Progressive Ellison Running Hard for DNC Chair

Minnesota’s progressive Congressman Keith Ellison is mounting an unusual campaign for Chair of the Democratic National Committee, unusual, among other reasons, because it is even happening. In normal times the Party’s Chair is in the gift of insiders who choose one of their own (think Donna Brazile). Ellison is campaigning hard and publicly for the job with a fundraising effort and a 12 page platform, and his effort has begun to draw early support.
There is, as would be expected, support from the usual suspects: Senators Sanders and
Warren. Not so expected is the support that he is getting from outgoing and incoming
Senate Minority Leaders Reid and Schumer. There is talk of an endorsement by the AFL-CIO, and the presidents of the American Federation of Teachers and the State, County and Municipal Employees are already behind him. In addition to the big names, Ellison is looking
to the party’s grass-roots to back his programmatic campaign to rebuild from the ground up
(again, the emphasis on program is unusual; the DP Chair is customarily conceived as a nuts-
and-bolts mechanic whose job is to tune up the Party machinery).

Without discussing the recent Democratic debacle, Ellison’s platform shows where he would put the emphasis in the future. It is clearly on the concerns of the working class and progressives. The Congressman has been the co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus
and was an strong Sanders supporter, and as the progressive/social democratic forces come together on a local level, it is likely that he would give them a sympathetic ear.

Posted in Domestic Politics Labor Uncategorized by Eldon Clingan. No Comments

We’ve Realigned; Now What?- Part 1

In 1960 the Socialist Party-Social Democratic Federation, the predecessor of SDUSA, issued a political statement in which it announced two decisions: that, for the first time in its history, it would not run a presidential candidate, and that it would work for the realignment of the political party system so that a programmatic liberal-labor party would be created. The SP-SDF promised to work within such a party as a “loyal and honest democratic socialist wing,” with the expectation that a socialist program would eventually prevail in the party. Those who supported the “realignment position” had a definite idea of what the party and its antagonist would look like: “Let labor, the farmers, the Negro people and other minorities, the liberal and peace forces, come together in a party of our own; and let the forces of conservatism and big business, the militarists and nationalists, the stand-patters come together in a party of their own.” (The full statement is available on this site at “Various Writings.”)

More than fifty years later we can see that the model they projected for a liberal-labor party has come about– more or less. The Democratic Party has largely shed its racist wing and become not a Left but a center-left party. The Republicans have acquired
that racist wing (not so open today but still there) and become a center-right party. Again, the SP-SDF foresaw this development: the critical lever to push the Dixiecrats from the Democratic Party was the movement for equal rights for American Negroes, they predicted. If the Socialists of 1960 were so farseeing, why don’t we have at least a vigorous social
democratic party today in the form of the Democratic Party?

It’s tempting to try to answer this question by rehearsing the sad history of the Democratic Party since 1960, a history that includes the catastrophic split in the sixties between labor and liberals over the Vietnam war, the cultural tension between these groups that continues until this day, and the rise to intellectual and political power of the neoliberals. However, I want to answer more hopefully by saying: within the Democratic Party today we do have a strong and vigorous multitude holding social democratic opinions (unlike, by the way, the DP in 1960). This multitude is not yet organized into a movement, but when it does organize, it can take power in the Democratic Party and turn it into the political instrument envisioned in 1960. This social Democratic Party will then have a reasonable chance to win the presidency.

Such a statement seems incredible, as President-Elect Trump is picking a cabinet of breathtaking reactionaries, and as we are hoping that they inflict limited damage on our country in the next four years. However, we need to examine some important trends:

First, there is the strength of the Sanders movement within the Democratic Party. Bernie
(crotchety, not the best orator, a largely unknown Senator from a small state) won 23 primaries and caucuses and 43% of the pledged delegates against the vaunted and well-financed Clinton machine. Although he calls himself a democratic socialist, in fact he ran on a social democratic program and defines his socialism as the kind they have in Scandinavia. Much of his program ended up in the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party, as the Clinton forces recognized the strength of his supporters and the attraction of his program. These accomplishments occurred despite the near-total lack
of an organized movement when he began his campaign.

