Here we go again. The headlines blare that Obama is putting Social Security on the table (or chopping block) in his negotiations over raising the debt ceiling. The howls and yowls echo throughout the land. Jane Hamsher, in the Breaking Point, thunders:
What we’re watching is the death of the Democratic Party. Or, at least the Democratic Party as most of us have known it. The one that has taken its identity in the modern era from FDR and the New Deal, from Keynesianism and the social safety net … Any member of any party who participates in this effort does not deserve, and should not get, the support of anyone who values Social Security and cares about its preservation.
Hamsher’s repeated refrain: “call your member of Congress and tell them the romance is over: tell them that if Congress cuts Social Security benefits, you won’t vote for them.”
Adam Green of BoldProgressives.org boldly calls for us to sign the pledge: “I’ll only donate or volunteer for Obama if he firmly opposes Social Security, Medicare, & Medicaid benefit cuts”
MoveOn unleashes a petition: “Say no to a debt deal that sacrifices Social Security or Medicare so the rich and corporations don’t have to pay their fair share,” as mealy-mouthed as you can get.
Diaries abound on all sides shaking with outrage, competing for who can call Obama the nastiest things, who can most scathingly proclaim the corruption of the Democratic Party. But all these hissy fits fail to draw a single drop of blood. To the Democratic Party accountants who engineer their schemes, this is all just part of the cost of doing business. Already factored in.
The cutting edge, at this “breaking point,” is the P word, whether Obama is to be primaried.
Why do I consider this the cutting edge, why are calls to focus on congressional progressives so weak? Because when people talk about cutting donations and working for bold progressives, there is not much reaction from the Obamacrats. When you mention the P word, they start to howl. They see their vulnerability lies there, even if many of us do not.
So yes, there is the usual smattering of calls for Obama to be primaried, along the lines of “I sure hope somebody primaries the [choose 3] corporate reactionary traitor sellout running-dog-lackey Wall-Street-kiss-ass bastard.” And I give credit for that. But a better formulation would be “WE OURSELVES have to primary the etc., etc., etc.” including the dirty ballot access work that makes a primary challenger more than a publicity stunt. Perhaps I’m being harsh here, but at a “breaking point,” nothing less than harsh fills the bill. The passivity of even the Primary Obama forces is of course understandable. But what we require is a whole new understanding of how and why a primary campaign is conducted.
Waiting for Teddy
On a recent comment, some nabob of negativity argued that primarying Obama is off the table, since we don’t have a candidate comparable to Ted Kennedy when he challenged Jimmy Carter for the 1980 nomination. While perhaps extreme, the common attitude towards primaries is embodied in that comment. Allow me to deconstruct.
First of all, a politician is not a regular person. To run or not to run (as Hamlet put it) is not really an individual decision. When a politician decides to throw his or her hat into the ring, they bring along a motley collection of staff, consultants, donors, support organizations, and beneficiaries. (And most importantly, their loving spouses and offspring.) It would be extraordinary for a politician to risk the slings and arrows of a hostile media, sex scandals, and bad chicken dinners without the expectation that a good part of the above hangers-on would come along for the ride. So in 1980, Teddy was not just an ambitious politician, or even heroic politician, but was the representative of the organized constituencies — the old New Deal coalition — that Jimmy Carter and the Democratic Party had just begun to throw under the neo-liberal bus.
It’s not just that we have no Ted Kennedy today. It’s that the organized forces he once represented are broken, have been broken for decades, and what was once Ted Kennedy was dead long before his body was laid to rest. The illusion of life was maintained for decades, but the rancid stench of putrefaction was finally revealed to all with noses to smell when the entirety of organized liberalism saw its crusade for health care for all be transformed into a mandate that everyone had to buy coverage from the insurance barons. Whether they could afford it or not. And they proclaimed that a triumph.
I said that waiting for another Teddy was extreme. But it actually embodies the way most progressives view a primary challenge (let’s call it the Napoleonic — on a horse — approach). Some politician declares their candidacy, they bring along their own campaign organization with all the staff, consultants, donors, etc., included. Then progressives contemplate whether (or which) candidate is progressive enough, and jump aboard. But that model is hopelessly obsolete.
At least for progressives. So people toss out the names of Kucinich or Feingold, both fine fellows. But neither has that kind of base. Not necessarily due to any failing on their part, but because that kind of organized base does not exist. The very possibility of major liberal reform has died as the American empire enters its death throes, and the Democratic Party has become a tool whose main purpose is to accommodate the middle class to the meager pickings available to a dying empire, and the poor to destruction.
