I can understand people hoping that Elizabeth Warren runs for President, and smashes Wall Street’s hold on the Democratic Party leadership. I can understand people hoping that a new Pope willing to directly attack the economic doctrine of “trickle down” will finally usher in a new era of real economic reform and prosperity.
But I’m here to tell you that no one person - no matter how passionate, no matter how sincere, no matter how incorruptible, no matter how high their position, no matter how great their power - no one person is going to save the world for you.
You have to do it yourself.
Well, to be absolutely precise: you have to join with a few hundred thousand like-minded individuals to give that one person in whom you place so much hope, the political freedom of action to do what you want done. Or, in some cases, and on some issues, you need to be so loud, so disruptive, so capable of inflicting real political pain, that the one person in whom you place your hope, feels that the only politically safe thing to do, is what you want.
More, lots more, below the Great Orange Squiggle....
I remember well after President Obama was first elected in 2008, there was a giddiness, even an arrogance, on the left. A lot of people seemed to think that by elevating this former community organizer to the White House, a lot of problems had been solved--or would be. How many of you remember those pictures of Obama, grinning widely, with arms outstretched - with the superimposed caption, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this” - posted by people airily dismissing concerns that the new President was assembling an economics team that looked suspiciously a lot like Bill Clinton’s?
The plain fact is that a small number of very wealthy elites have achieved a chokehold on economic policy making in the United States. We can no longer delude ourselves that the United States is a government of, for, and by the people. The harsh truth is that the American polity is no longer a republic; it has degenerated into a plutocratic oligarchy, with political power based on the ability to finance political campaigns. In simpler words: political power in America is based on wealth. And this is most true at the highest levels of our political system. The institutional and cultural arrangements of political and economic power in the United States are such that it is foolish to think that the President of the United States represents all the people in any real sense other than figuratively.
And those arrangements are not going to change, even if somehow, some day, someone like Senator Warren becomes President.
But this does not mean that progressive change is impossible in the United States. It simply means that hoping to elevate one good progressive to the White House is a dangerous diversion from the job we need to do. The federal structure of government designed by the Founders – with political power diffused at the local, state, and national levels, overlaid with an institutional superstructure of three branches of government intended to check and balance each other – offers fissures and pressure points in the political system in which dominance by the rich is not complete and total. This reality is what progressives need to understand thoroughly, and use ruthlessly, to leverage political power where it can do the most good.
This has been demonstrated repeatedly in American political history: Focusing on the White House race is a huge waste of time, money and effort for progressives. At the same time, however, we need to prevent reactionaries like Newt Gingrich, neo-confederates like Rick Perry, or corporatist banditti like Mitt Romney, from getting their hands on the penultimate levers of political power. But for progressives, the fulcrum for leveraging power to achieve real political change are down-ticket offices: local and state offices, and especially the U.S. House of Representatives, and wherever possible, the U.S. Senate.
This is what conservative extremists have done the past thirty years, and we all visit DailyKos regularly to bewail the results. Its why the United States continues to suffer under the economic and other policies that are basically conservative, despite those policies being widely unpopular. We need to copy the Tea-bagger playbook. But, realize this: we’re not really mimicking the Tea-baggers; the tea-baggers are mimicing us. That’s right: It is the progressives of the late 1800s, our side, that first seized control of the political process by focusing on state and local elections. Except they were called populists then, in the late 1800s. Then they were called progressives in the first decades of the twentieth century.
The history of third party runs for the Presidency is highly instructive in what it tells us about the structure of political power in the United States - and the ease with which our plutocratic elites have been able to monopolize the executive branch. The only successful third party attempt to win the Oval Office was Abraham Lincoln’s in 1860 – which was exceptional because one of the two major political parties, the Whigs, had ceased to exist for all practical purposes, and the Democratic Party had been split asunder along regional lines over the issue of slavery. And despite the old political order lying in ruins in 1860, Lincoln squeaked into office with only a 39.8 percent plurality.
