Warning! Corporate Democrats May Use Anti-Trump Momentum to Shore Up Their Failed Policies

January 28, 2017

The sign said “Trump is a Ruskie”. Another read “I’m Still with HER.” And others: “Thank you Obama,” “Thank you Michelle.” At the Inauguration protests and at the Women’s March, loyal Democrats and Hillary supporters turned out to defend their party. On the dais Inauguration Day, Democratic Congress people wore buttons that said “Save Our Care,” meaning Obamacare. And at the Justice Department, the investigations went on into ties of Trump people with the Russians.

None of this is unexpected. None out of line. But it bespeaks an eagerness – largely unconscious on most people’s part, no doubt – to defend the party that was from the party that might be. To reassure Democratic loyalists that “It wasn’t our fault” that Trump won.

Whatever the verdict on that question, it’s clear that the Democratic Party has alienated voters, and not just its supposed working class base. The young, the left, the hyper-educated didn’t turn out for the Party’s standard bearer. More tellingly, as Bernie Sanders pointed out, the Party has been losing elections for a long time, so that today Republicans control most state legislatures and governors’ seats, not to mention both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court. And this was a party that was deeply divided almost up to election day in November and a wreck when Obama took office eight years ago. A party whose wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were deeply unpopular when it lost control of Congress two years before Obama’s ascendancy, and which subsequently brought the nation to the brink of economic ruin.

As Bernie Sanders pointed out in his gentle way after the election, when you’ve lost as many games as the Democrats have, you have to conclude you’re doing something wrong.

The current upwelling of outrage at the Trump administration, with all its revolutionary potential, simply cannot become another opportunity for the Democrats of business as usual to take the stage again.

The widespread movement to defend immigrants and Muslims certainly crosses whatever lines there may be between party apparatchiks and Bernie voters. But even here there are dangers that the old instincts will distort the movement. The vigorous defense of local authority in California and the sanctuary cities is heartening. At the national level, Democrats are not risking such a radical stance. In The Nation, We Can’t Throw Other Immigrants Under the Bus, Cesar Vargas warns that extremist Republicans are already offering to trade a citizenship route for the Dreamers for an end to family migration and other immigration programs. And, he notes, “Democrats are, with good intentions but a misguided strategy, championing the BRIDGE Act, which would provide temporary relief from deportation and work authorization to undocumented youth, essentially DACA [Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program] minus a path to citizenship.” Timid Democrats threaten, in his words, to “throw immigrants under the bus in order to save DACA” and reinforce a “good immigrant vs. bad immigrant” narrative that falls neatly into the hands of the right.

Efforts to “save Obamacare” are equally misguided. The faults in the program that Republicans have harped upon are not imaginary. From the perspective of a single payer plan, Obamacare is principally a new lease on life for the insurance industry. Even expanded state Medicaid programs are often handled by private insurance companies like Anthem (California). And any repeal is likely to retain protections for patients with pre-existing conditions and young people. In fact, Republicans are justifiably worried about repeal (see New York Times, Affordable Care Act Republican Retreat).

By welcome contrast, Representative John Conyers has reintroduced H.R. 676, “The Expanded and Improved Medicare For All Act.” With 85 sponsors last session and growing, the bill needs the support of every Democrat and any Republican who can see no way out of the bind the party has constructed for itself.

Apart from the rocky roads of legislation in a Trump-controlled Congress and the defense of threatened populations, the current rebellion has to turn into the “revolution” Bernie Sanders proclaimed, starting with mobilization to take the Democratic apparatus from the base up and transform it into the populist party it once claimed to be. That claim never held a great deal of water, of course, because, to the degree the party was “progressive,” it was so in the mold of Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. Even the New Deal was principally an effort to put capitalism on life support, directed by many of the captains of industry and finance. And “progressivism” in economics has largely followed that precedent. Has no one else noticed the Robert Reich, certainly no “corporate Democrat”, features his new book Saving Capitalism on the bookshelf behind his seat during his daily podcast of the 100 Days of Resistance?

