politics is to want something

fredag, september 30, 2005

I might have to buy this record

The Legendary K.O. has sampled Kanye West's infamous claim that George Bush doesn't care about black people and made a bomb track, or so I hear.

Check it out.

"small enough to drown in a bathtub..."

...is how small Grover Norquist once said he'd like to make the federal government. Now, Republicans in Congress are proposing to completely zero out funding for public television, graduate student loans and other Amtrak, and other unnecessary frivolties in order to pay for reconstruction of Katrina-ravaged areas. It's amazing to watch them use a catastrophe brought about by underfunding government projects in order to cut more government projects. George Orwell would be proud. MoveOn is on it.

In case you can't read O'Rielly's pull-quote, it says "Moral of the Story: if you rely on the government, you're likely to be disappointed." Nice.

deanism: what's next?

A recent post by Peter Frase on his well-written blog raises the question of what, if any, sustained political action will come out of the energy and excitement around the 2004 election. Besides being the overall topic of my Master’s Thesis, this is a question of tremendous importance and a topic of much hand-wringing.

There has certainly been an explosion of new organizations and formations since the Howard Dean campaign swept young people, microserfs, and previously apolitical middle class folks up into a tizzy. This is in addition to the proliferation of lefty blogs and online fora that this website is, in some respects a part of. I was (and am) a Dean supporter, so I mean no disrespect here.

Nonetheless, as Peter notes in his post, it is not clear that there is any there, there, when it comes to the new “movement”. If an organizational model is emerging, it seems to be based on loose, affiliative networks such as Democracy for America (and California, and New York City, and Alaska, etc), and MoveOn.org, as well as myriad local coalitions and George Lakoff-inspired reading groups. These formations are certainly not the meeting-a-week, programmatic, ideological organizations that I am used to being part of. Nor are they built with organizing in mind. They are networks of activists designed to mobilize for specific events or campaigns. In other respects, they are ideological free-for-alls, virtual and actual talk-shops for white, middle-class progressives. There is little, if any, democratic infrastructure involved, though both MoveOn and DFA are attempting to replicate member-based democracy with internet polling. It will be interesting to see what comes of that.

There are three basic ways to assess the efficacy of these organizations, keeping in mind that in many respects it is too early get a good read on anything. In no particular order, they are: impact on elections, impact on the Democratic Party and, finally, their ability to help build a progressive majority in American politics.

The first test of this New Model Army was the ’04 Presidential election. It’s difficult to assess what the overall impact was of MoveOn and it’s coterie. Many say that their ads and public statements scared middle-of-the-roaders into supporting Bush. I’m not so sure. I think it is safe to say that a lot more precincts got walked because of their efforts than otherwise would have. They were crucial feeders into labor-run, pavement-pounding efforts like America Coming Together. One could take a bare-knuckles approach and say simply that, in the end, the election was lost. This would be simplistic, however. The Democratic Party’s uncanny ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory cannot be underestimated.

Furthermore, many generations of insurgent activists have rebounded from defeat and had a lasting impact on American politics. The young volunteers who worked for Adlai Steveson in 1956 went on to transform Democratic politics in California, Illinois, Ohio and New York. Even more successful were the young movement conservatives who cut their teeth on the Goldwater campaign of ’64. Their candidate was defeated in every state but his own. Nonetheless, these folks continued to organize, and they now run the country.

This brings us to the other two potential contributions of “Deanism”, their ability to transform the party, and to shift political trends to the left. It is here that their strategic choices will be put to the test. Unlike other historical insurgencies within and around the Democratic Party, there doesn’t seem to be a concerted effort to “take over” or directly control the organs of the Party per se. This may be a smart strategy given the fact the structural and cultural changes that have all-but eliminated Democratic party organization. It may be that there is no party left to take over. On the other hand, conservative activists have certainly done a good job of transforming the Republican Party in their own image. They have effectively eliminated their left wing, with only a small rump of liberal Republican Senators left, and left cowering. Howard Dean’s election as DNC chair was certainly a major victory, but as with all elections, putting the right man (or woman) in place is not enough. Without pressure from below, Howard will have to listen to other benefactors- donors, electeds and consultants. Dean himself has been begging his onetime followers to follow him into the party at the grassroots level. So far, his own organization, Democracy For America, has not been facilitating such a strategy. If they are not going to take over the party, then, the strategic choices made by their new, “outside” organizations are crucial. Nearly all of them are gripped by some level of schizophrenia about their relationship to the party and to electoral politics.

