The Sunday Magazine·Q&A

'Great wealth inevitably corrupts democracy,' says former U.S. labour secretary Robert Reich

After 40 years of stagnant wages and a widening gap between the rich and the poor, Former U.S. Labour Secretary Robert Reich says the United States is facing a battle between democracy and oligarchy.

‘We're living right now in what might be called the second Gilded Age’ says Reich

A group of activists, politicians and citizens marched at a "March on Billionaires" event in New York City on July 17, 2020, demanding a tax on billionaires and funding for workers excluded from unemployment and federal aid programs. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

When Donald Trump ran for president in 2016, he said he would take the side of workers against the elite. He promised to "drain the swamp" in Washington, D.C. and stop Wall Street from "getting away with murder."

But Robert Reich, who served as Labor Secretary under former United States president Bill Clinton, says President Trump has in fact been a "Trojan Horse" for the wealthy.

The U.S. today resembles an "oligarchy," Reich told The Sunday Magazine's Piya Chattopadhyay, "a government that is not only run by the very wealthy but [where] the wealthy themselves are in charge of the economy."

"When you have that, you can't really have a democracy."

Reich's latest book The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It further explores these inequalities. He has worked for the presidential administrations of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and served as a member of Barack Obama's economic transition advisory board.

Here is part of their conversation.

You write in your latest book that the American system is "rigged." What do you mean by that?

With increasing amounts of money, very rich individuals and big corporations have corrupted American politics.

They have bought politicians for election campaigns. They have put on their own public relations campaigns to convince the public that what they want is in the public interest. They have hired platoons of lawyers to work through the courts to get the results they want.

The net result has been that increasingly, over the last 20 or 30 years, the actual rules governing the United States' market economy have changed.

When we have a society in which great wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few, that great wealth inevitably corrupts democracy.

There is a vicious cycle in which the market and the rules governing the market — the framework for politics itself — shifts in the direction of the wealthy and big corporations.- Robert Reich

This widening wealth gap is something that's happening in most other advanced Western democracies as well, including here in Canada. Is there something unique about the way it's playing out in the U.S.?

What makes the United States an outlier is the role of money in politics.

There is essentially no control, no restriction, on the amount of money that big corporations and very wealthy individuals can spend on political contests. And as a result, there is a vicious cycle in which the market and the rules governing the market — the framework for politics itself — shifts in the direction of the wealthy and big corporations.

In other words, it gets worse and worse and worse from the standpoint of the average working person, whose wages have not increased in 40 years while almost all of the gains from economic growth have gone to the top.

In his latest book The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It, former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich explores how the "rigged" systems of American politics and power operate. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

You draw a comparison between the U.S. today and the Gilded Age of the late 1800s. Describe that for us and what parallels you see between then and now.

We're living right now in what might be called the second Gilded Age.

In the late 1800s, we saw a huge gap between the very wealthy and the very poor. The wealthy became extraordinarily wealthy. They also used some of their money to buy off politicians. [They] literally put sacks of money on the desks of pliant legislators in the state governments and in the federal government. We also saw unsafe working conditions [and] the wealthy did everything they could to bust the beginnings of the union movement.

On top of all of that, a lot of middle class people saw their own possibilities and opportunities decline dramatically. Upward mobility was cut short. And finally, the very wealthy monopolised their industries. They became overwhelmingly powerful, both economically and politically.

We're seeing almost exactly the same phenomena today.

[Trump] was a Trojan Horse for the very wealthy, for the big corporations.- Robert Reich

President Trump has been able to tap into this growing inequality in the U.S. as a way of building and expanding his base of support. Why do you think that has worked for him?

Donald Trump managed to persuade a large group of people — primarily the white male working class — that he was on their side.

[In fact], he was a Trojan Horse for the very wealthy, for the big corporations. They were the major beneficiaries of his tax cuts. Nothing trickled down to average working people. He has rolled back regulations having to do with health and safety, environmental protection and labour laws. He has also made it much more difficult for average working people to get healthcare.

Nonetheless, [he has] this ability to take the rage and anger of the white working class and direct it toward scapegoats — people who had nothing to do with the plight of the white working class but nevertheless are easy foils. And I'm talking about immigrants, Muslims, Black Americans, Latinx people.

The Republicans, paradoxically, have become the party of the working class.- Robert Reich

Some would argue that the foundations for the growing inequality that you talk about were in fact laid under Democratic administrations, notably the Clinton and Obama administrations. To that, you say what?

I agree with some of that… The Democratic Party in many respects abandoned the working class. It was that failure to continue to be the champion of the working class that has allowed the Republican Party to step into that void.

Even though Donald Trump has been proven to be a fake working class hero, the Republicans, paradoxically, have become the party of the working class. That, I think, is partly because of the Democrats' failure.

You wrote back in February that given the anti-establishment attitude of so many working class and middle class Americans, someone like Bernie Sanders was the Democrats' safest choice for a nomination — rather than a so-called "moderate" Democrat. How do you feel about the Joe Biden candidacy now?

I think Joe Biden can be pushed, if he's president, in the direction of more progressive policies.

There are many, many Americans who want, for example, a single-payer healthcare system. Joe Biden doesn't — or at least he has not supported that. But if enough Americans organize and signal that they want that, Joe Biden will respond.

What role should so-called "We the People" — American citizens themselves — play in the kind of transformative change you're talking about? 

One thing that they can do is look upon Election Day as the beginning, not the end, of citizen activism. Politicians respond to citizens when they are tenacious — when they are organized and mobilized over the long term. 

Being a citizen activist means more than simply worrying about elections, more than voting, more than showing up for jury duty, or paying your taxes. It's understanding that politics is a practice that we all owe to one another to undertake. 

Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Interview produced by Donya Ziaee.

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