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Tavis Smiley, Cornel West on the 2012 Election & Why Calling Obama “Progressive” Ignores His Record

StoryNovember 09, 2012
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As the most expensive presidential election in U.S. history comes to an end, broadcaster Tavis Smiley and professor, activist Dr. Cornel West join us to discuss President Obama’s re-election and their hopes for a national political agenda in and outside of the White House during Obama’s second term. At a time when one in six Americans is poor, the price tag for combined spending by federal candidates — along with their parties and outside groups like super PACs — totaled more than $6 billion. Together, West and Smiley have written the new book, “The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto.” Both Tavis and Smiley single out prominent progressives whom they accuse of overlooking Obama’s actual record. “We believe that if [Obama] is not pushed, he’s going to be a transactional president and not a transformational president,” Smiley says. “And we believe that the time is now for action and no longer accommodation. … To me, the most progressive means that you’re taking some serious risk. And I just don’t see the example of that.” West says that some prominent supporters of Obama “want to turn their back to poor and working people. And it’s a sad thing to see them as apologists for the Obama administration in that way.” Click here to see part 2 of this interview. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We are on the road in Chicago. I’ll be at noon in San Francisco on Saturday, speaking at Green Fest, and Sunday, 1:30, with Noam Chomsky and University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole in Princeton at the Nassau Presbyterian Church.

But right now we’re in Chicago, and as the most expensive presidential election in U.S. history has come to an end, we turn to an issue that impacts more and more people in this country but was rarely mentioned during the campaign: poverty. The price tag for combined spending by federal candidates, along with their parties and outside groups like super PACs, totaled more than $6 billion. This is especially striking at a time when one in six Americans is poor, with over 16 million children living in poverty. Poverty rates for blacks and Latinos are twice as high as the rates for whites. There is greater poverty among women than men, and the rate of women living in extreme poverty has reached record highs.

But a study released by the media watchdog group FAIR—that’s Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting—they reveal that poverty as an issue has been nearly invisible in U.S. media coverage of the 2012 presidential race. It found just 17 of the 10,489 campaign stories studied—that’s 0.2 percent—addressed poverty in any substantive way.

Critics have pointed out that President Obama was viewed as the anti-poverty candidate in 2008, but his re-election bid four years later has barely mentioned the poor, even though their numbers have gone up.

Well, for more, we’re joined by two guests who have worked diligently to get poverty back on the national agenda. Dr. Cornel West is with us, professor of philosophy and Christian practice at Union Theological Seminary in New York and professor emeritus at Princeton University. He’s a New York Times bestselling author of numerous books and co-host of the radio show Smiley & TavisSmiley & West with Tavis Smiley. Together they’ve written the new book, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto. Tavis Smiley is a TV, radio broadcaster, philanthropist, New York Times bestselling author. He hosts the PBS show Tavis Smiley and two radio shows, The Tavis Smiley Show on NPR and Smiley & West with Cornel West.

We welcome you both back to Democracy Now!

TAVIS SMILEY: Thank you. Good to see you, Amy.

CORNEL WEST: [inaudible] blessing to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to be with you. So we’re right here in the president’s city. In fact, he just flew out on Wednesday after his re-election. Cornel West, the figures—who is ahead? Who isn’t? As your book is titled The Rich and the Rest of Us.

CORNEL WEST: Well, one, I think that it’s morally obscene and spiritually profane to spend $6 billion on an election, $2 billion on a presidential election, and not have any serious discussion—poverty, trade unions being pushed against the wall dealing with stagnating and declining wages when profits are still up and the 1 percent are doing very well, no talk about drones dropping bombs on innocent people. So we end up with such a narrow, truncated political discourse, as the major problems—ecological catastrophe, climate change, global warming. So it’s very sad. I mean, I’m glad there was not a right-wing takeover, but we end up with a Republican, a Rockefeller Republican in blackface, with Barack Obama, so that our struggle with regard to poverty intensifies.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a pretty rough assessment of President Obama.

