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      Thursday
      Mar272014

      Where will the Progressive Democrats Stand?

      David Graeber's “The Democracy Project” and Thomas Piketty's “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”, two standout books for recommended commentary. (Covers by Harvard University Press and Spiegel & Grau, respectively.)

      Let's at least agree that "Happy Days Are Here Again" cannot be the Democratic theme song between now and 2016. We are beyond the brink, in the danger zone, in many ways.

      There are some who say I am "negative" for predicting Democratic defeats in 2014. But my role is not to be a cheerleader but a reality checker. Too many people burn out if we raise their expectations while we know they will crash in November. The best Democrats can do in the House of Representatives is narrow the margin. As for the Senate, we're in danger of losing that chamber, which would give Republicans, and their ideological vanguard, monopoly power over all branches of government. Unless the Republicans implode, the best the Democrats can hope for is a 51 or 52 Senate majority, and that's crucial even that majority includes conservatives. That's how much the Supreme Court means. 

      We on the democratic left have raised a ruckus, from Occupy to the Elizabeth Warren campaign. But "changing the conversation" is different than changing the numbers in our stacked and undemocratic political system. The iron law of recent politics is that Democratic voter turnouts are lower in odd-numbered congressional years. Republican gerrymandering does the rest, and presto, you have quite an unrepresentative right-wing government exercising disproportionate power over our lives. 

      That makes 2016 ultimately important, in terms of recovering ground and competing for a majority on the US Supreme Court.

      The Obama administration will become more important if power shifts to the Republicans this November. President Barack Obama perhaps can replace Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg before the Republicans claim that power. He can keep us out of the several wars, which the Republicans clamor for. He can issue environmental regulations, which will send coal to the coal bin of history. And so on.

      So I want to be clear that the quest for the White House, and the use of federal power, is vitally important to the prospects of the progressive movement.

      But I have argued for a long time that the progressive movement should adopt a strategy of building successes at regional, state, and local levels through what we can call federalism from the bottom up. This is really the only path we can follow as long as our country is locked into divisions along the lines of the Civil War, the Mexican War, the New Deal and the Sixties.

      Here's why California, and California activists, are so very important as a sort of vanguard. On the one hand, we already have been through the very crazy spells, which America is going through as a whole. Pete Wilson ran those television commercials against "illegal immigrants" running over our border that led to Prop 187. California abolished affirmative action in our public universities. California led the revolt against property taxes, which underfunded our public schools, another right-wing objective. California voted to ban same-sex marriage as recently as 2008.  California chose an "outsider", Arnold Schwarzenegger, to save us from our political crisis.

      None of those false remedies worked out, and as a result California has been on a steady path towards a more progressive future. 

      In addition to Governor Jerry Brown's tax increase on the very rich, his blunting the constant tuition increases at the university, his signature on the immigrant rights legislative package, his refusal to support Prop 8 in court, and his rational implementation of Obamacare, the governor and California can have the leading role in facing the challenge of climate change if we remember the better chapters of our past. 

      I know most of you are angry with the Governor for his unwillingness to impose a moratorium or ban on fracking. I know, I know. But I think the pressure of your arguments will help him evolve in his thinking. I say so based on a long view.

      Back in the late Seventies, I was appointed Governor Brown's chair of the state solar energy council. Many of us were considered a bit flaky because we were ahead of our time, but look what happened. California's leadership was the catalyst for many states adopting powerful fuel-efficiency standards against the will of Detroit, and those standards led to the creation of a clean energy economy that has saved consumers billions of dollars and considerably cleaned the air. 

      After this November's election, I think you may see Jerry Brown unfurling a serious challenge to the nation and the world over climate change. Maybe he will run for President, who is to say? Or he may seek partnerships, with the White House, with other governors, and especially with the Chinese government, to finally achieve a tax on carbon emissions and turn our future in a safer direction. It will be the same strategy, federalism from the bottom up, started in California. 

      So push ahead on the Governor, and let's hope he pushes the president and the nation forward starting next year. To play this role, he will have to lessen his hesitation on the question of fracking, and sign a moratorium bill as soon as one reaches his desk. We have to work hard in every legislative district to get the necessary votes. The oil and gas industry are very well lubricated, as you know.

      The same model of progressive change driven by states like California can be applied to the national battles over immigration rights, tax reform, educational equity, and other issues in the next few years. You already see this in the gains of the movement for living wages. Over twenty states have wage standards above the minimum federal level, and over one hundred local governments have set living wage standards at the $12-15 pay level. California will have the highest minimum wage - ten dollars - of any state in the country by 2016. It's not enough, but again it's building a better economy from the bottom up.

