August 2012, Week 2


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Thu, 9 Aug 2012 23:08:41 -0400
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How to Launch a Mass Movement for Economic Justice

by William Greider

The Nation
August 8, 2012 -  This article appeared in the August 27-
September 3, 2012 edition of The Nation.


The billionaires may be trying to hijack the presidential
election, but they have failed to stifle the creative
ambitions of progressive leaders. Amid the toxic fumes of
big-money politics, the people Paul Wellstone once
identified as the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party"
are pursuing an audacious goal with characteristic optimism:
to re-elect Barack Obama, then reset his priorities.

The challenge is forbidding and doubtless sounds naïve to
establishment politicians. But the risks of failure are
huge. Faced with the growing fear that Obama will pursue a
"grand bargain" with conservatives after the election,
further compromising core principles, leading liberal-labor
forces are toughening up their tactics. They see the
prospect of re-election as a great opportunity to coax or
push the president toward the fundamental economic reforms
he ducked in his first term - ?a source of great
disappointment on the left.

Cynics may sneer at part of the strategy for renewal, but
it's a novel approach, and I think it may represent a
meaningful turn in the road. Instead of bombing voters with
hyped-up TV messages, progressive leaders are going for big
ideas. They are rolling out a meaty agenda of economic
reforms, giving voters a firm grasp of the issues that
affect their lives and charting a path toward a prosperous,
more secure future. The ultimate goal is long-term and
larger than Obama: reviving small-d democracy and rebuilding
the left by helping ordinary people regain their power as
citizens. Is that still possible in our dysfunctional
system? We are going to find out.

Organizers say Americans are hungry for liberal alternatives
to the austerity agenda. People everywhere are tired of
manipulative rhetoric. They want to hear serious proposals
for how to restore prosperity and an equitable society.
Trouble is, neither the president nor the Democratic Party
much wants to talk about solutions that sound suspiciously
liberal. Mitt Romney is mocked for not having a coherent
plan for economic recovery, but Obama doesn't have much of
one either. "Fairness" is not a governing strategy. Frequent
factory visits are not going to bring back manufacturing

So a cluster of progressive organizations, notably including
the AFL-CIO, decided to launch a more meaningful
conversation. To that end, they encouraged Yale political
scientist Jacob Hacker, co-author of Winner-Take-All
Politics, to produce a comprehensive blueprint that, they
hope, will stimulate broader discussion and mobilize working
people to advocate for their interests. The seminal
document, titled "Prosperity Economics: Building an Economy
for All" and written with Nate Loewentheil, was released on
July 31. It was simultaneously endorsed by the labor
federation's executive council, the Service Employees
International Union, the Center for Community Change, the
Economic Policy Institute, the National Council of La Raza,
and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Strong on clarity and free of rhetorical excess, the paper
dismantles the key myths of austerity economics and lays out
an alternative agenda based on what Hacker calls "the three
pillars of shared prosperity": growth, security and
democracy. "Prosperity doesn't just `trickle down' from the
top," Hacker writes in the introduction. "It depends on the
common investments and sources of security we agree on as
members of a democracy, on institutions - especially unions
- that ensure that gains are broadly shared, and on a
healthy democracy that can sustain sound economic policies
and prevent today's economic winners from undermining the
openness and dynamism of the economy."

The sixty-page text includes an impressive compendium of
policy proposals covering everything from job creation to
trade law to "environmental security," a concept that
demolishes the anti-environmentalism of know-nothing
Republicans. Reforming democracy, Hacker argues, requires
restoring labor rights for workers and taking down the
Senate filibuster. A section on regulatory reform identifies
the true goal: freeing our government from "industry
capture." If these recommendations are put into action,
Hacker concludes, they "will set us on a virtuous cycle of
public investment, rising productivity and wages, a stronger
and more secure middle class, increased aggregate demand,
and in turn sustained growth."

