Five Minutes With
Christopher Hayes is one of Washington, D.C.’s most prominent young progressive journalists. At the ripe old age of 28 he succeeded David Corn as the Washington editor for The Nation. Hayes focuses on reactionary forces in Washington that operate below the radar. His recent targets include bipartisan businessmen and lobbyists working to ensure that progressive economic reform doesn’t get too far out of the gate—when it gets out at all. Campus Progress talked with Hayes about leftist pessimism, corporate influence in D.C., and the lack of productive public action on the economic front.
You’ve been in D.C. for two years reporting on the legislative process up close. How has that affected your political outlook?
It is harder to maintain one’s faith in the democratic enterprise of American self-governance in D.C. A lot of my beat before I moved here was reporting on citizen activists. When you are dealing with nonprofessional political actors you are as close as possible to the core conception of what makes self-governance noble. When you are only around professionals it is hard to recall that [spirit]. With professionalization comes a certain amount of cynical calculation of interests. There are a lot of people in Washington who are tremendously admirable, but it is a very corrupt town. Through three decades of sustained crony capitalism and conservative assault on big government there has accrued a power imbalance that is deeply embedded in the hydraulics of how the town functions. It wasn’t until Obama’s inauguration and the first hundred days that the structural obstacles progressives face became clear to me.
What are the primary structural and systemic obstacles impeding the progressive agenda?
On domestic policy it is the accrued power of corporate interests. There are battles of ideas and there are battles of interests in politics. While the left was in the wilderness we were losing arguments with the American people, we were losing the battle of ideas. As disheartening as that can be, at the end of the day, that is democracy. If you can’t convince people you are right, it’s your bad.
But on health care for instance, we’ve won the battle … but now we’re fighting the battle of interests. You feel like you’ve won the game and then they announce that there is a whole new round of playoffs. Look at every area where there is a progressive agenda: cap and trade, universal health care, giving workers a real right to organize. In all of those places you are fighting tooth and nail [against] very powerful, entrenched corporate interests. The entirety of corporate America [is fighting] the Employee Free Choice Act.
In terms of foreign policy you are fighting a deeply embedded national security bureaucracy. It’s not to say that there aren’t thousands of incredibly noble and heroic civil servants in the CIA and the NSA, people who have a remarkable conception of duty. But institutionally we have a national security [apparatus] that always grows and rarely shrinks. Every time we add a new layer to deal with a new security threat we keep the old. Bureaucracies don’t like to give up power. No one says, “You know what you should really do, Mr. President? Get rid of my job.”
If the momentum for change won’t come from within these institutions, and those who want to make change are rarely given real power, how are we going to change anything?
We need to find structures for taking on entrenched power, channels that aren’t just electoral. The deck is very stacked when you come to Washington. You can bus in a thousand people to lobby the Hill on financial regulation, but the next day they all go home and the lobbyists are still there. We talk about the inequality of wealth, inequality of health care, but the root of it is inequality of power.
You write that one of the biggest problems we face is corporate interests embedded on the Hill, particularly in regard to Wall Street and the banks. Why are so few people talking about this?
A big part of it is the issue of complexity. There is an asymmetry of expertise. Most of the experts are inside the industry, and the bankers really marshal this to their benefit. If you want one simple answer about why a populist backlash hasn’t really manifested in any kind of collective way, it is because the financial interests have succeeded in muddying the waters.
It does seem to be harder to rally people around something like temporarily nationalizing the banks. Massive pro-gay rights demonstrations, for example, are coached in terms of human rights, which everyone gets. But banking…
That is why they win these battles. There is no mass constituency for re-regulating the banks. It doesn’t get people in the [thumps finger on chest]. There are certain political arguments that make your cheeks warm. Those are the things that win elections. It is hard to marshal intensity around systemic risk regulations or temporarily nationalizing the banks. So without a mass constituency it is left to insiders in D.C. That battle isn’t even between David and Goliath. It is between Goliath and David’s poodle’s infant puppy.
It seems a bit hopeless.
Think about this: Twenty years ago there was no mass constituency for gay marriage. One of the things you accept in a large heterogeneous, diverse democracy, particularly one [with a] certain imperial self-conception, is that change comes slowly. It is a lot of work to get a little change. There are moments when you understand the left’s historical affection for Hugo Chavez or Che Guevara. There is something tempting about the purity of something much quicker and more revolutionary. But ultimately there is something corrupting about that quickness. Reforms that are built from the ground up have a legitimacy and endurance that can’t be ripped up. We will never have public segregation again. (Although we have prison and public education systems that work as de facto segregation, so the battle never ends.) The gains you win through the slow, painful process of democratic mobilization [last].
You’ve written about your frustration with the Senate, how one arch-reactionary like Tom Coburn can gum everything up. Can you [tell me more about that]?
The system of governance laid out in the Constitution is one that is nominally, but barely, democratic. Of the four institutions the framers constructed only one is directly elected—the House. The president is elected by the electoral college, the Senate is nominated by state legislatures, and the Supreme Court is unelected. There is a strong democratophobia that runs through our constitutional system and the Senate is the modern day institutional locus. Even with the Seventeenth Amendment, which allows the direct election of senators, the body remains deeply unrepresentative. The Senate is the saucer that cools the hot liquid of the House, a conservatizing force meant to stop things from happening. You add the filibuster onto a body already engineered to be a choke point, this new institutional norm adding a de facto supermajority, and you get a dysfunctional body.
Look at the history of the filibuster. It has been used to destroy progressive reform. Labor law reform, civil rights—it has been reactionary almost since its conception. Since the Great Society Congress has been incapable of passing a wholesale modification of the social contract. That is the $64,000 question that looms over the Obama administration.
I feel that pessimism coming on again.
Look at how far we’ve come in the last four years. We have a black president who ran on the most ambitiously progressive domestic agenda in a generation. Look at the political perspectives of the youngest voters, the most progressive cohort since the dawn of polling on almost every issue. White, male, Christians are the demographic roadblock. And the country is getting less white and less Christian. The macro forces are moving in our direction. What makes you lose hope is the hand-to-hand combat happening on Capitol Hill. Progressives have a unique lack of self-confidence where we feel like we are just going to get this one little chance, but I think the force of history is on our side. I believe that with every last fiber of my being.
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