Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas from Better Than Machines

Three Christmasy tidbits:

1. Here's an early Christmas present for you: Al Franken has pretty much won the Minnesota Senate race against Norm Coleman. On Christmas Eve, the state's Supreme Court unanimously rejected Coleman's last-ditch legal attempt to prevent the state from certifying the election recount results, which show Franken winning by 47 votes. Now Coleman's really-last-ditch option is a lawsuit contesting Franken's victory.

2. In case you didn't know, NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) is tracking Santa's flight. Check it out here

3. Here are the Christmas songs in my head right now. Whether you believe them or not, they are powerful words.
O holy night, the stars are brightly shining;
It is the night of the dear Savior's birth!
Long lay the world in sin and error pining, 
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary soul rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Christ by highest heav'n adored 
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a Virgin's womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! the herals angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"

Hail the heav'n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Ris'n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The War on Christmas

As millions of Americans gather with family and friends this week to celebrate the birth of Jesus and the mystery of the Incarnation, political conservatives hope you'll remember one important message:

Liberals are waging a War on Christmas!

Obviously, if your political and economic fortunes depend on preventing working folks from acting to better their own lives, you need to come up with plenty of things to keep them distracted. You can make elections about sex 'n guns; you can set poor whites against poor blacks and vice versa; and you can invent foreign threats from almost random Third World countries. But I guess every now and then you have to throw out some totally bizarre, freak-show fantasies--you know, just to mix things up.

Our friends at Fox News have been talking up a "War on Christmas," as part of a larger assault against Christianity itself, 
since at least 2004. Bill O'Reilly boldly casts himself as champion of the people, fighting to save the holiday against "the far left," "the loony left," "the Kool-Aid secular progressive ACLU America-haters." In 2004, O'Reilly began a recurring segment on his show called "Christmas Under Siege." In 2005, one of the other Fox crazies, John Gibson, published a book called, The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought.

The evidence offered that "liberals" are waging war against our favorite holiday usually falls into one of two categories: 1) Employees at retail stores saying "Happy holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas," or 2) A small town somewhere deciding not to allow a religious display at a public building. That's the "war." 

I guess by now we are used to the manufactured, never-ending culture war, where big-money talking heads on TV dress up as everymen to take on a mostly mythical "liberal elite." Sometimes we should just laugh it off. But if we are really interested in "defending" Christianity against concerted attacks, let's focus on real stories of religious persecution instead of made-up ones. Let's change our dog-eat-dog culture, where we mask plain old greed as "success." Let's love our neighbors as ourselves, even when that involves resources and money. It's radical, but so is following Christ. 

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Pay-to-Play Politics: It's Not Just Republicans

Two quick examples from recent news about how our political system encourages money-for-power, power-for-money exchanges. Both involve Democrats.

First, we have Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich allegedly trying to sell Barack Obama's vacant Senate seat. The only thing surprising about this story is how completely unsubtle Blago appears to have been about the whole thing and how utterly red-handed he appears. Normally these kinds of scandals are harder for the public to follow, but this story broke big and broke fast.

Another observation: People initially bandied about Jesse Jackson Jr.'s name as one of the alleged "bidders" for the seat, mentioned in the Justice Department's affidavit. (Everybody knows he is interested in the seat.) People absolutely love to smear Jesse's father, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr. After all, whenever a well-known civil rights leader connects racism, extreme economic inequality, and war as three parts of the same evil, there are just too many powerful people who have an interest in silencing or discrediting him.

Well, it now looks like Jesse Jr. is the good guy in this story. He is apparently the one who first tipped off the Justice Department to the whole Blagojevich Corruption Machine.

Second, Caroline Kennedy appears to be the front-runner to be appointed to fill Hillary Clinton's vacant Senate seat in New York. I have nothing against Caroline. But the only reason there is even a possibility she will be the next senator from New York is that her last name is Kennedy and she is wealthy and famous. According to this AP story, Kennedy "told New York's governor on Monday that she's interested in the U.S. Senate seat." In other words, she just called up the governor and talked to him and that's why she is now the front-runner. Wow, why didn't any of the millions of other Democrats in New York think of that? Just call the governor, duh.