We are far from having such an unorganized movement today. It is estimated that 400,000 activists watched the rollout of Our Revolution, and while national OR will do little with them beyond soliciting donations, local organizations of grass-roots Bernie supporters are forming in my state and, I suspect, in many others. An example occurred last Sunday, when a spontaneous local group of more than 100 met in Cambridge, MA. In addition, a statewide group is forming in Massachusetts. It is likely that this group has a potential membership of 10,000; with the right organizing moves, it will swing great weight in the Massachusetts
Democratic Party. With the right candidate, a national organization growing out of the Bernie campaign can carry a majority of delegates to the Democratic convention in 2020. This is an opportunity for social democrats that never came after 1960.

We have also come to a point when the neoliberalism that dominated the Democratic Party has been smashed. The working class of this country, having had virtually flat wages for 40 years, finally handed the Democratic elites their heads. Make no mistake: the election was not a defeat for progressives and progressive policies. It was a defeat for the Clintons and their political machine, a defeat for obscene privilege masquerading as “practical progressivism.” The fundamental strategic task of progressives is to force the Democratic Party to go to the people in 2018 and 2020 with a program and candidates that address the real hurt that the people are feeling. Such a program and such a party will be social democratic. Victory after 6 decades!

Posted in Domestic Politics Economy Labor by Eldon Clingan. 5 Comments

Blood and Teeth: a review of Bill Press, Buyer’s Remorse: How Obama Let Progressives Down

Probably many of us are getting urgent e-mails asking us to express our approval of President Obama on the eve of his departure and, not so incidentally, back up sentiment with a generous donation to the sponsoring organization. Generally, I am heartily glad to see the back of a leader who has led a failed administration. On the other hand, considering who will replace him, I would rather he stay in the White House and keep Trump out.

Bill Press, reporter, broadcaster and former Chair of the California Democratic Party, probably also has mixed feelings. It’s safe to say, I think, that he wrote this book with the expectation of a different outcome to the election. Perhaps he would have pulled some punches had he expected that any of his words would have helped Trump. However, the book he
did write is a useful cautionary tale for progressives in the future.

The most important take-away from the book is the overwhelming importance of the person who
occupies the Presidency. He or she sets the priorities and strategy. He/she hires the chief advisors and administrators who will help set policies and supervise their execution.
The choice of assistants, however, is not a value-free process. As Elizabeth Warren has said, personnel is policy. People who are eligible for high government positions typically have histories and agendas. Thus the President knew, or should have known, what he was getting when he chose Larry Summers and Tim Geithner for the chief economic positions in his administration. Summers had bounced around Harvard, government and Wall Street, picking up
animosity and several million dollars along the way. Geithner was head of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, and it would have been difficult, geographically and ideologically, for him to be closer to Wall Street. As the President wrestled with greatest economic disaster since the Great Depression, he chose how he would address that disaster when he chose Summers and Geithner.

Their first concern was to restore “confidence” on Wall Street. This was done by massive bailouts and friendly sympathy, extending even to allowing bailed out companies to pay bonuses to the executives who had presided over the actions that had led to financial collapse. Understandably, as millions of houses went into foreclosure and entire communities cratered, the average American understood that “Socialism for the rich” was alive and well.

Not so healthy was concern for the millions of workers who lost their jobs. Of course, capitalism was trying to solve the problems it had created by throwing its burden on the backs of the working class. There were two broad ways put forward to alleviate the problem of unemployment: government austerity, which meant cutting expenditures for social services,
and the Keynesian method of large, pump-priming government expenditure on public works and social services. Obama more or less chose the second method, whose planning exemplified the process that would characterize many other decisions over the next eight years. First, the
Council of Econmic Advisers estimated the bare minimum of government expenditure necessary
to maintain employment at its previous level (not at full employment, of course; that would have been socialism for the poor). Summers, et al., were aghast at the political naïveté of
the economists. Congress would never approve such an outrageous number, said they, so they cut the proposed appropriation approximately in half (Congress was still in Democratic hands), meaning that it was bound to fail to restore adequate employment. When the already compromised measure got to Congress, it was met with further demands for compromise. The result was a bill that was a mixture of tax cuts and public works projects, one that was totally inadequate to stem the avalanche of unemployment

Press observes that Obama and his appointees did not seem to know the first rule of bargaining: you never present your final offer first. Everyone in government understands that the first offer is just the beginning of negotiations. Repeatedly Obama’s positions had been compromised within his administration before they reached Congress, where they were further whittled down. Look at the Affordable Care Act, the President’s signature achievement, as an example of this model, and it’s apparent why it has been at best a modest success.

