Category Archives: populism

Americans Rise Against the Neofascism of Trump and Bannon to Affirm the Foundation of the Republic: once again, E Pluribus Unum

Donald Trump’s executive order banning immigrants from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Somalia created chaos after its immediate enforcement at US airports on Saturday. Passengers with valid documentation and green cards were denied entry by immigration officials, a move that was both unconstitutional and illegal.

But Trump and his neofascist advisers did not anticipate the public response to this attack on the foundational ideas of America. At all major airports around the country spontaneous protests grew into thousands chanting: “No hate, no fear. Refugees are welcome here,” and hundreds of lawyers volunteered their services pro bono.

It’s clear that Trump has no idea about how to govern: after one week in power, his administration has provoked a constitutional crisis that pits the immigration bureaucracy, acting for the executive, against the legislature and the courts. While the botched executive order was crafted by neofascist Steve Bannon, it was defended by his tea-party fellow travelers Reince Priebus and Paul Ryan, revealing they are not only out of touch with the ideals and sentiments of the majority of  Americans, but actually believe their own lies about public hostility to Muslims.

According to the New York Times, Trump’s rush to enact his campaign promises bypassed all agency and legal reviews, and his executive order on immigration “had the most explosive implications. … But Mr. Bannon, who believes in highly restrictive immigration policies and saw barring refugees as vital to shoring up Mr. Trump’s political base, was determined to make it happen.” What Bannon really wants to achieve is to remove all checks and balances on Trump’s executive power. The sudden dismissal of senior officials at the State Department with no replacements in line, creating a vacuum of leadership, is designed to neutralize the agency in foreign relations. Angela Merkel was forced to “explain” to Trump the obligations of the Geneva refugee convention in a phone call on Saturday, reported the Guardian, in contrast to the toadying of British prime minister Theresa May on her recent visit.

The protests against the ban began on Saturday immediately after the news that two Iraqi refugees were being held at JFK airport in New York.  Gothamist reported the crowd numbered about 100 people shortly before 2 p.m., but 40 minutes later had doubled in size; people kept on coming until there were thousands lining the approach road and in the three floors of the parking garage overlooking the terminal. Shortly after noon on Saturday one of the Iraqi travelers was released. After nearly 19 hours of detention, Hameed Khalid Darweesh, an interpreter who worked for more than a decade as a translator for the US in Iraq, began to cry as he spoke to reporters after his humiliation by the authorities. But he said of the protesters who surrounded him, carrying supportive signs, “This is the humanity, this is the soul of America. This is what pushed me to move, leave my country and come here.”

The New York City Taxi Workers Alliance tweeted that they would undertake a one-hour strike on pickups at JFK, to stand in solidarity with the people protesting the immigration ban. At the same time, the ACLU mounted an emergency habeas corpus petition in Brooklyn federal court. An ACLU lawyer, Andre Segura, was at JFK by 1:30 p.m. on Saturday. He said that the outside section of a restaurant in Terminal 4 was “entirely taken over by attorneys,” all working to file petitions for individual clients with the help of the clients’ families. He added, “The dynamic between what was happening inside the terminal with all the attorneys, and outside with massive protests and people holding signs — I’ve never experienced anything like that.”

According to the New York Times, US district Judge Ann Donnelly, “ruled just before 9 p.m. on Saturday that implementing Mr. Trump’s order by sending the travelers home could cause them ‘irreparable harm.’ She said the government was ‘enjoined and restrained from, in any manner and by any means, removing individuals’ who had arrived in the United States with valid visas or refugee status.” She had been alerted by the ACLU to the fact that a Syrian woman with a valid green card attempting to enter the country had been placed on a plane to take her back to Syria within the hour; government lawyers were unable to provide assurances about her safety on her return without additional information.  The Guardian reported: “Well that’s exactly why I’m going to grant this stay,” Donnelly replied to muffled cheers in the room.

Back at JFK, a Gothamist reporter described the continuing protest. All of those he spoke to “were angry, many scared. But they didn’t seem demoralized. They stayed, for hours and hours. Pizza boxes became impromptu signs. Parents held onto their kids, fresh out of dance practice in Manhattan or coming from their homes nearby in Queens. A group of Yemeni men stood around, chatting and filming the action. … I assumed the combination of cold and darkness would start to thin the crowd, but people were still showing up at 7 p.m. They flooded out into the streets, still chanting, ‘Fuck the wall, we’ll tear it down’ and ‘Not on our watch, not in our name.’ A few folks danced. It was electric. Around 9 p.m., when word of the stay came through, spread along the human mic, there was just a surging roar, punctuated by people drumming on buckets. The crowd started to sing.”

The judge’s ruling had immediate national repercussions. Minutes later, another judge, Leonie Brinkema of Federal District Court in Virginia, issued a temporary restraining order for a week to block the removal of any green card holders being detained at Dulles International Airport. The Washington Post reported: “In Seattle, U.S. District Court Judge Thomas S. Zilly granted an emergency stay preventing the deportation of two people detained at the Sea-Tac International Airport …  Just before 2 a.m. Sunday in Boston, two federal judges ruled for two University of Massachusetts Dartmouth associate professors — Iranian nationals who are permanent legal residents in the United States — who were held at Logan International Airport when they landed after travel for an academic conference. The judges there also put a seven-day restraining order on Trump’s executive action.”

However, the application of the ruling – which prevents deportations of people already on US soil – is being challenged by Homeland Security officials who are still preventing immigration lawyers from contacting people detained at airports. At Dulles airport in Virginia Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials were refusing to comply with the court order on Sunday, denying detained immigrants access to lawyers and turning away members of Congress who demanded officials comply with the federal court.

