Category: DNC 2016

Day 8: From protest to politics

Bayard Rustin, civil rights leader and organizer of the March on Washington.
Bayard Rustin, civil rights leader and organizer of the March on Washington.

In the mid-1960s, not long after the March on Washington, the organizer of that historic protest, Bayard Rustin, wrote an article. It was called “From protest to politics”. Rustin argued that the civil rights movement had entered a new phase, and while not rejecting the tactics of street protest, Rustin argued for taking electoral politics and coalition building much more seriously.

The morning after Hillary Clinton accepted the Democratic nomination, we in the Sanders movement (and it is a movement) also have to consider what it means to make the transition from protest to politics.

Many of us understand that we need to do this, that everything depends on stopping Trump who represents a threat on a scale we’ve not seen before. For that reason I and probably 90% of Sanders supporters (according to polls) will support Clinton. And not only vote for her — we will work for her, donate money to her campaign, and make the case to our fellow Berners that we do need to unite behind her.

Having said that, I want to say a few words to my friends in the Democratic Party who have been supporting Hillary Clinton all along.

This is not an easy or simple process for us. One does not transition from being a revolutionary to being a mainstream politician overnight. We have developed habits over the course of the last year (and longer) of ferocious attacks on a corrupt political system dominated by big money. Those attacks and that critique retain their validity.

One does not simply “pivot” away from all that.

I thought of this last night when one of the many, many speakers praising Clinton and denouncing Trump demanded that Trump release his tax returns. The crowd cheered wildly. Of course Trump should do that. The speaker was asking what Trump is trying to hide, which is a fair point.

But I could not help thinking of our campaign’s demand that Clinton release the texts of her highly-paid speeches to the bankers at Goldman Sachs. Was it wrong of us to demand that? I don’t think so.

And there were ugly moments last night that maybe didn’t make it to mainstream television news. At various points, some Sanders delegates broke into the chant “No more war!”. Particularly when a general from US Marine Corps was speaking. Yes, we should show respect to invited speakers. And yes, leftists no less than rightists honor men and women who serve their country. And yet there is also a strong tradition on the left of opposition to war. It is a noble tradition and I respect that too.

The Clinton supporters responded by drowning out the anti-war protestors with chants of “USA! USA!” while waving the thousands of American flags which had been distributed. This was not spontaneous; the Clinton campaign organized the counter-protests in advance, telling delegates what to shout if the Sanders delegates raised their voices. If we shout “No more war!” they shout back “Hillary! Hillary!”

It reminded me of the cultural clashes of the late 1960s when protestors holding Viet Cong flags battled with pro-war demonstrators waving the stars and stripes. It was ugly then and it’s ugly now.

The young Berners are being asked to transform themselves from protestors to politicians, to stop chanting “Feel the Bern” and start chanting “Hillary! Hillary!” — as if this were somehow an easy thing to do. It isn’t.

Which brings me back to last night in Philadelphia.

I sat there for nearly 8 hours listening to speaker after speaker give unqualified praise to Hillary Clinton, to not even acknowledge the possibility that one might offer critical support. I guess that’s how conventions are, and I don’t want to sound naive. The last speaker I heard was Chelsea Clinton. To the great surprise of no one, it turns out that she loves her mom. Just like Donald Trump’s daughter told the world that she loves her dad. That’s what American politics has been reduced to.

And then the video began. I heard the voice of Morgan Freeman — who else? — telling Hillary Clinton’s life story, as I sat there with my delegation, surrounded by a sea of flags, USA placards, and people ready to shout down any voice of dissent.

And at that moment I felt — I cannot do this. Not tonight, not now.

I left the hall and walked alone in the gentle rain to the subway station. Said goodnight to the Philadelphia cops and Secret Service agents who were everywhere, and thanked a couple for being there.

Yes, we have to make the move from protest to politics. But please do not underestimate what a difficult move that is for so many of us.

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Day 7: Putin’s Party

Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A few years after the second world war, a strange book was published in New York City.  It was called The Russian Menace to Europe and judging by the title, one would imagine it was one of many books which focussed public attention on the threat posed by the emerging Soviet superpower.

The book’s authors, however, were Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

It was a collection of essays, mostly newspaper articles, written by Marx and Engels in the 19th century.  The Russia they were concerned about was not the Soviet Union, but the tsarist empire.

