a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Liberal establishment ISO “right” movement

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 25th June 2012

Does the Liberal Establishment Care About Anything But Itself? The Hard Lessons of Wisconsin” is an unintentionally revealing title for a disappointing discussion with Rebuild America guru Van Jones.

In the interview, conducted by Adele Stan of Alternet, Jones starts by saying the Wisconsin governor’s recall race was lost due to the “inaction of the liberal establishment.”

Yet the recall effort was waged for the Wisconsin liberal establishment more than for anyone else.  As Rick Perlstein noted in a valuable Rolling Stone post-mortem, Walker’s opponent, Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, galumphed into the race on the strength of Democratic establishment connections.  And he did it over the objections of Wisconsin labor… and with a far less resolute approach than Kathleen Falk’s (the prior front runner) to fixing the core issue at stake: restoring collective bargaining to Wisconsin public employees.

But Jones’s purpose apparently wasn’t really to conduct an objective inquest on the Wisconsin recall — it was to artfully (or confusedly, take your pick) blur the lines between “establishment” and “movement”:

“Our national movement was doing its minimum. You didn’t see the big national Democrats there. There were exceptions, but in general, you didn’t see the national civil rights movement, the environmental movement, the women’s movement — we left a lot of artillery unused.”

Strangely, what that tells Van Jones is that his liberal and progressive audience should be redoubling their efforts for… wait for it… precisely the “one big national Democrat” who did the absolute minimum (well, aside from one tweet) in Wisconsin himself:

Remember how you felt when you woke up and found out that we lost in Wisconsin. Now, imagine how you’re gonna feel waking up to President Romney and a Republican sweep of Congress. Now, I say that because we have a lot of progressives who are saying things like they’re so disappointed with Obama that they’re not going to do anything to help him get reelected. I think that is ill-considered because we feel this way right now, but tomorrow always comes. And when we’re actually living in a world where the Tea Party is the government of the United States, which is where we’re headed, we’re gonna wish we had done more.  […]

Shifting ever more fluidly between “you” and “we”, Jones then buttered up Alternet readers with “you can’t fault the peace movement, we had as many people marching for peace in the streets of America the first six weeks leading up to the Iraq War than we had in the first six years of the Vietnam War.” Not that anyone was faulting the peace movement, one thinks, but whatever, this tastes good.  And so, with readers presumably disarmed, the real rhetorical gambit occurs:

…So, you can’t fault the peace movement, but you had the wrong president.

With Obama, you had arguably the right president, but you had the wrong movement with the Tea Party out there, pulling things in a negative direction. The key is to have the right president and the right movement at the same time. That’s what we’ve got to be aiming for. You’ve got to have a president who is willing to be moved — which is not Bush and not Romney. But then you’ve got to have a movement that’s willing to do the  moving. And that’s what we’ve got to be aiming for, which means that we have to work twice as hard as we did in 2008, not half as hard or a tenth as hard.

You know, I look around and I don’t hear a lot of progressives talking about where they’re going to spend October in terms of the swing states. I don’t hear people talking about the fundraisers that they’re doing. I don’t hear [of] people doing any of the things that we did in 2008. And if we think we’re going to put our minimum up against our opponents’ maximum, when they’ve been given this huge window with Citizens United and all of this voter disenfranchisement, then we’re crazy.

And thus the shabby magic trick is complete.  The best, rightest movements  of them all — the Wisconsin uprising, Occupy Wall Street: forgotten.  Emanuel’s poisoning of the race with Barrett: ignored.  The right president: ‘arguably’ (nice touch) Obama.  Obama’s MIA performance: camouflaged as “big national Democrats.”  The legacy of Wisconsin, as Jones appears to see it: to catalyze Obama 2012 house parties.

For all I know, Netroots Nation ate it up — apparently Jones was recycling some of the comments from a speech there; Adele Stan sure seemed to.

But I’m not buying.  Does the liberal establishment care about anything but itself?  That’s a surprisingly good question, given the adoring interview Ms. Stan conducted.  And judging by Jones’s comments, Obama’s no-show, Bill Clinton’s tepid speech for Barrett, and Barrett’s tepid race against Walker, the answer is: no.

