Bird that Sings

December 7, 2010

Towards a Labor-Democratic Party

Filed under: Politics,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — admin @ 5:10 pm

Electoral politics has long been said to be “the Art of the possible,” while the politics of change is necessarily about changing what’s possible.

It is on the horns of this paradox that the so-called change presidency of Barack Obama has been revealed to be a Mas, as they say in Trinidad at Carnival time.

The change Obama promised turned out to be a cultural change, but in political-economic terms, it was just business as usual. It was a masquerade, and now… the masquerade is over.

This far out, no one can say this what will happen in 2012. It’s even possible the economy won’t completely tank at some point before the election — though I think I would short that bet.

However, as in the midterms, a horrible economy won’t hurt Obama as much as the perception — correct in my opinion — that he is de-facto on the side of the ruling elites.

This poses a particular electoral problem for Democrats, and one expects there will be a challenge to Obama in the early caucuses and primaries.

While there could be a Blue Dog candidacy from Mark Warner or Evan Bayh, the most likely challenge to Obama in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada will come from the populist left.

Like everyone else, I’ve got my own, no doubt, hopelessly compromised favorites for the role of populist dragon slayer, the most obvious being Russ Feingold.

Feingold has been, hands down, the most principled and effective progressive member of the Senate in recent years, with not only the brains and heart to do the right thing, but the balls.

The main problem with a Feingold candidacy is that he’s damaged goods, having been defeated in his own state by a rich and clueless, certified idiot. Over the next bit we’ll see if Russ can rise again.

The second, not so obvious, choice is Senator Jim Webb of Virginia.

Webb is a war hero and self-described Southern populist Reagan-Democrat who could not only beat Obama from the Left, but from the Right. Webb’s baggage is that he’s not only a former Republican Secretary of the Navy, he’s basically a writer, and as we all know, writers are just not credible. Still like the Funkadelic used to sing, “if u got funk, you got style,” and for an implausibly proud white guy, Webb’s got plenty of both.

The third pick might be the best: Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio. The appeal of Kaptur to Labor-Democrats is self-evident. Kaptur has made a career of representing “her people,” the largely Catholic, ethnic white working class, Reagan Democrats of the Rust belt who, as a group, abandoned the Democratic Party this election cycle. These are the people who have not only been hit hardest by the foreclosure crisis, but also by the decline of manufacturing and the rise of Finance Capitalism for the past generation.

These are the voters the Democrats need to recover in 2012, while not alienating their black electoral base or other key ethnic constituencies. It would appear to be a no-brainer that running a working class woman — another first — would help in that effort.

The problem a Kaptur candidacy would have to address is that, like most of us, she probably figures the Presidency is above her pay grade. Marcy Kaptur would have to really want to run and also have a ready-to-go, build the green economy, break up the-big-Banks, anti-Wall Street program to run on.

The biggest problem though, that any of the three above populists would face is that insurgent Presidential candidacies usually end up as largely symbolic efforts incapable of contesting, let alone breaking, the stranglehold of the corporate plutocracy on our polity.

The obscene amount of money it takes to run a campaign is part of it, but the larger part is institutional: that is, self interest always trumps altruism, and then too, money never gets tired, and people do.

In a simpler world, fusion politics, using the model of the Working Families Party of New York State would be a way out of the insurgent Presidential campaign cul-de-sac.

A new fusion party, call it the Labor-Democratic Party, would systematically oppose
Corporate democrats in primaries where strategically appropriate. It would also keep a 3rd party ballot line where it could list true Democrats and run against the false ones.

The Labor-Democrats might or might not take over the larger Democratic Party but they would in fairly short order become a plurality within it.

The trouble with this fusion model is that it’s only legal in seven other states beside New York.

Organizations like Howard Dean’s Democracy for America, Move-on, Bold Progressives, Credo and Act Blue, have done excellent work for the past several electoral cycles but to really change politics, a new politics of change is called for.

A broad campaign– possibly in bi-partisan alliance with the soon-to-be bitterly disappointed Tea Partiers — to legalize fusion party voting in as many states as possible has to be part of any larger populist organizing effort or conversation.

