TPP agreement will deal mortal blow to democracy in US - Nation magazine chief

President Obama’s term is coming to an end, and 2016 is going to see candidates race for the Oval Office. Obama is going to leave quite a legacy: promises undelivered, wars unfinished, terrorist threat brewing in Middle East, and some Americans unhappy with the state of affairs in their country. But is the public in for another round of same promises and same mistakes? Is it even about the president – or there are forces much more powerful than the official leader of United States? And with the presidential wannabes we have on our hands, is there even a slight hope for a change? We ask these questions to the editor of the Nation magazine; prominent journalist Katrina vanden Heuvel is on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the Nation Magazine, welcome to the show, it’s really great to have you with us. It’s been a while. So, I just want to reflect a little bit on Europe…

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Thank you, Sophie.

SS: Years of austerity, cutting social programs coupled with rising taxes have resulted in popular backlash in EU and momentum for the left. Now, you write about the rise of the Left in the U.S. in the run-up to 2016 elections. The Democrats are growing unhappy with Democrats in power – why?

KVH: I think we’re looking at the populist moment in this country, Sophie, where economic inequality has become a crisis of our time. There are movements on the streets of America – on April 15, for example, across 200 cities, fast-food workers protested, seeking a $15 minimum wage. It now varies, but it’s not that. You have mayor of NYC who just unveiled an economic inequality agenda. Perhaps, the most popular Democratic politician in this country, Senator Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts, who speaks for working families and about the rigged system that benefits the few, not the many. So I think you’re seeing great ferment, and it’s both movements in the street and, inside the electoral system, you do have a good portion of Democrats who are responding to this momentum with new kinds of policies. So, you are seeing some of the anti-austerity politics and the protests against those that we see in Europe here in the U.S. , which are in different form, but similar in spirit.

SS: Alright, but in context of upcoming elections, terms like “left”, “populist”, “progressive” – they aren’t exactly badges of honor in American politics. I mean, people there distrust those words and ideologies. What makes you think these movements won’t scare off American voters?

KVH: Sophie, I think we’re talking in outdated terms, with all due respect to your question. Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent, in fact a Democratic socialist, just entered the Democratic primary a few weeks ago. He is likely not to win, but what is so important that there will be debates – the Democratic National Committee has announced there will be six debates. Hillary Clinton is the frontrunner, there’s no question, but never say never when it comes to politics. Inevitability is not a charm, is not something candidates want to wear, so what I think you’re going to see in debates in this country is a very different political trajectory than you saw 20-25 years ago. Hillary Clinton gave two speeches in the last weeks, one on mass incarceration, ending the hyper-incarceration of African-American men in this country; one on opening up immigration path towards citizenship. I don’t know what you want to call them – I call them “humane”, these are democratic, progressive words. Now, words aren’t deeds, but I would submit to you that this country in fundamental ways is moving in a different direction. I am not naïve, there are architects of reaction, there are forces of money, and we are in the fight of our lives for people’s control of corporate power and our democracy. But the fight is on.

SS: A handful of candidates have announced their bid for presidential nomination, including Hillary Clinton and Rand Paul. Jeb Bush is likely to announce his campaign launch as well. All names we’ve heard before. Do people just go for the brands they know when it comes to polling?

KVH: I don’t think so. They are well known, but Jeb Bush has already faced a lot of trouble as you may know. Last week he said that he would have authorized the war in Iraq, knowing what we know now. And what is good about that is that it has prompted a debate in this country about Iraq and extraordinarily unpopular war, a real debacle for U.S. foreign policy. But, Sophie, I think people are looking elsewhere, and I think the important thing for election of 2016 is that the primaries in both parties be contested. The Republican primary Rand Paul… I don’t support him on many issues, but on surveillance issues, limited surveillance, on a less hyper-interventionist foreign policy his views should be heard. And in Democratic party, Hillary Clinton… yes, but a lot of people want to seek new voices and new ideas, and if those new ideas can move her to take different positions – all power to Senator Bernie Sanders; former governor O'Malley from Maryland, is announcing on May 30th… So, there will be some kind of competition, which I think is…if we’re going to be a democracy, we need that.