A related part of the Obama failures was his apparent unwillingness to follow a basic rule in negotiations with others and especially negotiations with opponents: you have to fight your corner. You have to believe in your own case and,as Elizabeth Warren has said, be prepared to leave blood and teeth on the floor. Certainly compromise is probably necessary in the end, but the other side has to know that it has been in a fight. Otherwise, the President will be in Obama’s position: the Republicans sized him up as a wimp and would not bargain with him; and, after all, they didn’t have to negotiate. After 2010 and 2012 the Republicans took the House and then the Senate. A courageous, progressive President- the kind that Obama told us he would be in 2008- might well have held the Congress.

So I think I will skip signing the sorry-to-see-you-go card.

Posted in Domestic Politics Economy Uncategorized by Eldon Clingan. No Comments

Bernie Sanders, Our Revolution: a review

In my opinion, all of us owe an enormous debt to Bernie Sanders. He took up the progressive banner when other possible candidates were reluctant to take on the fabled Clinton machine.
While he was not (and is not) my preferred candidate for that role, he had the Brooklyn moxie to go against the Democratic Establishment and its Wall Street contributors. When he declared his candidacy, all of the “wise people” thought it was a kamikaze run, likely to end in embarrassing failure. Instead, he built a small group of friends and supporters into
a movement of millions and financed a campaign without PACs, a campaign based on peoples’ contributions that averaged $27 each. He showed that there were millions of Americans who are social democrats, even if they don’t use that label. That we have a chance today to build a progressive/social democratic movement is in large measure because of Bernie Sanders.

How nice it would be, then, to say that his just-published book, Our Revolution, is a sure bet for the Pulitzer Prize. Alas, it is as a political leader and not as a writer that we must honor Bernie. The book is actually two books: first, there is an account of the campaign for about 180 pages; then, for the balance of the 450 pages, there is a discussion of the policies that inspired his campaign. Both parts are in sad need of an editor who would take a blue pencil to the repetitious prose and to Bernie’s too frequent and too lengthy quoting of himself. An index would also be useful in sorting through the ideas
and people who are in such profusion. Probably the most valuable part of the book is the policy section, which can serve as a quick reference for progressives.

As lengthy as the policy section is, however, there is a significant issue missing: gun control. This omission perhaps tells us something about Bernie and something about necessary compromises in political life; if he were more introspective about his motivation and values and willing to share his conclusions about himself, we could learn a great deal about him and about the reality of life as a practicing politician. Unfortunately, most people in political life feel the need to hide some of their innermost convictions, and Bernie’s real views on gun control are probably well-suppressed. Surely a person of his humanistic values cannot fail to be horrified by the epidemic of wholesale murder made possible by easy access to firearms. However, when he does address the issue, in the campaign narrative, it is to complain that Hillary Clinton used it to attack him unfairly.

The attack was not unfair; it was founded on several votes that he had cast on gun control, including an especially egregious vote for exempting gun manufacturers from liability for the misuse of their products. Quoting himself for nearly a page, Bernie sets out his position on gun control, including a ban on assault rifles. If the manufacturers of assault rifles had to face the possibility of lawsuits by the victims of their products, we can be sure that they would cease to make them. They do not face the consequences of their behavior, however, because Bernie and others have given them a free pass.

Bernie admits that he never found a “good” answer to this attack, probably, we might speculate, because there was no “good” answer. There was, of course, an answer, and it had
the merit of being truthful. Bernie could have said,”Look, a lot of folks in Vermont have guns to which they are mightily attached. If I vote with gun control advocates, I will lose my constituents’votes and will lose my seat in the Senate. If I am not in the Senate, I can’t do the good things that you and I want me to do. Voting against gun control measures is my pinch of incense on the altar of political reality.” Had he made this answer, it would have been evident that his idealistic left hand did not always know what his politically cunning right hand was doing and that he, too, was a politician.

However, despite his admiration for Pope Francis, Bernie is not a candidate for canonization
and should not judged on the criteria for sainthood. It is enough that he is a good man who is trying to do good things. It is enough that he stood up.