      Then in 2016, we can't take the country back, but we can settle for the Presidency and tip the Supreme Court balance to our favor.  

      I am worried not only about losing Congress in 2014, but 2014 being the stage-setter for an epic war in 2016. The divides in our nation are becoming deeper, and no soothing words about "common ground" are going to paper over the conflicts ahead.

      There will have to be another uprising like Occupy Wall Street, another social tremor to shake the political and economic elite from their perpetuation of the growing economic inequality in our country. I say this as a prediction, that we will be warned again to change our ways, whether Democrats or Republicans are in power. 

      Despite all the great forward changes we achieved in the Thirties and Sixties, for example, the 1962 Port Huron Statement warned that the One Percent remained in control of most of the nation's wealth. And today, despite civil rights and diversity, women, blacks, Latinos or Asian Americans each make up less than five percent of Fortune 500 CEOs. Ninety-eight percent of our cultural elite, the motion picture academy, is elderly white males. 

      So it will take another revolt. I'm not saying a revolution will somehow occur, only another serious threat to the growing oligarchy bidding to control our country, perhaps a revolt against money in politics. We should be ready because if another uprising comes along we will have yet another chance to translate that burning energy into permanent gains for democracy, working families, and low-income neighborhoods. The 1 Percent should cover their mega-wealth at their own peril, before too many angry Americans begin muttering about the guillotine. If so many armed militias are harboring violent thoughts towards immigrants and blacks, isn't it obvious that a few are conspiring against the 1 Percent?

      Unlike most of Occupy, however, I believe we progressives need to assert real demands onto the national agenda when the time comes. For now, it's important to study and discuss where we are and I'd like to suggest David Graeber's “The Democracy Project” as a rich discussion of how American might become more democratic and participatory, and Thomas Piketty's epic new book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”, a 700-page analysis which recommends a tax on capital flows as the centerpiece of reforming the global economy.

      Demands, of course, do not mean much if they float around think-tanks. Historically, meaningful ideas have been the result of a "heroic creation" from the laboratory of struggle itself, for example, in today's visionary thinking about a one-hundred percent renewable energy economy, a sort of "green New Deal", which originated in the anti-nuke movement, the Zen artists, the back-to-the-landers and the solar prophets, before Jerry Brown made it a practical possibility. 

      Street occupations are powerful in their own ways, but the left needs the political reach that groups like Progressive Democrats of America can offer in the precincts, primaries, and caucuses at the grass roots level.

      Part of my worry is about our facing a dire generational challenge like few before, with the sun going down on the new generation before it can rise up. The data is stunning, with younger Americans facing a shorter life expectancy than their parents, and more health problems along the way. Those going to college are crushed under one trillion collars of debt. (When I went to Ann Arbor, it was one hundredbucks a semester!) Good jobs with good wages are disappearing, and so is upward mobility. The leaders and experts are telling the young that nothing can be done about climate change, the disappearance of species, and crumbling of the eco-systems. This bad news will drive some into addictions of various kinds, the poetry of drop-outs, or a new numbness; but inevitably, inevitably, it will drive millions of young people to revolt against the legacies being imposed on them against their will. They will not settle for a future without their representation.

      The importance of electoral campaigns in this coming storm cannot be overstated. As we know from experience, millions of people join progressive and insurgent campaigns, learn through them, give a year or two of their lives to them, and become a permanent community of activists giving themselves to many causes in a lifetime. So it was with the campaigns of Jesse Jackson, Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich and California's CED, as we lost elections, but new generations of activists were born. So it has been with the campaigns of President Barack Obama, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Mayor Bill de Blasio, all mobilizing currents of long-term activism.  

      So it will be in 2016. If enough Americans feel the Republican’s war on women as direct abuse, a new force of progressive feminism may rise and benefit Hillary Clinton. If the Wall Street oligarchs continue their unrestrained plunder, the force of economic populism will build a popular wave for Senator Bernie Sanders. The progressive movement will grow in scale, including the so-called progressive wing of the Democratic Party. No one can predict the outcome in 2016. But PDA - and progressive Democrats in general - realizing that it sometimes takes two wings to fly, must mobilize new people, and new voters, who finally come together to stop the oligarchs and build a wider participatory democracy for the greater wars to come.  

      --

      This piece contains notes from Tom Hayden's speech to Progressive Democrats of America at the California Democratic Party state convention, March 7, 2014.

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