The second most successful third party attempt for the White House was former President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 run as the Bull Moose candidate, garnering 28.7% of the vote. The third most successful was that of another former President, Millard Fillmore in 1856 who garnered 21.6% as the Know-Nothing candidate in an election in which the most notable feature was the political vacuum left by the imminent death of the Whig Party and the split of the Democratic Party—the exact same vacuum that allowed Lincoln to win with a feeble plurality one election cycle later.
The other significant third party attempts were Ross Perot (1992) 18.6%; Robert LaFolette (1924) 16.6%; George Wallace (1968) 13.5%; Eugene Debs (1912) 11%; Perot, again (1996) 9%; and John Anderson (1980) 7%.
Setting aside the insurgent Republican victory of Lincoln, note that the two highest third party vote totals were tallied by candidates who had formerly been President, Fillmore and Roosevelt. (Fillmore had become President five years earlier, after the death in office of Zachary Taylor, but was not a candidate in 1852 to remain in office.) These former Presidents had a substantial political machine behind them, a machine which they did not have to build from scratch, but which were sizable rump factions of the major political parties from which these former presidents had detached themselves. That the other third party attempts can barely garner a fifth of the vote is, I believe, to be expected given how political power is arranged in America. The overweening power of the American political establishment, however bitter and open might be its internal rivalries and discord, simply makes it impossible for a third party to get to the White House. The American political establishment at the highest levels draws its financial support and its intellectual direction from corporate America, plain and simple. This dependence is so complete — the plutocratic control so total that it has become Orwellian, with Democrats forced to mouth liberal platitudes to attract voters while gutting social programs to attract money, while Republicans engage in the most brazen lies, such as calling anti-labor legislation “right to work." Perhaps the most telling, and scary, indication of the power of the plutocratic oligarchy, is that Franklin Roosevelt - arguably the most progressive President - did not make a single move to investigate and prosecute the Wall Street faction that attempted to organize a military coup against him.
And the important thing to remember about FDR is that almost all his most progressive, and most successful, policies had to be forced on him. Have you heard that anecdote about Roosevelt agreeing with a group of labor leaders, some of them socialists, who brought their ideas for ending the Depression to a meeting with Roosevelt in 1932, and FDR told them, “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it”? Well, it’s true. Roosevelt had to be pressured into creating the New Deal—and not just by the exigencies of tackling the First Great Depression.
Where did this pressure come from? It oozed out of the political system's fissures which are not completely and totally dominated by the rich. It was a massive upheaval in state and local elections, spurred on by the fiery populist rhetoric of Huey Long, Father Frank Coughlin, Upton Sinclair, Dr. Francis Townsend, and others, that forced Franklin Roosevelt to cease quietly propitiating the “economic royalists” and begin to fight in earnest for the interests of working Americans. More on this later.
Many of you may have missed it, but in late October, Ian Welsh posted a very hard-hitting introspection on why the progressive blog movement failed, and a follow up, Why Obama And Democrats Don’t Do Much of What Liberals Want (Netroots Failure: Part 2). If you have not yet read these posts, and the comments, you probably should sometime soon – I suggest it would be good reading for the holidays. In his initial post, Welsh writes,
...we could not elect enough of our people. We could not instill sufficient fear. We could not defeat incumbents. We did not produce juice. Clark and Dean didn’t win the 2004 Presidential nomination. Dean was taken out in a particularly nasty fashion (via the manufactured Dean Scream.)Note that while Welsh includes the Presidency in his observation, by mentioning Clark and Dean, his focus comes back to the lower levels: Lieberman and the U.S. Senate; Pelosi and the House of Representatives. Then, of course, the Tea Party, which has certainly done a number on the Republican Party by running - and never abandoning - candidates for the House and the Senate. Not to mention the state houses, the governorships, and even local offices: on December 19,thumbunny warned us that ALEC was now targeting her local school board.
The turning point was when Joe Lieberman, though defeated in a primary, managed to be elected anyway. After the 2006 House capture by Democrats, Pelosi’s democrats betrayed the fundamental principles that the prog blogosphere stood for: they did nothing to stop the war, for example. The Prog blogosphere took it, and worse, most of the blogs that did come out against House Democratic Vichy behaviour, lost audience.
