The Left, Bernie Sanders and Reparations
University of Pennsylvania political scientist Adolph Reed discusses his support for Bernie Sanders, his previous lack of support for Barack Obama and his critique of the movement for reparations
JARED BALL, TRNN: Welcome, everyone, back to the Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore.
Joining us now to discuss class, race, Bernie Sanders, and reparations, is University of Pennsylvania professor of political science and expert on class, race, and North American politics, Adolph Reed. Reed is the author of many publications, including a kind of personal favorite, the classic Stirrings in the Jug: Black Politics in the Post-Segregation Era. Welcome, Dr. Reed, back to the Real News Network.
ADOLPH REED: Well hey, it’s my pleasure. It’s always good to be in contact.
BALL: So please, first, if you would, outline your support for Bernie Sanders, and then talk specifically about this rejection of reparations, controversy so to speak, that’s been taken up by people like Ta-Nehisi Coates and others. And then the somewhat indirect exchange you and he had, or have been made to have on that issue. But yeah, let’s start with your take on Sanders, and then we’ll move to this piece on reparations.
REED: All right, okay. Well, I’ll say this about Sanders. I mean, a year and a half ago, when people first started to talk about 2016, my reaction was, okay, look, I don’t care. Just tell me where my polling place is and remind me the day before the election, and I’ll go vote for whichever Democrat gets the nomination. At that point, just assuming it was going to be Hillary. I mean, I did joke with friends about how I could imagine that, you know, she and Jeb Bush would get together and run on a national salvation ticket, right.
But then when Sanders announced that he was thinking about running I thought, that’s kind of interesting. And then when, when he jumped in, I started paying attention and thought, well, you know, this could put some stuff in the game, anyway. And then back in the summer, I got involved–I mean, I saw that, you know, Larry Cohen, the retired president of the Communications Workers had started a volunteer entity called Labor for Bernie to build support. To do two things. To build support, aggregate support for the Sanders campaign inside the labor movement, and also, you know, to start to congeal the basis for subsequent political organization, no matter what happened in the election.
So that was intriguing enough that I actually got involved on a volunteer basis. Really in the summer, around the anniversary of Katrina. And one of the things I think that stands out about the Sanders campaign is that it really is an attempt to do two things, pull off two things that are not always compatible and pretty tough to do. And he’s done–and so far the campaign’s done a really interesting job of both. That is, make a serious electoral effort and challenge, which we have seen now from, from what happened in Iowa and most recently last night in New Hampshire, is serious. But also to combine that with the movement-building approach to organizing. And that’s been really exciting and key to watch.
And you know, I mean, for me an iconic moment was when in that, whichever debate that was, you know, right after the Paris bombings, when the moderator asked Sanders with regard to the [inaud.] Act, and his platform of free public higher education, which you know is something I’ve been involved with for a long time. You know, the moderator asked him whether it wouldn’t be wasteful, since one-third of people going to college don’t ever graduate. And what Sanders did that was so important, I think, is that he refused to accept that how do we pay for it, and is it fiscally prudent, way of discussing the issue. And he just turned it around, he just rejected that formulation and said, in fact, you know, what we need to do is decide what it is that we want, and figure out how to pay for it. Considering what it is that we want.
And it’s what we used to talk about often as fighting for what you want, instead of what you think you can get. That, I think, encapsulates the difference between what Sanders stands for and what the neoliberal wing of the Democratic party, which was consolidated under Bill Clinton and extended under Obama, and would be extended even further under Hillary Clinton, proceeds from, which is fealty to the financial sector, and trying to find ways to fit some version of the concerns of all the rest of us, who are as likely as not victims of the financial sector, onto the fundamental template of priority of Wall Street and large financial interest.
And as I’ve gone around the country, you know, I mean, the expressions of spontaneous Bernie love from random strangers who come up, you know, from all ages, races, et cetera, genders, has been outstanding. And I’ve been working a lot in South Carolina, and we see the surge there, as well. Because as, as I’ve often said to people, you, you go down the list of items on the Sanders platform, and you can ask about each one of them, how is this not an issue that’s pertinent to black Americans? How is free public higher education not pertinent to black Americans? How is a $15 an hour minimum wage not pertinent to black Americans? How is expanding the public sector and jobs programs, and commitment to full employment not pertinent to black Americans?
And the response that I and we have been getting from rank-and-file black American voters is, yeah, this is stuff that I want, stuff I’m concerned about. So maybe you asked me what time it is and I told you I would make a watch. But that’s like, you know, the explanation of why I’m supporting the Sanders campaign.