And yet there were very strong parallels between the two periods, a point Marx himself made (without knowing the future) when he described the unchanging character of Russian foreign policy.

Marx was especially concerned with the way Russia manipulated Western leaders, especially certain British politicians such as Lord Palmerston.  Palmerston’s actions during the Crimean War seemed to benefit Russia so often that Marx was convinced he was the tsar’s agent.

The idea back in the 1950s that Communist Russia and tsarist Russia had so much in common was quite daring.  Today, the idea that Putin’s Russia continues historic patterns stretching back centuries seems less controversial.

Putin’s foreign policy is simply a 21st century version of traditional Russian imperialism, constantly poking and probing its neighbors for weakness.  

In 2008, he brazenly launched a war on Georgia, an independent country to Russia’s south.  He continues to occupy two Georgian provinces with Russian troops.  A few years later, his soldiers seized control of Crimea from Ukraine. And then they triggered a civil war in eastern Ukraine, causing thousands of deaths.

Putin’s 21st century Russian imperialism has its foreign policy too and just like the tsars and the Communists, it seeks to influence Western politicians and public opinion.

In the American elections, the Russians are playing both sides with a considerable measure of success.  The relationship between Putin and Trump is an increasingly transparent one.  Trump has long expressed his admiration for Putin.  And yesterday, he stunned the political world in America by publicly calling on the Russians to release some 30,000 deleted emails from Hillary Clinton’s server which they may have hacked.

But it is not only the far-right Republicans that Putin seeks to influence and control.  For several years now, Putin’s satellite TV news channel Russia Today has tried to influence public opinion in the West by pretending to offer an alternative view of the world.  It is has had a certain limited success.

I spent yesterday not at the Democratic National Convention but at alternative events hosted by both democratic socialist groups and the far Left here in Philadelphia.  Green Party presidential candidate Dr Jill Stein spoke at one of them.  In a packed, airless and extremely hot hall, I saw a number of participants wearing “Hillary for Prison” t-shirts.  It seemed to strike no one as odd that Donald Trump’s slogan had a place at a left-wing meeting.

I imagine that most of the people in the room would broadly accept the world-view espoused by Russia Today — that the United States is the cause of global instability, that Russia threatens no one, and so on.  These views are certainly reflected in the platform of the Green Party.

So we find in America a century and a half after Marx and Engels wrote their essays that on both political fringes, right and left, the influence of the Russian state is clearly felt.  Obviously it is Donald Trump, and not Jill Stein, who needs to worry us.  But both are part of the same broad current who distrust American foreign policy, demonize Hillary Clinton, and have no problem with the autocrat in the Kremlin.

Those groups and individuals, whether they support the Tea Party or are self-styled Communists, are the members of Putin’s Party.

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Day 6: Don’t vote for Dr Jill Stein

Jill Stein.
Dr. Jill Stein, presidential candidate of the Green Party in 2016.

I am addressing this to my friends who have supported Senator Bernie Sanders but are now considering voting for, and working for, Dr Jill Stein, the candidate of the Green Party.

First of all, let me say that I understand you.  And I have a confession to make:  I liked Ralph Nader in 2000.  I donated money to his campaign and I encouraged others to vote for him.  And I agree — he was not the reason that Al Gore lost the election.  I understand the temptation of voting for the Greens when we’re pissed off at the Democrats.

But to do so this year would be a colossal mistake.

There are two reasons for this.  The first one you can already guess, and many of you will agree with.  The second one will be a little bit more surprising, and many of you will disagree with me.

The first reason to not vote for Jill is because doing so increases the chances that Donald J. Trump will be your president.

You may say that you’re in a blue state, and that Clinton will win your state regardless of what you do.  But that’s political irresponsibility.  If I thought Jill Stein was the candidate I wanted to win, I would vote for her in any state.  And if you’re 100% certain that your vote will not make a difference, that you know with absolute certainty how your state will vote in November, then you have the gift of prophecy.  Because the pollsters don’t know, and no one predicted either Trump’s nomination nor Bernie’s success in the primaries.  This is an unpredictable election which Trump may very well win.  Unless we stop him.

The second reason is — well, have you read Jill’s platform?  I don’t mean right now, by clicking on that link (as I hope you will do).  I mean — a minute ago, when you were thinking what a good idea it would be to vote for her.