CORNEL WEST: Oh, that’s what we have. That’s what we have. Richard Nixon is to the left of him on healthcare. Richard Nixon is to the left of him on guaranteed income. And the same policies in terms of imperial foreign policy is at work. And so, I was glad to see that Romney didn’t win. We pushed back a right-wing takeover. We’ve got a right-wing mentality: cut, cut, cut, austerity, austerity, austerity. Where is the serious talk about investment in jobs, fighting the privatizing of education, and the empowerment of trade unions? And so, our battle is just beginning. We have yet to take off the gloves. You know, we’ve been fighting intensely.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama said to Harry Belafonte, according to Harry, “Why don’t you and Cornel West cut me some slack?” And Cornel—and Harry Belafonte responded, “What makes you think we’re not?”

CORNEL WEST: That’s exactly right.

AMY GOODMAN: I want ask you about Bill O’Reilly, Tavis Smiley. I don’t know if you were watching Fox on election night, but this is what Bill O’Reilly had to say about the outcome of the election.

BRET BAIER: So what’s your sense of the evening? I mean, you look at these exit polls. You look at the, you know—

BILL O’REILLY: My sense of the evening is if Mitt Romney loses in Ohio, the president is re-elected.

MEGYN KELLY: How do you think we got to that point? I mean, President Obama’s approval rating was so low. And obviously this is hypothetical: we don’t know who’s—who’s even winning right now, never mind who won. But how do you think it got this tight?

BILL O’REILLY: Because it’s a changing country. The demographics are changing. It’s not a traditional America anymore. And there are 50 percent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama. He knows it, and he ran on it—and whereby 20 years ago President Obama would have been roundly defeated by an establishment candidate like Mitt Romney. The white establishment is now the minority. And the voters, many of them, feel that this economic system is stacked against them, and they want stuff. You’re going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama, overwhelming black vote for President Obama. And women will probably break President Obama’s way. People feel that they are entitled to things. And which candidate between the two is going to give them things?

AMY GOODMAN: That was Bill O’Reilly, Tavis Smiley.

TAVIS SMILEY: Yeah. Well, you asked a moment ago whether I was watching Fox on election night, and the answer is no. This is precisely why I wasn’t watching Fox on election night. It’s also why I don’t watch a lot of MSNBC, either. I don’t like being spun to the right, and I don’t like being spun to the left. What I prefer is to get at some truth, and that’s why I appreciate Democracy Now! and other programs that are trying to get at the hard truths that Americans don’t want to deal with.

I don’t know where to start in terms of deconstructing and dissecting what I just heard. I will tell you this: this is precisely why the Republicans lost. And if they think this is the narrative that’s going to help them win into the future, then they need to put down the crack pipe. They’re stuck on stupid if they think this strategy is a winning strategy. The reality is simply this—and you’ve discussed this on this program, so this is nothing new, obviously: in the most multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America ever, that dog just won’t hunt. If they cannot figure out a way to expand their base, the GOP is going down.

Now, I don’t like the two-party system. I surely don’t want to live in a one-party state. So I appreciate competition. I wish there were more parties, obviously. But again, if this is the narrative they think they can sell to the American people into the future and help them win elections, I don’t know what they’re thinking. So, this is a—it’s tragic to listen to. It’s really—it’s an echo chamber to our right, because this really sounds like Mitt Romney on the videotape that came out about the 47 percent.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, right-wing talk show host Rush Limbaugh recently claimed that President Obama and Vice President Biden want to grow the portion of the 47 percent who are, quote, “wards of the state.” This is from the October 9th edition of The Rush Limbaugh Show.

RUSH LIMBAUGH: Whatever number of the 47 percent are wards of the state, they’re happy. Not all that 47 percent wants to be in that group. But the people in the 47 percent who are content to be there, Biden, Obama would love to grow it. The more people dependent on government, the better. The more people angry, resentful of the rich, the better, as far as they’re concerned.

