Robert Reich: How to Resurrect the Common Good

Robert Reich interview
Scholar and former Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich
Delaney Inamine/Knopf

“The common good is no longer a fashionable idea,” writes Robert Reich in his latest book, The Common Good. Yet renewing the concept, he argues, is urgent: “If there is no common good,” he writes, “there is no society.”

Reich’s new title offers both a careful accounting of the American history of moral deterioration, beginning with the Nixon administration, and a call to arms to bring back moral leadership. It’s also a searing indictment of the Trump administration’s frequent dismissal of “the common good,” which Reich believes undercuts our democracy.

Reich makes a persuasive case that the shift toward greed and power and away from the common good has been hugely detrimental to our society. He urges leaders to renew trust in institutions they oversee; if they are found guilty of using their positions for personal gain, Reich presses us to hold them accountable.

Reich has served in three administrations, including as Secretary of Labor for Bill Clinton, and is the author of thirteen books including 2015’s Saving Capitalism. He is currently a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

I spoke with Reich about why he sees hope in the younger generation, how faith-based groups could lead in a resurrection of advocacy for “the common good,” and why we should put Wall Street executives guilty of crimes in jail, among other topics. Here is our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Hope Reese: In The Common Good, you offer a timeline of the events that have caused a decline in the common good in America. How did the Nixon Administration represent the starting point?

Robert Reich: Watergate represented something of a turning point for America, in terms of our faith in the presidency. Nixon was a scoundrel, by almost any definition of the term. He was worried far more about his own power, and maintaining it, than the institutions of government. Other presidents before him had also put a greater priority on their political survival than on the institutions of democracy, but Nixon was an extreme example. No one in the post-war era had so abused government. Because of that, the generation of Baby Boomers were shocked into a form of cynicism that was very different from the belief in government and the social contract up to that point.

America had gone through a great Depression in the 1930s and a second world war, and out of that experience and consciousness had come a sense of social unity and aspiration for living up to the ideals of the country. The Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights movement came out of that. But Vietnam and Watergate–and I should mention Vietnam as well–they were the factors that shattered my generation’s faith in our system.

If the Nixon administration marked a kickoff for the decline, where does the current Trump administration stand? Have we reached the bottom? Steve Almond has an interesting book coming out called Bad Stories that makes the case that at least during the Nixon years, the public had faith in its institutions to correct gross abuse of power–that justice would prevail–which is not necessarily the case today.

That’s a valid argument, and that is part of the predicament we face. There has been such a profound decline in trust toward all institutions of our society–not just the presidency, but government as a whole. The media. The financial system. Large corporations. It’s very difficult to find a footing today from which one can confidently aspire to reform the system. Many Americans, particularly younger Americans, have no experience with a system that works. That’s a political-economic system, including large corporations, banks, and so forth. So many young Americans don’t know where to begin in terms of thinking about how to reform a system that seems fundamentally corrupt and incapable of being reformed.

The early Boomers at least possess a memory of a system that was trusted to do the right thing most of the time.

Many young people today, who haven’t witnessed a “system that works,” as you say, could be disillusioned by politics. Yet recently, with the Parkland Florida school shooting, we’re seeing a generation that is speaking up, that seems energized. Do you think we’re seeing a shift?

I do. That heartens me and gives me optimism. It’s also the young people, college students, who are more engaged in politics than I’ve seen in any generation since the anti-war movement. In response to Trump, there’s much more grassroots political activity than I’ve witnessed in years. It’s not Democratic Party activity–many people are disillusioned with both parties. It’s more of a sense that we can’t continue in the same direction. Trump has been a wake-up call to many people that cynicism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It can be very destructive. We need to rebuild our institutions and find a common good.

The idea of operating by principles that consider the common good is, in theory, something we should aspire to. But how can leaders–politicians or business executives, for example–stick to these high-minded principles when the “other side” isn’t even playing by the same rules?

It’s a good question. Bernie Sanders surprised people in many respects, not least of which was his ability to raise very large amounts of money on the basis of small campaign donations. All of the experts in Washington assumed that was impossible––that the only way to run a presidential campaign was with big money coming from big corporations and big banks on Wall Street. The fact that Bernie Sanders got as far as he did with small donations is a powerful reminder that Americans are still idealistic. There is still a sense that the common good can animate and inspire.

If we use the “whatever it takes” techniques that have been so dominant in our political economy, increasingly for the last several decades, then there’s no hope for reforming the system. How can you reform the system if your means are fundamentally corrupt?

