Lies, Loathing, and Hope at the Democratic Convention and Beyond

by on February 13, 2012 · 11 comments

in Civil Rights, Economy, Labor, Popular, San Diego, Under the Perfect Sun

Banner held by Save the Bill of Rights activists in front of Convention Center during the State Democrats' Convention.

The response to the small Occupy/anti-National Defense Authorization Act protest at the Democratic convention was indicative of where we are politically in many ways. Some delegates fearfully scurried away from the protesters, others angrily told them they were protesting the wrong party (although Obama did sign it), and others, still, stopped and expressed solidarity with Occupy.

As one activist who was there holding a Millionaires Tax banner outside the hall reported:

“It was like a Rorschach test. You could tell where folks were on the political spectrum by how they reacted. The thing that stood out to me was how the slickest suits in the crowd just walked by like we didn’t exist.”

Sitting at the Millionaires Tax table inside the hall at the Hilton (ironic no?), I overheard voices ridiculing Occupy, expressing dismay at being protested, or saying they were headed over to check out and/or join the action. As activists there to promote the Millionaires Tax initiative I/we were both inside and outside the event.

One moment we were dodging Democratic Party officials questioning our lack of credentials and telling us not to hold signs or gather signatures; in another we were getting enthusiastic support and tons of signatures from delegates more interested in our effort than Jerry Brown’s Chamber of Commerce approved, Occidental Petroleum funded, partially regressive tax measure.

Labor Pains

Those in favor of Brown’s measure had little presence and when they did speak on the matter, they lied—either denying the objective LAO analysis that concluded that the Millionaires Tax brings in the most money and claiming the contrary, as SEIU’s political director Rebecca Malberg did in the Labor Caucus, or making up scare stories about how our measure will undermine Proposition 98, as a CTA rep told one of our volunteers. This is shameful. As someone once famously said, you have the right to your own opinion, but not your own facts. The truth is that the LAO estimates say that Brown’s measure would bring in $4.8 billion the first year, less than the $6-$9.5 billion that the Millionaires Tax would garner. Also important: Brown’s measure ends in four years, whereas the MT will bring in ongoing revenue. Contrary to the scare tactics, our measure does not undermine Proposition 98. But sadly, lacking good, reality-based arguments, the opposition is making stuff up, much like the Republicans do.

Here’s the bottom line: all of the statewide labor leaders who have sided with Brown cut a deal. And when your support for the Brown measure is based on your backroom deal rather than the merits of the initiative, you need to divert attention from your dirty laundry. So you make shit up.

Whether it was the bullet train, merit pay or some other favor, the fact is that business as usual politics is driving the other side in this battle of initiatives, not the strengths and/or weaknesses of the measures. If labor leaders want to stop being perceived as “special interests” who care more about their own, narrow political interests rather than the broad public interest, they need to stop throwing their fellow workers under the bus in exchange for special treatment by politicians. The sad fact is that the vast majority of the rank and file in these unions didn’t have any say in the decision of which measure to support—it came from the top down. Indeed, a good number of rank and file members of the statewide unions supporting the Governor prefer the Millionaires Tax.

Inside CTA, the locals in San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco don’t agree with their statewide leadership. There are also locals in SEIU that were initially working on the Millionaires Tax campaign that were forbidden from continuing to do so by their statewide leadership. Let’s hope our brothers and sisters inside those unions keep fighting the good fight despite their leadership’s lack of vision.

This dearth of rank and file democracy is one of the key factors that have led to the decline of the American Labor movement over the last 30 years. If we don’t make it another 30, it will certainly be in our obituary side by side with the Citizens United decision and pictures of Scott Walker and Carl DeMaio. Surely the Chamber of Commerce interests that some labor leaders are aligned with in this initiative battle will gladly hasten our demise despite our good behavior in supporting “shared sacrifice” and regressive taxes to appease the corporate community who fear that a clear victory for progressive taxes might mean they too will be asked to pay their fair share down the road.

