A coalition for the common good

Sam Smith

Washington will soon have the most xenophobic Congress since the days of segregation. The old southerners mainly hated black people, while the new crowd can’t stand anyone who doesn’t look, act and believe like themselves.

Their voting ID restrictions not only echo the southern poll tax but sometimes are twice as costly. And while their prejudice is not publicly avowed it is easily apparent in the statistics from their prisons, from schools and from the mistreatment of the homeless.

And who is there to challenge them?  The weakest and most purposeless Democratic Party in nearly a century. This is not a new development. Go back 26 years and you’ll find conservative Democrats beginning a series of nearly 100 meetings held at the home of Pam Harriman to plot strategy for the takeover of the Democratic Party. Donors coughed up $1,000 to attend and Harriman eventually raised $12 million for her kind of Democrat. The right-wing Dems would eventually settle on Bill Clinton as their presidential choice. That same crowd would later bring Barack Obama to the fore.

Anyone who has looked carefully at Clinton’s or Obama’s record would see what has been going on. Clinton’s assault on social welfare, the repeal of bank regulations, the dismantling of public housing all occurred right before the eyes of a liberal constituency that never blinked. Obama’s refusal to challenge intelligence agency attacks on the Constitution and the creation of a healthcare bill that grossly favors insurance corporations would follow suit.

Flawed as Jimmy Carter may have been, he was our last real Democratic president.

And now, as Scott McLarty puts it, “Republicans are the party of bad ideas. Democrats are the party of no ideas. Gullible people can be inspired by bad ideas. No one is inspired by no ideas.”

The risks in this are enormous, as Germany learned many years ago. About the pre-Hitler era I once wrote that there was:

– A collapse of conventional liberal and conservative politics that bears uncomfortable similarities to what we are now experiencing.

– The gross mismanagement of the economy and of such key worker concerns as wages, inflation, pensions, layoffs, and rising property taxes. Many of the actions were taken in the name of efficiency, an improved economy and the “rationalization of production.” There were also bankruptcies, negative trade balance, major decline in national production, large national debt rise compensated for by foreign investment. In other words, a hyped version of what America and its workers are experiencing today.

– The use of negative campaigning, a contribution to modern politics by Joseph Goebbels. The Nazi campaigns argued what was wrong with their opponents and ignored stating their own policies.

– The Nazis as the inventors of modern political propaganda. Every modern American political campaign and the types of arguments used to support them owes much to the ideas of the Nazis.

– The suddenness of the Nazi rise. The party went from less than 3% of the vote to being the largest party in the country in four years.

– The collapse of the country’s self image. Thomas Childers points out that Germany had been a world leader in education, industry, science, and literacy. Much of the madness that we see today stems from attempts to compensate for our battered self-image.

In trying to figure a sane manner in which to prevent something similar happening to America it helps to remember that this is not a fight about individuals. It is about the battlefield on which we and they struggle. We can’t change the Democratic Party or Hillary Clinton in two years, but we can change how they behave by changing the reality around them.  

Unfortunately, over the past few decades, worthy activism has too often been atomized. One choses to attend to the environment, abortion or gay rights, for example, and unconsciously in the process ignores the need for all these causes to  find common ground.

The agendas that many liberals have chosen has been either too specific and/or too controversial inspire any broadbased coalitions, which is why you find Colorado quite hip on marijuana and still sending Mark Udall to the cleaners.

Further, liberals have adopted a puritanical form of politics most vividly seen in their approach to gun regulation. Instead of seeking common ground with hunters on reasonable reforms, they instead launched a full scale attack that sent the message that the owners of some 270 million guns are evil souls. It is, for example, quite possible that in Maine, the Democrat lost the governorship in part because of the greater turnout of hunters over a referendum that would have banned bear baiting.  Given all the issues affecting decent people in that state, bear baiting was near the bottom.  And similarly, given all the other issues out there, why piss off a large number of San Francisco voters with a “sin tax” on soda?   Whatever happened to priorities?

Most dramatically, what liberal puritans – in sharp contract with New Deal and Great Society Democrats – have missed is that if you want to bring people together at the polls, you need to raise economic, health and widely shared social issues to the top of your list.  

When Frances Perkins was asked by FDR to be his labor secretary she gave him a list of four items that he would have to agree to work on before she would come aboard: a forty hour work week, a minimum wage, social security and a national healthcare plan.  Not in nearly half a century have we seen Democrats push for programs anywhere near as broadly helpful  to the whole American community.

So here is a modest proposal:

Create an organization called something like the Coalition for the Common Good. It would be formed by leaders of groups the Democrats hope or expect to be in their corner but in recent times have exerted little effective power in the party. These groups would include, among others, those representing blacks, latinos, labor, and women. This coalition would endorse no one, contribute to no campaigns, and not deal with issues specific to its member groups. It would instead organize and lobby for policies that benefit a major portion of the American public – just as so many New Deal and Great Society programs did and so few do today.

What might these programs include? A few possibilities:

·       Increased minimum wage

·       Restoring Glass Steigall Act

·       Ending credit care usury

·       A negative income tax.

·       Creating state public banks

·       Expanding worker cooperatives

·       Fairer elections including ranked choice voting and and to discriminatory practices like voter ID.

·       An end to corporate personhood

·       An elected Attorney General

·       Public campaign financing

·       Single payer health plan

·       A fairer approach to looming housing foreclosures such as co-ownership with the government.

·       Restorative justice and community courts

Note that all these (and these are just examples) have a general effect on the American community and are not designed to assist a specific subculture.

