EARTH TO A PATRONIZING PLANET


The Netroots Nation conference has traditionally been an occasion for mainstream media types to take a whack at the unreasonableness of the left. Michael Grunwald offered up, if not a classic, a fairly representative example of the genre on Swampland yesterday. Take this paragraph designed to dispatch left criticisms of Barack Obama with patronizing parentheticals:

It’s true that President Obama is not as liberal as some Daily Kos bloggers would like him to be. (Although he has blogged at Daily Kos.) He continued some of President Bush’s national security policies. (Although he did end the war in Iraq.) He ignored left-wing calls to nationalize troubled banks. (Which turned out to be the right call.) He’s pushed for middle-class tax cuts and public-employee wage freezes that his base dislikes, and he’s outsourced most of the Republican-bashing that his base craves. (Which may be why he’s way more popular than his party.)

Let’s take the parenthetical potshots one at a time:

It’s true that Obama has posted on Daily Kos – although the most prominent instance was when he took to Daily Kos to criticize progressives for being too hard on senators that backed John Roberts (more on that one here and here).

Continue reading

Advertisements

QUICK THOUGHTS ON OBAMA’S SPEECH

To choose a favorite talking head buzz phrase, I think Barack Obama did what he had to do tonight. And he did it quite well.

First, closing a convention that erred too far on the side of nice (that means you, Mark Warner), Barack Obama came out swinging against John McCain, and I think he managed to do it in a way that’s hard to characterize as “nasty” or “shrill” or “too angry,” unless you’re one of the people who characterizes Democrats that way for a living. He crossed that threshold John Kerry or Al Gore never quite did, where you take on political opponents with a toughness that suggests you could take on enemies as President. And he maintained his sense of humor while doing it.

Second, Obama also addressed the imaginary lack of specificity in his policy proposals (the only thing more imaginary may be the desire among voters to hear specifics of policy proposals) by laying out a series of them (including improvements to the bankruptcy law that his running mate helped worsen). He had to do it; it’s good that he did. But it’s an especially silly expectation coming from a press corps that lets John McCain continue praising himself for having championed policies he currently opposes. It’s a good sign that the speech gets compared to a State of the Union address (or is that too presumptuous!).

Third, Obama talked about his own story, not in the linear way he has in the past and others have at this convention, but by explicitly comparing experiences in his life to experiences of Americans he’s met. Of course it’s sad that he has a higher bar to clear here than would a White candidate. That said, he did a compelling job connecting Americans’ stories and his own and explaining how they inform where he’ll take the country.

And the uplift was there too.

As for the disappointment, of course some of the self-consciously non-that-kind-of-Democrat stuff (are we reinventing government again?) is bothersome.

And in a speech that was more aggressive than we’ve come to expect from Democratic nominees, there was some needless defensiveness. If you’re going to talk about the importance of fatherhood, why say it’s something we “admit”? Aren’t you undercuttng yourself? Why say “Don’t tell me Democrats won’t defend America,” as though you concede that that’s the perception – and why respond to the criticism you brought up by naming presidents from forty years ago? Obama seems unable to help himself from rehearsing potential counterarguments in a way that doesn’t really help him – as in “Some people will say that this is just a cover for the same liberal etc…” And I think Obama made himself seem a little smaller when he followed talking about the struggles his family has overcome by protesting that he’s not a celebrity. Finally, while he effectively seized the high ground on patriotism, it seems overly restrictive for Obama to say he won’t suggest that McCain takes his policy positions with any eye to political expediency – I hope he doesn’t really mean that part, which would seem to leave John Kerry’s “Senator McCain v. Candidate McCain” line of attack off limits.

THE SILENT PRE-PRIMARY

The past few weeks, with Hillary Clinton’s formal acceptance of the Democratic party endorsement for Senate and an ensuing wave of articles about her politics and personal life, have brought speculation about the Democrats 2008 primary and the role that she will play in it. The emerging conventional wisdom consensus of today seems to be that she’s much less popular with party activists than was assumed in the conventional wisdom of yesterday, but that denying her the nomination would require an “Un-Hillary” capable of clearing the field of other viable aspirants and gathering together the disparate constituencies that don’t want to see her as the party’s standard-bearer in the next Presidential election. What the pundits seem to disagree about or, in many cases, ignore entirely, is whether that alternative candidate will come from the left or from the right of the Democratic party.

