- Interview by
- Luke Savage
For an event so utterly cataclysmic, the meltdown of 2008–9 is rarely remembered as the formative political and cultural moment it so clearly was, if indeed it is remembered at all. Bringing about millions of foreclosures and a trail of human misery in its wake, the crisis touched virtually anything and everything that came after it, but, alongside the “war on terror,” has fast been relegated to the back burner of the United States’ cultural memory.
The recently premiered podcast series Meltdown mounts a compelling case that the crisis and the institutional response to it from Democrats still haunt politics today and are in many ways the proverbial skeleton key to understanding the current moment. Jacobin’s Luke Savage sat down with investigative journalist David Sirota and Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney to discuss their podcast, the meltdown of 2008–9, and the various ways history seems to be repeating itself amid the ongoing reconciliation fight.
I want to begin by asking about the genesis of this project. How did your partnership come about, and how was Meltdown born?
David and I have known each other for some years and have always wanted to do a project together. We’d come close to doing various things, and David had been involved on and off with some things that we had done. But he had an idea about this podcast, and we were just getting into the podcast territory and really liked the form because it seemed very much a canvas. Some of the nonfiction docs that we were doing were narrative based but also dug deep on themes that were very human. So, when David mentioned this to me, I thought, “Wow, that’s great because this is the one thing that nobody’s done.” People have done a lot about the run-up to the financial crisis, but not very much at all about what happened the day after. And the thesis was so simple and pure: The idea that the failure to properly take care of the problems after the financial crash is really what gave us Donald Trump. With that thesis in mind, I thought, “Well, let’s take this on.” So, we put together a team, this wonderful group from Transmitter Media, and we were off and running.
The only thing I would add to that: I just want to underscore that there has been a lot of reporting on what happened before the financial crash and what happened in the financial crash, but there has not been as much attention paid to the political ramifications and the ramifications for democracy that the financial crisis really created — and the Democratic response, or lack thereof to it, created. When we use the term “meltdown,” that’s what we’re actually talking about. The term “meltdown” as it relates to the financial crisis has been used to describe the crisis itself. But what this series actually looks at is a meltdown of people’s faith in the government to do anything other than enrich the rich and empower the powerful. That is a meltdown simmering underneath basically everything in politics since the financial collapse. I would say that the meltdown we’re talking about is something that is still going on today. So, this is not just a historical look back. It’s about explaining how we arrived at this moment right now.
Right. What’s usually conjured by the word “meltdown” is stuff like clips of frantic news anchors, images of chaos on the New York Stock Exchange trading floor, graphs with all the lines plunging downward, that kind of thing. But the series really takes on different facets of the crisis. There’s what obviously comes to mind, but there’s also the response lawmakers took to the crash. With this in mind, I wanted to ask you both: Why did you decide to tell this story now? The financial crisis has, in some ways, been very meticulously documented, but why is this story important to tell now? And why does this second meaning of the word “meltdown” play such a key role in it?
I’ll take a brief whack at first, and then David can follow and expand. But, I mean, look at what’s going on in the United States right now. We’re looking at déjà vu all over again (to quote Yogi Berra) — the failure on this reconciliation bill to really get things right, to really deliver what people want. I think the polling suggests that 83 percent of Americans want Medicare to be able to bargain forcefully for lower drug prices — 83 percent, but the politicians can’t get that through because Big Pharma opposes it. So, what does that tell you? And the danger is that we’re going to be at the same inflection point again where, if this administration and this Democratic-controlled Congress doesn’t deliver for people, they’re going to look around and say, “Well, what good is the government anyway? And, you know, maybe we should just vote again for people who want to blow it all up.”
So, there’s definitely a contemporary hook that’s more contemporary than even we would’ve thought at the time when we started to make this! But the other aspect of it is that it really does help to explain what the stuff that was done about the run-up to the crisis and the crisis itself never really got at: how we ended up in a place where people were so angry that they would end up voting for somebody who claimed to be a populist but in fact was representing the wealthiest interests of all. How do you do that? And part of how Trump played that trick was because there was so much disappointment in the political party that was supposed to be representing the people. You flipped it on its head, and he became the populist president standing up for the bankers. And that’s what may happen again.
