Arianna Huffington on the Future of Journalism, the Middle Class, and America

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Art Streiber

Read the subtitle of Arianna Huffington latest book, Third World America: How Our Politicians Are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream, and you already know a lot about the author's understanding of America's economic and cultural collapse. It's a rigged game in which Wall Street gets all the breaks and the Main Street gets stuck with the bill. Stories of lost jobs, lost homes, lost dreams, and a collapsing infrastructure help Huffington explain how the financialization of the economy has impacted millions of middle-class Americans.

Third World America does more than diagnose America's ills, however, or point fingers at Washington and lower Manhattan. Much of the book is given over to practical steps readers can take, such as practicing citizen journalism or moving your big-bank account to a credit union. We reached Arianna Huffington at the offices of the Huffington Post, where she is cofounder and editor.


You argue that as the American Dream slips away from the middle class, America's economy, educational system, infrastructure, and society are all sliding into third-world status. If we don't act, is the middle class really going to disappear? Where do you see America ending up in 20, 30 or 50 years?

I am an optimist. I really believe that we are capable of course-correcting. I did not really contemplate the possibility that we will remain deaf to the sound of the alarm, and not change our direction. In the end, we have solutions available to us. We just need to deploy them. And that's why even though I'm suggesting a whole stream of government solutions, I end the book with what we can do—what individuals can do right now—even if our political system remains as dysfunctional and incapable of optimal solutions as it has been.

Many of the solutions your book offers emphasize personal responsibility. Some of them even run counter to default liberal positions. Your "single-payer" proposal for education, for instance. It sounded similar to California Proposition 38, the failed school voucher initiative opposed by progressives and unions. Have prescriptions like these drawn opposition from progressives who might otherwise be your allies?

Well, I don't really know yet what the reaction is going to be—this is my first interview. But you are definitely saying something very important, which is that the book's solutions are beyond left and right, in the same way that the diagnosis is beyond left and right.

Many conservatives are aware that the heart of America, the foundation not just of our prosperity but of our political stability, is the middle class—and that if the middle class crumbles and the upward mobility that's been so central to the American dream is gone, we then become a very different country. We really do become a third-world country, defined by extremes—the very rich and the poor. The rich live behind gates with guards to prevent their kids from kidnapping, and then there are the rest. Who wants to live in a country like that?

You can talk to many conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic recognize that that is a fundamental danger. And a lot of my very conservative friends, who sleep with a copy of Atlas Shrugged by their bed, recognize that capitalism cannot survive if there are basically no consequences for taking excessive risks. When instead of going bankrupt, instead of the sort of creative destruction that capitalism talks about, you find yourself being bailed out by the taxpayers with—trillions of dollars in zero-percent credit, provided by the Fed, on an ongoing basis.

As far as single-payer education goes, what is important, and the reason I called it "single payer," is that progressives love single-payer health care. This is the same principle. No one in single payer health care is proposing that the government actually provide the health care. By the same principle, why shouldn't the government provide the funds, and then multiple providers can actually provide the education?

But just as there is a widening gulf between the haves and the have-nots in America, there is a cultural divide—two Americas with very different ways of looking at these problems and their solutions, and shaped by distinct streams of information.

I actually don't see what's happening in terms of a cultural divide. I see it as a real divide between the multiple establishments in this country and the people, especially the middle class. The middle class is responding in different ways to the sense of betrayal by the establishment. The Tea Party is one response. Progressives "checking out" is another response, as are the numbers of people who voted for Obama who are not planning to vote Democrat in 2010. There are many disparate ways of responding to what is happening.

There was a recent poll about the Tea Party movement that showed that a lot of them are making good money and often still have their jobs and their homes, but have nonetheless been affected by a sense of unfairness about our system. If you ask a second question to members of the Tea Party movement, it always comes back to the bailout. They may start with health care, with "Obamacare," or however they have rationalized their anger, but it doesn't take long before you get to "taxpayers saved the banks—look what's happening in the country."

The Republicans, who are beneficiaries the Tea Party Movement, are using it, but the anti-government rhetoric that has pervaded the public conversation has a lot of justification in it. I certainly recognize the need for government solutions, but look at what government has wrought! Look at the failure of government, again and again, to regulate. And even when they are regulating, to get it done right. Look at the way the bailout was administered, without any strings attached. The banks, which should have been a pariah after what happened, had the power to defeat the cramdown amendment. As Dick Durbin said in disgust after its defeat, "The banks still own this place."

Maybe the Tea Party Movement doesn't know that the cramdown amendment was defeated. It's not really about the exact details, though, but the pervasive sense that the game is rigged, that the fix is in.

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Crown

You have friends in high places—you must have spoken to people in government about some of the ideas in your book. I'm wondering what kind of reception they're getting. The idea for a national infrastructure bank, for example—in light of a second stimulus package with a focus on infrastructure, it seems like a good idea.

The reception these ideas are getting is changing.

