David Graham Sweet | (Informed Comment) | – –
Here on the “Left Coast” there’s much anguish & foreboding over the results of our recent election, and talk of “resistance.” I’m anguished too, but if you’ll forgive me, less pessimistic than ever about the future of our country. Here’s why.
It’s not that the new President seems at all promising. He apparently is the very odd duck he’s been playing on television: bombastic, thin-skinned, impulsive. He’s a modern-day Robber Baron who tweets incessantly, thinks of most of us as “losers,” likes to fire people, name huge buildings after himself, and play “populist.” It’s hard to see him as a statesman. His expressed values offend people; his declared intentions and appointments are alarming. So it’s galling to realize that while he’s President, we’re going to have to pay attention to whatever he does (if not to what he says!) most every day. That’s a dismal prospect, to be sure.
But Donald Trump has created a moment of real opportunity — not just for fat cats, conservatives and the disgruntled, but for leftists who envision a more equitable and inclusive America than they do. And we are fast rising to his challenge.
The Republicans didn’t win because of “dark money” or Russian hackers. They won because fifty years ago they put forth what they saw as a patriotic, conservative program for radical change in a liberal society. Then they did the necessary thing: they committed to the long haul against the hated liberals, and went to work in deadly earnest — at the grassroots, on the airwaves, in school boards, city halls, state houses and Congress, to impose that program wherever they could.
The program calls on Americans to despise, distrust and shrink at all costs our federal government, cut taxes recklessly, stop trying to regulate the economy, privatize everything possible, carry firearms for self-defense, wage permanent war for self-defense, discredit science and educated discourse in general, eviscerate public education, incarcerate the “undesirable,” let “markets” see to the people’s well-being. It busts unions, shreds “safety nets,” limits access to the ballot, undoes advances in environmental protection and civil rights (especially reproductive and marital rights). An only partially explicit but over-arching goal is to restore the imagined moral order, and the very real racial and gender hierarchies, of the 1950s.
The Republicans’ message has been hammered home so steadily by ideologues, politicians, clergymen, talk radio hosts and Fox TV that it’s come to seem to millions of Americans like common sense. It rings especially true, apparently, to white people who actually have been forgotten by leaders of both parties, and now find themselves among the disadvantaged.
They’ve also convened a surprising coalition, of groups that historically haven’t seen eye to eye: billionaires with the dirt poor; farmers with urbane sophisticates; Christians with disciples of atheist Ayn Rand; Zionists with anti-Semites; strong women with misogynists; “pro-lifers” with warriors, upright citizens with moral deviants, even a smattering of gays and dark-skinned people with homophobes and white supremacists. Today’s Republican Party would be unrecognizable, and not likely embraced, by Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt or Dwight Eisenhower. Even in victory, it appears to make many lifelong adherents a tad uncomfortable.
The Democrats lost in the Electoral College because in a time of extreme peril for our country, for the planet itself, they have no patriotic program for radical change. Ever since Lyndon Johnson came a-cropper, George McGovern lost in a landslide, Ronald Reagan declared “morning in America”, and Bill Clinton went Republican “lite,” they’ve refused to put forth, and mobilize support around, a positive program for change that can beat the competition. They have ignored in practice their own platform. Their liberal vision of a better America is too fuzzy to draw. Lacking a program that’s easy to understand and get behind — and having little to show for years of seeking compromise with the ever more uncompromising on Capitol Hill – they’ve lost credibility among many who once constituted their base.
Participants in the electoral politics of other democratic countries know they have to organize everywhere, year in & year out; but our Democrats leave the bulk of the party’s work to central committee insiders, professional staff, career politicians, & contractors – themselves often proud “moderates” or even “blue dogs.” The Party is a hyperactive fund-raiser and self-congratulator; but it’s disinclined either to keep the public informed about issues as they unfold, or to encourage direct citizen action in support of necessary change. “Leave it to us” is the unspoken message. We are the “best and the brightest;” it’s we who “fight the good fight.”
