If Republicans get full control of a few more State Houses, they will have the frightening power to amend the Constitution into their own authoritarian image.
As Donald Trump vilifies the press, the courts, immigrants, Muslims, Democrats, protesters and anyone who disagrees with him, it isn’t hard to imagine a modern-day Mussolini—or worse. But an even greater threat lies in Republicans’ march toward full control of state government. If they get there, they will have the frightening power to amend the Constitution into their own authoritarian image…or Ayn Rand’s.
Republicans now control 32 state legislatures and 33 governorships. They have majorities in both state legislative chambers as well as the governorships in 25 states. The Democrats have total control in only six states and legislative control in two more. (See here.)
If Republicans achieve veto-proof control in 38 states, they can do something that has never been done before—hold a constitutional convention, and then ratify new amendments that are put forth. To date, all amendments have been initiated from Congress where two-thirds of both houses are required. In either case, 38 states would be needed to ratify the amendments. The Republicans are well on their way.
We know what they are likely to do: end collective bargaining, outlaw abortion, forbid progressive income, estate and Wall Street taxes; prohibit class action law suits, privatize social security, guarantee “free choice” in all school systems, and so on. They would do what they’ve always wanted to do: outlaw the New Deal and its social democratic programs. And if they get crazy enough, they could end separation of church and state and undo other portions of the Bill of Rights.
A paranoid fantasy? Just say “President Trump.”
How did we get here?
Ask the corporate Democrats who have turned losing into an art form. Since 2008, they have lost 917 state legislative seats. Explanations range from Koch brothers funding to gerrymandering to voter suppression to the rise of the Tea Party. All partially true.
The Democrats also shoulder a good deal of the blame. Ever since Bill Clinton triangulated into NAFTA and away from working people, the Democratic Party’s embrace of financial and corporate elites has become the norm.
Hillary Clinton took $225,000 per speech from Goldman Sachs not because she was corrupt, but because this is simply the way the political game is played. You raise money from rich people, and then you back away from attacking their prerogatives while still trying to placate your liberal/worker base.
But as economist Jamie Galbraith put it, ultimately it is not possible for the Democrats to be both the party of the predators and the prey.
The failure and rebirth of progressivism?
The amazing acts of resistance popping up all over prove that the progressive spark is alive and well. Even seniors at the Progressive Forum in Deerfield Beach, Florida, are planning to put their bodies on the line to stop ICE raids.
While raising hell all over the country, we also should re-examine how our strategies and structures may have contributed to the rise of the right. After all, this electoral coup happened on our watch.
Here’s our working hypothesis for how progressives contributed to the rise of the right: We have failed to come out of our issue silos to build a national movement that directly confronts runaway inequality.
For more than a generation, progressive organizations have shied away from big-picture organizing around economic inequality. Instead we’ve constructed a dizzying array of issue silos: environment, LGBQ, labor, immigration, women, people of color, criminal justice and so on. We are fractured into thousands of discrete issues, enabled by philanthropic foundations that are similarly siloed.
Few of our groups focused on the way Wall Street and corporate elites strip-mined the economy. Very few of us mobilized around the great crash. Few of us noticed as the CEO/worker income gap jumped from 45 to 1 in 1970 to an incredible 844 to 1 by 2015. We collectively missed how this growing economic inequality was causing and exacerbating nearly all of our silo issues. We didn’t connect the dots.
Most importantly, we failed to grasp how runaway inequality was alienating millions of working people who saw their incomes decline, their communities whither and their young unable to find decent jobs.
While the Tea Party and the right had a clear message—big government is bad—progressives had little to say collectively about runaway inequality.
Enter Occupy Wall Street
By the summer of 2010, the progressive failure was painfully obvious. After Wall Street had robbed us blind and crashed the economy, a Democratic president was about to enter a “grand bargain” with the Republicans to promote austerity. Think about this: While Wall Street got bailed out in full, Obama and the Democrats were about to cut Social Security. Amazing.
Then out of nowhere came Occupy Wall Street. (Out of nowhere is correct because the actions did not originate from any of our progressive silos.) In six months there were 900 encampments around the world. “We are the 99%” shifted the debate from austerity to inequality.
Unfortunately, Occupy believed in spontaneous political combustion and shunned any and all organizational structures and agendas. Social media, consensus decision-making, horizontal anti-organizing, and anti-leadership were to carry the day. In six months, they were gone.
Meanwhile the traditional progressive groups watched it rise and fall from the outside. We were spectators as we continued to press forward in our issue silos.
