Tell Elizabeth Warren to Shake Up the Democratic Party and the DNC

Although the story we’ve all been hearing is that “Trump won” the election, the more bitter truth is that we – the Democrats – lost it.

A month ago, too many Democratic voters either failed to vote entirely or voted for a third party. Here is an excellent piece of research that supports this claim:

Trump Didn’t Win, We Democrats Lost!

So, what to do? Among other things, we need to pressure the Democratic Party and the DNC to become more effective. This will mean a change of leadership, a change of strategy, a change of vision. Less cozying up to Wall Street, more genuine grassroots organizing in precincts that really matter!

One good way to pressure the DNC is to ask Elizabeth Warren to do so. For better or for worse, she is now our most effective point person in the Senate – and maybe in the Democratic Party as a whole.

This is a small step, to be sure. But it’s a step we can take so easily.

If you agree, or if you’re just interested in the idea, please check out this petition:

Tell Elizabeth Warren to Shake Up the DNC

Victory in 2018!

Dear Neera Tanden (President and CEO of the Center for American Progress)

Dear Neera,

This morning I received your broadcast fundraising email for CAP, and I’m writing to say that, to me at least, it unwittingly represents so much that’s wrong with the Democratic Party and with CAP.

It comes in the wake of an election in which the primary was essentially rigged in favor of one candidate who had been pre-selected nearly four years earlier (I say this as a supporter of hers). Partly as a consequence of the closed nature of the primary process, and of the closed-mindedness of the Democratic Party’s strategists,  the Party’s turnout in 2016 was abysmal.

Thus, it is shocking (but unsurprising) that your note carries not a hint of a mea culpa. Yet you are a member of the party elite that is responsible for this disaster. And as the head of the progressive establishment’s major think tank, your responsibility is especially heavy.

In my view, and I think I’m representative of a big swath of progressives and modest donors, the first thing we need to see is some housecleaning in the Democratic Party and, yes, in CAP.

The last thing we need to see is an email that promises to continue business as usual and solicits more  funding for an organization that is  complicit in this enormous failure.

Your decision to close your email with your title, “President and CEO,” is not as obviously thoughtless as Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” remark, but it reveals just as much about the complacent attitude of establishment “progressives” today.

CEO. You’re doubtless proud of the title, and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be. But think about it.That’s all I’m asking of you and CAP. Think about it. Then ask for more money.

Respectfully yours,

Nick

Addendum (The Fundraising Letter from CAP):

Dear Nick,

The next four years are going to be tough. But if you stand with us in the belief that we must continue fighting for progressive ideas and values,please make a donation to CAP action today.

This election was a long, divisive road that challenged our country in new ways. But it was also a very close election, and the progressive policies that drove millions of people to the polls cannot be pushed off the table.

I’ve been asked many times over the past 48 hours what role CAP Action will play in the days ahead. We were founded in—a dark time for progressives; Republicans controlled the House, the Senate, and the White House. So we decided to build an infrastructure of progressive ideas outside of government to develop and promote our values and policies. And in the years since our founding, I can say with certainty that we have changed the country for the better. We produced the blueprints to achieve universal health care coverage; we laid out an exit strategy to end the Iraq War; and we’ve developed a new middle-out economic growth agenda and promoted policies that expand opportunity and prosperity to all Americans.

It’s true: Our work will be more difficult. But it has never been more important. On countless issues, President-elect Trump has vowed to repeal the progress we’ve made. We cannot let that happen. We are going to keep being the bulwark for progressive ideals, and we are going to keep laying the groundwork for the progressive future that our children deserve.

That means we will push back against those who try to strip health care from millions of Americans; we will stand up for the millions of unauthorized immigrants who contribute their talents to this country but are still forced to live in the shadows; we will call out those who deny or ignore the imminent threat of climate change; we will fight for the economic security of working families; and we will stand up to anyone who attacks or discriminates against Americans based on their gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, color, class, or creed.

Today, we are more committed than ever to the progressive cause. But we can’t do any of this without your support. We must not meet this week’s outcome with despair but with renewed determination to ensure a progressive future for all Americans.

CAP Action is proud of the role we’ve played in making progress and we will keep fighting to move history forward.Please donate today to help us do even more.

