Category Archives: Sanders candidacy

Reflections on the progressive path forward

Reflections on the progressive path forward. 

The 2018 mid-term election was an astounding repudiation of Donald Trump, and an affirmation of a progressive alternative for the United States. A Democratic Party that has clearly moved to the Left on issues across the board – no doubt stimulated by the efforts of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, in particular – achieved historic gains that were only limited by the extreme gerrymandering that the Republicans have instituted following their successes in 2010. And these clearly remain serious structural impediments to further progressive politics, to a consideration of which I will turn shortly. 

But we can be particularly excited by the racial, cultural, and gender diversity of the “class of 18.” And this achievement itself was built upon the most significant fact of all, namely the unprecedented politicization and mobilization of vast sectors of the electorate, across the country, a mobilization without precedent in modern American history. So many from all walks of life have come to realize that basic aspects of our culture and institutions – including much that we had always simply taken for granted as the gift of “American exceptionalism” – because “God had shed His grace” on us – were not guaranteed, and were directly threatened by the Trump Administration and its transformation of the Republican Party into a willing vehicle of a burgeoning American neo-Fascism. 

In the truly national scope and sustained action of this popular mobilization lies the basis of the exciting electoral success. And in the sustaining and expanding of this unprecedented national mobilization lies the hope and possibility of effectively advancing a progressive agenda that can reclaim American politics through the national elections of 2020, the consequent state-by-state redistricting, and thus for years thereafter.   

Therein resides our legitimate excitement, our organizational challenge, and our potential strategic trap. And it is to that potential “trap” that I want to address the better part of these remarks. For we are engaged in a long-term struggle with the forces of reaction, which, unfortunately, are all too strong across America – as attested to by Trump’s continued support at around 40%. We must build and expand the national constituency for progressive politics. And we must not alienate significant dimensions of that national mobilization by overplaying our hand. We must avoid getting carried away by some of the most remarkable progressive successes, mostly in the liberal bastions of many locations – but not all – in the Northeast, mid-West and West Coast, for example, thus playing into the hands of reaction. 

Let me explicate this challenge by drawing on a few excellent points developed by Michael Tomasky in the current issue of the New York Review of Books to which we need to pay careful attention. He first correctly draws the following two key takeaways from the recent election: 1) the necessity for the Democrats to increasingly mobilize their base to counter the Trumpian mobilization; and 2) the need to address the increasingly dramatic split between, on the one hand, the expanding urban and suburban base of the Democratic electorate and, on the other hand, its drastically shrinking support in small town and rural Americas, the base of the Trumpian Republican Party. 

Here, Tomasky observes that “there is no clearer sign of the changing shape of the Democratic coalition than the fact that going into the 2018 midterm elections, six of the 20 richest congressional districts were represented by Republicans but that when the new Congress is sworn in, all 20 will be represented by Democrats…. But by 2020, the Democrats will have to find ways to improve their performance in exurban and rural areas. This is not only for the sake of defeating Trump, but also to have any chance of recapturing the Senate.” 

Here, “a look at the Beto O’Rourke’s defeat in Texas, compared with Sherrod Brown’s victory in increasingly Republican Ohio, … is instructive.” While O’Rourke only lost by “around 220,000 votes out of 8.33 million cast, (he) carried just thirty-two of the state’s 254 counties, … (he) got walloped (in most of the rest). For example, … in six of the seven counties that surround (the city of Fort Worth), Cruz won 54, 68, 76, 80, 81, and 82 percent. And he won 70 or 80 percent of the vote in dozens of the smaller rural counties.” In contrast, Brown was victorious by being able to keep his deficit in similar rural and small town Ohio to around 60%.

Tomasky then observes that “the electoral consequences should be clear. Consider the Senate map of 2020. Thirty-four senators will face reelection (except for those who choose to retire). Of those, twenty-three will be Republicans, and just eleven Democrats. That sounds favorable to Democrats, but if you look closer, about fourteen of the Republicans represent deep-red states where they should cruise to reelection. The other seven will not be easy to flip. The fattest target is probably Maine incumbent Susan Collins. Maine just elected a Democratic governor, who is also the state’s first female governor. But beating an incumbent senator is always hard (though some believe Collins may retire). The other states where Democrats may have a shot include Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina, Iowa, Georgia, and Texas. Donald Trump carried five of those six. All have major cities, but all are states where it’s hard to win by carrying only the most populous counties and doing poorly in the rural ones.”

“As for the presidency,” Tomasky continues, “there are a number of states—the Great Lakes states, North Carolina, Florida, and even Arizona and Georgia—where the pro-Trump vote in the rural counties will be so amped up that the Democrat, while winning the big counties, will have a tough time overcoming it.“

While not exploring the causes of this electoral divide, which bears on the political and economic failures of both parties over the last 50 years, to which I will turn shortly, Tomasky offers the following “stunning statistics. The United States has experienced three recessions since 1990(:) … after the early 1990s recession, 71 percent of the new business growth occurred in counties with fewer than 500,000 people (and within that, 32 percent in counties with fewer than 100,000 people). After the 2002–2003 recession, that 71 percent shrank to 51 percent. And after the Great Recession of 2007–2009, the number was 19 percent—and in counties under 100,000 growth was literally zero.That is a crisis. It’s at the root of the opioid epidemic, and it’s why so many young people leave these towns.” And those most recent numbers happened under the neo-Liberal Obama Administration. This highlights one of the central reasons these regions are so desperate for change, and so angry at all political establishments, but especially those they see as aligned with urban cosmopolitan interests and values, which they primarily identify with the Democrats.

There is so much more than can and should be said about the causes and scope of this problem which I cannot address here, except to note that this economic situation and political divide is a direct result of the process of Neo-Liberal Globalization that has dominated the Western World since at least the arrival of Thatcher and Reagan. And it has had similar results across the “advanced West,” not to speak of its more global consequences. For example, it is the essential background for the almost unprecedented nation-wide mobilization of the French people against the Neo-Liberal policies of the Macron Administration, that has effectively brought that government to its knees.

But I only want to underline here the fact that a progressive Democratic program, if it is to be successful, must begin to address this economic and cultural divide. And to do that, it must break from the Neo-LIberal orthodoxy of its Clinton-Obama establishment, that has left behind so much of America. Here, Tomasky highlights “the Democrats’ two big electoral tasks as they head into 2020: to invest in maximizing turnout among their base voters in cities and diverse suburbs, and to take steps to ensure that they can become more competitive in the exurbs and the countryside. These goals may seem as though they contradict each other, but they need not; both constituencies would be open to an agenda emphasizing public investments that help middle- and working-class people. There will be some tension on cultural issues, and Democrats shouldn’t go overboard in pandering for rural votes. After all, they’re not trying win those areas; just to perform about 10 or 15 points better—at Sherrod Brown’s levels rather than Beto O’Rourke’s.”

But here’s where the “trap” of potential Left-wing overreach emerges. The danger that the Left will get carried away with its political enthusiasm and ideological rhetoric. I think of talk I have heard that speaks of an ascendant Left that should direct the Democrat’s national program. Or a recent program of MSNBC’s “The Last Word,” for example, on which Lawrence O’Donnell assembled a panel of “experts” to propound that Trump’s most recent series of tweets makes it incumbent on the New Democratic House of Representatives that they immediately begin impeachment proceedings. However desirable both of these goals may well be, they overreach the currently politically possible, and threaten to energize a popular backlash.

Just to note two salient points from the 2018 election in support of this caution. First, a significant majority of the Democrats’ 40 seat shift in the House of Representatives was accomplished with quite narrow electoral margins. Several were not even decided for several weeks. Second, as Michael Tomasky points out – a fact too many Left-wing advocates have ignored – “left-wing candidates did not do well overall in this election. The three major left-wing groups that endorsed candidates this year flipped no House seats from red to blue, while the more centrist New Dem PAC flipped twenty-eight seats.” To which he adds, challengingly, “what the Democrats will need in 2020, far more than a candidate of the left, or for that matter of the avowed center, is one who can withstand what will undoubtedly be the dirtiest and most dishonest campaign in the country’s modern history and provide the clearest moral contrast to the incumbent.”

He then concludes, quite on the mark as far as I am concerned, “the party now has the power to hold Trump and his administration accountable. They shouldn’t overreach and carry on about impeachment. Removing Trump from office would require the assent of about twenty Republican senators and is therefore basically impossible. They should just expose the corruption through holding aggressive oversight hearings and trust the American people to reach the right conclusion. Trump’s partisans are fierce, but the election showed that they are, however narrowly, outnumbered.”