Becca Heller, director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, told reporters on Sunday morning: “Rogue customs and Border Patrol agents continue to try to get people on to planes. A lot of people have been handcuffed, a lot of people who don’t speak English are being coerced into taking involuntary departures.” Heller said in one case, an Iranian Fulbright scholar had been forced on to an Air Ukraine flight at JFK – hours after agents had received the court order to stop. “The flight started taxiing away from the gate,” Heller said. “She was on the phone with us and stood up and asked to get off the flight the crew just ignored her.” The attorneys made desperate calls to higher-level officials, and the plane was eventually turned around on the tarmac and the woman returned to detention.”

The New York Immigration Coalition announced Sunday that volunteer lawyers remain at JFK’s terminals to help travelers caught by the ban, as well as “non-legal volunteers, community members, and even people who had just gotten off their flights [who] offered their time and energy to support the effort.” Camille Mackler, director of the group’s legal initiatives, said: “I think people reacted to how fundamentally un-American the [Executive Orders] and values put forth are. This is what has propelled people to the streets, what has pushed people out there to protest and to keep showing up. Lawyers have a skill and want to put it to work—they came out to the point that we had to turn people away. This all has been overwhelming but amazing.”

Trump’s extremism has alienated Americans from all classes of society, from ordinary members of the public to legislators and lawyers. They immediately understood the deep betrayal of American ideals and the Constitution that Trump and his enablers are trying to impose, and which the authoritarian elements in Homeland Security are following to the detriment of the rule of law. The United States cannot be ruled by fiats or tweets.

Trump’s aggressive executive orders threaten the legitimacy of his government and the presidency itself. The executive branch has been hijacked by a group of dangerous men who have to be stopped before they have inflicted irreparable damage. The ground has been created for a mass movement unlike any seen before that aims to defend the fundamental pluralistic premises of the United States. The left in America and Britain needs to grasp this reality and participate without preconceptions about political leadership. And Theresa May is exposed as the appeaser of a would-be fascist dictator.

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Filed under donald trump, immigrants, immigration, muslims in america, populism, racism, Syria, Uncategorized

Why Voting to Stop Trump Is the Only Choice in 2016

After July’s conventions that anointed Hillary Clinton as Democratic presidential candidate and transformed the Republicans into the Archie Bunker party, the left is engaged in heated discussions about its orientation to November’s election.

Jill Stein of the Green party claimed that voting for her party was “saying no to the lesser evil and yes to the greater good.” This may sound good as a slogan, but it makes voting an individual moral choice, replicating the reduction of society to a collection of individuals that is the hallmark of a neoliberal, consumer-choice world.

Is there a mass movement today that is motivated by the progressive policies of Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein? While there is a pervasive populist sentiment that has a distorted reflection in the Republican and Democratic parties, political anti-corporatism is concentrated among white liberals. What is certainly going on is an awakening of minorities to their social strength, and at this historical moment among Native, African and Latino Americans there is an overwhelming hostility to a potential Trump presidency. The left is in danger of isolating itself from this movement if it insists on its moral purity.

Electoral activity is no more than a strategic choice in the course of building a wider movement.  In this specific instance, while voting for the Greens in a state like Massachusetts will not affect the overall result, in a state like Michigan it could be crucial. The first-past-the-post electoral system limits the number of viable parties to two, making a vote for the Greens a symbolic gesture at best, and a spoiler at worst.

There are practical effects from voting, as Noam Chomsky points out, whether or not it offends someone’s individual conscience. He challenges the assumption “that voting should be seen a form of individual self-expression rather than as an act to be judged on its likely consequences … The basic moral principle at stake is simple: not only must we take responsibility for our actions, but the consequences of our actions for others are a far more important consideration than feeling good about ourselves.” He recalls the ultra-left faction of the peace movement minimizing the dangers of a Nixon presidency in 1968, resulting in “six years of senseless death and destruction in Southeast Asia and also a predictable fracture of the left.”

A Trump presidency has a high probability of inflicting much greater suffering on marginalized and already oppressed populations than a Clinton administration, he considers; it would even strengthen the elite within the Democratic party because “far right victories not only impose terrible suffering on the most vulnerable segments of society but also function as a powerful weapon in the hands of the establishment center, which, now in opposition can posture as the ‘reasonable’ alternative.” As far as the “lesser evil” argument goes, he says “this sort of cost/benefit strategic accounting is fundamental to any politics which is serious about radical change. Those on the left who ignore it, or dismiss it as irrelevant are engaging in political fantasy and are an obstacle to, rather than ally of, the movement which now seems to be materializing.”

Stein would argue that voting Green is a step in the creation of an independent third party, or as Socialist Alternative suggests, a “new mass party of the 99 percent.” But the history of the US shows that for an independent party to be established, it has first of all to be based on a real movement within society, closely connected with that movement, not outside of it. Socialist Alternative’s activities at the Democratic convention were directed at a political minority, organizing a highly visible walkout and encouraging Sanders supporters who came with them to join the Greens. They may have a limited success with a number of them, but the majority of Sanderistas at the DNC intend to stay within the party and not leave the field open to the right.

Members of the Sanders delegations at the DNC told In These Times: “Most delegates weren’t Bernie-or-Bust. We all understand that, ultimately, Trump needs to be defeated, and that—especially in swing states—you need to support Clinton.”  “Bernie’s not the ceiling of what we can achieve in the Democratic Party. He’s the floor … In the coming years there’s a lot of space for us to fight, both within and outside the Democratic Party. I don’t think all political change is going to happen in the Democratic Party. It’s just one field of battle.” “I think the Democratic Party is a battleground. You can either play on it to win, or you can abandon it to the enemy. And I would rather play on it to win.”

