Political theorist Benjamin Barber

The CivWorld president and president-founder of the Interdependence Movement reflects on the DNC, joblessness in America and the power held by undecided voters.

Benjamin Barber is a renowned political theorist who consults regularly with institutions and leaders in the U.S. and Europe. He's a senior research scholar at The Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at The City University of New York's Graduate Center, president of CivWorld @ Dēmos and president-founder of the Interdependence Movement. A best-selling author of numerous books, including Jihad vs. McWorld, Barber also co-wrote the prize-winning PBS/BBC series, The Struggle for Democracy. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard and was a founding editor of the distinguished international journal, Political Theory.


Tavis: Always pleased to welcome Ben Barber to this program. The noted author and political theorist is senior research scholar at the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at the City University of New York. He’s also the founder of Interdependence Day. This weekend celebrates the 10th anniversary right here in L.A. He joins us tonight, though, from New York. Ben Barber, good to have you back on this because.

Dr. Benjamin Barber: Thank you, Tavis, so good to be with you.

Tavis: These last two weeks of conventions, Republicans in Tampa, Democrats, of course, in Charlotte, have been about anything but interdependence, so where U.S. public policy is concerned, talk to me about what you’ve heard over these last two weeks and why none of it sounds to me like we’re going to work together over the next few months.

Barber: Well, I’m afraid particularly in the last week, but even this week, there’s a lot of USA, USA, we’re number one, what America’s going to do, and the reality is, Tavis, we live in a world in which in the 21st century it’s not going to be the American century, it’s not going to be the Chinese century, it’s going to be our global century together, or nobody’s at all.

Because we live in a world now whose challenges increasingly are cross-border and interdependent, and we didn’t hear that last week. Romney mocked rising seas. He said oh, well, that’s nothing. I’m here to serve families. There won’t be any families in 50 years if we don’t do something about global warming and the rising seas.

I think from Paul Ryan’s speech, about three minutes out of 39 or so was devoted to foreign policy, if that. They had Condi Rice say a few words, but very little. Even the president this week, understandably, in a domestic campaign, focuses on domestic issues. We have two great parties who still act as if we’re in the 19th century and that Americans only care about and are concerned with what happens in America.

That would be great, I love this country and it’s a great country, it may be the best country in the world, but the best country in the world needs every other country today to solve the kinds of problems we have with terrorism, with global warming, with global technologies, with pandemics, with terrorism.

Al Qaeda figured out interdependence way before we did. George Bush went out to take on Iraq and Afghanistan. Al Qaeda, in fact, is nothing more than an interdependent NGO of a very pernicious kind.

Tavis: Interdependence, it seems to me, is inconsistent with this notion of American exceptionalism. We heard some of that at the RNC last week, we’ve heard some of that, not as much, but some of that at the Democratic convention this week.

But speak to me about this notion, this gospel of American exceptionalism that some Americans are still preaching.

Barber: Tavis, that’s such an important question, and you’re right, it’s really both parties. In a certain sense, politicians have to do it. When President Obama was elected four years ago he had made a speech in Berlin during the campaign in which he talked about America as part of the world.

He went to Istanbul and Cairo in his first year and talked about interdependence and the need to work together, and he was punished by it. He was punished by the media, he was punished by his own party, and the result is nowadays he talks, like most other politicians, mainly about America. We’re number one, God bless America.

I do want God to bless America, but I wish our politicians would ask God to bless the whole world, because we’re in this together. This focus on the American exception in a world where first of all, every nation and people thinks it’s exceptional – in Switzerland they talk about (speaks in Swedish), which means “the special exception of Switzerland.”

In France they talk about (speaks in French), which means the French have a special mission to civilize the world. Every nation thinks it’s special, and you know what? Every nation is.

The great thing about our cultures around the world is they are great, and we do have a unique and special country here and a unique and special culture, but that doesn’t mean that we are exceptional in the sense that we can solve problems by ourselves, that we can fix the things the way we once did a hundred years ago.