Any plan centered on trying to resurrect that dream is bad enough. Any plan based on waiting for that dream to just come waltzing in, well …
Metrics (no, not the Keanu Reeves movie)
Not as universal as the above, but pervasive enough, there is another paralyzing assumption: any progressive contender has to be a “serious” contender, has to have a reasonable chance of winning the nomination and, beyond that, winning the presidency. A merely symbolic candidate would only be crushed, and that would be disastrous. Disastrous why? Because the passive and demoralized would become more passive and demoralized?
Let’s come at this from a different direction. Let’s attack the state of passivity itself. To repeat two points mentioned above:
(1) the old New Deal coalition is dead. And nothing has emerged to take its place.
(2) the Democratic Party is nothing more than a corporate tool for managing war and austerity.
One obvious response to this is to declare a pox on the Democratic Party and go independent ever more. In fact, I rather support this for the general elections. But we still need to address the millions and millions of decent, progressive, poor and working people who remain within its clutches. Who, if there were an independent force speaking to their felt needs, would be unaware of its existence. Who, if aware of its existence, would not see it as having any impact on their lives. Any effectiveness. Not the traditional ORGANIZED base, but the currently UNORGANIZED base.
How do we reach them without being sucked down into oblivion in the Democratic Party tar pits? The media will certainly try to shut us out. We won’t have the big money needed for a full-scale TV blitz.
The primary provides the entrée. Get the signatures. Pay the filing fee. Make sure the paperwork is clean. There it is. The media ignores us? That becomes the story. They won’t let us into the debates? Getting into the debates becomes the fight, with our pickets outside the debate hall waving to the cameras. Third parties have fought this way for years. Oh ho! you exclaim. And what has it gotten them? I admit, not much.
But having these fights inside the Democratic Party has a very different dynamic. No cakewalk, to be sure, but different. The progressive challenger will still be “the other,” but also not “the other.” The party needs certain rules to simply manage its own affairs. Certainly, they manipulate them, they cheat like bandits and lie like dogs. But if they discard the rules, they discard too much of their own party. It’s not (yet) like the open warfare waged against third parties.
But, but, but … we’d still be crushed! Yeah? By what measure? How is progress to be defined? By the standards of those we would overthrow? Who define the standards so as to make us losers by definition?
Let’s try to make this a little less theoretical, and examine a few mechanics.
If we were to run a bare-bones primary operation, what would that entail? According to the Napoleonic method, the big politician rides their horse into the ring accompanied by their own operation (staff, etc.), and we climb aboard.
But if it were OUR operation (let me call it the Independent model)? (I am sidestepping the question of who “we” are today, but it is a much smaller number of people than progressives in the blogosphere everywhere in the universe. Let’s assume some kind of well-intentioned, relatively small but cohesive group.) What would we have to do?
(1) Get a good lawyer.
(2) Set up a bank account for the campaign.
(3) Have a candidate declare.
(4) File the appropriate paperwork with the FEC.
(5) Learn state ballot access requirements, including signatures, filing fees, and paperwork.
(6) Set up a website.
(7) Get a media/video expert.
Note that the above entails either having or gaining some high levels of expertise, and a high level of commitment. But it does not require at this stage a whole lot of people.
… and then …
With the above in place, the ballot access work begins. Let’s assume a state requiring 1,000 signatures and a $1,000 filing fee. (For other states, there is the issue of whether there is a primary or a party caucus, a different matter.) Have our lawyer check out the regulations. Exact wording of petition. Whether signatures have to be from a number of congressional districts (CD’s)? Do petitioners have to be state or CD residents? Petition period. If so, can an in-state witness validate the work of out-of-state petitioners? What paperwork is needed at submission of signatures?
$1,000 filing fee? Setting aside the campaign having any national fundraising capacity, how many could cough that up if they actually believed the future of America depended on it? Again, it’s a matter of commitment.
1,000 signatures? Better gather 1,500 to account for Mickey Mouse signatures, bad handwriting and other challenges. Team of three: 500 apiece, a modest 12 signatures per hour, takes 42 hours. A week off the day-job and the weekend. If national fundraising capacity were adequate, staff could be hired to do this, of course, but with committed volunteers, you get fewer signatures from Mickey and Donald Duck.
