This piece was originally published on AlterNet.
It’s not surprising that the mainstream media is paying little attention to the 15,000-plus community organizers and progressive activists gathered in Detroit, Michigan this week for the second United States Social Forum. After all, the center-left political establishment isn’t paying attention either.
Why is it that the Tea Party — the right-wing edge of the conservative political sphere — exerts a gravitational pull on the Republican party and the conservative mainstream while the United States Social Forum and the leaders and groups gathered here, who represent the left of the liberal mainstream, are disregarded as marginal and irrelevant — that is, if they’re regarded at all?
For those of you who, like the center-left political establishment, think the United States Social Forum sounds like some sort of debutante ball, allow me to explain.
In 2001, social movement leaders in Porto Alegre, Brazil, convened the first-ever World Social Forum as a space for progressive activists from around the globe to meet, learn and strategize with one another to strengthen the fight for justice, peace and equality worldwide. The World Social Forum’s guiding vision is summed up in its motto: “Another World is Possible.” Eventually, activists in the United States, wowed by the powerful experience of attending World Social Forums in Brazil, India and Africa and responding to calls from international activists that progressive change in the United States was critical to staunching injustice around the world, initiated the United States Social Forum. The first was held in 2007 in Atlanta, Georgia; the second this week in Detroit. Both U.S. Social Forums grew out of extensive regional and local social forum processes as well as nationwide planning committees, which were integral to the bottom-up formation of the forum
The Tea Party, which few had even heard about a year ago, is courted by prospective political candidates and established Republican leadership alike. Tea Party leaders like Sarah Palin command $100,000 speaking fees and major news outlets write headline stories about Tea Party activists and actions. By comparison, there is not a single nationally recognized speaker on the dais at any of the United States Social Forum plenaries, no Democratic party candidates bombarding the Forum or its constituent organizations for endorsements and no mainstream liberal foundations are backing the effort.
There are three possible explanations for why the Tea Party is treated as a force to be reckoned with on the right while the Social Forum is treated as fringe. The first is compositional. While the United States Social Forum gathers a disproportionately large number of poor people and people of color, repeated polls have shown that the Tea Party is predominantly comprised of financially well-off white men. Well-to-do white males generally have greater influence on the powers that be in our society than poor people of color. Of course, from the perspective of progressive activists, this is one reason why the Social Forum is needed, so accepting the permanence of this dynamic would be instantly self-defeating.
A second possible explanation for the Tea Party’s power and prominence as compared with the Social Forum is temporal. Shiny, new things always catch our eye, including our collective political eye, more than old and seemingly tired things. The progressive/left conglomeration of organizations and ideological perspectives that comprise the United States Social Forum have, literally or metaphorically, been around in American politics for decades.
And even where that’s not the case — for instance, very recent and innovative formations like the Domestic Workers Union or Right to the City Alliance — the reality is that the anti-oppression, pseudo-Marxist, liberation rhetoric they adopt often finds them lumped in with their old left brethren. On the right, although it is arguably old Moral Majority social invective married with old Club for Growth fiscal constraint, the Tea Party successfully packaged itself as a new reaction against the (also supposedly new) politics of President Obama. Even in movements, marketing matters. The left either has something new to offer but is failing to package it as such or has nothing new at all.
The third possible explanation may be the most deep and intransigent — it is psychological. Perhaps because they are largely white and well-to-do and male, perhaps because they grow out of recent political movements with very significant ambitions of power (including the Moral Majority and Club for Growth), the Tea Party is profoundly majoritarian in its rhetoric and vision. The Tea Party claims to represent mainstream America. According to the “Take America Back” platform put forth by Tea Party front organization Freedom Works, trumpeted by Fox News host Glenn Beck: “The Tea Party’s common-sense agenda of fiscal conservatism now represents the very middle of the American political spectrum.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the left wing of progressive politics as represented at the Social Forum does not evidence equivalent majoritarian convictions or aspirations. The closest workshops along these lines at the United States Social Forum are in the vein of “new majority” organizing among black and brown constituencies that are rising in demographic proportion.