Is it practical? Well, for decades the Leadership Conference on Civil Right was one of the most important groups in the country. For much of that time it lacked bylaws and a constitution but what it had was an extraordinary community of organizations as members that shared its vision.  Here, for example, were some of its members that begin with the letter A:

AARP, African Methodist Episcopal Church, Alaska Federation of Natives, Alliance for Retired Americans, American Association of People with Disabilities, American Association of University Women, American Baptist Churches USA American Civil Liberties Union, American Federation of Government Employees, , American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, American Nurses Association, American Postal Workers Union, AFL-CIO, American Society for Public Administration, American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Americans for Democratic Action, Anti-Defamation League, Appleseed, Asian American Justice Center, Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, Associated Actors and Artistes of America, AFL-CIO, Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired, Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), Association of Junior Leagues International, The Association of University Centers on Disabilities

If all these groups could come together over civil rights, why couldn’t an even broader policy approach attract as many or more?

A more current example is that remarkable movement, Moral Mondays. From its guide:

The first Moral Monday was on April 29. Justice-loving people from across the state gathered at the capitol to express their concern about the announced political agenda of the new majority in the General Assembly and the Governor. The legislators’ and Governor’s extreme and immoral agenda was a declaration of war on the people of North Carolina – – women, minorities, children, and the elderly…

Moral Mondays have been successful. Moral Mondays have turned a moment of concern, fear, and uncertainty into the Forward Together, Not One Step Back Movement for change that has drawn tens of thousands of North Carolinians in this righteous struggle to voice their dissatisfaction with the actions of the legislators who, have cut unemployment benefits for 170,000 people without work, deprived a half a million people of health care, decimated public schools, endangered the environment, and threatened voting rights.

Nation Magazine reported on Moral Mondays and its effects:

The movement’s most important accomplishment has been to build a multi-issue, multiracial, statewide progressive coalition, one that North Carolina—or the South, for that matter—has never seen. “In a Southern state, an African-American is leading a multiracial movement that I believe represents the majority of the people of the state,” says Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, a national civil rights group that is advising the North Carolina NAACP. “It’s a huge breakthrough in terms of racial barriers in the South.” 

… Western North Carolina, which is heavily white, is the home of five new NAACP chapters—including places like Mitchell County, where no one ever dreamed of starting one before. “We saw the NAACP as the most organized and most aggressive group taking action against the Legislature,” said Joy Boothe, a local Moral Monday leader in the mountain town of Burnsville, who helped start the Yancey/Mitchell County NAACP. It now has 126 dues-paying members, nearly all of them white. In fact, the five new chapters are the first majority-white NAACP affiliates in the state.

How does a group like the Coalition for Common Ground decide what to do?

Ranked choice voting is one good way. The nice thing about this is that you end up with an agenda that people have really agreed on and you don’t have to worry, say, about Catholics not liking its take on abortion. You leave that fight for someplace else.

It can work. I saw it back in 1995 when a bunch of us Greens organized a conference of third party activists. This is from my report:

Over a hundred showed up, ranging from one of the founders of the American Labor Party to Greens, Libertarians,  Ross Perot backers, Democratic Socialists of America, and followers of Lenora Fulani. It was a recklessly dangerous idea for a Washington weekend, but John Rensenbrink, Linda Martin, and Tony Affigne seemed to know what they were doing and I was happy to go along. We established two basic rules:

– We would only discuss issues on which we might find some agreement.

– We would reach that agreement by consensus.

I was one of the kickoff speakers and said:

We must stake out a position with real programs for real people, with our enthusiasm on our sleeve and our ideology in our pocket, with small words and big hearts, and — most of all — with a clear vision of what a better future might look like. We must tackle what Chesterton called the “huge modern heresy of altering the human soul to fit its conditions, instead of altering human conditions to fit the human soul.”

This then is our task. Let’s embrace it not as sectarians or as prigs but as a happy fellow members of a new mainstream. Not as radicals permanently in exile but as moderates of an age that has not quite arrived. Let’s laugh and make new friends and be gentle with one another. Let’s remember Camus’ dictum that the only sin we are not permitted is despair.

`We broke the body into tables of ten or so, each dealing with a different topic. All policies that were proposed were written on newsprint posters. Then participants were given three color stickers with their names on them. Everyone then went up to the board and placed their stickers on their favorite issues (cumulative voting style, so that all three stickers could, if desired, be placed on one issue). After the vote, those with only their stickers on a particular issue were allowed to move them to their second choice (a la instant run-off voting) and so forth until a clear consensus of three issues emerged. This scheme not only produced a consensus, but one that was physical and visual as well as intellectual and fun to watch.

When the various groups produced their recommendations, they were turned over to what was known as a “fishbowl negotiation.” Each small group selected a representative to negotiate for it. The representatives sat in a circle with those they represented behind them. Anyone could stop their representative and request a small group conference but only the representative could speak in the larger assembly. It worked remarkably well.

Despite the wide range of views present, despite the near total absence of Robert’s Rules of Order, the final document, with full consensus, called for nothing less than a major transformation. The group unanimously agreed to support proportional representation, campaign finance reform “to provide a level playing field in elections;” initiative, referendum and recall; better ballot access; the end of corporate welfare; strong environmental policies; sexual and reproductive freedom; an end to the war on drugs and treatment of addiction as a health matter rather than as a crime; a dramatic cut in military expenditures; workplace democracy and the maximum empowerment of people in their communities “consistent with fairness, social responsibilities and human rights.”

Not bad for a meeting at which nobody yelled at anyone.

Which is one reason I think a Coalition for the Common Good is amongf the best things we might do t this moment – whether at a national, state or lcal level.

Let’s face it. Our conventional leaders in politics, business, media and academia have broadly failed us.  They care mostly about survival of themselves . It’s time now for the rest to come together and do it differently , to restore honest concern, decency, cooperation and imagination to our political lives.

It is time to join together and seek the common good.

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