Having promised the moon on the campaign trail, Democratic elected officials seldom (with many honorable exceptions!) stand out in Washington or most state capitols as champions of the common good. When outspoken progressives among them try to legislate in the public, rather than the corporate interest, Party colleagues are reluctant to follow. That’s how we got where we are today.
Republicans will now gleefully exercise the power they’ve acquired, controlling all branches of the federal government and the governments of most states as well. They’ll do their utmost to implement their entire program at last; and the longer they remain in power, the more harm they’re likely to do to the nation: to the urban and rural communities in which the great majority of us live, to our livelihoods, to our individual lifeways, to what’s left of our once-enviable reputation in the world.
That’s because the Republican program was not designed to benefit, and cannot win the approval, of most Americans. It will disappoint many Trump voters; and it will infuriate the Democratic majority, those disenfranchised by Republican legislators, and those who usually ignore politics but will now experience unexpected pain. The gloves are off; Trump and his collaborators intend to implement draconian change.
Official Democrats are therefore cautiously hopeful for the 2018 midterms, and will keep on bragging and raking in the donations. But this moment should be downright exhilarating for those of us who are more committed to building real democracy in this country, than the existing Party has ever been.
The audacity to grab our moment was modeled by Bernie Sanders, the more than 100,000 young & old volunteers who made his campaign, and the 12,000,000 citizens who voted for him in the primaries. They salvaged the once-respectable American word “socialism” from the trashcan into which was thrown by anti-Communist hysteria a century ago; and they spoke it out loud in the public square. Theirs was neither a Stalinist nor even a Scandinavian socialism. It was the dream of a flat-out American social democracy — the genuinely egalitarian, widely participatory (and for that reason incorruptible) real democracy to which Americans have forever aspired.
Close behind Sanders were hundreds of campaigns by qualified, outspokenly progressive candidates for local, state and national office, many of them women articulating new approaches, of whom a good many were either successful, or nearly so. That growing grassroots movement for a revitalized democracy got another boost in the fall, as regular Party activists were joined by retooled Bernie supporters in giving their all to try and elect our first woman president.
Hillary, credibly described by President Obama as “the best-qualified person ever to seek the office,“ campaigned confidently and indefatigably (though not always convincingly), for a fairer society and new national unity. She endured with great dignity and forbearance the most vicious attack-dog misogyny that’s been deployed in American politics within living memory. We therefore had good reason to expect a resounding Democratic victory. Today, though stunned by defeat, we remain a determined and resourceful majority of the American people who will not soon be convinced that Republican minority rule is a “new normal.”
The possibilities of this moment can be seen in the hundreds of progressive organizations now active in every state, and in every community that feels threatened by the changes to come. They are widely diverse in makeup, specific concerns and objectives. They’re seldom noticed by corporate media. They’re not yet unified into broad coalitions. But they are everywhere, and growing. The challenge for all of us today is how to help them find their way into sustained cooperation with one another. Affiliation with a rebuilt, revitalized Democratic Party could contribute a lot to that effort.
The possibilities are also evident in the official, easy to download, 55-page 2016 Democratic Party Platform, hammered out last summer with much input from Sanders delegates to the Convention. The Platform is there to be studied, critiqued, improved upon, summarized or excerpted, and then put to use as the powerful tool it can be, both for organizing and for holding elected Democrats’ feet to the fire.
The Democrats can and must now become a broad-based social-democratic party, and a relevant actor in the politics of every county and state. To achieve that is to break the ties with Wall Street forever, and to become a straight-talking, internally democratic, transparent organization with a rainbow leadership that can draw widely diverse citizens and organizations into enduring membership or coalition.
Such a party has an explicit, persuasive program that activists can use in organizing. It no longer speaks to the people in meaningless language. It invites conscientious citizens into full-time, full-fledged, card-carrying, dues-paying, participatory membership. (I imagine sliding-scale monthly dues of $1 to $1,000, and an absolute prohibition of any other form of fund-raising by Party officials!). We can pay our own way, and do our own work. That will be a revolution in which, at long last, we can all dance our socks off.