How much was money responsible for Trump’s win? Were working class white citizens his base, or is that a myth? Were people with money the main driving force?

Money played a substantial role in Donald Trump’s win. But many Americans, particularly lower-middle-class and working-class Americans had been on a downward escalator for three decades. They are angry and frustrated and worried about their futures. They feel that the game is rigged against them. The presidential election of 2016 will go down in history as the beginning of a populist backlash against the establishment–in both parties. Donald Trump was the authoritarian populist and Bernie Sanders the progressive populist. That’s where the energy in both parties came from, and it’s arguably where the energy is still. While money played a significant role in Trump’s victory, the most significant new reality was this backlash founded in anger and frustration.

When we talk about the frustration felt by lower-middle-class and working-class Americans, part of it is due to anxiety over jobs–and low wages. The “solution” to this problem is often presented as simply having this population learn new skills. But should we also focus on the responsibility those at the top have toward these workers?

We’ve got to take a systemic look at what has occurred over the last 50 years. The inequality has gotten to the point where the wealth is so concentrated at the top, that some of that wealth has been used to change the rules of the game–legal and regulatory changes–which advantage those at the top and impose disadvantages on everyone else. Look at what happened with the tax law, for example. Or look at the federal budget that has been proposed by Trump and is being developed by the Republicans now, in terms of the attacks on safety nets that, up until now, had been sacrosanct. Look at bankruptcy laws that enable someone like Donald Trump to declare bankruptcy repeatedly, without any consequence for his own fortune, and yet prohibit graduates, who are unable to meet their student debt payments, from using bankruptcy to shelter their assets temporarily while they rearrange and reorganize their debts. Or homeowners who got caught in the downdraft of the Great Recession–bankruptcy laws that prohibit them from reorganizing their mortgage debts.

I could go through the entire system. Most people today do feel that the game is rigged against them, and they have a rational basis in that view.

Is there still energy behind Occupy Wall Street? What happens next?

Occupy Wall Street morphed into the Bernie Sanders campaign, just as much of the Tea Party movement morphed into Trumpism. There is an overlap between authoritarian populism and progressive populism: Both sides detest what they call “crony capitalism”–the overwhelming influence of “Big Money” on our political system to give favors that distort our economy and our politics. That may be a place to begin, in terms of finding common ground.

There are inherent problems with the common good–and, further, you write that it leaves us vulnerable to a demagogue taking over. How so? Has that happened?

Donald Trump is as close as we’ve come, in living memory, to a demagogue who doesn’t care at all about democratic institutions. Who is unfazed by conflicts of interest. Who demands loyalty from his cabinet appointees over and above their responsibilities to the public. Who denigrates the free press. And, possibly, conspired with Russia to undermine the 2016 election. Certainly, this seems to be unmoved by the fact that the heads of his four major intelligence agencies of the United States, who he appointed, have warned of Russian interference in the 2018 elections.

If this isn’t demagoguery, I don’t know what is. Trump is not a source of the problem–he’s a symptom of what’s happened to the United States. He’s the antithesis of the common good. Often, you don’t recognize how valuable something is until it is endangered. Thirty years ago, we wouldn’t have needed to have a discussion about the common good–people understood what it is. Today, particularly under Trump, it’s important to revive it.

Hyperpartisanship is at a peak today. Does this reflect the loss of some of the common good values?

I believe it does. Although we have had partisanship since the founding of the Republic, George Washington, James Madison, others warned about the dangers of factionalism. The hyperpartisanship we’ve experienced over the past 20 years is something that is new, in terms of the willingness of political actors who have leadership responsibilities to put party over public interest. To sacrifice the processes and institutions of government for the sake of winning partisan battles. That really is new.

You write about rebuilding the “moral fiber” and suggest that faith-based communities could offer support in this respect.

The faith-based community could and, in my view, should, play an important role in resurrecting the common good. We’re talking about public morality, which is based upon some deep notions of right and wrong. Those notions are founded, not just in scripture–they’re founded in documents like the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. These statements had religious qualities to them, in the sense that they state fundamental ideals. They’re not religious, obviously–quite the opposite. The Constitution draws a very clear line between church and state. But they are religious in being about moral values.

In the 1960s, for example, the faith-based community was very active in Civil Rights. Why? Because issues of fundamental public morality were inextricably linked to the equal political rights of every person in America.

Has this shifted? What about religious groups today that affiliate more strongly with a political identity––religious groups, for instance, who supported politicians like Roy Moore, who has been charged with assault?