Most everything else can be summed up as parsing identity politics (the difference between being “gender queer” or “transgendered”) or perfecting a left analysis of issues (for instance, on how the ecological crisis is rooted in the shortcomings of capitalism). While some workshops focus on building policy campaigns or electoral campaigns that might necessarily mean recruiting more middle-of-the-road, mainstream constituencies, what is palpably absent — in workshop proposals and hallway conversations — is any overarching belief that the assembled grassroots movements already legitimately represent the mainstream of America.
Mainstream liberals, especially in Washington, have bought into the false dichotomy that there is a necessary trade-off between seeking political power versus sticking to one’s ideological beliefs. The Democratic party, the Obama administration and many Washington-based advocacy organizations have picked the side of political pragmatism. It would appear that the left wing of the left has also bought into this false dichotomy and chosen the ideology end of the imaginary see-saw. But what if more Americans agree with the Social Forum crowd than the DNC? Perhaps even a governing majority? In November 2009, a BBC poll found that 63 percent of Americans felt that capitalism in its current form wasn’t working for them. What if the Social Forum crowd claimed to represent that 63 percent — and then some?
In his argument for hegemony as a left-wing aspiration, Antonio Gramsci wrote that before actually winning power, a political movement must believe it can win power and have a vision for how to use it. Yet the psychological failure to claim hegemonic aspirations — let along make significant progress toward realizing majoritarian power — can be linked to what another left philosopher, Frantz Fanon, dubbed the psychology of oppression. Communities so accustomed to personal and political marginalization have a hard time even imagining themselves as the ones wielding power as opposed to those over whom power is being wielded. Such hopelessness focuses a movement inward, leading to the kind of internecine fights around identity politics and issue positions that frequently divide the left. This explains United States Social Forum workshops like “The Struggle for Single Payer in the Time of Obamacare,” piling onto the conservative attack on liberal policy in the name of left-wing ideological purity.
Without a doubt, it is easier to fight for the preservation of the political past — even if it’s a revised, overly rosy past in the case of the Tea Party and its supporters — than advance a new, progressive vision that critiques and contrasts with the status quo. And the publicity showered on the Tea Party by Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and others blows a certain wind at the back of right-wing ideas storming the mainstream media. Then again, the Social Forum motto grows directly out of the slogan put forward by neo-liberal economists and politicians who, to make the case for economic globalization when it was a relatively new concept, insisted “There is no alternative.”
But perhaps, learning from the hegemonic aspirations of the economic and social right, the motto of the Social Forum left should also be “There is no alternative” — arguing that the progressive vision for a transformed and better future is, indeed, inevitable. Sure there are plenty of cultural and structural barriers that incline the left to be marginalized and, thus, languish in internal process. Nonetheless, one cannot help but wonder how the United States Social Forum and the left in general would be different if convinced they represent the majority of Americans and deserve real, ruling power.
In an election year marked by voters’ unprecedented distaste for incumbents, it is still remarkably difficult to be a challenger. Consider Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter’s race to unseat New York State Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada.
Espada has been charged in several incidents of corruption throughout his time in office. Though he claims a residence in his Bronx, NY, district, it is widely known that Espada’s primary residence is a $700,000 Westchester home far away from the poor and working class folks he supposedly represents. In 2009, Espada gained attention by switching to the Republican party in order to give Republicans control of the Senate. He eventually switched back, re-gaining control for the Democrats but only after extorting the position of Majority Leader. Oh, and then in April 2010, Espada was indicted for stealing $14 million from a non-profit health clinic he founded.
Still, in a sign that the party machine, though squeaky, continues to roll, Pedro Espada is running for re-election.
Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter is running to replace him. Pilgrim-Hunter has lived — and still lives — in the Bronx for more than two decades. She’s a highly respected community leader, a leader with the Northwest Bronx and Clergy Coalition — one of the area’s most respected community groups — and board president of the Fordham Hill Cooperative, the largest housing complex in her district. As a community leader, she has delivered concrete victories for the district. Notably, Pilgrim-Hunter led the campaign to stop New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg from converting a neighborhood armory into a shopping center and instead push for community development uses of the community space. Not only is Desiree is exactly the kind of authentic community representative we would hope to see in elected office, but a potential bright spot of the generally reactionary, anti-incumbent energy this year is that people like Pilgrim-Hunter — from the community, not the party establishment — might actually win.
But party politics continue to stand in Pilgrim-Hunter’s way.