....The Tea Party, say what you will about them, gets a great deal of obeisance from Republicans for one simple reason: they will primary you if they don’t like how you’ve been voting, and they’ll probably win that primary. They are feared.
One of the people who commented on Welsh's blog was Jerome Armstrong, the founder of MyDD (Kos’s blogfather) and co-author with Markos of Crashing the Gates. Ian re-posted Armstromg’s comment the next day: Jerome Armstrong on the Failure of the Netroots.
On November 4, Ian reposted another comment by Armstrong, which I believe is dreadfully wrong: A blogger is the first follower, not the leader, in which Armstrong wrote:
I want to say something about the role of a blogger, just to try and frame the expectations and limitations inherently in place. The blogger is like that first follower in the famous Derek Sivers video, that is: “the first follower is the person that transforms the lone dancing guy into someone leading a movement.” So, when I saw Howard Dean dancing solo among the Democrats, at a Democratic Party gathering up in Seattle in June 2002, I started blogging, ‘hey there’s a guy dancing here’ I’m dancing now too, and so on, and a movement started…
This is the arena of politics, the politicians are the ones that have to be the crazy lone dancer for there to be bloggers to stand up and dance along. That’s their role. So its not a correct frame to say “FDL didn’t go down with the ship against ACA” in spring ’10, when already, the only ones that came forward to dance, Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich, both stopped, and became supporters. No dance, nothing to follow; the music has stopped.
Armstrong’s comment really riled me; it’s what inspired me to begin writing this diary a month ago. I hope the passage of a few weeks time has helped take the edge off and make it more than just a spontaneous outburst of anger. If Armstrong’s view was characteristic of the nascent blogosphere in 2002, extending into the 2004 election and beyond, it’s no wonder that George Dubya Bush was re-elected despite all his evil and pettiness. And it’s no wonder that Barack Obama has been such a disappointment. Simply put, our role – our responsibility – extends far, far beyond being followers. We have not been loud enough, we have not been unruly enough, to force Obama and the Democratic leadership in Washington to do what we want. In short: do not fixate on the White House. Our path to influencing whoever is President lies through the Congress and the Senate.
In the discussion over Welsh’s and Armstrong’s posts, I did not see anybody mention the obvious example of progressive bloggers leading the way and hacking out a path that the politicians had to follow: the reformation of the filibuster in the U.S. Senate. As everyone at DailyKos should know by now, the “nuclear option” of filibuster reform in the Senate that Majority Leader Harry Reid finally exercised a few weeks ago was an idea that originated, promoted, and was given its final push by us. Chris Bowers declared it the most epic netroots victory ever.
And a consultation of the historical record makes it even more clear: progressives have been able to achieve their agenda - but it's not been through the White House. Rather, it's been through Congress, state legislatures, and governorships. The great irony of our time is that it’s the conservative movement that has learned this lesson, and replicated it, while liberals and progressives seem to have forgotten that progressives of the late 1800s and early 1900s – the populists - achieved great success in getting many of their policies implemented:
- direct election of U.S. Senators;
- significant reform of House of Representative procedures to curtail the power of House Speaker Joseph Cannon (the “nuclear option” of that time);
- crop insurance offered by state governments, and eventually price supports by the federal government;
- federal regulation of railroad rates and labor practices;
- federal regulation of meat packing, food, beverage, and pharmaceutical industries;
- passage of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act;
- government programs to store and disburse grains to counteract market and crop fluctuations;
- state government testing of farm tractors (the Nebraska Tractor Laboratory);
- a not-for-profit state bank in North Dakota;
- and others.
How were these things accomplished? The key was focusing electoral efforts on down ticket races, and getting progressives and populists elected to local, and state offices, and no small number to the U.S. House. There were 13 members of the Greenback Party elected to the House of the 46th United States Congress (1879 – 1881), and ten in the 47th Congress (1881 – 1883). Around 45 members of the People’s Party served in the U.S. Congress between 1891 and 1902, including six United States Senators. And, eleven governorships were held by progressives from 1887 to 1901. Socialist leader Eugene Debs was elected as a Democrat to the Indiana General Assembly in 1884.