AMY GOODMAN: Tavis Smiley?

TAVIS SMILEY: Well, again, if that’s the kind of rhetoric that they’re going to continue to engage in, go for it. I have no problem with Fox or Bill or Rush continuing to push that kind of agenda, because, again, it is not a winning strategy in this country to attack Hispanics, to attack African Americans, to attack women, to suggest that we’re all a part of a welfare state, that we’re all dependent on government. And in nowhere—at no point in either of those diatribes did you hear the truth, which is that the majority of Americans on welfare are white Americans. They are not black. They are not Hispanic. And so, that truth just gets lost in the matrix.

This was a campaign for the White House of extremes, a campaign of extremes. Too much money, as Dr. West already said—morally profane that we’d spend $6 billion, so too much money.

Too much time. I think, you know, we’ve got to get to a point of rethinking how we do presidential politics in this country, from the Electoral College to the money, to the debates, but too much time is spent on the campaign. It used to be that the campaigning would stop and the governing would start. Now there’s no line between the two.

And thirdly, too many lies told. And these were examples, again, of the lies that we heard in this campaign. The fact checkers had to work overtime in this campaign to try to get the truth to the American people. So a campaign of extremes. It’s time for us to rethink how we do presidential politics. But again, if this is the storyline that they want to run, let them run it, because they’re going to run themselves into oblivion with this.

CORNEL WEST: You know, but the lie at—


CORNEL WEST: The lie at the center of both of them—Brother Rush and Brother Bill—the white liberal establishment is not a majority. The elite white liberal establishment is a minority. The white poor is not part of that. The white working class is not part of that.

If you really want to talk about being dependent on government, $16 trillion for Wall Street, not one of them gone to jail involved in the criminal activity linked to predatory lending, market manipulation or insider trading. The government protects them. Jamal gets caught with a crack bag; he going to jail. But Mr. McGillicuddy gets caught on Wall Street; he’s protected by the government. Neither administration—Bush, Obama—have any investigations, no prosecutions at all. So the folk who are really dependent, they get interest-free loans from the Federal Reserve. Wouldn’t it be nice if students could get interest-free loans?

So, Rush and Bill, they got to tell the truth: the white elite is very dependent on government. They get welfare anytime they want it, with no strings attached. So that’s the lie at the center of both of their views. And it’s not majority. White brothers and sisters are catching hell who are not part of the 1 percent.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to the issue of the whole discussion that you’re engaged in, pushing President Obama from the left. In September at the Democratic convention, Democracy Now! hosted a debate on Obama’s record, with Glen Ford, executive editor of Black Agenda, and Michael Eric Dyson, the author and MSNBC analyst, Georgetown University professor. This is what Michael Eric Dyson had to say.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: The reality is, is that the American left will never be able to participate not simply in the pageantry of American politics and the light and airy stuff that conventions engage in. Of course, the fluff and the desiderata may be absolutely true, as Mr. Ford has indicated. But the reality is, is that Obama is as progressive a figure who has the chance of being elected in America. Friedrich Engels is not going to be the secretary of labor, and Marx will not be the secretary of treasury, bottom line. […]

But if you ain’t in the game—Miami Heat is playing the—talking about sports—is playing the Oklahoma Thunder. It’s not “I’d prefer it be the Los Angeles Lakers.” This is the game we’re talking about. And if the American left can’t be involved in the actual practice of government to offer the critical and salient insights that are available—take—take 2000, when siding with Nader, then Al Gore, who should have been president, who would have prevented some of the stuff that we see now happening, didn’t occur. The left won’t take responsibility for the fact that, with the extraordinary intelligence of a Glen Ford and many other leftists notwithstanding, the reality is that he’s the most progressive president, as Gary Dorrien, an American leftist who teaches at Union Theological Seminary argues, since FDR.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s author, professor, commentator Michael Eric Dyson. Tavis Smiley, your response?

