Howard Dean: “That is not what America looks like”
Howard Dean served as a six-term Governor of Vermont, 2004 presidential candidate, and Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. In this Interview with Atlantik-Brücke on October 5th, he spoke about America under Trump, about the reasons for the recent success of rightwing parties and movements, about the future of the Democrats, and about transatlantic relations.
How would you describe the current state of American politics after ten months of President Trump?
It is important to realize that the United States is a very strong country – not just militarily but economically. We are very decentralized. So when you have a weak president, which Trump is, life goes on. The economy is doing fine. The federal reserve runs the economic policy in the United States, not the president or congress. So, that doesn’t make such a difference unless the president does something really awful like get us into a war, which is not as likely as the European press is saying. It is very scary of course, because if there is a war there would be a nuclear war, but you know, it’s a strong country. Underneath Trump’s bombast, life is going on for most Americans. The really bad part about Trump’s presidency is he has given permission for people essentially to be racist, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant. But, he is not a strong president, because he is unfocused and I think people are paying less attention to him.
Apart from the President justifying white supremacists, what do you think is at the bottom of this growing right wing extremism? Do you see any similarities between what is happening in the United States and in Europe?
What you see happening in America has actually happened before. Brexit was exactly the same thing. The AfD in parliament now is the same phenomenon. These are people who have been left behind by globalization for the most part. In Germany that is maybe not as true. There are some educated people in the AfD, although many of them are taking advantage of frustrations of working class people. I also think Europeans have done somewhat of a better job with the social safety net, but that’s marginal. Because we are not talking about people that are starving, we are talking about people that feel like they are losing their place in society. And they are. If you are an older white worker in America, you were used to having a certain position and if you are not skilled, you have lost that position. The truth is that trade is good for the world, not bad for the world. Trade has created hundreds of millions of jobs. We have fewer people under the poverty line in the world percentage-wise than we have ever had before. But in the old days you could get a good union job making cars. Now, you can’t do that anymore. If you cannot use the internet and you are low skilled, you lose your job. Your children – if they are smart – have left your small town and gone to the cities. And they are fast with the internet. Working class families around the globe tend to have a more authoritarian set-up. That is disappearing. In the United States in the last 40 years, we have had a civil rights revolution where black people can vote, we have had a black president and two men can marry each other if they fall in love. You can imagine what this is like for somebody in a small village who is not terribly well educated. And that is what’s going on all over the West. And I think that is what’s really causing the upset. And then of course there are always unscrupulous politicians that are willing to take advantage of that by blaming some group. Farage did it by blaming immigrants. Trump did it by blaming immigrants and Muslims. The AfD has done it by blaming refugees. It is a convenient, short-sighted, and I think unpatriotic way to run a political party but it’s an instinct as old as human beings.
Your own party appears to be more introspective after the loss of the election. There was a piece by Senator Schumer in the New York Times a few months ago. It was entitled “A Better Deal For American Workers” and in it he said: “We failed to communicate our values to show that we were on the side of working people.” Would you agree with this assessment and what does that mean for the party moving forward?
I think we have failed at communicating well, but I think most of the reaction is not a reaction against the Democratic Party, it is against the establishment. People ask “So what’s the message of the Democratic Party?” Well, there is never really a message of the party out of power, because the president has the power to control the message and all the media attention. In 2018 our message is “We are not Trump” as the message in 2010 was “We are not Obama” for the Republicans. And then there’ll be a backlash against Trump. I expect to win the house and I think we have a shot at the senate. This is a debate in the party: do we try to bring white working class people back in the party? And my answer to that is: not if we have to give up on human rights. Our party is founded on the notion of human rights and diversity. There were more transgender delegates to the Democratic Convention than there were African-American delegates to the Republican Convention. They are old and they are white. That is not what America looks like. I want to be in the party of the future of America, not of the past. If we can bring white working class people back into our party by sticking to economic issues and fairness that is great. I am not sure we can because a lot of the message was about race and other very divisive issues simply aimed at separating us. And I don’t think we can be the party of division and I won’t be. And I don’t think most Democrats do, either.
There were more transgender delegates to the Democratic Convention than there were African-American delegates to the Republican Convention.Howard Dean
I do think the Democratic party has gotten a bit cozy with big money. That’s what made Sanders strong and that’s what makes it harder for the Democrats to convince working class people we are really for them. To that extent I think we can improve the party. I am very much for lowering the corporate tax rate, but I want to pay for it by getting rid of the oil depletion allowance and the carried interest and all these things that are benefitting Wall Street, which really doesn’t create wealth for most of the country. We should give tax breaks to people who are building new houses, putting new jobs in places like West Virginia and Kentucky. That would be something that would be helpful for the working class. But remember that a lot of working class people are of color. So maybe we should stop talking about the “white working class” and start talking about everybody in the working class.
The president has been very critical of international alliances and it seems that a lot of Americans agree or at least don’t see the importance in maintaining international bonds. How do you think that perception in the American public could be changed?
I don’t think it is true. I think the majority of people in the United States are for trade. I think both parties have been very untruthful about what trade has done for the United States. It has created millions of jobs in the United States. I call young people the first global generation. And they are. Americans are not that different than European kids. They consider themselves citizens of the world as much as citizens of the United States. They all want to live in big cities, because this is where there are lots of different kinds of people. The under-35-generation in America believes diversity is good. They think immigrants are good. They believe gay rights are a civil rights issue of their time. Climate change is probably the most important political issue. So they are really nothing Trump stands for. I personally believe that the young people in our country are never going to vote Republican. They are not Democrats because they don’t like institutions, but I believe the future of our country is to integrate more fully with the rest of the world.
I saw Mrs. Merkel at the October 3rd celebration and I said to her: Thank you for being the leader of the free world and filling the leadership vacuum.Howard Dean
Obama was the first president who embraced multilateralism. He really had to struggle especially with Europeans because Europeans were used to a different kind of bond. They tended to say: “Let’s call Washington and make sure we don’t do something they disapprove of.” That is gone now. So ironically, Trump’s behavior has enforced Obama’s larger vision for foreign policy. I saw Mrs. Merkel at the October 3rd celebration and I said to her: Thank you for being the leader of the free world and filling the leadership vacuum. Of course, she was too skillful to say “Oh yes, thanks!”. But she is. And I think this is going to give an opportunity to Europe to come into its own. Now, Europe has an enormous amount of work to do, like becoming more transparent and fixing some of the systems. I think the EU is the future of the West. It is the most important governance experience since my government was founded 250 years ago. The EU seeks to essentially extinguish nationalism and religion as a source of war. I see the success of the EU as absolutely essential to the future of mankind. It is an enormous step forward in terms of how we look at each other as human beings. I am sure that the people who read this interview are going to be as committed to the EU as I am but the question is now: can we get everybody else committed?