I had assumed they were attracted by Trump’s blunderbuss and his scapegoating of immigrants.
That’s part of it. But mostly, I think, they see Trump as someone who’ll stand up for them – a countervailing power against the perceived conspiracy of big corporations, Wall Street, and big government.
Trump isn’t saying what the moneyed interests in the GOP want to hear. He’d impose tariffs on American companies that send manufacturing overseas, for example.
He’d raise taxes on hedge-fund managers. (“The hedge-fund guys didn’t build this country,” Trump says. “They’re “getting away with murder.”)
He’d protect Social Security and Medicare.
I kept hearing “Trump is so rich he can’t be bought.”
Heartland Republicans and progressive Democrats remain wide apart on social and cultural issues.
But there’s a growing overlap on economics. The populist upsurge is real.
I sincerely hope Donald Trump doesn’t become president. He’s a divider and a buffoon.
But I do hope the economic populists in both parties come together.
That’s the only way we’re going to reform a system that’s now rigged against most of us.
About the Author
ROBERT B. REICH, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration. Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written thirteen books, including the best sellers “Aftershock" and “The Work of Nations." His latest, "Beyond Outrage," is now out in paperback. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine and chairman of Common Cause.
Books by Robert Reich
Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few -- by Robert B. Reich
America was once celebrated for and defined by its large and prosperous middle class. Now, this middle class is shrinking, a new oligarchy is rising, and the country faces its greatest wealth disparity in eighty years. Why is the economic system that made America strong suddenly failing us, and how can it be fixed?
Click here for more info or to order this book on Amazon.
Beyond Outrage: What has gone wrong with our economy and our democracy, and how to fix it -- by Robert B. Reich
In this timely book, Robert B. Reich argues that nothing good happens in Washington unless citizens are energized and organized to make sure Washington acts in the public good. The first step is to see the big picture. Beyond Outrage connects the dots, showing why the increasing share of income and wealth going to the top has hobbled jobs and growth for everyone else, undermining our democracy; caused Americans to become increasingly cynical about public life; and turned many Americans against one another. He also explains why the proposals of the “regressive right” are dead wrong and provides a clear roadmap of what must be done instead. Here’s a plan for action for everyone who cares about the future of America.
Click here for more info or to order this book on Amazon.