Think about immigration. There’s nothing America can do by itself to deal with immigration. Think about global warming. We can’t do that one nation at a time. Even if we suddenly had only alternative energy here, even if suddenly we got off the petroleum teat and started really using solar and wave energy and geothermal energy, 80 or 85 percent of the emissions come from other countries. So that won’t solve our global warming problem.

We do these things together in the 21st century or they don’t happen, and we need political leaders bold enough to say that, but we also need citizens and a media willing to support politicians who say that. Because if I went into the White House today to Mr. Obama or if we had a different kind of candidate than the Republican Party, and I went and said, Mr. Romney, you’ve got to talk global, you’ve got to talk about working together, their advisers would say, rightly, “Get that guy out of here. We’re going to lose the election if we start talking about working with other people.”

We’ve got to say USA, USA, we’re number one, we’re number one, we’re exceptional, we can fix things ourselves, and that works politically and it’s disastrous in terms of really solving America’s problems and giving our children and grandchildren a future.

Tavis: So there are three distinct groups you’ve just raised now. we’ve talked about one, and that is the group of elected officials, and I get – I’m not naive, and neither are you, of course – I get why they feel they need to chant USA, and I’ll never forget as long as I live the hell that Mr. Obama caught for not wearing the American flag on his lapel. All of a sudden he put it on there and it hasn’t come off for four years now. (Laughter)

So I get that from a politician’s point of view, all jokes aside, but I do want to talk in a moment about citizens that you’ve just raised, and I want to talk about – that is to say, the Demos – and I want to talk about the media. Let me start with the media, since you actually raised it first.

When you suggested a few moments ago that Mr. Obama, when he attempted to talk about this notion of working together globally and that we are, in fact, interdependent, he was scoffed at, mocked at, by the media. Tell me more. What did you see and hear at that moment?

Barber: Well, what I heard was a deeply parochial media. Journalism, the media, print media, the Web, broadcast, it’s all about helping educate Americans, helping them to see the world as it really is and what’s needed.

Instead, the media pander to the worst prejudices of the public, and this is on both sides. I listen to MSNBC, I listen to Fox. When I’m lucky, I get to listen to you and PBS.

But for the most of us, we’re listening to one of those two, maybe CNN. But if you listen to MSNBC, there’s hardly a dash of international news. You listen to Fox, there’s actually a little more on Fox because of Murdoch, I guess, and the News Corporation than there is on MSNBC.

Turn on the BBC and listen just for five minutes to their news, and you realize there’s a whole world out there, from Somalia and Sudan to South Africa and Thailand and Indochina and China that we never hear about. It just doesn’t exist.

So of course if a politician starts to say what’s happening in China is important, what’s happening in Singapore really means something to us, what’s happening in Sudan and the division of north and south Sudan and the guerillas there, we’ve got to think about that, most Americans have no idea what you’re thinking about, no idea what you’re talking about, and most politicians take great risks, therefore, to talk about it.

So the media, because they no longer have that great sense of civic responsibility that once upon a time they took as their nature, because they’re part of the conglomerate corporate world, they’re in it to make profits, and because hard discussions about difficult and complex things in the greater world don’t bring listeners and watchers to the television set, they simply don’t do it.

In doing that, they have reneged on the fundamental responsibility of what it means to be a journalist, to be a reporter, to be a broadcaster.

Tavis: So what is it, then, about the citizenry that so craves being talked to in that parochial way? What is it that brings on those chants of USA, USA, at not one but both conventions? What’s that all about?

Barber: Well, I think there are two things, and one is legitimate and I completely understand it. We all live, first of all, in a neighborhood, in a community, in a town. In a little farm town, in a big city, and of course our first allegiance, our first sense of belonging, is to that community, and when we see the news we want to know what happened in our community.

What’s happening with the school, what happened with an accident up the street, there was a fire, something happened. I understand that. We are, if you like, personal and parochial creatures, and of course, the news has to serve that part of us and it does that an awful lot, and pretty well.

