Pinning One's Hopes
History is a mean, brutal creature, unsentimental, unsparing. Collective efforts to shape and steer history in certain directions have been decidedly mixed, and in many cases, have worsened already miserable situations. But there is very little that we the living can do to escape these outcomes, though Americans do have the luxury to ignore what is going on Out There, so long as our numerous screens remain lit and our distractions plugged in. This is getting harder to do, but if nothing else, Americans will always find a way to bury their heads, even if it means actually burying their heads. The view under ground must be more enjoyable than the awful realities raging above, yes?
Still, there are those who try to keep an open eye to the horrors around us (this humble space included), and others who continually push against the large, closing walls. This latter effort is very necessary, despite the long odds, and I've done what I can to assist in these efforts, however feeble my contribution. So it was with considerable interest and sincere confusion that I read my old friend Jeff Cohen's celebration of James Webb's State of the Union response. While I understood why so many liberals threw their hats in the air on Webb's behalf, I must confess that Jeff's flying beret caught me off guard. After all, Jeff is a true American radical in a non-sectarian sense. His knowledge of American history and connection to various progressive currents has always impressed me, and when I was younger, helped to educate me.
I worked with Jeff during my formative, political years; and for a time, we shared a New York apartment, which afforded me direct access to Jeff's experience and seasoned political views (watching the evening news with him was a valuable lesson in itself). For someone who knew so much about the smallest political trends in American history, Jeff remained pragmatic, and could work inside the largest media behemoths. Read his highly entertaining and illuminating book, "Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media," for the sordid details.
Allowing for all that, I remained stunned by Jeff's embrace of Webb. I emailed him and asked what was up. He promptly replied, saying that his piece was not specifically in support of Webb himself, but of the "progressive" message Webb sent out to millions, a message that should be amplified and expanded whenever possible. And what did Webb say that stirred Jeff so?
"When one looks at the health of our economy, it's almost as if we are living in two different countries. Some say that things have never been better. The stock market is at an all-time high, and so are corporate profits. But these benefits are not being fairly shared. When I graduated from college, the average corporate CEO made 20 times what the average worker did; today, it's nearly 400 times. In other words, it takes the average worker more than a year to make the money that his or her boss makes in one day.
"Wages and salaries for our workers are at all-time lows as a percentage of national wealth, even though the productivity of American workers is the highest in the world. Medical costs have skyrocketed. College tuition rates are off the charts ...
"In the early days of our republic, President Andrew Jackson established an important principle of American-style democracy: that we should measure the health of our society not at its apex, but at its base. Not with the numbers that come out of Wall Street, but with the living conditions that exist on Main Street. We must recapture that spirit today."
Jeff maintained that this type of language is largely missing from mainstream discourse, especially when coming from official Democratic spokespersons. In the DLC/Clinton era of Dem politics, and mostly after, Jeff is right: few if any major Dems have talked this way (Mario Cuomo's speech at the 1984 Democratic convention possessed a similar tone, and George Wallace was very pro-blue collar, let us not forget). You'd hear it from the likes of Dennis Kucinich and Maxine Waters, but Al Gore and John Kerry shied away from such open populist appeals (though in the waning days of his 2000 campaign, Gore did make a few populist noises, which helped him with working people -- not that the party, the DLC in particular, learned anything from this). That a freshman senator from a conservative state delivered such a statement about low wages and class divisions should not be ignored or played down, but seized upon and widely spread.
Fair enough. Lord knows we need more, serious class awareness from below, seeing that those on high are already class conscious in order to maintain their advantage. But Webb is not alone among major Dems when it comes to this topic. John Edwards is making the class divide one of the key issues in his presidential campaign, while Barack Obama speaks about the need to create decent jobs while staving off the encroachment of the rich. What these and other Dems are simply doing is acknowledging reality, which is a good thing, to be sure, but not something that should mute our critical sensibilities. If Dems like Edwards and Obama have any shot at winning the Dem nomination, much less the presidency, then they're going to have to talk like this, or else kiss goodbye millions of potential votes from working people. Webb's already been elected and has just begun his six year term, so his populist language is potentially interesting, though it is part of the overall Dem approach. Bush has been murder on working Americans, and for the Dems to take his place, they must reach out to those Americans who've been hurt.
Regarding Webb's reference to Andrew Jackson's contribution to "American-style democracy," one might remember Jackson's smashing of the Creek tribe and his support of the Indian Removal Act, which eventually led to the Cherokee "Trail of Tears" and related atrocities. The Cherokee called Jackson "Sharp Knife" and for good reason. What Jackson and his successor Martin Van Buren oversaw would later be defined as ethnic cleansing, which was indeed an integral part of early "American-style democracy." I doubt that this is what Webb was trying to express, since the prevailing wisdom is that only monsters like Milosevic are guilty of such crimes. But it is telling that of all of the American references available, Webb went with Andrew Jackson. Not a huge deal, but worth a thought nonetheless.
Webb also touted Theodore Roosevelt's opposition to robber barons in order to provide his address further historical context. While it's true that TR was for a time opposed to the big business looting that was rampant at the end of the 19th century, his political ambition eventually overtook him, and in 1884 he broke from the reformist wing of the Republicans and backed the corrupt James G. Blaine, saying "I have been called a reformer but I am a Republican." Blaine lost to Grover Cleveland, but Roosevelt's shrewd move helped to propel him up the GOP ladder, where he became William McKinley's running mate, and then after McKinley's assassination, president.
When it came to war, Roosevelt was a dedicated imperialist and racist. His motto: "No triumph of peace is quite as great as the supreme triumph of war." Again, it's odd that a "progressive" like Webb would refer positively to such a political figure. Perhaps Webb trusted that most Americans know Roosevelt only from Mount Rushmore, and not from his desire to fight corruption to the degree that it threatened the status quo of which TR was a part, nor from his enthusiasm for slaughtering Filipinos and converting the survivors to Christianity. Ann Coulter might appreciate that, but one hopes that a Democrat with "populist" instincts would not.
Jeff knows all of this; but he's after something bigger: namely, a progressive takeover the of the Democratic Party. Jeff is now an active board member with Progressive Democrats of America, a group made-up of liberals and those a little further left who see the Dem party as the only realistic vehicle for serious political change. In our rigid, fixed political system, Jeff and his colleagues may be right, which is a pretty sad fact for the Greatest Democracy The World Has Ever Seen. Still, you deal with the cards that are dealt you. When Jeff informed me of this current strategy (which he predicts will take 10-20 years to fully come about), his piece on Webb made even more sense -- praise that which you can honestly praise, gain some trust, position yourself for further possible influence, and keep moving through the party.
Jeff cites the Christian Right's takeover of much of the GOP machinery as an activist model, though in my view, rightwing theocrats have more in common with their party than do progressives with the Dems. In other words, the fight on this side of the aisle is going to be much, much tougher, especially with the corporate stranglehold on the mules. At some point, serious differences will be unavoidable, namely, the mainstream Dem position on the Middle East, Israel in particular. Sooner or later, simply celebrating bits and pieces of the Dem platform will no longer suffice. When the shit truly hits the fan, that's when we'll know how far progressives can go in transforming the party altogether.
As you can see, I have serious doubts about this strategy. I, too, have worked with the Dems, and they are a stubbornly centrist, at times reactionary, bunch. Yet, as Jeff insists, this may be all we have at this point in time. So, in the spirit of open-mindedness and as a nod to an old friendship, I'm adding the PDA to the roll, and will keep a steady, critical eye on their various campaigns. After all, if there's even a small chance that my children might benefit from their efforts, not to mention the country and the rest of the planet, then it's worth seeing what the PDA and others can do.