Robert Reich served as Labor Secretary under President Bill Clinton. Now he’s a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. His new book is called The Common Good . This interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: There’s a familiar Republican argument against the idea of the common good: It’s my responsibility to do what’s best for me and my family. It’s your responsibility to take care of yourself. If you have problems, health problems or job problems or family problems, that’s too bad—but it’s not my problem. The state should not force me to pay for your problems. You should take responsibility for yourself. I think you’ve probably heard this argument.
Robert Reich: I’ve heard it for a very long time. It’s absurd. It fails to understand our interdependence in some fundamental ways. For example, if I can’t rely on you to obey the law, then I’m going to have to take all kinds of precautions that ultimately are going to cost me and you a great deal. Multiply that by every member of society, and you can see how important it is just to have basic norms. Consider: we’re in an airport baggage area, and all of the luggage is now coming out of the airplane. If everybody had to worry that everybody else would take their luggage, we could manage that. There would be a lot of police, there’d be a lot of security. The jobs might add to the gross domestic product. But it would be miserable. And that is metaphorically what is happening all over America now, and what has been happening for the last 35 or 40 years.
JW: There’s another argument that we hear from Trump supporters, which is a little different from that one. In The Common Good you quote the opening of the Constitution: “We the people.” Of course the big question is, who is the “we” in “we the people”? Some Trump supporters have a very clear idea of who the “we” is: it’s white citizens. Christian white citizens. They feel very much part of a “we,” but it’s a “we” that excludes people of color, Muslims, immigrants. They have a conception a “common good,” but it’s different from ours.
RR: Yes. Racism is not new. Racism has existed since the founding of the republic. Indeed the Constitution did exclude African Americans. But I want to go back to the Declaration of Independence and the notion that all men are created equal. All people are created equal. Our founding concepts, gradually began to embrace all people, not just white men, but also black people and women. It has been a struggle. Now we are embracing gay people and a lot of others. We’ve never actually fulfilled our ideals, not by a long shot. The difference is that, at least before 1980, before the Reagan administration, most people in this country understood that those ideals were important to try to achieve.
We had a Civil Rights Act. We had a civil rights movement. I lost a very dear friend, who was murdered in Mississippi in 1964. We had an anti-Vietnam war movement. We were motivated by ideals as to what this country ought to be. Not everybody subscribed to the same ideals in the same way, but even when we had different views of what those ideals should be, we at least understood that we had ideals about how we cope with our differences. How we deal with disagreements: it was called “democracy.” Now those fundamental agreements about how we deal with our disagreements are beginning to fall apart. We have a man in the White House who is the culmination of decades of turning our backs on these fundamentals—including democracy. It’s only when you’re in danger of losing something that’s very valuable to you that you begin to understand its value. I think that people are beginning to say to themselves, “Wait a minute, this democracy is fragile, and we must stand up to what’s occurring.”
JW: You mentioned that a friend was murdered in 1964 in Mississippi. The people I know were murdered in Mississippi that year were Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney. Was one of them your friend?
RR: Mickey Schwerner.
JW: Could you tell us a little about Mickey Schwerner—as an example of someone who set out to serve the common good?
RR: Mickey Schwerner was a fellow who I got to know as a kid. He was older than I was. Very often, because I was very short for my age, I’d get bullied. And so I teamed up with older boys who were willing to be my protectors. Mickey Schwerner was one of them.
And then, in the summer of 1964, he was registering black voters in Mississippi, and along with Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, he was tortured and murdered by the sheriff of Neshoba County, Mississippi, and his henchmen. And when I heard that the fellow who had protected me from the bullies when I was a kid was tortured and murdered by the real bullies of America, I think it changed my life.
People are still being bullied. They’re being bullied economically. They’re being bullied politically. They’re being bullied by demagogues who lie to them. They’re being bullied by a system that doesn’t listen to them. If we don’t stand up to the bullies, if we don’t stand up to the fellow who is the bully in chief in America, then we are ultimately going to succumb to the bullies.