Chief editor of The Nation: No chance to regulate big banks, system has to be demolished to be fixed

President Obama has delivered his final State of the Union address, praising America as the mightiest of the mighty. Yet the country is riddled with unsolved problems: racial tensions, growing financial inequality amid increasing military budgets, and many Americans feeling they have no say in national matters anymore. Ahead lies a presidential election with candidates generous on promises and claims they'll “make America great again.” But is that going to happen? Who has the most rational course? Who's no more than a puppet of big money - and who is fighting for votes by scaring people into submission? Today on Sophie&Co we ask these questions to the editor and publisher of The Nation magazine - Katrina vanden Heuvel.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the Nation magazine, welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us one more time. So, Katrina, democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton said relations with Russia could be reset depending on what the U.S. got from it - so what is in it for Washington?

Katrina vanden Heuvel: I think it’s a very interesting moment, Sophie. If you look at the Russian-U.S. backchannel discussions and negotiations, it’s been very underreported in this country, Sophie, that Putin and Obama spoke a few days ago - but I think the possibilities of resolving Ukrainian crisis are closer than we’ve seen in many-many months, partly because Francois Hollande of France and Angela Merkel of Germany face such intense problems in their own countries, I think they’re pushing on Poroshenko and Ukraine and they’re pushing to resolve it, so I think that would be a major step forward, because even if Ukraine is off the front pages of the U.S. media, the Russian involvement in Syria, fighting ISIS is more on the front page, I think that too has opened space for U.S.-Russian cooperation with John Kerry leading the way, to say: the U.S. and Russia need to be in coalition, not Cold War, when it comes to defeating ISIS.

SS: What would Washington be willing to give Russia?

KH: I think one should reframe it, I  think, it’s important to make the case that it would be of great national security benefit for the U.S. to understand that a new Cold War with Russia is not in its national security interest. What would the U.S. give? I think, you’ve already seen in terms of the Iranian nuclear deal and prisoner exchange swap of this last week, the understanding that Iran, a long-time ally of Russia must be a player in international negotiations - for example, regarding the outcome of Syria. I think that the U.S. position on ensuring that Assad leaves office for negotiations to begin over the future of Syria - that has been dropped. That has been dropped. And, the U.S., Obama and Kerry are under pressure, even from inside the Obama administration to change that policy. But it has become, essentially official, policy to soften the opposition that Assad must leave before negotiations begin.

SS:Let’s talk a bit about the elections and the candidates. Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s main democratic challenger, brought up U.S. military spending, saying that most of the budget is spent on fighting the Cold War with the non-existent Soviet Union, instead of fighting real threats like the Islamic State and terrorism. Is it just easier for Pentagon to get funding from Congress by presenting Russia as an enemy?

KH: Let me step back, if I might, Sophie, for a moment. The Nation endorsed Bernie Sanders last week and we did so largely because he has been the Truth-teller and exposing the rigged system which hurts ordinary people in this country, but also speaking out against metastasizing inequality, both political and economic. But, in our endorsement, we also looked at his foreign policy and while we hope he will speak more and even more strongly about some of the issues that have animated the nation over these decades, there’s no question Hillary Clinton is more hawkish when it comes to Russia, Syria - though she apologized for her war vote, authorizing war in Iraq, she hasn’t learned the lessons: witness Libya and the overreach of their regime change foreign policy. Bernie Sanders has spoken clearly in terms of the folly of the bloated defence budget, because he understands as a  progressive, that you can not achieve many of the reforms so necessary to rebuild America, it’s middle class, unless you rethink, change and cut the defence budget which is, as you said, suited for different times. What is worrisome, Sophie, is that at the moment there's a move underway: bipartisan, Democratic-Republican, to modernize our nuclear arsenal instead of modernizing our ideas - and that is a very dangerous phenomenon, beginning to think that nuclear weapons can be usable, something which has been off the radar and forbidden for decades. We must fight that, and that is a very dangerous bipartisan phenomenon.

SS: Now, during his State of the Union address, President Obama tauted the U.S. as the most powerful nation on Earth, spending more on military than the next 8 nations combined together. What are the threats that justify all that spending? Is this massive military budget really something to boast about?

KH: You know, I’m glad that President used that figure. I've used it over the years, but the question is what is to be done. That is a figure that makes no sense, this is unsustainable in terms of America’s real national security interests. We would still be very powerful and I resist the idea that America's is the most powerful nation in the world, because I think we should lead by example. As we look at the world today, there’s no question that China’s world power, Russia is a world power, and we need to work with those countries, not be the "exceptional all-powerful one". That is not in our national security interest. The threats we face today, Sophie - combating terrorism, combating climate change, which is acknowledged by  the Democratic candidates since one of the crises of our time - that’s not going to be fought with the weapons in a bloated Pentagon budget. I believe there are many factors, as to why we have this budget - one of them is post-9/11. Sophie, we have seen an out-of-control growth of what President Eisenhower, Republican president, spoke of as the “military-industrial complex” - it is now military-industrial, Congressional, contractor complex. It is looking to make money, not for national security.