Both of these stories arise from an obvious flaw in the system: governors can appoint people to fill vacant Senate seats. I have not heard any major discussion of this as a systemic problem. Instead, Blajojevich is treated as just a bad apple. The best we can come up with is that he should be removed from office and charged with a crime. No real changes necessary. In Kennedy's case, we call it another example of shallow, personality-based politics and America's dynastic tendencies (which it is). But no one calls for any lasting change to fix anything.

How about this: A new constitutional amendment saying that governors can no longer fill vacant senate seats. Instead, a special election is held 120 days after the seat's vacancy.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Bush Shopping for Stocking Stuffers

"Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat.
The President does favors for the big fat cats."
Well, Christmas is fast approaching (and so is the Obama Administration), so President Bush is out looking for some last-minute goodies for his BFFs. A little perusal of the tubes shows ten things on his shopping list: 
  1. Making it easier for coal companies to dump rock and dirt from "mountaintop removal" mining into nearby streams and valleys.
  2. Letting federal agencies and industry bypass consultation with scientists before building roads or dams in areas with endangered species.
  3. Barring federal agencies from stopping a construction project because its emissions might contribute to global warming.
  4. Peeling away federal safety limits on how many consecutive hours truckers can drive.
  5. Making it easier for employers to deny employees family medical leave
  6. Opening up nearly 2 million acres in the mountains of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming for the mining of oil shale and reducing the royalties the oil companies pay for the mining. 
  7. Letting factory farms police themselves regarding wastewater runoff standards and air pollution from animal waste.
  8. Making it harder for the government to regulate toxic substances and hazardous chemicals to which workers are exposed on the job.
  9. Making the commercial fishing industry largely responsible for assessing the environmental impact of federal ocean management decisions.
  10. Easing safeguards against lead-poisoning from industrial pollutants. 
Impressive list. I was thinking about asking for uranium mining in the neighborhood park. Or arsenic in my tap water.

So what do you want for Christmas?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Auto Crisis and Senate Republicans

Talks on the auto industry bailout, which died in the Senate on Friday, will continue this week. Senate Republicans killed the $14 billion bailout bill mostly because they want the UAW to accept harsher wage and benefit cuts than the ones the autoworkers have already offered. (They also said the original bill contained "unacceptable" environmental regulations, which raises the obvious question: Are there any environmental regulations that are acceptable to Senate Republicans?)

The fact that Republican senators made their beef with the UAW the foundation of their opposition to the auto bailout bill illustrates two important facts about them.

First, Senate Republicans have both short-term and long-term interests in tarnishing the public's perception of organized labor. They know that the Employee Free Choice Act is on Democrats' agenda for 2009, when a progressive Democrat will occupy the White House and worker-friendly Democratic majorities in Congress will be bigger and stronger. Both sides, Democrats/Labor and Republicans/Management, talk as though passage of the EFCA--which would make it easier for workers to create unions and would put some teeth into existing labor law--would significantly alter the political landscape for a long time to come. And both sides are pouring tons of resources into the fight. 

Democrats/Labor recently got a lot of positive attention when laid-off union workers refused to leave their Chicago factory until they were payed the money the company owed them. Combine the public's positive attitude toward unions with some actual success stories about workplace activism and you start building momentum that Republicans/Management can not allow to continue. It would be tremendously helpful for Republicans if they could generate some negative press about unions before the coming EFCA debate. 

In a smoke-filled room somewhere in DC, you can bet a scene like this probably played out recently: 
"Hmm, any ideas boys?" 
"Hey! We could make a big push to blame the auto industry's problems on the UAW! That let's us use the bailout bill's 'industry restructuring' to crush the union and sets us up nicely for the EFCA next year."
"Good idea. How 'bout another glass of Cristal?"
Second, the financial conservatives who wear the pants in the Republican Party are philosophically bothered by the very existence of solid, middle-class, blue-collar jobs. I have no way to quantify this. It's just the impression I get from everything they say and do. I believe it seems unnatural to them that folks who aren't "from money," who didn't go to their elite schools, who don't live in their gated communities are able to stand with both feet firmly on the ground and speak out about the direction of this country. I mean, the gall!