We shouldn’t have to settle for a president who’s “willing to be moved” — we needed and need one to lead the moving.  We don’t need a president who admires and wants to be part of the elite — we need one to impose some boundaries on that elite’s arrogance and power.  And we don’t need a movement defined for us by a Van Jones.  We should do that for ourselves.

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Were recalls the way to go?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 10th August 2011

As is well known, there have been mammoth efforts to recall six Republican state senators in Wisconsin who, earlier this year, voted to end public employee collective bargaining rights; yesterday, ThinkProgress provided as good a backgrounder as any on the specific races involved.

Now, the results are in, and they’re mixed — which is to say, they’re not good enough: two senators were recalled, but that fell one short of what was needed to wrest control of the state Senate from the GOP.

Before going on, let me emphasize: my hat is absolutely off to the many good volunteers who worked in these campaigns.  What they achieved was remarkable.

Having said that, though, the more I read about these elections after the fact, the more I wonder about the strategic wisdom of the whole thing.  The elections the GOP re-won were all in what were more or less GOP strongholds to begin with.  A whole lot of time, money, and effort later, they pretty much still are.  Under these circumstances, to emphasize how much of an uphill struggle it was always going to be (see, e.g., Howie Klein, digby, or the John Nichols interview on Democracy Now!) is not even cold comfort, it’s cause for concern: were frontal assaults on well held positions like these really the best plan?

Of the losing challengers, Clark came closest (lost 52-48%), but that’s still a pretty definite loss, and no one else came close at all. As far as I can tell, the thinking seemed to be (1) everyone who was really mad in February and March would stay mad for 5 months, (2) the GOP would be asleep on Election Day and not turn out their voters, too, all (3) in GOP-leaning districts.  The strategy amounted to absolutely needing three tough away game wins out of six.  Getting two was great, but the overall result was not a win. So it was a loss.

There was an alternative, discussed at the time both by labor leaders in Wisconsin (both AFL-CIO and IWW) and in the national media: a general strike, i.e., a “a strike involving workers across multiple trades or industries that involves enough workers to cause serious economic disruption.”

Yes, that might have lost some kind of ‘high ground’ among independents, conservatives, and even some “liberals” — but nearly anything runs that risk.  Yes, it’s technically illegal (under the Taft-Hartley Act — passed over Harry Truman’s veto in 1947)  — but technically so are other forms of civil disobedience.  When there’s a full-blown emergency, it’s appropriate to take emergency measures — and do so smartly.  One could imagine calling general strike for two days; then quit; then do it again; then quit again. Etc.

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Wisconsin union buster legislators greeted by protesters

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 18th March 2011

On Wednesday, many of the key GOP legislators who voted to end collective bargaining for public unions in Wisconsin planned on coming to DC for a March 16 fundraiser — essentially sneaking into DC to pick up their checks for their sneak vote against labor.  A lot of different groups — AFL-CIO, MoveOn, Public Campaign — started telling their supporters to show up at the site of the fundraiser: the BGR lobbying firm headquarters, at 601 13th St NW in Washington DC.

I was among those who joined the demonstration.  As ever, I brought along my camera and video camera.

At first we just walked up and down in front of the building, I’d guess maybe five or six hundred people all told.  Then all of a sudden a guy standing at the door starts waving people in, so everybody so inclined crowded inside, chanting, blowing whistles, etc.

What greeted us was an all but perfect stage setting for a confrontation with the ruling class, something out of Bertolt Brecht’s wildest dreams: a marble and glass indoor atrium, lined with palm trees below, stretching up for ten stories above, each floor with balconies at which startled denizens of the building gathered to view the impromptu occupation. A heroic statue* stood at the center of a stairway reaching up several stories; a “Respect Workers Rights” banner was quickly hung on the balustrade in front of it. It developed that three or four hundred people can really raise a pretty deafening ruckus if they are so inclined.

The organizers showed a deft touch with the whole thing in that they did *not* stay in any one place for long.  After a few remarks by an AFL-CIO organizers, a Wisconsin teacher, and a Sheet Metal Worker union official, the word was OK, we’re leaving now, clean up, leave it better than you found it.

