Monday, October 05, 2015
What Sanders can accomplish by Not Acting
by Gaius Publius
UPDATE: With the news that TPP may now be ready for Congress, we're entering the first test phase for presidential candidates (on both sides, given Trump's disdain for American trade deals.) What will our candidates do to put their words into action? Note the TPP/trade bullet in my imagined progressive-candidate speech below.
This is the first of several pieces on what Bernie Sanders can accomplish if elected president. At the end I offer an example of a Sanders-like "What I will never do" speech. Scroll down or click the link to go directly to the speech.
I recently wrote about British politician Tony Benn's speech, a "ten-minute history of neoliberalism." Near the beginning Benn says, "This country and the world have been run by rich and powerful men from the beginning of time." If the "beginning of time" means the start of humanity's post-Stone Age history, that's a period more than 5,000 years long. A brief window opened in the mid-1800s, with the beginning of trade unionism and, in the U.S., the New Deal, when "rich and powerful men" were no longer as in charge as they have always been. That brief window, the blink of an eye compared to the rest of human history, is now closing.
Then we looked at a recent Noam Chomsky interview and noted as he does that the "economic system" being evolved in that closing window, what I've called "modern capitalism" — "capitalism" as practiced today — isn't capitalism at all, but merely theft, the adult equivalent of bullies taking lunch money, or the Roman ruling class enslaving most of Europe to work the land, which only the ruling class owns.
Nor is "modern capitalism" a market in any sense that matters. Is a monopoly on all essential products a market? Only in the most reduced sense; only in the sense that "0" is a number. Only in the sense that one person, living alone, is a family. Only in the sense that a man in a meadow talking to silent birds is a conversation.
In other words, that closing window brings us back to Tony Benn's original description, a world "run by rich and powerful men." Period. Those pieces are here and here, and they set up the following.
Can Sanders Reopen that Closing Window?
In his speech, Tony Benn said not to despair:
It's very important to keep optimism. ... Progress has always been made by two flames burning in the human heart. The flame of anger at injustice. And the flame of hope you can build a better world.
In his own piece, though, Noam Chomsky is less optimistic, at least when it comes to the "Bernie Sanders" electoral solution (my emphasis in italics):
[Q] Let’s imagine for example that Bernie Sanders won the 2016 presidential elections. What do you think would happen? Could he bring radical change in the structures of power of the capitalist system?
While I agree that a broad movement is needed and helpful, I disagree with Chomsky on these three points:
[Chomsky] Suppose that Sanders won, which is pretty unlikely in a system of bought elections. He would be alone: he doesn’t have congressional representatives, he doesn’t have governors, he doesn’t have support in the bureaucracy, he doesn’t have state legislators; and standing alone in this system, he couldn’t do very much. A real political alternative would be across the board, not just a figure in the White House.
It would have to be a broad political movement. In fact, the Sanders campaign I think is valuable — it’s opening up issues, it’s maybe pressing the mainstream Democrats a little bit in a progressive direction, and it is mobilizing a lot of popular forces, and the most positive outcome would be if they remain after the election.
It’s a serious mistake to just to be geared to the quadrennial electoral extravaganza and then go home. That’s not the way changes take place. The mobilization could lead to a continuing popular organization which could maybe have an effect in the long run.
Let's look at what Sanders could accomplish without Congress. I want to divide these accomplishments into two groups — "What I will never do" and "What I will absolutely do, starting day one." This piece is about the first list, some of the "actions" you will never see from a successful Bernie Sanders. I'll offer the second list, "I'll do this on day one" actions, another time.
- The electoral majority that puts Sanders in the White House, if it does, would represent a mobilizing of popular forces.
- If Sanders carries through (unlike Barack Obama in 2009) on the opportunity he would have, his election would represent much more than a "quadrennial electoral extravaganza." He could, in fact, lead the ongoing political revolution he says he wants.
- Bernie Sanders could accomplish an enormous amount without Congress. He wouldn't be acting alone; he'd have control of the whole of the Executive Branch — or most of it (more on that last later).
A "What I Will Never Do" Presidential Speech
Consider how much time and energy was drained from the progressive community in fighting against Barack Obama's wrong-headed neo-liberal initiatives. Think of the enormous effort to stop Fast Track (which failed). The long effort to stop the Keystone Pipeline (which may succeed, but with a huge expenditure of energy). The effort to constantly, year after year after year, block cuts to Social Security and Medicare (which have so far succeeded, but the fight is far from over).