Congressional Republicans and their financial-conservative clients would prefer that jobs like those of the unionized autoworkers did not exist. They know that they can't just make the middle class and poor disappear--who would do all the work? So, instead they try to Wal-Martize our economy and hand us all McJobs. And that's the direction nearly all of their proposals are aiming for.

Remember this?

Everyone laughed because they knew exactly what he meant and knew that it was true. Today's national Republicans, especially the senators, are primarily emissaries of the investor class. They operate mostly from the narrow, conservative perspective of great wealth and privilege, their interests primarily about protecting and expanding large fortunes. You can see how the UAW might seem to them like a threat and how they might wish it would just go away.

These are just a few things to keep in mind about where the other side (the haves and have-mores, the elite, Bush's base) is coming from in the auto bailout talks and why they've chosen to make the UAW a boogeyman. 

More to follow on some of the specific proposals that are--or should be--on the table. 

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Workers Vote to End Plant Occupation

The UE workers voted unanimously last night to accept a negotiated settlement to end the occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors plant.

The settlement includes:
  • Two months of pay the workers are owed (for not receiving the mandated-by-law two months notice of the plant closing)
  • Two months of continued health coverage
  • Pay for accrued, unused vacation time
The money comes on loan from Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase & Co. According to the union's website, the money is a loan to Republic Windows and Doors, but it will go into a third-party fund whose sole purpose is to pay the workers the money they are owed. 

It sounds to me like the settlement simply makes the company follow the laws that already exist. Even that has become a novel, radical idea after the past eight years.

According to the AP, workers walked out of the plant chanting, "YES WE CAN," a slogan of the Obama campaign.

Elections have consequences. They're not just about who gets into office. They're about the ideas they generate, the networks they organize, and the activism they inspire. Barack Obama's campaign went to great lengths to empower grassroots activists to take "ownership" of the campaign. He reintroduced a language of empowerment to people. He introduced a new idealism. He helped usher it in, and he rode it into office, but he doesn't own it. It's bigger than him.

I think we are seeing just the beginning of a renewal of our democracy, a new era of protest and activism that will echo the '30s and '60s.

My Election Day Story

What were you doing on Election Day? Were you glued to CNN? Checking and re-checking websites? Out pounding the pavement? Pounding your head against the pavement? We want to hear it. 

Email your Election Day story to and I will post the stories here between now and Inauguration Day. 

Here's what I was doing in Woodbridge, VA:

    On election day, I canvassed door-to-door for the Obama campaign in Woodbridge, Virginia, where I had an encounter I will never forget.

    First, this was a frenzied, exciting get-out-the-vote effort. We had our walk lists, perfected over the long campaign, of likely supporters. We were to knock on each door and ask if the people on our list had voted yet. If so, we crossed them off the list. If not, we showed them their polling location information and offered them a ride. If they weren't home, we would leave the precinct information at their door, and they would be visited later by another volunteer. This way, a single house might be visited three or four times before the poll closed, and anyone who was home had to work hard to resist voting.

    Now it was late afternoon and chilly. It was lightly raining, as it had been for most of the day. I had just moved from canvassing giant houses in a neighborhood of rolling hills and maples to a neighborhood of small houses on straight streets. Because polls closed in just a few hours, I was running, instead of walking, between my car and the houses on my list, trying to keep my fliers dry, and trying not to drop anything.

    I saw that the next house on my list was across the street. Walking up the short driveway, I noticed the Confederate battle flag hanging in a window by the front door, and I stopped to make sure I had the right house. Could this really be a “likely supporter?” Yes, I was in the right place. The person on my list was a 70-something year old woman, named Shirley. I knocked four times on the door and stood waiting in the rain. My normal routine was to knock, wait until I felt like fidgeting, then count slowly to ten in my head before quickly hanging the flier on the knob and hurrying on to the next house. I never wanted to startle someone who might open the door while I was messing with their doorknob.

    Eight...nine...ten. I placed the precinct information on the door and jogged back to the street. Climbing in my car to pull down to the next block, I glanced back up at the house. I noticed the door was now partially open. Had I accidentally pushed it open while hanging the flier? I started back through the yard, toward the door. I saw that it was open by about a foot, and now I could see a face in the darkness inside. In the twilight and rain I could not make out the sex or the age of the person inside.  