Sanders was the figurehead of a political movement that was oriented to restoring the New Deal philosophy of earlier Democratic administrations. Likewise Trump is the figurehead of a white backlash against the growing status of minorities while their own economic prospects slump. Both express an anti-establishment sentiment in society, but in different partisan ways.  Trump’s supporters are going to vote for him no matter what he may say. That is because their vote is not based on rational choice but on desperation – the major parties have ignored the plight of the working class in the deindustrialized Rust Belt and Trump is the only one speaking to them – and that could be a key issue in the mid-West.

Conservative author J.D. Vance explained: “What many don’t understand is how truly desperate these places are, and we’re not talking about small enclaves or a few towns–we’re talking about multiple states where a significant chunk of the white working class struggles to get by.  Heroin addiction is rampant.  In my medium-sized Ohio county last year, deaths from drug addiction outnumbered deaths from natural causes.  The average kid will live in multiple homes over the course of her life, experience a constant cycle of growing close to a ‘stepdad’ only to see him walk out on the family, know multiple drug users personally, maybe live in a foster home for a bit … And on top of that is the economic struggle, from the factories shuttering their doors to the Main Streets with nothing but cash-for-gold stores and pawn shops. … Trump’s candidacy is music to their ears.  He criticizes the factories shipping jobs overseas.  His apocalyptic tone matches their lived experiences on the ground.  He seems to love to annoy the elites, which is something a lot of people wish they could do but can’t because they lack a platform.”

The Democratic strategy after their convention is to turn to disaffected middle-class Republicans rather than try to win over the white working class. But its plight is not something that can be written off as a political manifestation of right-wing extremism that can be countered by a left policy, as Stein does. There is a real social crisis here that requires the agency of the oppressed themselves to resolve. A radical, progressive agenda imposed from outside without any meaningful means of achieving it is not going to impress these people because they have been patronized and ignored for so long.

This movement is one driven by economic collapse and complete loss of confidence in the ruling elite. Widespread police abuse legitimized by the “broken windows” and “zero-tolerance” philosophies has undermined state legitimacy, and Black and Hispanic communities have begun to defend themselves; white workers are being written off and this is driving them into Trump’s arms. Clinton is certainly not the answer to these problems, but it will be infinitely easier to campaign on them under her presidency than under Trump’s. He will empower the police and security forces to do more than put protesters on trial: he will arm them to imprison and assassinate his critics.

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Filed under 2016 Election, Bernie Sanders, Democratic Party, donald trump, Hillary Clinton, latino americans, populism, Uncategorized

The Collapse of the Centre: Is Brexit a Disaster or an Opportunity for Labour?

The British political class – a uniquely inbred Oxbridge clique – is in turmoil after the result of the Brexit vote, and is now engaging in a mutual backstabbing that makes Game of Thrones look tame by comparison. However, despite its disorientation, the entire establishment across party lines is clear on one thing, and only one thing: Jeremy Corbyn should not be leader of the Labour party. Its political reflex is to hold him responsible for this disruption of the status quo.

Apart from around 40 MPs, Labour’s parliamentarians are closely tied to former leader Blair’s embrace of neoliberalism that was at the root of the party’s abandonment of the working class in the former industrial and mining areas. There is now the possibility of a split between the parliamentary wing and Labour’s membership, which wants to restore its social democratic orientation. It has this in common with much of the public, even when distorted by a nationalist perspective – the Brexiters’ slogan of more money for the NHS (which they immediately reneged on) was one of the popular drivers of the vote.

Corbyn is a symbol of a social democratic alternative to neoliberal austerity, although his voice was drowned out by the shrill claims and counter-claims of the Cameron-Johnson campaigns. He is still capable of uniting Brexiters and Remainers who want to acknowledge the misery piled up in the abandoned areas of much of England and Wales that had been ignored by the political elite. The vote gave an opportunity to the people living in those areas who felt disenfranchised to show their hostility to the political apparatus; many assumed their vote would not count and that Remain would carry the day simply because it was supported by the establishment.

Gary Younge commented: “If remain had won, we would already have returned to pretending that everything was carrying on just fine. Those people who have been forgotten would have stayed forgotten; those communities that have been abandoned would have stayed invisible to all but those who live in them. To insist that they will now suffer most ignores the fact that unless something had changed, they were going to suffer anyway. … For the last 15 years, governments and the press have stoked fears about whether British culture could withstand the integration of Muslims – of whom 70% voted for remain – when they should have been worried about how to integrate the white working class into the British economy. Brexit didn’t create these problems. It exposed them and will certainly make them worse.”

The referendum itself was inherently divisive, as Patrick Cockburn points out. “This is always the way with referenda on important issues: they make irreversible decisions, but they do so at a high political cost by excluding compromise between contending parties with deeply held opinions that they are not going to abandon on the day after the poll, regardless of who wins or loses. … The Remain camp thought they could win the vote by relentlessly emphasising the economic risks of leaving the EU, though the real danger is political rather than economic as a populist right is empowered with little idea of what it should do with that power.”

The influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe escaping poverty in their own countries has been taken advantage of by unscrupulous labour agencies and landlords to force down wage rates and jack up rents in various parts of Britain. But this is not unique to the UK; it exacerbates a trend seen throughout Europe. Servaas Storm, an economics professor at Delft University, comments: “Almost everywhere in the E.U. — as in Britain — there is a polarization of the income distribution into a large number of low-income households and a much smaller number of very rich, while the middle classes have shrunk. There is a segmentation of employment into low-wage, unprotected and precarious jobs, mostly in low-tech services, and high-wage and protected jobs in high-tech manufacturing, finance, legal services and government. … The massive social protests in France against the modernization of labour laws — newspeak for a reduction in the strength of French job-protection laws and social security in general — by the ‘socialist’ Hollande government illustrate the point: The systemic dismantling of worker protection in the name of cutting wage costs and improving unit-labour cost competitiveness will certainly increase job insecurity, employment precariousness, and inequality without any further macroeconomic benefits.”