SS: But, I mean, what I’m trying to ask, I guess, is does the U.S. feel the need to be on a permanent war footing?

KH: Sophie, I’d like to think of myself as a pragmatic idealist, but we need time to change the militarisation of thinking in all countries. Let’s be honest, in Russia, often, national might is thought to be a measure of military strength. That is an old-fashioned way of thinking, very retrograde, but it is still seared in our DNA, in all countries. Look at Iran - the diplomacy needed to limit its nuclear program, because in Iran, for many years, nuclear program, nuclear power was viewed as something of nationalist meaning. So we need  a mindset shift, we need a Perestroyka, we need a new thinking about what is actually mighty and what constitutes strength. I always said that this idea of that if you're "hard headed", you are strong and tough - “hard headed” means no new ideas can get into your head! We need to get need them for this century, Sophie.

SS: Now, from latests, the U.S. politicians debating whether to accept Syrian refugees or not. The Democrats are in favor and the Republicans are completely against the idea, while you have 30 state governors saying they won’t accept Syrians. Why does the public stand on that?

KH: Well, first of all, the governors have no rights in this. Second of all, Sophie, this discussion and debate is playing out in an election year, Presidential Election 2016, so you’re seeing truly  audacious, xenophobic, intolerant, bigoted views from the Republican party - they think it shows might and strength, but it is fomenting fear among people. Sadly, the fear mongering works in a short term, because a lot of our media likes to have Donald Trump on all the time who’s the leading fear-monger, who has essentially said “close the borders, deport immigrants” - he’s speaking to the really basic instincts of Americans, but sadly the polls right now show people are fearful, and in fear people often don’t show resilience and reason and intelligence. They show fear - so I  think it’s going to take some time, but there’s a fight back, there are many tolerant people in this country,  most of the Democrats, and this country, sadly, has a great history of welcoming refugees, it has been very successful in many ways in assimilating refugees and President Obama has spoken to the better angels of our nature, but it is a battle that has gone all through history, so you’re witnessing it.

SS: Sure, but at the same time, if you look at the European countries which have welcomed large masses of refugees, they’re now facing problems with immigration and crime. Are the proponents of accepting refugees ready to be faced with similar problems in America?

KH: Well, let’s be honest. We’re seeing news stories about crime and refugees - we’re not reading stories which exist of thousands of refugees being welcomed into communities and assimilating slowly but effectively. So, those scary stories, which must be reported, are what's driving news and attitudes and policies. I think, most refugees are peaceful, they want a new life, they’re being pushed out by war and hunger and conflict, so I think we need to think very hard about not just tolerance but common sense. Common sense dictates that if we don’t accept many of these refugees, we’re going to see even more of a backlash and more problems. The key thing to me, Sophie, is we are witnessing a migration we haven’t seen since WWII. Much of it is coming from Syria, from lebanon, Afghanistan. We must resolve this conflict in Syria, we must. Otherwise, we’re going to see more waves of immigrants and refugees, so we need to get to the root cause and find ways to keep people in their own country. That’s where we need to focus the attention.

SS: Right, so the Republicans are traditionally tough in foreign policy issues - yet this time, on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton has a record of not shying away from wars, like you’ve said, she seems more hawkish, she voted for Iraq, she pushed for Libya, and seems like she’d love the U.S. to intervene in Syria. Even if Bernie is not entirely against foreign police interventions.  (1043 fff check sentence) This hawkish posture - do you find it dangerous? Why is it that no candidate ever talks about peace? Is it that peace doesn’t sell with voters?

KH: Bernie Sanders talks about diplomacy first. I agree with you. I think candidates should talk about peace and the value of peace, and even talk about the cost effectiveness of peace if they want to get really pragmatic. But they don’t, I do think, for decades in this country, Sophie, and listen, WWI, WWII, many of those days contributed to the stance we’re in. As I said - toughness, strength is too often equated with military might, with the willingness to rush off and intervene which often leads to backlash and damage to our national security. I do think we're in the moment in this country and President Obama has played a good role in this. Take Iran - diplomacy first foreign policy has worked! And though he is coming under attack by neocons and some liberal hawks, we need to say again and again: “look, it is working, it is far better than military action”. A lesson that isn’t learned in this country, is when United States and Russia collaborated in 2013 to have Syria dismantle its chemical weapons with monitoring and good oversight. That was far preferable than military action! So we need to lift up, if not peace, we need to lift up models of when diplomacy works, when negotiation works, not when military action fails, which often gets lifted up as: "here, look, we're going to do it again" - , that’s insanity! That’s the definition of insanity, doing it again and again when it’s failed.