Since pundits and party hacks are likely to force the narrative of the coming primary into either a “Hillary versus the Un-Hillary” mold or a “Hillary versus a slew of guys” one – the latter of which pretty much secures her the nomination – who emerges from the primary will turn in some significant part on how the part of “Un-Hillary” is scripted. What kind of candidate the “Un-Hillary” is supposed to be will help determine who gets to seize the mantle and get the attention and the activists that make it possible to win. And what kind of candidate the “Un-Hillary” is supposed to be will depend in good part on who Hillary herself is perceived to be: the ostensible feminist firebrand committed to subversion of culture and nationalization of industries, or the hawk who’s proud to have voted for the war and wants government to regulate video game content more and credit card interest rates less. Evan Bayh and Mark Warner are running against the former; Russ Feingold and John Edwards are running against the latter.

So while the ostensibly-right-of-Hillary majority of Democratic presidential aspirants are each other’s immediate competitors for the right-of-Hillary niche, they are also allies in working to ensure that Hillary is seen as a left-winger who could be stopped by a right-of-Hillary “Un-Hillary” and not a right-winger who could be stopped by a left-of-Hillary “Un-Hillary.” The opposite is true of the minority of Democratic presidential aspirants who are gunning to run to her left.

Which camp will get the Hillary they want? The right-of-Hillary folks still have the media largely on their side, in that even the increasingly publicity around her moves to ban flag-burning and such still frames these acts as feints to the right by a unreconstructed liberal with the political savvy to disguise herself (this coverage often pivots around the myth that “Hillarycare” was a solidly left-wing proposal). The left-of-Hillary folks have Clinton herself on their side – both the conservatism of her record on the issues that divide the party and the intensity of her campaign to highlight her centrism. Judging by the approach she’s taken (with exceptions on some votes on seemingly forgone conclusions, like Bush’s nominations), as well as the comments of her advisors, she seems much more concerned with protecting herself from the right-of-Hillary competitors than from the left-of-Hillary ones.

Last month, Jonathan Chait noted the bind Clinton is in: “instead of moderates focusing on her positions while liberals focus on her persona, the opposite seems to be happening.” The logic of her circle seems to be that her gender, her rhetoric, and the relentless multi-decade assault on her from the right will be enough to secure the support of the left even as she offers policies to woo the center and beyond. If she succeeds, then progressives will be confronted not just with the comparatively conservative Clinton as frontrunner but with the comparatively conservative Clinton as the leftie of the crop of frontrunners. But given the increasing anxiety about her amongst the Democratic base, there’s reason to hope she won’t.

PET ISSUES

A characteristic comment from Kos:

we won’t have a governing majority until the energy expended in pursuing pet interests gets redirected toward getting Republicans out of power and getting Democrats — even some of the imperfect ones — elected to replace them…take a look at the new progressive organizations arising the past few years — MoveOn, the blogs, Democracy for America, National Political Hip Hop Conference, etc — all of them movement-based multi-issue organizations. That is the future of the American progressive movement. Not the single-issue groups that continue to hold their narrow interests above those of the broader movement.

What’s frustrating about comments like this is the uncritical conflation of the “broader movement” and the Democratic party. What’s a “pet issue”? Well, it’s an issue taken up by people you think could spend their time better doing something else. Since Kos’ goal – certainly an urgent and worthy one – is to replace Republican elected officials with Democratic ones, he tends to snipe at progressives who focus on pretty much anything else – be it reducing poverty or expanding civil liberties – as a higher priority. And his hammering on the all-too true point that the Right in this country has demonstrated much stronger long-term strategy than the Left over the past few decades only makes it that much more disappointing each time he makes the short-sighted argument that progressive groups which too strongly criticize or withhold support from Democrats who don’t share their values are selfish for not subordinating their cause to the goal of winning the next election. That’s not how conservatives accomplished their takeover of many of the powerful institutions in this country.

What really gets me about this particular post, though, is the way it conflates Kos’ “every left-wing group in the country should work to elect anyone to Congress who will vote for Pelosi for Speaker” critique with a critique I agree with: the left hasn’t done a sufficient job of building lasting multi-issue coalitions, and progressive activists have too often failed to see and articulate the connectedness between their causes. For Kos, the latter critique must be the former, because the only legitimate form for multi-issue cooperation to take is the Democratic party or organizations or websites mainly devoted to electing Democrats. But that’s not the view of many of the most articulate exponents of the latter critique, including the “Death of Environmentalism” essay which he rightly highlights as a crucial document (here too, I agree). In fact, the very excerpt he quotes in his post is:

Our thesis is this: the environmental community’s narrow definition of its self-interest leads to a kind of policy literalism that undermines its power. When you look at the long string of global warming defeats under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, it is hard not to conclude that the environmental movement’s approach to problems and policies hasn’t worked particularly well. And yet there is nothing about the behavior of environmental groups, and nothing in our interviews with environmental leaders, that indicates that we as a community are ready to think differently about our work.