Jose Gustavo Rivera, a life-long Democratic party operative who was most recently Director of Outreach to New York’s other recent party-installed politician, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, was put forward by the Democratic political machine establishment as their alternative to Espada. After all, even if there’s a change of faces in the state capitol, party insiders and benefactors can’t stomach a change of loyalties. They want their own man in office. They don’t really care who as long as he’s theirs.
Rivera is a smart guy and no doubt his heart is in the right place. But his candidacy reveals everything that is wrong with politics today. Rivera has never been involved in his local community. Not once. In fact, Pilgrim-Hunter organized hundreds of community meetings blocks away from Rivera’s home over the last several years. Rivera never came once. But Rivera knows the right people in the Democratic Party and in Albany. All too often, the best financed candidate wins and the best financed candidates are either self-funded millionaires or the candidates picked by and blessed by the party establishment (either Democrat or Republican) and thus significant choices have already been made for them. Even in the case of contested primaries, unfortunately there’s rarely a contest — the deck is stacked toward the status quo insiders.
Pilgrim-Hunter is doing what community leaders do best — bucking the conventional wisdom to upend the status quo. Without Pilgrim-Hunter and other leaders with the same spirit to triumph in the face of adversity, the Bronx and District 33 would have been left for dead decades ago, written off by a city that generally cared more about Manhattan, and more about Wall Street in specific. But just like the residents of the Bronx bravely persevere through recessions and crime and neglect from the city and state, Pilgrim-Hunter is bravely persevering to run against Espada and against the insider party machinery.
Pilgrim-Hunter’s candidacy is a glimmer of hope for the Bronx, New York. But the challenges she faces are a glaring warning sign for the state of our democracy nationwide.
When I first arrived at Edda Lopez’s house, I wondered how this elderly woman lives on the second floor of her elevator-less home despite being wheelchair bound. After an hour with Edda, I no longer wondered. Edda is a fighter. She fought for her family and her way of life, persevering even after her home burned down and her husband died a few years later. And now, Edda is fighting Bank of America.
Bank of America services one out of every four mortgages in the United States and is responsible for more foreclosures than any other bank in the country. And now Bank of America is foreclosing on Edda.
Edda lives in Bronx, NY, on a tree-lined side street with playgrounds and parks nearby. You think it might be different, being in the big city, in one of the poorest parts of the nation. But Edda’s block looks a lot like the small towns and suburbs that speckle our country. You would feel right at home in her cozy living room or the wide front porch Edda’s husband once built with her sons.
When Edda’s husband died in 2005 and she lost her job in 2008, she still held on. Edda was approached by a mortgage re-financing company who promised to lower her monthly payments. But buried in hundreds of pages of documents were loopholes and scams. Edda was surprised to find herself an unwitting victim of predatory lending and a sub-prime mortgage. Her payments actually went up.
She tried again. Edda re-negotiated her mortgage with another, more-reputable bank and got her payments down to $2,101 a month, which she could handle. Everything was fine until, in early 2010, Bank of America bought Edda’s mortgage and announced her payments would be at least $1,000 higher. What? Edda called Bank of America and only then found out that they had rejected her modification and Bank of America considered Edda behind on her loan for failing to pay the higher amount all along. On the phone — and only because she called them — Bank of America told Edda Lopez that her home would be sold at auction on June 26, 2010.
To all those who blame the hundreds of thousands of families facing foreclosure for their predicament and argue that big businesses like Bank of America should be able to do whatever they want, whenever they want, in the spirit of “free market” capitalism and the American way, you need to meet Edda Lopez. Edda is just like the many other hardworking Americans, struggling to play by the rules and reach their dreams but repeatedly knocked down by cheating, greedy corporations. Since when did the American dream turn into corporate-only heaven?
You can watch a video about Edda Lopez and sign a petition to protect her home at http://showdowninamerica.org/edda-lopez. The community organization National People’s Action has made over 23 formal requests to meet with Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan to demand an end to unjust foreclosures for Edda and thousands of other American families. Today, Edda will at a vigil outside the $1 billion Bank of America Tower in New York along with her family, community leaders and clergy members praying that Bank of America does the right thing. It’s a sad day in America when hardworking families are reduced to praying for their livelihoods to the gods of big banks.