Then file! And do it right. You might have 20,000 signatures, but depending on the state and the attitude of the local party, one missing signature or one missing or improper document or one day late and it could all go down the tubes. This is why I listed getting a lawyer as #1. This is why the campaign should also look for lawyers on an ongoing basis, to be ready to handle multiple challenges around the country.
Then the campaign. That’s the fun part, and I won’t dwell on it. It’s there that people’s full creativity can be unleashed, where the blogosphere and Facebook can be flooded. Then the campaign junkies who live from campaign to campaign can do their thing.
[There have been various studies about the blogosphere, it’s effectiveness as a political tool. Many have debunked its most grandiose claims. But there is some consensus that, while the blogosphere is no substitute for “boots on the ground,” it can have a massive multiplier effect once those boots are on the ground, as I have been elaborating above.]
We might want to compare the respective merits of the Napoleonic model versus the Independent model of primary campaigns. The obvious advantage of the Napoleonic model is that an established politician has more of a campaign organization in place, and will probably get more votes, some easy publicity. But when the campaign is over, Napoleon takes their organization and goes home with it.
I should be clear. Our options are limited. Napoleon doesn’t even seem to be riding over the horizon — the fix is in. Napoleon would be crushed by the media and the party apparatus, in any event. All Napoleon would leave us with would be reinforced cynicism about the futility of resistance. And maybe some fond memories. Whether the number of votes is puny or large, no number on today’s horizon would transform the situation. Those at the top of the Democratic Party are committed to a murderous neo-liberalism.
My sole metric is whether we come out of this campaign with our own campaign organization, that can engage both primary and independent runs in the generals.
The strength of the Independent model is that the independents own it. Whether or not it can be held together until the next election is not to be assumed. But doing so is the task. Again, it all comes down to commitment. The blogosphere is filled with people with little commitment, not willing to do much work. One could call them lazy, especially if they don’t do what we want them to do, but that misses the point. People lack commitment because they have been betrayed so many times. They contribute on the basis of their sentiments, and I consider it to their credit that they give as much as they do on the basis of sentiment. But they hold back as well, because they don’t believe any given scheme can work.
So I am saying that the above plan CAN ACTUALLY WORK! As part of the broader inside/outside strategy that I have been trying to develop over the past year.
What is an independent?
Well, to ask the obvious, independent of what? It doesn’t reduce to whether the candidate wears the Democratic or Green or Progressive or union label. The question is whether a candidate or organization is independent of the corporate power elite. After all, there is a long history of independent parties which function as mere satellites of the so-called majors. Take New York’s Working Families Party (please!), which endorsed Andrew Cuomo who is now working to gut the unions and the social service budget there. Or the even-more-independent NY Independence Party which offers itself to whichever party puts in the highest bid.
At the same time, one CAN be an independent within the Democratic Party. Yes, that route is filled with traps. There is a transmission belt that sucks in our major Democrats. So Kucinich may be a great guy, with a truly independent heart. But his supporters? Maybe not so independent. And their followers? So it goes. As you rise within the Democratic machinery, you make more deals, exchanging principle for influence. I’m not naive about this. But if one’s goal is not the Holy Grail of taking over the Democratic Party, but to rip its guts out, then like-minded people can operate on that basis. With registered independents being the largest single voting bloc (and yes, progressive independents being a smaller sub-set of that), the party can no longer smirk, “You have no place to go.”
Run in the Democratic primaries, then run independent in the generals. That’s the plan. As individuals, they pick us off one-by-one. With organization, we can do it together.
One word on timeline. Some have talked about 2012 as some kind of final showdown. Those who don’t go independent in the generals this time around are to be written off. No. We independents have a lot to prove, to the public if not to ourselves. Here’s my thinking as far as it goes. I’ve outlined a bare-bones level of organization required for a serious primary run. We don’t have it yet. Napoleon may well wait till November before announcing and have enough to make most ballots. We don’t. For independents, yesterday isn’t soon enough to get our asses in gear. My goal would be to come out of the race with the organization I’ve delineated. Now, imagine the position we’d be in right now if that organization — that independent organization — already existed. Possibilities would multiply exponentially.
So by digging in now, we can have that in place for 2014, for the congressionals. And if we can repeat at the state level in 2014, we go into 2016 with boots on the ground in every state. Yeah, some might argue that we’ll all be dead by then. If you think that, make sure your passports are in order. For the rest of us, it’s a working plan.