“What’s that,” you say, “it’s possible to have a long string of defeats under a Democratic President? (For a sobering account of just how poor a job NRDC and the Sierra Club did at cashing in on their work electing Bill Clinton, check out Randy Shaw’s Activist Handbook). So much for the idea that all progressive groups have to do to advance their causes is get Democrats elected.

From Alyssa

I have to admit that Howard Dean’s email today about the pace of fundraising, and what the DNC is doing with that money, got me more excited than I expected. Hearing that the priority is hiring organizers and getting them on the ground in states like Kansas is tremendously encouraging. I don’t recall ever hearing anything like this from Terry McAuliffe, which doesn’t really surprise me, but it’s the right direction to be going. Building power on the ground, and making a long-term committment to organizing is the only way the party is going to recover, and it recognizes a central problem that we had in the last election. The Republicans had people in neighborhoods, and we had MoveOn-organized phoneathons from solid blue states to swing states. I’ve become progressively disillusioned with MoveOn, partially because of the way they spin things (I was especially frustrated with their perception of the fillibuster “victory,” and the lame Star Wars-based ad), and because I thought, even at the time, that it was glaringly obvious that wasting a lot of time, energy, and money on phonebanks was not a winning strategy. As sincere as all of those efforts were, scripts do not convince people to get out and vote particularly well, and can never be subtle enough to make people switch their votes in large numbers.

What organizers can do is far different. There are, and will continue to be, huge limitations to organizers who come in from the outside to organize communities they aren’t from. But they can identify people who have power or contacts and aren’t using them, or aren’t using them effectively enough. They can encourage people who want to get involved to make the jump by providing them with opportunities. There’s a notable passage in Grassroots, a pretty good book about the ’88 New Hampshire primary, where one veteran of ’84 talks about how she considers her box of file cards on her contacts the treasure she can bring to a campaign. The first priority of organizers should be to find people like these, whether they are leaders in quilting and book clubs or in local party organizations, and train them to be leaders. The Democrats will succeed if our new organizers make themselves obsolete. I’d like to think that this can happen; I am wary of what happened to Dean’s “Perfect Storm” in Iowa. In any case, this is an approach very different than purly raising money for ad buys and long distance phonebanks. I’m glad that something different is happening in the party; we needed both the fresh air and the reality check.

“Restoring the American Dream: Building a 21st Century Labor Movement that Can Win,” the platform released by UNITE HERE, SEIU, the Laborers, and the Teamsters on Monday, is on-line here. Its Agenda for Worker Strength has five points, the first of which, “Uniting Workers for Economic Strength,” articulates the structural proposals which have been at the center of the controversy over the future of the AFL-CIO. It calls for the federation to:

Use incentives to focus unions on uniting workers in core industries.More of the national labor movement’s resources must be directly devoted to the task of bringing millions of new workers into the labor movement. The AFL-CIO budget must be used to create incentives for unions to increase their organizing and focus on uniting workers in their core industries in order to maintain and build bargaining power. We believe that half of what unions now pay to the AFL-CIO should be rebated to unions that have a strategic plan and commitment to organizing in their core industries based on the formula outlined in the Teamster proposal.

Actively support mergers that unite workers by industry. Many AFL-CIO affiliates do not have the resources or strength or effectively take on large employers that are driving standards in their industries or to help workers organize on a large enough scale in their industries…The AFL-CIO should play an active and direct role in working with affiliated unions to facilitate mergers – subject to approval by the affected members – that lead to increased power for workers in the same or complimentary industries…