    “Hello! How are you?” I called from the yard. There was no response.

    “I'm a volunteer with the Barack Obama campaign,” I explained, now about 15 feet from the door.

    There was still no sound and no movement from inside the doorway. And now for the first time in all my volunteering with the campaign, a slight fear crept over me. What am I doing returning to a house that is boldly displaying a Confederate battle flag, while wearing a shirt that boldly displays “Obama '08?”

    In a flash, I imagined a newspaper story, “Obama Volunteer Shot in Virginia,” somewhere deep inside tomorrow's Washington Post.

    With a weird mix of resignation to fate and hope of winning another vote for change, I stepped up to the porch.  The door pulled open, revealing a frail, elderly woman standing there in her housecoat and socks. Relieved, I launched into my normal script.  

    “Hello, ma'am. I'm a volunteer with the Barack Obama campaign, and I'm just going around making sure everyone who wants to is voting today. Have you had a chance to vote yet?”

    “No, I haven't,” she said quietly. Her wide eyes were looking past me, over my right shoulder, fixed somewhere out in the yard.  

    “OK, well, do you know where you are supposed to vote?” I asked.

    She sighed and leaned on the door. “Yeah, just right down here at the elementary school.” 
    “Great. Well polls close at 7 pm. Do you need a ride to the precinct?” I asked.

    “Well, I would, but I don't know if I can make it. See, I'm very ill. I have cancer, and I can't get around very well.  I get out of breath just walking from room to room.”

    She seemed out of breath already, and I felt uneasy disturbing her.

    “I understand,” I started.

    “But I do want to vote,” she interrupted. “I've never voted before, not once, if you believe that. And I do want to vote this time. I want to vote because I don't think I'll be alive to vote in another election.”

    It was one of those moments where reality, sharp and poignant, grabs you by the throat.  

    “I certainly hope that's not true,” I offered.

    “Well, it probably is,” she said, very matter of fact.


    She had lots of questions. She wanted to know about absentee voting. I explained how absentee voting worked but that it was too late to do it in this election. She said her son, who lived with her but wasn't home, had “gotten into some trouble” in the past and had his voting rights taken away. She wanted to know how he could vote in the future. I told her I didn't know the specific laws in Virginia, but in most states you can have your voting rights restored. Finally, she asked about the walking and the standing in line that would be involved.

    “I understand that it's difficult to get around,” I said, “but if this something that you want to do, we can absolutely make it happen. I can make a phone call and a ride can be here for you shortly. We can help you along, if you like. And I'm sure at the school they can make an exception about waiting in line.”

    “Also, I wouldn't be able to read the ballot. I'm legally blind. Someone would have to read it for me,” she said.

    “I don't think that will be a problem. I don't know the specifics, but I do know that they have accommodations for people with disabilities. Getting in and out of the precinct and reading the ballot, I don't think either of those is going to be a problem.”  

    I told her I could call someone with the campaign who would have more information about accommodations for people with disabilities, someone whom she could speak with directly. As I pulled out my phone, Shirley told me to step inside out of the rain. The house was dark and cramped, and you could tell Shirley was pretty much confined to her couch. I dialed the Woodbridge campaign field office, and a woman name Stacy answered on the first ring.

    “Hello, Stacy. My name is David. I'm out canvassing today, and I'm with a woman named Shirley who is interested in voting today. She has some problems walking and is legally blind, so she has some questions about getting to the precinct and reading the ballot.”  

    Stacy was like the cavalry coming to the rescue. “OK. Tell Shirley I can come pick her up. I have a handicap decal in my car and a service dog, so we should be all set.”

    I put Shirley on the phone, and she gave Stacy her address. Stacy said she could come right away, but Shirley asked for a half hour, so she could get properly dressed. I told Shirley I would be back in thirty minutes to make sure Stacy found the house and everything went as planned.


    I hurried through the rain to finish the last four or five houses on my walk list. No one was home at any of the remaining houses. I hoped that meant they were all at the elementary school voting. Returning to Shirley's house, I waited out front in my car for Stacy to show up.