Sincerely,

Neera Tanden

President & CEO

(More) Second Thoughts about the Confederate Flag

[Note: After a long hiatus – overwhelmed by recent events both public and private – I return to this blog with an adaptation of two pieces published last month in Salon. – NB]

Speaking in Boston just days before the South surrendered at the end of the Civil War, Frederick Douglass warned that the North’s victory would not mean that that war had truly ended: “That enmity will not die out in a year, will not die out in an age,” he predicted.

As a former southerner himself, Douglass knew just how deeply invested the South was in its  slave-holding culture. He declared:

“I believe that when the tall heads of this Rebellion shall have been swept down, you will see those traitors, handing down, from sire to son, the same malignant spirit which they have manifested, and which they are now exhibiting, with malicious hearts, broad blades, and bloody hands in the field, against our sons and brothers.”

Six years later, in 1871, Douglass wrote that,  “A rebellion is upon our hands to-day far more difficult to deal with than that suppressed, but not annihilated, in 1865.” He was speaking of the rising wave of mob violence and terrorism directed against African Americans all across the region. Like a “pestilence,” Douglass observed, “this last form of the rebellion – covert, insidious, secret, striking in the darkness of night, while assuming spotless robes of loyalty in the day – is far more difficult to deal with than an open foe.”

Has the age of “enmity” finally ended? Has the “malignant spirit” finally died away? Has the “pestilence” finally abated?

The answer to all of these questions is “no.” The hateful actions of Dylann Roof remind of us of that. So do the white supremacist websites Roof found appealing. So do the many Confederate flags displayed all across the South — and beyond —  emblazoning T-shirts, affixed to car bumpers, and worn as lapel pins in business suits.

Douglass’s words remid us that the “heritage” these flags stand for was a bloody war initiated by the South. Those Southerners who fired the first shots to attack U.S. troops at Fort Sumter – just a mile or two from the church where Roof gunned down nine black worshippers – aimed not only to “defend” slavery, but to promote slavery’s spread across the nation, especially in the West.  The defeat of the South was the defeat of the slavery system.

That defeat is still mourned by many sympathizers with the Confederate cause across the nation, who have somehow forgotten that the Lost Cause was the cause of slavery. To them, the Confederate flag is an innocent symbol, a symbol that honors the Confederate dead and preserves the memory of their gallantry and fighting spirit.

They believe that on their own front porch, or on their own car bumper, it has nothing to do with the South’s long history of racial oppression – nothing to do with slavery, the Ku Klux Klan’s reign of terror, and then Jim Crow segregation laws.

That’s wrong. You can’t pluck out the thread of that history without unraveling the whole flag.

I know many Americans, in the North and the South, who believe that the Civil War “was not about slavery.” That’s also wrong. Anyone who doubts me should read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s excellent article in The Atlantic, in which he quotes many Southern leaders of the time explicitly saying that they were fighting the war to defend slavery:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/06/what-this-cruel-war-was-over/396482/

If Frederick Douglass were alive today, he would also ask all white Americans to reflect on the message this flag sends – inadvertently or not — to their black fellow citizens.

And he would probably say that all Americans who are truly opposed to the “malignant spirit” of racism should search their souls and ask if this symbol really does represent all that is best about the South and its heritage, including its belief in honor and courtesy.

Remembering the Orangeburg Massacre in the Time of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis

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As comment on the unjust verdicts in the Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis murder cases lit up the blogosphere this month, I saw scant mention of The Orangeburg Massacre, in which three black students were killed and many more wounded when state police opened fire on a campus demonstration back in 1968. Forty-six years have now passed since then, and that event deserves to be better known and more widely remembered. What follows is adapted from an article I wrote about it for The Boston Globe Magazine, published on February 10, 1985.

On February 8, 1968, more than two years before National Guard troops opened fire on demonstrating students at Kent State University,  three college students were killed and 27 were wounded by state police gunfire on a different campus. As at Kent State, the students were unarmed. As at Kent State, they could not believe that they were being fired upon, and many were shot in the side and back as they turned and ran. As at Kent State, “snipers” and “insurgents” were blamed for provoking the incident; as at Kent State, neither snipers nor insurgents were ever found.

But there the similarities between the two tragedies end. The shooting at Kent State sparked widespread outrage and protest, not only on other campuses, but at the highest levels of business and government – and among many American parents who realized that the dead and wounded students could have been their own children.

The earlier shooting, however, went relatively unreported and is to this day virtually unknown.  Why? Perhaps because Kent State, set in the heart of the Midwest, was a predominantly white, middle-class school, while the earlier shooting took place in Orangeburg, South Carolina, at South Carolina State College, where more than 95 percent of the students were black.

