This runs about twenty minutes, and I think it's worth watching, but I'll excerpt two segments that are key:
BILL MOYERS: You say "the left." Liberals, especially, are tied to the narrow strategy of electing at whatever cost, whatever Democrat is running. But, you know, Democrats won four of the last six presidential elections. Something's working for them.
ADOLPH REED: What exactly have we gotten out of the fact that they've won?
BILL MOYERS: Winning is not enough, you're saying.
ADOLPH REED: No.
I mean here's an illustration of the limits of it. President Obama in the speech he gave a couple weeks ago, the ballyhooed speech where he mentioned the word "inequality" a couple times.
He leaves the podium in effect and goes straight to try to, you know, strong arm his own party to support fast track for Trans Pacific Partnership.
So, I mean, what we've got is, like, a bipartisan neoliberalism, right, that's at the center of gravity of the American government. And to be clear, what I mean by neoliberalism is that, it's two things.
It's a free market, utopian ideology. And it's a concrete program for intensified upward redistribution. And when the two objectives conflict, I mean, guess which one gets put -- on the shelf? But both parties are fundamentally committed to this. And at this point, and I think we've seen this much more clearly since the 2008 election, the principal difference between Democrats and Republicans is the choice between a neoliberal party that is progressive on multicultural and diversity issues, and a neoliberal party that's reactionary and horrible on those same issues.
But where the vast majority of Americans live our lives and feel our anxieties about present and future and insecurity is not about the multicultural issues over which there's so there's so much fight. In the very realm of the neoliberal economic issues to which both parties are, in fact, committed.
BILL MOYERS: So, I hear you saying, Adolph, that while social and cultural factors are important to us, economic issues are the fundamental existential questions. And that the neo-liberal parties, both of them, devoted to promoting the interests of multinational companies and capitalism don't care what you think about cultural and social issues, as long as they control the process by which nothing interferes with markets.
ADOLPH REED: I think that's quite succinct.
Indeed. And that's why types like Joan Walsh might get excited about the prospect of Hillary getting elected because they are first and foremost tribal Democrats who accept that symbolic victories like getting a black or a woman into the White House is substantive rather than symbolic progress. Sure, these tribal Democrats want all the things that Adolph Reed wants, too. I'm sure they think Elizabeth Warren is great. But economic justice issues are not their first priority; identity politics issues are more important.
And priorities matter because if the economic issues are secondary to cultural or tribal issues, too much cover is provided to Neoliberal Democrats who are politically correct on the cultural issues, and the Neoliberal agenda goes unchallenged in the Democratic Party. The Elizabeth Warrens are powerless as long as Neoliberals dominate the values frame of elite policymakers, and until being a Neoliberal carries the same stigma as being a homophobe, the Democrats will continue to be useless on economic justice issues.
If Liberal Dems who think of themselves as populists saw economic justice issues as their first priority, they would be looking to build coalitions with Main Streeters who are culturally conservative, but who are angry because they are hurting economically. These Main Streeters turn to the Tea Party instead, not because they are so racist or homophobic, but because the Democrats simply don't represent their interests either culturally or economically. They do not provide a political channel for their anxiety and anger, not even a little bit.
Near the end of the interview Reed, an African American, makes a similar point:
ADOLPH REED: . . . I admit that this is kind of treading maybe, into troublesome water, but among the reasons that I know Obama's type so well is, you know, I've been teaching at elite institutions for more than 30 years.
And that means that I've taught his cohort that came through Yale actually at the time that he [Obama] was at, you know, Columbia and Harvard. And I recall an incident in a seminar in, you know, black American political thought with a young woman who was a senior who said something in the class. And I just blurted out that it seems, that the burden of what she said seemed to be that the whole purpose of this Civil Rights Movement was to make it possible for people like her to go to Yale and then to go to work in investment banking.
And she said unabashedly, "Well, yes, yes, and that's what I believe." And again, I didn't catch myself in time, so I just said to her, well, I wish somebody had told poor Viola Liuzzo, you know, before she left herself family in Michigan and got herself killed that that's what the punch line was going to be, because she might've stayed home to watch her kids grow up. And I think--
BILL MOYERS: This was the woman who on her own initiative went down during the civil rights struggle to Selma, Alabama, to join in the fight for voting rights and equality, and was murdered.
ADOLPH REED: Right, exactly. I'm not prepared to accept as my metric of the extent of racial justice or victories of the struggles for racial justice, the election of a single individual to high office or appointment of a black individual to be corporate CEO. My metric would have to do with things like access to healthcare--
BILL MOYERS: For everybody.
ADOLPH REED: For everybody, right? And this is something else, by the way--
BILL MOYERS: Not just a symbolic victory for one person?
ADOLPH REED: Right. Because the way politics has evolved since the 1980s is that what we get now is the symbolic victory for the single person instead of, right, you know, the redistributive agenda.
Until there is a shift on the political left from cultural to economic priorities, nothing changes in the economic sphere. The cultural issues will resolve themselves over time. In twenty years the concerns of the cultural right will have become more fringe as the older, whiter Americans who have those concerns die out and as the people now in their twenties and younger start dominating public discourse. But the economic issues will not resolve themselves without the exertion of political will, because economic injustice is not a generational thing, and substantive change will be difficult as long as there are powerful entrenched interests who will resist it. And that resistance is not likely to come from twenty-somethings on the make, no matter what their color or gender, if they are like Reed's Yale student. If the basic values frame is still dominated by Neoliberalism and getting ahead in some Social Darwinist competition, we will still in twenty years be living a politics where our most signifcant victories will still be symbolic ones.
See also this earlier piece I posted on Reed's Harpers article.