    When Stacy arrived, right on time, we walked up to Shirley's door and knocked. We stood waiting for maybe 10 minutes. I figured Shirley might still be getting dressed and that it would take her a while to walk to the door. Stacy and I made small talk about the campaign and about Virginia.  

    Shirley finally opened the door and stood fully dressed, in a fleece jacket, but without shoes. She said she couldn't find them. We offered to help her look, but Shirley said she would prefer to just go vote in her socks. Again, it was cold and wet. I went and rustled through my car to see if any of my wife's shoes were laying on the floorboard. No luck. We decided to drive to the nearby K-Mart and pick up some cheap shoes for her to wear to the precinct.


    After helping Shirley down the steps and into the passenger seat of Stacy's car, I followed them on the short drive to K-Mart. Stacy ran in to get the shoes, and I knelt in the parking lot, talking to Shirley through her open car door.  

    She told me that before moving to Woodbridge she lived in Arlington for 50 years. She described how much the area had changed, how the farms and open areas had been pushed farther and farther out from town. Shirley said that once, several years ago, she rode with a friend into downtown Arlington, where Shirley wanted to find a particular intersection that she remembered. They drove around for nearly an hour and never found it.

    Night was falling. A flock of seagulls flew over the parking lot, making a lot of noise. Shirley looked up through the open car door into the darkening gray sky. She said, “Wow, there's a bunch of 'em. You think they're on their way to vote?”

    We talked about the campaign, about what each candidate was offering. I told her that I was excited about all of the new people engaged in politics because of Senator Obama's candidacy.  

    She had more questions about what would happen at the precinct and how she would read the ballot. I didn't know all the answers, but I told her we would figure it out and the poll workers would help us.

    I said, “They can't turn you away. If you show up, you get to vote. That's your right.”

    “Now, if I don't pick the same one as you, is that a problem?” she asked.

    I paused. “No, not at all. That's democracy.”

    “I don't know nothin' about democracy,” she said, with a chuckle.

    “Well, it just means that we each make our own choice. Nobody decides for us.”  


    We talked again about the campaign. I told her that I thought nearly everybody in the country agreed that the Bush Administration was a disaster. Shirley nodded her head.  I said that President Bush's failures didn't result just from incompetence, not just from mistakes.  His failures were the result of a tired old philosophy, a mixed up view of the world. I told her I thought the government's priorities no longer reflected the people's priorities and that Senator Obama's candidacy gave us all a chance to change course, to reclaim our government.

    She nodded and said, “We do need a drastic change.”

    Stacy returned and helped the new plain, white tennis shoes onto Shirley's feet. We started driving toward the precinct. It was dark now, and the rain was still falling.  


    Following the tail lights of Stacy's car through the neighborhood streets, I realized I had no idea who Shirley was going to vote for. And I was comfortable with that. I felt like we were sharing in a victory just by helping Shirley vote for the first time in her life. All the old platitudes I had heard all my life about voting and empowerment were suddenly powerful and personal. Shirley was overcoming real obstacles to vote. She was leaving her house, with people she did not know, on a physically exhausting trip to a place where she thought she might be confused and intimidated. And she was willing to do it with no shoes on her feet, in the cold and wet.


    There was one final obstacle. As we passed Shirley's house on the way to the precinct, I watched Stacy's car pull to a stop. I pulled up behind her, wondering what was going on. Shirley said she had left her purse, with her identification, in the house. We helped her up through the yard, to the door, only to discover that it was locked and the key was inside. The knob had locked behind Shirley when we left for K-Mart. Even if we had gone to the polls right then without her ID, she would still be locked out of her house when she got home. So we stood in the misting rain, thinking of our options. Were there any doors or windows unlocked? No. Was there anyone we could call who would have a key? No. She said her son wouldn't be home until very late, and she didn't know how to get a hold of him.

    Stacy said, “I could probably pick this lock with a credit card.”

    I pulled out my wallet and handed her my United Airlines frequent flyer card. The short training they gave us before canvassing did not include picking locks, but nothing was going to stop us at this point.  

    Stacy had no luck with the front door, but the back door opened on her first attempt.

    “Wow. And I thought Republicans were the break-in experts,” I said.  

    Shirley found her purse. We also found a wheelchair that Shirley hadn't known was there, folded up against a wall.  I loaded it into the trunk of Stacy's car. After one more trek down the slippery porch steps and across the soggy yard, we took off for the polls.