What I would add to that is that this series was actually released in the twenty-four-hour news cycle, the same twenty-four-hour news cycle, that Joe Biden announced that his reconciliation bill — in other words, his agenda — his major agenda bill was being cut in half. We didn’t intentionally time it this way, but it’s almost too perfect. The lesson of the series is that, when you pare back your own promised agenda, you are playing with fire. You are giving your opponents more ammunition to argue that you did not deliver on your promises to voters.
Now, I should say, I think that the Democratic Party has learned some lessons from what happened in 2009 and 2010. The reconciliation bill that is in the news right now, it’s got the climate provisions, it’s got some healthcare expansion provisions. It’s a more robust response to a crisis — granted a different crisis — than what the Obama administration response was. They have not yet — and hopefully “yet” is never — they have not yet turned to austerity, which the Obama administration did after it passed an all-too-small stimulus, passed a giant bailout for Wall Street, and then turned to so-called deficit reduction, pushing for Social Security cuts. The Biden administration has not done that. So, I think some lessons of the meltdown may have been learned by some folks in the Biden administration.
But again, I think it’s also fair to say that the agenda being pushed forward by the Democrats is still not really adequate to the crises that we face. And it is certainly not an FDR-level response to the crises that we face. That is the opposite of the cautionary tale in meltdown: the FDR story. Franklin Roosevelt came into office during a crisis and made very explicitly clear — and Alex and I wrote an essay about this in Rolling Stone — that he understood the connection between economic policies and democracy. Basically, if you get into office making economic promises and you try to deliver on those promises, that’s the best way to fight off the rise of fascism. If you don’t deliver for people, right-wing authoritarians and fascists are able to make an argument, an anti-democratic argument, “Hey, they didn’t solve your problems. Democratic institutions won’t solve your problems. We will.” FDR explicitly made clear that his New Deal was not only morally necessary, not only economically good policy, but absolutely crucial to tamping down public support for fascism in America, which was on the rise at the time. And so that is really the stakes here in what this series is about.
Just to insert one other kind of contextual note: People have to remember — we don’t lean on it very heavily in Meltdown — but people have to remember too that one of the things going on here, particularly now, is that the opposing party, the GOP, has structured itself around Trumpism as a kind of massive wrecking ball to destroy government. So, their whole job is to destroy government and its ability to try to work for people. And in that sense, you face a very different kind of opponent across the aisle who is not looking to work with you and is not looking to get their agenda across. They’re just looking to destroy everything that you’re trying to do. And sometimes it’s a lot easier to destroy than it is to build.
Something I think that the series tackles very well is the connection between economic crises and the ongoing radicalization on the Right. I’d forgotten, for example, about the so-called rant heard around the world. But the way the series treats that as a perfect inversion — a kind of anti-populism sold to people as populism — and the way the Tea Party was able to capitalize on a kind of free-floating anti-establishment sentiment — recalled for me one of Corey Robin’s theses about conservatism, which is that it invariably appropriates the language of the Left. Anyway, I think the connection between economic collapse and the rise of the Right is one that parts of liberal America have a difficult time understanding.
There’s been a tendency on the part of liberals — and you really saw this after Trump’s election in 2016 — to think about what happens on the Right as its own discrete thing: So, the Republican Party becoming more extreme gets treated almost like a random weather event or something like that. It’s got nothing to do with what the Democratic Party does. It’s got nothing to do with deeper structural conditions or anything like that. But the series obviously makes a very different case. So, what would you say about the explicit connection between the economic crisis of 2008–9 and the political meltdown you spoke about also, and the trends we’re seeing on the right — from the Tea Party up to the storming of the Capitol?
There was a fascinating study that recently came out that showed that, in Weimar Germany in the 1930s, austerity — essentially not providing what’s necessary to working-class people, cutting things like social security and the like . . . Some people would believe that conservative austerity policies would lead rank-and-file voters to be more supportive of things like socialism. But what comes out of the studies, at least from Weimar Germany, is that when resources become more scarce, people become more open to racist, xenophobic arguments from politicians. They become more open to authoritarian arguments from political strongmen. What was found in Weimar Germany was that the working-class areas that flipped most intensely in support of the Nazi Party were the places that were hit hardest by austerity. That’s not to say that the American right are Nazis or to draw a direct one-to-one comparison, but it is to say that a similar dynamic is at play in the United States — and really, probably, in most industrialized countries.