What exactly happened in Orangeburg on that February night 46 years ago? (continued on next page)

Melissa Harris-Perry’s Apology: Criticism as the “Soul of Democracy”

Paul Waldman has written an excellent piece on Melissa Harris-Perry‘s exemplary apology following her show’s misstep with the photo of the Romney family.

I would add this brief addendum: Ms. Harris-Perry’s response stands in a long tradition of African-American respect for criticism. Herewith three examples:

Melissa Harris-Perry: “I am genuinely appreciative of everyone who offered serious criticisms of last Sunday’s program, and I am reminded that our fiercest critics can sometimes be our best teachers.”

W.E.B. Du Bois: “Earnest and honest criticism from those whose interests are most nearly touched, – criticism of writers by readers, of government by those governed, of leaders by those led, – this is the soul of democracy and the safeguard of modern democracy.”

Malcolm X: “I think all of us should be critics of each other. Whenever you can’t stand criticism you can’t grow.”

(There’s more on this tradition of African-American respect for criticism in my book, The Time Is Always Now: Black Thought and the Transformation of US Democracy.)

Regarding the ASA Boycott: An Open Letter to President Biddy Martin of Amherst College

Dear President Martin,

I am saddened but not surprised by the statement you have made (which I append below) condemning the American Studies Association’s boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Amherst College has a long history of invoking “academic freedom” whenever peace and freedom movements threaten to disrupt the status quo.

When I attended Amherst back in the early 1970s, students responded to president Nixon’s intensification and expansion of the war against Vietnam and Cambodia by insisting that the College halt “business as usual” and consider the ways in which it was complicit in the war effort. Using words strikingly like yours, the institution’s first response to these students’ calls was to claim that they threatened “academic freedom.”

In those years too, African-American students demanded that the College halt “business as usual” and face the ways its curriculum and community were perverted by racism. Using language remarkably like yours, the institution’s first response was to claim that these students were irresponsibly jeopardizing the College’s “academic freedom.”

As soon became clear, however, these students and their social movements did not curtail “academic freedom.” They broadened it.

Thanks to these students’ efforts, we have now have a Five-College Program in Peace and World Security Studies that focuses on exactly the issues the College’s conventional curriculum in the early 1970s omitted and occluded.

Thanks to these students’ willingness to put “academic freedom” at risk, students at Amherst today routinely study hundreds of African-American artists, thinkers, writers, and activists whose work was missing from Amherst’s curriculum in the 1960s and early ‘70s.

Doubtless you know this history well. You graduated from college just one year after I did. This is the history of our lifetime.

Yet not a hint of this history finds expression in your boilerplate condemnation of the ASA’s resolution. It saddens me to see you seemingly suppressing your own historical perspective in obedience to the dictates of an institutional role you are compelled to perform.

As scholars of history, the ASA’s members are well aware of these dynamics. They know how difficult it is for individuals to resist absorption by the institutions that employ them. They also know that the primary mission of most academic institutions, including Amherst College, is self-perpetuation not defense of meaningful academic freedom. Indeed, it was to protect the real freedom of individuals that the ASA carefully chose to boycott institutions, not individuals, and refrained from insisting that its own individual members participate in the boycott. That the importance of this distinction is lost on you reflects how completely you, in this moment, have been absorbed by the institution you represent.

Moreover, it is just here, when we see a person disappearing into an institution, that we see the disappearance of meaningful academic freedom. For your statement makes no effort to explain why you think that “such boycotts threaten academic freedom and exchange.” (If you would like to see what a genuine discussion of this matter looks like, I refer you to this one in the on-line journal Crooked Timber: http://crookedtimber.org/2013/12/26/does-the-asa-boycott-violate-academic-freedom-how/). The presumption here is that your audience should be satisfied with your claims and not seek for the reasons behind them. Is it necessary to explain why such a presumption by an academic leader poses a grave threat to meaningful academic freedom?

“Progress,” as Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “does not roll in on wheels of inevitability. “ To move forward, we must act. Yet with actions come risks – in this case, the risk that bringing pressure to bear on Israel’s policies will curtail more academic freedom than it promotes.

The real challenge we face, then, is to define and assess that risk, not merely invoke it.  It is to weigh that risk against the risk of continuing inaction on this issue, instead of pretending that continuing inaction has no costs to Palestinians, Israelis, and Americans.

