New Orleans In recent weeks Todd Gitlin, a Columbia University professor with deep roots on the left dating back to the 1960’s, the student movement, and the Students’ for a Democratic Society (SDS), wrote an interesting survey piece called the “Bernie Sanders Moment” in the New York Times.
He looked at the rise of Bernie Sanders from alternative politics in the sparsely populated conservative communities of the frozen north in Vermont to these days where he is exciting crowds with progressive plain talk on the presidential campaign trail in what many had assumed would be at best a quixotic exercise. He quoted Lee Webb, another former student activist and director of a program on alternative state and local politics from DC decades ago as having advised Sanders that “you’re never gonna get anywhere in politics if you don’t join the Democratic Party.” He astutely underlines a strategy for progressives that he refers to as building “the left wing of the possible,” attributing the line to writer, activist, and socialist Michael Harrington. He then runs through the long shots, near misses, and moon shots sometimes exploding on takeoff from the Citizen Party and Barry Commoner through Jesse Jackson’s two shots within the Democratic ranks and Ralph Nadar’s Green fling, saying “…to put it mildly, third-party politics has not been popular on the left.” For Gitlin it’s enough for Sanders, like so many others before him, to be “a force” and for his brand of progressivism to achieve a longer half-life with “influence” that will “persist.”
As a broad brushed overview all that seems fair enough, but part of his conclusions are based on a weirdly perverse view of organization and party building and a contradictory understanding of his own analysis of Sanders’ success in Vermont as someone who proved he could deliver to voters and constituents. Perhaps the victim or participant in too many sectarian political debates, Gitlin believes working within the Democratic Party is hard, tedious labor and building alternative parties that achieve electoral success as Sanders did, is somehow easier, saying “Because deliverable results are so hard to come by, progressives of various ages have gone for electoral politics of the proudly, defiant independent sort.” Contrary to Gitlin’s argument or assumptions or whatever is driving his viewpoints here, not only is independent politics brutally hard work, as veterans of the New Party, Working Families Party, Richmond Progressive Association, and countless others can attest, but also, like Vermont, with persistent effort and commitment, such work elects people!
So, fifty years of organizing and what do we have to show for it, many days older and deeper in debt? Building an alternative progressive party is long, disciplined work, but it needs to be done. If Gitlin’s point is that it cannot – and should not – be done from the pride and presidential level down, then I heartily agree, but whether it is or not, the work absolutely needs to be done from the ground up now, so that ten, twenty, thirty, or another fifty years from now there is a viable political party formation that may have roots and branches in various other local and statewide manifestations, but can legitimately contend for power at every level from bottom to top. And the work needs to start yesterday, as it has in a number of communities and states around the country, and it needs to be pursued earnestly and aggressively today in the wake of what Gitlin calls the “Sanders Moment,” and build the momentum to carry forward into the future. I even think that Sanders needs to help out in the building.
The existing two-party political structure is not ordained from on high or embedded in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. These were built environments and not part of a natural order. They are political institutions welded together by people and politicians in other circumstances in local soil. These parties have been deeply embedded and privileged for a long, long time, but around the world we see regular evidence of similarly calcified institutions unshaken and unseated. It confounds me to believe that it is impossible to imagine, and then to build, something different and something better.
Or, that it is impossible for quite a long time for us to walk and chew gum simultaneously, as Sanders is doing now. Progressives can make it for a long time into the future by voting as Democrats, if that’s the best choice, every four years, while building an alternative formation from the ground up in the meantime. Candidates walk on their knees to move independents to vote for them every cycle, why should progressive not be wooed with the same ardor, rather than forced to vote by default, hand pinching nose?
That’s just sound tactics, but sound strategy is building now so that we have real options – and real power – in the future.
New Orleans A couple of weeks ago my daughter and some friends had gone to see a band from Lafayette playing at Chickie-Wah-Wah, a local New Orleans music club. She thought the price was a little steep, but paid it. Servicing and organizing bargaining units around that part of Louisiana she has come to love the music scene and the whole Acadiana vibe. As she told me later, she was so close to the band that Jillian Johnson, one of the women singers was hardly an arm’s length away. It was great!
Days later a man described as a “drifter” and a mental patient from near the Alabama-Georgia border who had been staying at the local Motel 6 in Lafayette walked into a showing of Amy Schumer’s reportedly hilarious Trainwreck and started firing. He wounded a bunch of people, many badly and he killed two young women, Mayci Breaux and Jillian Johnson.