As this platform recognizes, the responsibility of a single national labor federation, if we are to have one in this country, is to grow the labor movement by protecting the right to organize and providing resources and facilitating coordination for organizing. In an era of declining union density and increasing corporate consolidation, coordination within industries is crucial to turning the tide, and mergers – when they are strategically savvy and democratically supported – are a powerful tool for building power and solidarity. And most of all, as John Sweeney himself has repeated over the past decade, the straits in which working Americans find themselves today make it imperative to organize or die. The unions bringing forward this proposal are right to recognize that spurring organizing requires more than rhetorical leadership from the AFL-CIO. The reason they represent a significant fraction of the membership of the federation is that they have prioritized an aggressive organizing program over the past decade, and in so doing have realized the right to collective bargaining for millions out of the more than half of American workers who say in polls that they want union representation at a time when only one in twelve in the private sector has it. Because union membership is a source of greater strength when greater numbers of workers are in unions, it is not only justifiable but crucial for a federation funded and supported by fifty-some internationals to use its resources to push each of those unions to grow. Remitting a portion of those dues to those unions committed to spending money to directly grow the density of the movement is directly in the service of the broader movement. If the AFL-CIO is kept from aggressively push greater organizing and coordinated action, it risks being reduced over time to little more than an occasional media and turnout apparatus of decreasing usefulness. The document continues:

Strategically leverage labor’s existing bases of industry strength…It means identifying lead and dominant unions by sector, industry, employer, market, and where appropriate, craft, along with the responsibilities that go with it. It means that industry or area bargaining standards need to be made central to the inter-union dispute process and central to labor’s efforts to focus resources…rules must be updated and revised to reflect the pressing need for organized labor to deter the “race to the bottom” caused by employers seeking to use one affiliate as a means of protection from another, and to encourage unions to devote precious resources to building power in core industries and coordinate bargaining. Where multiple unions have members in the same industry, industry in a market, or employer, the AFL-CIO will facilitate coordinated bargaining. Affiliates undercutting standards should suffer penalties.

I’m not sure yet what to make of the assignment of dominant unions in each sector, but the need for clear and unyielding standards in bargaining is inarguable. As long as weaker unions cut deals with employers to keep out stronger unions, the labor movement is shooting itself in the back and it is those workers who most need effective representation who suffer. Critics of the New Unity Partnership are right to remind us that the absolute right of a worker to join a union of her choosing is not to be compromised. No one wants to see workers shoehorned into pre-selected unions based on negotiations in which they have no part. But the fundamental economic freedom of union representation is not served when weak unions take on the role of the company unions of the pre-Wagner era and push out internationals which threaten an employer because they have the power to win real gains. The only way I can see to empower workers to organize and to win is through the formation and standards and the facilitation of negotiation, and the reformers are right to identify a role for the AFL-CIO, as a voluntary union federation, to play here in maximizing the effectiveness of its member unions in growing and serving the ranks of its member workers. Too often, this issue is discussed as a matter of big unions versus small unions. But the assumptions that small unions are always more democratic and that that big unions are always more effective are both misguided, and neither is borne out by history. Much more salient is the division between those unions which prioritize organizing and industrial democracy and those which do not. Somewhat less controversial is the next proposal:

Make the AFL-CIO the strategic center for a permanent campaign to take on powerful anti-worker employers and help workers unite their strength in new growth sectors.…Well-funded, movement-wide campaigns are required to make low-road employer respect their workers’ freedom to form unions…We support the creation of a dedicated fund of $25 million out of the current AFL-CIO to finance large, multi-union movement-wide campaigns directed at reversing the Wal-Marting of our jobs and out communities by large low-road employers.

Fortunately, after years of unsuccessful and largely unnoticed and uninspiring organizing attempts by the UFCW at Wal-Mart, there’s a growing awareness that the viral expansion of Wal-Mart and its noxious business model will mean diminishing returns for the entire movement until we take it on head-on, and that organizing Wal-Mart represents a momentous challenge which cannot be overcome by a single union alone. As John Wilhelm wrote to John Sweeney last year, however the November election went there would have been no greater priority for the American labor movement in its wake than winning a robust right to organize for millions of Wal-Mart workers. As we saw in the supermarket strikes in LA, as long as Wal-Mart pushes forward a race to the bottom at an unprecedented rate, all working people lose. And it will take the commitment of the whole federation to reverse that trend.