But the other part of it that I don’t get is the jingoistic, the national part. The part that doesn’t simply say, “Let’s talk about your neighborhood and where you live and your neighbors for a while, and now let’s talk about the larger neighborhood of the whole planet.”

The fact is the planet has become our neighborhood in this new interdependent world. When you try to talk about that, people say you’re disloyal, you’re not a patriot, you’re not waving the American flag, and as you say, every politician stencils into their forehead an American flag, and I don’t mind. That’s great, to be patriotic.

But we also ought to stencil a little picture of the planet into our foreheads as well, because we all live on that planet and that’s part of where we are. If we don’t figure out how to live on that planet, the American flag won’t be waving a hundred years from now.

Tavis: So with regard to economics, which I think is clearly going to be – the economy, that is – clearly going to be the primary issue between now and Election Day, we heard two different versions of the path forward, one from Romney/Ryan, the other, of course, this week from Obama/Biden.

What, to your ear, is the most distinctive difference between these two different routes?

Barber: Well, let me say two things. Let me say on the one hand, what we heard last week at the Republican convention was as if the Republicans hadn’t been in power for 30 years and they were asking for America’s permission to fix the things, but in fact as we know, from the end of the Clinton administration to the beginning of the Obama administration for eight years, they were the ones who created the problems, the policies they now talk about – trickle-down, vouchers, get the government out of it, fire public employees – were the very things that created the fiscal disaster that we have now.

Obviously the Democrats know that and are trying to point out not just that they inherited a situation but that the policies that are being advertised now, particularly by Paul Ryan, these libertarian no-government, no public employees, get rid of the unions, all of those policies, is exactly how we got into the mess we are in.

I would love it if the Republicans said, “Look, those didn’t work. We don’t think Obama’s worked. Here’s the third option.” We don’t have a third option. We’ve been given the old option that created the problem to start with.

President Obama is saying we need more of what we did and maybe better; we need more fiscal stimulus, we need to strengthen the public sector, we need to strengthen regulations so that banks and corporations don’t act irresponsibly, but the other side says, well, that’s just more government, and that’s the problem we have.

But here’s what both parties miss, from my point of view. They miss that the American economy will never again be an autonomous economy. Both parties are worried about oil prices, the price of gasoline, and well they should. A lot of whether you vote for Democrat or Republican might have a lot to do with how much the price is at the pump.

If it’s five bucks in November, I daresay Obama’s going to have a very hard time winning. But the reality is America has almost nothing to do with setting the gas price. The petroleum market is a global market, and even if we’re more independent and produce more oil, all of that oil goes into the global market and the pricing is the result of the big global oil monopolies. We don’t control it.

The president doesn’t control it. If Israel attacks Iran and oil dries up in the Middle East for a while, oil’s going to skyrocket, even though it has nothing to do with Obama, nothing to do with Mr. Romney.

The same is true if Greece leaves the common market and leaves the Eurozone and there’s a lot of chaos in Europe, that will affect the American stock market, that will affect American investments, that will affect American imports. None of those things are things that the United States, the government, either Romney or Obama, can control by themselves.

They can only work with other governments to figure out how to fix those things. But on both sides of the aisle you see a discussion of the economy that sounds like the old Soviet Union – Romney has his five-year plan. No more government, lots of tax breaks for the rich. Obama has his five-year plan, more subsidies, more regulation, tax breaks for the middle class, more taxes for the rich, but both of them act as if you can act autonomously in the world, as if this can be done in the absence of an interdependent economic and fiscal policy.

The reality, again, is, and this is just a blunt reality, it’s not an ideology, it doesn’t serve the Republicans or the Democrats.

Tavis: Right.

Barber: The reality is the economy is interdependent and we need policies that reflect that. We haven’t got them.

Tavis: We started this conversation talking about the fact that – and it’s understandable, of course, given the condition of our economy – that both of these conventions the last two weeks have focused on the domestic agenda, again, namely the issue of joblessness in this country and how to put Americans back to work.

But since you mentioned Israel and Iran, I wonder to what extent you think it might be possible – I pray not – that some catastrophe on the international stage might end up over these next few weeks between Labor Day now and Election Day, might end up impacting the outcome of this race.

