Keynote address to the annual General Assembly of Indivisible San Francisco, 2/25/20.
I’m told that when facing an existential crisis the first step is to admit it, and the second step is to deal with it. Today, we are threatened by at least four major intertwined crises that we either confront head-on or suffer the consequences.
The Climate Emergency.
According to the comprehensive UN science report, we have until 2030 — just a decade — to prevent a climate catastrophe. A planetary disaster created by humans and fueled by the greed of trans-national corporations and the politicians who serve them. Recycling our plastic into blue bins, putting solar panels on our roofs, and riding our bicycles to work are important personal statements, but that isn’t gonna protect us from devastating storms, floods, and fires, lethal heat waves, rising sea levels, malnutrition, and disease on an unprecedented world-wide scale.
The climate-emergency is a national security threat that requires rethinking and revamping our energy grid, manufacturing processes, transportation network, food chain, housing supply, and waste management practices. That cannot be done without confronting and overcoming Republican anti-regulation, small-government dogma and challenging corporate political power at all levels because “Government of the CEOs, by the Lobbyists, for the Billionaires,” will protect only the wealth, power, and privilege of the few while the rest of us suffer the consequences.
We the People must demand that our government take immediate and effective action.
A Technology Tsunami.
For 200 years, new technologies have steadily altered economic, social, and political systems around the globe. But compared to what we’ve experienced in the past, today’s cyber-revolution of robotics and artificial intelligence has begun a tsunami of change that is unparalleled in scope, impact, and rapidity. According to Fortune magazine, in the next 15 years 40% of the world’s jobs will either be eliminated outright, temped-down, or gigged-out. And according to the Brookings Institute: White-collar jobs (better-paid professionals with bachelor’s degrees) along with production workers may be most susceptible to AI’s spread into the economy. We see it happening all around us:
- Amazon eliminating retail-sales jobs and businesses
- Automation & robotics wiping out industrial & agricultural labor
- AI replacing middle-managers, analysts, radiologists, & technicians
- 10% of the labor force drives for a living while self-driving vehicles are being tested on our streets as we speak
At the same time, digitized social media platforms have become a powerful new tool of political propaganda. Governments, institutions, corporations, candidates, and parties now flood the infosphere with demographically and individually-targeted lies, disinformation, and incitements — weaponized information that is far more powerful and compelling than old-school broadcasting.
If Trump and the Republican Party have their way, the economic wealth and political power generated by these technologies will go entirely to the 1% while we of the 99% suffer the misery and pain.
But We the People can force a more equitable division of both benefit and harm.
Inequality of Wealth & Power
According to the Brookings Institute, in America today the top 1% hold more wealth than the entire middle class. Since 1995, the share of wealth held by the middle class has steadily declined, that of the poor has greatly declined, while the top 1%’s share has steadily increased to the point where the world’s 10 wealthiest men have more personal wealth than the annual GDP of nations like Saudi Arabia or Switzerland.
People like you and me, we think of money in terms of buying necessities, paying our bills, saving for our future, and helping our kids. But with enormous wealth it’s not about possessions and pleasures — it’s about power. Even before Citizens United, concentrated wealth resulted in concentrated economic and political power that is used to generate yet more wealth and power.
In the 1950s, CEOs made 20 times the pay of their employees. Now they’re paid 361 times what their average employee is paid. That’s not because they’re 361 times more valuable or productive — we know that because CEO pay rises even when their corporations are going bankrupt.
CEOs are paid 361 times more than their workers because they have the economic and political power to jack up their income up while forcing ours down. The wealth of billionaires like Trump, Zukerberg, Bezos, and Bloomberg do not rocket into the stratosphere because they are so brilliant or creative, it’s because their vast wealth is a form political power that allows them to rig the game, bend the rules, bribe the umpires, and avoid the criminal penalties that apply to you and me.
Only We the People can resist the expanding power this new aristocracy of wealth.
A Global Attack on Democracy.
Climate, technology, inequality and other crises are not local — they’re world-wide and they are inextricably intertwined. As Americans, we tend to see Republican Party voter-suppression, racism, misogyny, nationalism, and immigrant scape-goating, as uniquely American problems. So too do we view efforts to corrupt and destroy our democracy by cyber-trolling, election hacking, disinformation, and bald-face lies.
Yet none of it is unique to us. Rather, it’s our local manifestation of a global assault on democracy by oligarchies, autocrats, and totalitarians in Hungary, Germany, Brazil, Poland, Turkey, India, Britain, the Philippines, and so on, all wielding the same strategies of dividing us against each other to enlarge the wealth and power of the elite few who place themselves above the law, immune from the suffering caused by their greed.
Some observers see today’s global assault on democracy as a conscious conspiracy by a faction of billionaires and CEOs whose think-tanks and research institutes warned them in advance of inevitable social-upheaval caused by the climate, technology, & inequality crises. Rather than risk democratic governments responding to popular pressure with remedies that fairly tax their wealth, impose effective environmental regulations on their businesses, and curtail corporate political power, they’ve jointly launched an international preemptive strike against democracy itself.
There’s a simpler explanation though — the global aristocracy of wealth and power have always resented and chaffed under any form of democracy that actually constrains their power and greed, holds them accountable to the laws and customs that rule the common herd, or attempts to democratize their elite social standing. With the inevitable stresses and instabilities inherent in cascading crises now creating widespread economic insecurity and deep fear about the future, frightened and bewildered people are more vulnerable than ever before to demagogues who provide seemingly simple solutions and some despised “other” for them to blame. And the new technology platforms provide powerful new opportunities to mobilize racism, misogyny, bigotry, nationalism, and religious-fervor behind strong-men “saviors” who can replace democratic governments with sham democracies and rigged elections that entrench aristocratic power behind a facade of popular legitimacy. In other words, in country after country they’ve launched their attack on democracy because now they can.