TAVIS SMILEY: I’ve known Michael Eric Dyson for a long time, and I love him with all of my heart. It is so disappointing, though, to hear Michael, Professor Dyson, advance that kind of argument. He comes out of a black prophetic tradition that is rooted in speaking truth to power—and, I might add, to the powerless. But to somehow try to suggest in any way that this president has been progressive or is the best example of progressivism that we could put forth in this country is just inaccurate.

This is precisely why Dr. West and I and others—you know, we don’t have a monopoly on the truth, and we’re not the only ones—but this is why we believe that the president has to be pushed. I’ve said so many times across the nation that great presidents aren’t born, they’re made. They have to be pushed into their greatness. There is no Abraham Lincoln—I just saw the movie coming out this weekend, I think, the Lincoln project. And Lincoln isn’t Lincoln if Frederick Douglass isn’t pushing him. FDR isn’t FDR if A. Philip Randolph and Eleanor Roosevelt aren’t pushing him. LBJ isn’t LBJ if MLK isn’t pushing him.

And so, what I hear in Professor Dyson’s critique is that there is some excuse to be made or that we have to settle for this as the best example of progressivism that we can find. And Doc and I just don’t believe in settling. We don’t believe in making excuses. We believe that if he is not pushed, he’s going to be a transactional president and not a transformational president. And we believe that the time is now for action and no longer accommodation. But that doesn’t happen unless you’re pushed.

So, the excuse making and the settling for the fact that this is the best that we can do—can you imagine what this country would be if women had settled? “This is the best that we can do”? If black folk in slavery and segregation had said, “This is the best that we can do”? That’s not—that’s not even the spirit of America, much less the spirit of those who come out of the black prophetic tradition. So that’s disappointing to hear, even though I love him with all my heart.

CORNEL WEST: And Brother Tavis is being very kind, because he’s right. I love Brother Mike Dyson, too, but we’re living in a society where everybody is up for sale. Everything is up for sale. And he and Brother Sharpton and Sister Melissa and others, they have sold their souls for a mess of Obama pottage. And we invite them back to the black prophetic tradition after Obama leaves. But at the moment, they want insider access, and they want to tell those kind of lies. They want to turn their back to poor and working people.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, he’s—Michael Eric—

CORNEL WEST: And it’s a sad thing to see them as apologists for the Obama administration in that way, given the kind of critical background that all of them have had at some point.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Eric Dyson isn’t saying that Obama is progressive, but he’s the most progressive of the presidents that we’ve had.

CORNEL WEST: When FDR says, “Bring the economic royalists on; they are my foes. I’m fighting on behalf of poor people,” has Obama not just said that, but done that? Did LBJ, who declared a war on poverty, that generated the kind of legislation against American terrorism called Jim and Jane Crow for voting and—come on, Dyson. But it’s not just what he said there; it’s what he’s been saying as a whole. Brother Glen Ford crushed him in that debate. Listen to what the arguments are. You see what I mean? And again, we’re sending out our love for Dyson, because he’s been our partner, and he can be our partner again. But these kind of lies, we can’t live with.

TAVIS SMILEY: And to me, the most progressive—I want to add right quick, to me, the most progressive means that you’re taking some serious risk.

CORNEL WEST: That’s right.

TAVIS SMILEY: And I just don’t see the example of that. Even the healthcare debate, the president compromised against himself. He watered down what he promised on the campaign trail before we got serious. The promising—the promise of an open debate on C-SPAN never really quite materialized. So, I’m not suggesting that I’m unhappy with the fact that we got something done on healthcare, but it’s nowhere near what it was supposed to be.

And again, if you’re going to label somebody “the most progressive,” you’ve got to show me where the risk was taken. Lincoln took risk. FDR took risk. LBJ took risk. We know, famously, LBJ said, “I know that advancing this legislation, voting rights and civil rights, is going to lose my party the South for two decades.” And he turned out to be right, but it was the right thing to do at that time. And so, that’s what we’re saying.