So where is the danger of overreach? Clearly any attempt to immediately move for impeachment, for which much of the Country is clearly not ready, and on which platform few successful Democrats ran, would not be well received. Before any such effort might become practicable, there will need to be an ongoing series of quite legitimate public investigations by the New Democratic House, plus continual revelations by the Justice Department. That might “soften up” the terrain for an impeachment inquiry. But that’s at best down the road. 

Even more challenging and potentially destructive in the short run, is the emerging progressive strategy to advance a Green New Deal. Clearly, such a program can embody an exciting vision of a potentially transformative progressive program to address both the challenge of global warming and offer an effective alternative to that Neo-LIberal abandonment of large sections of American society. It is essential, of course, that we have such a program – and develop a consequent movement – to promote the comprehensive structural changes in the US economy that addresses both the profound dangers to civilization posed by Global Warming, and the vast destabilizing income inequalities and regional disparities that have been caused by Neo-Liberal Globalization. Let me be quite clear about that.

At the same time, however, the proposed Green New Deal, embodies a practical trap of political overreach for the Democratic Party, driven by an excited progressive movement that is well ahead of where much of the Country is at present. The danger is that the excitement of electoral successes and the real need of systemic change, will drive ideologically committed progressives to mistake a necessary directional goal for a non-révisable and achievable short-term political program. That is to make a two-fold basic strategic error, one methodological, and one political.

Methodologically, it is to mistake a projected and necessary end-in-view with the short term programs that can begin to move us in the desired direction. An end-in-view should be seen, not as a final goal that we are to insist be imposed upon our politics here and now. Rather, it should be seen as a “means to present action.” It is a necessary marker of a direction for our politics to take. It sets forth a needed theoretical frame and political direction to guide our short-term policies and programs. As we proceed with their practical implementation, reality itself is changed, and that will inevitably require us to continually revise and update our guiding vision and its on-going practical enactment.

Politically, the way that that general methodological point bears upon the present situation, is that presentation of, and the consequent public campaign on behalf of, a Green New Deal will not only direct present programs, but can begin to raise public consciousness and to move the public debate. Thus it can increasingly gain the support of increasingly wider sections of the public, thus making its radical programs more palatable to the general public. This is a campaign of several years duration, similar to that that was begun about a decade ago on behalf of Medicare For All, which campaign has now achieved far more general popular acceptance. 

These remarks may not sit well with some of my progressive allies, who I feel may have fallen in love with their own rhetoric and have confused their quite legitimate hopes for a decent America with the practical limitations placed on current poltical possibilities by the vast, complex, and diverse makeup of the American electorate, and the structural impediments to implementing systemic progressive economic, racial, and social transformation. It is, of course, quite essential to hold to that vision, and to try to effectively advance it as much as possible. But we have learnt in these last few years, if we needed that education, that any short term gains can easily be completely undone if we cannot secure a lasting base, both ideological and structural, for progressive politics through 2020 and beyond. And we must acknowledge the current limitations of national support for the complete progressive agenda to which even the remarkable nation-wide popular mobilization and electoral success are convincing testimony. 

“In our increasingly polarized environment, success is not had by moving to the vanishing center and trying to appease the “moderates,” but by energizing and mobilizing … our base to turn out to vote. And that requires attractive candidates that can present programs that speak to the concerns of their constituents. But … this is a large and diverse nation, and that what will speak to their constituents’ issues and concerns, and in a language that communicates, will be significantly different in different parts of the country.” Back Bay Boston is not Southern California. Queens and The Bronx are not Colorado, Arizona, or even Western Pennsylvania.

We have a remarkable opportunity to turn back Trumpian incipient neo-Fascism, and to begin building a progressive future. This is actually a life and death struggle to preserve even a modified democratic future for this country. It is a vital struggle. We must be careful not to overplay our hand and screw it up.

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The Sanders Endorsement and the Political Revolution

I have chosen to reproduce the following article by Robert Borosage because it beautifully sets forth the context within which we need to understand what’s involved in building an effective political movement that can bring systemic progressive social change to the United States. Building a movement cannot be done overnight, nor by the election of any one person, no matter how intelligent, dedicated, visionary, and honest. And it can not be successful simply by believing, and evening advocating, the most ideal policies. It requires working cooperatively with a wide range of allies, effectively addressing the concerns and needs of its actual and potential constituencies, creating and linking together an effective web of progressive organizations, and building one’s supporters into the institutional fabric of the society in a way that provides them with the power to bring about the desired systemic progressive social change.

What is most dangerous for the building of that truly effective social movement, is the siren song of those who advocate the ideal progressive programs and will refuse to work with any groups or individuals who do not share their “correct”agenda. The best and most dangerous version of that for building the progressive movement that we desperately need are those who say “Bernie or Bust,” for then, bust it will be. Even more destructive are those who follow Jill Stein and the Green Party, and by so doing drain vital support from the forces for effective progressive change. We will no doubt suffer for years to come, in untold ways, for the disaster perpetrated on the US — and on the world — by Nader’s destructive 2000 Presidential campaign. His efforts effectively brought us, among much else, George Bush’s election, the Iraq invasion, the Bush tax cuts, the Citizens United Supreme Court, and the Great Recession of 2008. That will be Nader’s enduring legacy. We must not let it happen again. And well meaning progressive idealists must not confuse their ideals with the effective policies that can build a progressive political movement. Fortunately, Bernie Sanders understands that quite well. So must we all.    Here’s Borosage’s article.

“The Sanders Endorsement and the Political Revolution

Even as Bernie Sanders was endorsing Hillary Clinton Tuesday in New Hampshire, expressions of dismay and outrage from his supporters flooded social media. Naturally, Donald Trump piled on, tweeting that Bernie Sanders “has totally sold out to corrupt Hillary Clinton,” and that his supporters are “not happy that he is selling out.”

Those gathering under #selloutsanders are, of course, a small minority of activists. Polls show that 85 percent of Sanders voters are ready to support Hillary Clinton, and that number will surely grow when the Democratic Convention launches her formal candidacy. But the sentiment is real. The Sanders insurgency was fueled by a revolt against the big-money politics that Clinton personifies. Clinton delivered one of her most populist speeches in response to the Sanders endorsement, but doubts about her commitments are widespread, even among those intending to vote for her.

Sanders, however, did not “sell out.” His endorsement was carefully framed. He began by celebrating the extraordinary movement that grew behind his candidacy – 13 million votes, hundreds of thousands of volunteers, 2.5 million small donors, victories in 22 caucuses and primaries and 1,900 delegates. “Together, we have begun a political revolution to transform America and that revolution continues. Together, we continue the fight to create a government which represents all of us, and not just the one percent – a government based on the principles of economic, social, racial and environmental justice.”

Sanders has it right. It will take a political revolution to transform our politics, revive our democracy, and make government the instrument of the many and not just the few. That is not a task of one campaign or one presidency. The movement has to build – in fits and starts, waves and tides – over time. And Sanders is right: The next step in building that movement is defeating Donald Trump and electing Hillary Clinton as president.

The Movement Must Work To Crush Trump

Populist movements in this country have often floundered on the shoals of race and nativism. The established are quick to play on racial division or fears of the other to divide working and poor people. The South perfected this politics, but it works, sometimes with greater subtlety, across the nation and across party lines. Clinton fended off Sanders’ surge in part by contrasting her social liberalism – “breaking down barriers” for people of color and women – with what she termed Sanders’ “single issue” focus on the economy. Sanders succeeded in winning the majority of votes of African Americans under 30, but the political revolution has work to do to consolidate a powerful multiracial movement for fundamental change.

Thrashing Donald Trump is the next step in that process. Trump has risen as a fake populist, preying on racial and nativist fears. His slurs against Mexican immigrants, Moslems, blacks and women are classic, if raw, politics of division. His bet is that he can profit from consolidating the votes of white working and middle-class men by stoking their fears and anger.

The Sanders political revolution – the activists, the volunteers, the young, the independents looking for a new politics – have to be central to making November a resounding rejection of the politics of division. There is no way to consolidate a broad multi-racial populist majority without standing up shoulder to shoulder with the people of color who are the targets of Trump’s venom. It is not enough that Trump is beaten; he needs to be routed, repudiated. And that can only happen with the energy of the movement that Sanders has helped to build.

Fighting on Our Agenda

For the movement, there is a profound difference between a Clinton presidency and a Trump presidency. One needn’t harbor hopes that there is a populist Superwoman hidden beneath Hillary Clinton’s Clark Kent pantsuits to see this.

If Trump is president, Republicans surely control the House and most likely the Senate. They set the agenda. We will spend the next four years fighting against reaction – austerity budgets, massive increases in defense spending, attacks on choice, civil rights, environmental protection. They’ll seek to repeal Obamacare, financial reform and President Obama’s climate initiatives. As Sanders noted, Trump carries the right’s agenda – against the minimum wage, against extending Medicaid, denial of climate change and more. And of course, there is the Supreme Court.