I agree with Peter, as well as other readers and commenters on hoverbike, that we should not abandon the tradition and strategy of deep organizing. Nor should we assume that a couple of smart, media-savvy middle-class technicians at MoveOn HQ in San Francisco are qualified to decide what the important issues are for the left. I don’t like Peter’s phrase that we should ask people to “learn an ideology”, but yes, we should be building a movement (or movements.)

In a sense, this conundrum is not so different than that faced by the anti-globalization movements. Seattle was full of loose networks, and activists were highly resistant to tight lines of organization or even coherence of message or purpose. It may be that larger sociological forces are in play here- all politics is decentralized, now.

Again, it is too early to tell for sure what will come of all of this. However, it is also too early to readily dismiss the new activism. Sophisticated electoral operations like the ones promoted by Progressive Majority are racking up successes. Organizations which primarily do community-electoral organizing are utilizing some of the tactical innovations of the new-economy based political work. Case and point is SF’s Power Pac. I, too, miss the deep organizing and ideologically-grounded organizational homes I used to have. We must admit, however, that these models are not fairing well themselves, from declining membership in Swedish Social Democracy to the almost complete disintegration of Peter and my alma mater, DSA.

I, for one, am hoping (and working) for momentum, and not just a moment.

A link replicated from Peter's Blog worth passing on: Geoff Kurtz on two books from the new political order.

fredag, september 23, 2005

new orleans and the environment

In addition to the massive human toll of this disaster, it is important to remember that a city has been replaced by a gigantic chemical cess-pool. For more on the environmental impact of Katrina check out New Orleans Environment Watch.

torsdag, september 22, 2005

geoff kurtz is not marching

In celebration of his new blog, I give you a provocative article by my friend Goeff Kurtz, who argues that now is not the time for simple slogans. Read the replies. Geoff's blog promises to include some solid left political theory- hoverbike xtra-smart.

evidence of things unseen

This is what a racist looks like. No, he won't tell you he hates black folks. He's not a Klan member. He probably has one or two black friends. Yet this man, the chief of police for Gretna, Louisiana, ordered his officers to use physical force to keep over 200 mostly black escapees from Katrina out of the city. Today, he defends his action, even above reports that his officers confiscated food and water from the people seeking refuge in his affluent, white suburb. Every story has heroes and villians, this one too. Villian: heartless jerk (pictured). Heroes: the elitist cafe-dwelling intellectual socialist San Francisco academic-conference attendeees who were in the crowd. They broke the story and have kept it broke. I knew they were good for something.

torsdag, september 15, 2005

hands up if you think everything's fine

There really are two Americas. According to a poll by the PEW center, American whites and blacks have very different views of the role that race plays in society. For anyone who knows both black and white people, this should come as no surprise. What is shocking, however, is the degree to which the disparity in opinion is manifested. A majority of whites do not think that race is a “particularly important lesson” from the devastation of Katrina, while two thirds of blacks believe that the response would have been more effective had the victims been white.

"Seven-in-ten blacks (71%) say the disaster shows that racial inequality remains a major problem in the country; a majority of whites (56%) say this was not a particularly important lesson of the disaster. More striking, there is widespread agreement among blacks that the government's response to the crisis would have been faster if most of the storm's victims had been white; fully two-thirds of African Americans express that view. Whites, by an even wider margin (77%-17%), feel this would not have made a difference in the government's response.”

White denial cuts across the political spectrum. From conservative spin, which started as soon as the levies broke, that state and local authorities share the blame for the disaster, to “liberal” arguments that class, not race is the key to understanding Katrina’s deadly effects, the white chattering classes have been resistant to accepting the obvious: race profoundly determines our chances of survival in post-New Deal America.