Everybody’s on edge now about Israel and Iran and whether Israel’s going to attack Iran, so talking about living in an interdependent world, is it foreseeable that something on the international stage might throw a hiccup, for lack of a better term, in this particular race that’s all about domestic policy?

Barber: Tavis, the sad news is it doesn’t take a prophet to predict catastrophe. I will predict tonight that between now and November there will be several global catastrophes, and they will be unexpected and they will have consequences none of us can estimate right now.

That’s the nature of the world, it’s the nature of human frailty, it’s the nature of the risks that all nations and peoples take, that there will be catastrophes. It might not be an Israeli strike against Iran; it might be a stolen Pakistani nuclear weapon being used by some terrorist group.

It might be the outbreak of war in a country in Africa right now that we’re not even thinking about, a new tsunami, a terrible earthquake who knows in which country, maybe even our own. If we don’t start and anticipate that we live in a world of interdependent catastrophes that will cross borders and have in place methods of cooperation and working with others, then not only will the catastrophes come but we will suffer mightily from them because we won’t be prepared to act together on them.

Tavis: With all these issues on the plate now in domestic and foreign policy considerations, I for one don’t understand how anybody can be undecided, but apparently there are still some undecided voters out there and in one of these four presidential debates coming up starting October 3rd, I believe, one of them between Mr. Romney and Mr. – and I say four; of course three presidential, one vice presidential – but one of these presidential debates between Obama and Romney will be a town hall, and in this town hall we are told that Gallup will assemble undecided voters to make up the audience on that particular night.

Help me understand how anybody at this point, given the stark nature of the two choices, could be undecided, and if you’re Obama, we’ll start with that, if you’re Obama, what do you think these undecided voters need to hear?

Barber: Well, two things. One, of course, half the country doesn’t read newspapers and a lot of them don’t even watch television. Half the country doesn’t vote. An awful lot of people still aren’t paying attention.

Maybe now that the two conventions are over we’ll see people start to pay a little bit more attention but a lot of people aren’t paying attention, and a lot of people don’t have a deep sense of information and factuality about the world we live in. They’re just beginning to think about it.

If you do a comic book version of where we are, what do you have? You have a businessman who says, “I’m a businessman and he’s just a government guy, I’m going to fix everything.” The fact that his vice president is also just a government guy who never was in business doesn’t count. But we’ve got a businessman who says, “I know business, we have economic problems, I’ll fix it.”

On the other hand we have a president who says, “I know government, I know this country, I know how to make the public sector work.” So the undecided voter is kind of saying, well, gee, do I trust the public sector that seems to have screwed me a number of times and screwed up quite a lot, or do I trust the business community, who the media says that’s the free market, they’re really the free – hm, I’m not quite sure.

I suspect there are a number of good will, but not very well-informed, people out there who are kind of trying to make that judgment, and part of the judgment will be, yeah, well, who – does Obama seem more reliable and trustworthy, or do we need to turn things over and let a new guy come in here, somebody who’s done a lot of business? I think that’s kind of the background.

If I’m President Obama, I think what he needs to really do is double down on speaking to that independent middle which hasn’t made up its mind yet, and trying to restore – you talked about the restoration of America in the opening at the top. We need to – he needs to restore the sense that this great republic of ours is a community, a national community.

Interestingly, even Romney – Ryan talks about individualism and libertarianism, but interestingly, Romney talks about helping your neighbors, the good Mormon, the Mormon Church, the community, the way he helped other people. I love that. I thought for a minute he was going to say it takes a village (laughter) when he was talking there, because he was really speaking about the role of the community, and that’s great.

But if I’m President Obama I say, yes, this is a great country, but we live in a great national community. Government belongs to us, not to them. It’s not an it or a them, it’s not a cold bureaucracy. It’s you and me working together to do together the things we can’t do alone.

Government is ours. It belongs to us. That’s what you need to see, and if you vote for me, I will make government, our government, work for us and for you.