The populist movement will be forced to fight battles that have already been won, to defend half-measures – like Dodd-Frank financial reform and Obamacare – from getting rolled back. In those defensive battles, virtually every Democrat looks like a hero. Against the nightmare, even the dimmest bulb seems like a dawn. Corporate Democrats gain cheap grace by standing up boldly for Dodd Frank or Obamacare. The space for left alternatives – and for education about those alternatives – virtually disappears.

If Clinton is president, the political revolution will not have won. But we will fight on our agenda – sometimes with and sometimes against the president. Sanders made that clear in his endorsement, focusing on the promises exacted from Clinton in the course of the campaign and the platform fights: a $15 minimum wage, commitment to rebuild America, further health care reform – opt-in to Medicare at 55, a public option, Medicare empowered to negotiate bulk discounts on prescription drugs, a more than doubling of resources for community health care centers, progressive tax reform, tuition-free college for over 80 percent of students, action on climate change, comprehensive immigration reform, reform of our broken criminal justice system. Clinton responded by pledging to push for populist reforms, including opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Clinton will be looking to cut deals with Republicans, and her foreign policy team is likely to be an utterly terrifying combination of neo-conservative and indispensable nation interventionists.

But the terrain of the debate will shift. The Sanders movement can challenge Clinton when needed – beginning with Obama’s lame, lame-duck session attempt to cram through the TPP, challenging Clinton appointments if she seeks to revive the Wall Street-Washington revolving door, exposing the tax bribe to global corporations to gain funds for infrastructure investment, etc. Clinton will forward an increase in the minimum wage; the Sanders movement can demand $15.00 and push for it in states and localities across the country. She’ll call for paid family leave and paid sick days; the Sanders movement can support, and push at the state and local level. The political revolution can challenge any backsliding the promise for tuition free education or real action on climate change. It can join with her to push comprehensive immigration reform and criminal justice reform.

In these battles, the difference between the Wall Street wing of the party and the Sanders-Warren wing of the party will be stark. The political revolution can challenge corporate Democrats, and create space for real populists to challenge them. The battles will help deepen the understanding of Americans about the core issues at stake.

Time to Build

A Clinton presidency will be a reform presidency, but it won’t be nirvana. She’ll have no mandate for the radical economic changes this country needs. She’ll face a Republican Party, hopefully chastened, but certainly rabid in its hatred for her. The tepid economic recovery is already slowing. There is no sign that Clinton’s predilection for intervention abroad has been sobered by experience. In 2020, the reapportionment election year, the Republican money establishment will gear up for a swing election, a reaction that could consolidate their hold on state legislatures and statehouses.

The political revolution that fueled the Sanders campaign must continue to build. It must use the battles during Clinton’s first term to deepen popular understanding, to consolidate a multi-racial movement, to reach out to disaffected working and poor people to show there is an alternative – and it is not on the right. It has to mobilize to demonstrate that business as usual cannot continue. The massive, non-violent demonstrations in support of Black Lives Matter illustrates what can be done. The entrenched interests must be challenged frontally, uncomfortably, so they too understand that something must be done. The political revolution can then capture the energy for change to challenge those in both parties who are standing in the way.

Sanders has it right: The next step is to work to ensure that Donald Trump is routed in 2016, and to use the Democratic platform as the minimum standard that all Democratic candidates must endorse. Sanders isn’t selling out; he is staying in, loyal to the political revolution that he has helped to build.”

Bernie Sanders, Labor, Ideology and the Future of American Politics

The following is a superb article by Bob Master, Legislative and Political Director for CWA District One of the Communications Workers of America and a co-chair of the New York State Working Families Party. I thought it deserves wide distribution.

Bernie Sanders, Labor, Ideology and the Future of American Politics

by  Bob Master

The Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, contrary to all expectation, has become the most important left insurgency in the United States in nearly half a century. A year ago, even his most optimistic supporters might have hoped that Sanders would enliven the presidential debates by challenging Hillary Clinton on issues of Wall Street power and big money corruption, and perhaps garner a quarter to a third of the primary vote. Instead, Sanders won primaries and caucuses in 23 states, and amassed over 12 million votes and nearly 43% of the pledged delegates. And all this while unapologetically and unabashedly proclaiming himself a “democratic socialist,” re-legitimizing a systemic critique of US capitalism for the first time since the one-two punch of Cold War reaction and neoliberal triumphalism froze the left out of mainstream American discourse two generations ago.

The power of Big Banks, job-killing trade deals, ending the corrosive influence of big money in elections, eliminating private insurance companies from the health care system, and the merits of a “political revolution” became staples of prime-time presidential debates. Once stunning poll numbers now seem commonplace: 43% of Iowa caucus goers, including roughly a third of Clinton supporters, describing themselves as “socialists”; a New York Times poll late last year which said that 56% of Democratic primary voters had a “positive view of socialism;” and Sanders’ overwhelming support among young voters, by margins as high as 84% in Iowa and New Hampshire, but even reaching the low 60s in states like South Carolina, where he was otherwise crushed. Indeed, Sanders’ remarkable popularity among “millennials” prompted John Della Volpe, the director of a long-running Harvard University poll of young people, to tell the Washington Post that Sanders is “not moving a party to the left. He’s moving…the largest generation in the history of America…to the left.”[1] Something significant is definitely going on.

At this writing, just after the California primary, it appears virtually certain that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee, and despite her historically high unfavorable ratings, she is likely to defeat Donald Trump in the November election. But the unexpected breadth and fervor of the Sanders movement signifies that the shifts in US political discourse engendered by the financial collapse of 2008 and the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 are enduring. Bernie Sanders did not produce this moment—after all, he has been saying literally the exact same things about American society for over 40 years. But as in any movement moment, when the zeitgeist shifts and a leader’s vision gives voice to the hopes of tens of millions of people, the unthinkable suddenly becomes possible.

Despite its enormous promise, the movement has displayed critical limitations. Although Sanders worked hard to enrich his campaign’s analysis and message on issues of concern to people of color, the primacy he gave to questions of class, economic inequality and corporate power evidently prevented many African-Americas and Latinos from seeing themselves in his campaign. This is confounding given that African-Americans were especially hard hit by the ravages of the neoliberal, trickle-down economics Sanders attacks. Black family wealth, already only a fraction of their white counterparts, was halved after Wall Street melted down in 2008, and poor people of color were disproportionately victimized by the predatory loans which fed Wall Street’s speculative bond machine.

But African-American primary voters overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton. One leading Pennsylvania African-American faith leader explained to me that many black voters, especially older women, viewed their support for Hillary as upholding a “social contract” that was forged in 2008: after they abandoned Hillary for Obama that year, it was understood that eight years later she would have “her turn.” Younger activists of color, even some who support Sanders, say they didn’t “feel the Bern” because of his initial stumbling response to the challenges of Black Lives Matter protestors. And Michelle Alexander, who eviscerated the Clinton policy legacy in a Nation magazine article entitled “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote,” attributed African-Americans’ 2016 allegiance to the Clintons to a widely held feeling that Bill Clinton was the first President “who actually treated black folks like they were real people, who could be viewed and treated as human beings…who actually would sit down to eat with them and sing in their church and acted like he enjoyed it, who recognized us as human beings.”[2]

Race remains at the core of the American tragedy, and the struggle for Black Lives will not be subsumed in a broader movement. The future potential of a continuing post-Sanders’ radical mobilization for economic justice, racial justice, and democracy will only be realized if it integrates the social critique and constituencies mobilized by BLM and movements for immigrant rights. The support Sanders received from leading black intellectuals, artists and elected officials, like Alexander, Ta-Nehesi Coates, Cornel West, Ben Jealous and Keith Ellison suggest that bridging the gap between the Sanders campaign and the emergent black mobilization is by no means out of the question. Here the labor movement, which despite all its flaws and limitations, remains by far the largest multi-racial institution of working people in our society, could play a crucial role in ensuring that whatever movement building effort that follows the Sanders campaign reflects the increasingly diverse face of American society.

* * *

Today’s labor movement has been largely shaped by its experiences of defeat, on multiple battlefronts over the last 30 years—at the bargaining table, in State Houses, in the courts.  In recent years, this prolonged existential crisis has bred some innovation and success, most dramatically in SEIU’s four-year old “Fight for $15 and a Union,” which has sharpened and politicized the discourse about income inequality and stagnant wages that erupted in Occupy Wall Street (not to mention delivering billions of dollars in raises to tens of millions of low-wage workers across the country).