Anyone who regularly reads this column knows I believe that a strong labor movement is absolutely essential to our democracy and the only way that working people have ever had a voice in American politics, but sometimes it’s time to look in the mirror and see that you are being your own worst enemy.

Which Side Are You On?

The convention was also full of the usual ugly factional battles between progressive and corporate Democrats. Locally, this was manifested in the battle between Lori Saldana and Scott Peters where there was a determined push to deny Saldana the Democratic endorsement so Peters could try to out-spend and defeat her in the primary. The thinking in the Peters camp is that a Republicrat has a better chance against Bilbray than a progressive like Saldana despite the fact that a recent poll showed her doing far better than Peters who will surely have the San Diego pension mess hung around his neck by the Republicans.

End result of this battle: Saldana 25 votes, Peters 10 and no endorsement because Saldana missed the 60% threshold by a one vote. A huge victory for . . . what?

Got Hope?

On a positive note, there was a huge amount of support for the Millionaires Tax at the convention. Josh Pechthalt, President of the CFT, got an enthusiastic response from the crowd at the Labor Caucus and Dolores Huerta voiced strong support for the measure at the Latino Caucus. More impressively, Van Jones singled out the Millionaires Tax as the one thing with the potential to engage angry, alienated, disenfranchised youth overburdened with debt. To those worried about a backlash he said, “They only call it class warfare when you fight back!” True indeed.

ReOccupied or Pre-Occupied?

Finally, the New York Timeshad an interesting story on the future of Occupy this Sunday noting that:

Far from dissipating, groups around the country say they are preparing for a new phase of larger marches and strikes this spring that they hope will rebuild momentum and cast an even brighter glare on inequality and corporate greed. But this transition is filled with potential pitfalls and uncertainties: without the visible camps or clear goals, can Occupy become a lasting force for change? Will disruptive protests do more to galvanize or alienate the public? . . .

A danger for a movement like this, driven by a committed core group with strong views, is political marginalization, said Todd Gitlin, an expert on social movements at Columbia University . . . “You can be big but still isolated,” which he said was what happened to the radical antiwar movement he joined in the 1960s . . . But deeper concerns about inequality are not likely to disappear, said Damon A. Silvers, policy director for the A.F.L.-C.I.O., nor is the widely shared desire “for the economy to be run for the interests of the majority, not a tiny wealthy minority.”

“Whether the individuals in Occupy Wall Street and their organization turn out to be the center of this sentiment in the next year, I don’t know,” Mr. Silvers said. “But that sentiment will be a powerful force in our country, and the Occupy movement deserves credit for that.”

In an earlier column, I gave some unsolicited advice to Occupy:

“The crucial thing, in my estimation, is to make even clearer than the Adbusters briefing does that key distinction between tactics (the tools we use or the maneuvers we employ against the enemy) and strategy (what is our goal and what is our long term plan to achieve that goal?). Tents and tarps and sleeping outside are tactics. ‘Occupation,’ narrowly defined, is a tactic. How we plan to reclaim our political system from the hands of the 1% and turn our plutocracy masquerading as a democracy into something closer to the real thing is the end we are seeking the means to achieve.”

Since then, locally, OSD has gotten much smaller and suffered from some fairly severe bouts of factionalism and personal conflict. If it is going to survive, here and nationally, the focus has to move beyond tactics and factional squabbling and get back to being about economic inequality and the corporate corruption of democracy. Purity tests and disdain for all reformist politics will shrink rather than grow the movement.

As one of my colleagues in the fight for the Millionaires Tax told an Occupy protester who disdained our foray into electoral politics, “You can’t say you want to tax the rich and then be against the only way you can do it.”

Author Jim Miller - with bullhorn - exhorts the value of the "Tax Millionaires" initiative.