And, while progressives’ commitments to equal justice and broad opportunity for all will certainly be a part of any reawakened Democratic electoral machine, it would also help the cause if Democrats acquired a deep appreciation for the exhaustion of ordinary Americans with bureaucratic overreach and incompetence. Ask a typical Democratic candidate about the more onerous characteristics of the bureaucratic state, and you will get a shrug and a defense of government action for the common good – as if that were the question. The left in America has no critique of bureaucracy, a failure that makes the right’s tendentious one plausible to millions of Americans, as David Graeber points out. But neither bureaucracy nor “science-based” policy making – another sacred cow in the current uproar over the triumph of the right – are compatible with democratic procedure.

If we are to have new Democrats, we shall have to re-think small-d democracy, starting with the functioning of the party itself. I recently attended the Assembly District elections for delegates to the California Democratic Central Committee, the body that makes many of the most important policy and candidate endorsement decisions for the state party. Wondering who else sat on this committee, I looked into the bylaws and found that the Central Committee, much like the National Convention, was stacked with office holders, stalwarts of other Democratic organizations, and appointees. Structures like these have stifled populists and left dissidents within the party for decades, if not forever. They will have to change if the corporate Democrats are not to assume their accustomed places at the head of the Party in Rebellion.

Hence, we need all be cautious as we adopt one or another path of “resistance.” To each “action alert” or “strategic plan” we have to ask “What agenda does this serve? Whose party does this defend? and, How does this advance the real revolution we need?”  And we’ll have to adopt Bernie’s 50 state strategy and Nader’s grassroots mobilization in each Congressional district in the country, first of all to put the Congress critters on notice that we are watching, but also, and for every election that comes along, not just to elect Democrats next time, but to elect the right people up the chain, Democrats, Greens, independents, what have you, from party officers to public officials at every level.  Then we might have a chance to construct a government capable of confronting the challenges of our time.


The Coming Dictatorship of Donald Trump?

January 24, 2017

We have won power in Germany, now we have to win over the German people.

– Adolph Hitler, on being appointed Chancellor of Germany

Donald Trump’s Inaugural Speech was a study in right wing populist demagoguery. Rejecting the politics that have enriched elites like himself and his cabinet picks and now ensconced them in power, he reiterated over and over the claim that his election was a victory for all those Americans who had been left behind by the triumph of the predatory capitalism he represents so well and by the political class that protects and promotes it.

Trump’s indictment of the ruling class and his account of the impact of their policies on ordinary Americans was certainly justified, even if partial and hypocritical. His call for an America first policy – as if American trade and foreign policy was not always about America first – and his bizarre depiction of foreign governments stealing companies and jobs from America foreshadowed a shake-up in U.S. foreign policy that in certain respects is long overdue. Whether the trade pacts he deplores are really vulnerable or the protectionism he invoked will amount to anything remains to be seen.

His notion that the U.S. must no longer pour money into building up other countries squares badly with his utter commitment to the Israeli state, the all-time top recipient of U.S. economic and military aid. And it is anybody’s guess how he intends to “eradicate Islamic terrorism” while standing behind Israel’s annexation of Palestine. But his rhetoric responds nicely to the perception of many Americans that the U.S. government does more for others abroad than for its own people and that we face existential threats “out there”.

Constitutional governments are not singularly weak before such appeals, but they have fallen time and again as determined leaders have managed to acquire power one way or another and justify their policies by appeal to popular grievances. Trump is no Hitler, no Mussolini. Though his support is as minoritarian as was theirs at the onset of their power, he has no storm troopers, no organized thuggery behind him. The “Bikers for Trump” who appeared briefly in Washington on Inauguration Day, pledging to put a wall between their president and the protesters who thronged the streets, disappeared just as quickly, with scarcely a scuffle to their credit, and appeared to be wholly self-organized.

Trump’s appeal, though decisive enough to give him the presidency, is limited. With just over 30 percent approval ratings on Inauguration Day, and a poor showing on the Mall (the 160,000 who turned out for Trump’s inauguration were a shadow of the estimated 1.8 million who filled the Mall at Obama’s inauguration, not to mention the 470,000 who came out the next day for the Women’s March), Trump has an uphill battle to win over the American people as a whole.