There are lots of great things in Jill’s platform.  It’s a long list of things progressives want.  It is calculated to appeal to Bernie supporters.  But it is not Bernie’s platform.

Let me give two examples.

Jill’s platform calls for an end to “U.S. financial and military support to human rights abusers” which sounds like a good idea.  And then, in case you didn’t understand which countries she is referring to, it adds:

“Barring substantial changes in their policies, this would include Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt.”

Some of you may have no problem with this.  If you support ending U.S. financial and military support for Israel, please go ahead and vote for Jill Stein.

If however, like Bernie Sanders, you support U.S. financial and military aid to Israel (such as helping to finance the “Iron Dome” anti-missile defense) — and support the U.S. helping to press Israel and its Palestinian neighbors into reaching an agreement on a two-state solution — then do not vote for Jill Stein.

It’s not just giving up Israel to Syria’s Assad, Hizbollah and Hamas.  Jill Stein opposes the U.S. being involved anywhere in the defense of democratic countries.  Her platform calls for this:  “Cut military spending by at least 50% and close the 700+ foreign military bases.”

That includes U.S. bases in Nato countries which are threatened by an aggressive Russian leadership headed by Vladimir Putin.  The last thing people in countries that border on Russia would like to see is a U.S. which has cut its military power in half and withdrawn all its troops from foreign countries.

In Jill Stein’s world, Russia is not a threat, a view she shares with Donald Trump.  Hizbollah is not a threat.  North Korea is not a threat.  There is no need for a powerful United States, or even Nato for that matter.

Supporters of Stein may at this point defend her platform by saying that I’ve cherry-picked the parts I don’t like.   There are plenty of good things in the platform.  That’s true.

But what’s important when you’re running for president of the United States?  Jill Stein is not running for mayor somewhere.  She’s made a great mayor.  I’d vote for her.

But she is running to be the Commander in Chief of the world’s greatest superpower, a country whose arsenal and whose military defeated fascism 70 years ago and is the only thing standing between Russian aggression and countries like Ukraine, Poland, Georgia and the Baltics.  Without U.S. support, Israel would have a far more difficult time defending itself against Hizbollah and Hamas rocket attacks, and the threat of Iranian nuclear arms.

If you support Jill Stein’s views on defense and foreign policy, by all means – vote for her.  If you don’t, if you worry about aggressive powers like Russia, Iran, and North Korea, think twice.

You may not like Hillary Clinton, you may not trust her, you may have preferred Bernie Sanders.  I get that.

But in 2016, in the real world, where it’s dangerous and America does need to play a role on the international stage, voting for Jill Stein is more than a waste of a vote.  It’s dangerous and irresponsible..

Don’t do it.

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Day 5: Bernie Sanders gives the speech of a lifetime

The first night of the Democratic National Convention began badly.  The first speaker was a woman minister and all went very well until she mentioned the name of Hillary Rodham Clinton.  And then the chanting began.  “Bernie! Bernie!”

Now, I understand some of that anger.  Hillary was not last night, and is still not this morning, the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party.  She will become the party’s candidate only after a roll call vote of delegates is taken.  Yes, she will win that vote.  But declaring the race over now is insulting to the nearly 2,000 delegates who are pledged to Bernie Sanders.  Speakers should have shown more respect to both candidates, and not ignored those delegates or the 13 million voters they represent.

But over the course of the evening, things began to change.  Every time Clinton’s name was mentioned, there was chanting.  Tim Kaine’s name also triggered this.  And when the platform came up — a platform which disgracefully does not call for blocking the anti-worker trade agreement known as TPP — there was booing and chanting, with hundreds of delegates waving anti-TPP and Bernie placards.  As they should have done.

By about 22:00, tiredness was starting to set in.  And the point had been made.  And then the Democratic party leadership finally showed it had some brains.  It scheduled a series of speakers to wrap up the evening — Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Senator Elizabeth Warren who wowed the crowd, including the Sanders delegates.

Obama was especially powerful.  Her message about what it feels like to raise two beautiful Black daughters in a house built by slaves — the White House — silenced everyone, and moved everyone.  I was not alone to wipe tears from my eyes as I heard her speak.

Elizabeth Warren is an iconic figure for the American left.  She was not booed, not interrupted, and was treated like Obama with great respect.  Her support for Clinton was forceful and convincing.  The cold, intellectual case for backing Clinton had been made.