November 18, 2010

The Devil and Barack Obama

Filed under: Politics,Uncategorized — admin @ 1:23 pm

And a good time was had by all.

The Mid-terms are over and Congratulations are in order for the new speaker of the House, John “Burnt Sienna” Boehner, who this morning enunciated the ruling credo of the Congressional Republican Party.

“Credibility?” he whistled in wonder. “We don’t need no stinking credibility.”

In the wake of the failure to revive the economy of “Main Street” over the past two years Boehner would be exactly right about that. Republicans don’t need much credibility, because the President doesn’t have much either.

The reasons why the Democrats were demolished in the Midterms were 1) the economy, 2) Obama and 3) Race, and most importantly, the way those three things became conflated in the minds of many white working class and lower middle class, Midwestern voters.

Yes, Democrats got murdered because of the economy but more; it was the failure of Democrats to frame a credible argument about the economy.

The Administration’s official insistence that we are in a slow economic recovery, when most working people know we are in a deep and open ended recession allowed an opening for the Republicans that shouldn’t have been there. This is especially true given that most of what the Republicans propose–privatizing Social security, protecting Wall Street and Big Finance– is anathema to the Reagan Democrats of the Midwest who abandoned the party at this election.

There is not one answer to why the Reagan Democrats abandoned the Party this cycle. The fire probably started when Obama and Geithner continued the Bush and Paulson policies of bailing out the banks and Wall Street even as working class jobs continued to be offshored and/or eliminated.

It was then fanned on talk radio and Fox News using the rhetorical red flag of mandated Health Care, but clearly there was a disposition on the part of white working class voters to distrust Obama.

Strictly speaking that sentiment goes back to at least the Pennsylvania Primary in 2008 and Obama’s famous “guns and bitterness” remark, but the truth is that argument was just a stand in for a deeper political divide. (See Obama and the new politics, April 2008)

Strategically, the strength of Obama’s candidacy was his cerebral appeal to liberal and suburban independent voters for a new politics of reason. He was a black candidate who had turned away from the politics of anger and resentment and seemed to point to the possibility that we as a people could also move beyond race and the old divides.

We, his fans, saw Obama’s candidacy as a symbolic moment and his election, the change we had been waiting for.

As many wrote at the time, it wasn’t a political campaign, it was a-once-in-a-lifetime PR campaign in which the brand, Obama, becomes magically linked with an only-in-your-dreams product: Barack Obama is hope&change.

Obama and his advisors knew–or should have known–that no one could ever live up to that level of expectation.

As my wife, an Obama supporter, said to me last week; to get elected, Obama did a deal with the devil and now the bill is coming due.

The weak link in the Obama candidacy was always that in his reasoned appeal to liberals and so-called independents, he was leaving behind the ethnic, white working class base of the old New Deal coalition. (see “The Little Putz”, April 2010). Despite a dry, academic lip service to the politics of class, Obama’s heart clearly wasn’t in it.

One could argue that the Obama candidacy was actually a call for restoration of the neo-liberal political-economic consensus of the Bush I and Clinton years that had been overturned by the over-the-top right wing radicalism of the Bush II adventure.

If Lehman Brothers hadn’t imploded in September of 2008, that might have worked out for Obama. But the subsequent financial crisis startlingly revealed the speculative and debt based Finance Capitalism of the previous thirty years, not as the new source of economic innovation, but as a giant Ponzi scheme to transfer wealth from the Middle class to the Rich.

Both Parties were implicated but as the de-facto Democratic opposition candidate to the ruling Republicans who had presided over the precise moment of disaster, Barack Obama was now called to address this gaping hole in the American dream.

It was a great opportunity for Obama–it certainly got him elected– but it also went against his political grain.

And so, on his election, rather than invoke a new populist stand on the markets, Obama and his advisors fell back into their neo-liberal comfort zone, best exemplified by the appointment of the old Clinton/Robert Rubin fun bunch, Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, to head his economic team.

Spitting at the opportunity fate had afforded them, Obama, Geithner and Summers spent the next two years trying to restore the now discredited Finance system to it’s Clinton era glory; an impossible task, and also, on balance, stupid politically.