Minority support has rarely kept an American president from claiming a popular mandate for his policy agenda. Nor has it stood in the way of the assumption of dictatorial powers by leaders in other constitutional orders. Should Trump’s populist promises fail, as surely they will, he can be expected to fall back on the racism, xenophobia and nativism that drew such enthusiastic support at his rallies, as progressive Naomi Klein warned. And he will have behind him the tremendous power of the presidency, as conservative Peter Wehner in a recent New York Times op-ed. Between pro-Trump thugs and the well-armed police apparatus prepared against popular unrest under every president since Bill Clinton, the government of Donald Trump may well devolve into the sort of dictatorship we have seen around the world wherever capitalism and oligarchic power has found itself in crisis.

And Trump will find himself in crisis from the beginnings of his administration. Last week Harvard Law professor Lawrence Tribe commented that Trump will find himself eminently impeachable from the moment he is sworn in. Conflicts of interest, a willingness to flaunt the law and to exercise extra-Constitutional power, and an already galvanized opposition guarantee continuous conflict. Sanders Democrats and followers of Ralph Nader concur that organizing to block Trump’s more dangerous initiatives must go on in each Congressional District. And failed policies and popular outrage at broken promises or serious breaches of constitutional rights make it likely that Republicans will be on the defensive already by the mid-term elections. After that the outcome will be nasty, as both Trump and his opponents take the gloves off, if they hadn’t done so before then.

Behind the scenes conflict is due to erupt immediately, as thousands of federal employees find themselves confronted with a policy agenda hostile to the one they have been following sometimes throughout their careers and to which many of them have contributed. The “permanent government,” as the British call their civil service, will not give way lightly to demands for an about face on climate policy, clean air and water policy, the regulation of toxic chemicals, voting rights, gender equality, health services for women, and an enduring public education system, to name just a few of the policy areas that the Trump team has targeted. Whether we will see mass resignations – particularly likely at the senior level – or outright rebellion or obstruction, news of the battle within will leak out quickly. And, like the Bolsheviks a hundred years ago (!), forced to incorporate thousands of Tsarist officials into their administration, Trump and his “revolutionaries” will face a bureaucracy fundamentally hostile to much that the new administration stands for.

It is impossible to predict where we are heading, and difficult to give good counsel about how to approach the menace of a Trump dictatorship. There are always good reasons for non-violence, of course, but easy efficacy is not one of them. Nor is avoidance of violence. Violent responses to Trumpism will no doubt provide an excuse for state, state-sponsored and state supporting violence. But Trump and the forces aligned with him need no such excuses, nor have the forces of “law and order” needed them in dealing with protests over the last thirty years. “Resistance” in the streets, whatever form it takes, will be met with violence at some level or another, though it is heartening to note that the likes of The New York Times has finally taken notice of popular protest in its favorable coverage of the Women’s March.

More likely to make a difference is the mobilization of citizens that voices from Michael Moore to Robert Reich to Ralph Nader to Bernie Sanders have called for. The campaign 100 Days of Resistance promises to bombard lawmakers with protests against the Trumpist agenda and calls for important policy advances. Already the Trump victory seems to have galvanized dissidents within the Democratic Party to attempt to reform the party from within. Recent elections for the California Assembly District Delegates turned out record numbers of candidates and voters, many of them Bernie voters. And Nader’s Breaking Through Power (It’s Easier Than You Think) provides a roadmap to seizing power through the coming Congressional elections.

In short the Revolution has just begun. Whether it’s Trump’s, Bernie’s or something else altogether remains to be seen. And everything is at stake, including, first of all, the dictatorship of Donald Trump.