This was just another in a series of tragic killings that we have allowed in the United States through our unconscionable lack of community and political will to do the right things about guns for the good of society as a whole and the families affected. Ironically, even Louisiana’s Governor, and wannabe President, Bobby Jindal, tried to jump into the fray and shame other states into at least having a program to automatically register people with mental health issues in a federal database.
Guns are not unknown to our family, but they’re not “familiar” with them. They’ve shot them. Relatives and friends hunt. I owned a BB gun as a boy and have a shotgun safely in Arkansas. We’re not fanatics, but there’s no excuse for not being smarter.
Social Policy Press is preparing to publish an e-book this fall by distinguished law professor, Franklin Strier, called Guns and Kids: Can We Stem the Carnage? It’s a good question and Strier has a lot to say about it and solid policy proposals for what needs to be done, especially to protect children. Children, include those of families victimized in Lafayette.
We often say that real social change in this country only comes whether it be about war-and-peace, women, race, gay rights, or many other issues, when it comes home to people. Where is the tipping point after Colorado, Connecticut, South Carolina, and now Louisiana when such tragedy has finally come close enough to enough of us that it is at “arm’s length” and forces change?
Reading a New York Times’ quote from Mary Tutwiler, mourning her friend, Jillian Johnson, and wanting her life to have more meaning, makes me hope that we are finally coming to the end of this road, as she says:
“In the past few days, I have been so sad and so angry, I didn’t know what to do with myself. But the thing about knowing Jillian is that in the same place, she would have taken it upon herself to do something. Things flash through my mind: better federal and state laws regulating the sale of guns, better databases, assault weapon bans. The national conversation is now personal – it’s my conversation as well.”
These words should be on the tip of all of our lips until there is real change and we have put this problem and the tragedies it brings much farther away than arms’ length.
New Orleans Sitting around a barbeque grill in Missoula, Montana recently, I found myself in a mini-debate with a former political science professor at the University there who taught Jim Messina, a former Obama campaign manager and master political consultant. My friend’s position echoed Messina’s own post-election spin about bad political polling, arguing that “Cameron was the only one who wasn’t surprised at the election results.” I took the position, based on discussions with ACORN United Kingdom organizers throughout the country who were in the streets organizing in the communities of Bristol, London, Newcastle, Edinburgh, and Birmingham that the extent of conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s victory might have been a surprise, but from listening to our organizers on the ground, the fact that he won over the Labour Party candidate was predictable.
My friend’s point was that the campaign mechanics had gone past “big data” allowing micro-targeting to the level that in his words the Conservatives “could count the individual votes.” My point, held with equal stubbornness undoubtedly, was that field work still mattered the most and that no one trusted polling anymore anyway. Outside of the range of the barbeque’s heat the debate is really one where there is little difference in the distinction. I would agree that the tech side of political campaigning is now off-the-chain as it has advanced over the last decade, and my friend would probably agree that the field programs have as well. Our real argument might have been how in the world could we reconcile Jim Messina, long known and admired by both of us, working for David Cameron?!?
Reading reports of the early work in Iowa, the field is still the trigger there. Hillary Clinton’s campaign has 47 paid organizers already on the ground and is recruiting up to 7000 volunteers to work the caucuses more than a year away. Senator Bernie Sanders’ effort isn’t slouching on the field front either, claiming 33 paid staff and 10 field offices. Those are small organizing armies!
Many of the organizers in both campaigns are veterans of the Obama campaigns. It is worth noting that the campaign manager for the Clinton machine is Robby Mook, who, according to the New York Times “rose through the ranks of field organizing, which has revolutionized modern campaigns.” Wish I had that quote with me in Montana!
Part of the new volunteer field methodology Mook drew from “organizing techniques of labor groups like the United Farm Workers,” according to the Times. Much of this seems to focus on the work of volunteers, using them to recruit other volunteers, and now in the Clinton campaign promoting some of the volunteers as “engagement directors” who develop the “internal organization” or “’captains’ who oversee specific tasks like canvassing.” Of course all of this is coupled with digital technology, both counting and targeting. And, of course none of this really sounds all that novel or unique, and most of it sounds like the reporter was being spun by the campaign. Other reports have already quoted Marshall Ganz, a UFW veteran, essentially prospecting for work, and we’ll be reading about “relational” organizing soon I’ll bet as well.