UMass professor Richard Wolff explains: “A government, voted in by the French working class, a socialist government … pushed through a labor reform law which basically does everything that the employers in France could have dreamed for a president to do. … the newspapers are filled with spectacles of helmeted police being sent by a socialist government to beat the very people that put that government into office. And if anything were more clearly a sign of the collapse of what the very word socialism meant, as well as the collapse of conventional politics, it’s being acted out on the streets of Paris. … You’re seeing everywhere that the traditional, old, capitalist-maintaining center-left, center-right, is dissolving. And the polarization is the new issue on the horizon. It is surprising the old elites, but that’s really only a sign of how out of touch those governing elites have become …”

The parliamentary Labour party’s attempted coup to unseat Corbyn is another sign of how out of touch it is with the membership. Constituency activists have renewed demands for MP reselection in the event of another general election. Labour party member Dan Iles pointed out: “I believe Corbyn persuaded 60% of Labour’s supporters to vote remain because he didn’t ignore people’s concerns with the EU. By admitting that the EU is not without its faults and then demanding that we should stay in to reform it (from the left) he was able to bypass the binary claims of the two main referendum campaigns. People voted leave because they felt abandoned by politics and scared about immigration. These structural issues haven’t just appeared in the last nine months of Corbyn’s leadership. But I think many felt his defence of immigration and his determination to turn the debate towards austerity was refreshing at a time when the leave campaign was openly whipping up racism and xenophobia.”

UPDATE: David Graeber makes a relevant comment in the Guardian: “If the opposition to Jeremy Corbyn for the past nine months has been so fierce, and so bitter, it is because his existence as head of a major political party is an assault on the very notion that politics should be primarily about the personal qualities of politicians. … the Corbyn project is first and foremost to make the party a voice for social movements once again, dedicated to popular democracy (as trades unions themselves once were). … While one side effectively accuses him of refusing to play the demagogue during the Brexit debate, for the other, his insistence on treating the public as responsible adults was the quintessence of the ‘new kind of politics’ they wished to see.”

The Brexit campaign was always a dispute between factions of the Tory elite, neither of which were serious about the possibility of a Leave victory, meaning that there is no plan for disengaging from Europe. With all the criticism of Farage’s open racism, it has been forgotten that Cameron and Theresa May stoked nativism by imposing English language and income tests on new immigrants, a policy targeted at Middle Eastern refugees. Britain has never had a positive approach to cultural assimilation like the US does. It puts responsibility onto immigrants to somehow integrate themselves into the system.

While the media is fixated on British parliamentary politics, the vote is having major international repercussions, not least within Europe itself, because of the fragility and interconnectedness of the global economy. The Economist notes that the London financial industry could be in big trouble: “It thrives on the EU’s ‘passport’ rules, under which banks, asset managers and other financial firms in one member state may serve customers in the other 27 without setting up local operations. … In the run-up to the vote TheCityUK, a trade body that opposed Brexit, boasted that London had around 70% of the market for euro-denominated interest-rate derivatives, 90% of European prime brokerage (assisting hedge funds with trading) and more besides.”

Will the inevitable diminution of the City of London’s financial clout also lead to a weakening of its political influence? This is Labour’s opportunity: the first task of a Labour government independent of EU regulations should be to take control of capital movements and pump money into kick-starting manufacturing in regionally depressed economies. Corbyn supporters have plenty of policies they could be campaigning on to unite workers whose jobs have been outsourced with immigrants who would fight for a living wage.

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Filed under Brexit, Britain, Cameron, Jeremy Corbyn, Neoliberalism, populism, Uncategorized

Take Note, Plutocrats: Populism is Not Just a Spectre – It’s Rule by the People, for the People.

A spectre is haunting the world’s plutocracy – the spectre of populism. According to Politico, “Economists, advisers to the wealthy and the wealthy themselves describe a deep-seated anxiety that the national – and even global – mood is turning against the super-rich in ways that ultimately could prove dangerous and hard to control.”

Their fears are well justified. The billionaire elite in the U.S. is virulently opposed to Obamacare and the expansion of Medicaid, it is incensed by calls to increase the minimum wage, and through its proxies in Congress it has stopped an extension of long-term unemployment benefits. Anything that retards its wholesale looting of society’s wealth is anathema to it, including the Obama administration’s attempts to alleviate the worst effects of the economic downturn.

The plutocrats can maintain their hold on power only through their ideological grip on a large section of the American public – and challenges to that grip make them increasingly nervous.

Venture capitalist Tom Perkins, who made his money from Hewlett-Packard defense contracts, wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Writing from the epicenter of progressive thought, San Francisco, I would call attention to the parallels of fascist Nazi Germany to its war on its ‘one percent,’ namely its Jews, to the progressive war on the American one percent, namely the ‘rich’.” He was echoed by real estate mogul Sam Zell: “The one percent are getting pummeled because it’s politically convenient to do so,” he said, adding that the one percent simply “work harder” than everyone else.

Juan Cole points out how their outlook and that of congressional Republicans is totally out of step with the U.S. public: “What is odd, and damning of the current American political system, is that the Republican Party’s major platform positions are roundly rejected by the American people. That is, they are ideologically a minority party. And yet they manage to win elections. … We are a center-left country and the majority of Americans takes the same stance as I on most controversial issues. It is the House of Representatives that is extreme, far more right wing than the country it says it represents.”

