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“Good Cop, Bad Cop:” Democratic Mayors, Republican Governors, and Us

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“Don’t pay any attention to the landlord behind the curtain.”

I just heard the dude with the nice midwestern accent, Tim Ryan, say on NPR that since the latest election the Democrats are no longer a national party.  Now, he says, the Democrats are a “coastal” party.  What a bunch of bullshit.  What he is trying to do, in a fairly clumsy manner, is to build this narrative of the Democratic Party as a “resistance movement.”

In other words, what was for a century the “party of the white man” — as it billed itself — the Democratic Party, the historic party of white supremacy, the party run by rich, white men that claimed to represent the white working class (sound familiar?), is now heading up a bold resistance movement against the very personification of evil, Donald Trump and his racist, sexist, homophobic, “alt right” Republican minions.

The existence of the neofascist president-elect and the existence of white supremacist groups is not in doubt.  The question here is what kind of resistance movement Tim Ryan and his Democratic Party intend to mount.  I think the answer is clear — and it’s nothing new, but it bears exploration.

I live in one of the supposed bastions of progressivism in the US — Portland, Oregon.  Before I moved to Portland, I lived in other cities with supposedly progressive Democratic mayors and city councils — Seattle, Olympia, San Francisco, Berkeley, Boston, Somerville, Houston, and still others (like many professional musicians, I’ve lived a very mobile life).

It is being widely publicized on the corporate (and “public”) media that the Republicans control both houses of Congress and almost every governor’s mansion in the country.  What is somewhat less widely publicized is the fact that now, as usual, the vast majority of US cities are controlled by the Democratic Party.  In most cases, US city governments are essentially one-party institutions, where the Republicans don’t even bother putting up a fight, since they never win.

And there’s a clear pattern in terms of the governance of all of these cities, and it goes like this:  the more the rents go up, the more shrill the rhetoric of the ruling Democratic Party politicians get.

And who are they criticizing with such enthusiasm?  The real estate speculators and developers who are primarily responsible for the growing misery of so much of their supposed constituencies?  The 48 (out of 50) Republican-controlled state governments who have banned rent control in their states?

No.  They prefer safe targets.  Ones that don’t affect the bottom lines of the real estate developers that bought their offices for them.  They proclaim their cities to be “sanctuary cities” — havens for undocumented people, the struggling human beings in our midst that most Republicans still refer to as “illegal aliens.”  They proudly proclaim their allegiance to human rights, and their intention to continue to refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities (not that the Department of Homeland Security actually needs their help in the first place).

Let’s unpack this a little.  The mayors of Portland, Seattle and other cities say they will not use their own cops to enforce federal law, at least when it comes to immigration law.  But whenever they’re asked by their struggling constituents — thousands of whom are homeless in each of these cities, with a hundred million others around the country barely holding on, as wages continue to stagnate as the cost of housing skyrockets — whether they can institute rent control, they say “sorry, can’t do that, that would be breaking state law.”

They acknowledge that we are having a rent crisis, a housing crisis, and still suffering from the long-term aftermath of the foreclosure crisis.  But they say their hands are tied, nothing much they can do.  Other than making it easier for the developers to build more “low-income” housing — though “low income” never seems to be defined as something lower than the median income, which would be the sensible definition of such a term.  “Low income” in actual terms means far above the median income.  It is Orwellian doublespeak.  (And it’s not a problem we can build out way out of in the first place.)

And why can we break federal immigration law but not state laws barring rent control?  Simple.  Because it is undocumented workers who are building these cities.  If you live in Portland or Seattle or San Francisco and you’re not a hermit, you know this.  I’m certainly not going to name names or anything like that, but I know lots of folks from Mexico in this city, and many of them are undocumented.  If it were up to me, they’d all be given citizenship immediately, but that’s not my point here.  The point is, they are all super-exploited workers.  Most of them are working at least two full-time jobs in order to make ends meet.  They hardly ever sleep.

What kind of work do they do?  There is a massive boom in building mansions and other high-income housing across this city (and so many other cities).  By my informal estimation as someone who walks around Portland avidly, most of the people building these buildings are from Mexico or Central America.  If their legal status reflects the legal status of the Mexicans I know well enough to have learned what their immigration status is, then most of them are undocumented.  Mexicans I know who are not in the construction industry are working in warehouses or on factory assembly lines (yes, there are lots of factories making things in Portland — everything from windows and doors to hoses for nuclear reactors).  I don’t think I know a single white US citizen who works in a factory or in construction in this city.

Undocumented, terribly exploited workers are the backbone of the Portland construction boom.  The super-profits being made by the real estate speculators and developers are fueled by illegal immigration.  Not that this is unique to the cities — it’s the same in the countryside.  The Republicans who govern the farming areas walk a fine line between terrorizing the Spanish-speaking populations in order to keep them in a proper state of fearfulness (so they won’t organize a union) — while not working too hard to get them deported, lest they destroy their local economy by doing so.  The farm jobs don’t pay well enough for anyone else to do this back-breaking work, you see.  At least not since slavery was abolished.

And why not go ahead and break state law and impose some desperately-needed legal controls over the cost of housing?  Simple.  Because these supposedly progressive Democratic politicians don’t give a shit about us.  They are bought and sold by real estate developers and other rich people, and they govern on behalf of these scum.

In the 1980’s, in response to rising property taxes, property owners formed a lobby, and the Reagan administration passed a law that limited the annual rise in property taxes across the country to 1%.  Why has such a law never been passed for renters?  Because both parties rule on behalf of the (bigger) property owners, not the lowly renters.

The proof is in the pudding.  If these politicians cared about the working class, they would immediately break state laws across the country and institute sensible forms of rent control.  In doing this, they would become tremendously popular among the working class residents of their cities.  They could change the face of the country.  And then of course they would become objects of hatred, victims of smear campaigns led by the real estate developers and property speculators who they would have just betrayed.

Portland has lost most of it’s African-American population in between the last two censuses, and statistics in San Francisco, Seattle and elsewhere are similar.  If these Democratic politicians cared about Black people, they’d institute rent control.

Instead, they’ll take what they see as the safe road.  They know that most of their constituencies hate Trump and the Republican establishment.  They know that most of their constituencies are life-long Democrats with egalitarian impulses, who voted for Obama, who believe in an inclusive society.  So they’ll focus on things we can all agree on — racism and sexism and fascism are bad.  We stand against these things.  What do we stand for?  Who the fuck knows.  Hope and change, or something.  Entrepreneurship.  Small business.  The middle class, whatever the fuck that is.

But Mexicans, African-Americans, Asians, white people, men and women who are all struggling to make ends meet, who desperately need governments to intervene on their behalf, against the rapacious greed of the landlord class, the big banks, etc.?  Fuck them.  The mayor of Portland, the mayor of Seattle, the mayor of New York City, the mayor of Boston — that’s what they would be saying if they were honest.  Fuck them.  We don’t give a shit.

Now go protest against Trump and the governor of North Carolina and racism and sexism some more — just don’t pay any attention to the landlord behind the curtain.

David Rovics is a singer/songwriter based in Portland, Oregon.

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