The broad acceptance of $15 an hour as the new standard for the minimum wage – a notion that was ridiculed by many of its current proponents just two years ago—illuminates the critical power of ideas in opening up space for organizing and political and legislative advancement. When fast food workers and their supporters won the ideological battle about what constitutes an adequate minimum subsistence level of compensation, change came with surprising suddenness.

Historian Nelson Lichtenstein has written that “trade unionism requires a compelling set of ideas and institutions, both self-made and governmental, to give labor’s cause power and legitimacy. It is a political project whose success enables the unions to transcend the ethnic and economic divisions always present in the working population.”[3] But labor’s ideological breakthrough in the “Fight for $15” is an exception that proves the rule. By the time the Corporate Right fashioned its relentless and well-planned ideological and practical attack on the labor movement, starting in the mid-70s, decades of complacency and anti-communism had stripped the labor movement of its capacity to respond on an ideological plane.

In his famous letter in 1978 resigning from the “Labor—Management Group” after the Business Roundtable-sponsored filibuster buried “Labor Law Reform” in an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress, UAW President Doug Fraser lamented the outbreak of a “one-sided class war” waged by a politically resurgent corporate elite. The unspoken and probably unintended implication was that class war was an alien concept to a labor movement that had come to see itself as the junior, but accepted and well-established, partner in a long term “social compact.”

Missed Opportunities

Thus, it was hardly surprising that when the Sanders campaign’s stunning success confirmed the existence of a mass base of tens of millions of Americans for a new brand of radical, oppositional politics, most of the labor leadership was unmoved. This was the legacy of three generations of labor political pragmatism, even as tens of thousands of rank and file union activists flocked to support the first politician in many years who so clearly articulated a class-based attack on the prevailing order. Sanders’ adherents are a politically diverse and sometimes contradictory group, but at the heart of his campaign lies a deeply felt rage against a political system rigged to serve the interests of Big Banks, Big Carbon and the rest of the corporate elite. This movement is instinctively supportive of the struggles of unions and working people against their employers, as evidenced in the warm welcome Verizon strikers received at Sanders rallies across New York City in the days before the New York primary.

And, as it turns out, language matters, a lot. Before the Sanders campaign, I minimized the significance of candidates or elected officials explicitly describing themselves as socialists. After all, many of the “progressives” on the New York City Council, in the NYS Legislature, and elsewhere across the country, hold views on issues that are virtually indistinguishable from Sanders’ and could be counted on as equally reliable allies and champions. But calling these views as a whole “socialism” makes explicit a critique of capitalism and its shortcomings that cannot be grasped when the word itself is absent. It suggests that the reforms for which we fight are more than just an attempt to ameliorate the ills of a market-driven society; it says that it is the very system which is the problem, and which must be changed. It begs the question of what precisely an alternative system might look like. But the invocation of “socialism” opens the social and political imagination to dreams of real alternatives. Historian Steve Fraser has written that “language, as a philosopher once put it, is the house of being.” Decades of Cold War and neoliberalism rendered the American left homeless, unable to muster the radical hope that Fraser argues was the driving force behind the great reforms of the Progressive Era and New Deal[4]. Bernie Sanders has begun to erect the scaffolding for constructing a new radical imagination.

This ideological reorientation is far more important to the possibility of reviving the labor movement than most labor leaders would acknowledge. Only such a shift offers labor the “compelling set of ideas and institutions, both self-made and governmental, [that could] give labor’s cause power and legitimacy” again. This was the missed opportunity of the 2015-2016 election cycle. As Sanders’ crowds grew across the country, and his forthright critique of trade deals, bank bailouts, and campaign finance corruption attracted millions, most of the labor leadership—ever the conscientious custodians of pragmatism—elected to “go with the frontrunner.” There were a few exceptions of course, including my union, the Communications Workers, as well as the National Nurses union, the Postal Workers, the Amalgamated Transit Union, later the west coast Longshore union and New York’s Nurses Association and Transport Workers Union. And Sanders succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations in shifting the national discourse in the direction of labor’s concerns, despite the lack of support from most of the labor movement. How much more seismic would his campaign have been if even a handful of other major unions had joined the cause, creating greater credibility, providing additional resources, and perhaps helping to establish, most importantly, more organic connections to workers of color. 

What’s Next?

The Sanders campaign unleashed a remarkable upsurge of decentralized, largely self-organized, progressive activism. In so doing, it kindled hopes that a post-Sanders movement could lay the foundation for a reinvigorated new left in U.S. politics, both inside and beyond the voting booth. But translating the energy, excitement and activism of a presidential campaign into a new political formation or movement will not be easy. Recent experiences confirm this—from Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition to Howard Dean’s brief insurgency, to the hopes aroused by the Obama campaign. None of these endeavors actually built an independent, democratically accountable organization that could provide a durable platform for independent issue campaigns or candidacies.

The Sanders phenomenon, however, differs from these predecessors in important ways. For one thing, the radicalism of the candidate’s politics and the historical context of his candidacy—in the aftermath of one of the great global crises of capitalist legitimacy—point towards ongoing mobilization outside normal political channels. Second, the candidate himself has resolutely reinforced the necessity of building such a movement, repeating at rally after rally that the “political revolution”—those words in themselves a remarkable addition to the conventional U.S. electoral lexicon—can only be achieved through the creation of an ongoing movement. Third, the disappointment in Obama, whose campaign felt at times like a movement even if its politics were inchoate, suggests that the mistaken demobilization which followed 2008 may be avoided.

The Sanders campaign has made it possible to imagine building a movement powerful enough to end oligarchical control of our democracy, to avert the planet from climate disaster, to wrest control of the economy from the stranglehold of Wall Street, and to implement the criminal justice reforms and jobs and education programs that will begin to repair the damage inflicted by 400 years of institutionalized racism. What follows are thoughts about questions that should be considered as we enter the next phase of the Sanders movement.

1 A new national left party or a single unified organization is unlikely to emerge from the Sanders movement, but let’s build something.

The Occupy encampments changed the global political discourse, but the movement’s longer-term potential was squandered by its rejection of organization-building, an anti-leadership obsession with “horizontality,” and an aversion to program. Preoccupation with “holding space” and with decentralized direct action made it impossible to create the Occupy equivalent of SNCC or SDS—an organization that could have carried forward the anti-Wall Street mobilization even after state violence dismantled the encampments. We shouldn’t make those mistakes again.

On the other hand, some optimistic Sanders partisans express a hope that the multiple organizations and individuals which have been galvanized by the campaign can coalesce into a single new progressive organization that unites the left and takes it to a new level. But in an era when institutions from Congress to the labor movement are deeply distrusted, and when the notion of struggling towards ideological unity seems foreign, if not archaic, trying to coalesce the heterogeneous forces backing Sanders into a single organization could prove to be a daunting and possibly counterproductive project. Existing organizations will be reluctant to relinquish identities and infrastructures which have been built up over decades of work.

Our goal should be a new level of coordination on the left, in terms of both issue mobilizations and key electoral races. Sanders or key campaign leaders should convene a new “coordinating committee” comprised of the unions and other organizations which endorsed him: CWA, NNU, ATU, MoveOn, DFA, the Postal Workers and West Coast longshore union, the Working Families Party, Progressive Democrats of America, Democratic Socialists of America, and a host of local unions and local groups. The various self-organized networks which sprang up in support of the campaign—Labor for Bernie, People for Bernie, Millennials for Bernie—would be there. Representatives of unions and social movements, as well as leading independent of-color intellectuals and activists—including those who might not have endorsed Sanders—should be invited. These groups could provisionally unite around a limited number of national campaigns or mobilizations which would build on the progressive political momentum ignited by the Sanders campaign.

2 The question of race must be dealt with upfront.

In order to gain credibility among constituencies of color which were reluctant to back Sanders, the new formation must unify the agendas of the Occupy, Black Lives and immigration rights movements. It must prominently engage key community and political leaders of color like Representatives Keith Ellison and Raul Grijalva, Ohio State Senator Nina Turner, and NYC Councilmember Jumaane Williams (who led the legislative fight against “stop and frisk”), former NAACP leader Ben Jealous, and intellectuals like Michelle Alexander, who is probably the most significant intellectual influence on millennial activists, both white and black. And from the start, the post-Sanders formation must take up issues that are immediately relevant to constituencies of color—police accountability, stopping the attack on Voting Rights, or comprehensive immigration reform, to suggest just a few examples.

3 The new movement should mobilize around a limited agenda that takes on issues of economic and racial exploitation on the one hand, and the reclamation of our democracy on the other.