It is impossible to extricate race and racism from any honest discussion of Katrina. Race and poverty are clearly correlated- it’s not a random coincidence that black people are poor and live in harm’s way, nor that they are unlikely to be able to relocate easily. More acutely, the swift removal of tourists and the energy and attention given to protecting property while people suffered under the dual threat of natural disaster and human chaos speaks to a bias on the part of the authorities. Quite simply, where were the buses?

This is not to say that class and economic status are irrelevant. Rich whites enjoy privileges that poor whites do not, and class disadvantage is not savage and real for poor and working-class white people. No doubt, had this disaster struck rich white folks, there would have been better response (as well as increased means of self-preservation) than if most of the victims were poor and white. However, the victims were majority black, and they are both poor and underserved because they are black.

No doubt some of white America’s inability to grasp the situation is due to an understandable, but willful ignorance. Who wants to believe that their government and social structure actually conspire, through direct policy and apathy, to allow black people to die needlessly? Such a conclusion is a sensory, emotional and intellectual shock that many people simply do not want to endure.

What is clear is that whites and people of color live in completely different counties, with completely different perceptions of reality. America may be split down the middle, red and blue, but it is also starkly divided into white and black.

onsdag, september 14, 2005

may I suggest the pinot noir?

From the United Farm Workers:

Gallo Boycott over! Buy the union label!

Thanks to the help of countless supporters such as yourself, we are pleased to make an exciting announcement. The United Farm Workers and Gallo Vineyards Inc. have reached agreement on a new contract providing Gallo of Sonoma workers with many important gains. The workers voted nearly unanimously to ratify the agreement. The Gallo wine boycott has ended. Your participation and support of our campaign made a huge difference.

Below is the news release we put out this morning announcing the good news. If you live in the Bay Area, please join UFW President Arturo Rodriguez, workers from Gallo of Sonoma and hundreds of supporters at 12 noon (Wednesday, Sept. 14) on the steps of San Francisco City Hall facing Civic Center Plaza as we toast the new Gallo contract. If not, please buy a bottle of Gallo of Sonoma and make your own toast to the Gallo of Sonoma vineyard workers whose commitment and determination made all this possible.

Again, thank you for all your help and buy the union label!

Viva La Causa!

norway back on track...

In Monday’s Norwegian election, a coalition of three left-leaning parties captured a majority. The Labour Party, along with the Socialist Left and the agrarian-ecologist Center Party will form a new government, ending four years of conservative minority rule. This is a good thing in itself, but the victory was sweetened by the entry into parliament of 7 under-thirty-year-old activists from the Norewgian Labour Youth (AUF), the youth affiliate of Norway’s largest political party, Labour. They will join a handful of under-40 young Labour parliamentarians. Some of them are old friends of mine from when I worked for AUF a couple of years ago, including my old bosses, Anette Trettebergstuen and Eva Kristin Hansen, above.

Norwegian politics has been in flux as the once-dominant Labour Party has steadily contracted its base. Still the largest party, Labour has been forced in the past few decades to share power informally, forming a series of minority governments. This will be the first time that they will share power directly with the Socialist Left (SV), a party which split from Labour in the 1950’s over differences in foreign and defense policy. SV has itself transformed into a traditional left social democratic party, with strong support among intellectuals, students and some of the middle class. The Center Party (SP) will also join the government. Once a purely rural-based party, SP has emerged as a strong voice for local autonomy and the environment. In the absence of a strong Green Party, the Center has positioned itself as the center-left voice in Norwegian politics. Their sister parties elsewhere in Scandinavia tend to ally more consistently with the right-wing.

The perhaps inevitable collapse of the fracturous Norwegian right is cause for celebration. The previous government, led by the Christian Democrats, included the free-market-obsessed Conservatives and a small liberal party. It was dependent on support from a large, populist far-right party, paradoxically known as the “Progress Party”. Mixing subtle xenophobia with anti-tax, anti-regulation and pro-welfare rhetoric, the Progress Party has created a dangerous, and successful populist space which has eroded traditional Labour support. Norway’s vast oil wealth creates the possibility of a political line that calls for massive tax cuts AND increases in welfare expenditure, but only for “real” Norwegians. Because the other right-wing parties divide the non-socialist vote amongst themselves, only a center-left coalition is stable enough to govern without the help of the Progress Party.