They are so far to the right that a Coca-Cola ad aired during the Superbowl featuring “America the Beautiful” sung in different languages evoked howls of outrage from tea-party politicians who posted racist comments on Twitter.

Within the Republican party itself there are fractures over immigration that reveal tensions between this kind of xenophobic rhetoric and corporate interests; the party’s difficulties stem from its need to use racist messages to preserve a declining white electoral base that itself depends on state support, while advocating cuts in state spending that would benefit only the super-rich.

Popular resistance to cuts in education, healthcare, and benefits is what is worrying the plutocrats. Whether Republican or Democrat, the public is determined not to lose social security benefits or other entitlements, and the low-waged have embarked on a popular campaign to increase the minimum wage to a living wage.

This mood of resistance was reflected in Obama’s fifth State of the Union address. What was remarkable about it was the contrast between the grand themes of hope and change that characterized his election campaigns, and the limited nature of his proposals for executive action rather than legislation to address social issues. He maintained a difficult balancing act between corporate and public sentiment, acknowledging unsustainable inequality in America but advocating a neoliberal prescription for economic growth through the fast-tracking of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that can only lead to the loss of more jobs.

Obama’s executive order raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for federal contractors clearly aimed to contain a vigorous movement within an electoral framework. However, his speech also serves to encourage a growing trend of lightning strikes and walkouts, inspired by the ideal of a $15 minimum that is closer to a living wage.Josh Eidelson has been reporting in Salon about the series of one-day strikes organized by the union-backed “Good Jobs Nation” campaign to force Obama’s hand on the issue. “As recently as this month, the co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who’ve rallied repeatedly with the strikers, told Salon the White House had been unresponsive to their pleas. ‘If we had never done this,’ said [Smithsonian McDonald’s worker] Alexis Vasquez, ‘we would have continued making $8.25 for the rest of our lives’. But the move announced today falls short of what Demos and Change to Win have urged. … Given that ‘the issues are still there,’ said Joseph Geevarghese [deputy director of the Change to Win union federation], including contractors’ alleged failure to follow the wage laws already on the books, ‘I think we’re going to see continued worker unrest going forward’.”

Obama’s plan for a “grand bargain” to rationalize state expenditure in which he could trade cuts in social security for token increased taxes on the rich was stymied by the grip of the tea-party Republicans on Congress. As the Washington Post reported, his address attempted to restore confidence in his presidency, as he faced “a tricky task: winning over a nation that has grown less trustful of his leadership after a year in which the federal government was partially shuttered for 16 days and the administration botched the rollout of Obama’s health-care law.”

Juan Cole assessed his presidency as politically passive, accepting the international role bequeathed him by the Bush administration and the Pentagon. “In the end, Obama seems to see himself as primarily a domestic president. That position is remarkable because the Tea Party Congress won’t actually let him do much domestically. … He says the right things about conventional uses of the military, but in his actions he is a Covert War hawk.” He said little about NSA spying apart from a throwaway statement about reform – and even that was forced on him by Edward Snowden’s revelations.

While Snowden is undoubtedly the person who changed the political dialog in 2013, this year’s heroes will be those like 22-year-old fast food worker Naquasia LeGrand who are fighting to change the lives of those at the cutting edge of poverty wages. She gave a spirited interview to comedian Stephen Colbert where she voiced the determination of the low-waged to get a better deal from the billionaires: “It’s not just me who is going through this. It’s all of us going through this. That’s what makes a union. Americans coming together to make a difference and have a voice together. … there is no reason why I should have a second job when these multi-billion dollar companies have the money to pay me in the work that I do.”

This is the kind of talk that has the plutocracy losing sleep at night. It is fueling more and more campaigns at the state level, such as in Oakland, CA, where a union-community coalition aims to put a measure on the ballot in November 2014 that would increase Oakland’s minimum wage from $8 an hour to $12.25, with future increases tied to inflation, and at least five annual sick days for all workers.

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Filed under Affordable Care Act, austerity measures, debt limit impasse, Edward Snowden, fast-food workers, National Security Agency, Neoliberalism, Obama, Obamacare, populism, Republicans, Tea Party movement

Walker’s Recall Victory over Wisconsin Democrats: What the Hell Happened?

Activists will rightly be dismayed that Scott Walker defeated the union-backed grassroots campaign to recall him. The repercussions will be felt in states across the country as right-wing groups see it as  a vindication of their hostility to state workers’ unions. Let’s not forget, however, that Republicans lost control of the Wisconsin State Senate. There is a chance this could be reversed in November, but for now it will prevent them pushing through further right-wing legislation.

Interviewed on Democracy Now, John Nichols pointed out its immediate significance: “Governor Walker is an incredibly ambitious partisan. … He is particularly interested in taking apart many of the state’s environmental laws in order to allow for a particularly controversial form of mining in northern Wisconsin. That is likely to be blocked. Additionally, he’s been very, very aggressive on voting rights issues. He’s a big backer of voter ID laws, changes in registration laws, things of that nature. That would have been the sort of thing that you might have seen him initiate, and his allies initiate, if they had control of the State Senate.”

The narrative on the left is that big money unleashed by the “Citizens United” decision swung the election despite the massive effort behind the recall campaign. Nichols explains: “Over the period not just of this campaign but really of the better part of a year, he [Walker] used massive television advertising, as well as astounding amounts of mailings—more than $5 million worth of mailings—and huge amounts of internet and social media communication, to basically alter people’s impressions of him sufficiently to win a 53-46 victory.”