Such an agenda should be clearly understood as an effort to hold the new President and elected Democrats at every level accountable to the yearnings of tens of millions of Americans for racial and economic justice. This issue mobilization must begin—starting at the Democratic National Convention—by uniting forces both inside and outside the Sanders campaign to kill the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (TPP) once and for all. This is not only the right policy, but critically important for the electoral success of the Democratic Party. So called “free trade” embodies the deep contradiction between the neoliberal bankers and technocrats, on the one side, who have dominated Democratic Party economic policy-making since the Clinton Administration, and its traditional working class base, on the other. It is also now the Party’s most vulnerable Achilles heel with white working class voters, whose sense of betrayal and economic hopelessness drive Trump’s right-wing, nationalistic populism and reduce Clinton’s support among these voters to abysmally low levels. Sanders has already pushed Clinton to rhetorical opposition to the TPP; in the run up to the convention, Sanders and Clinton should work together to extract a promise from Obama that the treaty will not be taken up in the lame duck session.

In 2009, rather than mount mass mobilizations that would have invested Obama’s “hope and change” with real progressive content, labor substituted visits to the White House for street heat. The test of the post-Sanders movement will come in 2017, when it will face the challenge of pushing Clinton to the left and charting a new political agenda for the Democratic Party. It is not hard to imagine a short list of issues around which a new left could organize. A national campaign for a Wall Street Speculation Tax to fund free public higher education or investment in tens of millions of infrastructure jobs would extend the challenge to Wall Street power that lies at the heart of Sanders’ narrative. Communities of color could be galvanized by a national campaign to restore Article 5 of the Voting Rights Act, echoing and broadening Sanders’ demand for a renewed political democracy.

And at the local level, let’s mount state-based campaigns for the public financing of elections of District Attorneys—the elected officials who are at the heart of the pitched debate about the unfairness of the criminal justice system. Such a campaign might have huge appeal to grassroots movements like Black Lives Matter. The details of the issue agenda should be vigorously debated, and I claim no monopoly on the correct answer. What is critical is trying to bring together the organizations and constituencies which supported Sanders, along with those who didn’t but also seek a leftward shift in the American political discourse, around a limited set of campaigns that can build on the gains of 2016.  By going on the offensive—and thereby defusing a likely Right-Wing counteroffensive to set the terms of debate in 2017—a broad progressive formation can redefine the national agenda around issues of race and class inequity and inaugurate a new era of progressive reform.

4 Launch a massive program of grassroots political and economic education.

In the waning decades of the 19th century, the Populist movement deployed a small army of “lecturers” who traveled across the Plains talking to farmers about issues of debt, credit, monetary policy and the power of Wall Street over their lives. This popular education helped build the mass base for a reform agenda that ultimately culminated in the sweeping changes of the New Deal. Our movement requires a similar commitment to mass popular education.

In recent years, a number of organizations have experimented with various grassroots popular education programs: Minnesotans for a Fair Economy, various affiliates of People’s Action, and my own union, the Communications Workers of America, are good examples. In the CWA, we have worked with author and activist Les Leopold to develop a participatory curriculum that explains the hyperfinancialization of the neoliberal era, and explores how those developments intersect with institutional racism. Relying on the “small group activity method,” the union has trained 60 rank and file activists—including some from allied groups like NY Citizen Action and Make the Road New York—to lead these workshops. The anti-Wall Street curriculum complements two-day Boot Camps led by the union’s national political department, which aim to develop politically aware activists at the grassroots level across the country. In Minnesota, the vibrant Fair Economy coalition has used popular education techniques to reveal the institutional connections binding together the Twin Cities ruling class. These simple exercises—using networks of string to illustrate these links—can be conducted with literally thousands of activists at a time. This program has helped activists from multiple organizations and struggles to unite in significant challenges to the city’s major power brokers.

One major initiative of any post-Sanders formation should be the convening of groups that are engaged in, or interested in, creating these programs of mass popular education. Curricula and teaching methods can be shared and debated. Funding from unions and foundations for such an effort should be sought. Historically, this kind of education was a function of the parties of the Left. In their absence, other forces will have to assume responsibility.

5 An openly socialist current should be built within the new movement.

Senator Sanders’ refusal to retreat from his identification with democratic socialism certainly ranks as one of the most remarkable features of the campaign. To those of us who can remember “Commie” as a schoolyard epithet and “duck and cover” air raid drills, let alone labor’s bitter internecine battles over U.S. imperial misadventures in Vietnam and Central America, Sanders’ open embrace of socialism and the absence of “red-baiting” in the campaign has been almost beyond imagination.

The grassroots organization which appears to have experienced the greatest membership growth as a direct result of the Sanders campaign has been the Democratic Socialists of America, which traces its roots to the breakup of the old Socialist Party in the 1970s and is the largest remaining socialist organization in the country. In his account of the decline of American resistance to organized wealth and power in the “second Gilded Age,” The Age of Acquiescence, Steve Fraser argues that “the capacity to envision something generically new, however improbable, has always supplied the intellectual, emotional and political energy that made an advance in civilized life, no matter how truncated, possible.” In this telling, the reforms of the New Deal were driven by the utopian dreams of millions of Americans who believed capitalism must be transcended, and would have been impossible absent the presence of a “multi-faceted and long-lived culture of resistance that was not afraid to venture onto new terrain, to question the given.”[5]

In this new moment, while progressive unions and their allies fight for a “21st Century Glass-Steagall Act,” socialists would demand nationalization of banks. While more mainstream progressives call for a Wall Street Sales Tax, socialists might demand a maximum wage or a wealth tax. More mainstream activists will demand debt-free college education, while socialists would demand free tuition and free mass transit. Whether socialism exists today as a practical alternative form of social organization, or simply as a compelling moral critique of a racialized, financialized capitalism that is leading us to climate disaster, the revival of the idea of socialism facilitates the imagination of radical alternatives to the status quo. For the resuscitation of that hope, we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Bernie Sanders.

6 The “political revolution” must be driven down to the level of school boards, city councils, county legislatures, state government, and Congress.

The goal is not to take over the Democratic Party, but to build an infrastructure—an independent political party—comprised of activists and elected officials, both inside and outside the Democratic Party, which can carry the agenda of the Sanders campaign forward. For the last two decades, the Working Families Party, now operating in 11 states, has worked to build the political capacity to challenge corporate, right-wing Democrats, and to help defeat right-wing Republicans in general elections. Operating as a coalition of unions, community organizations and independent progressives, a model which can leverage substantial resources, the Working Families Party has had its greatest success at the state and local level. The Party’s endorsement of Sanders was its first such national endorsement, and created some tension with several of its labor affiliates, most of which had endorsed Clinton. Nevertheless, the WFP’s political and ideological agenda is tightly aligned with that of Sanders; in a sense, Sanders is the national candidate who embodies the Party’s foundational aspirations.

 

The WFP is not entirely unique. The Maine People’s Alliance, California Calls, Take Action Minnesota, the Richmond, CA Progressive Alliance, similarly pursue an ideologically driven electoral agenda in their respective communities. No one expects the Sanders campaign to morph into the Working Families Party at the state and local level. But the critical races that determine progressive power at the state or local level are fought out far from the glare of the media attention that accompanies a presidential campaign; the euphoria of the 25,000 person rally and the superstar candidate give way to the unglamorous realities of knocking on doors, raising money, and soliciting endorsements. In the long run, something like the Working Families Party, if not new branches of the party itself, will have to be created in localities and states across the country to conduct the hard work of electing progressives, running winning issue campaigns, and then electing more progressives based on that issue success.

Conclusion

Forecasting historical opportunities is a risky business. But taking the long view, it is arguable that the Sanders campaign signifies a critical political crossroads. The 40-year neoliberal ascendancy imploded in the financial meltdown of 2008. An unprecedented level of mass rejection of the political establishment expressed itself in the populist revolts which roiled both major parties in the 2016 primary season. Elites and their policy prescriptions confront a sweeping crisis of legitimacy.

Movements, Frances Fox Piven, has argued, do not move in straight lines. They ebb and flow, sputter and erupt, unpredictably. Five years on, we continue to live in the Occupy moment, and the breadth of Sanders’ appeal reveals that anger at the economic and political status quo seethes like a lava flow across the landscape. Until now, with the notable exceptions of the Fight for $15 and the intense mobilization against the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, labor has contributed relatively little to stoking the flames of insurgency. But it is out of precisely such moments that workers’ revolts acquire the force and legitimacy that enable new movements to be built. It is impossible to predict what lies ahead, but a withering labor movement must seize whatever opportunities now present themselves, thanks to Senator Bernie Sanders.