Update: The Next American Revolution, revised

February 26, 2011

This project was based on the conviction that we need a revolution to save ourselves, the overthrow, ultimately of the latest version of capitalism that is impoverishing most of us, trashing the planet, and running our political system. But that will require first of all, a constitutional revolution to lay the political groundwork for a democratic struggle over our future. That conviction has only deepened since I started work on the book, and recent events in Wisconsin and other Midwestern states have underlined both the need and the importance of acting.

But I have also come to see the task of the book differently, in part because I know more and more that I have no ready answers. As if we didn’t already know it, events in the Middle East have shown just how unpredictable are the time and place of revolutionary upheaval, and of the outcome of seemingly successful popular struggles. What are we to make of these events here? Certainly, Wisconsinites of all stripes have drawn important conclusions from the popular uprising in Egypt, not so much intellectual conclusions as ones of the heart — that popular action is legitimate, that success against our petty tyrants is possible, that pulling together people from all walks of life really can happen.

Does the uprising in Wisconsin “have feet”? Can it travel to other parts of the country, as the Tunisian uprising has spread elsewhere in the Middle East (and Midwest)? We don’t know. As a social scientist (by training, not by profession any more), I think I know that a lot depends upon the authorities. Will they provoke similar uprisings around the country, or will they lie low, counting on the apathy of citizens even in the face of rising food and gas prices, high hidden unemployment, continuing foreclosures, the scandal of Washington’s deals with Wall Street, and all the rest?

So the present vision for the book, if I continue working at it, is to look more closely at revolutionary paths, both those closed to us and those that might be open. I think I see two of each. Of those closed to us, the most obvious is what the seventies called “armed struggle.” The American state is simply too well-equipped for any such option to succeed, whether your vision is short-term of “long march”.

The other closed option, alas, is a Tunisian or Egyptian style popular uprising. Like armed struggles, such uprisings gather strength from the odd combination of intransigence and internal weakness. The American state is both quite capable of buying off and diffusing popular demands and maintaining a unified front in the face of massive popular demonstrations. Witness the Bush administration’s response to the enormous February 15, 2003 demonstrations in opposition to making war on Iraq. Or the Democrat’s willingness to curry anti-war support while refusing to act upon anti-war demands. Barring some enormous and unforeseen crisis, Americans simply won’t turn out for the sorts of protests that overturned Ben Ali or Mubarak. And those who do will be bought off or ignored, probably both.

Of the options that might succeed, I currently see two. The first is a constitutional revolution built upon a long process of organizing and agitating. Move to Amend and Fix Congress First! are both making stabs at this, but without the sort of radical democratic agenda I would advocate (see my chapter 2). As I originally intended, I hope to lay out some of the ingredients of such a struggle. But I’m not now convinced we will get very far by this route. Or maybe I’m just not up to the political organizing it would take to get there. And I know lots of people who could not believe in any such grand revolution. From them I take the second path, what I am tentatively calling “practical secession.”

There are a number of active secessionist movements in the U.S. today. Kirkpatrick Sale, a thinker I admire a lot, heads up an institute in Vermont devoted to studying and promoting secession. Bill Kaufman has a book I haven’t yet read introducing many of these movements, some of them frankly racist and atavist, others with better credentials.

But I have in mind something different. It may be possible, as many people I know assume, that we can simply rebuild our society and economy locally on new terms and provide ourselves and our neighbors, at least, with the resilience to survive some coming collapse of the too large societies we are currently enmeshed in. I would put the task in less optimistic and more radical terms.

As David Harvey argues, contemporary capitalism depends vitally on a compound rate of growth to survive, a demand that is, in effect, systematically destroying the planet as habitat for humanity. We can withdraw our support is a variety of ways. Money has to circulate beyond the local to contribute to the logic of capital reproduction. Local exchange takes money out of circulation to the extent it remains local. Similarly, labor has to be exploitable to provide the surplus capital requires. Withdraw from the labor market and you undermine the basis of circulation and reproduction of capital. So localization has a revolutionary logic. How far localization goes, how much it can achieve is another question, and I am currently as skeptical of this path as of the other. But I’m also convinced it has to be considered among the options that those of us who are fed up and can’t take it any more have.