Despite the signal legislative achievements of the Obama administration–not to mention their salvaging of the American Auto Industry–these achievements did not keep real unemployment from rising to nearly twenty percent, nor lift the Midwest from the near depression it has been sunk in for the better part a decade.

White Midwestern voters were looking for someone to blame, and who better than someone you viscerally dislike in the first place.

For white working class voters, Obama is, to flip the old Tastycake commercial, all the bad things wrapped up in one: a black, liberal, elitist.

They had been waiting two years to give Obama his comeuppance and that’s what happened on November 2nd.

It would be a mistake not to acknowledge the role straight up racism played in the Democrats’ repudiation. Anecdotally, some of the stuff that people have said to me about Obama over the past several months does not bear repeating, but it’s clear, to me at least, that we are definitively not a post-racial society.

But we’re not the same as we used to be either.

In 1901 WEB Du Bois prophetically wrote that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line,” but as a corollary I would assert that the problem of the 21st century is not so much the color line as it is the related issue of “class and caste.”

In an America–let alone a world–where the working class is increasingly of color, only a progressive politics based on Class and working class unity can succeed.

The Democrats cannot win the next election without their black electoral base, for whom Barack Obama is still a hero–though we’ll see how that goes over the next year or so. However the Democrats also cannot win without the Reagan Democrats of the rust belt whose antipathy for Obama is likely to grow as the economic crisis worsens.

To win in 2012; and more importantly, to deserve to win in 2012, the Democrats–with or without Obama–have to forget about branding themselves like cattle and really change this time.

Part II of this post, Towards a Labor-Democratic Party, will discuss some ways that struggle might be joined.

October 2, 2010

The Brother Miliband

Filed under: Politics,Uncategorized — Tags: , — admin @ 2:22 pm

 ”The desired effect is what you get when you practice your interplanetary funksmanship”—George Clinton

Though I can think of a few people funkier than the Miliband brothers, David and Ed, it is indisputable that their contest for the leadership of British Labour Party created, in the end, the desired effect for the Party, measurably strengthening it for the struggles ahead.

The central dilemma for Labour Party members in this election was whether to support David Miliband, the most credible and accomplished candidate in the field — who also conducted the broadest and most interesting campaign — knowing that by electing him Leader, they risked revivifying the now discredited New Labour, Blairite establishment of the Party.

Astonishingly, and by a very, very slim margin, the Labour Party said no, implicitly rejecting the old status quo. Instead they elected the younger brother, Ed Miliband, less because of who he is, than what he’s not.

In his acceptance speech Tuesday, Ed Miliband, echoing John F Kennedy, declared that he was in fact the candidate of a new generation, and that New Labour is dead. Whatever his failings, Mili-E is certainly correct about these twined suppositions.

For me personally however, the most interesting part of the speech was where Mili-E begins to hold forth about Values.

“I believe in responsibility in every part of our society . . .

What does it say about the values of our society, what have we become, that a banker can earn in a day what the care worker can earn in a year?

I say: responsibility in this country shouldn’t just be about what you can get away with.

And that applies to every chief executive of every major company in this country.

And, just as businesses have responsibility to ensure fair pay, so those who can work have a responsibility to do so…

…Work is a central part of life. But it is not all that matters.

We all care about making a living but we don’t just care about that.

Here is our generation’s paradox: the biggest ever consumers of goods and services, but a generation that yearns so much for the things that business cannot provide…

…New Labour embraced markets in our economy and was right to do so.
But let’s be honest, we became naïve about them.

We must never again give the impression that we know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

In eschewing ideological politics for the politics of values, it is not so much JFK that Miliband is invoking but Robert Kennedy: yes, the younger brother. And the red thread that runs through the values argument is not the Socialist argument of Ralph Miliband, the Jewish immigrant Marxist father of the brothers, but rather a strain of radical Catholic thought that also ran through Robert Kennedy’s late political framework.

For a politician who will need to confront both the hegemony and destructive immorality of the world political-economic order as well the furious, defeated neo-liberal wing of his own Party, this is a clever stance, and it might just win the day for Ed Miliband.

