No 482 Posted by fw, May 20, 2012
“The reason that the progressives are on the defensive, whether they’re out in the streets protesting or they’re trying to figure out an electoral strategy, we’re on the defensive because right-wing social movements have seized one of the two major political parties and used that power, by controlling the Republican Party, to continually dominate the American debate and move the debate rightward. So while I agree the most important thing is to build independent social movements, I also believe one needs an electoral strategy, and in that electoral strategy I think the right wing has basically shown the way.” —Jeff Cohen
In an interview conducted by Paul Jay of the Real News Network, the respected political pundit, Jeff Cohen, director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, explains why the progressive movement in the US is seemingly always on the defensive vis-à-vis extremist Republicans. To gain power, insists Cohen, progressives need to follow the example of right-wing Republicans – that is, get progressive activists elected in the primaries thereby seizing control of the Democratic Party from the inside.
Watch this 13:17-minute video of Jay’s interview with Cohen followed by my abridged transcript with added subheadings. Alternatively, to access the original transcript and video, click on the following linked title.
Paul Jay’s introduction — The American spring has begun, and Occupy in cities across the country are on the move again. There’s a big debate taking place within the Occupy movement. One part of the debate is how to keep it independent and not just an adjunct or lever of a campaign to reelect the Democratic Party. But there’s also a debate going on just how to participate in the elections. And what about some of the candidates who are running, certainly in some of the primaries*, who are progressive and share a lot of the values and ideas of the Occupy movement? To what extent will those people, activists in the movement, get involved in those primaries and in the campaign that follows? [*American primary elections are one means by which a political party nominates candidates for the next general election. Canadian political parties choose their candidates through nominating conventions held by constituency riding associations].
Now joining us to talk about this debate is Jeff Cohen. Jeff is the author of Cable News Confidential. He’s also the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, founder of the media watchdog FAIR [Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting] and co-founder of RootsAction.org. And he’s also a supporter of the campaign of Norman Solomon, who is one of these progressive activists, running in a primary just north of San Francisco.
Having an independent social movement and movements out in the streets is crucial
Well, I do think it’s crucial to have an independent social movement and movements out in the streets and in the communities, in the neighborhoods, in the unions, in the religious institutions, in the schools and colleges. There’s no doubt about it. It’s primary. When you look back at U.S. history, you know, the times we’ve had real serious substantive progressive reform, the 1930s and the 1960s, we had very strong independent social movements. So that’s a given.
But you can’t just protest power, you have to take power
But the next question—and you raised it—is, if you’re going to also—instead of—you know, you can’t forever be a protest movement. At a certain point, the whole idea is to take some power, to not just protest power, but take power.
Progressives are on the defensive because right-wing social movements have seized control of the Republican Party
And when we look at the recent history of our country, like the last 35 years, we see that right-wing social movements, sometimes with corporate money behind them and sometimes not, have seized one of the major parties, the Republican Party. And when we look around us and we see that the military budget is through the roof, wealth disparities are through the roof, battles we thought we’d won years ago, like reproductive rights, separation of church and state, we’re having to re-fight all that. The reason that the progressives are on the defensive, whether they’re out in the streets protesting or they’re trying to figure out an electoral strategy, we’re on the defensive because right-wing social movements have seized one of the two major political parties and used that power, by controlling the Republican Party, to continually dominate the American debate and move the debate rightward. So while I agree the most important thing is to build independent social movements, I also believe one needs an electoral strategy, and in that electoral strategy I think the right wing has basically shown the way.
Pooling of small-dollar donations from the religious right beat the moneyed Republicans in the primaries
Often the right-wing base is in alliance with and funded by the corporate elite. There’s no doubt about it. The motor for the right-wing transformation in our country at the base level is the religious right. And in campaign after campaign, election after election, the religious right, by pooling small-dollar donations—remember, the religious right pioneered in direct-mail, small-dollar big fundraising—in election after election, they beat the moneyed interests, the religious right often beat the old-line entrenched Republicans.
Religious right-wingers, led by Paul Weyrich, transformed the Republican Party from the inside
We have to understand that in the 1950s, the Republican Party was a moderate party headed by President Eisenhower. They completely accommodated to the New Deal. They had a 90 percent tax rate on the 1 percent. There wasn’t a lot of union busting emanating from the Republican Party. And there were a bunch of right-wingers that went in, especially in the ’70s, had this religious fervor, and they went in sometimes fighting against money, the moneyed Republicans, sometimes on their side, but they’ve transformed the party.