So the book, as far as it goes here, is still a work in progress. Browse if you’re still interested and give me some feedback. There are too few people, even here in Northern California, who are thinking in these terms to bounce off of and learn from. Join the conversation.

Michael Foley, Feb. 26, 2011

Gulf Coast Disaster: Let Them Eat Jobs

May 26, 2010

Gulf Coast Disaster:  Let Them Eat Jobs

Michael Foley
As the nation’s greatest environmental disaster unfolds in the Gulf of Mexico, it has become strikingly clear that environmental issues aren’t just about endangered owls and gorgeous views.  They’re also about livelihoods, about the ways people make a living and their ability to pass down their way of life to their children.  The oil slick off the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama threaten wildlife and human livelihoods in the same measure.  “If it gets to the [marsh] grasses,” said one fisherman, “the natural abundance that we depend on is gone.”

President Obama’s efforts to reassure are hardly promising.  BP will pay — but court cases following the Exxon Valdez disaster put quit to any expectation that long-term costs will be borne by the polluters.  The Federal government will continue to do all it can to minimize the damage from the oil spill — but the response is in BP’s hands and damage is already widespread.  Despite the dismal prospects for the region, Obama promised that the government will see to it that affected residents have jobs.

Lose your livelihood and your way of life.  It’s OK.  You can always have a job.  Obama’s resort to the familiar cliche was no doubt unthinking.  After all, it is a matter of faith for both liberals and conservatives that jobs are what make the economy go ’round, jobs are economic development, and it’s jobs people want when they worry about their future.

But for the self-employed, for those who’ve built a fishing or oystering or tour boat business from scratch, for those who live by the sea because they love the way of life, a job, just any job, isn’t much of a consolation for the loss of their independence, self-reliance and deep knowledge of their business and their place.  A job, for someone who has carved out their own place in the world, might even be considered little more than wage slavery.

Wage slavery.  Few know it, but “wage slavery” is a deeply American phrase, coined not by Karl Marx but by struggling American farmers and working people at the very beginning of the nineteenth century when most Americans worked for themselves but also found their independence threatened by an emerging mercantile and corporate economy, nurtured by the courts and promoted by ambitious schemes of national development along lines first sketched by Alexander Hamilton.  The new economy would be built on debt and taxes, and the winners would, over the course of the next two hundred years, come to employ the vast majority of the population.  Sizable majorities of those present at the birth of the nation, however, saw not liberation but enslavement in the prospect of a United States of wage earners.

Were these early rebels — who were also often the heroes of struggles to democratize the aristocratic state constitutions of the day — so far off the mark?  For liberal and conservative intellectuals, business leaders, and professionals, the idea is just unthinkable.  They may revel in their job satisfaction even where they answer to a boss.  But for most people, a job is just a job, and the boss may be benevolent or cruel or just stupid, but he or she is always the boss.  “Do what you’re told, and keep your mouth shut” is the wisdom that governs most people’s work life.

It was certainly the dubious wisdom that kept miners at work at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine, where a disaster foretold took the lives of 29 miners in April.  Recent testimony by survivors, widows and relatives of the dead make clear that conditions were extraordinarily unsafe at the mine.  But workers who might have walked off the job in protest, if they had been unionized, were routinely dismissed if they raised safety concerns.

The eleven workers who died in the explosion that sank BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig were well paid by any standard.  Some of them may have thrilled at the danger of a job that set them far out at sea with risks they couldn’t always anticipate.  But if they knew they were in immediate danger, it’s not clear that they had any more recourse than the Upper Big Branch miners.

It’s unlikely that any of BP’s even better paid executives will go to jail for those deaths, even if the evidence that they were involved in criminal negligence is substantial.  It is even less likely that the corporation itself — or Halliburton, which had just completed work on the well, or Transocean Ltd., which owned the rig — will suffer more than a handslap.  Corporations don’t go to jail.  Corporations — persons though they be, according to our courts — don’t face the death penalty.  Corporations, after all, provide the jobs that are the lifeblood of the economy.  As for their victims, those that survive, and the multiple ways of life that were built on the Gulf Coast’s natural resources, well, a way of life can always be replaced — with jobs.

