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Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America

General Assembly 2004 Event 2091

Speaker: Robert Reich

Robert Reich was Secretary of Labor during President Clinton's first term. He has spent, he says, half his adult life in public service. He has spent the other half as a professor, an author and a public-radio commentator. He is an accomplished speaker, but it was the power of his thinking, his analysis—in short, his reason—that kept the standing-room-only audience in the Grand Ballroom of the Long Beach Convention Center hanging on his words—when they weren't rolling in the aisles.

Reich's talk was not about a strategy for John Kerry to beat George W. Bush. Rather, he was talking about the path he sees for the return of liberal thought to ascendancy in American public life.

To set up his main point, Secretary Reich reminded his audience of the downside of selfish or short-sighted public acts. When a major scandal such as Enron or WorldCom becomes public, investors tend to freeze or flee. When business leaders, or any leaders, act selfishly, others may follow their lead while those they should lead start to look elsewhere. The result of these breakdowns is social gridlock.

Reich contrasted a nation which draws its strength at home and abroad from its focus on ideals to one which focuses simply on power. This, he said, is the difference between America in the past and in the present. Bullies, he continued, forfeit goodwill. History, he noted, is replete with stories of powerful nations that lost that power.

The good news is that most Americans don't believe that we are just individuals and that we are defined by our power. Most Americans, Reich said, have a profound sense of fairness and public morality. This is true regardless of whether those Americans define themselves as Republican, Democrat, or Independent, as liberal or conservative.

Last January, Reich and one of his sons took a car trip from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Berkeley, California. Reich was on his way to a stint as a visiting professor at the University of California. This took father and son through the heart of "red" America—those states which voted for George W. Bush in 2000. At diners and other stops along the way, people would recognize Reich and come over to talk. When they did, he would engage them in what he called his "free-floating focus group."

In addition to learning how these people identified themselves politically, Reich would probe their world views on domestic and foreign policy. What he learned was that the great majority of these typical Americans might prefer a modest increase in their taxes to adequately fund education or health care, or both, rather than the lowest possible tax bill without those benefits. Most also felt that the war in Iraq has made our country more susceptible to terrorism in the future, rather than less so. It is part of Americans' sense of fair play, Reich feels, to sense that using bombs and bullets to implement foreign policy is not only inadequate but may be self-defeating.

Reich's observations on his trip coincide with findings from other sources. As one example, the majority of the people he met on his trip also felt that the minimum wage should be enough to put a full-time worker above the poverty line. Reich related the tale that one time while he was Secretary of Labor he called Dick Morris, President Clinton's pollster, and asked him to sample people's opinions on the minimum wage question. Morris called back the next day to excitedly report that 90% of the respondents felt that the minimum wage should be raised. Ninety percent agreement is amazingly high on any public survey question. Similar—if not so overwhelming—results are being found on these questions today, Reich says, by major pollsters such as Gallup.

Reich's thesis, then, is that liberal Americans need to start leading on the positions which most Americans hold in common. Most Americans, he argues, have "a bedrock sense of public, or common, morality," and liberals should step into the lead in that area. Reich also reminded his audience, "You don't have to have formal authority to assert leadership." One who keeps attention focused on a common problem is a leader. Leaders don't allow "work avoidance" through denial. Or through escapism: "I'm OK in my gated community and my office park." Or through scapegoating: "The problem is the immigrants" or "the feminists" or some other group.

The hardest source of "work avoidance" to overcome, Reich says, is a sense of despair, hopelessness, cynicism, or resignation. At the same time, he argues that the problems can be overcome if people will pull their resources together. That knowledge, he feels, should restore hope.

Finally, Reich urged his listeners to not shy away from politics, and to urge others to involve themselves, too. "Politics is the applied form of democracy," he said. "If we give up on politics, we give up on democracy, and if we give up on democracy we give up on positive change." The United States is the most powerful country in the world, Reich notes, not because of its military might but because of its economic and moral might.

Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America, Robert B. Reich's new book, is published by Alfred A. Knopf.

Reported by Bill Lewis; edited by Joyce Holmen.