For a while, though, the White House and the administration had become convinced that we were really on the road to recovery. Unemployment was described again and again as "a lagging indicator'. At the same time other, more clear-eyed economists, many of whom I'm quoting in the book, pointed out that on the contrary, we're dealing with many long-term, structural problems we had not dealt with—all the debt, the toxic assets, the fact that many millions more homes were going to be foreclosed, that families were still carrying so much debt, and, with their homes underwater, were not going to be spending anytime soon.

These were not things that weren't obvious.

Nevertheless, personnel is policy. The President picked a team that was completely Wall Street-centric. I have this metaphor in the book about a pre-Galilean view of the world. If you see the world as revolving around Wall St., you're going to come up with a very different navigation plan—which is not likely to work.

As you say in the book, "He who pays the piper calls the tune". The individual stories and solutions you mention are inspiring, but how do you unrig the game? How do you change the framework? How do you get campaign finance reform, for instance, without first having campaign finance reform?

My optimism is grounded in history. If you look at every major reform from the Emancipation Proclamation to the 19th Amendment to civil rights legislation, just before they happened they looked impossible. My favorite story of how movements are built is Martin Luther King, Jr. meeting with Lyndon Johnson in January 1965 asking for the Voting Rights Act, and the President saying, "We don't have the votes." Which is what they always say. Because you never have the votes until you have the votes. If you're going to challenge the status quo, you never have the votes. So what happened is that King went out to the people, and the Selma March came, and lo and behold, just months later, we had the votes.

Now, as my Greek compatriot Heraclitus said, you never enter into the same river twice. Every era is different. We're not going to have the Selma march, but our equivalent is people taking matters into their own hands in their own communities. You might ask, how does that add up to real change? It adds up to real change through the concept of critical mass. You never get everybody changing—all you need is a critical mass of people who don't give up, who take matters into their own hands, who re-evaluate their lives. There's a lot of re-evaluation going on right now about what really matters in life.

We were on a certain path that valued consumption above all else. Even after 9/11, when people were ready to be called to something much greater, we were called to go shopping. Now that we can't go shopping with the same regularity, millions are finding themselves looking at what really matters in their lives. And that is a very good thing. In that sense, we all needed to course-correct.

Let's talk about a course-correction in terms of the media. You talk about the "Balloon Boy-ization" of the media. While anyone would agree that there's a responsibility to be more substantive and issues-driven, unless you're a PBS, you're driven by ratings or circulation.

I don't really see the problem being ratings. I see the problem being lack of imagination. It's not exactly like they're great ratings compared to how many people are in this country. There's a tendency to do the same thing in the same way. Benjamin Disraeli tried to capture the public imagination through writing a novel, Sybil, or The Two Nations. Today, CBS put on a show called Undercover Boss. Who would have thought this was going to be a success? A reality show that actually captures something about the moment! If we in the media become a little more in touch with the zeitgeist, there is something that we can tap into.

We are finding that Arthur Delaney's stories are some of the most popular on Huffington. He is our Economic Impact Correspondent, as we call him, putting flesh and blood on the economic data. He and Laura Bassett are really telling the stories of the unemployed, the people who sell their wedding rings to survive.

We have abdicated our story-telling function as journalists. Instead, what do we do? We give data, which is not as powerful. I can tell you that there are 26 million people who are unemployed or underemployed, and your eyes glaze over. But if I tell you about Dave Blackburn and Brenda Carter and Seth Meyer, and if we can use our gifts as storytellers to do that right, in a way that captures the public's imagination, I think we can begin to shift the culture and what people are willing to do to. Because right now, we are surrounded by people who talk of the unemployed as being lazy, or not working hard to find a job—but if we actually tell the stories, it's going to be much harder for those myths to gain credence.

Setting aside the question of the country's place in the world, and what it might or might not become, how do you think this crisis will change us as Americans?

I feel that this re-evaluation that many people are going through, painful though it may be, can actually make us a stronger nation in so many ways. Instead of living our individual lives, disconnected from each other, the dangers of our time can bring people together. It brings out what Sebastian Junger [in War, his book about U.S. troops in Afghanistan] called "this necessaryness," being bands of brothers and sisters. Everybody who has been through that, during war or the most painful circumstances of their lives, looks back and treasures it, because life is lived at a higher level. I think we can get there.

I can't tell you how inspiring it was for me to write about the people who are at that higher level, who are getting there in their own lives. I was speaking in Philadelphia when one of the biggest law firms in the city had just fired many of its lawyers. I remember finding out about these attorneys, who had lost their own jobs the previous day, coming together to help people prevent foreclosures, and describing how they would do things like going and fetching people if they couldn't drive—all of these things changed the lawyers' perception of themselves.

There are so many examples. Imagine if we had a thousand journalists writing about that. And not only professional journalists but citizen journalists—all the people who want to be part of the story of our times. One of the exciting aspects of social media is that people want to engage, they don't just want to read. They want to tell stories, too. Imagine how we would come together as a country through these stories. More and more people would actually become part of the solution.

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Douglas Gorney is a writer living in San Francisco.

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