In the president’s forward motion in the second term to establish a legacy—and I don’t think that being president ought to be about a legacy; it ought to be about advancing the best for the American people. But in this conversation about his legacy, I want to see what risk he’s going to take. Is he going to put himself on the line for poor people? Is he going have an honest conversation about drones? As Doc said earlier, you know, is he ever going to say the word prison—the phrase, “prison-industrial complex”? Reagan wouldn’t say ”AIDS.” Bush wouldn’t say “climate change.” Will Obama say “prison-industrial complex”? I mean, I want to know where the risk is that equates to being the most progressive president ever. That’s the—I don’t get that.

CORNEL WEST: Is it progressive to sign the National Defense Authorization Act, in which you can actually detain American citizens with no due process, no judicial process, to assassinate American citizens based on executive power? That’s not—that is authoritarian. That’s autocratic. It’s crypto-fascist. We have to call it for what it is. Drones are war crimes. We have to call it for what it is. That’s the tradition that produced us. That’s what Frederick Douglass is about. That’s what Ida B. Wells is about. That’s what Abraham Joshua Heschel at his best was. That’s what Dorothy Day was. That’s our tradition. Now, if one doesn’t want to be part of that tradition and be inside of the White House, then stay in the White House and have a good time and breakdance. But don’t lie. Don’t try to tell us that lies are the truth.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to come back to this conversation in a minute. Our guests are Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. You like that music, Dr. Cornel West.

CORNEL WEST: Oh, that’s Curtis Mayfield, “Keep on Pushing.” He’s on the love train. We on the love train.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Cornel West is with us, and Tavis Smiley, and they have a radio show called Smiley & West. That’s every week. It’s a weekly program. You were just having a debate with Jeffrey Toobin on it around the issue of third-party candidates and what we need in this country. Do you think movements are shaping up? And what do you think the movements that brought President Obama into office the first time—what do you think they are doing now after the second time? Tavis?


CORNEL WEST: Well, one, I draw—


CORNEL WEST: —distinction between campaigns and movements. Movements are highly sophisticated forms of bringing power and pressure to bear on the status quo. Campaigns are attempts to mobilize in order to support candidates inside of a system. And they play a role and so forth, but there was not a social movement.

We haven’t had a social movement really since the gay brothers and lesbian sisters tried to break the back of homophobia, going—before that, the feminist movement and then the great black freedom movement called the civil rights movement. Those are very rare. Usually the leaders are repressed and diluted—or diluted, so that right now, the left, we are weak. We are feeble. The Occupy movement was a tremendous expression of voices, but it was not a movement that was crystallizing in any way.

But we are bouncing back. A democratic awakening is taking place, thanks to Democracy Now! and Tavis’s show and so forth. But at the moment, we’re still dispersed and scattered.

AMY GOODMAN: I talked about Smiley & West, your weekly radio show, which was just canceled here on WBEZ in Chicago, though it’s being picked up by other networks. Tavis, can you talk about this and the controversy around this? It’s been written up in the public radio and television—


AMY GOODMAN: —newspaper, Current, and other places.

TAVIS SMILEY: I’m now in my 20th year in the broadcast business, and most of that time has been spent in public media spaces—NPR, PBS, PRI—and that’s by choice. I could be in a commercial space if I chose to be, and I’ve done that before, but I—

AMY GOODMAN: You came from BET.

TAVIS SMILEY: I came from BET, came from CNN. I came from ABC. I’ve done the commercial thing. But I love the public radio and public TV space, because it allows us to get a different kind of truth, and I don’t have to respond to all the pressures from corporate media when you’re playing that particular game. And I have respect for my friends who do it; it’s just not for me at this point in my life. So I’ve done this for a long time.