[1] Max Ehrenfreund, Washington Post, “Bernie Sanders is profoundly changing how millennials think about politics,” April 25, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/04/25/bernie-sanders-is-profoundly-changing-how-millennials-think-about-politics-poll-shows/

[2] Michelle Alexander, interviewed on “All in with Chris Hayes,” April 1, 2016, http://www.msnbc.com/all-in/watch/extended-interview-with-michelle-alexander-657082435530.

[3] Nelson Lichtenstein, State of the Union—A Century of American Labor, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 43.

[4] Steve Fraser, The Age of Acquiescence, (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2015), p. 201.

[5]Steve Fraser, The Age of Acquiescence, pp. 411, 419.

http://newlaborforum.cuny.edu/2016/06/12/bernie-sanders-labor-ideology-american-politics/

 

 

Bernie’s campaign: where do we go from here?

Bernie’s campaign aftermath

With Donald Trump having effectively secured the Republican Party’s designation as its Presidential candidate, and Hillary Clinton almost certainly having done likewise for the Democratic Party, the question before Progressives is clearly, where do we go from here. For those who share almost all of the positions so effectively promoted by Bernie Sanders, as I do, the challenge before us is how best to promote them during the forthcoming Presidential campaign and beyond.

It has been clear from the outset, that the political revolution that Sanders has called for could not have been carried out solely by his election, however much that might have been desired — and however much it might have further stimulated such an undertaking. Any such radical change would certainly require the effective mobilization of masses of people. Bernie certainly knows that, and has said it quite explicitly. It might even be the case, that his election — given that he would have become the obvious direct target of the numerous powerful forces that would inevitably have amassed to oppose him — would have impeded the efforts to build the mass movement for systemic social change for which he called, and which we desperately need. Certainly, major efforts would have been required to defend his administration from the full-scaled attack of which they certainly would have been the object. And, quite probably, we would have been far from having built the effective national mass movement that such a counter effort would require. But that is speculation.

The reality is that Bernie has changed the political dialogue, and his candidacy has mobilized a national progressive constituency as never before. The challenge for progressives is now to build that mobilized constituency into a well-organized and coherent progressive force that can effectively contest for power over the long haul — at the local, state, and national level. It must be a movement that works in and through the Democratic Party, as well as outside and independent of the Party. There can be no adequate progressive movement that does not begin to obtain leverage within the official structures of institutional power. Given the American electoral system, go-it-alone third parties simply divide and incapacitate the progressive movement. This is a lesson that should now be obvious to all — as the past Naderite efforts and the unfortunate strategy of the Green Party have made abundantly clear. On the other hand, the WFP has shown how to use a third party to effectively leverage its influence, working independently in states that allow fusion voting, and as a coherent force within the Democratic Party where that is required.

The challenge for us now is to build that movement, supporting Clinton’s campaign to defeat Trump and the Republican crazies (and where are Republicans that are not crazies these days?), while holding her feet to the fire, as she certainly cannot be trusted not to “triangulate”, corporate liberal that she certainly is. But the occasion will be perfect to build that progressive movement, supporting the many progressive down-ballot candidates that can strengthen this growing movement, while building the public consciousness and organizational power to drive a new Clinton Administration and the public dialogue continually to the left. The details of such a movement building operation has been beautifully set forth by Les Leopold, and I conclude this post by sharing his article with you.

“If Bernie captures the nomination, then what does his “political revolution” look like? Arguably, whether he wins or loses the nomination, our task will be roughly the same.

We will need to build a massive national organization with staying power to push for a broad-based agenda for justice — along the lines of the platform Sanders is spreading so successfully. We can’t let this golden political moment slip away….again.

Occupy Wall Street gave us a similar moment. In six short months it grew to 900 encampments around the world. It changed the national discourse. Before OWS, President Obama was proudly pursuing a bi-partisan austerity bill — a “grand bargain” that would have included cuts in Social Security. After Occupy Wall Street put runaway inequality on the map, the national debate radically shifted… and it’s still shifting in the direction of taking on the “billionaire class” as Bernie puts it.

But Occupy Wall Street essentially disappeared within six months. What can we learn from its demise?

The standard line is that repression from city governments took them down. But while police actions did take place, OWS faded primarily because it didn’t believe in organization. Rather it called for “horizontal” organizing and mass consensus decision-making that supposedly would avoid the pitfalls of oppressive hierarchical organization. .

This was akin to believing in spontaneous political combustion — much like the Arab Spring. While such spontaneous uprisings can change discourse in profound ways and even topple governments in some countries, they can’t survive without organization. (It was the well organized Muslim Brotherhood that harvested the fruits of Egypt’s mass uprising, and now the Egyptian military has taken over with a vengeance .)

The problem however goes far beyond Occupy Wall Street. The rest of us were asleep at the switch. OWS showed us that the American people detested runaway inequality and Wall Street’s financial strip-mining of the economy. As the Tea Party demonstrated on the right, the moment was ripe to build a national progressive movement. But we didn’t do it. Why?

The answer in large part lies in how our generation of progressive organizations are structured. We are entangled in thousands of issue-based silos, each struggling to raise money, survive and do good work. Although the talent level of staff is enormously high, when the 2007-08 crash occurred, our silos were totally unprepared. We did not reach out to each other to build a massive national response, even as the national piggy bank was donated to Wall Street bailouts.

That kind of action just wasn’t on the to-do list of our siloed organizations. That’s not what most of our funders were funding. We refused to realize that progress on our siloed issues was doomed unless we banned together to take on Wall Street. Many of us today still don’t get it.

Bernie does.

He offers us another critical moment to build a lasting movement for economic and social justice. His campaign has hit the same raw nerve as Occupy Wall Street —- except on steroids.

There is great national sentiment to break up the big banks, to tax Wall Street to pay for free higher education, to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, to stop the billionaire tax evaders. Sanders has put a social democratic agenda on the political map in full relief.

But as Sanders knows full well, none of it is attainable unless we apply massive, sustained political pressure on every aspect of government. And this is the case whether he wins or loses. It’s on us, not him, to build that movement and those structures.

Here are some of the basic features that we need to consider:

  1. A coherent short agenda and common analysis that binds us together:

Sanders is field testing a common agenda each and every day. We know it must include a vast redistribution of income and wealth from the “billionaire class” to the rest of society. It also must confront the fact that we’re the largest police state in the world, bar none.

We need to get all of it down to no more than a 10-point plan that clearly reflects the anger we feel towards the super-rich, the rigged political system, and systemic racial and ethnic injustices. The trick will be to blend a mix of class and discrimination issues without ripping ourselves apart.

We need a common analysis of how financial strip-mining and runaway inequality are harming the 99 percent.

  1. A national educational infrastructure to spread the agenda and analysis:

The populists of the 1880s during their anti-Wall Street revolt fielded 6,000 grass roots educations to spread the word about the need for cooperatives, public banks, progressive income taxes and popular control over railroads and communications systems.

Given the growth of our population, we will need to develop more than 30,000 educators to spread our message and agenda. Yes, social media can facilitate the process but nothing beats live discussion of these vital issues.

The Communications Workers of America and Citizen Action of New York already have launched such mass economic and social justice training. It could become a model for other unions and community groups to use.

  1. A coherent national organization with state and local chapters:

All of us need to belong to something with a common identity —that concretely expresses our movement. Our opponents are strong. A demonstration or two will not remove their iron grip on the economy and the political process. We need to prepare for a ten to twenty year struggle in order to break down their plutocracy. Therefore we need solid organizational structures that can sustain themselves.

We should be able to travel anywhere in the country and join in a local meeting of our new organization and engage in common debate, discussion and political activity.

Building such a structure takes people and money. The Sanders campaign will have a surplus of both. Either in victory or defeat, it will amass millions of small donors and tens of thousands of volunteers and staff who are likely to be willing to build, join and contribute to such a formation.

  1. A new movement identity:

This is perhaps the highest hurdle for us to clear. We need to see ourselves as movement builders. We must make our silos more porous. Our identities as enviros, racial justice fighters, labor activists and so on also must include a common movement building identity. Our traditional approach to coalition and alliance building is unlikely to succeed unless we place a much higher value on building a new common movement identity.

None of this will come easy. It cuts hard against the grain of how progressives are organized. Our separate identities give us nourishment and a sense of empowerment. It’s also not something our “funders” are likely to embrace because they too have their silos. It will disrupt our to-do lists and put us into strange new organizing space. And there are likely to be rivalries among organizations and individuals who may vie for leadership.

This is tough stuff. Is it possible to imagine that climate justice, Black Lives Matter, the fight for a $15 minimum wage, prison reform, and union organizing could all come together in a common movement? Not easily. But runaway inequality will stifle all of these movements unless we do band together. The elite plutocracy gives us no choice but to try.