What we saw in the United States was the floodgates of money were opened up to the people at the top, through the bank bailout — a top-down bailout — and the public was essentially asking, “Where’s our bailout?” And the stimulus bill, the Obama stimulus, was way too small. People were suffering through millions of foreclosures and a jobs crisis. So, what ended up happening was that all became fertile ground — and not necessarily for people to naturally move to the left. It became fertile ground for conservative opportunists to move into that space, take advantage of the resource scarcity and the xenophobia and the racism and the in-group solidarity that tends to build up when resources are scarce and everybody’s fighting over crumbs. And that ended up producing first the Tea Party and then the MAGA movement.
I think that’s something that needs to be really well understood: The Democrats seem to think that they can be in a competition with Republicans over who can be supportive of austerity policies. But they’re playing into a political trap. It’s not only bad policy. It’s a political trap. Austerity actually serves the political agenda of the right. Not just their economic agenda. It ultimately serves to create the conditions that make it easier for farther and farther right-wing politicians to win. The Tea Party clearly took advantage of that. I mean, if you remember, they ended up throwing all of the things that were happening into one giant argument. There were the bailouts, there was the stimulus. You remember the whole Solyndra controversy — a controversy over one contract to a solar company. They blew that up into a huge scandal.
There were the American International Group (AIG) bonuses — public money being used to subsidize Wall Street bonuses. They were able to use all of that in a situation where the average person was facing austerity. They were able to say, “Look at all the money that’s being spent over here on the people at the top. And we’ve also been telling you — we, the Right, have been telling you for thirty to forty years leading up to this, that the nine most frightening words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’” So, it was a culmination of all of those trends, and the Democrats walked right into that trap.
There was a brief moment, a very brief moment, right around the Rick Santelli rant, when Obama promises that he’s going to go out and help homeowners. Well, if you’re going to promise, you better deliver. And suddenly there’s this political blowback, and they walk away from it. So, they look even more feckless because they keep making motions in the right direction but don’t follow through. They’re talking the talk, but they’re not walking the walk.
One other point on that very quickly. Adding insult to injury is that they then are left touting half measures — inadequate, half measures — as great victories. Obama, as an example, ran out there and said, “Look at this amazing Wall Street reform we did!” or “Look at this transformative stimulus bill!” Or even on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which wasn’t all bad —these things are not all bad, right? But I would argue that the ACA, the stimulus bill, and the Wall Street reform bill, these are half measures at best. But they end up touting them as landmark achievements, which leaves voters thinking, “Maybe some of this stuff is okay, but you’re telling me it’s the greatest thing in the world? That’s insulting to me. It makes me feel like you’re lying to me.” He did not really deliver.
Yeah. And when it comes to something like the ACA, I suspect the wrong lessons were learned. In other words, it turns out that the ACA, as compromised as it was, nevertheless did deliver some real help to people. And a lot of people didn’t want to let it go, much to the chagrin of conservatives. But I think the lesson learned was, “We must always compromise on these things in order to get them through,” instead of saying “Geez, if we designed something even more robust, then the ownership of it would have been more intense.” I mean, to this day, Social Security, nobody’s going to touch that, right?
Yeah, and something else you might say about the ACA was that, when it was presented, when the Democrats passed it, part of the rationale was basically, “Look, this might not be a public option. It’s certainly not any kind of single-payer model, but don’t worry! It’s an incremental step to something else!” Then suddenly, in 2016 and in 2020, the ACA was turned into this thing that you couldn’t touch because it was Barack Obama’s legacy, and wanting to go beyond it or saying there was anything inadequate about it became a slander of the last Democratic administration. So, it actually became the opposite of an incremental step towards something better. It became, in many ways, an impediment.