Any effective response to the crises we face requires us to defend democracy by confronting and curbing corporate-control over government. But we cannot build the people-power necessary to save democracy without also addressing economic, racial, and gender-justice issues, nor can we do so without effectively countering lie and incitement platforms created by new technologies deployed for selfish ends.
Think Globally, Act Locally
Think Globally, Act Locally is a fundamental truism of people-power activism. So too is the reality that the only effective way to locally address broad issues like climate, technology, inequality, and democracy is to engage in electoral action while organizing, educating, and fighting around immediate abuses and specific issues that reflect and impact the broader problems. To do that requires building organizations to lead and sustain a nonviolent, mass peoples movement that exists and fights between elections.
Which brings us to Indivisible SF.
Democracy is not a spectator sport. If we want to have government Of the People, By the People, For the People than We the People have to be involved in politics on a deeper and more sustained level than merely casting a ballot every two years. And to do that effectively we have to be active in organizations. And, yes, we have to participate in meetings.
A 2020 blue wave to throw Trump out of the White House, retake the Senate and hold the House will only occur if we make it happen. Which is why electoral mobilization will be a main focus of our ISF work in 2020.
As we’ve already seen, 2020 is going to be a year of political crises and sudden emergencies. If we don’t continue to speak truth to our elected representatives and hold them accountable, the only voices they will hear are those of paid-lobbyists. Which is why mobilizing constituents to engage with congressional, state, and local office-holders is as important in 2020 as is election campaigns.
While we work to elect candidates and hold office-holders accountable, we also have to raise and educate around issues. By necessity, election campaigns have to primarily focus on a single election day and a candidate as a unique individual. And while some groups focus on single crucial issues such as climate and immigration, there needs to be someone who connects multiple issues and who can respond to new and urgent issues as they arise. Which is why issue-advocacy is an ISF priority for 2020 — and beyond.
And finally, win or lose, blue tsunami or bitter defeat, we have to come out of November with strong organizations that can carry a movement for justice, equality, and democracy into 2021 and beyond because the global crises that threaten us won’t be solved on election day 2020. Which is why we need to build ISF and its infrastructure as an organization.
We can do it
The motto of Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Union, immigration marchers, and candidate Obama was “Si Se Puede” — “Yes, We Can.” Today, we can defend and expand democracy. I know that we can because we’ve done it before. What we face today are not the first great struggles and crises that We the People have faced and overcome.
When my mother was in elementary school, women could not vote or in some states own property.
When my father graduated 6th grade and had to leave school to put food on the table for his younger sisters and brothers, it was a federal crime to form unions and bargain for higher pay. Laws he soon defied.
This is not the first time in our living memory that oligarchs and the aristocracy of wealth & power mobilized a world-wide attack on democracy. People look at me and assume I’m a Boomer — and there’s nothing wrong with that. But actually I’m a War Baby. I was born during fascism’s global assault on democracy which made use of a powerful new propaganda media called “radio” which brought the racist, hate-inciting rants of demagogues right into people’s living rooms with powerful effect.
My mother’s first husband fought with the Lincoln Brigade against fascism in Spain. On the day that I was born, American GIs were surrounded in Bastogne and low on ammo, but with raw courage they held out, halting the Nazi onslaught. But it wasn’t just soldiers who defeated fascism. It was millions of women and men of all races, creeds, and walks of life in nations around the world who fought fascism politically at ballot boxes, by organizing their communities, and by protests in the streets. Though it’s rarely mentioned in our school history classes, there was a strong and well-financed fascist movement here in America. One that was politically defeated by the labor and civil-rights movements — but not without hard sustained work.
And struggles for justice continued on.
When I was in elementary school a friend of our family was forced to serve a prison term for the crime of loving another man. When I was in middle-school, two-thirds of the world’s population lived under tyranny, either that of racial-colonialism or Stalinoid-communism. When I was in high-school students my age began, and led, a civil rights sit-in and freedom-ride revolution against segregation. I was privileged to work for Dr. King, and be part of a mass people’s freedom movement that won voting rights for non-white Americans in places like Selma Alabama and Grenada Mississippi.
Fifty years ago I was part of the first Earth Day that sparked an environmental movement that spans the globe. In the hands of bold young activists today, it is leading the fight against climate catastrophe.
In past decades we’ve seen womens lib and gay rights transform the meaning of gender in America, achieving victories that fundamentally altered society, economics, and politics. Over recent decades we’ve seen nonwhite immigrants fight their way out of the shadows and into the sunlight. Now they are fighting hold on to their hard-won rights and human dignity. And Indivisible stands with them.
But make no mistake. We don’t always win. We’ve endured deep disappointments and bitter defeats — yet we’ve persevered. And we will continue to persevere because there are no finish lines in the struggle for equality and freedom — there are only milestones. The election of Obama was a major milestone, but it wasn’t a finish line. Enacting ACA under Obama was a milestone, and so was the defense of ACA that Indivisible and others mounted against Moscow Mitch. Kicking Trump out of the White House will be another milestone, but it won’t be a finish line. Which is why we need ongoing organizations like ISF in 2020 — AND in 2021.
The final thought I’ll leave you with is to remember that the very first words of the United States Constitution are “We the People do ordain this constitution”
Not we the rich and powerful
Not we the politicians
But We the People
We the People ordained the Constitution in 1787 and for more than 200 years it’s been We the People who through determination and hard struggle expanded it to cover those were neither wealthy, nor white, nor male.
Today it is We the People who are again defending it.
We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again.
Bruce Hartford is a writer and longtime civil rights, labor and antiwar activist in San Francisco.