It is also an argument tailor made for opposing the draconian budget cuts that the current Tory-Liberal government is about to implement even in the teeth of the ongoing long… recession. By this time next year, or even next spring, as the streets of British cities fill with rage and protest, it is the values argument against the immorality of a Finance driven system, utterly without them, that will hold sway on the streets of the UK.

July 31, 2010

How the Democrats can Keep Congress

Filed under: Politics,Uncategorized — admin @ 1:03 pm

Yeah, I know what the polls say: That more people disapprove of Obama than approve of him, that only 11% approve of Congress.

But contrary to what the polls say, on all the big issues; Wall Street, the banks, the economy and environment, Republican ideas are not only unpopular, they’re not even credible. The only way for the Republicans to survive is to trash the Democrats and then say government doesn’t work.  If I were a Republican I’d do the same.

Republican obstructionism has been a real problem for the Administration, but the biggest problem has been, and will continue to be, the economy. In its early days the Administration probably managed to stave off a great depression, however, subsequently Obama and Co. banked their political capital on an economic recovery that never really blossomed and now is dying on the vine.

Though I’m not sure how the Obamaites received it, Economist Paul Krugman actually provided a valuable service to the Administration with his <em>New York Times</em> column of several weeks ago, “The Long Depression.”

Krugman’s point was that we are in the early stages of a long, but comparatively shallow Depression and that the immediate — and only — way out of it is more stimulus, <em>not</em> the austerity cuts proposed by the same economic “thinkers” who brought us the Wall Street crash of 2008.

Krugman’s argument, I believe, was meant to give cover to the administration as it switches it’s argument — perforce — from one that says we are in a recovery, to one that acknowledges what even some Finance Professionals like Mohamed El-Erian and George Soros are saying; that this deflationary trend is the new normal.

By November, the dire nature of our economic predicament will be increasingly clear to the electorate. Meanwhile the Republicans will be — insanely — making the case for both austerity budget cuts <em>as well as</em> debt ballooning, supply side tax cuts for the Rich. And they will of course receive an adoring response from Fox News and a respectful audience from the mainstream media.

It goes without saying that the Republicans will be wrong, but Democrats are not going to be able to counter their argument solely with a defense of the achievements of the Obama administration.

Rather, Democrats will have to present their own diagnosis of the country’s economic problems as well as a practical prescription for what to do about them.

Practically speaking then, here’s what the Democrats have to do to keep Congress:

1) The Democratic leadership of the Congressional party in both houses needs to commit to <strong>letting the Bush tax cuts for the rich lapse</strong> and using the new revenues both to pay down the deficit, but more importantly, sending money to the states to alleviate their own budget short falls.

This September hundreds of thousands of teachers and public service workers all over the country will be laid off from their jobs. The notices have already gone out. I know; my wife got one. Not only will these layoffs cause untold personal suffering, they will severely damage local public services and local economies, and are likely to set in motion a chain of events leading to much greater economic dislocation.

In the first decade of the 2000′s we saw what cutting taxes for the rich led to: Massive speculation and fraud in the financial and real estate markets, an immense transfer of wealth from the bottom 50 percent of the economy to the richest one tenth of one percent among us.

The extension of the Bush era tax cuts for the rich are a losing issue for Republicans and the Democrats have to nail them to the wall on it.

2) Congressional Democrats should demand that <strong>Elizabeth Warren is hired to
head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)</strong> — by
Recess appointment if necessary as suggested by Barney Frank.

Warren is very popular generally, even with some Republicans, but especially with progressives who form the vital, activist core of the Democratic base. Lose them and for Obama, it will be like losing LeBron was for Cleveland. But the second reason to hire Warren is even more salient: that Secretary of Treasury Tim Geitner and the Bankers she would help regulate don’t like her.

Ideally, the best thing Obama could do to help Congressional Democrats hold their own in the mid-terms is to fire Geitner as a broadside against Wall Street and the Bankers who rigged the faux recovery so that it built their profit sheet, even as they cut off credit to the rest of us.

Obama should fire Geitner, but won’t, so hiring Warren is the next best thing.

3) The Democrats have to <strong>reintroduce the Climate Change bill </strong>in its original form — even strengthening it — and campaign for its passage. While some pundits and journalists, most notably in the <em>New York Times</em>, have tried to blame Democrats for politicizing the climate change issue, it’s actually <em>not</em> the Democrats who have politicized Climate Change and the Environment.