There are Evangelical groups who have supported Trump. I don’t know that they still do after all of the exposés, of payoffs to Playboy bunnies and prostitutes. But they have, in the past, supported him because of their views about abortion. They’re certainly entitled to their views. I’m just saying that there’s another domain of public morality that is very basic to our society and the functioning of our society. I would hope that faith-based groups take an important role here.

You also say that public “shame” is an important tool to use, carefully, to put pressure on our leaders.

I talk about honor and shame. And shame does have to be used very carefully. We’ve seen how a careless use of shame, particularly in social media, has had disastrous and cruel results. I’m talking, more specifically, about how the shaming rituals we’ve developed over the years need to be reconnected with public morality.

For example, Congress periodically holds hearings in which they invite executives or others who have violated the law to explain themselves publicly. These are shaming rituals, but they’ve been disconnected from anything that resembles real legislation or real regulation. Congress invited in executives of drug companies for jacking up the price of drugs, many multiples of what the drugs had cost before, for no reason other than to make a bundle of money. But there was no legislation following those shaming rituals that might put any constraint on drug company executives from doing exactly the same thing tomorrow. We saw a similar pattern with regard to oil companies and the spillage into the Gulf of Mexico, and BP executives were paraded before Congress, and they solemnly swore they would do better in the future, and, of course, we had another big oil spill.

We’ve got to make sure that public shaming is real. We have to use it sparingly and carefully, but we’ve got to assure that it’s not regarded as a joke.

You also say that, beyond shame, leaders should be held accountable for their actions–by not pardoning them, putting them in jail when they’re guilty of a crime–and that doesn’t often happen when these people have the money or power to get out of that.

Exactly. We saw that Wall Street afflicted a huge damage on millions of people in 2007-2008 when the financial bubble exploded. Millions lost their homes, their jobs, their savings–and yet, not a single Wall Street executive was held personally accountable. Nobody went to jail. Again and again, we see companies fined, but not individuals. Well, companies are not people–despite what the Supreme Court may say–and unless we’re holding individuals accountable, we’re not really holding anybody accountable.

We have checks and balances in our political system. Are these enough? Could Congress, for instance, take measures to help restore the common good?

Yes. But here’s the problem. It’s impossible to get enough support for such policies without a restoration of public morality on which that political support should be based. Which is why I talk about leadership as prestige, or the use of reconnecting honor and shame to the common good, and civic education. Treating the truth as a common good. We’ve got to the point in this country where it’s not enough to simply list policies that might be helpful–we’ve really got to resurrect the basic understandings on which this country was based. The ideals that define the country.

We’re at a point in time when some people believe that our national identity depends on the color of our skin, our language, whether we’re born here. Others believe that our national identity depends on our freedom to make a huge amount of money without any interference, or that patriotism is all about saluting the flag and singing the National Anthem, standing for the National Anthem, or securing our borders. This is ludicrous–it has nothing whatever to do with our history. We need to revisit the real ideals on which our national identity has been based, ideals we have not yet achieved, but ideals that were commonly understood aspirations that defined this country.

You write that our country’s moral fiber “has been weakened, but it has not yet been destroyed.” What would it take for this moral thread to break? What would that look like?

I don’t think we’ll get to that point. I see signs that are very encouraging. How bad would it have to get before we lose hope? There are warning signs all around us, in terms of the possible loss of our democracy and the ideals our country was based on. I wrote the book because I wanted to help stimulate discussion about those warning signs.

But the ideals that our national identity is based on are powerful and uplifting and noble. Even though young people don’t have a direct experience, like people in my generation did, of those ideals being put into practice, they remain powerful. The resilience of this country is possibly our most distinctive and important feature.


JSTOR Citations

Public Administration and Public Deliberation: An Interpretive Essay

By: Robert B. Reich

The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 94, No. 7 (Jun., 1985), pp. 1617-1641

The Yale Law Journal Company, Inc.

Service Learning and Multiple Models of Engaged Citizenship

By: Robert Reich

The Journal of Education, Vol. 186, No. 1, Higher Education Issue (2005), pp. 23-27

Trustees of Boston University

How Capitalism Is Killing Democracy

By: Robert B. Reich

Foreign Policy, No. 162 (Sep. - Oct., 2007), pp. 38-42

Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, LLC

Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a journalist in Louisville, KY, and an adjunct instructor at Indiana University. She writes for The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, MIT's Undark Magazine, Vox, and other publications. Find her at hopereese.com and on Twitter @hope_reese.

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