    The elementary school was less than a mile down the road. The parking lot was nearly full, and the line stretched out the door and down the sidewalk. I helped Shirley into the wheelchair and put an umbrella in her hand. I knew I couldn't follow them inside the precinct, because I was wearing an Obama shirt and that would violate Virginia law. After making sure they would be okay getting Shirley back home, I said goodbye to both Shirley and Stacy on the sidewalk. I thanked them both, and they both thanked me. I headed toward my car, to drive home and watch election results. They headed toward the school, to make democracy work. One more first-time voter from Woodbridge, Virginia.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Chicago Factory Sit-In

By now you have probably heard about the 200 or so laid-off workers occupying a door and window factory in Chicago, refusing to leave until they receive the severance and vacation pay they have earned.  

Here's a quick overview of what's gone down so far, followed by some of my brief observations.  

Timeline of the Occupation

Tuesday, Dec 2nd:  
  • Republic Windows and Doors tells its workers they will be laid off by the end of the week, giving just 3 days notice, violating the Illinois WARN Act. 
  • Republic says it will shut the plant and will not pay its workers the severance and accrued vacation pay because Bank of America has canceled its financing of the company.
Friday, Dec 5th:  
  • The factory closes, but the workers--members of Local 1110 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE)--won't leave.
  • “We aren't animals,” says Apolinar Cabrera, a 17-year employee of Republic. “We're human beings and we deserve to be treated like human beings.” 
  • The workers occupy the factory in 8-hour shifts, shoveling snow and cleaning the building.
Saturday, Dec 6th: 
  • Bank of America, which received $25 billion as part of a government bailout, issues a statement saying the bank is not responsible for Republic's financial obligations to its employees.
Sunday, Dec 7th
  • Bringing in the Big Guns.  President-elect Obama weighs in on the side of the workers, saying,
“The workers who are asking for the benefits and payments that they have earned, I think they're absolutely right and understand what's happening to them is reflective of what's happening across this economy.” 
  • High-profile supporters visit the workers, including Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill)
Monday, Dec 8th: 
  • Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich announces that the state “will suspend doing any business with Bank of America” until the company restores credit to the factory. 
  • Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill) rallies with workers.
  • Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill) helps arrange a meeting between the workers' union, the company, and the bank. Talks reach no resolution.
Tuesday, Dec 9th
  • In a victory for the workers, Bank of America reverses its position and agrees to extend limited loans to the factory so that the company can pay the workers the money it owes them. 
Wednesday, Dec 10th: 
  • The workers' occupation of the factory continues and so do talks between the union, the company, and the bank. More updates to follow.
Observations on the Occupation

1. This is a historic moment and it may take a while to realize just how historic it really is. Some accounts say a workplace sit-in like this one hasn't happened since the 1930s. Others say say it has been seldom seen since the 1930s. Others say it harkens back to the 1930s or that it is reminiscent of the 1930s. Any way you slice it, people are comparing this to the 1930s, when a failed economy gave rise to a grassroots labor activism that rose up and built most of what we love about our country today.

2. Democrats have been impressively supportive of the workers. From the Chicago area's US representatives, to the senior senator from Illinois, all the way to the president-elect. I'm proud to be a Democrat today.

3. Republicans' silence on the issue is deafening. Has anyone seen or heard any statement from a national-level Republicans about the sit-in? I've done a little searching and can find nothing. Zilch! Hmm, why might that be? 

4. Chamber of Commerce types and the Anti-Union Network must be pooping their pants right now. You might too, if you had spent the last couple of decades growing sinfully wealthy while squeezing working people to near breaking point, or if you had gotten used to having friends in the White House and Congress who help you bust unions and ignore laws. A new sheriff is coming to town, and suddenly labor militancy is cool again.

5. What great timing this all is for the push to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. The lords of wealth have already poured millions into smearing this bill. Well, two hundred unionists just got more attention than all the ads Big Money could buy. And that, friends, is how we say BOOYA!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Politics Ain't Geometry

Nope, politics ain't geometry. I mean two things by this:

1. Truth and justice do not lie, symmetrically, in the Center of what we are told is Left and Right.
2. You don't have to be an expert or a policy wonk to be "into" politics, because politics is fundamentally uncomplicated. (I'll explore this second point in a future post. For now, let's focus on the first point.)