Nevertheless, in the course of the fall campaign it must be made clear that the Environment is not a political issue, but an issue of planetary survival. Perhaps ironically, it is only by reframing the argument in this way that the Democratic leadership will able to build sufficient public pressure for the Bill to be reintroduced with a fighting chance of passage.

This last point goes to the broader question of political campaigns and how to win them. If you believe the electorate is a static thing made up of Democrats, Republicans and Independents, all in discrete little boxes without interaction or common cause, then given the polling, things look pretty bleak for the Democrats.

But, if you believe that elections are actually an opportunity to address the problems of the country and the system itself: that the electorate is by its nature fluid, and ideas can be transformational, then Democrats have little to fear and a world to win.

An election is a terrible thing to waste.

July 1, 2010

Expropriating British Petroleum

Filed under: Politics — admin @ 12:57 am

About a month ago, in the middle of May, our neighbor from the rental unit next door, got his PhD in Wildlife Biology from the prestigious local public university and left town to work for the Feds.

There was a job waiting him in the wilderness of the far north, but as he and his wife were loading up the van, he confided to my wife that the Feds had already let him know he wouldn’t be there long. As soon as he got to his isolated outpost, 500 miles from anywhere, they were going to turn him around and send him to Louisiana.

An earnest, circumspect, tightly wrapped young man not given to hyperbole, he had been having nightmares about the oil spill since it happened and was riven with the sense that it was more than chance sending him into the maelstrom.

It was “the worst environmental disaster in recorded history” he said, and he assured us–before the fact–that all the ostensible attempts of BP to stem the oil flow, from “top kill” on down, were longer than long shots: essentially PR stunts designed to allay the public horror.

The ecology of the Gulf Coast was doomed, he said, and when the loop current reversed in the middle of June, the oil would be making its way out of the Gulf: into the Gulf Stream and the world.

One month later, despite BP and the government’s attempts to calm the public, most of us understand in our hearts that we’ve reached a momentous point of no return in human and planetary history.

It’s not just the oil spill, it’s the melting polar ice caps, it’s the mysterious, scientifically inexplicable dead zones spreading through the oceans and the precipitously collapsing fish and invertebrate populations: seemingly discrete events all crescendoing together towards a terrifying dystopian climax.

For two centuries we’ve used and abused the resources of the natural world on an exponentially increasing scale, and now the natural world is dying.

Dramatic action is called for, yet as always the Obama Administration counsels political safety first.

The twenty billion-dollar BP Gulf restitution fund, proposed by the Administration and accepted–under duress–by BP is, on the face of it, a good step, but it won’t do f*** all to alter the planet’s trajectory towards ecological disaster.

BP is an enormously profitable company–with a thirteen billion-dollar profit last year and an over eighteen billion dollar profit the year before –and to leave it essentially intact to pursue business as usual is a catastrophic misreading of the political moment.

The US government needs to expropriate the American assets of BP: the Arco consumer retail divisions, the drilling and commercial operations, while holding the larger company liable for the establishment and funding of the Gulf restoration fund as well as all the other damages.

Once the US takes control–paying off all the stock and stakeholders of course–God knows we don’t want to spook the markets–the profits from the American holdings of BP, now to be renamed FP for Filthy Petroleum, or whatever, need to be used to directly fund clean energy.

We need to fund both existing clean energy start-ups, and new ones. We need to find ways to utilize and mass-produce solar energy, wind, electric, natural gas and human gas –<em>anything but Nuclear</em>–because accidents <em>will </em>happen. But barring nuclear, we have to do whatever it takes build a clean energy infrastructure now: not in ten to twenty years, but in five to seven.

We need to use this moment to build support for a direct tax on carbon and–in concert with the other nations of the world or if need be alone– to declare a date certain twenty-five years from today, in 2035, for an end to the Age of Oil.

And finally we need to airlift any of our Senators and Representatives who oppose these common sense initiatives for the survival of the planet–and not incidentally the reinvention of our economy–directly to the Gulf and let them see what the status quo looks like. And then leave ‘em there.

They can swim back to New Orleans.

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