For the most part, Occupy folks have responded warmly to our effort. I would suggest that this campaign is the perfect vehicle for Occupy to push the message of taking back power from the 1% and helping provide education and public services to the 99%. I would also suggest that rebuilding the movement should be more about inclusion than exclusion. For all of their warts, electoral politics are the only practical vehicle to achieve actual change in this country. Direct action tactics should be used in concert with a larger strategy that engages practical politics. That means you have to get your hands dirty sometimes to get the job done. Or you can just keep paring down your list of allies until there’s nobody left in the room but yourself.

Perhaps the best statement on the evils of factionalism, the original sin of the left, was made by the great Monty Python. It’s something unionists, Democrats, and occupiers all need to grok. Watch here and learn fellow workers and friends.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar rick trujillo February 13, 2012 at 10:56 am

OBRag, no real pretenses, a forum for Democrats and Progressives to discuss politics, less the dirty tricks, yes? I think so. I’m just an independent Chicano (mestizo) communist, a la Cuba. That you have printed some of my stuff, is verification of a lot very good things, from very polite folks–I know this, so do all the, mostly latina/os I have recommended read and follow the Rag. Why? First and foremost, like Common Dreams, for the facts and some analysis. I rarely agree on the conclusions, stated or otherwise but the facts are a real basis for connecting ie get to high ground, a tsunami is coming.
The main topic and an agreed upon priority item of the first San Diego County gathering at the Centro Cultural (a safe no cops place) was the lawless cops in San Diego vis Occupy and all our Constitutional rights. The NDAA centered protest took some of this up. The cops (under orders by we know who), as a physical and psychological splitting-dividing-outlawing-banishing tool was not mentioned in Miller’s article nor the number arrested nor the majority dem city council, nor the phony (it’s cool to be fucked over by a lesbian, now, following the footsteps (trend) of other “minorities”) DA. Never mind, the victims ain’t letting this go, soon.
This isn’t the central point, either, it’s the “WHY?” Occupy was subjected to these assaults (along with the rest of the country) that matters most. It (the police mayhem) happened and the lessons will not be forgotten, ever.
Enter the d-party state convention where differing opinions converged, some quite accurately revealed by this article. Facts about relevant stuff inside the convention (is that really the right word?), as well as outside are just that, facts. It really helps to assess matters. That’s where the electorate is these days, assessing matters.
I’ll bet this though, the good party faithful (there are plenty, keen, hep and knowledgeable) are finding it harder and harder to defend their party and their own principled political convictions, completely cognizant that world disorder is looming. On the foreign front, who isn’t for the fireman hosing down the police? Could have used them at Freedom Plaza, yes?
That’s the thing about Occupy, it’s a sort of cohesive glue made less and less complicated all the time,. Why, we have good reason to get together as aginst all the horrendous lies and corruption– plus, the, first get together–then discuss important things (Danger!!!, Danger!!!!!, Will Robinson), is really cool. That’s right cool, young persons are everywhere and sticking to it. A great Greek philosopher, one of the big three, I always forget which one, was forced to take a Hemlock smoothie for playing the Occupy game, with students no less. I’m 67 with a cool daughter in college, and I have friends in Athens. Enough said?
About 225 very wonderful workers, nurses, teachers, special needs people–the saints of society, I call them, and many others showed at the State Bldg a couple weeks back to oppose cut backs in health, most especially for our good friends like Raul Gonzalez, immobilized like Stephen Hawking (Steve deals with beginnings and ends, Raul takes up what’s in the middle stuff–both courageous and genius, words often used to describe millionaire athletes–see how far we’ve come?) Don’t forget Raul’s fundraiser this Sat at eh Centro–he’s fighting for all of us.
We could have used that demo and speakers at the convention center……..to put all the arguments in perspective, in a human framework. Damn good article by Miller.
We are better for it.

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avatar rick trujillo February 13, 2012 at 11:00 am

Sorry, wrong last name, it’s Raul Carranza, he’s online. Apologies Raul.

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avatar Shane Finneran February 13, 2012 at 1:09 pm

Wow, what a terrific article. I was hoping for a real-world report from inside the Democratic convention, and this is it.