One Man’s Terrorist….

March 3, 2010

Ronald Reagan may have had one thing right.  “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”  Or something to that effect.  The brouhaha over Joe Stack’s suicide attack on the IRS building in Austin, Texas, last month might be dismissed with that old saw.  But the debate has deeper significance.  While left and right bicker over whether Stack was a “terrorist” or just another angry American, progressives show that, once again, they just don’t get it.

Stack has become a hero manque to large swaths of the American public because he took on the tax system and the federal government in the most direct way possible.  Liberals and progressives, leaping to the defense of big government, insist we recognize that Stack’s act was classic terrorism.  In doing so they line up as implicit defenders of the “war on terror” and the Patriot Act — so long as the playing field is level:  not just Muslims and foreigners but red-blooded Americans, too.  That would be bad enough but not unprecedented:  it was a liberal president Clinton and his liberal attorney general, Janet Reno, after all, who backed the Anti-Terrorist and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, the pre-cursor to the Patriot Act, in the face of another act of domestic terrorism.

Maybe more troubling is the evidence that progressives want to ignore what Stack was all about and why he has won his momentary notoriety.  Read the rest of this entry »

The Security Scam

January 20, 2010

by Michael Foley

From the moment the news of Haiti’s devastating earthquake hit the White House, the U.S. has been committed to a military presence there. Yesterday, Haitian President Rene Preval officially granted the U.S. control of the Port au Prince airport, but the U.S. military has been in control from Day Two. Complaints have been coming in from organizations as well-known as Doctors Without Borders that the military has obstructed the flow of aid, turning back one important shipment three times over the last few days. This morning Amy Goodman’s report from Haiti on Democracy Now! showed U.S. troops from the 82nd Airborne clutching their rifles and machine guns while directing crowds at Port au Prince’s General Hospital, unbidden by the medical staff there. Across the street was the flattened pharmacy, where medical supplies and the bodies of pharmacists, doctors and patients were buried. No soldier lent his hands to uncover the bodies or search for supplies. After all, they had their hands full.

There is no “security crisis” in Haiti. At least that is the testimony of the doctors, volunteers and those journalists who venture into the so-called red zones established by the military. According to Dr. Evan Lyon, the American surgeon working at the General Hospital, there are clinics with ten or twenty doctors and ten patients in so-called “secure” areas, but a thousand wait for surgery at General Hospital, which has only enough supplies to continue to operate for another 12 hours. Maybe the 82nd Airborne, now that they’ve arrived, will help get those supplies downtown. But they’ll have to put their guns down first.

The U.S. reaction to the crisis in Haiti has been likened to the Bush administration’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina. Fear the victims. Fear the black face in a sea of crisis. But the focus on “security” and reliance on a military presence in the face of untold human suffering bespeaks a deeper malady. Read the rest of this entry »

Private Insurance vs. Public Life

January 8, 2010

by Michael Foley

The Grange Hall in my little community is one of two venues where community groups can rent a room or a ballroom for their activities.  There’s a commercial-grade kitchen under construction, with high hopes that it will serve as an incubator for locally based small food businesses.  But the insurance industry has its claws even into these eminently civic purposes.  Non-profits, small businesses, wedding parties, even little groups of friends have to prove they have a million dollars in liability insurance just to walk in the door.  Why?  Because a single serious accident could cost the Grange its building.  And it’s insurer wants to see, every year, the insurance certificates of every entity that rented Grange facilities.

We tolerate this situation because it is the way we pay for medical care.  Yes, it is primarily a matter of how we cover the inevitable expenses of an accident or serious case of food poisoning or, God forbid, another outbreak of Legionnaires Disease.  Liability insurance, of course, also covers loss of livelihood resulting from such injuries, the pain and suffering experienced by the victim and his or her family, and penalties for gross negligence.  It represents, in short, the complete privatization of public welfare and even basic police functions. Read the rest of this entry »