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Scott Wallace: It is a fight to create space for the progressive voice

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. And we’re at the America’s Future Now! conference. And joining us again is Scott Wallace. He is the cochair of the Wallace Global Fund. He’s also the grandson of the former vice president Henry A. Wallace. Thanks for joining us again.


JAY: So we left off in the end of the last segment that your grandfather as vice president, and then when he ran as a third-party candidate for president, had a very different vision of the world than the Democratic Party leader, then President Truman, and on two counts: internationally, against the building of empire; and domestically, for a new deal, an America for the working man. My question is is: do we see any of that Wallace, at least at the leadership level of today’s Democratic Party?

WALLACE: I’m very proud that we see a lot of his vision today, I mean, in the America that was left to Barack Obama. I mean, we have a United Nations—my grandfather was one of the greatest proponents of multilateralism. Countries should get together and discuss their problems and not automatically resort to war. We have desegregation in the Armed Forces. We have discussions in the G-20 and the 6 in North Korea. Yes, the idea of discuss, of diplomacy first, is now institutionalized, and I think we can chalk that up to a lot of his influence on Truman. During the Cold War we have detente—it started in 1973 and endured under Republican administrations—because Wallace said, you know, we can’t just confront our way out of this problem; we have to talk. And now the Soviet Union’s gone, and we have the lack of this existential threat that he was worried about in the Cold War.

JAY: But Truman represented not demilitarizing after World War II and in fact expanding the military. And after Truman, the next big bump in the military budget was Kennedy, another Democrat. And it was a Republican, Eisenhower, who warns us of the growing strength of the military-industrial complex. And then the idea of multilateralism is demolished under Bush, where you have unilateralism, you have this invention of “preemptive” war, where it’s okay to break international law as long as you can concoct an excuse that someone’s a threat to you. And so come up to today’s Democratic Party and its foreign policy. Many people have commented it’s very hard to tell the difference between Obama on Iraq and Afghanistan and where Bush was when he left office.

WALLACE: Well, I think Barack Obama has been in a very difficult situation. In order to get elected, he had to take a certain hawkish stand on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s locked in. I think he’s looking for a dignified way out. But it’s heartbreaking to see us getting stuck deeper in Afghanistan—though we seem to be drawing down in Iraq—and to see the empires that have foundered in this ungovernable, far-flung, disparate nation of Afghanistan, the Russians and the British. No good can come of this. And to think of the amount of resources and lives that we are wasting—and basically this is a point that my grandfather was making back in the ’40s: our entire Middle East policy is based on oil. Even back then it was obvious that—and he warned that our foreign policy was being distorted by our insatiable thirst for oil in the Middle East.

JAY: So is it changing? That’s what I’m getting at. Do we see any—you know, during the campaign we heard “change we can believe in”, and even some of these questions talked about in a kind of fundamental way—we’ve got to get off oil and really move to an alternative energy economy. But one sees, at least up until a month ago, President Obama was ready to drill, baby, drill offshore. As a progressive and someone who has a—you know, you have a fund, and you try to fund progressive voices. Where are you at on where’s the Democratic Party go from here and where’s the progressive voice in the Democratic Party?

WALLACE: The painful part has been the lack of change on the foreign policy, the continuation of the wars in the Middle East. I guess the more encouraging part is the new discussion about energy policy. And it’s only after the oil spill in the Gulf that the president, Obama, has really found his voice about the evils of our reliance on fossil fuels, talking again about a green economy, green energy, homegrown energy. It’s not as simple as saying that things haven’t changed at all, but we’ll take progress where we can find it.

JAY: Now, you were moderating a panel which to a large extent, if I understand correctly, had to do with this corporate money in elections and the extent, especially since the Supreme Court decision, that now a corporation is a person when it comes to funding elections and has a kind of limitless ability to do so. What are the implications of that for progressive politics? And what do you think the response should be?

WALLACE: I think one of the implications is that ordinary people really got how crazy that decision was. It’s not that hard for people to understand that a corporation is not a person and a corporation doesn’t have the same interests at heart. When they spend money—as they’re now allowed to do, an unlimited amount—advocating for or against the election of a politician, they don’t have the public good at heart. There’s only one interest they have at heart, which is maximizing their profits. That’s their duty to their shareholders. That’s their job. So I think it gives progressives a great opportunity to make this a discussion about corporate control of our government. And whether it’s rallying around a constitutional amendment or around congressional legislation, I mean, if a corporation is a person, why isn’t BP subject to the death penalty? Why shouldn’t they have their corporate charter revoked, or at least—and the Supreme Court seems to approve this—have their political speech rights absolutely yanked? Why should they be allowed to buy $1 billion worth of political ads saying “vote for Sarah Palin and the drill, baby, drill crowd in 2012”?

JAY: It seems it’s okay for corporations to have equal rights when it comes to speak, but the board of directors at these corporations have limited liability. But how you can combine limited liability with full freedom to speak doesn’t seem to have—shouldn’t be an equal sign [inaudible]

WALLACE: And where do the shareholders come into this? I mean, who owns the corporation? The shareholders do. They get any say in how the corporate treasury spends money for or against candidates. Currently they have no say in that whatsoever. Now, hopefully—and our foundation is interested in promoting policies and laws that will encourage shareholders to seize that responsibility and say, if you want to spend your money advocating for or against this candidate, you have to get the approval of a supermajority of the shareholders of the company.

JAY: Now, even with the previous law before the Supreme Court decision, both parties were more or less controlled by the corporate sector. In terms of what you advocate, a more progressive policy for the Democratic Party, how important are these fights that are going to be happening at the primary level, and how do you see that unfolding?

WALLACE: In terms of the role of the progressive movement, that is our role as funders, as progressive activists: we have to make sure that there’s a safe place on the progressive side of the debate, so that politicians don’t feel they have to always move toward the center, toward the right. So Blanche Lincoln can be assured that there are people in Arkansas who have a strong position about the rights of working people. So the primary challenges are really important. I think the first order of business, as far as corporate money, has got to be to do something about getting corporate money out of direct elections. Another great step would be putting ordinary people’s money into elections so that the politicians who are the blue dogs in the center and everything feel more beholden and get more of their money from ordinary people through contributions of $100 or less and the matching funds that would come to them under this Fair Elections Act than they do to corporations. So get the corporate money out, put ordinary people’s money and interests in, and that would go a long way.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us.

WALLACE: My pleasure. Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And as Mr. Wallace has talked about ordinary people putting money in, don’t forget there’s a Donate button down or up there. And you can text the word news to 85944 if you live in the United States and you’ll be sending us $5. Thanks for joining us.

End of Transcript

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Scott Wallace is Co-Chair of the Wallace Global Fund, a private charitable foundation located in Washington DC, with program areas including civic engagement, media reform and criminal justice. An attorney since 1978, he has served as counsel to the US Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice, General Counsel to the US Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, Legislative Director with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and Director of Defender Legal Services for the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. He is a founding partner in the Democracy Alliance, and serves on numerous boards, including the Institute for America's Future.