As he develops his argument, Hacker lays out the principal
steps for restoring progressive taxation, re-regulating the
financial system and breaking up the mega-banks. He does not
pause to note that the Democratic Party has been deeply
complicit in these scandals. But his report could be read as
a "shadow platform" for a party that has drifted rightward
and lost its way.

"This campaign is basically the choice between austerity -
more pain for working people - or an economy of growth and
jobs and prosperity," AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka
explains. "Our president is campaigning for that future.
Professor Hacker's agenda spells out how to get there - the
ideas and actions that deliver what people want and need in
their lives."

The paper can also be seen as an early warning shot aimed at
wobbly Democrats (including the president), who may be
considering a bipartisan compromise in the lame-duck session
that would eviscerate programs like Social Security and
Medicare, protect business and the wealthy from higher
taxes, and deepen the injuries for working people.

"Our agenda is about governing solutions that work, that can
heal our wounded country," Trumka adds. "The conservative
corporate machine will oppose nearly everything we propose.
But we know from polls that people are overwhelmingly for
these propositions - typically with 75 to 90 percent
support." By arming people with the truth about debt
reduction and who gets hurt, Trumka thinks, Hacker's
blueprint should have an immediate impact on postelection

Deepak Bhargava, the veteran organizer who is executive
director of the Center for Community Change, nourishes a
more distant ambition. "In my view, the only thing that's
going to save us is a mass movement with a different
vision," Bhargava says. "The Hacker paper will be critical
in the raw material we use in teaching and organizing
involvement by people. What we need is an independent
economic justice movement that is unafraid to challenge
members of either party on these core principles."

* * *

As the election season heats up, organized labor and allied
groups are trying to walk a delicate line. On the one hand,
they intend to push these comprehensive reform proposals
aggressively on Congress and the White House, no matter who
wins in November. On the other hand, they are committed to
Obama's re-election and anxious to avoid making problems for
him. After the election, however, all bets are off. Liberals
and labor will be ready to play hardball. Or so they say.

Progressive leaders think they have figured out how to get
the president's attention and compel him to take their
agenda seriously. The familiar pattern in Obama's first term
was serial disappointment and occasional anger. The cautious
president kept his distance on major decisions while vaguely
expressing sympathy with liberal aspirations. He seemed more
worried about upsetting independents in the ambivalent
middle. He worked especially hard at courting corporate and
financial titans.

Looking back, many liberal activists realize they were much
too deferential when the White House seemed to take them for
granted. Because the GOP was savaging and slandering Obama,
trying to block everything he proposed, faithful supporters
were reluctant to add to his grief. But they have belatedly
concluded that Obama, like most politicians, sometimes needs
a poke in the chest from his friends.

The pattern of Obama's encounters with frustrated supporters
suggests what succeeds is a smartly focused strategy of
tactical pressuring - a willingness to get in his face, up
the ante with direct action, and withhold affection until
you get a meaningful response. The president and White House
staffers insisted that impatient agitators would only hurt
their cause, since Obama had already declared his sympathy
for their goals. Overzealous pressure campaigns would make
it harder for him to act.

Obama's track record indicates the opposite: he doesn't like
to be pushed, and he resents it especially when the pressure
comes from allies. But if they keep the heat on, he is more
likely to address their grievances. On at least four notable
issues of great concern to Democratic constituencies -
immigration reform, gays in the military, the Keystone
pipeline and same-sex marriage - the pattern of sustained
pressure and protest aimed at the president led him to
"evolve" in his views. Instead of offering mere rhetoric, he
responded concretely to their demands.

Two years ago, immigration advocates lost patience with the
administration's aggressive approach to deportation and its
foot-dragging on the DREAM Act. They escalated the terms of
their complaints in harsh and highly visible ways and
started marching en masse. Bhargava, a leading organizer of
the pro-immigration forces, told the president face-to-face
at a White House meeting that the administration was
presiding over a "moral catastrophe." The president rebuked
Bhargava for exaggeration and ingratitude and became "pissy"
with immigration advocates in other meetings.