Posted in Uncategorized by Eldon Clingan. 9 Comments

Whose Revolution is Our Revolution?

The Bernie Sanders campaign was one of the most significant events for the American Left in the last four decades. It mobilized millions of voters to reject the neoliberalism that has dominated the Democratic Party. Equally important, it rallied voters and activists around a program that was essentially social democratic and negotiated with the Clinton wing of the party to produce the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party. Whether the candidate in 2020 is Bernie or someone else (hint: Elizabeth Warren), the campaign created a model that the Left can use to build and exercise strength in the Democratic Party. (By the way, we had a discussion of the value of such a campaign at the 2014 SDUSA convention. See video.)

Perhaps as significant as the campaign itself was Senator Sanders’ determination to build a movement beyond the campaign. Many of us saw the welcome possibility that a mass social democratic/progressive movement could be established throughout the country. When Bernie announced the new movement- Our Revolution, he spoke to an estimated 400,000 activists. Probably like others, I listened carefully for a description of the structure of Our Revolution because I have the fundamental conviction that a democratic revolution can
only be made by a democratic organization. Unfortunately, the Senator did not outline a democratic, grass-roots movement; instead, he announced that a staff had been hired and that a governing board was being assembled. I was mildly disappointed but thought that the time constraints of the presidential campaign perhaps made such a structure necessary. Now, after the election, when grass-roots groups are coming together in many parts of the United States, Our Revolution has issued by-laws, and there is serious cause for concern.

Of special interest is Article V of the by-laws, which, in effect, provides for a self-perpetuating Board of Directors. Section 5.03 provides that the directors shall be elected
by a majority of directors then in office (presumably including the power to re-elect themselves in perpetuity). Vacancies are to be filled by the Board of Directors. The Annual Meeting to elect directors and to transact the business of the organization is not a meeting of members or members’ delegates but simply a meeting of- you guessed it!- the Board of Directors (actually there no members, just “supporters,” largely defined in financial terms, with rights to be defined by—the Board of Directors. The Board of Directors has the sole right to amend the by-laws, without input from anyone else. This, I suggest, is not the structure of a democratic organization but of an oligarchy. It begs the question,
“Whose revolution is Our Revolution?”

To be fair, perhaps those in charge of OR fully intend to establish a structure that is responsive and responsible to its membership when grass-roots state organizations have been
created. However, if that is their intention, there is no indication of it on the web site.
Further, as far as I can tell, there is nothing that says that national OR even plans to help or encourage the organization of state OR groups.

My interest here is not to nit-pick a set of by-laws; neither is it to complain of theoretical violations of democratic procedure (although SDUSA and I are passionately committed to democratic principles). Rather, I want to warn of the danger to progressive politics of an oligarchy of even good people with good programs. I very much want to see a broad-based national progressive movement, and we have the best opportunity to create such a movement in many years. The current structure of OR presents at least two practical dangers to that vision, and we who share the vision must struggle for an internally democratic movement.

Many of us on the Left have had the bitter experience of participating in progressive organizations that were controlled by a “benevolent” self-perpetuating elite. We reasoned that internal democracy was not important because the leadership advocated progressive policies. Inevitably a time came when an issue of overwhelming importance arose, an issue that divided the leadership elite from many of the members (for me it was the Vietnam War, but I am an old guy). The leadership used its strategic position to impose its views on the dissidents, and we learned that, in a movement for which we had worked for years, we were
guests, not owners. The hard lesson I learned 40 years ago: internal democracy is not just a nice thing to have, it is essential.

A further danger is that oligarchical decision-making will not motivate the thousands and thousands of people that must come together to bring the democratic revolution. Democracy may or not be a cumbersome, messy way to make decisions but one thing is certain: it makes people feel that they are fully-empowered owners. A responsible adult understands that ownership implies responsibilties to participate in and work for the movement. We will need
that understanding if we are to have a successful movement.

In many states grass-roots OR groups are coming together. It is essential for the future of progressive politics that they be democratic: controlled by the members and responsive to the members. An opportunity like this comes along once in 5 decades; let’s not blow it.

Posted in Domestic Politics by Eldon Clingan. 7 Comments