I want to say something very quickly on that because it’s such an important point. And I’m not here to say, “I told you so,” but I’ll put it this way: I remember back during the ACA debate that there were some voices who worried, not that the policy was bad in the short term, but that by creating a health care reform that fortified the profits, and therefore the political power of the health insurance industry, it would help make that industry even harder to dislodge from its place between the public and physicians and between the public and medical care. What also happened was that the ACA has been used as a political weapon against things like Medicare for All. It’s not the ACA leading to a more humane health care system. It’s the ACA as the shield against efforts to even add a public option or do things like Medicare for All.
So, I think that those folks who were saying that back then have been proven indisputably correct. Now, maybe folks who are reading this will say, “Well, that’s good. We don’t want Medicare for All.” Or “We don’t even want a public health insurance option.” I mean, that’s not me. I don’t subscribe to those arguments, but maybe that’s what they want. And the point is that people are clearly not happy with the health care system. I don’t think people want to dismantle the ACA, because that’s better than absolutely nothing. But I do think it kind of proves the point that, when you have measures like it, oftentimes there’s one view that it’s taking a step toward the goal. There’s another view that sometimes these half measures actually normalize something for the long haul that needs to be dislodged.
There’s a particular moment in the series I’m keen to ask about. In the eighth and final episode, you include an absolutely extraordinary clip of a 2006 conversation that, David, you had with Barack Obama. I had never heard this audio before or seen the article you wrote on the interview for the Nation shortly after. Given Obama’s centrality to everything we’ve been discussing here, I wanted to ask about this specifically. What was the backstory to this conversation and what did Obama’s remarks illustrate for you about his political outlook — both at the time, and later, when he was tasked with responding to the most significant national economic crisis since the Great Depression?
The germination of that interview was that I was living in Montana at the time and had worked on a couple of campaigns. I was moving into writing a book about corruption, and I had written some small piece about Obama voting for — I think he had voted for a couple of George W. Bush nominees who were terrible. I wrote a couple of things about that. And he called me on the phone, this is 2006, and said, “I think you’ve got me pegged wrong. I’m actually a progressive guy. And I think you’re misinterpreting the votes that I cast.” And I said, “Oh, interesting. How about I come spend a day sort of trailing you on Capitol Hill. We’ll have a couple of interviews, and I’ll ask you some questions?”
So, I went and did that. And it was a really fascinating experience because he’s obviously a thinking person. He’s a super impressive guy. One-on-one, he’s obviously a smart guy. But a funny side note is that I came home from the interview and I told my wife, “Wow, this guy is really incredible! He’s amazing! What a mind he’s got!” My wife said, “Don’t write your article yet. Print out the transcript and then let me read it, and then you’ll read it. I want to just see what he said.”
So, she came back, and she said, “Look at all these ways he’s contradicting himself. And he’s not really saying much over there.” And I thought, “Oh my God. This guy’s got the Force,” like in the scene from Star Wars. . . A “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for” kind of Force.
But what comes out in the interview, more importantly, is that he was a guy who admitted pretty explicitly: “I am not a revolutionary, I’m essentially, at best a reformer. I believe in working within the confines of the system as it exists. I do not really believe in dismantling a system, or building a new system,” which is a much different attitude than somebody like Franklin Roosevelt had. Now, in retrospect, what we see is that that was exactly who he was, even though in the 2008 campaign, I would argue he portrayed himself, maybe not as a revolutionary, but certainly as more than just a kind of tinkerer.
I mean, he promised to deliver real accountability for Wall Street so that it wasn’t so central in our lives. I could run through the list. It’s not even a value judgment to say that he believed in the system and that a couple of tweaks here and there to make the system work better was what was necessary. I would argue that after the financial crisis, there was an opportunity and a necessity to actually reimagine the system, which is why I keep going back to FDR. Just one point on that: I was just reading Matt Stoller’s great book Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly and Democracy, and there’s a part of the book that says (I didn’t even know this) that as the New Deal is being passed, as FDR is not reinflating Wall Street as a central force in the economy — and that’s a contrast with after the meltdown, where I think what really happened was Wall Street was simply reinflated and propped back up — there’s some stat about how there was a huge amount of office space open on Wall Street because all the jobs had gone away. Roosevelt imagined an economy in which Wall Street wasn’t as big an industry in our society. Now, I know that’s hard for people to imagine right now, but it’s worth mentioning that there was a possibly analogous moment we had in 2008 — a political moment and an economic moment — and it obviously did not happen.