SS: As you’ve said in the beginning, the Nation magazine has endorsed Bernie Sanders Presidential nomination. He’s strong among voters who say they want a candidate who will actually change current policies. You call him “a transformational candidate”. We heard the same about Obama when he ran, and once he got into the office, I mean, you could argue he failed to deliver on his promises. What makes you think Bernie wouldn’t be the same if he’s elected?

KH: So, Bernie Sanders has been on the political scene for close on to 30  years as a mayor of Burlington, Vermont, as a congressman, a senator. He has been a champion of ideas such as medicare for all, essentially universal healthcare, dismantling the big banks, fighting corporate trade deals, free public higher education. He has been consistent, he has been a champion. He’s also a believer in what he calls a “political revolution”, which is, essentially, mobilizing people to be a wind at his back, to take on entrenched interests, big money, big banks, big pharmaceutical companies, to make change. President Obama ran a campaign in 2008, Sophie, as you know, “Yes We Can” - he spoke about people participating, but sadly, after he got into the White House, he essentially demobilized organisational infrastructure called “organising for America” which was the link to millions of people, who were ready to be a wind at his back as he confronted Republican party, which said on day 1 that their first agenda was to take down President Obama. Bernie Sanders understands that you need to mobilize people, you need to keep them mobilized, and that has been, you know, mobilizing people across this country, in cities and states, bringing them to Washington. It’s one theory of change, and it’s one that he believes in and I think he would be far more connected to the movements of our times, because it is a  movement moment in America - BLM, the fight for $15 minimum wage, climate justice, the fight for universal healthcare. These are movements  that have more strength now, even with all the big money, corporate money sloshing around, polluting our system than they did ten years ago, 8 years ago when President Obama was elected.

SS: Bernie is also proving that you can run for President without Wall St. and corporate cash. But how can you run the country without finding some sort of consensus with big businesses? I mean, is it even possible?

KH: Sophie, you raised a very important point, which is, it is unprecedented, the fund-raising strength that Bernie Sanders has shown, from small donors, average donation is $27, $33, from over one million of people. He’s had more small donors than President Obama. Yet, you ask an important question - how you run this country if you don’t engage with big business? But you know, Sophie, there’s a difference between big business, which essentially unregulated, crashed our economy, crashed it in 2008-2009, and, enlightened businesses which understand they are enlightened businesses, that understand that strength of America is investing in America or investing in ways that are healthy, that have purpose, that aren’t just about moving speculative paper, hedge funds, for example. So, I think, Bernie Sanders would be a good steward of an economy that worked, the real economy and not just this hyper-financialised economy which has grown in the last 20 years.

SS: Hillary’s lead over Bernie, though, is widening. Are voters simply attracted to a familiar face? Do they trust Hillary more because she has more experience?

KH: Sophie, if I might, for your viewers, you know, we have Iowa and New Hampshire coming up very quickly, February 1st and February 9th. This moment Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are neck-to-neck in Iowa caucus, Bernie Sanders is leading by almost 30% in New Hampshire. South Carolina, which comes next, is predominantly an African-American state, it is what they call a “Firewall” for Hillary Clinton, because she does continue to have more support among African-Americans. But people are still meeting Bernie Sanders and I think his numbers are growing, and in national matchups with Donald Trump he does better than Hillary Clinton. I’m not saying the road to White House is not steep for Bernie Sanders, but I’m also saying this is a year of great insurgency, of anger,  of passion, when, one might say, anything is possible.

SS: Bernie Sanders has been an independent his whole life, before becoming a Democratic candidate, right? Would he have stood a chance otherwise? I mean, could he have run for President as an independent and see the same success?

KH: For all of his time in the Senate and in Congress, he "caucused" with the Democrats. But, I think Bernie Sanders understood, and it was a tough decision for him, because he values that independent role. He took a long time before deciding to run for President, deciding if he would run as a Democrat or as an independent, but he understood that until there’s a major reform in this country, to run as a third-party candidate nationally, it is extraordinary difficult to get access to ballots and that, in the media, he would spend half of the precious time he could get, explaining what it meant to run as a third-party candidate and not just getting to the issues he cares about. So, I think, it was a very tough decision, but it was the right decision. Could I just say one more thing? I've been studying the Communist party in Russia, for many years - you know this, Sophie - when there’s one party, within that party there are different wings, so out of the Soviet Communist party, Gorbachev emerged, Shevardnadze emerged, also there was a Zyuganov, there was Nina Andreevna - I’m just saying that if you have one party as we, Democratic party... we do have Republican party too, but in the Democratic party you have different factions, there’s something called the "Elizabeth Warren" wing...

