By Al Markowitz
As our national crisis deepens, the long festering division of citizens along partisan lines has reached proportions not seen since the Civil War. In reality, this is a phony division cultivated to dis-empower citizen influence for the benefit of the ruling corporate oligarchy. We have been increasingly alienated from family and friends over splits not just between party identification but within it, as both corporate parties struggle with deep divisions. The truth is that both parties serve the same interests at our expense. Neither party really includes or represents the real interests of most Americans.
As I wrote in my June article, the modern nation state exists as a tool of the wealthiest, of an empowered corporate oligarchy, for the maintenance of their power and financial interests. Our two official political parties represent the Janus faces of the oligarchy or, as Gore Vidal once put it, the two right wings of the one corporate party. As a close friend recently commented, “two parties one agenda.”
Though the Democrats are better on social issues, both parties support perpetual war and corporate dominance. That the “experts” on foreign policy cited by our embedded press are all neoconservatives is no coincidence. Nearly every congressional representative relies on military and weapons spending to create jobs in their districts. The difference between the parties represents a minor difference of opinion among the ruling elite. Democrats understand that maintaining the security of wealth requires a functioning society. This means that some crumbs must trickle down to maintain the success and support of about 20% of us who, as a managerial class make over $150,000 a year and who in return support them. It also requires that unemployment and, what we might call the desperation index, be kept at a manageable level to maintain a minimum of the public consent needed for legitimacy and to stave off revolt. The Republicans, on the other hand, miss this and see us all disposable surplus.
Then there are the rest of us. We, as citizens, would be better off rejecting the partisan rhetoric, realizing that we have far more common ground on the issues that affect us than we do differences. We all want economic opportunity, real security, safe food and water, medical access when we or our loved ones are sick, education and a future for our children on a livable world.
Sadly, the division and anger sown via our media continues to metastasize to the point of growing violence and the threat of the kind of social breakdown seen in places like Syria or the former Yugoslavia. Right wing ultra-nationalist hate groups and militias are on the rise. The NRA has a new ad fomenting incitement against anyone standing for economic justice, ecology or civil rights. They are now actively pushing the “2nd amendment solutions” Trump threatened during his campaign as “defense” against those not in agreement with an extreme-right, racist agenda. On the other end of the spectrum, some anarchist and “antifa” groups are literally fighting back, shutting down speakers at universities, attacking neo-fascist demonstrators physically and engaging in occasional property damage. As an anti-fascist, I sympathize with their goals but not with their tactics.
Before the bullets begin to fly and our country descends into the bloody barbarism, I think it is vital that we remember and relearn the power of principled non-violence in turning violence and ugly hatreds against themselves and in gaining the sympathy and support of the majority. As loud as the extreme right is, there are far more of us who are not hyper-nationalist, racist xenophobes. There are far more of us who care about a safe environment, education, health care access and who want a more cooperative, economically secure society. As militarized as our culture has become, there are far more of us who want peace than war. Many of that majority are alienated by violence, overt censorship and destruction no matter who is doing it. Actual self defense in a different issue but whoever instigates violence loses in the vital area of public opinion and support.
Given the nature of our corrupt corporatocracy and its subservient media, it’s easy to feel hopeless and afraid. It’s easier to “take sides” and engage in tribalized group-think and vilification than to find our common ground, but doing that has no good outcome. In fact, it’s a track that leads to social catastrophe.
The good news is that dedicated and informed citizens are coming together to work toward overcoming the corrupt corporate dominance of our system. In my last article I wrote about the growth of crowd-funded candidates. Several organizations focused on crowd-funding progressive populists have emerged from the Sanders campaign. These include “Our Revolution,” “Brand New Congress,” “Justice Democrats” and other groups. The goal is to have candidates that actually represent citizens instead of being owned by corporate backers. We know from experience that the Democratic Party leadership will not support progressive populist candidates unwilling to take corporate money, yet crowd-funded candidates have managed to get elected. These include Elizabeth Guzman and Lee Carter to the Virginia House of Delegates, Monica Kurth to the Iowa State House, Stephanie Hansen to the Delaware State Senate, Jimmy Gomez as a Congressman from California and others to local city and state offices.
Progressive activists from around the country working to break the corporate hold on the Democratic party and on our system of government met last June in a historic “People’s Assembly” in Chicago. Many of the meetings and workshops were live-streamed and I watched with enthusiasm as important issues and electoral strategies were discussed. Progressive politicians, activists and union leaders who spoke and led workshops included Roseann Demoro, Nina Turner, Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Richmond City Councilwomen Jovanka Beckles, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, Zephyr Teachout, Naomi Kline, Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr, Representative Joe Salazar and many others, including Senator Bernie Sanders. We are fortunate to have had a local activist representing us there as well. Susan Posey is a longtime Norfolk organizer, playwright and a founding coordinator of the Fair Trade Festival. She was also a Bernie delegate attending the National Democratic Convention. I interviewed her about her experiences at these events.