The only small thing I would add to that is I think one of the things that Roosevelt did — and there were many ways in which Roosevelt was a traditional politician — but one of the things that Roosevelt did was sense the moment and sense the zeitgeist. He was willing to ride the whirlwind. That’s not something that Obama was willing to do. People like Rahm Emanuel were around him, always trying to play the political angles. But there was a moment when he came into power, where the popular anger was so immense that it was just a moment in time where you could do extraordinary things rather than settle. And I think he missed history. He didn’t see that he could have been an extraordinary president because the moment was there for him.
This is a little more abstract than some of my questions so far, but the series begins with a reference to the line from Raiders of the Lost Ark about digging in the wrong place. The final episode is called “Memory Against Forgetting.” Given the scale of the meltdown — both in an economic and a political sense — how is it that this whole chain of events has been memory-holed? To put it a little differently: Why are we digging in the wrong place? What is the explanation for how, along with the war on terror, the meltdown of 2008–9 feels like one of the two great silences in US politics and culture? When it’s discussed, if it’s even discussed, it’s just as a discrete chain of events. It’s not part of any larger, organic whole. It’s not treated as a formative explanation for anything that’s happening in the present. Since the two of you spent so much time thinking about it in relation to the series, I wanted to ask you both why you think that is?
I think there are two answers. First, we can’t negate the fact that something has changed in our entire culture, whether it’s because of media, because of social media, something has changed, and we’ve become kind of a goldfish culture (goldfish don’t actually forget their whole worlds every fifteen minutes, though the apocryphal myth is that they do). But I think we now live in a culture where, especially in politics, we are led to forget our entire world every fifteen minutes. And that is a larger problem than this, but I think you’re right: the war on terror, the Iraq War, and the financial crisis have been memory-holed — those are the most illustrative examples of that, because if you can memory-hole those things, then you can memory-hole anything. Now, I will say, I don’t think those things were necessarily memory-holed experientially. The financial crisis and what it did to a generation of people . . . People may not remember the financial crisis, but they certainly experienced the negatives of the aftermath: Millions of people being thrown out of their homes and the like, so that’s one reason.
But I also think the other reason is the Democratic Party has shown an absolute hostility to any and all self-reflection. What’s amazing about that is that Donald Trump actually, I think, accelerated that trend. I find that amazing because if you lose to a disgraceful, unpopular reality TV show host, the first question you should be asking is, “What did we do wrong to somehow lose to that person?” But instead, the aftermath of that election was, “Well, it must’ve been the Russians. It must have been racism.” It was everything besides looking internally. Now I would acknowledge that there were a lot of different reasons. It wasn’t just one reason, right? But if you can’t look at yourself in the mirror and say, “Hey, how do we blow this?”. . . . One of the quotes in the series that is so mind-blowing is when Chuck Schumer essentially said right before the election, wearing this sort of smug smile, “For every working-class Democrat that we lose in a place like Western Pennsylvania, we’re going to gain two moderate Republicans in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in all these other swing states” — which obviously proved to be one of the most ridiculous predictions, one of the most embarrassing predictions in the history of politics, because the opposite actually happened.
And my point is that if the party can’t look at itself and say, “How do we not even see that coming?” then it shows there is some deep-seated hostility to learning lessons. I think that left-of-center parts of the media, I’m not saying all of that media necessarily, but I think the MSNBCs of the world, the left-of-center media space, has not wanted to look at those lessons, partly because you have to admit fault. Corporate media has to admit some fault in this too, in essentially ignoring parts of the financial crisis and the like, so that’s why, in my view, it’s been memory-holed.
So, I’ll just pick up on that slightly. And since I’ve done a bunch of films on the war on terror, I’ll also sort of relate the two in a second. I think one of the reasons it’s been memory-holed has to do with what I would call A Few Bad Apples Syndrome. You recall, when Abu Ghraib happened, Donald Rumsfeld famously said, “Oh, it’s just a few bad apples.” That’s the classic way of memory-holding something: It becomes an exception, it’s not the rule. When in fact — and I did a film about this — it wasn’t a few bad apples. It was a very rotten barrel. There was a systemic system of torture that had been built. I think one of the most poignant episodes in Meltdown is about these people going through these mortgage foreclosure mills, these poor people trying to hang onto their homes.