So it was a much calmer hall, and people much more focussed on stopping Donald Trump, by the time Bernie Sanders was introduced at nearly 23:00.

And even though people were exhausted — for most, the day began with breakfast meetings at 07:00 — the crowd went absolutely wild, everyone on their feet, all chanting.  If there were Clinton supporters in the hall, you wouldn’t have known it.  Maybe they were chanting “Bernie! Bernie!” too.  It took Sanders several minutes to calm everyone down.

And then he proceeded to talk about what has happened in the last year, where we stand now and what we must do next.

It was the speech of a lifetime.

It showed the greatness of this American politician because he is a man who is not only able to rally millions of people to social change, to feed off their anger and to be their voice.  He also knows when to say: we have come this far, but no further tonight.  This is where we stop, we pause, we think about what needs to be done next.

And what needs to be done right now, over the next hundred or so days, is to work day and night to ensure that Donald J. Trump is not elected the next President of the United States.

A lesser politician would not have been able to do this.  To speak to a crowd which only an hour earlier roared with anger at the mention of Clinton’s name, and to tell them: we must vote for this person and we must campaign for her.

This is what leadership is all about.  This was the most extraordinary example of leadership we saw last night, and maybe all year.  This was a man telling a painful truth to his followers, talking straight, pulling no punches.

Not everyone will be convinced, of course.  There are “Bernie or Bust” supporters who will no doubt be out in the streets today.  But they are a small and dwindling minority.  Most of us listened carefully to what Bernie had to say, and are convinced.

As the Clinton campaign slogan goes, “He’s with her”.

And I’m with him.

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Day 4: This is what a revolution looks like

The calm before the storm. Hurricane Bernie is coming.
The calm before the storm. Hurricane Bernie is coming.

The Democratic National Convention opens in just a few minutes; I am sitting in the hall, looking down on the delegates and the stage.  People are slowly coming into the hall.  This place has the feeling of the calm before the storm.  And this storm has a name: Hurricane Bernie.

Anyway who thought that there would be an orderly transition from insurgent campaign to team players was sorely mistaken.  Senator Sanders may be convinced of the need to unify the party around presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton.  But many of his supporters do not share that view.

According to news reports, the appearance of disgraced former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz at the Florida delegation breakfast triggered boos and shouting.

Some traditional Democratic activists who were there told news media that they were shocked — shocked — at the behavior of the Sanders delegates.

The meeting of the enormous California delegation apparently also disintegrated into shouting matches.  Not even the respected Democrat Nancy Pelosi was spared.

In the streets of Philadelphia, there are thousands of Berners carrying around “Bernie or Bust” signs.  In the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Bernie’s meeting with delegates attracted thousands of people some of whom, like me, were turned away.

But even there, as one eyewitness told me, there was little patience for Bernie’s attempt to show some support for Hillary Clinton and unify the party.

The DNC and Clinton have been incredibly inept at their handling of the Sanders supporters.  They appear to be taking them for granted, assuming that they have nowhere else to go.  After all, it’s either vote Clinton or get Trump.

And yet — people are angry.

This evening Bernie will address the convention and the world.  I am looking out over a sea of journalists; there are several thousand here.  Sanders speech will be transmitted live and millions will hear him speak in real time, many for the first time.

It now seems clear that his message will be one of continuing the revolution, but will also call for support for Clinton.

Sanders’ supporters will almost certainly welcome him with a standing ovation.  But they may interrupt him if he says anything positive at all about Clinton.

They are an unruly crowd, undisciplined, under no one’s control. They cannot be managed or dictated to.  They must be treated with respect.

And above all, they must be listened to.

They want to be heard.  And tonight, they will be heard.

This is what a revolution looks like.

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Day 2: Have America’s two major political parties entered into a suicide pact?

For some time now, commentators have been talking about the Republican Party’s tendency to self-destruct.  Every time Donald J. Trump said something stupid or outrageous, he won more support.  Every time polls showed him as the weakest possible Republican candidate, his support within the party grew.  Some pundits have spoken about the Republican Party committing suicide.

But in the last few days, we’ve seen the Democrats begin to do something similar.  In a sense, it looks a bit like a suicide pact.

Sitting here in Philadelphia, waiting for the Democratic National Convention to open on Monday,  I have witnessed two extraordinary events that seem to show the Democrats with a clear death wish.