At this point many hundred more had gathered outside, and the DC police decided to just cordon off the block and give it over to the protest.  So that’s what happened — but after a few minutes the crowd proceeded away from that as well, heading straight to the White House.  We got there in about ten minutes, stood there doing many of the same chants — “What’s disgusting? Union busting” etc. — and then left *again* along a diagonal path through Lafayette Park, away from the White House.  I had no idea where they were headed and tagged along.  But when they got to H Street they doubled back heading east — towards the US Chamber of Commerce.  And by golly if they didn’t head straight in there too!  So I did as well.

This time the place was smaller, a regular lobby maybe forty feet by forty feet, with several dozen of us inside, one guy banging a drum for all he was worth, everyone else chanting “hey hey ho ho” and “people united will never be defeated” and whatnot.

One security guy was apparently steamed about it all — and decided he’d pull a fast one on us and close and lock the doors with us still on the inside.  I started to leave, but he blocked me — and he was a *big* guy, bound and determined to keep me from leaving and on bottling up everyone else behind me.   At no time did I hear him or anyone else request that we leave, though I may have missed that part, I was maybe the 30th person to go in.

By the time he was trying to shut the doors, there were about three or four dozen of us inside.  One guy ducked under his arm, he tried to stop that (so he wasn’t just trying to block further entrants). A bunch of us started to press out, me in the lead (I didn’t want to get trapped in there).  A bit of a nonviolent scrum ensued, him and one or two security guards on the outside trying to close the doors on us, 4 or 5 of us pushing out, me getting pushed from both sides — kind of the cork in the bottle — thinking hmm, this is the proverbial tight squeeze.  But our push won, the door stayed open.  On the outside, people began chanting “let them out,” and as far as I know everyone did stream out — and dispersed, this time for good.

In just a few minutes my friend Tim and I had left as well.  We headed over to a bar, and celebrated the day with some beers and fish and chips.  I gave away my “We Are One” ATU sign — which someone else had given to me — to some tourists who asked me for it.

I’ll post some videos below.  The first two are fairly raw footage — i.e., sometimes I forgot the camcorder was on and you’ll see the bag or my feet or the world turned upside down.  But in a way, it was, and the topsy turvy videography almost gets across the spirit of the moment as well as anything else.  Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Other accounts of the protest:

* The statue in the center really was magnificent, it seemed all but designed for the occasion. It turns out it’s called “Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves,” by Donald De Lue; perhaps sadly, the original is at the Normandy American military cemetery in France. I like to think this was its happiest day in many a year.

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The leaders of America

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 1st March 2011

These are the leaders of America, not bought and paid for pols – not Walker, not Boehner. Not Reid or Schumer. Not Gingrich. Not Palin. And not Obama either, so carefully running behind this uprising, at a distance seemingly calibrated to the nearest sixteenth of an inch.

These people are the leaders of America. Tell me I’m wrong. You can not. I will not believe you.

Wisconsin “Budget Repair Bill” Protest from Matt Wisniewski on Vimeo.

Wisconsin “Budget Repair Bill” Protest Pt 2 from Matt Wisniewski on Vimeo.

WI “Budget Repair Bill” Protest (Feb 20-24?) Pt. 3 from Matt Wisniewski on Vimeo.

Films by UW media specialist Matt Wisniewski; backstory here and here. Meanwhile, a simple joke is making the rounds on Facebook:

“A public union employee, a tea party activist, and a CEO are sitting at a table with a plate of a dozen cookies in the middle of it. The CEO takes 11 cookies, turns to the tea partier and says, ‘Watch out for that union guy. He wants a piece of your cookie.’”

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On Wisconsin

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 28th February 2011

Over the weekend, unions and progressive organizations mobilized “Save the American Dream” events across the country to show support for Wisconsin public unions in their fight with Governor Walker.  On Saturday, I joined the rally at Dupont Circle in downtown Washington DC.

Video interviews with rally goers, including Jesse Lovell (DC for Democracy), Johnny
Barnes (ACLU-NCA), Jim Epstein (Pathfinders International) and others.