They’re being screwed at every turn by people: people who’ve literally defrauded them, people who have put them through an unbelievable labyrinth and legal system in order to try to save their homes. The system is rigged against them, and so one of the reasons for this memory-holing is because you want to believe that the people who lost their homes are just a few bad apples, rather than evidence of a rotten barrel. And the rotten barrel is: Justice is not equal for all. The people who fund campaigns, and I would include the GOP and the Democratic Party, are the people at the top who are running the mortgage system, who are running the credit card collection agencies. And they’re like, “We’re good guys, and we’re just trying to make a buck, and the moral hazard is on those deadbeats who can’t pay their bills!” That’s the moral hazard.
But nobody talked about moral hazard when Timothy Geithner insisted that Goldman Sachs be paid a hundred cents on the dollar for its insurance claims with AIG, because of the sanctity of the contract where there’s no sanctity of the contract (the federal government was actually giving money to AIG to pay that). So, the federal government could have said, “Screw you, you’re not going to get our money. Rely on the sanctity of the contract if you want, but you’re not getting our money, AIG, to pay Goldman Sachs unless you take a cramdown — try 50 percent or 25 percent.” But, up at the top, it’s all about the sanctity of the contracts. Down below, if you write contracts that are clearly fraudulent, you know, Bob’s your uncle.
So, I think that the bigger problem here, and the reason it went into a wormhole, is because in the media and in the government, there were too many people who were friendly to keeping things the way they were — keeping an unequal system of justice and finance — rather than radically reforming it, which would have meant a level playing field for everybody.
I want to close by asking more on this theme of moral hazard. I’m sure David has seen this. But, Alex, perhaps as somebody less chronically on Twitter than David and myself, you may not have. There was a viral tweet this week, which I think in some ways perfectly encapsulates at least a part of the ethos that the whole project of Meltdown is trying to repudiate. This was from Ian Millhiser:
I would like a large pizza with mushrooms. I voted for a party that, I thought, would give me a large pizza with mushrooms. Instead, they are giving me a medium cheese pizza. That's disappointing.
Meanwhile, the other party wants to feed me arsenic and nails.
— Ian Millhiser (@imillhiser) October 28, 2021
This is basically the classic argument for voting Democratic: i.e., as risk mitigation. It’s all about avoiding moral hazard.
I think a good way to wrap this conversation might be to lay out the case against this as it’s made in Meltdown. Because, as we’ve been talking about, the series is not just a recounting of events. There’s a prescriptive side to it as well. And I think, in a big way, what it’s really saying is that, actually, we’re not avoiding moral hazard. We’re not avoiding the future risk of right-wing resurgence or other threats by taking the course that this tweet is presenting as the sensible, pragmatic one. I’m not quite sure how to formulate the question, but how do the two of you specifically see the present moment vis-à-vis the reconciliation bill or anything else more generally? And what does Meltdown have to say prescriptively about the kind of argument captured in the relevant pizza tweet?
Well, let me say this, then David can pick up and take it further. I would change the metaphor. Let’s say you have a twenty-foot square hole in your roof, and the Republicans say, “Well, we don’t care. That’s the roof’s problem.” And the Democrats say, “No, we’re going to fix this problem. But the best we can do is a one-foot-square patch.” Okay. That leaves nineteen square feet of hole in the ceiling. And the rains come. Well, how does that one-foot patch help? Not much. So, it’s not just about compromise. It’s about what you want to accomplish and what needs to be accomplished. That’s what has to be looked at.
To pick up on that, I would say that the argument you recounted there, the original argument, that we should be happy with half measures because the Republican opponents are so awful, that is the typical way that inadequacies are sold. It’s pretty sad that this is considered a way to talk to each other in a democracy: It presumes that voters, rank-and-file folks out in the country, should be pundits themselves when they analyze politics and when they take in what their government is doing. In my view, the way we should look at our government, at both parties, is that politicians are amoral. They are inputs into a machine. The job of a citizen is to try to get a political representation that makes the machine deliver results for the public. That’s the way we should look at it.