BALL: Well, I’ll tell you what. Let’s, we’ll, we’ll take a break here and come back with a second segment or part two with Adolph Reed. Because I want to ask you in that second segment, someone, something about–something about what I hear to be perhaps a contradiction in your previous refusal to support Obama, and your critique of reparations being based largely in the idea that, that many reparations supporters feel that there’s a market-based solution to the struggles of oppressed people in this country and around the world. And I wonder if that’s not the same thing that could be said about Bernie’s, Bernie Sanders’ campaign and his approach to solving the problems that, that we face as well.
We’ll take that up in the second segment here at the Real News with Professor Adolph Reed, right here at the Real News.
JARED BALL, TRNN: Welcome, everyone, back to the Real News Network. Again, I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore. And we’re continuing our conversation with University of Pennsylvania professor and political scientist, Professor Adolph Reed. Dr. Reed, again, welcome back to the Real News.
ADOLPH REED: As always, my pleasure. Thank you very much.
BALL: So as I was sort of wrapping up there in the end of that last segment, I know that you were one of the early critics in 2007, if not earlier, of the, the rise, seemingly out of nowhere, of Barack Obama, and his representation of neoliberalism wrapped up in seemingly progressive politics. And I recognize that there are differences between his campaign and the Bernie Sanders campaign, important differences, at that. But I’m wondering if the ultimate, same point isn’t still there, that Bernie is asking people to come right back to the Democratic party apparatus. In fact, he makes it part of his campaign platform to say we need people who are not already, you know, wedded to the system, to come into the system, to the process, to get him elected.
Isn’t this also, again, similar to your criticism that we’re going to talk here about in just a moment of reparations, that it’s another sort of capitalistic, market-based solution to the world’s problems, and that Bernie is ultimately, while critical of Wall Street and critical of the banks, not a real socialist in that he’s calling for a breakup of the bank or a seizure of the banks, and a full redistribution of wealth. So as sort of a segue to get to reparations, could we, we start with that response or critique?
REED: Yeah, sure. Well, I mean, I say this about, you know, actually, my criticism of Obama goes back to 1995. I mean, I’ve–I just happened, I mean, I’ve been saying to people lately that, you know, I was, I just happened to be in the birthing room at the outset of his political career. So I got to see the act very early on. And I was not alone. I mean, people who paid attention saw that, you know, this guy was, like, a neoliberal [confection], basically. In fact, I wrote that in late 1995.
So I mean, that’s a tremendous difference, right. But, but, look. Here’s the thing about the Sanders campaign. I think we have to start out from, from an assumption, a premise, that there is no left that exists as a viable force in American politics. So if Sanders were inclined, and I don’t know that he his, I don’t know that he isn’t. But if he were inclined to try to run on a platform of expropriating the expropriators, then he would have as much support as those [inaud.] candidates who get 200 votes in every election, right. And that speaks back to what I was saying in the first segment, that part of what, part of what’s going on here is a movement-building exercise, or campaign. And part of what that is is establishing or shifting the center of gravity of political discourse in American life.
So that, for the last 25 years if not longer, it’s been impossible to talk about controlling financial capitalism, to talk about making the kind of public investments that we need to make to make this a decent society. Even to defend the idea of the public. In fact, I’m thinking once I clear some other stuff off my desk, I want to write a little essay about this, the notion of doing more with less as the root of the Democratic, the capital D, the Democratic version of neoliberalism. Because it’s a fiction. And that Sanders is rejecting that fiction, the Sanders campaign is rejecting that fiction, and what he’s arguing for is a view, a conviction, that the federal government should be, and federal policy, should be oriented primarily to addressing the needs and concerns and the security, not just military security. But I mean, I mean economic security, jobs security, personal security of the vast majority of people who live in this country. Those of us who are expected to work for a living.
And that’s a fundamental difference between Sanders and Clinton, and anybody else running as a Democrat. I’ve heard some of, you know, old people like me with long memories compare his campaign to the Eugene McCarthy campaign in 1968, where a slogan was, actually, to take protest out of the streets and bring it back into the Democratic party. Well, the historical circumstance is fundamentally different, right, there is no movement out there. And so this campaign, win, lose, or draw, and as far as I’m concerned it’s already, like for this–at this point already, like, we’ve planned on [house] money in this thing. I mean, this campaign has already made inroads into changing the terms of political debate, which is an important first step.
BALL: Well, okay. As sort of a segue to this conversation about reparations, you know, you were quoted recently making a statement about the importance of unions, saying that despite the fashionability of protests without any specific demands or elected leaderships, no movement initiative is going to have staying power without being anchored in the trade unions. And it was part of a conversation you were having about the union support of Bernie Sanders.