But note that at the same time, progressives' choices for President were being embarrassingly trounced. James B. Weaver ran as head of the Greenback Party in 1880 and received only 3.3% of the vote. Weaver tried again in 1892 as the People Party candidate, and got 8.5%. When Georgia populist firebrand Tom Watson ran as head of the People’s Party in 1904, he did not even reach one percent of the vote.
Look at two of the most important progressive triumphs in American history: abolition and women’s suffrage. The first moves to eradicate American slavery originated at the state level in 1790, when Pennsylvania’s legislature adopted a policy of gradual emancipation. Over the next two decades and four years, every other state north of Maryland also wrote the elimination of slavery into law.
The problem with using abolition as an example, of course, is the long lapse of time since these northern states moved to outlaw slavery, and actual emancipation during the civil war, because that period is marked by the increasing power and militancy of the pro-slavery states. The slave oligarchy pushed through a number of laws to preserve and strengthen the institution of slavery, such as the 1836 and 1840 gag rules banning any discussion and consideration of abolition in the US House of Representatives. Another law designed to protect slavery was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. In a perverse way, however, these examples actually strengthen the argument that the Presidency is not the place to concentrate our attention, since these pro-slavery forces worked at the state level and within Congress to bind the nation to policies deeply unpopular outside the South.
The train of events leading up to the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation also shows that the groundwork was laid at the state and Congressional levels. In January 1862, Thaddeus Stevens, the Republican leader in the House, called for total war against the rebellion to include emancipation of slaves. In March 1862, Congress passed a "Law Enacting an Additional Article of War" forbidding Union Army officers from returning fugitive slaves to bondage. In April 1862, Congress passed a law to have the federal government compensate slave owners who freed their slaves. Within a week, slaves in the District of Columbia had been freed on and their owners were compensated. In June 1862, Congress prohibited slavery in all US territories. In July 1862, Congress passed the Second Confiscation Act, establishing court proceedings to liberate not only slaves who not only had escaped to Union lines, but also slaves held by slaveholders convicted of rebellion.
All through 1862, President Lincoln continued to argue that Congress lacked Constitutional authority to free all slaves, including those in rebel held states - but Lincoln was acutely aware of the pressures building in Congress. In fact, Lincoln had already drafted plans for emancipation, and crafted a justification that emancipation would be a military measure authorized by the powers of the President as commander in chief. And it would not be until January 1, 1863, that Lincoln would issue the Proclamation of Emancipation as an executive order.
For women’s suffrage, the first real breakthrough came in the Utah territory, which recognized women’s right to vote in 1870. Two years later, a bill giving the franchise to women lost by one vote in the Dakota Territory legislature. In 1874, a proposal to give women the vote made it onto a state referendum in Michigan, but was defeated at the polls. The next year, Michigan gave women the right to vote in school elections. Minnesota did, also. In 1878, Senator A.A. Sargeant of California introduced the first federal amendment to enshrine women’s right to vote, which never passed. In 1883, women in the Washington territory were given the vote, but this was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court four years later, while Congress took away women’s vote in Utah. Women regained the vote when Utah became a state in 1896.In 1911, California gave women full voting rights. A year later, women gained suffrage in Kansas, Oregon, the new state of Arizona, and in Alaska territory, That is the first year, 1912, that candidates for President first begin to seriously speak to women voters. Finally, in 1916, the issue breaks through to the Presidential level, when Woodrow Wilson promised that the Democratic Party Platform will include women’s right to vote. And, remember, the first women's rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York was held in 1848, nearly three quarters of a century before.
For the story of how Franklin Roosevelt was forced to create the New Deal, I urge you to get a copy of Sam Pizzigati's book published in late 2012, The Rich Don't Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970, and read chapters 6 and 7.
