November 2, 2010


Sam Smith

In the six decades between 1933 and 1994 there were only two sessions of Congress that started with a Democratic minority in the House of Representatives. In the roughly two decades between Bill Clinton's and Obama's first mid term elections, there have been seven. Both the peaks and valleys of the Democratic status in the House have been declining since 1964.

During this period, the character and politics of the Democratic Party - including its liberal wing - dramatically changed for the worse. Essentially the Democrats began singing little but covers of the GOP platform and, not surprisingly, voters - given this crummy choice - often went with the real thing.

It is well past time to recognize that this strategy of the Vichy Democrats and their indentured liberals has been an irrefutable failure. But this recognition won't come from the party itself, which has hopelessly sold itself out to corporate and other nefarious interests. It will have to come from new movements, new rebellions, new parties, and new soul. It won't come from unreformed liberals who see themselves primarily as a cultural demographic superior to much of America, but from progressive populists who both see themselves as a part of greater America and are willing to fight on its behalf.

Here are a few ways to get things going again:

- Nothing could more quickly and more dramatically change the nature of American politics than a visible and effective black-latino coalition. Representing approximately a quarter of the country, such a coalition - one that emphasizes its consensus on issues rather than fighting over areas of disagreement - could make a huge difference.

- Economic issues must be placed at the top of the list and solutions should be direct and easy to understand.

- Pick no more than a half dozen easily understood issues and fly them at the top of the pole. The right has been doing this for years - .e.g gay marriage and abortion - but the Democrats haven't seemed to notice. Key standard: pick programs that do the most for the most.

- Revive the labor movement. As demonstrated by the war on public schools and their teachers, Democrats - including liberals - have turned their backs on unions (except when they need them at election time). How often do you hear Democratic politicians pointing out facts about union workers such as

- Union workers earn 30% more than non union workers

- 80% of union workers have employer-provided health insurance while only 49% of non union workers do.

- 68% of union workers have defined benefit pensions while only 14% of non-union do

- Grow non-union affiliates of the labor movement such as Working America. WA currently has only about three million members but it could be much more if the labor movement took it seriously. The idea would be to have the equivalent of the AARP for non-unionized workers, both as a labor lobby and as a source of mutual benefits - insurance, discounts etc. And then when you get ready to unionize something, you already have the names and addresses of the troops.

- Stop trying to change people by scolding them. For example, Erik Assadourian recently wrote, "According to a study by Princeton ecologist Stephen Pacala, the world's richest 500 million people (roughly 7 percent of the world's population) are currently responsible for 50 percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions, while the poorest 3 billion are responsible for just 6 percent." In other words, if the bottom 90 percent of the world's population were to cut their emissions by fifty percent, it would only reduce the overall effect by 3%. Yet the ecology movement acts as though our problems are heavily the fault of ordinary people and this has helped to build resistance to solutions. The effort needs to be retargeted better at the wealthiest and most powerful.

- Build an anti-war movement that emphasizes how the military funds could be better used and ending the abuse of troops through repetitive assignments to failing battlefields.

- Design programs to run at the lowest practical level. There is no evidence that Washington runs everything best, and plenty of evidence that Democrats have been harmed politically for believing this. Every federal program should make governors and mayors look and feel good. A recent poll found that 43% of U.S. voters rate the performance of their local government as tops compared to its counterparts on the state and federal level. Nineteen percent said state government is better than the other two, leaving just 14% who think the federal government does a better job.

- Stop complaining about guns. It doesn't save any lives but it sure does cost a lot of votes.

- Stand up for individual rights in all respects. The liberal silence in the face of government and corporate abuse of these rights has left people without an effective political voice.

- Pursue issues over candidates. The iconification of politics doesn't work because the whole party becomes hostage to the behavior of its leaders. Further, worthy goals don't misbehave like individual politicians.

- Help small business. Nobody else does.

- Restore our rail system to where it was, say, in 1880. Put more emphasis on the miles of service rather than on the speed of trains.

- Using a consensus approach, work with an array of other groups - within a community or general political viewpoint - to come up with programs that have broad support. Two basic rules: Only discuss issues on which there might be some common agreement and reach that agreement by consensus. Here's an example of how this can work. Other models include the New England town meeting, the Quaker business meeting.

- Use this same approach within the non-political community as well, including groups such as churches, business organizations and non-profits, in order to establish standards for politicians. Even if the Supreme Court permits corporate contributions, such community assemblies could decide, for example, that local politicians could not accept more than a certain amount from corporations in order to display the assembly seal of approval. If the assemblies were sufficiently cross-cultural and cross-political, it could have at some of the effect of a law.

- Give full support and attention to efforts to amend the Constitution to prohibit corporation interference in our politics.

- Work for public campaign financing

- Push for instant runoff voting and laws that permit fusion politics, i.e. candidates able to run on two or more party lines. Fusion politics played a key role in building the strength of the Populist movement. It was so successful that the Republicans and Democrats managed to put an end to it in all but eight states.

- Launch campaigns for a variety of progressive constitutional amendments such as one to elect the attorney general or change the way votes are allocated in the Senate so that 20 states with a collective population less than California don't have 40 votes while the largest state only has two.

- Organize people in real time, not just on the web. Think of the Internet as a tool but go out and organize with real people in real places. For models, read about the Student Non violent Coordinating Committee, Poland's Solidarity movement, and Students for A Democratic Society.

- Create places where good things can happen. In our own history, there are innumerable examples of change owing a debt to the simple serendipity of people of like values and sensibilities coming together. For example, the rise of Irish political power in this country was aided considerably by the Irish bar's role as an ethnic DMZ and a center for the exchange of information.

- Find a new Democratic presidential candidate for 2012. This one has blown it.

- Remember that you can't determine history but you can always determine how you react to history.

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