SS: But why is becoming President so expensive in the U.S.? Why does Hillary Clinton, for instance, need a billion dollars for a campaign? Americans spend more money on just raising money for the elections than the two main British parties on their entire election campaign…

KVH: You’ve just cited one of my favorite facts. Unfortunately, former Nation Magazine intern Ed Miliband did not win that election, but in this country it is obscene. Our cover story this week is called the “Money Primary”. There are two or three primaries underway. There’s the voter primary and there’s the money primary. The reason Jeb Bush hasn’t yet announced formally is because he’s going around to these so-called super PACs, in order to raise $100,000 per person. This obscene money in our system, which has polluted it, is a result of the Supreme Court decisions, Citizens United, and others – we need a new way, but this election will be obscenely expensive. But, I sit in New York City, and I can say that the model for the campaign financing in this city is a model for this country, and only the Democrats, not the Republicans, will support reforms. Small donors have a voice, not just the wealthy, but at the moment it is a question whether we are a country of billionaires or a country of people who have a right to one vote in an election.

SS: And corporate sponsorship of parties is something Obama promised to take care of – and 8 years on, nothing has changed. Is it impossible to break the hold of big money over American politics?

KVH: Nothing is impossible. It is an arms race right now, but it is possible not just to start a new mode of public financing of campaigns, there’s a lot of energy and a lot of support for it, Sophie, not just among Democrats, but across parties: independents, Republicans… People are sick of all these money. In fact, people who give money are sick of being called on; people who raise money know it’s out of control. It’s not just the funding of campaigns, though. It’s what happens after the campaign, Sophie. It’s the money, the lobbyists. Do you know that there are seven lobbyists to every representative, maybe more now, in Washington? That has to change. It’s going to take a political revolution. Bernie Sanders, this is one of his key points: that we need to be a nation of laws, of one person-one vote, of public financing, small donations, not these billionaires, not Citizens United dominating our system. But, it is what we face right now, there’s a lot of attention to it – there’s more now because it has gotten so extreme.

SS: But, I mean, big money isn’t going anywhere. During last Romney-Obama presidential contest corporations like Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street heavyweights – they were actually giving money to both camps, to both candidates. So, are they just buying insurance no matter who wins? And also, doesn’t that mean whoever wins; will end up doing what their sponsors want? Like you’ve said, the lobbyists’ interests…

KVH: First of all, this has changed in smaller ways. There’s Senate candidate, running for Senate in Maryland, named Donna Edwards. She has decided to renounce any corporate money, Wall Street money. It’s smart: she knows she might not get any, because of her positions and she can hold that against her candidate. Yesterday…

SS: But what are her chances of winning, though?

KVH: Her chances of winning are good, because she has support from others. There are not just hedge funders; there are people who care about issues. I believe that people power can overtake money power. It has to be deployed. But the money piece, there’s no question it’s odious, but there are people rising up against it, and I think any candidate… Hillary Clinton, who is of no question the perceptions of conflict of interest about her Foundation, she’s going to raise an enormous amount of money – but she said that that any Supreme Court justice that she nominates to the Supreme Court must support the repeal Citizens United, which is one of the original sins of our money system. I simply want to be clear with people on RT: the system here is polluted, the system of government is polluted in many ways, but we don’t give up on it, we try to take it back. People like Elizabeth Warren are fighting these hedge funds and Wall Street interest. In NYC there’s a fight against the developers of big real estate in order to lift up the common interest of people. Working people in America have gotten, in what I call “the shaft” – they’ve gotten hurt. This is what the Trans-Pacific Partnership is all about, the opposition to it; for decades these trade agreements have undermined working people’s ability to have a decent job and decent wages. Some of that is changing now. America is changing; America is not what it was, in many ways, 20 years ago. There’s an awareness of the crisis of our time, and that is economic inequality, stagnating wages and the need to take back our government and re-write the rules so the system isn’t rigged.

SS:Here’s another point, which demonstrates America may be changing – months after last fall’s midterm elections, the PEER research center, I looked up their numbers, they found that a record 40% of the electorate identified itself as independent. I mean, this is something unheard of – is there a demand for a third party in the U.S.?