Tavis: So if you’re Romney, then you really do need these undecideds because as you know, and I saw a big story in the “Times” the other day that really laid out the stark nature of what Mr. Romney is up against.

This guy could win Florida, he could win Virginia, he could win Iowa, he could win a number of states, and if he doesn’t win Ohio, for example, with those 18 electoral votes, he could still lose. So there’s so many more paths to victory for Mr. Obama than there is for Mr. Romney.

This guy basically has to run the table, as it were, if the numbers are to be believed. He has to run the table, essentially, to beat Mr. Obama, so he really needs these undecided voters. If you’re Romney, how would you appeal to those undecided voters?

Barber: Yeah, the electoral map is real tough for the Republicans. The Senate’s great for them, there are a lot of Democratic seats up, not very many Republican seats and so on, but the electoral map is very, very tough. They really need both Florida and Ohio to really assure that they’re going to win, and that and a number of other states, as you say.

So that is really tough for them, and I think Romney made a very poor choice with Paul Ryan. He did it to secure his base on the libertarian, anti-government, government is bad side, except when it comes to reproductive rights, when suddenly, government’s very good, it knows better than women and their doctors what to do.

But on other issues he’s really saying forget about government. But I think he has to take back a little bit this notion that government is just the enemy, government’s going to destroy you, and say that we need some balance here. I don’t think he’s going to do it, but I think he needs not just, as they say, to move to the center, but move to that place that recognizes that a fair balance between a free market and democratic government is the only way capitalism has ever worked and democracy has ever worked.

Anyone who says we just need the state, you get the Soviet Union. But anyone who says you just need the market and capitalism, you end up with anarchy, chaos. You end up with the kind of competitive after the Civil War capitalism of the gilded age, in which a few people get very rich and everybody else gets screwed.

Right now, I think that’s really the danger for him, and he’s got to find a way to make it clear that he’s not an enemy of democracy, he’s not an enemy of the public sector and he’s not an enemy of government when government is restrained but acting on behalf of the American people.

I’m not sure he can do that, particularly with Paul Ryan looking over his shoulder at every stop he makes.

Tavis: This is, as I said at the top, the 10th anniversary of Interdependence Day. I’ve been fortunate to appear at most of these at various places around the globe. We are honored this year to host Interdependence Day here in the City of Angels in Los Angeles. So what’s on tap for this coming weekend for the annual Interdependence Day?

Barber: Well, Saturday we’re at the Robert Kennedy schools, which is in the old area where the Ambassador Hotel was, where Bob Kennedy was shot, and Paul Schrader, who was shot with him, is going to be with us. He survived, thank God, but the Kennedy schools really represent the hope for the American future right in the heart of Los Angeles.

We’re there all afternoon with a symposium, with music, with a concert and with a dinner. Our guests will be Luis Derbez, the Mexican foreign minister, and our host, you’ll remember, Tavis, in Mexico City several years ago.

Sunday we’re in Levitt Pavilion. Liz Levitt Hirsch has made available Levitt Pavilion in MacArthur Park. We have a four-hour concert with Ritmo Machine, Breakestra, all kinds of wonderful musicians, you’re going to be speaking there, Tom Hayden, the founder of SDS and of the Port Huron statement is there, Rev. Sekou is there, and Deputy Mayor Ilene Adams is there.

Then Monday we’re in city hall, and if you go to InterdependentMovement.org you can see all the information or just come to RFK schools on Saturday around 1:00 and you’ll get the information for the whole weekend.

But we really hope people will come. It’s an opportunity for people to say we are part of a world. To be an American is to be part of a world and we want to join that world in solving together the problems that you can solve alone, and maybe start changing the atmosphere in America so that citizens are willing to applaud politicians who talk interdependent instead of punishing them.

Tavis: No time like the present to have a conversation about interdependent in this world. Ben Barber, I’ll see you this weekend. Have a great trip out and thanks for coming on the program tonight.

Barber: Thanks so much, Tavis.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: September 7, 2012 at 2:00 pm