In June, nonetheless, Obama announced a great victory for
immigrants' rights. At the president's command, the
Department of Homeland Security stopped deporting DREAM Act
- eligible young people - as many as 1.5 million - and
arranged to provide work permits for them. This was a very
big deal: the largest legalization of undocumented
immigrants since Ronald Reagan's sweeping amnesty in 1986.
Certainly the approaching election had something to do with
Obama's change of heart. (That is what elections are for.)
But it was the advocates' persistence that persuaded the
nervous White House to go for it. As the Obama team
discovered, good policy can also be good politics.

Similar tactics produced similar victories - or at least
forward motion - on the other issues. Liberal-labor forces
intend to adapt these lessons as they push for the
fundamental reforms enumerated in the Hacker blueprint. They
recognize that they cannot easily emulate the model unless
they go to work at the grassroots, building a popular base
of citizens who are mobilized to demand action. Right now,
the economic reformers lack the level of sophistication and
solidarity that helped deliver results for gays, Latinos and
environmentalists in recent years. Americans do not need to
be told about their pain and insecurity. They need to learn
how to do something about it.

This is what Bhargava means when he talks about creating a
mass movement for economic justice. Building serious power
over economic issues will be very difficult. But there are
dynamic organizing projects devoting time and resources to
help lay the groundwork. Some are joint ventures between
labor unions and community groups that have active
memberships at the local level but are not so well connected
to broader political strategies.

Despite the obstacles, the long-term outlook is quite
promising for a sea change that could bring the issues in
Hacker's paper to the fore. Unless the economy miraculously
recovers its former vigor, what Hacker calls the "hollow
promises" of the austerity agenda will be exposed. It may
take one or two election cycles to make the point clear, but
voters are going to become increasingly impatient for
effective action. The government will be compelled by events
to intrude more deeply into the private sector - that is, to
turn leftward - in an effort to relieve the growing pain and
social unrest.

Demographic changes should further empower advocates of
liberal economic reform. The nation is approaching a
generational shift in electoral politics, as newly
assimilated immigrants and minority populations grow in
numbers and self-confidence. A similar shift in the 1920s
helped energize the New Deal. The maturing immigrant ranks
then were Irish, Italian and Polish. Today they are Latino,
Asian and African. Sooner or later, these groups will assert
their self-interest and make their rightful claim to power.

Republicans, hostile to immigrants and racial minorities,
are on the wrong side of both historic trends. If the GOP
does not change its social values and ideology, it may find
itself reduced to permanent minority status, much like what
has already happened to the Republican Party in California.

The Democratic Party holds the high ground on this beckoning
frontier, though it doesn't look that way in the close
contest of 2012. The party's open-armed support for
diversity and social tolerance appeals to younger voters
weary of small-minded prejudice. And despite cozying up to
business in recent decades, the Democrats are basically
still the party of working people. That core constituency is
regarded as unfashionable in sophisticated circles, but it
is sure to gain influence, because the growing ranks of
racial minorities and newly arrived immigrants are mostly

The Democratic Party may not hold on to these advantages,
however, if it does not change in big ways. The
contradiction for Democrats is obvious: a party that relies
so heavily on working-class voters will have to do something
more substantial for them eventually. As its sponsors argue,
Hacker's blueprint for "shared prosperity" would be a great
place to start.

* * *

But will labor and other mediating organizations actually
follow through with the plan? Can they establish enough
distance from the Democrats and the White House to advance
an effective pressure campaign? Skeptics doubt it. They
recall earlier moments of crisis when similar declarations
of independence were voiced but nothing much changed. This
time is different, and for important reasons I think the
results will be different too.