It is nice to follow politics in a country where “solidarity” is an election slogan, and right-wing policies are derided because they are “anti-social”. Politics across the world has been pushed to the right by the Reagan-Thatcher revolution, but in the Nordic countries, there persists a strong and vibrant left streak in mainstream political life.

Congratulations to my friends in the Norwegian labor movement, special congrats to all my old drinkin’ buddies who made it (and those who didn’t make it :) ) into parliament. Your victory just goes to prove what I have always suspected- if you want to win an election, make sure I am nowhere near your country.

søndag, september 11, 2005

Cornel West on Katrina

Sunday September 11, 2005


It takes something as big as Hurricane Katrina and the misery we saw among the poor black people of New Orleans to get America to focus on race and poverty. It happens about once every 30 or 40 years.

What we saw unfold in the days after the hurricane was the most naked manifestation of conservative social policy towards the poor, where the message for decades has been: 'You are on your own'. Well, they really were on their own for five days in that Superdome, and it was Darwinism in action - the survival of the fittest. People said: 'It looks like something out of the Third World.' Well, New Orleans was Third World long before the hurricane.

It's not just Katrina, it's povertina. People were quick to call them refugees because they looked as if they were from another country. They are. Exiles in America. Their humanity had been rendered invisible so they were never given high priority when the well-to-do got out and the helicopters came for the few. Almost everyone stuck on rooftops, in the shelters, and dying by the side of the road was poor black.

In the end George Bush has to take responsibility. When [the rapper] Kanye West said the President does not care about black people, he was right, although the effects of his policies are different from what goes on in his soul. You have to distinguish between a racist intent and the racist consequences of his policies. Bush is still a 'frat boy', making jokes and trying to please everyone while the Neanderthals behind him push him more to the right.

Poverty has increased for the last four or five years. A million more Americans became poor last year, even as the super-wealthy became much richer. So where is the trickle-down, the equality of opportunity? Healthcare and education and the social safety net being ripped away - and that flawed structure was nowhere more evident than in a place such as New Orleans, 68 per cent black. The average adult income in some parishes of the city is under $8,000 (£4,350) a year. The average national income is $33,000, though for African-Americans it is about $24,000. It has one of the highest city murder rates in the US. From slave ships to the Superdome was not that big a journey.

New Orleans has always been a city that lived on the edge. The white blues man himself, Tennessee Williams, had it down in A Streetcar Named Desire - with Elysian Fields and cemeteries and the quest for paradise. When you live so close to death, behind the levees, you live more intensely, sexually, gastronomically, psychologically. Louis Armstrong came out of that unbelievable cultural breakthrough unprecedented in the history of American civilisation. The rural blues, the urban jazz. It is the tragi-comic lyricism that gives you the courage to get through the darkest storm.

Charlie Parker would have killed somebody if he had not blown his horn. The history of black people in America is one of unbelievable resilience in the face of crushing white supremacist powers.

This kind of dignity in your struggle cuts both ways, though, because it does not mobilise a collective uprising against the elites. That was the Black Panther movement. You probably need both. There would have been no Panthers without jazz. If I had been of Martin Luther King's generation I would never have gone to Harvard or Princeton.

They shot brother Martin dead like a dog in 1968 when the mobilisation of the black poor was just getting started. At least one of his surviving legacies was the quadrupling in the size of the black middle class. But Oprah [Winfrey] the billionaire and the black judges and chief executives and movie stars do not mean equality, or even equality of opportunity yet. Black faces in high places does not mean racism is over. Condoleezza Rice has sold her soul.

Now the black bourgeoisie have an even heavier obligation to fight for the 33 per cent of black children living in poverty - and to alleviate the spiritual crisis of hopelessness among young black men.

Bush talks about God, but he has forgotten the point of prophetic Christianity is compassion and justice for those who have least. Hip-hop has the anger that comes out of post-industrial, free-market America, but it lacks the progressiveness that produces organisations that will threaten the status quo. There has not been a giant since King, someone prepared to die and create an insurgency where many are prepared to die to upset the corporate elite. The Democrats are spineless.