Of course, this kind of mass organizing becomes somewhat easier if Sanders is elected. However, win or lose, it is the challenge of our lifetimes — it is the promise of the Sanders political revolution.

Les Leopold is currently working with unions and community organizations to build the educational infrastructure of a new anti-Wall Street movement. His new book Runaway Inequality: An Activist’s Guide to Economic Justice (Oct 2015) is a text for this campaign. All proceeds go to support these educational efforts.”

America Today: in Mythology and Fact

America Today: in Mythology and Fact

America has been engaged in a deeply rooted cultural-political Cold War that has been more or less simmering for decades. But it has been brought to the surface in a way that has come to effectively dominate the current political campaigns by the confluence of two additional factors. These are what I call, 1) the closing of the international frontier, and 2) the consequent squeeze on the capacity of neo-Liberal political economy to continue to provide for even a modicum of economic growth for middle America. For the purposes of this post, I will be far too brief. But let me outline the structure of this argument, to which I have already referred in some prior posts.

1) Stage One, brilliantly developed by Colin Woodard in his “American Nations”, concerns the ethno-national regional structure of America’s pattern of settlement. That has created in effect two fairly distinct moral-political coalitions whose values and world views are almost polar opposites. They can not even agree on a set of common facts, or impartial criteria to evaluate arguments. And with the proliferation of modern media outlets, it is as if each coalition lives in its own self-contained world. This ethno-national and regional polarization has even been augmented by what social scientists refer to as the “big sort,” as people tend to relocate to areas inhabited by like-minded residents.

To vastly over simplify, drawing directly on Woodard’s analysis, we have the Deep South led coalition that basically includes Appalachia and the Far West, confronting New England, New York, and the West Coast, fighting over their ability to gain the support of the Hispanics, expanding from the Southwest, and the people of what one might refer to as the Midwest. (The development and migration patterns of African-American communities — as well as of Hispanic communities — has, of course, greatly complicated this simplified picture.) It is important to realize that these opposed coalitions tend to have quite opposed conceptions of the nature of government, the community, the individual, business, the market, religion, the family, the role of women, and of course, race. Clearly, each of these issues could be the basis of a volume on its own. But enuf said of this for the present.
2) These conflicting moral, political, religious, and racial orientations are increasingly impacted by, and having to come to terms with, what I am calling the closing of the international frontier of American expansion. As I have developed this point in my chapter on “The American Enterprise,” Chapter 8 of my “Critique of Western Philosophy and Social Theory,” growth has been the mantra of American development. First across the great North American continent. And when that expanding frontier closed in the late 19th Century, the United States started building its international empire. Throughout the middle of the 20th Century it more or less could set the terms of its economic and military hegemony.

That capacity for relatively unconstrained economic growth, which fueled the significant enhancement of the material quality of life of most Americans, even if far from equitably, has increasingly had to confront growing limitations coming from: the Cold War, the emergence of the Third World, the development of economic counterweights first from Japan, then from China, India, Russia, Brazil, South Africa, South America, and the European Union. And, more subtly, and pervasively, having so reluctantly to deal with the increasing constraints on previously more or less unconstrained economic growth which is the meaning of the ecological crises. All of these have increasingly squeezed the economic capacity of the United States to more or less grow at will, and use that growth to “buy off” the support of the American people.
3) This leads to final dimension of this triangular confrontation; the challenge of, and to, American “free enterprise”, neo-Liberal capitalism. Here, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s brilliant book, “Winner-Take-All Politics,” nails the political offensive of the ruling capitalist elites beginning in the 1970s to the squeeze placed on their capacity for relatively unconstrained economic growth. (Though the authors focus is primarily on what they see as a corporate counter-offensive to the politics of the Great Society and the counter cultural movements of the 60s, I think we need to place all of that within the wider historical context suggested by my previous remarks.) Two examples of that historical squeeze, for example, that the authors do not mention is the oil embargoes and consequent gas lines of the early 70s, plus the action of Richard Nixon to end the dollar’s convertibility with gold that took place in 1971.

But the point is well documented by the authors as to the institution of a sophisticated political offensive, mobilizing the corporate community. Initially working primarily through the Republican Party, and increasingly co-opting the Democratic Party, the corporate world has been able to create a public consensus against government and in support of privatization, deregulation, tax cuts for “the job creators,” on behalf of the “Free Market” and “Free Trade,” and thus they have been able to re-write the rules of the political and economic game in such a way as to vastly expand their power and wealth, at the expanse of the vast majority of Americans. Thus they have been able to garner the vast majority of whatever benefits from the narrowing space for US economic growth remains possible, while squeezing middle America. And that squeeze is hurting more and more. And more and more people are no longer trusting the elites that have been selling them their neo-Liberal snake oil — however confused most Americans are about what has been happening to them, and who and what are to blame.
But one thing is certain. Americans have not yet even begun to have a public conversation about these fundamental changes in our historical situation, and what we can and should do about it. We continue to act as if it’s politics (and economics) as usual. And that cannot last. But this political campaign is the first in which this squeeze has begun to fundamentally challenge the control of the Neo-Liberal elite.

Why progressives should be pleased by the current campaign

Why progressives should be pleased by the current campaign

Given the completely unpredictable nature of the current political campaign, it is probably somewhat of a fool’s errand to offer the following comment, but I’ll offer it nonetheless. Yesterday’s primary results make it almost certain that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic Presidential candidate, and that if Donald Trump does not obtain the Republican designation — either on the first ballot, or through the results of a “brokered convention” vote — there will be some not so mild confrontations within that Party. If he does obtain the designation, there may be some significant Republican defections, though I rather suspect less than expected. Having said that, from the perspective of one who shares practically all of the views expressed by Bernie Sanders — and thus, obviously, would love to see him elected President — I believe the current primary results are the best that progressives like myself could hope for. Let me briefly suggest why, knowing that there is much more that needs to be said on these matters.

  • I sincerely doubt that Bernie could have been elected. I know that current polls say differently, but I think they completely fail to take into consideration the kind of withering attack that he would face not only from Republicans, but from the mega-rich and the media, both from the mainstream and from the Radical Right of Talk Radio.
  • Bernie’s campaign has laid the groundwork for the mobilization of the kind of revolution that he has called for. That is not something that can be done overnight, but will take time and expanded organizing. He has given public “main stream” political legitimacy to the ideas of Occupy — which they were incapable, and even uninterested, in doing. And he has mobilized vast numbers of previously “silent” — particularly youthful — citizens that can now, hopefully, be brought into the on-going progressive network of organizations such as MoveOn, US Action, National People’s Action, the Alliance for a Just Society, the Citizen Action network, the Working Families Party, Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club, etc. These offer the opportunity to move the Democratic Party — and the country — in a far more progressive direction.
  • Bernie’s campaign has already moved the Democratic Party, and its presumptive nominee, to the Left. Clearly, one cannot expect her to stay there without sustained pressure from this newly mobilized Left — given her past history and the Obama Administration’s neo-Liberal policies — but the groundwork and mobilization to do that is now possible.
  • Trump’s garnering the Republican nomination offers both the weakest possible opponent to a Democratic victory, and one whom I believe is surprisingly less dangerous than would be a Cruz, Rubio, or Kasich election. (No doubt that last remark calls for an explanation which I cannot provide here. Simply let me assert that, terrible as he obviously is, he is less beholden to and captured by the full neo-Liberal program of the Republican Establishment. But that discussion will have to be postponed for the present.) Thus,
  • Hillary’s election is the more likely. And, with all her liabilities (see a few comments on this below), she will be presenting a reasonable corporate liberal agenda, including probably a few new Supreme Court justices. And hopefully, contributing to the election of a Democratic Senate with an enhanced progressive majority, plus a reasonable increase in Democratic representation in the House. But
  • The major work will still be to build the national progressive movement state-by-state, while maintaining pressure on a Hillary administration. And if the Republican convention degenerates into a political brawl, so much the better for discrediting the Radical Right, and weakening its hold on that Party.
  • Having said all this, progressives, whatever their proclivities, will have to actively support Hillary’s campaign, whatever their misgivings, while building on Bernie’s momentum. This is certainly NOT the best of all worlds, but it’s the one we live in, and we must make our choices as effective as possible. There will be only two significant alternatives before us, and no outcome is foreordained, especially in a country in which either Party begins any national election probably with more than 40% of the electorate committed in advance to vote for their candidate. And the possible election of a Republican is not something to take lightly.