The revitalized Party should maintain an honestly informative and influential permanent presence on the internet and airwaves. It should demand of its elected officials that they serve, not their own or any corporate interests, but the those of the people at large. No more retired Congressmen working as corporate lobbyists.
It should see to it that most citizens know the names of their representatives, and know quite bit about how they’re actually being served by them — so Democrats can argue convincingly with their neighbors and in the workplace when they hear the word “politician” spoken with hatred, as if politics were a plague upon the land.
So what will a social-democratic program for Americans look like? That is not for any scribbler or single group to say. The details of a party program that can engage many people in long-term organizing can only come out of the struggles, discussions and analyses of the activists themselves.
But a tepid “liberal” program simply will not do. What we need now are radical changes, based on radical thinking and discussion that goes to the roots of our many grave problems. We need desperately for our country to get right with nature at last, and with the rest of the human race. Put an end to white supremacy, white privilege, patriarchy, and oligarchy. We need to learn that every sort of work well done is more honorable than any sort of wealth acquired. Get out of our cars and into improved public transit. Quit entertaining ourselves 24/7, and start thinking and acting like responsible, informed citizens of a democracy. Provide the best possible public education free of charge to every single child as far as they can go; turn prisons into schools that rehabilitate. Understand and make it policy that food, shelter, health care, a living wage and recreational opportunity are not privileges, but fundamental human rights. Realize that war never was, is not, and never will be “the answer;” stop waging it; and stop supporting others to wage it.
A social democratic program will never come down from on high. It has to be drawn up by folks who’ve quit waiting for Presidents to lead the way to change, and taken that responsibility upon ourselves. Folks who know that the true history of our country is not a story of the acquisition of wealth and power; it’s a story of the hard-fought, still unfinished struggle to broaden the meaning, and institutionalize the practice, of the first words put to paper by the Founders: “We, the people.” Folks who understand that in radical electoral politics you have to demand what you want, not what somebody thinks you can get.
The present parties’ constant hitting people up for donations, or signatures on phony electronic petitions, is a pathetic substitute for organizing. We have to see ourselves as active, strong, purposeful, vociferous citizen members of a people’s political party
— one that we know needs drastic reform, but is nevertheless the only vehicle available to us for replacing the Republican regime. We have to swallow our well-founded reservations about that Party, and learn from scratch how to actually join, exercise membership, and work from within to rebuild and revitalize it — even though the Party itself is not, so far, a membership organization, and whether the current Party leadership wants us as active members or not.
Working off the 2016 Platform, we can help provide the Democratic Party with a harder-hitting program, one that actually opposes what the Republicans are up to with concrete alternatives, based on defensible values, that we activists can talk, write and demonstrate about at every opportunity.
It ‘s also up to us, year in and year out, to identify, help prepare and support non-traditional Democratic candidates for public office at every level — people who can and will rise to power responsibly. because we will accompany them every step of the way Those are the people who can eventually play the critical role, so often neglected, of restoring the American people’s trust in our government.
The Democratic Party that the once-United States of America needs today will make possible a radically different, more trustworthy and substantive electoral politics, a more genuine and sustainable American democracy. It has already begun doing that, perhaps, as citizens from every origin, in many of the 3,143 counties in our country, ask how they can help strengthen their Party from the ground up.
We who commit to that kind of community service, while respectful of the people and structures already in place, had best be determined about bringing genuinely revolutionary transformations into the Democratic Party, because there as elsewhere old habits will die hard. We must be prepared to stay at the work as long as it takes, forever ready and willing to put our collectively powerful shoulders (not to mention hearts, brains and voices) to the wheel of radical change. But in the era of Donald Trump there is no reason to doubt that we can prevail.
David Graham Sweet is a human rights activist in Santa Cruz, CA.