There is the danger of nihilism and in the Superdome around the fourth day, there it was - husbands held at gunpoint while their wives were raped, someone stomped to death, people throwing themselves off the mezzanine floor, dozens of bodies.

It was a war of all against all - 'you're on your own' - in the centre of the American empire. But now that the aid is pouring in, vital as it is, do not confuse charity with justice. I'm not asking for a revolution, I am asking for reform. A Marshall Plan for the South could be the first step.

torsdag, september 01, 2005

america's national disaster

While Bush parties and the right spins on about corruption and protecting property, a major humanitarian disaster unfolds in Louisiana. More later...

Why the levee broke.

detroit rock city

Erik Love has a nice short update on the strike at Northwest Airlines and musings about his hometown...

Solidarity Forever


Anyone who knows me is painfully aware that I am a staunch Democrat. I have been a registered Democratic voter since I turned 18, and though I flinched and almost didn’t vote for Clinton after his Welfare “Reform” disaster, I have voted straight-line Democrat my entire voting life. I wouldn’t even have voted for Matt Gonzolez, the quite viable and superbly talented Green candidate for mayor of San Fransisco. Third-partyism is so inherently flawed a political strategy in my mind that a victory for the Greens in SF would have meant a thousand more spoilers out there in the rest of the Country. In a non-partisan race, in a city with a broad and contentious Democratic community, there seemed to me no good reason for Gonzolez to run as a Green.

So, it is with those hard-nosed and stubborn bona-fides that I confess my elation at the prospect of an independent United States senator from Vermont. Bernie Sanders, who is so fiercely anti-party that he has refused even to join Progressive Vermont, the party-like formation organized by his own supporters and staffers, has begun his campaign for the U.S. Senate. This is very welcome news.

Bernie Sanders has great politics, and he’s gonna win. The Democrats in Vermont have wisely stepped aside (many of have stepped in line behind him), assuring that this will be a two-way race between Sanders and a Republican. This is a wise move on many levels, not least of which is the simple fact that Senator Sanders will be a vote for a Democratic majority, as well as a strong progressive voice- something sorely missing on our side of aisle since the death of Minnesota’s Paul Wellstone.

Perhaps the most salacious thing about Sanders’ political success and the reason his campaign is being watched closely by my friends in the Social Democratic left in Europe is the fact that he has been consistently unafraid of the “s” word. Sanders is not a member of a Socialist party, and for many years even refused to join the Democratic Socialists of America, even though their non-party status and raft of political-celebrity members (John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, Ron Dellums, longtime Bay Area congressman, Gloria Steinem, feminist matriarch, etc) seemed to make it a perfect fit for him. However, he has doggedly refused to condemn or refuse the label, connecting his political beliefs to that of Eugene V. Debs, Martin Luther King and other American heroes who also identified with the ideas and traditions of socialism. In Vermont, this hasn’t mattered a wit. There, the demographic gods have created a perfect combination for Bernie’s politics- a hodgepodge of hippies, intellectuals, small farmers, environmentalists and anti-establishment free-soilers for whom labels are fungible so long as candidates are plain-spoken, independent and fiercely anti-authoritarian. However, it will be interesting to see how the national media attempts to beat Sanders up with the right’s favorite stick- accusations of socialism are about as deadly as they get in American political life. Consider this account of an interview with Howard Dean (from an article on Bernie.org):

“On a recent Sunday, Tim Russert of NBC’s Meet the Press needled Democratic Party leader Howard Dean over Sanders' run. “He is a self-described, avowed socialist,” Russert said to Dean, using the word in its popular beltway parlance, as if it were a bomb about to go off. “Is there room in the Democratic Party for a Socialist?” “He’s not a socialist, really,” Dean answered.”

I’m not sure how effective flat denial is really going to be. It’s a conundrum for the Democrats and the left in general- the Right has destroyed our vocabulary so thurroughly that it is difficult to develop a strategy for self-presentation when any word which may clarify our position can be used as a weapon against us (more on this theme later). For this reason, the Sanders campaign will be an crucial race to watch for hoverbike, and anyone interested in expanding the scope of the “possible” in American politics.