As for a suggestive comment on the campaign so far, and an evaluation of the politics of Clinton and Obama, let me share my personal abridgment of insightful comments offered by Bill Curry, former White House counselor to President Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut. These were offered immediately after Bernie’s remarkable victory in Michigan. He then wrote, and I excerpt with a few important personal modifications for which he is MIT responsible:

“You wouldn’t know it from watching TV last night or reading the national papers this morning but Bernie Sanders’ Michigan win ranks among the greatest upsets in presidential primary history. Should he win the nomination it will be go down as the biggest upset of any kind in American political history. If he wins the election it will change the fundamental direction of the nation and the world.

Some key lessons, obvious to everyone but the media:

  1. The old politics is over. The fault lines of the new politics are not cultural issues like guns, abortion and same-sex marriage that divide the Democratic and Republican bases. They are issues of political reform and economic justice that divide both party’s elites from both parties’ bases, and the American people from their government. On these issues we find the elites of both parties shockingly alike. Among them: global trade; financial deregulation and prosecution of financial crimes; (attacks on) the social safety net including Social Security, Medicare, a living wage and health care for all; above all, (being quite comfortable with) the “soft corruption” of pay to play politics.

There’s a name for the bipartisan consensus of party elites: neoliberalism. It is an inconvenient name for many reasons but mostly because it seems odd that the worldview of the Republican elite would be an ideology with the root word ‘liberal’ in its name but it is true, nonetheless. and may even shed a little light on the open, bitter breach between GOP elites and the party base. Democrats stayed loyal longer to their elites for two reasons. One is their love of two very talented politicians, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, whose charm and verbal dexterity masked deep differences with the base. The other is their fear of Republicans.

I often talk to Democrats who don’t know Obama chose not to raise the minimum wage as president even though he had the votes for it; that he was willing to cut Medicare and Social Security and chose not to prosecute Wall Street crimes or pursue ethics reforms in government. They don’t know he dropped the public option or the aid he promised homeowners victimized by mortgage lenders. They don’t know and don’t want to know. Their affection for Bill and Barack — and their fear of Republicans — run too deep.

  1. Hillary Clinton has neither their deft personal touch nor protean verbal skills. When she tries to distract the base or paper over its differences with elites, voters see through her, even if, in their hearts, they don’t want to. In Michigan she tried to smear Sanders as a foe of the auto bailout. Before that she sent Chelsea and Bill out to say Bernie would kill Medicare. Each time she ended up only hurting herself. She has tried to co-opt Sanders’ positions on global trade, climate change, military adventurism, a living wage and universal health care.

It’s always too little, too late. Voters sense she’s just moving pawns on a chess board in part because she can never explain her change of heart and often doesn’t even try. She switched horses on global trade in a blog post, on the Keystone pipeline at a grammar school event. In a recent debate she left fracking to the GOP governors who covered themselves in glory on Obamacare, as if it were a states’ rights issue. With her Super PAC (and hers and Bill’s breathtaking haul of $153 million in mostly corporate speaking fees), she is the living avatar of pay to play politics. She shouldn’t be the Democratic nominee for president because she doesn’t even know it’s wrong.

She remains woefully out of touch with the public mood in other ways. This week she began telling voters she and Bernie were pals and that it was time to wrap up their little primary so she could focus on the Republicans. As anyone outside her tone deaf campaign could have told her, she came off as entitled, presumptuous and condescending. The voters aren’t done deciding yet. When they are, they’ll let the candidates know. When party and press elites parroted her line, it had the same effect on Democrats as Mitt’s anti-Trump speech had on Republicans.

  1. The performance of the press has been abysmal. Watching CNN and MSNBC last night was painful, as was reading the Washington Post or the New York Times this morning. The TV coverage was of a piece with all other 2016 election coverage. Last night FOX, CNN and MSNBC kept cameras glued on Trump for 40 minutes as he delivered a bizarre, rambling rant in which he talked about himself, his opponents and some steaks he was either selling or giving away.

As Bernie made history, CNN kept sending poor John King to its political trivia JumboTron to relate what various Michigan counties did in primaries or caucuses eight or 20 years ago. An MSNBC panel consisting of Brian Williams, Rachel Maddow, Gene Robinson, Lawrence O’Donnell and Chuck Todd dove right into a discussion of who Hillary might choose as her running mate; an actual progressive perhaps, given Bernie’s little showing in Michigan. … The hour ended with Maddow summarizing the state of play this way: “The frontrunners had a good night.” This morning the Times led the story this way: “Senator Bernie Sanders’s defeat of Hillary Clinton prolongs a race she seemed to have locked up, although she won Mississippi handily.” He sure did.

Clinton has been helped in her quest by her party, by big business, and by top-down endorsements from progressive lobbies many of which broke members’ hearts to deliver them. But no one’s helped her more than the media. I know full well this hasn’t always been true for the Clintons and I also know not all the help is intentional. But the media helps her in several ways.

One way it helps is just by sharing her ideology. This is especially true of younger journalists at establishment venues like the Times and NBC or at web sites like Vox. These are mostly very bright people who see the world as Hillary does. (I’d call it neoliberalism 2.0 but it’s just like the Beta version.) They are Democrats first for cultural issues. They identify with elites, even know a few power couples and view the current corrupt rules of the game as laws of nature. It’s one reason why not one of them saw any of this coming.

But it’s not the only reason. Their employers put horse-race journalism ahead of all else, so nothing ever gets illuminated — not Trump’s business resume or Hillary’s or Bernie’s political resumes, or their very real policy differences. When Hillary sweeps vital differences under the rug to be replaced with stale tactical arguments, the reporters are perfect patsies — because all they know are tactics.

In the end, thinking only tactically makes you a bad tactician. When revolution’s in the air polls, money and ads mean far less. Reporters who know nothing else can’t conceive how voters choosing among a democratic socialist, a pay-to-play politician and a fascist might pick door number one. They bought Hillary’s myth of inevitability, ….”

Hillary’s Defense of Wall Street Contributions is Backwards.

Why Hillary’s Defense of Wall Street Contributions is Backwards.

When Bernie Sanders challenges Hillary Clinton about her astronomical speaking fees from Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street financial interests, she responds by challenging him to name one specific vote that she changed because of receiving money from Wall Street. To which he responds by reiterating, correctly, of course — but slightly besides the point — that corporations and wealthy people don’t give such contributions out of personal generosity, but because they expect to get something for it. Which is obvious.

But the entire issue is framed backwards by Hillary, for obvious reasons. It’s not that Hillary Clinton changed votes because she received large corporate contributions from Wall Street, it’s that she received those contributions because Wall Street already knows they can count on her votes. They know that she is a corporate Liberal who fundamentally shares their economic and political world view. Thus they know they can count on her continuing support, and wish to reward and encourage her actions, and provide her with the wherewithal to carry on. That is why she was so enthusiastic in her support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership while serving as Secretary of State, why she did not take a position against Fast Track early on in the campaign, when she did not feel she had to worry about Bernie Sanders’ primary challenge, and why her late found opposition to TPP has been mild, with no commitment to stop it if she gets elected — as Bernie Sanders has promised to do.

But Bernie has seemed to be unwilling to make this obvious point about her being a corporate Liberal — forcing her to make that promise of rejecting TPP if elected — because this would force him to criticize Obama as the corporate Liberal that he is. And Bernie obviously feels that he needs to downplay his opposition to Obama’s economics, perhaps because of his fear that that would alienate large sections of the Black vote, and possibly, of the Democratic base. And thus when Hillary responds to his challenge on her taking large Wall Street donations with noting that Obama did likewise, Bernie is left on the defensive, and his responses are weak.

Bernie would be on more solid ground, and true to his beliefs and proposals, if he would recognize that Obama is a corporate Liberal. That’s why Obama chose the economic advisors he did, why no corporate executives went to jail for ripping off the economy, why the Tea Party and the Left is justly outraged by the bailout of Wall Street and the failure to protect homeowners from foreclosures, why neither Clinton nor Obama want to talk about breaking up the big banks, why they have no major policies that would really address the increasing growth of income inequality, and why Obama is doing everything in his power to push through the corporate-designed TPP, against the opposition of the majority of the Democratic Party — which is, in this case, supported by the Tea Party!!

Bernie Sanders is correct in his claim that only a “political revolution” can significantly change the politics of this country, putting Main Street in power instead of Wall Street — however dubious such a revolution may be. And that Hillary Clinton — however much vastly to be preferred to any of the (corporately-controlled) Republican alternatives — is a corporate Liberal who would truly constitute continuity with Obama’s economic and political Wall Street-friendly agenda. We could do far worse. We may do far worse. But we need to do far better if we are to counter the growth of American oligarchic power, revitalize and preserve American democratic traditions, and effectively address the long-term structural threats to representative government.