April 14, 2022

What to do now

From our overstocked archives

Sam Smith, 2016

Face the facts: The First American Republic is over. The Constitution is being trashed by both major parties. We are incapable of responding to the environmental crisis. Liberals can’t tell the difference between being elite and being extinct. We’re in the most expensive wars of no purpose in our history. Both major parties have moved steadily to the right over the past thirty years. Both have never been so corrupt. Ethnic prejudice is at an overt level unseen since the days of the civil rights struggles. The economy is still in the pits for many of our citizens. Thanks to Citizens United, money has replaced votes as the dominant political campaign objective. Our creative culture has been reduced to the likes of Lady Gaga, Desperate Housewives, and the Kardashians. Remember that Donald Trump, the Bernie Madoff of politics, didn’t invent all this; he has just benefited from it.

Work around it If a hurricane comes to your neighborhood, you don’t just sit around the kitchen table complaining about it; you do things to help your survival. The same is true of the great storm of American disintegration. We have clearly lost what we have lost. We can give up our futile efforts to preserve the illusion and turn our energies instead to the construction of a new time. It is this willingness to walk away from the seductive power of the present that first divides the mere reformer from the rebel — the courage to emigrate from one’s own ways in order to meet the future not as an entitlement but as a frontier. 

Find some useful precedents. Umbria, a section of Italy north of Rome, for example, has been remarkably indifferent to 500 years of its history. The Umbrians have been invaded, burned, or bullied by the Etruscans, Roman Empire, Goths, Longobards, Charlemagne, Pippin the Short, the Vatican, Mussolini, the German Nazis, and, most recently, the World Trade Organization. Umbria has managed not only to survive but keep its culture, a reminder of the durability of the human spirit during history’s tumults, an extremely comforting thought to an American these days.

We don’t have to go that far back, though. Consider the novel, 1984. Orwell saw it all coming. The dystopia described in 1984 is so overwhelming that one almost forgets that most residents of Oceana didn’t live in it. Orwell gives the breakdown. Only about two percent were in the Inner Party and another 13% in the Outer Party. The rest, numbering some 100 million, were the proles.

Orwell’s division of people and power was almost precisely replicated in East Germany decades later, where about one percent belonged to the General Secretariat of the Communist Party, and another 13% being far less powerful party members.

Go back to medieval times and you’ll find something similar. The elite had power but could only exercise it behind castle walls and moats. After 9/11 when I was living six blocks from the Capitol I noticed that the protections installed stopped on 2nd St. In effect, the defense against the war on terror stopped four blocks away. We were on our own.

Blame the perps, not the folks they fool: One danger is to put the bad guys and those they deceive in the same bag. This adds to the further alienation of those that sane Americans should be trying to get back on track. Far better to think of Trump’s misguided fans as being like deceived students at Trump University. Don’t condemn them for their belief; help them learn the truth. Not unlike, say, the way Ralph Nader got people to know the real dangers in their cars.

Put economics back in the liberal agenda. For over two decades, as liberals got wealthier, their political agenda increasingly deserted the economic concerns of the less well off. Liberalism became more of a religion than a movement and doing so helped to create the Tea Party and the Donald Trumps. 

Here are some sample ideas to consider:
· A shared equity program in which the government becomes an equity partner of folks threatened with foreclosure. The beauty of this is that not only would it save people’s homes, it ultimately could make the government money as the economy improved. Or, as Dean Baker has proposed, allow foreclosed homeowners to stay in their homes as renters for a court determined amount.

· Offer a real public works program

· Bring back enforcement of anti-trust laws, once a hallmark of liberal politics.

· Expand the fight for higher minimum wages.

· Create state banks like the successful one in North Dakota.

· Pass usury law that would ban credit card and other interest rates over a certain amount. Most states had usury laws until the 1980s.