This has some validity, but it is not the whole story. Money gave Walker the advantage of being able to frame the issues before the Democrats had a chance to get started, but his Republican rhetoric would have had little impact if it didn’t resonate with popular prejudices. In the absence of any accountability for bankers and plutocratic privilege, state workers have become the scapegoats for the recession.

The most important statistic to come out of the exit polls, in my opinion, is that Walker won nearly half the vote from members of union households who were not themselves in a union. The Washington Post suggests that: “Democratic and labor efforts to turn out their supporters (which is labor’s calling card) were largely successful. The problem was that too many of those who came out sided with Walker… the backlash against him was limited to the Democratic base and those directly affected by his decision [to strip collective bargaining rights from public sector unions], while Walker was able to garner plenty of support from everybody else — including family of union members.”

Walker succeeded – and this has to be faced squarely – in leveraging the underlying and growing resentment on the part of Americans made vulnerable by the recession against those who are not yet playing by the new rules set by the plutocracy for the rest of us. The new normal is accepting day to day life as being economically contingent and disposable without protection against corporate abuse. Under the guise of self-sufficiency, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, and the characterization of organized labor as mobs, leeches, monsters, etc., plutocrats have adjusted the collective expectations of the middle class to essentially accept the same lot as the immigrant farmworkers they also vilify.

Walker managed to divide the electorate using the fear people clearly have against this new reality as a wedge. Wisconsin Democrats were unable to counter Walker’s narrative and get across the importance of collective bargaining for all workers, not just those in the public sector. John Nichols commented: “This battle over labor rights was where the fight in Wisconsin began, and yet it was Scott Walker who, for the last year, did a lot more of the messaging on the assault on collective bargaining rights that he launched back in February 2011. Similarly, I think that Democrats and labor needed to talk about the recall power and explain it in much more detail. Walker was very, very critical of the recall. And I think, again, he used a lot of money and messaging to win that debate.”

Many voters were opposed to recalls as a means of political protest, so they responded to this criticism. And Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, a centrist Democrat who was not labor’s first choice, had little to offer his base. Gary Younge of the Guardian was not impressed: “In the five days I’ve been reporting from the state I have yet to meet a single person who voted for him as opposed to against Walker. In the end this was just not enough. His failure to give some vision for what Wisconsin under his stewardship would look like could not win over the coveted independents or sufficiently inspire his base. When it came down to it, the people of Wisconsin wanted more than the absence of Scott Walker. They wanted the presence of an alternative.”

The lack of an effective counter-narrative left voters open to Walker’s claims that he was attempting to deal with the state’s fiscal problems. The fact that he balanced the budget with large cuts in further education and mortgage settlement money was drowned out. In These Times reports on a long discussion that John Dupies, a special education teacher in the Milwaukee schools, had with a voter when canvassing. “Dupies asked him, ‘In years, have you seen our state divided like it is now?’  The voter said he supported Walker: ‘I’ve got to pay for my own healthcare…everyone else should do it too.’ … After a friendly exchange about common acquaintances in the local schools, the voter said, ‘As a small business owner, I bust my ass, I pay my own bills, plus I’m paying for all of the illegals.’  Dupies asked whether he thought it was fair for big corporations to get away with not paying taxes.  He answered, ‘No, I don’t think it’s fair.  But there’s nothing I can do about it’.”

The battleground in Wisconsin sums up the dilemma of the left today. Since Obama has not jailed a single CEO or top banker for crashing the economy and plunging America into recession, it appears that there’s nothing that the people, through their government, can do about it. Matt Stoller writes in Naked Capitalism: “Up and down the ticket, Democrats are operating under the shadow of the President, associated with unpopular policies that make the lives of voters worse and show government to be an incompetent, corrupt handmaiden to big business. … Obama’s economic policies have made economic inequality sharper than it was under Bush, due to his bailout of banks and concurrent elimination of the main source of wealth of most Americans, home equity.  With these policy choices, Obama destroyed the Democratic Party and liberalism – under Obama’s first two years, the fastest growing demographic party label was ‘former Democrat.’ … Then, in Illinois and Maryland in April, liberal labor-backed candidates were absolutely wrecked in primaries. … In Wisconsin, the stage was much more high-profile, but the dynamics were the same.”

The national story is what frames the lives of Americans, whatever the local issues. In order to counter the Republican onslaught, the progressive wing of the Democratic party—reduced as it has been under the Obama administration—needs to regroup and reassert its presence. The Occupy movement has begun this conversation; the best hope for countering the plutocratic Republican brand of fear and envy is Occupy’s message of how we can recover our solidarity for a more just America. That my neighbor has healthcare and I don’t does not mean that he should lose it to make things fair; the fair thing, in this enormously wealthy country, is that we both have it.

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Filed under austerity measures, Obama, occupy wall street, political analysis, populism, Republicans, state unions, Tea Party movement, Wisconsin, Wisconsin recalls

Hey Honchos! Wake up and Smell the Wisconsin Recall: The Government Serves People, Not Corporations!

Whatever the final result of the recall election for the Wisconsin governor next Tuesday, the fact of the recalls themselves and the huge grassroots campaign to achieve them – in the face of the reluctance of the Obama administration and Democratic establishment to give support until the last minute – is a major victory. The first round of recalls last year reduced the Republican senate majority to one, and on Tuesday there are four more senate recalls together with the governor’s and lieutenant-governor’s.

Cap Times editor John Nichols points out that “this is the most sweeping set of recalls in American history. We’ve never had a situation where on a single day a state could change control of both its executive branch and the dominant house of the legislative branch. … if just one seat is picked up – the Democrats gain full control of the state senate. That in itself is a pretty big deal.”