What Pizzigati shows is that most of the New Deal was forced on Roosevelt by the progressives in Congress, in the labor unions, and in other places. Progressives such as Louis Brandeis, who developed a comprehensive plan for ending unemployment through a massive public works program that would be financed by placing higher excise taxes on large corporations than on small corporations, and taxing all inheritances over $1 million at a full 100 percent. Brandeis is a great figure in the progressive history of America, and we can all learn a lot by intensely studying him and his accomplishments. He was the first lawyer to use sociological studies and statistics as evidence in arguing before the Supreme Court, in the 1908 case of Muller v. Oregon. Just before that, Brandeis personally did battle with the power of bankster J.P. Morgan to prevent a consolidation of New England's railroads under Morgan's control. And it was Brandeis who updated Madison's theory of political factions to include ways to offset the growing power of monopolies, trusts, and big corporations in the economy. Brandeis also authored some of the first considerations of the issue of mass consumption and consumerism. As justice on the Supreme Court, Brandies wrote innovative and important decisions and dissents that laid the legal foundation of the right to privacy.
And Progressives such as Senator Hugo Black of Alabama, who introduced legislation, drafted by the American Federation of Labor (AFL), aimed at forcing companies to hire more workers by limiting the work week to 30 hours. It prohibited from interstate commerce any product manufactured in a plant or facility where employees worked more than 30 hours. According to Pizzigati,
historian Benjamin Hunnicutt argues that Senate passage of the Black bill on April 6, 1933 finally prompted “Roosevelt and his advisers, who had been engrossed in the banking crisis, to take their first legislative steps toward economic recovery.” These steps were included in legislation written by Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, and sent to the House Labor Committee, which incorporated the Black bill, and added other provisions, such as a federal minimum wage.And Progressives such as former Republican Ernest Lundeen, just elected to Congress under the banner of the new Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota. Lundeen had served in Congress in 1917-1918, when he was one of the 50 Congressman who voted against the April 1917 declaration of war against Germany. In February 1934, Representative Lundeen introduced legislation that would have the federal government guarantee every unemployed worker the average wage they had been earning before the Depression. And the money for the program would come from new taxes on the wealthy.
And Progressives such as the two sons of "Fighting Bob" La Follette of Wisconsin, both of whom had left the Republican Party in the spring of 1934 to form the new Wisconsin Progressive Party. Unlike their father's ill-fated 1924 run for the White House with his own hastily formed third party, also named the Progressive Party, this insurgent progressive political movement at the state level succeeded. In fact, Pizzigati notes,
The new party swept the state that November, winning seven of ten congressional seats, a Senate seat for Robert Jr., and gubernatorial victory for brother Phil. Both had originally been elected as Republicans. Both would speak out forcefully against the same plutocracy their father had so long opposed. "I am not interested in trying to maintain the status quo in our economic life," young Bob declared. "Devices which seek to preserve the unequal distribution of wealth now produced will halt the progress of mankind and, in the end, will retard or prevent recovery."Pizzigati continues:
"I am a radical," Governor Phil La Follette agreed. "There is no alternative to conscious distribution of income."
Minnesota had a governor, Floyd Olson, who considered himself more radical than Phil La Follette. Olson had first won his state's top office in 1930, as the Farmer-Labor Party candidate in a three-way race with a Democratic and Republican challenger. His parry united rural and urban progressives of all stripes, not just farmers and workers. In the early Depression years, the parry's egalitarianism particularly appealed to clergymen like Theodore Mondale, a Republican who had cast his first vote for William McKinley in 1896. In a Depression-ravaged state, this father of the future vice president rallied behind Olsons challenge to the state's rich and powerful. Reverend Mondale would explain why in a local newspaper: "I believe the greatest danger confronting capitalism is the ever increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.”And in California, plutocratic rule was seriously challenged by muckraking novelist Upton Sinclair's EPIC campaign to be elected governor. EPIC was the abbreviation of End Poverty in California, and Sinclair's plan for doing so included the state taking over idled factories and farms, and raising the state income tax to a full 30 percent on incomes over $50,000. The 1934 EPIC campaign has been called "the campaign of the century." As Greg Mitchell explained in The Nation in November 2010:
Governor Olson faced a hostile state legislature in his first term. In his second, he had more support and scored a string of legislative victories: passage of Minnesota's first income tax, a two-year moratorium on farm foreclosures, incentives to encourage the creation of business cooperatives, and a ban on injunctions in labor disputes. In the 1934 Minneapolis general strike, Olson refused to give employers the backing they demanded. Olson supported the New Deal, but not uncritically. Roosevelt might face a third-party challenge in 1936, Olson warned, if the New Deal dragged its feet.