KVH: No, and these polls are tricky, Sophie. Often, independents, when you break it down, do align with the two parties. There are third parties at the local and state levels, some of those, there’s a party in New York state, which has branches and few other parties called the Working Families Party, which is able to operate, sometimes, like a third party. But our system is constructed in a way that makes it very hard for a third party candidate to run on a national level. I think, what needs to happen…listen, the Democratic Party has different factions. We call them, crudely speaking, a “Wall Street” wing, and a more populist wing. So that’s where I see the action, and I see that at presidential level – when you have a candidate, who… Hillary Clinton is more complicated than just a Wall Street candidate, though in some way she is that because of her advisors and ties, and legacy, but you have a populist candidate – Bernie Sanders, and there may be others. Elizabeth Warren is a virtual candidate, she’s not running right now, but what she says is listened to and it changes the trajectory and direction of Democratic Party.

SS: You say that U.S. needs new foreign policy in order to develop democratic politics. What are the foreign policy decisions that threaten America’s democracy now?

KVH: I believe that by – and this was a decision made, if not before, but soon after 9/11 – by making the fight against terrorism into a war. By putting this country on a permanent war-footing, we have endangered the democratic values of our country. In the fight to combat terrorism we are shredding many of the principles: civil liberties, civil rights. I think the danger of America policing the world, as it continues to do, though President Obama has tried to wind down two wars; by policing the world it has detracted from the real security needs of this country – that is tackling terrible global economic inequality, pandemics, climate crisis, metastasizing inequality. So, I think we have a problem that we’re still on a war footing, when the XXI century demands another approach and engagement with the world.

SS: You brought up President Obama’s decisions, foreign policy-wise, Obama’s promises of change brought him the Nobel Peace prize – but the change never really happened. What stopped it?

KVH: Let me break it down, just briefly. I think in two areas we’ve seen some change. One is with Cuba. I mean, you have to understand, and this is an issue – Cuba is a country which has been part of both of our countries’ foreign… imaginations and nightmares for years. But the normalization of relations with Cuba, way overdue, is critical, is vital. And there’s a major support for it. Republicans are on the wrong side of history on this one. I think President Obama’s attempt to engage Iran is very important. There was a diplomatic doubling down. We will see where that goes. There has been an enormous opposition form the Republican Party. I think, in terms of taking on what I might call “a Deep State” – the National Security State – for variety of factors, Presidents over these last decades have been fearful of doing that, and post 9/11 – very tough. So we continue to see drone attacks, we continue to see continuation of George W. Bush’s preemptive war making policies, which I think, are illegal and must be stopped, and finally, there’s bipartisan complicity in terms of Ukraine. There has been a reset in the last week – John Kerry going to meet with President Putin, but until then, this country has done disserve with a relentlessly one-sided media-political think-tank narrative about how Ukraine is simply Russia’s fault, when I think, certainly, both sides have a lot to do with making what was a civil war into a proxy geopolitical war, failing to understand 25 years of NATO expansion and other such issues which have contributed to the crisis, which has no military solution, only a diplomatic one.

SS: But let me ask you this – does any new President stand a real chance of effectively changing U.S. foreign policy. Things such as Iraq and Afghanistan, clearly, aren’t going anywhere, right?

KVH: I think, a President committed to ending the National Security state is going to confront an extraordinary opposition, because this is where you see a nexus of money, of lobbying, of contractors, of power – but it is doable! We have seen in the last week, I would argue, to some extent, Edward Snowden has been vindicated, you see a beginning in Congress of rolling back the warrantless illegal surveillance program, but it is going to be very tough. The first step is to understand how ridiculous the military budget is in this country, larger than 12 other countries combined, and then, also, to understand that endless war is not equal to national security. Then you build a team, you’ve got to begin that struggle, to understand what real security means for Americans, and you have American people on your side. Yes, people are fearful, because there’s fear-mongering, but people don’t want to police the world, they want more security, but they don’t want America to intervene everywhere, people don’t want National Guards being trained in Kiev or in Ukraine – this is nonsense!

SS: When you’re observing from the outside, we see the drone strikes, the secret prisons around the world, a lot of torture going on – it does seem like the CIA runs the show when it comes to many aspects of U.S. foreign policy. What do you say?