Well, so I mean–Bernie doesn’t have the unions, the trade union support that he would need to make your, your statement viable. Isn’t that correct? I mean, isn’t–but then also, just to complete this segue so we can actually do this thing about reparations, my real question is, isn’t this leading us all back to the same, again, as you were pointing out in terms of reparations, market-based solutions absent the kind of movement necessary to make even a Sanders campaign viable or powerful, as many would hope it will be, even if he’s elected as president. If you could use a response to that to tell us a little bit why you have this critique of reparations, and support him despite his refusal to engage that particular question of reparations for African descendants in this country.
REED: No, it’s good, actually. Because I’ve been wanting to, to have an opportunity to, to answer a question. Which is, and the question I’ve seen flying around a lot, is that it’s not just about me, but others who have made this point, that it’s dishonest, even, some people have said, to reject the demand for reparations as unrealistic while accepting a demand for single-payer healthcare, which is also unrealistic.
And I would say this: that they are both certainly unrealistic demands for the next Congress, like for the next two years. Maybe the next four years, right, for all we know. Because the composition of Congress obviously would have to change for us to get anything through.
But here’s what’s the crucial difference. And my question about the reparations thing has been the same since it got put back on the public agenda at the beginning of the century. The question is, how can you imagine fashioning a political alliance that could prevail on this issue. It seems to me it’s a lot easier to imagine where the constituency, or the constituencies, or a political alliance around single-payer healthcare, could come from than it is to imagine how a broad enough alliance could be put together in defense, in support of the pursuit of reparations, to prevail on that issue. Because the problem is that in a majoritarian electoral system, that, I mean, that’s how you’ve got to get this stuff through. Like, unless we have, you know, like, a post-black power fantasy of, you know, black workers taking the lead, and you know, and getting five states or, or, or enacting of a [push], basically. So that’s where I think the critical difference is.
BALL: Just very quickly, what, what then of the argument that to build this real coalition, shouldn’t those on the left look to develop that kind of movement by perhaps even coalescing to, to form a new party, or a real opposition in the electoral political realm? Or the kind of movement that might even push, even, admittedly it’s more of a fantasy for me to consider this, but push a Democratic party candidate to actually be able to push this through.
So in other words, if there was a real left movement that coalesced around a genuine redistribution of wealth, then the reparations argument–and this is where I think I would agree–could be expanded to say, look, African descendants deserve reparations, clearly, as do many other groups for various reasons. So why don’t we just have sort of a collective reparations movement, so to speak, that deals with the American white worker, the Latino or Chicano immigrant, the African descendant. All the indigenous population, all of these coalesce around a true left alternative oppositional effort. Why, why wouldn’t that be more of a, why wouldn’t that be a preferable course to take for those on the left, than rallying behind this Bernie Sanders campaign?
REED: Well, well look, in the first place, there isn’t that, you know, that, a movement out there, right. I mean, so that’s one thing. And, and–.
BALL: No, so I’m saying–I’m advocating that we create one.
REED: And my argument is that, that I think the Sanders campaign is an important step in the direction of creating one, right. As to the reparations frame for all that, well, I mean, my question would be, or my response would be that it’s a premise that we don’t need, right, like, we don’t need to couch the demands for justice and, and equality in the language of payback, right. Which opens up to all other kinds of petty kind of debates. But just say this is the kind of society that we want now. [Inaud.]
Because I agree with you. I mean, like, if–and I think that’s another limit of the reparations frame, that once you start talking about–well, once you try to justify demands for justice in the presence, on the basis of suffering in the past, well, everybody’s suffered in the past. So like, then you get into that Oprah Winfrey kind of debate about who suffered more. You know, my great grandparents never owned any slaves, and they came here without a pot to piss in, right, and so forth and so on.
I mean, you don’t need it. Right, you don’t need it. So the question that I would have for the advocates of reparations is what is it that’s so appealing, either emotionally or politically, about the trope of reparations, even when it appears to be, like, an unnecessary and maybe even a counterproductive frame of reference to try to force affirmative struggles for justice in [the present] into. And I think that there’s a commitment of, what I think it’s, I think it stems from a different kind of political commitment, basically.
BALL: Well, Adolph Reed, it’s always a pleasure to catch up with you. We thank you very much for joining us here at the Real News, look forward to many more conversations with you here and elsewhere. But thanks again for joining us.
REED: Oh, hey, man. My pleasure, Jared, always. Take care, man.
BALL: And thanks to all of you for joining us here at the Real News. And as always, again, I’m Jared Ball here in Baltimore saying, as Fred Hampton used to say, to you we say peace if you’re willing to fight for it. So peace, everybody, and we’ll catch you in the whirlwind.
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