If Walker were voted out of office, or even if the Democrats were to regain control of the senate, it would curb his attempts to sell the resources of the state to the super-rich – his slogan “Wisconsin is open for business” is code for “The public property of Wisconsin is up for grabs.” It doesn’t matter to him if the natural beauty and ecology of the state is destroyed by strip-mining, or that people sink deeper into debt. He just wants to keep his wealthy donors rewarded with whatever tax breaks or immunity from legal control they can profit from.

As Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne noted: “Wisconsin has become the most glaring example of a new and genuinely alarming approach to politics on the right. It seeks to use incumbency to alter the rules and tilt the legal and electoral playing field decisively toward the interests of those in power. … This recall should not have had to happen. But its root cause was not the orneriness of Walker’s opponents but a polarizing brand of conservative politics that most Americans, including many conservatives, have good reason to reject.”

Walker’s huge spending on attack ads is not aimed at changing the minds of independents – it’s to keep his base fired up. He needs to keep his potential voters motivated because otherwise some of the scandals surrounding his political career will cause them to doubt his suitability for any kind of government responsibility. The frenzied media blitz helps to keep partisan divisions at fever pitch.

John Nichols in the interview cited above explains that “aides for the governor, and perhaps the governor himself – that remains to be seen – set up a secret campaign operation in the [Milwaukee] County Executive’s Office where people were paid out of the Treasury for pretty much just full-time campaign work for Scott Walker and his favorite candidates. It was effectively a recreation of an old-style political machine without any rules. It appears to have been illegal. That’s why his deputy chief of staff, his scheduler, his former deputy chief of staff have all been charged. … It’s also why the governor is now represented by four separate law firms, including two of the top criminal defense law firms. … The guy is looking at major state and potentially federal investigations into his activities.”

What Walker’s regime means for ordinary people is made clearer by another series of scandals surrounding the state environmental agency, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).  According to an investigation in the Wisconsin State Journal, a former Republican state legislator, Scott Gunderson, who was appointed as executive assistant to DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp by the Walker administration, “chose not to send a complaint against an Oconomowoc waste hauler to the Department of Justice for prosecution despite findings by agency staff that the company was treating fields with so much human waste from septic tanks it risked poisoning nearby wells … Instead, Gunderson decided to ask district attorneys in Waukesha and Jefferson counties to issue five citations against Herr Environmental and fine the company $4,338 — the minimum forfeiture for the permit violations, which the lead DNR investigator called ‘among the worst’ he’d seen.”

Also implicated is the local state representative, Joel Kleefisch, who is the husband of Lt. Governor Rebecca Kleefish who is facing recall on Tuesday. According to a DNR investigator who spoke to the State Journal, he argued that five citations were too many and should be reduced by two or three “as a show of good faith.” At a public meeting, concerned homeowners in the area were told that neither the DNR nor the hauler would pay for tests on the water quality of their wells and they should do it themselves.

The Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch explained that the story was “the second part of a two-part series by the State Journal, the first part having revealed that the DNR’s environmental activity has dropped dramatically in the past two years under the Walker administration and that the number of permit violation notices from the department hit a 12-year low last year. The DNR’s Secretary Cathy Stepp, appointed by Walker, is a former Republican state senator who ran her family’s construction business after leaving public office. Before her appointment, Stepp was an outspoken critic of the DNR, calling its employees ‘anti-development, anti-transportation, and pro-garter snakes, karner blue butterflies, etc.’ Walker said that his controversial decision to appoint Stepp was because he was looking for a DNR chief with a ‘chamber-of-commerce mentality’.”

At the same time, the landscape in northern Wisconsin is being devastated to feed the growing appetite of the natural gas fracking industry for high-grade sand. Rolling hills containing the sand are being leveled and the valleys filled with dumped industrial waste water. The DNR has done nothing to monitor how much crystalline silica – a carcinogen like asbestos – is released into the air by sand mining, and it recently denied a petition by people living in the region that it control the amount being dispersed by mining operations.

Given the appointment of Cathy Stepp as DNR Secretary, one of the petition’s signatories, Ron Koshoshek, wasn’t surprised. “For 16 years he was a member of, and for nine years chaired, Wisconsin’s Public Intervenor Citizens Advisory Committee.  Created in 1967, its role was to intercede on behalf of the environment, should tensions grow between the DNR’s two roles: environmental protector and corporate licensor. ‘The DNR,’ he says, ‘is now a permitting agency for development and exploitation of resources’.” Instead of being able to protect the public good, state environmental professionals are being overruled by Walker’s political appointees.

All this could be overturned in Tuesday’s election. As John Nichols put it: “… this mass mobilization, which the unions have put a lot of their resources and energy into, has the potential to produce a sufficient number of new voters. The traditionally unpolled voters such as young people, people of color, and rural people can make this a close and potentially very winnable race not just for Tom Barrett but for the incredible movement that developed last year.”

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Filed under political analysis, populism, Republicans, state unions, Tea Party movement, Wisconsin, Wisconsin recalls

Wisconsin Democrats hamstrung by national leadership: grassroots doing the fighting

If Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett beats Walker in the recall elections, it will be no thanks to the national Democratic leadership and entirely due to the tenacity of Wisconsin Democrats channeling a grassroots movement to defend the social contract. Indications are there will be a high turnout: early voting is at or near record levels in key municipalities like Milwaukee and Madison, and also the conservative stronghold of Waukesha.

Although Republican governors are coming out in force to support Walker, not one nationally-known Democrat has campaigned with Barrett. And in an interview on Friday, DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz said: “there aren’t going to be any repercussions” nationally if Wisconsin voters re-elect Walker.