KVH: If it was just the CIA, Sophie, it would be simple. I mean, what’s happened, there’s just a metastasizing of these agencies. So, you have the NSA – the nation, by the way, is suing NSA in the Department of Justice for what we call “upstream” which is gathering of international data, we believe it violates our journalism gathering. But, it’s the NSA, the CIA, the Defense, it’s Pentagon – so I think it’s much more complicated, but the problem is that all of what’s going on – you know, you’ve mentioned torture, drone strikes – these are fundamentally in violation of what we proclaim to uphold, which is a constitutional sense of America. You know, the idea that Congress hasn’t played a role is not new – I mean, there has not been Congressional declaration of war since WWII, which is ridiculous. So, there are a lot of issues which have been just knocked out and our system deformed, as I said, I would argue, since 9/11. We’ve seen what Dick Chaney once said, “The gloves are off, the rules are new” – they shouldn’t be. We should remain true to our compass, which is the strength of, quote, “American exceptionalism”, which politicians like to talk about. Just, you know, sinful politicians go to church every Sunday. Let’s see some action about what is truly exceptional about America.

SS: I want to talk about another deal that’s grabbing attention now in the U.S. and that’s the Trans-Pacific Partnership. However, the details of this agreement are unknown, Obama insists the TPP is not secret, but in reality, a deal that is supposed to affect millions of Americans is classified, and even members of Congress can’t just go and flip through the pages without minder hanging about. Why?

KVH: I don’t think it’s consistent with American principles, but I’ll tell you: it seems the trade agreements have been, for the last decades, negotiated this way. But, this time, because of a mobilization of labor groups, citizen groups, workers, people inside the Congress, business isn’t being done as usual. People are saying: “Enough! We don’t want this to be done in secrecy; we’ve learned enough from our history to see what these trade agreements have done to communities around the country and workers.” In fact, Sophie, one of the most controversial parts of the trade agreement is the investor dispute settlement provision – which is truly anti-American, allowing corporations to suit governments and countries if they try to institute health and safety measures. It was leaked by WikiLeaks, which is how people know about it. So we need a new way of doing business, we need a new way of doing trade. I’m not…progressives are not against trade, they are against the way banks and investment firms have dictated the terms of trade. In fact, the big fight over TPP is really about corporate power and who’s going to write the rules about the global game, so to speak. I think this is a wake-up moment, and I place it very clearly in this populous moment I described earlier.

SS: But the people who are most outspoken about being against this deal are trade unions and worker’s rights groups and environmentalists – those are the ones, the people who traditionally are on Obama’s side. Now, if the agreement is going to hurt them…

KVH: This is an interesting, very interesting new alignment, but it’s a very interesting new alignment that President Obama is essentially fighting the core elements of his own party. This is not fully new, because President Bill Clinton with NAFTA 20 years or so ago was also at war with his own party. But this coalition is far stronger, Sophie, far stronger, because… President Obama accuses his own coalition of peddling recycled arguments – no. This coalition has learned from history, workers have learned on their own backs, communities have died, jobs have gone, factories closed – but others are now standing up and saying: “enough! We want true enforcement mechanisms of labor and environmental protection; we want to know what’s in the agreement.” How is this truly American to have agreements, conceived in secret with private corporate courts overseeing and arbitrating agreements? No, enough!

SS: Now, you’re also saying that TPP means loss of jobs and sinking middle class, extreme inequality. But those who are in favor say that it would actually benefit the U.S. companies and create new jobs at home. Why are they wrong?

KVH: I think you need to look at history. Those were the same arguments, Sophie, peddled, 15-20 years ago, and we haven’t seen those benefits. Again, not against trade or globalization, but the way the rules have been written have shown that they don’t benefit workers, they don’t increase wages, and they don’t help environmental problems. So, I think, we need to step back – and there are, by the way, good proposals, the Congressional progressive caucus, the group of about 80 Representatives in the House, have put forward an alternative. I think we need to end this particular round, step back and think anew about what a fair trade deal would mean. Finally, President Obama now seems to be…you know, there are new arguments, the new arguments are now about how we need to really counter China in setting the rules of the global economy. This is very tricky, to use this trade agreement for that purpose.

SS: But just really quickly, in a nutshell, can you really undermine China in the region, economically? I mean, is that really possible?

KVH: No. In fact, China is already between the partnership with Russia, the Investment Bank it has set up, bringing in both the UK, I think, and Germany; what you want to do is engage, you don’t want to have a so-called “pivot”, which essentially is countering or jettisoning the relationships. So no, I don’t think so.

SS: Thank you so much for this wonderful interview, we were talking to Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the Nation Magazine, talking about what needs to change in U.S. foreign policy and if the 2016 president hopefuls will stand a chance of delivering this change. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.