I've met a lot of people who treat finding their political identity as simply an exercise in symmetry. From what I can tell, their thinking boils down to something like this:
"Well, we have Republicans on the right saying this and Democrats on the left saying that. They are probably both wrong by equal amounts in opposite directions. The truth must lie in the middle."
Symmetry is simple and beautiful and, therefore, enticing. Sadly it does not hep us understand politics.

Why Does Symmetry Make Bad Politics?

Because the "Center" is an artificial creation. We know that both of the major parties are disproportionately controlled by corporations and the wealthy. So, it's inevitable that both parties--in their philosophies and in their governance--tilt toward the special interests of corporations and the wealthy and away from the interests of workers, consumers, and the non-rich. In other words, both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party tend to skew toward the narrow interests of a small minority and away from the common interests of the vast majority of Americans.  

  • Democrats and Republicans are not "wrong, by equal amounts, in opposite directions." They are wrong, by different amounts, in the same direction. Both parties are too elitist, too corporatist--and so is the enticing Center that you will find between them.

Because it discourages dissent. Left-Right thinking falsely places both parties on opposite sides of the "mainstream." So, if you are left of the Democrats or right of the Republicans, you are by definition an extremist. Even if you stand squarely with one party, Left-Right thinking makes you believe that most Americans are further Right or further Left than you. You can see how, according to this reasoning, the most comfortable position is in the perfect Center--the Center which we have already said is inordinately defined by the specific interests of those with great amounts of money.

Because it ignores power. The analogy of politics as a spectrum from left to right (a horizontal scene) implies that we are all on the same level, that we are roughly equal in influence, and that we simply differ on our ideological preferences--the same way we might differ on other preferences, like choosing our favorite soda or musical artist. In fact, we are not on the same level. Those with great accumulations of wealth tower over the rest of us in our collective decision making. By simply placing corporate titans and money barons on "the Right," we ignore the tremendous power they wield and, therefore, submit to it.

Because it wrongly distributes your cynicism equally between the two parties. I've said that the two major parties are wrong, by different amounts, in the same direction. But it's important to know who's less wrong, who's more wrong, and why that's the case. Because the Democratic Party's coalition includes organized labor, environmental groups, civil rights organizations, and grassroots progressives, the party is--thankfully--more closely tethered than the Republican Party to the needs of ordinary Americans. In other words, the Democratic Party is the more democratic party. And because the Republican coalition is so thoroughly dominated by big business, the GOP sticks much closer than Democrats to the narrow, specific interests of wealth and power. In other words, the Republican Party is the more special-interest, extremist party.

A Better Spatial Analogy for Politics

Maybe we just love geometry. But if we are going to think spatially about politics, I'd like to propose some new shapes.

Instead of a horizontal spectrum, we need something more vertical that reflects the unequal political power caused by the vast differences in wealth among us. We also need something that demonstrates what we all intuitively know: that both parties are just off somehow. Finally, we need a new spatial analogy that shows that although both parties tilt toward the rich, the Democrats are closer than Republicans to the vast majority of Americans, the non-rich. 

Here is a better way to view our political landscape. (Bear with me. I drew this in OpenOffice.)

There's a lot to quibble over on this chart, and there are several caveats that I'll just skip for the sake of space.

But the chart above accurately demonstrates the following:
  • Both parties are disproportionately influenced by and representative of the wealthy,
  • The half-way point between the parties is still too rich-oriented,
  • Democrats are closer than Republicans to representing the needs of the vast majority of Americans,
  • Even the Democratic Party needs to be less wealth-powered and more people-powered, to represent a greater number of Americans.
According to the chart above, both parties need to be pulled "down," closer to the needs of the great bulk of the American population. We need to take bold steps to limit the undue political influence of corporations and the wealthy. And we need to take equally bold steps to empower those of us who do not own large companies or inherit large estates. We need to spread the power around.

In the short term, this means that we need "more and better Democrats." In the long run, it means that we need to pull the entire political debate down to the level of of the people.