All of which is important for sure, but the classroom and the computer are still no substitute for hitting the doors and doing the work on the ground. Heck, the candidates – and the issues — even turn out to be important still in campaigns, which is worth remembering, too.
New Orleans When we hear that someone handled something with grace, we instinctively know, deep inside, what that means, but it’s hard to put a handle on it, teach it, or pass it on. The Oxford English Dictionary takes two and half pages to try and put their arms around it for goodness sakes!
I found myself thinking of this when I read The New Yorker story of David Bradley, the very wealthy publisher of The Atlantic magazine and his role in trying to help free five hostages held, largely by ISIS, in Syria. Part of what deepened his commitment to such an extraordinary effort had been a letter he had received from James Foley, during Foley’s first stint as a hostage. Foley, once freed, had written Bradley a “thank you” note for his help. Two months later Foley wrote a second, longer “thank you” note, when he had learned more thoroughly about the special role that Bradley had played in his release then. The story by Lawrence Wright said that Bradley had copied the letter from Foley and given the copies to his children as examples of “grace.”
Grace in the religious tradition is a gift given without hope of thanks or reward, and, secularly, grace has seeped into our realities as a favor or gift without a quid pro quo or in the terms of the OED, without implying “a right or obligation.” In their more classic language grace is the “share of favour allotted to one by Providence or fortune; one’s appointed fate, destiny, or lot; hap, luck or fortune….”
Do we see so little of this now that implicitly we have to almost collect and memorialize the examples, and, if so, how tragic that we are so beggaring our lives. I found myself looking for more examples all around me.
Reading the paper, Dan Barry of the New York Times wrote a long column in which the word “grace” is never mentioned, but where it shone tellingly. He was writing the follow-up to a picture taken of an African-American South Carolina state trooper, who turned out to be Leroy Smith, the head of the troopers, helping a white, elderly, black-t-shirted protestor with a Nazi-sympathizing, racist group protesting the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the capitol. The man was suffering from what appeared to be fatigue and heat exhaustion, and Smith was helping the man up 40 stairs to the air-conditioned part of the Capitol. There’s a picture of grace. The story says an elderly white woman protestor trailed behind them asking the trooper if the other protestor was going to be all right. If she did not thank Smith, that would be a good example of the absence of grace.
Maybe it’s not so rare.
Just yesterday on a scorchingly hot New Orleans day I was driving down St. Claude within blocks of my home and pulled up to a stoplight at Desire Street. Driving this old beater, my windows are down because the air-conditioner is a historical artifact. A man approached the window from in front of the liquor store on the corner with a sweating plastic bottle of water and reached it towards me. I said, “No, I’m good,” assuming it was probably some kind of scam, like a free-window wash. He kept his hand outstretched and said, “What you’re not hot? Take this water, since we can’t drink our water anyway.” There had been a boil water notice for two days from the Sewerage & Water Board for our local water. I took the water and then noticed behind him on the curb an open blue cooler with a handwritten marks-a-lot sign saying “Hank’s Free Water” and two young children, probably his sons, standing next to the cooler.
I yelled thanks and drove the rest of the way home. I didn’t drink the water though. Only minutes before I had been reading Paul Singer’s book, The Most Good You Can Do, about “effective altruism.” Hank and his water seemed such a vivid example of grace in action, and perhaps a small manifestation of “effective altruism,” that I knew immediately that water would never touch my lips. It would have to find its way to my children, or better, the next stranger I see hot and thirsty on the street.
New Orleans This moment may be the “Progressive Spring” even in the blistering, clinging heat of July for two reasons: Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
How sweet can it be to have Trump on the border in Laredo, leading the polls among sixteen Republican candidates, ahead on the numbers in Iowa, and even the subject of a debate among journalists on whether or not to cover his race, as if they have a choice. Trump is like the Republican nightmare of the apocalypse. No matter how the semi-moderate candidates try to paint lipstick on this pig, the red-meat Republican base is loving his shtick. How can they convince anyone they can govern from this base?
And, look at Bernie Sanders go! Wow! What an elixir to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party to see socialist-independent-democrat Senator Sanders pull in the crowds. Sure, there were wild numbers in the Peoples’ Republic of Madison, Wisconsin, but there were also huge crowds in the big cities of Texas. Sanders is everywhere. He’s even coming to Baton Rouge and New Orleans. He’s gone viral. He’s gone national. He’s on the tip of the tongue for progressive everywhere.