I would also argue that the difference between a large pizza with everything on it, and a medium cheese pizza, understates the difference between someone being able to get a $15 minimum wage or not, or someone being able to get paid family leave or not, or seniors being able to afford teeth in their mouth or not, right? That wildly understates what we’re talking about here. I think what the prescriptive message, if there is one in Meltdown, is a very simple idea that frankly is indisputable, and yet is somehow still controversial. And the idea is this: The more a political party delivers for its voters, the more a political party fulfills the promises it makes to its voters to improve their lives, the better a chance that political party has to remain in power and to expand its majorities in Congress, in Washington, and in state legislatures.
The idea that this is somehow controversial, I think, really says everything about where our politics has gone wrong. The reason the Democratic Party sounds so incoherent all the time is because it is simultaneously trying to appease its corporate donors and tell voters that it is solving the problems created by its corporate donors. And if you try to do that, you sound incoherent because it’s not possible. An example: You cannot lower the cost of medicine in the United States without making your pharmaceutical donors unhappy. So, if you promise to lower the price of medicine in the United States, and then you pretend you’re doing it, but you’re not doing it, and you’re siding with your pharmaceutical industry donors — all you’re going to do is make people angry. So, the point here is that the more you deliver for voters, the more you materially improve their lives, the better chance you have of actually winning. And every time you compromise, every time you back off, you are actually jeopardizing your party’s control of Congress. I would argue, and I think this podcast essentially argued this without saying it explicitly, that every time you do that, you’re undermining people’s faith in democracy, and you’re opening up more opportunity for authoritarians like Donald Trump and others who do not have the public’s best interest in mind.
When you think about it, the pizza metaphor doesn’t even work at all. I can’t remember who originally made this point, but imagine if you ordered a pizza, they got your order wrong, and you called the pizzeria back and their response is: “Sure, we got your order wrong, but we could have given you a pizza with nails and arsenic on it.” In some ways, it’s accidentally making an argument that’s critical of the Democratic Party.
The only additional thing I’ll say on that is that it just shows how baked-in the hostility is on the part of liberals towards self-reflection; toward saying, “The problem is that we’re not delivering enough. The problem is not that voters are asking us for too much.” That’s the central problem in the United States, and in the series we document ten years when people were getting completely destroyed. Their lives were being destroyed. The problem was not that they were asking for too much! It’s that the government was giving too much to the people who created the problems, a handful of bankers, and not enough to everybody else.
And this idea of compromise and bipartisanship, which is so lionized in the abstract, it totally disregards the moment at hand. In other words, you have to look at the problem and think, well, how do you best solve the problem? You don’t solve the problem by way of some abstract compromise. You solve the problem by coming up with a solution that will actually work, and then by focusing on the details. You can’t lower drug prices by not addressing the problem.
That’s right. And you can’t keep people in their homes without, for instance, forcing the banks to take some losses on the predatory mortgages that they sold to people. And we could go right through the list. Honestly, we’re really getting to the heart of the contradiction of modern liberalism here. Modern liberalism has an assumption that you can somehow solve problems created by powerful corporate actors while also enriching and preserving the power of those same corporate actors. It doesn’t want to acknowledge that many of these problems are a binary choice. Someone’s going to win, and someone’s going to have to sacrifice. And for forty, fifty, sixty years, the folks who’ve been sacrificing the most are the working class.
And by the way, that’s what you see in the reconciliation bill: Compromises. Look what was taken out and look at the things that were kept in. There are good things in there, right? There’s good spending in there, but almost none of it actually offends or asks corporate power to sacrifice much of anything. Certainly not in any kind of systemic way. The things that were stripped out were almost exclusively the things that would have asked capital to sacrifice somewhat significantly for the public. And that really is an example of the liberal idea — and it’s an idea that is just untenable. Because what ends up happening is that you don’t end up solving the problems. People get pissed off and then another Donald Trump, or Donald Trump himself, walks into the vacuum.