And I believe that, you know, on the Democratic side, if we had a liberal constituency leadership like the leaders of the unions, the leaders of the environmental groups, the leaders of the consumer rights groups, the leaders of the civil rights groups, if they had more of an attitude that the right-wing leadership had in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s—for example, Paul Weyrich was the guy who coined the term moral majority. He founded a bunch of right-wing groups. And Weirich famously said a couple of decades ago, we’re not like traditional conservatives, we’re not propping up the status quo; we’re radicals who want to upend the political power structure. That’s what you hear from the right wing.
In stark contrast, progressives just want to hobnob with Democrats in Congress
But what you hear from the liberals, the unions, the environmentalists, the consumer rights, especially civil rights, is instead of this fervor to transform the country—and by the way, some of these groups I just named, labor unions, environment, they have a lot of money. But what you hear from them isn’t a fervor to radically transform the country. What you see often is a zeal to get a meeting and hobnob and lunch with the Democrats in Congress. And so you have a lot of these liberal constituency leaders who command lots of people, have a lot of followers and the potential of raising an awful lot of money. What they do is they take the money, especially unions, and they give it to whatever mediocrity the Democratic Party coughs up. But, you know, the right-wing in their 30-year strategy of taking over the Republican Party, they were investing money within the primaries, and within the primaries, that’s when they were deciding who would be the Republican person in the general election.
The base of the Democratic Party is organizing to take on the corporate Democrats as well as the right-wing religious extremists
You hear from the liberal establishment in Washington — it’s a hobnobbing culture. It’s not an oppositional culture. We know that the base is ready for opposition. We know the Occupy upsurge. We know the people that get their news from The Real News Network and Democracy Now! and Common Dreams and Truthout and Truthdig, we know there’s millions of people every day that are ready to be oppositional, not just with right-wing religious extremists, but also the corporate Democrats.
What’s missing is an electoral strategy to get a pro-99% Democrat elected in the primaries
But what we don’t have is a strategy for when we are going to do electoral work. And I don’t want to seem to be pushing off, you know, the independent movement building work off into the margins. I’m not. But to the degree that we have an electoral strategy, it’s got to be oppositional; it’s got to be, we’re not going to take all this union money and just give it to whatever mediocrity the Democratic Party coughs up for the general election; we’re going to take our money and make sure that a seriously pro-working class, pro-99 percent Democrat comes out of the primary.
Like it or not this is a two-party system. We have to work in the primaries where we have a chance of winning
I worked in Barry Commoner’s third-party campaign in 1980, the best presidential candidate no one ever heard of. You know, you can decide that your progressive electoral activity is going to be getting protest candidates 1 or 2 or 3 percent of the votes. I prefer trying to work in primaries where we have a chance of actually winning, where you can bring that same full Green Party or independent progressive agenda into a much vaster audience and you can actually win a primary.
You introduced me as being a supporter of Norman Solomon for Congress. He’s in a tough primary battle. The election is June 5. He’s raised half a million dollars, more than that, from small donors. He did what the right-wing did in the ’70s and ’80s when they—before the internet, they only had direct mail. They pioneered in that on the right-wing. Well, the left is pioneering in small-donor—raising huge amounts of money from small donors through the internet. So I just—you know, you can stick in third parties and say that’s relevant activity and you get 1 or 2 percent and you say we’re raising issues. I prefer to support candidates like Norman Solomon, who’s running as a Democrat in Northern California for Congress. He’s raising all of those issues—single-payer, national health insurance, Medicare for all, bring the troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, stop nuclear power, tax Wall Street to fund green jobs. He’s got the full program of the independent left, and he’s taking it to huge numbers of people within a primary, and he’s running as a Democrat, and he’s got a chance of coming in first or second and getting in the general election in November.
We have a system that’s rigged against third parties. We have a winner-take-all system. We don’t have a German Parliament or a Swedish Parliament where if the green parties get a few percent of the vote, they get into parliament. That’s not what we have, and to pretend that we do, I think, is faulty electoral strategy.