This is a serious underestimation of the national significance of the recalls. When Walker was elected he immediately legislated a prefabricated right-wing agenda, part of a strategy devised by Republican groups like ALEC to force change in America from the state level. Their aim is to destroy Democratic support by crushing unions, restricting the franchise, and redistricting to achieve a permanent Republican majority.

At a national level, the Democratic leadership focuses heavily on Obama’s re-election calculations and carefully avoids the populist message that successfully fired up the recall signature-gathering campaign in Wisconsin. They appear to have left Wisconsin Democrats to fight Walker on their own.

This is certainly how it appears to people at the base. In comments on a blog post about the fact that Obama has avoided taking a public stand on the recall, “PJ” says: “I think it’s pretty clear that the DNC has decided that voters’ minds are set at this point. If that is so, then the Democratic establishment bears the brunt of the responsibility for not offering an early, frequent, clear, and genuine alternative to the conservative agenda. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – the protests and ensuing recall effort were an historic, game-changing moment that Democrats squandered.”

The fight in Wisconsin is important because it mirrors a national struggle against the Republican narrative that, when states are faced with fiscal shortfalls, budgets need to be balanced by spending cuts targeted at state workers and programs for the poor. They manufacture support for this program with a consistent message that public sector employees are allegedly protected from the recession while others are suffering – in Walker’s words, “divide and conquer.”

As the recall approaches, this message is accompanied by vicious demonizing and witch-hunting of unionized state workers. In Janesville, southern Wisconsin, a pro-Walker group distributed anti-teacher fliers listing teachers’ salaries “and urging parents to request their child be assigned to a ‘non-radical teacher’ next year. The fliers, which included the names, titles and salaries of the 321 highest-paid Janesville teachers, also urged readers to go to to determine if the teachers signed the petition to recall Gov. Scott Walker.”

The legislative onslaught on state workers’ unions was set up to conceal Walker’s primary agenda of enormous tax breaks and concessions to the rich. A “domestic production” tax credit was slipped into his 2011-13 budget which could reduce state income tax for the richest Wisconsinites from 7.75 percent to zero, or even end up as a credit, according to The Cap Times. It noted: “The production tax credit was just one of the ‘gifts’ in the budget approved by Walker and the Republican-controlled Legislature last June. Most, if not all, are targeted at corporations, investors, upper-income residents and campaign contributors. Combined, they will reduce state revenues significantly. Making up the difference, opponents argue, will be average Wisconsin families.”

How did Walker get away with this? An insightful commentary by Paul Fanlund in The Cap Times draws attention to a series of interviews with regular people across Wisconsin carried out between 2007-10 by a UW-Madison professor. Fanlund writes: “… what she found in her chats in gas stations and restaurants was an almost seething resentment toward public employees, who in the interviewees’ estimation had not suffered like they had in the economic downtown and were less likely to be ‘working hard.’ There was no similar, visceral blame for their economic suffering directed towards the private sector, even after the Wall Street crisis and even as the income gap has grown exponentially in recent years and the comparative tax burden on the wealthiest has shrunk. …

“Katherine Cramer Walsh is the UW-Madison professor I referenced above who interviewed many Wisconsin citizens. ‘In all my conversations about causes of the great recession, maybe a handful of times’ was any blame directed at the private sector even after the Wall Street crisis, she says. ’The most striking thing to me is how much those attitudes were in place when Walker tapped into them,’ she says.”

A comment from a Wisconsin resident on a New York Times magazine article about how divided the state has become, expresses the political consequences succinctly: “Wisconsin, hit as hard as any state by the economic collapse that originated on Wall Street and in Washington, was a pile of dry tinder. Walker was a flaming match. Legislation enacted rapidly after his inauguration was the equivalent of gasoline.”

The Democrats have struggled to create a coherent response to this rapid polarization of the state, and have missed chances to broaden their support, opting instead for a return to consensus politics. As commentator John Nichols points out: “Soft messaging by Democrats on labor issues has done them serious harm with voters in their potential base. And a failure to educate the broad mass of voters on the importance of collective bargaining to protecting middle-class wages and benefits has been equally damaging. Republicans do not make this sort of mistake. … Walker knows that a recall election in a closely divided state is about maximizing appeal to the base, not softening messages and avoiding issues.”

Paul Fanlund, in the article quoted above, also cites another UW-Madison professor, Barry Burden, who said: “What the [Wisconsin Democratic Party] has not done a good job of is saying ‘look at all the things that public spending actually does for you, like providing roads, or fire protection, or education for your children in the UW System or on public schools.’ ”

This cannot be blamed on the Wisconsin Democrats alone. They are hamstrung by the national leadership, which should be fighting to uphold the essential things that the government does on behalf of the community – education, emergency services, medical care, social security for the elderly, housing, and more. They need to sustain the idea that the community should take responsibility for the young, the sick and the weak. But most legislators, including the great deceiver Obama himself, accept the neoliberal ideology that banks must be supported at all costs.

Instead of taking up the critique of the Occupy movement, the national Democrats have helped foster the belief that the crimes of the rich operate at an incomprehensible economic level and to be “part of the way business works”; this impression is reinforced by the fact that no high-flying executives have yet been jailed.

They are accomplices in the Obama administration’s purging of whistleblowers and the federal use of agents provocateurs against Occupy protests across the country. But they will be unable to control the growing movement of political defiance: like the grassroots movement to recall Walker, which was initially opposed by Democratic political operatives, it will break through the party straitjacket and create new and more effective forms of resistance.

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Filed under 2012 Election, financiers, Obama, political analysis, populism, Republicans, state unions, Tea Party movement, Uncategorized, Wisconsin