Plenty has been written about the confrontation in Wisconsin, and I’ll take up some of that below.

But this post is mainly about relaying the solidarity and notably high spirits that I felt among the demonstrators — at least a thousand of them, by my estimate, maybe more — and in myself for that matter.  At a time when it’s tempting for even some working class people say “I’m hurting, so they should hurt too” — and of course all but irresistible for mainstream media to give them a megaphone for that — it was great and important to feel like we were answering a call on Saturday, and to be with others who felt the same way.

Will that have an impact?  I don’t know — but not doing anything certainly would have had the wrong one.

As to the issue: clearly I agree with the labor movement for circling the wagons against Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s assault on collective bargaining, or I wouldn’t have gone to the rally.   The problem is well known; the labor movement as a whole is in undeserved disrepute, and the public sector unions are both a last bastion of that movement and — as has been repeated ad nauseam — ones indirectly employed by taxpayers rather than corporations.

For those who decry high public sector pension plans, I say first of all: why exactly? What is it about paying people well, as agreed on in a contract, for the jobs they have done?  Was a gun held to anyone’s head when the agreement was signed?  What is it about contractual obligations you don’t understand? I thought that was an underpinning of capitalism; does it suddenly not count when it’s a mere employee’s union?  Ezra Klein has relayed a study pointing out that “Wisconsin public-sector workers face an annual compensation penalty of 11%. Adjusting for the slightly fewer hours worked per week on average, these public workers still face a compensation penalty of 5% for choosing to work in the public sector. […]  The residents of the various states, when all is said and done, will probably have gotten the work at a steep discount. They’ll force a renegotiation of the contracts and blame overprivileged public employees for resisting shared sacrifice. Which gets to the heart of what this is: A form of default.”

Rick Ungar at Forbes Magazine makes the point similarly: “If the Wisconsin governor and state legislature were to be honest, they would correctly frame this issue. They are not, in fact, asking state employees to make a larger contribution to their pension and benefits programs as that would not be possible- the employees are already paying 100% of the contributions. What they are actually asking is that the employees take a pay cut.”

But we lose sight of the forest for the trees and even the weeds by focusing on Wisconsin pension plans.  It’s not about that.  It’s about unionbusting pure and simple.  Walker confirmed that in the hilarious, notorious sting pulled off by the Buffalo Beast’s Ian Murphy (calling in pretending to be billionaire rightwinger David Koch), in emotionally recalling a final planning meeting where he compared himself to Ronald Reagan breaking the air traffic controllers union in 1981.  As Chris Hayes and Naomi Klein pointed out in a memorable MSNBC segment, we’re essentially facing a “Shock Doctrine USA”: a manufactured crisis leading to the looting and crippling of the public sector — as well as the crippling of solidarity with each other, and of a common purpose beyond looking out for number one.

Van Jones speaking to union supporters, Dupont Circle
From Wisconsin Solidarity Rally, Feb 26, 2011

I return to the rally, where former Obama White House official Van Jones made some interesting remarks — about the “Tea Party.”  Responding to widespread boos when he named the group, he held up his hand and said “no, no — they are our brothers and sisters too.  They just don’t know it yet.” And then he went on to say that he respected the Tea Party for one thing: that on the heels of defeat in 2008, they didn’t decide to “come crawling to the center” but instead redoubled their efforts for the principles they believed in.  And just as the crowd saw where he was going with that, he said it: now it’s our turn to do the same thing.  No crawling to the center — stand on principle.

Bucky Badger sez: On Wisconsin unions!

And no throwing fellow progressives under the bus.  A final great thing about the DC rally was that the site and time had actually been registered by a different coalition — one resisting cuts to women’s health and reproductive health funding —  and was generously shared by them.  Likewise, there were environmentalists with Sierra Club posters, and civil liberties advocates like Mary Beth Tinker and Johnny Barnes (ACLU-NCA) on the scene.  People from all facets of the American left are banding together to fight back.   It makes me hopeful that we can win this one, and start winning more.

EDITS, 2/28: Chris Hayes, not Hedges, David Koch, not Richard.

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