SS: Right, but here’s a thing… I see your point, but I spoke to a third-party presidential candidate, Jill Stein from the Green Party, so she told me the Democrats want Bernie Sanders to attract progressive supporter vote and then siphon that vote off to the establishment candidate, so - are the Democrats using Bernie? Will they throw him under the bus once it’s time for the actual nomination vote?

KH: Bernie Sanders is unbought and unsold and unmortgaged. He may win. Jill Stein may power through, but... the Nation, which has known Ralph Nader for years, for example, Ralph Nader wrote his first article for the Nation in 1959 as a consumer rights crusader, Ralph Nader knows full well how tough it is to run as a third party candidate. I’m glad Jill Stein is running. We should have more parties in this country, but again, as I said, until there’s serious reform, electoral reform, more Democratic, pro democracy reform, it is very tough to run as a 3rd party candidate nationally.

SS: Regulating Wall St. has been a topic of discussion during this presidential race and Hillary Clinton, she put forward a plan to reign in big money. Could she be serious about change for Wall St. if its sponsoring her campaign?

SS: So, the Nation endorsement of Bernie Sanders made it very clear that Hillary Clinton is a candidate of great experience, intelligence, сreed, and she's responded to the populous temper of our time. She’s a politician who understands what you need at this moment, not as 20 years ago when the corporate wing of the Democratic party was stronger, as I said earlier, you have a wing of a party which has ascended in many ways. She knows she needs to put out a real plan. However, her plan is not about dismantling the big banks, it’s still a belief that Congress can regulate the big banks. Bernie Sanders wants to totally change the system - it’s the big banks that are regulating the Congress. So,  I would suggest that his vision for regulating Wall St. is more structural, more deep and it’s probably more realistic in light of what we’ve seen out of Wall St., trying to evade regulation, trying to water down regulation, trying to buy and rig the system.

SS: Your favourite, Donald Trump, he recently called super PACs a horrible thing, saying America needs a solution to keep big money out of politics. He claims that he’s self-financing his campaign. Is there a catch there?

KH: So, you know, the problem with self-financing and this idea... it's all power of Donald Trump for saying "let's get rid of super PACs". You know, he’s also talked about how it’s criminal for corporations to move jobs overseas, as I think some of his businesses did, but, put that aside - what’s vital for this country, Sophie, is that anyone can run. Let Donald Trump run, but what about waitress? What about bus driver? What about sheriff? I mean, we need, what is called “the publicly financed system”. In my city, NYC, you have very different city council and a mayor, because we have something called 6-to-1, where small donors matter, so that you can give money to a candidate and it will be matched by the city, and it’s fully doable, it’s in play in few states of this country, but it allows more voices. What’s so marvellous about Bernie Sanders campaign system is that it’s small, so people feel part of it and they understand their voice will be drowned out by a big bank, or a big drug company giving money. But public financing is not the way. Do we really want only billionaires running for office? It seems to me it’s not exactly a level playing field in American Democracy.

SS: Another Republican frontrunner from the right is Ted Cruz, and ideological Tea Party crusader - why is it that two fringe, extreme candidates are leading the Republican effort?  Are conservative Americans not interested in moderate opinion?

KH: This is a time, I think, in many places of the world, but in America time of anger, time of opposition, I’d say also a time of passion, and a belief in change... But there’s a very clear sense that status quo hasn’t worked, hasn’t worked for ordinary people, and you see that both in the Right and in the Left. I would admit that both Donald Trump and Ted Cruz don’t have real solutions. They’re playing to fear, they’re playing to extremism, and what they suggest for America is certianly not my vision. But, there’s this sense that established candidates don’t get it. So, Cruz, on the other hand, one thing that you’ve mentioned super PACs earlier, Sophie, this ability of very rich people or corporations to give huge amounts… Ted Cruz interestingly has what might be called “establishment money” in the super PACs, and that will be interesting to witness, but Sarah Palin’s endorsement - hard to believe Sarah Palin is back, she’s back, she’s seen Putin from her window and all of that again. But, she endorsed Trump the other day and that was directly aimed at Cruz, because the big fight at the moment is for who's going to win Iowa, and Evangelicals, Tea Party activists are very powerful in Iowa and those people still think Sarah Palin is the cat's meow - meaning, they love her. So, she may help Trump win that state which would send a signal that he can do both Tea Party and, you know, angry crowds.

SS:  Interesting to see what’s going to happen there. Katrina, thank you very much for this lovely insight. We were talking to Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the Nation magazine, dwelling on the American Presidential vote and the change it’s going to bring to the U.S. and the world. That’s it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I’ll see you next time.