My speaking gigs this past weekend in North Carolina confirmed what I’d suspected—there are pockets of disgust with the Republicans’ takeover and the Democrats’ paralysis throughout this country.
Many people are like Cliff who works at Costco and broke with his conservatism a few years ago, and Shelby who grew up in a small town where the Wal-Mart distribution center provides the only jobs. They express a deep-seated desire to move beyond the elitist contempt of the Democrats to challenge the scorched-earth policies of the right.
Among the folks who turned out to participate in my Fighting the Right talk Friday evening were a half-dozen self-described radical feminists active in the Feminist Student United group at UNC-Chapel Hill. One of them made an interesting observation about the Tea Party. She said that while she detested everything the TPers stand for, she had to concede that their confidence in standing up to the status quo—despite their funhouse mirror perspective—is something our side is lacking.
She’s right. The left needs to exercise some chutzpah.
We must tap into the vast sentiment for challenging the priorities of both political parties, which exists among young workers and students as well as middle-aged folks who’ve been through the wringer and are terrified as they face the reality of caring for aging parents and couch-surfing children.
For a few snippets of insight into what’s possible right now, let’s look back to the 1990s’ mobilizations against Newt Gingrich’s Contract on America and Bill Clinton’s near-forgotten bombing raids on Iraq. Like now, the Republicans swept into Congress during the 1994 midterms and Newt became a household name with his pledges to cut taxes for the rich and attack workers’ benefits.
The mainstream media hung on every word from the Gingrichites and produced countless stories familiar to us today–about how the Republicans would be free to do whatever they wanted in Washington for years to come. [Sound familiar?!]
It didn’t turn out that way. Not a single bill from the Contract with America became law. The popularity of the Republicans steadily faded. And Newt Gingich, the leader of the “revolution,” became the most hated man in American politics.
I was one of tens of thousands of people across the country who participated in protests against Newt wherever he turned up. Hundreds of trade unionists came out to greet him in Georgia, thousands of students in New York City mobilized against his cuts, public hearings to slash benefits across the country turned into raucous debates packed with outraged residents. In spite of the collusion and often outright hostility of the Clinton administration, our side was able to stop the right.
The recent horror-filled years of war have allowed memories of Clinton’s disastrous pro-war policies to fade. But in February 1998, when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright attended a CNN televised Town Meeting of 6,000 at Ohio State University, the place erupted in protest. Albright had recently told anchorwoman Lesley Stahl that she thought the deadly sanctions that the Clinton administration had imposed on Iraq were “worth the price” of half a million dead Iraqi children, and in response OSU students took action.
I remember talking to one of the campus organizers, Jon Strange, about how a small group of students broadened their protest to involve many hundreds, if not more. Strange and his collaborators met ahead of time, prepared a list of facts and questions about U.S. foreign policy and arrived early to leaflet the event. It was a great idea to not just rely on a small handful of students, but to mass leaflet questions for students to ask. As it happened, Strange did get called on and he skewered Albright and the Secretary of Defense who was there when he asked:
Why bomb Iraq when other countries have committed similar violations? Turkey, for example, has bombed Kurdish citizens. Saudi Arabia has tortured political and religious dissidents. Why does the U.S. apply different standards of justice to these countries?
Albright was stunned and caught flat-footed. Whatever it was that she murmured in response I don’t recall, but I do remember as students unfurled an antiwar banner and began chanting, “1-2-3-4, We don’t want your racist war.” It became a touchstone of sorts that launched many more protests like it.
The students at UNC-Greensboro this past Saturday mentioned that Larry Summers, the head of Obama’s National Economic Council and an architect of and beneficiary of the economic collapse, will be speaking there soon. An even juicier target in some regards, Glenn Beck, will be coming to town to speak at a mass gathering in a few months. These events, and many like them across the country, can be turned into mobilizing efforts by the left where our side can unite our disparate forces and begin to push back.
The human ingredients for challenging a right-wing agenda exist right now. What’s missing is often the political vision and organizational wherewithal to do it.
I don’t pretend that every town or campus can do this now, but if folks in a few cities take the initiative—as some already are starting to do—we can reverse the demoralization that progressives feel. Building confidence is a necessary component to constructing a full-throated left-wing opposition to austerity, racism and the stultifying vision of Democrats in the face of a Republican onslaught.
In contrast to the Obama administration’s equivocation, we can adopt a posture of defiance to the right. A few words of advice to the Greensboro folks: make Glenn Beck cry.
Props to the Washington, D.C., branch of the International Socialist Organization for coming up with the “I make Glenn Beck cry” t-shirts sold at the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert Rally.