At the same time, everyone is clear that Trump is like the pop song of the summer, a tune in everyone’s head that will be gone by the time the temperature drops, a reality show transferred to primetime, more roar in the noise machine. His legacy will be what sticks on the shoes of the rest of the candidates through the primary, and if we’re lucky, still smells by the general election. I mean, Trump, really?
But, how about Sanders? Can he win the nomination? The standard line would be, “well, anything can happen in politics,” but the reality is that his chances of being on the ballot in November 2016 are right there on the margin between slim and none. He’s not a media-addict like Trump, he’s a professional politician. He knows how to read the numbers, what’s hype and what’s hard, and how to assess reality. Is this just a senior moment, a chance to tell truth to people and to power? Or, what?
His record in Vermont has shown a fearless commitment to independent politics and building alternative political formations. Running and winning as a socialist and an independent says something about frozen, rural white people in New England, but it also speaks of conviction and courage for Sanders. He can’t be doing this just to say he moved Hillary a little bit left for a minute or that he raised issues on a national stage, can he? Really?
Maybe I’ve been out in the sun too long this summer in our “Progressive Spring,” but is it impossible to dream that Sanders might be driving the pilings to build an alternative political formation nationally? And, if not, why not? There are efforts in numerous cities around the country, like Chicago (see Sadlowski article in Social Policy, Contra Costa, Hartford, and of course New York to build something new – and better. There’s of course the seasoned and sustaining contributions of the Working Families Party in New York and many other states.
How about a legacy that changes politics in the US for the future and makes the “Progressive Spring” permanent, rather than just seasonal and forgotten by fall?
New Orleans The one thing that I have always told organizers, as I imagine we all have, is that any tactic too often repeated, loses its power. Somehow the Republicans, including in Congress and on the Presidential trail, don’t seem to have gotten this message and are trying once again to video-scam a respected nonprofit institution, Planned Parenthood.
A lawyer for the organization sent a letter to a Congressional committee already acting in lockstep “looking” at two heavily edited videos stirring the red meat on the Republican grill. He documented 65 recordings “without their knowledge” and 10 “attacks” over 8 years that they have attributed to David Daleiden, through a fake company called Biomax Procurement Services in a so-called “campaign of corporate sabotage.” Let’s hope the facts matter, because that was not the history with ACORN.
It’s not just me seeing the connection either. Here’s the award winning Heather Digby Parton on Salon.com:
[Iowa Congressman Steve] King, for example, was one of the first lawmakers to urge the defunding of low-income housing group ACORN, which went belly up following similar undercover videos suggesting criminal activity. To this day, he keeps a tiny acorn in his pocket to remember his crusade. Now, he’s got his eyes on another organization. “This represents ACORN’s scalp,” King said off the House floor Thursday, pulling the acorn out of his pocket. “Ask me after the appropriations cycle and see if I have a talisman in my pocket for Planned Parenthood’s.”
One would think that Democrats would never go along with the de-funding of Planned Parenthood, since the ramifications for millions of low income women would be so dire. But the ACORN precedent is instructive. When those doctored videos were released, the Democrats had a majority in congress and the first African American president had just been elected. And ACORN was not just another community organizing institution, it was essential to voter outreach among an important Democratic Party constituency. Yet the Democrats in Congress simply crumbled like a cookie made with way too much white flour.
The Republicans recognized that their language and their attitudes on women’s issues were destructive in the last couple of election cycles and suggested that politicians and pundits take a less insulting approach on the campaign trail. But the base is not happy with that and they seem to have shifted their strategy now that their guerrilla hoaxers have provided them with some video they can use to put women’s organizations on the defensive and set up another ACORN spectacle to de-fund another liberal backed institution. They are going to try to turn Planned Parenthood into the Democratic Party’s Todd Akin. The only question is whether the Democrats will have the fortitude to resist.
Geez! Talk about a hope-and-prayer strategy. Luckily, Cecile Richards and her gang at Planned Parenthood have proven they can take these shots and fire back and have the friends and money to do so.
There are big stakes here. Bigger than most of us might realize at least according to the BlueNationReview.com:
Republicans remember what they did to ACORN. If they could do the same to Planned Parenthood, it would be a bigger victory for them then winning the White House. And it would be devastating to women all over the country.