For one thing, the economic crisis has severely altered the
political context. The new circumstances are especially
adverse for working people, but an adequate response from
government has not been forthcoming. As the broad middle
class festered in desperation and bitterness in the wake of
the crash, Democrats, including the president, were
surprisingly restrained. The White House seemed reluctant to
advocate aggressive measures that might alienate
independents or upset financial interests and other

Then Occupy Wall Street came along and blew away Obama's
soft talk. Now, candidate Obama has wisely adapted Occupy's
brilliantly succinct message as his own. He does not have
the nerve to invoke "the 99 percent," but his rhetoric of
fairness plays to the same music. Occupy likewise became a
wake-up call for labor liberals. When people in the streets
began shouting what the left had been too shy to broadcast
forcefully, unions got a welcome jolt. Soon enough, they
began shouting too.

With any luck, this surge of energy and enthusiasm - and the
attendant rejection of 1 percent politics, as embodied by
Mitt Romney - will propel Obama to a second term. But some
activists are already worried about what will happen if
Obama wins. Will he abandon his "inner liberal" again and
opt for a grand bargain with Republicans that will do brutal
damage to the liberal legacy and long-loyal constituencies?

These enduring suspicions reveal the fraught nature of the
marriage between organized labor and the Democratic Party.
Unless the party renews its vows and honors them, this
marriage may be headed for a trial separation.

For more than three decades, the union movement has
faithfully turned out labor votes and raised many millions
to finance Democratic campaigns. But as its membership
shrank, it gradually became weaker and more dependent on the
Democratic Party. Union membership was decimated by
globalized production and the business campaign to destroy
workers' rights. But the Democrats became less reliable as
the defenders of labor at precisely the moment labor really
needed them.

Dissident union leaders and rank-and-file workers repeatedly
complained that labor was getting the worse end of the
bargain. Unions should put aside party loyalty, they argued,
and free themselves to pursue more combative and radical
strategies in both politics and the workplace. Labor leaders
mostly resisted the demands - partly out of inertia, but
also because they understood how vulnerable union members
would be if they lost their political allies.

This dilemma has finally reached the breaking point: labor
and its liberal allies must chart a new course or face
extinction. Given their weakened condition, it is especially
difficult to imagine a reinvigorated labor movement or a
more independent approach to politics. But the status quo
looks like a loser for sure.

A different strategy might start with people on the ground
who have no voice at all, represented by neither unions nor
politicians. In order to launch a mass movement for economic
justice, organized labor would have to relearn some of the
things it used to know, including how to wage a campaign to
address large economic grievances and speak for working
people everywhere.

Jacob Hacker makes the basic point that securing shared
prosperity necessarily requires the restoration of
democracy. A strategy that gives voice to the people who
cannot be heard amid the clamor of big-money politics would
not just be about winning elections; it would apply as well
to the workplace and financial markets, to corporations and
governing institutions. The excluded who need to gain a
voice and power might not add up to 99 percent, but they
surely represent a majority large enough to change the

[William Greider, a prominent political journalist and
author, has been a reporter for more than 35 years for
newspapers, magazines and television. Over the past two
decades, he has persistently challenged mainstream thinking
on economics.

For 17 years Greider was the National Affairs Editor at
Rolling Stone magazine, where his investigation of the
defense establishment began. He is a former assistant
managing editor at the Washington Post, where he worked for
fifteen years as a national correspondent, editor and
columnist. While at the Post, he broke the story of how
David Stockman, Ronald Reagan's budget director, grew
disillusioned with supply-side economics and the budget
deficits that policy caused, which still burden the American

He is the author of the national bestsellers One World,
Ready or Not, Secrets of the Temple and Who Will Tell The
People. In the award-winning Secrets of the Temple, he
offered a critique of the Federal Reserve system. Greider
has also served as a correspondent for six Frontline
documentaries on PBS, including "Return to Beirut," which
won an Emmy in 1985.

Greider's most recent book is The Soul of Capitalism:
Opening Paths to A Moral Economy. In it, he untangles the
systemic mysteries of American capitalism, details its
destructive collisions with society and demonstrates how
people can achieve decisive influence to reform the system's
structure and operating values.

Raised in Wyoming, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati, he
graduated from Princeton University in 1958. He currently
lives in Washington, DC.]



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