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The Left Needs to Be a Movement, Not a Bunch of Lobbyists

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We can all agree that President Donald Trump is a disaster for the country.

He has been proving this pretty much every day since his inauguration.

But Democrats and progressive activists need to do more than decry Trump’s horrific actions, from his ban on immigrants, including refugees, from seven majority-Muslim countries, to his murder of an eight-year-old American girl in a Special Forces raid in Yemen, his order to the US Army Corps of Engineers to approve a permit for the completion of a pipeline upstream of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, or his nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch, a Antonin Scalia clone, to fill the late Scalia’s seat on the Supreme Court.

Blocking or at least opposing bad executive orders, laws and nominations is of course important, but in a situation where the Republican Party is in solid control of both houses of Congress, it is also futile, and thus only symbolic.

Democrats lost control of Congress in 2010, and lost the White House last November, because they were not offering American voters a real progressive alternative. For decades now, the party and its elected officials in Washington have been DINOs (Democrats in Name Only). Corporatists as much as their Republican opponents, they have been posing as something different by playing to their base with things like support for gay marriage, support for the unenforceable and purely aspirational Paris Climate Agreement, and support for…um, well, it’s actually a pretty short list when you think about what Democrats have been for lately that really rates as progressive.

Recall that when President Obama came into office, with a solid Democratic majority in both houses of congress, he came off a campaign in which he had vowed to restore open constitutional government, to make it easier for unions to organize, to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to kickstart the recession-mired economy with a burst of major deficit spending. He did none of that, and the Democratic Congress did none of it for him either. Obama and the Democrats paid for their lack of decisive progressive action by losing Congress two years later and it’s been downhill ever since.

Now they’ve lost the White House too.

Unless that party wakes up and realizes that it needs a wholesale makeover, in the form of a return to its New Deal roots, it will lose the Congressional elections in 2018, and it will lose the presidential race in 2020, along with even more state governorships and statehouses (currently 32 of the 50 states are wholly in Republican hands).

People have said that third parties have no chance in the US, but the Democratic Party seems hell-bent on proving them wrong by becoming a “third party” on its own, but in a one-party system with the Republicans being the last major party standing. At the rate things are going, we could end up with the next presidential election featuring a Republican nominee, whether Trump or someone else, debating himself because the Democratic nominee won’t make the 15% polling cut-off to be eligible to participate!

Most Americans have a pretty low opinion of both parties these days, and are registered as independents for a reason. Republicans, including Trump, were elected largely as a protest vote against eight years of do-nothing Democrats, and the Democratic party is so ossified that it’s unlikely that its leadership, the Democratic National Committee, can be changed, especially in time for the congressional elections of 2018, when we’re likely to see the same lame corporatist candidates running for re-election.

This means it’s up to us, the progressive majority in America, to organize a movement outside the Democratic Party, built around those demands that could and would create a powerful force for change.

I see four big issues such a movement could be built around: work and retirement security, health care, climate change, and peace and military spending. The demands can be quite simple:

Fair Pay and Retirement Security for Everyone!
Anyone who works at a full-time job should earn enough to support a family. That means we need a federal minimum wage — now! — of $15 per/hour, with an annual adjustment for inflation. Workers should be able to have union representation on their job if a majority of workers at a company sign cards saying they want one. Period. And Social Security should pay benefits that are high enough that retired people can live decently on those benefits, since it is clear that companies are no longer offering pensions and nobody but the wealthy earns enough to save any significant amount for retirement.

Medicare for All!

When Obama announced his plan for the complicated and in the end far too costly and ironically named Affordable Care Act, he lied to Congress and the American people saying that while other countries might have socialized medical systems that are cheaper and work well, “We in America have no experience with such systems,” and so we would reform the system “our own way.” In fact, as the president well knew, the US has long experience running both a Canadian-style “single-payer” system, where the government is the insurer, and bargains to set the prices charged by doctors, hospital treatment and drugs (our system is called Medicare, but you have to be 65 in order to qualify for it), and a British-ttyle system of National Health, where doctors work on salary for the government and hospitals are owned by the government (we called it the Veterans Hospital System, only you have to be a veteran in order to get care, and even then the government makes it hard to meet eligibility requirements for treatment).

Combat Climate Change!

Most people are aware that the earth’s climate is changing rapidly. Farmers in the midwest and Southwest are keenly aware that things are getting hotter and drier, fishermen along the northeast coast know that all the fish are moving northward as warmer seas ruin their habitat, Floridians near the coast can no longer buy new home insurance policies because the insurers see such policies as guaranteed losses they don’t want to face as sea levels rise dramatically, and Alaskans watch tall stands of pine that stretch to the horizon suddenly become “drunken forests” as the trees, growing atop ancient permafrost, suddenly have that solid ground beneath them melt away, leaving them balancing in mud in which their roots can no longer hold them erect. It’s clear to any sentient American with a high-school understanding of science that the climate is out of kilter and that worse is coming unless drastic measures are taken to reduce the pumping of more carbon into the air. And those measures must start immediately.

Slash US Military Spending and Bring All the Troops Home!

The US military accounts for $1.3 trillion, or 57% of all discretionary spending. This is a figure that is generally hidden from the public by adding into the budget the mandated outlays for Social Security benefits and Medicare. But this is misleading, because those programs, unlike the military, are funded by separate payroll taxes, not by general taxation. Furthermore, unlike Social Security and Medicare, which are mandated benefits, military spending is wholly determined each year by Congress, based upon policies set by the government. And those policies are nuts! No other country in the world spends that much money, either in actual dollars, or as a percentage of its national budget, trying to dominate the entire world. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies [1], in 2015 the US spent more than four times what China, with the second biggest military budget, spent (and remember that China’s military is mostly used for domestic control, given that the country is still a dictatorship), and almost nine times what our supposedly “existential enemy” Russia spent (Russia that year budgeted less on its military that did Britain!). Clearly the outrageous US military, with its endless wars, its navy armadas on patrol in every ocean and its over 1000 bases around the globe, is bankrupting the US and by itself explains the increasingly third-world status of the US in terms of education, infrastructure, transportation and quality of life. The US military must be cut down to size and refocused on what it is supposed to do: defend America, not control the world.

Building a movement around these four big over-arching issues, through mass demonstrations, local organizing in churches, community and social organizations, unions and among friends and neighbors, will either force the nearly moribund Democratic Party to refocus and revitalize itself or will lead to the establishment of a new party on the left to take its place.

The model should be the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and the anti-war movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Neither of these movements was tied to the Democratic Party, but both forced the Democratic Party — and even to some extent the Republican Party — to come to them and accommodate their demands.

Building a left progressive political alternative in the US is doomed to failure if the focus is on the specific demands of “identity” groups, as important as those issues — like gay rights, abortion rights, affirmative action, or immigration reform — may be. It’s not that such issues should be ignored — they should not be — but taken as a whole, they are not unifying demands around which to build a movement. We need to focus on big demands and big issues that benefit all but the ruling elites and that will fundamentally change the way the country operates,.

The rest of the changes that are needed will surely follow.

The author, arrested and jailed for occupying the Pentagon mall in October ’67, was a war resister and foot-soldier in the anti-war movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

CounterPunch Magazine

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