This has been an uphill battle all along for me. It’s tragic to consider that, at my age, I’m the first person of color in the history NPR to have his own daily show. And that started in 2002. 2004, I become the first person of color in the history of PBS to have his own show every night on PBS. That’s how late to the game public TV and public radio have been in terms of giving people of color a space to operate inside of, so that when a station like WBEZ in Chicago—a great station—but when a station like WBEZ in Chicago starts making excuses for why they drop Smiley & West, when we believe and know this was all about the politics—this is the president’s home town, and they didn’t want us on the air in the last six weeks of the campaign talking about holding the president accountable and pushing him on why he’s not talking about poverty and why he’s not talking about the drones. So a decision was made here in his home town, without our knowledge, without our consultation, to just simply pull the plug on the Smiley & West show, again, without any forewarning. When that happened, you know, the citizenry here in Chicago who supports BEZ and listens to our program went crazy. And—

AMY GOODMAN: What was it replaced by?

TAVIS SMILEY: It was replaced with a repeat of Car Talk, which is not—which, as you know, is no longer even in production. Car Talk was a very popular show for years, but it’s not even in production anymore. So they pulled us off and started running repeats of Car Talk. So, that got a lot of conversation going in the city.

To make a long story short, this is not about Smiley & West being canceled. This is about the democratization of public media. It’s about the lack of diversity in public media. Something is wrong when a black man from Chicago has a better chance of being president of the United States than he does of hosting a talk show in prime time on public radio in Chicago. So all these excuses continue to be made. I’ve been fighting this battle for years. And when I talk about diversity, I don’t mean just ethnic diversity. I mean ideological diversity. For all the criticisms that public media takes for being part of the liberal media bias, we ain’t so liberal, when you listen to the ideology, when you see the lack of ethnic diversity.

And so, the good news is, without going, you know, on so long, because I don’t believe in spending too much time on what’s prologue, the reality is that within 24 hours a number of stations in Chicago called and said, “We would love to carry Smiley & West.” And so, part of our being in Chicago alongside you last night was to talk about democratizing public media and to celebrate with our listenership the fact that there are two stations in Chicago now—WCPT, Chicago Progressive Talk, and WVON, the Talk of Chicago—two stations now that are carrying the program. So we lose one station and pick up two. So, if every time I get canceled by somebody, if I can pick up two in the place of one, keep canceling me. I can live with that.

CORNEL WEST: Keep canceling. Keep canceling. You know, but Brother Tavis makes the point with great insight that when public broadcasting was first initiated under Johnson, it was for children and people of color. But it has become a white liberal elitist bastion, as if white liberal elitists own it. And so, the voices of red, our indigenous brothers and sisters, Latino, black, Asian, don’t play a fundamental role. That needs to be radically called into question. And our white liberal elitists, they need to understand that this is part of the critique that they have to come to terms with.

AMY GOODMAN: So, where do you go from here? Tavis, you still have your PBS show. Your show continues here in Chicago and all over the country. Inequality globally and here in this country is growing.

TAVIS SMILEY: Yeah, there’s no doubt about it. One of the things that—to answer your question expressly, where do we go from here, we continue using these platforms every week and every night to try to speak truth, again, to power and to the powerless. And I’m about to start my 10th year on PBS, so that show is going extremely strong. I’m 13 years now on the public radio. So I’m very blessed to be where I am with these platforms.

And with regard to poverty, specifically, where we go next is January the 17th in Washington. We are having another national symposium, just three days before the president gets inaugurated, talking about poverty. The confirmations are coming in. We’re bringing together this time the leaders in the poverty—the anti-poverty movement. We’re talking Marian Wright Edelman, confirmed. We’re talking Jeffrey Sachs, confirmed. We’re talking Cornel West, confirmed. We’re talking Jonathan Kozol, confirmed. We’re bringing together leaders in this movement, and we’re going to talk about the president calling a White House conference to eradicate poverty.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to do part two of our conversation with Smiley and West in just one moment, and we’ll post a web-ex.

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“A Declaration of War on the Poor”: Cornel West and Tavis Smiley on the Debt Ceiling Agreement

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