There’s a movement afoot to repeal the 17th Amendment of the United States Constitution which allows for the two US Senators from each state to be “elected by the people thereof.” As proof that the Tea Party wants to infringe on your democracy and make it easier for elite corporate interests to control Washington, they want to take away our vote and allow state legislators to secretly appoint Senators through back-room deals.
So apart from the obvious contradictions of claiming to be a populist, patriotic movement while attacking the popular vote and the democratic traditions of our nation, why else is repealing the 17th Amendment a bad idea?
One of the central themes of the Tea Party is the idea of returning to and honoring our Founding Father’s intent. Glenn Beck, who hosts Founders’ Friday every week on his show, recently evoked James Madison — who Beck called a “little cutie pie” — to make the case for repealing the 17th Amendment and taking American back to 1776.
Before we get too misty eyed and nostalgic, let’s remember what America was like in 1776 — and why the 17th Amendment was such a vital addition down the road.
The vaunted leaders at the Constitutional convention were all very wealthy, very white men and included the largest slave owners in the colonies. None of the Founders were very pro-equality on the subject of race, but some were more opposed to slavery than others. In particular, the North was more opposed to slavery than was the South. And the North had more people. So the South was worried that, if the new nation were just based on the popular vote alone, it would have less power and slavery would be abolished.
They created a Constitution to preserve slavery, with all sorts of compromises to appease the South and keep it — and slavery — in the union.
For instance, the North only wanted free persons to be counted for purposes of apportioning seats in the House of Representatives. But the South, which hand tons of slaves, wanted slaves to count too — even though they (like all black folks at the time) couldn’t vote. So the genius Founders agreed to count slaves as 3/5ths of a person, which gave the South more power in the House. This wasn’t changed until the 14th Amendment in 1868. (Maybe the Tea Party wants to repeal that one, too…)
The Senate was also created to give more power to the slavery-loving South — so less populous Southern states would have just as much say in the Senate — two seats — as more crowded Northern states. Why make Senator’s appointed by legislatures instead of elected by the people? Like the Electoral College — which unfortunately still remains — the point was to “insulate” politics from popular will. This was Madison’s idea of democracy. He said, “A pure democracy is a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person.” Glenn Beck and the Tea Party, by siding with Madison on this point and wanting Senators to be appointed, are siding with the idea of elite rule by a very few rather than true, popular democracy. The inspiration, by the way, for this original idea of the Senate was the House of Lords in England. While “the people” were represented in the House of Commons, the other branch were only appointed from wealthy landowners and elites — who would make sure that the interests of the people would never completely win out over the interests of the wealthy, privileged elite.
The Tea Party doesn’t want state laboratories of democracy. They want elite fiefdoms ruling every level of government. It’s no accident that the state legislators the Tea Party and Glenn Beck want to give more power to are disproportionately wealthy and white — um, just like the Founding Fathers. The 17th Amendment originated after exposes in the early 1900s showed already-well-to-do state legislators using their Senate appointment power to get even richer.
Now, let’s get one thing clear. I think the Founders are great. I think the Constitution is great. I think our nation is great. But not perfect! The Founders, actually, recognized this too. They created a living, breathing document for a living breathing nation — that could be changed as needed. It was that little cutie pie Madison, for instance, who wrote the Bill of Rights — the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. (If we’re gonna start repealing amendments, let’s start with the 2nd instead!)
Madison said, “The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.” So the question is, who do you trust more? Do you trust the American people to directly elect our government? Or do you want to give more power to state legislators for them to potentially abuse? Do you want to believe that the American people can wisely change and carryout the governance of our nation, including amending the Constitution? Or do you think that a few wealthy elites from centuries ago still know absolutely best how our country should be run today?
Gee, I guess I put more faith in the American people than Glenn Beck or the Tea Party do.
In my latest video commentary, I break it down for you on how conservatives who are now pointing the finger at President Obama are the ones actually responsible for the growing disaster in the Gulf.
I mean, can you believe these hypocrites? Rush Limbaugh has actually tried to blame environmentalists because their support for regulation pushed drilling off-shore to wear it’s “less safe”. So now conservatives are the ones concerned with safety? Sarah Palin and her posse were the ones telling government to take regulation and shove it and “Drill, baby, drill!” What gives her the right to criticize the Obama administration’s response? If Sarah Palin were president, there would be ten-times more disasters like this!
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