And on and on, going all the way back to the beginning, 2009, when the progressive community (and progressives in Congress) got stiffed by the Affordable Care Act, first because it turned its back on a single-payer solution, and then by its lack of a public option, which our community fought and fought to retain (a fight that failed).
In fact, the progressive community has been in constant battle with "our" Executive Branch on what I've called Obama's four big "legacy" items, his want-list:
Obama has been very good on many things, including peace with Iran, but not on these. Thousands of capable progressives have used hundreds of thousands of uphill hours resisting Obama's constant attempts to roll neo-liberal boulders down the hill at them.
- Health care “reform” — a privatized alternative to Medicare expansion
- A “grand bargain” in which social insurance benefits are rolled back
- Plentiful oil & gas (burnable carbon), and passage of the Keystone Pipeline
- Passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement
What could be done if we could have those hours back, hours we could use in a different way, use on proactive goals, instead of constantly playing defense against "our" president? This is not a trivial problem. Under a real progressive president — a President Sanders who kept his word, for example — you would never have to fight those things. Would that please you? Would it feel like a gift to be handed that freed-up time? Would if feel like a Sanders accomplishment if he gave it to you?
Here's the first part of my imagined, Sanders-like "what I will accomplish" speech. It's entitled "What I Will Never Do." Keep in mind, this is me and my imagined progressive talking. But also keep in mind how relieved you would feel to hear these words from someone who meant them.
If you elect me president, here's what I will never do:
▪ You can count on me never to push a plan to cut Social Security and Medicare. Not one person outside of government will have to spend one minute trying to prevent me from privatizing — or cutting in any way — these vital programs. Not one minute. And if Congress proposes these cuts and it reaches my desk, you won't have to spend one minute asking me to veto that proposal. It's vetoed the minute it arrives.
▪ I will never negotiate a so-called "trade" deal that sends American jobs across our borders. No one will have to spend one minute asking me to stop a deal that hurts American workers. I will support only trade deals that increase American jobs, that create new workers in this country, that increase our balance of payments, and nothing less.
▪ No one will have to spend one minute stopping me from granting coal, oil and gas leases on lands or in waters controlled by the Department of the Interior. Not one minute. Drilling in the Arctic? You won't even have to ask. The answer is already No. New coal leases? Not one. Dangerous and deadly-to-the-climate offshore drilling leases? Those days are over.
Soon I will tell you what I will do to aggressively bring down carbon emissions. But if I don't start here, with what I won't do, how will you know I'm serious?
▪ You will never see me even contemplate extending tax breaks for the very rich, as we saw all too often in our recent past — for example, during the negotiations to extend the Bush tax cuts, or negotiations at the end of the last fiscal year. Any such deal that reaches my desk will go straight back to Congress for renegotiation.
If Congress wants a bill, they can give me one I can sign. If they want to shut down the government over tax breaks for the very very wealthy, they will shut it down, and I will explain it that way to the American people. If they want me to sign a bill, any bill, they need to understand — tax breaks for the rich can never be a part of it.
In other words, you'll never have to lobby me to not do what I said I would never do. You can spend your precious time, your precious energy, in other ways. There are many things I will do as well. Some I will do alone, using the power of the Executive Branch. And some I will ask your help to do because we need help from others. But the things I listed above, and many more besides, will never be contemplated.
I hope you agree that sparing you the constant effort to stop these wrong acts is indeed an accomplishment, and one you'll be glad, even eager, to have. It's one I'll certainly be glad and eager to give you.
Yes, there's much a president like Sanders, if he really carries through, can refuse to do, acting completely alone. This list shows just a few of the "wrong acts" you would be spared from resisting. I'm sure you can add others of your own. Soon I'll list some of what a president like Sanders can proactively do, deeds that can be done, even acting totally alone.
Stay tuned. Supporting a president like Sanders is by no means a waste of your time. (If you like, you can help Sanders here; adjust the split any way you wish at the link.)
(A version of this piece appeared at Down With Tyranny. GP article archive here.)
Gaius Publius 10/05/2015 07:30:00 AM