Enter Bernie Sanders
We got a second chance. Bernie Sanders, an independent socialist with a clear social democratic agenda, decided to challenge Hillary Clinton, the presumptive nominee. At first, few of us took him seriously. After all, he’d been around for 40 years, saying the same things but never gaining any traction outside of Vermont.
But like Occupy, he and his message hit a nerve, especially among the young and among disaffected working people who were fed up with the corporate Democrats.
In a flash, Sanders did the impossible. He beat Hillary in several primaries. He drew much larger crowds. He even raised more money from small donors than the Clinton machine could raise from the rich. Progressive unions like the Communications Workers of America and National Nurses United went all in. For a few months the dream looked possible.
But too many other large unions and liberal issue groups committed early to Clinton, thinking she would win easily. That would allow them to gain more access for their issues and for themselves. Didn’t happen.
Trump toppled the Clinton machine in the Rust Belt. Some say he did so with a toxic combination of racism, sexism and xenophobia and that certainly was the case for a good portion of his vote. Others are certain that Comey and Putin made the difference.
But in the Rust Belt, Trump won because he picked up millions who previously had voted for Obama and Sanders. It is highly likely that runaway inequality, and the trade deals that exacerbated it, defeated Clinton in the Democratic strongholds of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. In Michigan alone, Hillary received 500,000 fewer votes than Obama. (See here.)
We need to turn the marvelous anti-Trump resistance into a common national movement that binds us together and directly confronts runaway inequality. We need to come out of our silos because nearly every issue we work on is connected by growing inequality.
Such a movement requires the following:
1. A common analysis and agenda: As we’ve written elsewhere, resisting Trump is not enough. We need a proactive agenda about what we want that goes beyond halting the Trump lunacy.
The Sanders campaign offered a bold social democratic agenda to young people in particular. Progressive should be able to build broad support around a Robin Hood Tax on Wall Street, free higher education, criminal justice reform, humane immigration policies, Medicare for All, fair trade, real action on climate change, and a guaranteed job at a living wage for all those willing and able.
2. A common national organization: A big problem. We have no equivalent to the Tea Party. We have no grand alliance that links unions, community, groups, churches and our issue silos. There are excellent websites like Indivisible that are successfully encouraging widespread resistance on the congressional level. But they consider themselves to be purely defensive against Trump.
There are hundreds of demonstrations popping up all over but no organizational glue to hold them together. There’s Our Revolution, an outgrowth of the Sanders campaign that is still getting its sea legs. But to date we have no common center of gravity that is moving us forward organizationally.
Ideally we should all be able to become dues-paying members of a national progressive alliance. We should be able to go from Paterson to Pensacola to Pomona and walk into similar meetings dedicated to fighting for our common agenda to reverse runaway inequality. Perhaps the hundreds of town hall meetings will head that way? It’s too early to tell.
3. An education infrastructure: The Populist movement of the late 19th century waged a fierce battle against Wall Street. It wanted public ownership of banks and railroads. It wanted livestock and grain cooperatives. It wanted a progressive income tax on the rich and public banks. The organization grew by fielding 6,000 educators to explain to small farmers, black and white, how the system was rigged against them and what they could do about it.
We need about 30,000 educators to hold similar discussions with our neighbors about runaway inequality, how it binds us together and what we can do about. (If you’re interested in getting involved, see here.)
4. A new identity: Our toughest challenge. For 40 years we’ve been conditioned to the idea that runaway inequality is an immutable fact of life—the inevitable result of automation, technology and competitive globalization. Along the way, neoliberal (free market) values shaped our awareness.
- We accepted the idea that going to college meant massive debts for ourselves and our families
- That there was nothing abnormal about having the largest prison population in the entire world
- That it was part of the game to pay high deductibles, co-pays and premiums for health insurance
- That it was OK for the super-rich to hide their money offshore
- That there was nothing to be done about chronic youth unemployment, both rural and urban, other than to try harder to pull themselves up
- That it was perfectly natural for factories to pick up and flee to low-wage areas with no environmental enforcement
- And that somehow private sector jobs, by definition, were more valuable to society than public ones
These mental constraints have got to go. We got here as the result of deliberative policy choices, not by acts of God. We need to reclaim a basic truth: the economy should work for its people, not the other way around.
Most importantly, we have to relearn the art of movement building that starts in our own minds—we have to believe it is both necessary and possible, and that each and every one of us can contribute to it.
We desperately need a new identity—that of movement builder.
Is this so difficult to imagine?
Les Leopold, the director of the Labor Institute, is currently working with unions and community organizations to build the educational infrastructure for a new anti-Wall Street movement. His new book Runaway Inequality: An Activist’s Guide to Economic Justice serves as a text for this campaign. All proceeds go to support these educational efforts.