In other states, insurgents essentially took over existing major parties from the inside. In North Dakota, candidates of a revived Nonpartisan League ran as Republicans and won every top state office -- the governorship, a US Senate seat, and both congressional seats -- up for grabs in 1932. In Washington State, activists with the Commonwealth Builders elected US senators in 1932 and 1934 and then, as the Washington Commonwealth Federation, dominated the state Democratic Party.
Of all the left-wing mass movements that year, Upton Sinclair's End Poverty in California (EPIC) crusade proved most influential, and not just in helping to push the New Deal to the left. The Sinclair threat—after he easily won the Democratic gubernatorial primary—so profoundly alarmed conservatives that it sparked the creation of the modern political campaign, with its reliance on hired guns, advertising and media tricks, national fundraising, attack ads on the screen and more.While Sinclair himself would be be electorally crushed by the flood of lies, name-calling, and red-baiting underwritten by the rich, most especially the Hearst and Chandler newspaper empires, EPIC candidates for the state house won 30 seats in the California legislature. And Roosevelt, who was terrified by Sinclair's campaign and never ventured much in the way of supporting it, was able to use it to make a secret deal with the Republican candidate for governor, Frank Merriam: Roosevelt would withhold any public support for Sinclair, in exchange for Merriam later supporting Roosevelt's economic initiatives, which became the basis of the New Deal.
Profiling two of the creators of the anti-Sinclair campaign, Carey McWilliams would later call this (in The Nation) "a new era in American politics—government by public relations." It also provoked Hollywood's first all-out plunge into politics, which, in turn, inspired the leftward tilt in the movie colony that endures to this day.
Back in the autumn of 1934, political analysts, financial columnists and White House aides for once agreed: Sinclair's victory in the primary marked the high tide of electoral radicalism in the United States. Left-wing novelist Theodore Dreiser wrote a piece for Esquire declaring EPIC "the most impressive political phenomenon that America has yet produced." The New York Times called it "the first serious movement against the profit system in the United States."
To summarize: With the exception of Lincoln in 1860, no third party candidate has ever come close to winning the Presidency. But there have been dozens, even hundreds, of examples of third party candidates winning elections for U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives, governorships, seats in state legislatures, and mayor of many large cities, including Milwaukee, Wisc.; Burlington, Vt.; Reading, Penn.; Minneapolis, Minn.; and Berkeley, Calif.. The presence of these progressives in these offices has often been enough to force whoever occupied the Oval Office to adopt, often reluctantly, progressive policies and programs. Conservatives in the U.S. have learned this lesson, and have assiduously cultivated the control of state and local offices as a means of insidiously promoting conservative and reactionary policies and ideas.
Now more than ever, we need to elect as many progressives to as many offices as possible, to stop and reverse the rightward march of American politics, and to free the Democratic Party from the grasp of Wall Street, as exemplified by the recent attack on Senator Elizabeth Warren by the corporatist sell-out Dems of Third Way. 2014 will be the first big test of the lessons we have learned. But 2016 will be the real test of whether we have learned the lessons of history - have the discipline to expend most of our time, energy, and money on local and state races, while ignoring as much as possible the dog and pony show of the presidential campaign.
It is a mistake for progressives to focus on the Presidency. We have much more potential leverage in down ticket races. Do you really want to completely transform the political landscape and drive conservatives and Republicans bonkers? Are you tired of having to defend a half-baked, warmed-over Heritage Foundation plan for reforming the health insurance market against the lunatic ravings of idiots and dolts who happen to have the backing of billionaires? Do you really want Meedicare for all or single-payer health care? Get a two or three dozen more people like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and Alan Grayson elected to Congress, and politics in the USA will be blown wide open - irregardless of who is President.