“All politics is local”, said Tip O’Neill, an extremely successful Democrat. ‘Ignore local issues’ says the leadership of today’s stumbling Democratic Party.
Jerry Falwell learned from Tip O’Neill. His Immoral Minority gained power by encouraging its local members to gain electoral power over school boards and other local agencies, and to use those to advance racism and other corporate interests. Implicit in that planning was that motivating local conservatives would drive a wave of conservative voting and political “farm teaming” that would affect national politics.
Both O’Neill and Falwell understood the importance of motivating and activating local people to get involved and participate in electoral politics. As we have seen in countless screaming school board and other local agency meetings, Republicans still understand this concept, using fake issues like Critical Race Theory (CRT) to whip up local people’s frenzy. And we see Democratic leadership insisting that endless fundraising mailings is an adequate substitute.
As the Democratic Party machine absorbs and co-opts candidates like Campa-Najjar and once-grassroots groups like Swing Left, responsibility falls back to the people.
Bill Clinton built an entire presidential campaign on a simple slogan: “It’s the economy, stupid.” It focused attention on a campaign issue that his opponent wanted to evade. It was simple and memorable. It fit both national and local political needs, from defense budgets to school budget cuts.
Now, with their lockstep conformity to corporate instructions, Republicans have handed potential opponents a new slogan that may have as much power, and even more issues to which it applies. “I voted against...” (Insert “it” or “that” or “this” or something more specific.) Two examples may suffice.
Imagine any infrastructure project getting underway from the new Biden/Harris bill. See the construction trucks and equipment, the men laying new broadband line in rural areas and digging and installing new water lines. Now imagine local folk putting up signs near the project pointing out that their local Republican congressman voted against infrastructure repair, against road repair, against rural internet.
Or imagine next spring, after the winter Covid-45 wave, as children’s vaccination has spread, and a school year of effective masking, and the pediatric Covid infection rate is plummeting. Imagine local people responding to school board campaigns by pointing out which candidates voted against science, against vaccination, against children’s health. Or voted against honest teaching of our history, of how we admitted, and confronted, and started to overcome problems from civil rights to sexism to criminal injustice reform.
The Democratic Party no longer has the vision to speak to the interests of local people. But the local people, we the people, have the ability and the duty, IF we want to save our nation from the corporate oligarchs who want to replace democracy with autocracy.
“.... voted against ...” is simple and can be translated into any language. Like Dolores Huerta’s “Si, se pueda.” the phrase is instructive and encouraging. Dolores Huerta’s 1972 inspiration became 2008's “Yes we can,” reminding us that we could elect a Black President, even in a deeply racist nation.
But caution is needed. “Voted against...” is not the same as “opposed” or “didn’t support.” Opposed and didn’t support are generic and amorphous. We elect people to vote on policy issues. Their speeches may oppose or support. But their votes make the difference.
I drive up to Sacramento and back, through the Central Valley on route 99. I see signs for Indian farms, Sikh trucking companies and Pakistani stores. I see signs demanding more water-welfare programs for corporate farms. But I haven’t seen signs in the languages of the farm, trucking company or store owners soliciting their opinions and their votes.
Many may not be citizens. But their children are, and their children’s friends and their parents. While corporate farms are collecting water welfare, the corporate owners are putting up signs and radio ads condemning the Obama, and now the Biden administration for providing the water welfare infrastructure that guarantees their profits - but they never admit that part.
Few are talking to the non-white workers and English-as-a-second-language speakers about their tax dollars pouring into the pockets of bosses who short them on their pay and use the constant threat of “la migra” to keep them cowed. So it is left to the people themselves. If we want progressive politics, we have to speak to our mainstream neighbors, listen to their concerns and help them understand why progressivism will lead to better lives for their families.
And we need to brush off Party candidates who want to hold office, but do not want to deal with the working class: hoi poloi. Men like Ammar Campa-Najjar, who’s Arab-Latino heritage cries out to champion Democratic voters, but who prefers to flood us with emails begging for money for campaigns in other states, while abandoning progressive proposals that he once championed, but are now too “radical” for Democratic Party leaders - proposals like Medicare for All and Green Energy and climate change action.
As the Democratic Party machine absorbs and co-opts candidates like Campa-Najjar and once-grassroots groups like Swing Left, responsibility falls back to the people. It falls to concerned voters in individual neighborhoods to remind themselves and their neighbors when a Republican touts the benefits of the Infrastructure bill, or the success of school safety protocols, that they actually “voted against” the very things for which they now claim credit.
The Democratic Party machine isn’t going to do this work. Neither is the pseudo-progressive “far left,” the SDS descendants who say that only violent revolution, only “wiping the slate clean” to start over again will solve problems. All that will do, all it ever does, is get workers and their families killed or brutalized.
Joe Biden keeps reminding people of the transformative work of FDR, and says he wants to follow in those footsteps. But he isn’t doing that because he can’t. He hasn’t the mindset to achieve great change. He’d rather play footsie with Republicans like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.
But FDR didn’t do the New Deal on his own. He had workers sitting in at auto factories and other sites. He had people marching in the streets. And most of all, he had voters turning out for him and for policies to benefit all the people, not just the Wall Street elite. The Democratic Party has lost and is losing those same voters because it has chosen not to keep providing them with protection from oppression, from financial exploitation.
The future of the Democratic Party might be seen in the plight of unions. The workers are still there, but the unions sought only short term pay packages. They spurned the opportunities to educate their workers, and they tried to deny the evolving needs of an industrial age.
Some people are trying to rebuild unions, trying to make them benefit their members. The recent IATSE strike threat led to producers finally taking workers’ plights and complaints seriously. But that only happened because the workers demanded it. The Democratic Party could also be transformed IF their base demanded better. Poll after poll shows huge majorities of people wanting the policies that Democratic Party leadership fails to sell in the hustings.
No one is going to change the Joe Manchins or Kyrsten Sinemas, or even the Pelosis and Campa-Najjars. But we can do what Jerry Falwell’s Immoral Minority did - we can take back school boards and reform our local schools, so that our children are being educated instead of warehoused. We can build for the future, so to be ready as the aging alt-white racists increasingly die off, to replace them and undo the damage they are doing.
It doesn’t much matter what party label the work is done under. The Democrats have a well-established apparatus. It would be great to take it over and use it as the old guard passes into ignominy. Using it would save vast time and expense that would be needed to build something entirely new. But whatever label is used, the work is required, as Republican Abraham Lincoln said, “of the people, by the people, for the people.”
Republicans, owned and controlled by oligarchical corporate interests, are never going to be “for the people.” The question facing us now is whether the people are willing to be “for the people.”