Could you describe what the People’s Summit was and what it is about?
The People’s Summit was an amazing gathering of people working in various ways in the progressive movement: from Nina Turner to Van Jones to Bernie and Jane, and organizations from various political parties like Democratic Socialists of America, the new Sanders Institute, the Workmen’s Circle, and to media organizations like Unicorn Riot. There was a couple there that are working on a pilot project and accompanying documentary on the concept of Universal Basic Income.
You were also a delegate attending the Democratic National Convention, what essential differences defined these experiences for you and how do you feel these events compare?
The two events were night and day. What they had in common was that both involved about 4,000 people, they were held in large convention centers, and there were a lot of speeches. That is essentially where the resemblance ends. The Democratic National Convention was a made-for-TV spectacle that involved creating an image of consent where there was actually conflict: they used noise canceling machines to drown out anything they wanted to pretend wasn’t happening. They turned off the lights on states with large majorities of Bernie supporters in order to promote their narrative that everybody there was in agreement. The most surreal moment in the DNC was when Bernie supporters started to shout “No More War” and they were shouted down by Hillary supporters yelling “USA! USA!” (That felt like we might have suddenly been transported to the Republican convention.) The DNC seating was the subject of constant conflict: Hillary supporters were allowed in hours earlier, non-delegates were given credentials that allowed them to come in and take the seats of delegates if we went to the bathroom. The food at the DNC was outside the convention floor, pricey, and with long lines. All the speeches were the same for four days. Then there was the expense. At the DNC we were required to stay at the convention hotel. Because there were 4 of us in a room, I was able to keep my expenses down to $1000 for the room, plus money for all my meals, plus transportation.
The People’s Summit was completely different. Seating for 4,000 was arranged around circular tables, so you could listen to a speaker but also network and talk amongst yourselves. Food was integrated into the convention space and included as part of the event so that meals automatically became an opportunity to get to know people. Dinners were served in small portions from small buffet lines with different food at each one, so you could get a little something quickly and then go get something else if you were still hungry – and never have to wait in a long line. Somehow they turned a cavernous convention space into a living room, bar, dance floor, and restaurant while always encouraging us to talk to one another. While there were many common themes among the speakers; universal health care, getting big money out of politics, etc, there were also many many different views, approaches and techniques. We went there to not only feel the presence of 4,000 people on the same page, but to learn from each other and create new things.
In terms of expenses, there was a sliding scale for the convention registration from about $45 to about $150, which included this fabulous, amazing food. Every meal was covered. I took a Rally Bus for $125, and paid about $35 for a dorm room for the weekend. In summation, the People’s Summit was far, far more democratic both in terms of access and in terms of organization.
What do you see happening, coming out of the People’s Summit? Is this just about “taking over the Democratic Party” and is that really possible?
The movement has at least 2 major perspectives on this subject, which can be summarized into “DemEnter” and “DemExit”. The DemEnter perspective is that if we can get enough good, progressive candidates to get active in the Democratic Party, we can take over and use the party’s infrastructure as a ladder to allow for rapid implementation of progressive policy. The DemExit perspective is that the Democratic party’s leadership is so entrenched and tied up with big corporate money that they cannot be reformed, and any effort to reform them is merely allowing the Democrats to be where progressive movements go to die. DemExit wants to see a new party form, which, by refusing corporate money would refuse corporate control and would implement the policies supported by the base rather than by wealthy donors, since the donors would be the base. Depending on your perspective, it is possible to consider either of these ideas as unrealistic, or completely possible.
How can people participate in the movement to overcome and move beyond the corporate nation-state toward actual representative democracy?
There are so many good things happening. Just last week I hosted a Day of Dinners event which encouraged people from different walks of life to come have dinner with each other to find their commonalities and the places they can work together. There is a project called “Knock Every Door” which aims to use deep listening, starting with people’s experiences and perspectives on the November election as a jumping off point to engage them in thoughtful, transformative dialogue. And there is the Draft Bernie movement, which intends to get Bernie to break free of the Democrats and start a people’s party. This is not so farfetched when you think about the historical moment of Lincoln and compare it to today. The Whig Party supported slavery when their base did not. So someone started an abolitionist party and the Whig party was history. As an example, the 2 current main parties are debating ACA versus AHCA, both of which continue to pour people’s hard-earned money into the coffers of insurance companies, and neither is proposing Medicare for All, which is an idea supported by 60% of the American people.
I’m grateful for the selfless work that Susan Posey and many others are doing. Stepping back from the dangerous precipice of partisan division and rediscovering our common ground as citizens is best fostered by meeting each other in person, listening, and building community.