· Support neighborhood survival through credit unions, cooperatives and community courts

· Revive postal banking

· Pass labor laws that give workers added protections and rights
· Put labor unions back on the liberal agenda. Instead of only liking labor unions at election time, liberals need to revive the pro-union positions of their predecessors. And unions could help by creating AARP-like organizations that would, where formal unionization isn’t working, enlist employees in pro-labor activism while providing services from credit cards to health benefits.
Recognize the difference between government and corporations – With the help of an ever more monopolized media we are taught to accept economic views that make little sense. For example, Trump got where he is in part because of the media-fostered claim that corporate officials are among the most competent people in the world and that if you are a CEO you would make a great political leader as well. The major problem with this is that corporations do not serve people; they regard them as profit sources. A government official is meant to serve citizens, not treat them as customers to sell something to. This difference has been badly obscured.

Make new alliances – The left has become far too atomized in recent decades. You can’t produce change without the numbers. A good place to start would be for black, latino and labor leaders to join together with a consensus agenda. Over half of the following voted for Clinton in the election: blacks, latinos, those 18-29, gays, and those earning less than $50,000 a year. What a coalition this could make.

Build from the bottom up. – Forty-three percent 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 say state government is better than the other two.

– Just 14% think the federal government does a better job.

– Fifty-six percent of all voters believe the federal government has too much influence over state government. Only 12% percent say the federal government doesn’t have enough influence over states, and another 26% say the balance is about right.

This is a huge matter that Democrats and progressives don’t even discuss, yet helped to create the sort of popular anger that has developed over the past year.

There are two ironies in this:

– The Democrats could do everything they should be doing – only far better – if they simply paid more attention to the level and manner it is done.

– Those expressing outrage at what the Democrats are doing think the level and manner is the same as its underlying virtue and thus end up opposing programs that would serve them well. And so they serve the interests of the very centralized authority they think they are opposing.

Liberals are afraid to criticize big government because they think it makes them sound like Republicans. In fact, the idea of devolution — having government carried out at the lowest practical level — dates back at least to that good Democrat, Thomas Jefferson. Even FDR managed to fight the depression with a staff smaller than Hillary Clinton’s and World War II with one smaller than Al Gore’s. Conservative columnist William Safire has admitted that “in a general sense, devolution is a synonym for ‘power sharing,’ a movement that grew popular in the sixties and seventies as charges of ‘bureaucracy’ were often leveled at centralized authority.” In other words, devolution used to be in the left’s bag.

The modern liberals’ embrace of centralized authority makes them vulnerable to the charge that their politics is one of intentions rather than results — symbolized by huge agencies like the Department of Housing & Urban Development that fail miserably to produce policies worthy of their name.

And given that liberals aren’t going to have much to say about the federal government over the next few years, emphasizing the local can not only build local support but help organize against the highly federalized Trump machine.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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

Create a counterculture - Too often today, we expect our leaders to do our work for us, to save us, to redeem us. There is little sense of the wisdom laid down by Eugene Debs: "Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage. He has not come; he never will come. I would not lead you out if I could for if you could be led out, you could be led back again."

I put it this way once: "We have lost much of what was gained in the 1960s and 1970s because we traded in our passion, our energy, our magic and our music for the rational, technocratic and media ways of our leaders. We will not overcome the current crisis solely with political logic. We need living rooms like those in which women once discovered they were not alone. The freedom schools of SNCC. The politics of the folk guitar. The plays of Vaclav Havel. The pain of James Baldwin. The laughter of Abbie Hoffman. The strategy of Gandhi and King. Unexpected gatherings and unpredicted coalitions. People coming together because they disagree on every subject save one: the need to preserve the human. Savage satire and gentle poetry. Boisterous revival and silent meditation. Grand assemblies and simple suppers."

We need to do this because, as Lau-tzu said:
Of the best rulers, the people only know that they exist;
The next best they love and praise;
The next they fear;
And the next they revile . . .

But of the best when their task is accomplished, their work done,
The people all remark, "We have done it ourselves."

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