Make growth and worker power our political focus…To empower workers politically we must have a growth agenda to build larger, stronger and more effective workplace organizations. Increased political spending without a program for growth will not lead to either increased power for workers in the workplace or in politics…Our program must be workplace-centered, worker-oriented, and independent of any party or candidate. Our purpose is to be the voice of workers in the political process, not the voice of politicians or parties to the workers…The AFL-CIO’s political program at the local, state, and national levels should have as its highest priority encouraging public officials to actively support workers who are trying to form unions, as well as to support the maintenance and growth of union jobs…those politicians of either party who support the union-busting agenda of the Right to Work Committee, the Associated Builders and Contractors, or any other similar organization should face rebuke from all unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO regardless of their stand on other issues. The AFL-CIO needs to develop a strategic growth and political plan focused on critical swing states that will make the difference in changing the direction of our nation, and to which state and local bodies and affiliates are held accountable…an increase in union density in the State of Ohio, for example, from 16% to 26% would have put John Kerry in the White House.

This document is absolutely right to recognize the failures of the AFL-CIO in holding accountable Democrats who cast anti-labor votes, in forcing the right to organize onto the national political agenda, and in using the political system to protect and further workers’ rights. I think the problem has much more to do with the federation’s treatment of anti-labor Democrats than of pro-labor Republicans – in fact I’d say too often labor has bent over backwards to bestow the pro-labor Republican label for the appearance of a bipartisan pro-labor consensus of the kind we have yet to create. And the reformers are right that a resurgence in labor’s political clout cannot come without a resurgence of union organizing. Here labor and the Democrats should have a shared interest in creating more union members, given that union membership is the only thing that makes white men with guns who go to church vote Democratic; would that the Democrats put as much effort into trying to multiply the ranks of union members as the Republicans are into trying to create more investors. Putting the right to organize front and center would help Democrats doubly by creating more union members and by giving them more reason to vote Democratic; this platform attests to the ways the AFL-CIO has to go in pushing for politicians to do so. The legal right to organize cannot itself be labor’s entire political agenda however; while this paragraph almost reads as if it is, the platform later devotes entire sections to coalition-building around healthcare and global trade. The line later on refering to “social issues” as outside of the purview of labor is as unsettling as it is intentionally ambiguous. It certainly doesn’t represent the approach that’s yielded success for SEIU and UNITE HERE over the past decade. A path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and freedom from discrimination for women, workers of color, and queer workers, are fundamental issues of workers’ rights, and any labor federation which shies away from them does so to its own detriment and that of this country’s most marginalized workers. A recognition of the urgency of broadening the movement is more clear in the sections on diversity within the AFL-CIO and international solidarity.

New Standards of Accountability and Governance…If labor as a whole is to grow the AFL-CIO must be the movement’s strategic growth center…democratic change requires the creation of a streamlined Executive Committee comprised of the largest unions that represent most AFL-CIO members and are responsible for uniting workers in the major sectors of the economy, with several additional rotating seats to ensure diversity…Financial and organizational accountability and openness must be the operating principal of a new AFL-CIO. Ongoing senior level staff meetings between unions on issues of AFL-CIO policy must take place between meetings of principals…The AFL-CIO must establish and enforce standards in such areas as bargaining, strategic industry plans and results; political fundraising and participation by members and their families, workplace organization, among others.

I’m not sure what structural arrangement best serves the ends of openness and representativeness within the AFL-CIO. But inter-union dialogue is certainly a must, as is transparency in decision-making and accountability in producing results. This accountability must apply both to the federation’s leadership and to its member unions. The AFL-CIO is, after all, a voluntary compact, and affiliation should signify a commitment to organizing and building the movement.

These proposals, all the more so when taken together with the other four points of the platform (focused on representation, strategic use of union money and purchasing power, global solidarity, and healthcare and retirement security), represent a blue-print with at least the potential to bring real change to a federation in deep need of it. I support its broad vision, including the final point of that first section:

Leadership Committed to Building a Movement that Can Win. The AFL-CIO needs leadership that is committed to the kind of fundamental restructuring of the federation that we are proposing.

No real surprises in tonight’s press conference. That Bush saw the need to have it at all demonstrates what must be a growing sense that public opinion is only further solidifying against this administration on each of its major domestic policy initiatives. Still not much of a social security plan. Un-conservative as means testing may sound, ultimately it’s an approach to fray the social contract by transforming social security in the public mind from a universal compact into a payoff to the poor. The next step, a generation from now, is capitalizing on that image to further assault the program. Meanwhile, makes sense that Bush set himself up as the good cop on the “filibuster against people of faith” line, although he can’t really distance himself from that nasty line without actually, well, distancing himself from it. Interesting to see him say that his energy bill won’t help for a decade.