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Robert Reich on backing Bernie Sanders, dating Hillary Clinton, and making policy viral on Facebook

Joint Economic Committee Holds Hearing On Income Inequality In The U.S. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Robert Reich isn't naive about changing America's political system, and he's no conspiracy theorist about Hillary Clinton. Now a public policy professor at the University of California Berkeley, Reich worked with Clinton in college, was close friends with Bill Clinton at Oxford, and served as secretary of labor during Clinton's first term. He's also become Bernie Sanders's most persuasive — and, through his Facebook videos, viral — surrogate.

Reich isn't a Bernie-or-bust type. Hillary Clinton, he says, is the best possible president for running the system we have. But Sanders, he argues, is the only presidential candidate actually trying to change the system we have into the system we deserve.

Reich thinks that our old models for understanding politics have been broken by rising inequality over the past few decades, and that we first need to tackle that crisis head on before we can even get to questions of policy.

I recently interviewed Reich for my podcast (you can listen to it here or subscribe on iTunes), and I think it's worth paying attention to why he thinks Sanders is the necessary solution — even if you prefer Clinton.

Here's Reich:

It's not enough to talk about good policy. Policy is cheap — at least, policy discussion is cheap. I'm as much of a policy wonk as anybody; I've been teaching public policy for 40 years. But it's becoming increasingly irrelevant, because without political will and political power — and a movement behind that political will and power — no policy is going to be put into effect.

If you came to the political understanding in the '60s or '70s or '80s ... the assumption was that politics was laid out on a long continuum from left to right. Democrats were on the left, Republicans were on the right, and the center was the center — and you wanted to go to the center, because that's where all the votes were.

That was the way we thought about politics, but that left out some very important phenomena that have occurred over the last several decades. What it leaves out is this widening inequality — it's not just economic, it's also political, and it has to do with political power. The vast majority of Americans, according to almost every study on this issue, feel a high degree of powerlessness. They just feel like they don't have any say, any control. ... The left-right continuum is beside the point. The real interesting divide is establishment versus anti-establishment: Do you feel the game is against you? Or are you among the riggers of the game?

Even if you don't agree with Reich's thoughts on the race, I think you'll find our 100-minute interview worthwhile.

Reich has a stunningly impressive CV — Rhodes scholar, assistant to US Solicitor General Robert Bork, director of policy planning at the Federal Trade Commission under President Jimmy Carter, co-founder of the American Prospect — and we had no shortage of things to discuss.

Among the other topics Reich and I touched on:

  • His early relationship with the Clintons, including the time he went on a date with Hillary Clinton
  • His effort to create an experimental, participatory alternative to college at Dartmouth
  • The three policies he would change first to curb inequality
  • The story behind his co-founding of the American Prospect — the magazine that gave me my first job in journalism
  • What Bernie Sanders is like in person, and how that does or doesn't differ from his public persona
  • His time working for the arch-conservative legal theorist Robert Bork
  • How to communicate effectively about public policy
  • Whether inequality or political polarization is the root cause of government dysfunction
  • His relationship with his mentor, John Kenneth Galbraith

For more podcast conversations — including episodes with Rachel Maddow, Bill Gates, World Bank President Dr. Jim Yong Kim, and conservative activist Michael Needham — subscribe to The Ezra Klein Show.

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