So, why do I make this exception to my usual rabid partisanship? Three simple reasons: First, Bernie is not trying to build a third party which will compete with and split the base of the Dems. Second, Sanders is working closely with Democrats both on the ground and in Washington, and understands his run and future tenure as part of a broader effort to shift the rules of governance, a project which includes the Democratic Party. Third, and this may sound a bit counter-intuitive, Bernie Sanders is not an exportable commodity. This whole experience will be a serious downer if people in California, New York or Arkansas start to believe that he is.

Let me be clear here: Sanders’ plain-spoken anti-corporatism, patriotic populism, critique of budget priorities and opposition to unfettered trade are all fantastic and important. He is both inspiring and instructive in his rejection of poll-based Clintonian triangulation. However, the way in which he does it, and the fact that he does it alone, rejecting the Democratic Party or any other organizational base, is a feature of the micropolitics of Vermont. You don’t need a powerful organization at the grassroots in a state that is smaller in population than San Diego.

Sanders is very much a creature of Vermont. For example, he is a rare progressive who opposes most forms of gun control- rural Vermonters are fine with criticizing free trade but would bristle at being disarmed. And, let’s face it, broadcasting progressive populism is a different beast in a state which is 96% white. Racist appeals from the right are less effective- it’s harder to paint the welfare state and social protection as handouts for the undeserving without the coded language of racism. Racially-tinged urban issues like crime, affirmative action and immigration don’t dominate political life in Vermont the way that they do in Illinois, Ohio or Missouri. Sanders doesn’t face the difficulties which hobble progressive politicians in less "idyllic" or homogenous places.

I do not mean to sound like those who say that Scandinavian social democracy is wholly irrelevant to the United States because of our diversity. It’s a strange notion that justice is impossible if there are black people around. The point here is that what works in Norway or Vermont won’t necessarily work in California. Witness the paradigm shift in the politics of Northern Europe forced by immigration from Africa and the Near East. The old reliance on automatic class solidarity is insufficient in the era of globalization, upward mobility and the emergence of a brown and black underclass. In diverse social environments, organizing, coalition-building and directly confronting racialized poverty and inequality are crucial for building a viable progressive majority. There is no end-run around these realities.

A recent Nation cover-story by the often pollyanna-ish John Nichols misses some of these nuances in its excitement about Sanders’ imminent victory. Though Nichols includes the critique that Sanders, like Jesse Jackson and other insurgents have failed to build something sturdy enough to outlast their own careers, he is a bit too quick to draw lessons from Sanders’ successes. He quotes one supporter:

"Some people are uncomfortable when they see a yard where there are signs for the Republicans and for Bernie, but I see that as evidence that he has figured out how to talk to people that the Democrats just have not been able to reach."

It’s certainly true that the Democrats will only be able to reach voters lost to the right by being solid and clear-spoken on economic issues. These bread and butter questions of jobs, health-care and education have been Sanders’ stock-in-trade for his whole career. However, there is something to the fact that these folks will post Bernie signs and Bush signs in their yard. I’m not worried that Bernie is insufficiently progressive, but rather that while people like Bernie, Bush and his crowd are still also speaking to them on some level. It’s no secret that Republican economic policies are not supported by a majority of Americans, and Democrats are suicidally inept on tapping into their dissatisfaction. However, the idea that we will win people back simply by appealing to their pocketbooks is naive. We have to cut down the salience of the right’s flagship wedge issues- race, religion, sex and security. Vermont is simply not the best laboratory for figuring that strategy out.

So, god bless Vermont for sending us two important progressive leaders, Bernie and Howie. It’s good for their state, and good for America. Let us take from Bernie’s rise and his good works a lesson that it is indeed possible to win and govern by sticking to principles and offering a fighting spirit. However, history will not be made by having one, two, many Bernies. It will be made by long, slow and deliberate work to shift the “center”. Let’s make more Bernies possible, even inevitable, by digging in for the long haul. That will mean building lasting institutions and organizations at every level of social life, and doing so with intellegence and an eye for construting lasting and deep majorities. I can’t envision that project without a key role for the Democratic Party.