Your bland statement makes no attempt to engage in such balanced risk assessment. Like the “moderates” whom King judged to be his most insidious foes, you present yourself as standing to one side, in a perfect world on which no urgent issues impinge, thinking and speaking in a vacuum. Is this what you want to train today’s Amherst students to do? Is this the kind of “thinking” you want to model for them? Is such “thinking” the core enterprise of what you call “academic freedom?”

Even as someone who did not vote in favor of the ASA resolution, I stand with those who ask: why are US academic institutions like Amherst College so quick to defend “academic freedom” in this case without ever having condemned the many restrictions the state of Israel has imposed on the academic freedom of Palestinians and of its own citizens? Your position painfully reminds me of the many college and university presidents of the 1960s, who were very quick to deplore student protests and very slow to admit that systemic research relationships with the Defense Department had their own stultifying effects on academic freedom. Instead of merely issuing terse declarative statements on the inviolability of academic freedom, why not use the ASA boycott as an opportunity for a campus-wide discussion of how to balance such freedom with the ethical demands of global citizenship?

At this moment, Amherst College students past and present – perhaps especially those of my generation — can only wonder what you take “academic freedom” to be, exactly why you think the ASA’s boycott jeopardizes it, and what alternative steps you believe Amherst College can legitimately take to ensure the academic freedom of Palestinians and Israelis. Will you address such important questions today? Or will you wait until you’ve stepped down from the presidency of the College and reclaimed a more meaningful freedom than the one you now defend?

Sincerely,

Nick Bromell (Class of 1972)

Addendum: President Biddy Martin’s Letter

Dear Members of the Amherst Community,

I join my colleague presidents in the American Association of Universities (AAU) and many among liberal arts colleges who oppose the boycott of Israeli academic institutions that was recently passed by a majority of the American Studies Association (ASA) members, as well as by two other academic associations.

Amherst College is not an institutional member of the ASA nor is our Department of American Studies. Individual members of the association on our campus are obviously free to vote as they wish. On behalf of the College, I express opposition to this academic boycott for several related reasons. Such boycotts threaten academic freedom and exchange, which it is our solemn duty as academic institutions to protect. They prohibit potential collaborations among the very institutions whose purpose is to promote critical thought and the free exchange of ideas. In their public statement, the members of the executive committee of the AAU emphasize what I consider to be the most compelling reason to oppose the boycott: “[Academic freedom] is a principle that should not be abridged by political considerations.” Indeed, it is the very definition of academic freedom that freedom of inquiry should not be constrained by political pressures. In its explanation of the importance of academic freedom and tenure, the American Association of University Professors has emphasized, throughout its history,that its benefits go well beyond the protection of individual scholars and academic institutions. Perhaps its most important benefit is to the society that depends for its own well-being on freedom of thought and exchange and those institutions whose mission it is to promote them. I call on the community to consider for us all the far-reaching implications of political gestures that limit or have the potential to limit the pursuit and exchange of ideas.

“It’s Inequality, Stupid.” Let’s Point Hillary toward Economic Populism

There’s an eerie silence at the center of recent clamorous speculation over Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential prospects. No one is asking what she actually stands for. What positions she takes. What she  wants to achieve.

This silence is hardly an accident. The news and opinion machinery now in high gear has been designed to keep substantive matters off the table.  As long as people are obsessed with the “will she/won’t she” question, they can be distracted from wondering what Hillary actually would do if she were president.

The fantasies of voters are best projected onto a blank screen. Hillary’s handlers are going to keep her as blank as possible for as long as possible.

What progressive media must do, then, is ignore the purely speculative question of Hillary ‘s presidential future and focus instead on the substantive question of Hillary’s concrete political commitments. Above all, they should hammer on whether Hillary will work hard to reduce wealth and income inequality – nationally and globally.

Like it or not, Hillary is now the weathervane atop the Democratic Party.  If she can be pointed toward more populist economics, most of the Party and its apparatus will follow her. See David Freedlander’s very interesting piece in The Daily Beast on the fight over economic populism now being waged within the Party.

Now is the time. Hillary is much more vulnerable to pressure from progressives now — while Joe Biden and  Elizabeth Warren are still imaginable alternatives.

So let’s all reach out to Hillary  and let her know:  “It’s Inequality!”