The convention-goers’ varied reactions to the anti-NDAA platform and the millionaire’s-tax platform says it all: the Democratic Party ain’t what most Democrats think it is.

Did you know the local chapter had its 2011 holiday party at the La Jolla mansion of a convicted Wall Street felon millionaire? You couldn’t make this stuff up…

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avatar Frank Gormlie February 13, 2012 at 2:11 pm

Hmmm, does the name start with an “L”?

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avatar Anna Daniels February 13, 2012 at 1:17 pm

yup- Jim was right in one of his earlier articles. Voters will be asked to choose between shitty and awful. Given that choice, many of us have an “enthusiasm gap.” But elections do have consequences…and we need to think hard and strategically about what we as progressives can accomplish prior to election night.

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avatar StevenAttewell February 13, 2012 at 4:50 pm

In terms of protesting the wrong party, here’s the California Democratic platform:

“the California Democratic Party will…Restore our fundamental civil liberties by reversing the evisceration of the Magna Carta, which created the right of habeas corpus in 1215 AD; oppose the assassination of US citizens and any policies that grant to a government the unrestrained power to arrest, detain, transfer, U.S citizens without charge or trial.”

So on NDAA, Occupy SD were protesting people who agreed with them but I think there could have been a lot more cooperation if there hadn’t been signs saying “Democrats = Republicans” – it just put the delegates’ backs up.

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avatar Shane Finneran February 14, 2012 at 7:48 am

You’re getting at the problem. The platform always sounds good enough. But actions suggest the platform is lip service.

Because both of California’s Democrat senators voted YES on NDAA. Nancy Pelosi voted YES on NDAA. My local Democrat house rep Susan Davis voted YES on NDAA. And “most Democrat senators and half of the House Dems voted for the Bill-of-Rights-gutting National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, that was then signed by another Democrat – the one in the White House.”

Am I missing something? Does the state Democratic platform not apply to the state’s top Democrats?

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avatar StevenAttewell February 14, 2012 at 10:58 am

This was the 2012 platform, adopted on 2/12. In other words, some top Democrats did stuff the party really doesn’t agree with, and we put them on notice and their allegiance to the platform will be taken into account in party primaries.

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avatar Frank Gormlie February 14, 2012 at 3:09 pm

Not really; individual politicians believe they are beholden to their voting constituents.

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avatar Shane Finneran February 15, 2012 at 7:12 am

Steven, I admire your patience and your faith. I hope we don’t meet in a gulag soon after the Greece-style rioting starts here at home.

Frank, are politicians more beholden to their voters or their donors? To me, the way they govern provides a clear answer. As does the re-election rate for incumbent Congresspeeps, which is higher than 95%. Despite the fact that their approval rating is usually much, much lower.

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avatar Thomas Brown February 13, 2012 at 5:55 pm

Jim,

I like your comments about Occupy:
“If it is going to survive, here and nationally, the focus has to move beyond tactics and factional squabbling and get back to being about economic inequality and the corporate corruption of democracy. Purity tests and disdain for all reformist politics will shrink rather than grow the movement.”

However, the words “reformist politics’ are subject to interpretation. If you mean advocating for specific legislative or policy reforms (eg: clean money, a 28th amendment or repealing parts of the NDAA) I totally agree. However, if you mean that Occupy should start taking partisan stands in favor of one political party over another, I beg to differ. As you say, Occupy should remain inclusive in its approach and avoid the trap of factionalism. I hope you agree with that interpretation of “reformist politics.”

I was able to engage some of the OSD activists on Saturday. While I love what they are doing, I complained that some of their messaging in front of the Convention Center had lost the “big picture” of economic justice for the 99% and instead sounded like an all-out attack on the Democratic party itself. If Occupy starts to loose it’s broad 99% appeal by attacking Democratic party delegates merely because of that label, it will be undermining its greatest strength.

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