The first of these is the WikiLeaks revelations.  Sanders supporters always suspected that behind the scenes, the leadership of the Democratic National Committee was plotting and scheming, and detested the left wing of the party.  Now we know that our suspicions were well-founded.

But it’s not only that US Representative and chair of the DNC Debbie Wasserman-Schultz considered Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver an asshole.  We suspected things like that.  It’s that she and her colleagues wrote this stuff down, in emails, which have now been published.  So they’re not only manipulative, anti-democratic bureaucrats.  They’re also incompetent at their jobs.  Did they really believe that none of this would ever come out?

Second was Hillary Clinton’s decision to choose Senator Tim Kaine as her vice presidential candidate.  She could have chosen Senator Elizabeth Warren, which would have electrified voters, especially young ones, and unified a deeply divided Democratic Party. She did not do so.  She could have chosen Bernie Sanders as well, which would have been an extraordinarily bold move.  Either choice would have ensured a sweeping Democratic victory in November.

Instead, she chose the nebbish.

Compare this to what Donald J. Trump did.  Trump was faced with the danger of losing conservative support.  Tea Party activists don’t trust him.  His relationship with Fox News is not an easy one.  So he picked a completely reliable, if boring, vice president.  The right wing of his party is now happy.  The party is slightly more united as a result (though the Bushes and others still hate him.)

This is not what Clinton has done.  Instead of trying to balance the ticket with someone to her left, to represent the millions of voters who backed Sanders, she’s chosen someone to her right.  Someone who supports free trade agreements.  Who’s opposed to abortion.  Who’s seen as a “moderate” (which is American for “right wing”).

Who exactly does she think this will please?  Who will be won over to the Democrats because Kaine is on the ticket?  In an election year when “free trade” has become toxic and even Clinton has distanced herself from Obama on the issue, she has chosen a “free trader” as her running mate.

Moderate Republicans who detest Trump are going to vote for Clinton anyway.  They do not need to be pandered to.

Clinton’s problem is that she suffers from an “enthusiasm gap” compared to people like Sanders and Warren.

To defeat Trump, and defeating Trump is the most important thing in American politics, and possibly global politics, in 2016, you cannot do stuff like what Debbie Wasserman-Schultz has been doing at the DNC.  And you cannot appoint a dull “centrist” as your running mate.

And most of all, you cannot continue to treat the left wing of your party, and an entire generation of new voters, with contempt.

I’m watching the Democratic Party, which is the only thing standing in the way of Donald Trump becoming President, slowly commit suicide.

Day 1: A whiff of fascism in Cleveland

I arrived in Philadelphia last night, just in time to catch Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.

Though I have to confess that after the first four hours of his speech (or at least it felt that long, maybe it was only an hour), I nodded off.

But not before I caught these sentences:

A number of these reforms that I will outline tonight will be opposed by some of our nation’s most powerful special interests. That is because these interests have rigged our political and economic system for their exclusive benefit.

Big business, elite media and major donors are lining up behind the campaign of my opponent because they know she will keep our rigged system in place. They are throwing money at her because they have total control over everything she does. She is their puppet, and they pull the strings.

On the one hand, you might think there’s not much wrong with this.  Some Sanders supporters might even say similar things.

We’re all against the privileged elite, against big money in politics, etc.  But Trump is using a very specific language to describe those elites and how they operate.

It is the language of fascism.  And specifically of its national socialist variety.  And this is because it imagines  a world with secret rulers who manipulate others with their money.  That ruling cabal goes un-named by Donald Trump, but just as the dog can hear a particular kind of whistle, so the fascist understands who those “special interests” are.

Not convinced that this is a classic Nazi image?  Have a look at these examples from Nazi propaganda:

jewishpuppeteers

 

Is Donald Trump an anti-Semite?  Probably not.

But he is reviving a classic anti-Jewish trope, the notion of a powerful, secretive ruling cabal that owns and controls non-Jewish politicians just as a puppeteer controls his puppets.

If Trump had made those remarks in the context of a liberal, inclusive and anti-racist speech, one would hesitate to say anything.  After all, it may simply have been a poor choice of words.

But it wasn’t a liberal and anti-racist speech — it was the most racist and reactionary speech given at a national political convention in the United States in living memory.

There was more than a whiff of fascism in it.

I worry for America.