Bernie Sanders & the intersectionality of movements

At Ecowatch, Ted Glick has a strong piece on the need for urgent action in the face of the climate crisis and Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. Glick connects the grassroots, people-powered movement that is fueling Sanders’ campaign with the Vermont senator’s strong positioning on climate action. Presidential campaigns provide rare moments of political engagement, popular attention, and a space for big ideas to be brought to the forefront. Glick also notes, rightly, that Sanders’ outspoken belief in the need to excise corporate money from the political process is almost certainly a fundamental precursor to actually achieving the sorts of executive, legislative and regulatory actions needed to confront climate change on a national and global scale. Quite simply, as long as dirty energy companies and multinational corporations can make their voices louder than the public, it is highly unlikely that meaningful action will happen on climate change and energy policy.

Lastly, Glick highlights how Sanders’ campaign is living proof of Naomi Klein’s theory that economic inequality and climate change are issues and movements that must be treated as intersectional if there is a chance for success in confronting them. More recently, Sanders has begun talking forcefully about another major, intersectional issue in America – racism and white supremacy, especially vis a vis the criminal justice system. Sanders has both spoke out and introduced legislation that would create pathways for education and employment, instead of the prison industrial complex, for young black Americans.

Taken together, it’s becoming clear that the Sanders presidential campaign is becoming a locus for grassroots movement building that recognizes the intersectionality of the major issues of our time and is seeking to build power by speaking to them and organizing around them. I don’t think we’ve seen a presidential campaign like this in many decades, so it’s hard to predict how far this formula can take an outsider like Sanders. But as of yesterday, he is surging within striking distance of Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, so I wouldn’t write it off.

On the 2014 elections & ideas

The Democrats got beat pretty badly in the midterm elections. This is not a big surprise. But the losses have generated countless pieces about why they lost, how they could have avoided losing, what messaging would work better, how Democrats can better convince the citizenry to put their faith in them and so forth. To me, it’s a massively unsatisfying oeuvre.


I came to realize a number of years ago that by and large the people and centers of power in the Democratic Party don’t share my set of beliefs. There are no doubt some leftwing and populist politicians in the Democratic Party – obviously Elizabeth Warren tops the list – but they don’t run the party, they don’t run the party committees, they don’t drive the legislative agenda. Power in the Democratic Party is centered in individuals who are conservative, who hold neoliberal views of work and the economy, and have deep ties to finance capital. The majority of Democratic office holders and their supporting infrastructure falls into this latter category and spends an awful lot of time talking about how Democrats are wrong to use populist or anti-bank messaging.

This is a realization of fact. There is no normative quality to this, it’s simply the world we live in. And it’s a world where the existence of a Warren or a Sherrod Brown or a Mike Honda within the Democratic Party does not mean that it is in fact a populist or even a left political party.

Here are a few other somewhat disjointed, post-election thoughts…


A common thread in election epitaphs has been that Democrats aren’t conveying their ideas well. As a counter-point, Noam Scheiber describes the nature of Obama’s ideology:

How could these two legacies coexist in one presidency? They emanate from the worldview that Jarrett and Obama sharecall it “boardroom liberalism.” It’s a worldview that’s steeped in social progressivism, in the values of tolerance and diversity. It takes as a given that government has a role to play in building infrastructure, regulating business, training workers, smoothing out the boom-bust cycles of the economy, providing for the poor and disadvantaged. But it is a view from on highone that presumes a dominant role for large institutions like corporations and a wisdom on the part of elites. It believes that the world works best when these elites use their power magnanimously, not when they’re forced to share it. The picture of the boardroom liberal is a corporate CEO handing a refrigerator-sized check to the head of a charity at a celebrity golf tournament. All the better if they’re surrounded by minority children and struggling moms.Is this not a perfect description of the Democratic Party today? Generally positive on social issues, but full-blooded in their support for corporations, for profits, for the 1% and the bottom line.

Notwithstanding his early career as a community organizer, Obama, like Jarrett, is fundamentally a man of the inside. It’s why he put a former Citigroup executive and Robert Rubin chief of staff named Michael Froman in charge of assembling his economic team in 2008, why he avoided a deep restructuring of Wall Street, why he abruptly junked the public option during the health care debate, why he so ruthlessly pursues leakers and the journalists who cultivate them. It explains why so many of his policy ideasfrom jobs for the long-term unemployed to mentoring minority youthrely on the largesse of corporations.

This doesn’t describe a problem of rhetoric. Plenty of Democrats ran and lost using populist messaging, just as plenty of conservative Democrats ran and lost using conservative, Republican Lite messaging. Focusing the debate on the impact of messaging not only ignores the fact that Democrats have a clear record while in varying degrees of power over the last six years, but has the unseemly quality of treating American voters like rubes to be moved by marketing campaigns.


Matt Stoller, in the course of a must-read book review of Al From’s The New Democrats and the Return to Power, makes a very strong case for the need for ideas. Opening on the occasion of the many hair-rending after action reports within Democratic circles as to what happened, Stoller writes:

Everything is put on the table, except the main course — policy. Did the Democrats run the government well? Are the lives of voters better? Are you as a political party credible when you say you’ll do something?

This question is never asked, because Democratic elites — ensconced in the law firms, foundations, banks, and media executive suites where the real decisions are made — basically agree with each other about organizing governance around the needs of high technology and high finance. The only time the question even comes up now is in an inverted corroded form, when a liberal activist gnashes his or her teeth and wonders — why can’t Democrats run elections around populist themes and policies? This is still the wrong question, because it assumes the wrong causality. Parties don’t poll for good ideas, run races on them, and then govern. They have ideas, poll to find out how to sell those ideas, and run races and recruit candidates based on the polling. It’s ideas first, then the sales pitch. If the sales pitch is bad, it’s often the best of what can be made of an unpopular stew of ideas.

Still, you’d think that someone, somewhere would have populist ideas. And a few — like Zephyr Teachout and Elizabeth Warren — do. But why does every other candidate not? I don’t actually know, but a book just came out that might answer this question. The theory in this book is simple. The current generation of Democratic policymakers were organized and put in power by people that don’t think that a renewed populist agenda centered on antagonism towards centralized economic power is a good idea.

Democrats writ large aren’t populists because they don’t believe in populists ideas. Expecting them to be a vehicle for ideas that they don’t hold isn’t a reasonable expectation.


Howie Hawkins, the Green Party candidate for Governor in New York, has a good op-ed in The Guardian that brings up a number of ideas that he sees as fertile ground for a resurgent American left, unserved by the Democratic Party.


Frankly I don’t care if the Democratic Party becomes a vehicle for leftwing ideas or if left movements emerge that can force policy action or if a left third party emerges that builds real, sustained political power. But I do hope there is a home for these ideas in this country.

There are potential sources for left ideas to be put forward and spread publicly. The ideas can be pushed for by left Democrats, by the Working Families Party, by #BlackLivesMatter, by Occupy, by labor, by environmentalists, by a new third party that represents workers, people of color, women, immigrants, youth… There’s a lot that can by done and is already being done. Like Stoller points out, it doesn’t really matter what we call it, as long as the issues that must be confronted are so confronted with good ideas, unbound to Democratic electoral frameworks.


There has been real energy come from youth and working people lead movements like Occupy Wall Street (and the notable mutual aid offshoots Occupy Sandy and Occupy Homes), the Dream Defenders, Moral Mondays, fast food worker organizing, direction action activists against the Keystone XL pipeline and quite powerfully, in the anti-racism, anti-police brutality protests surrounding the murders of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and sadly many others.

But what needs to come first is the ideas, ideas that can weave these somewhat disparate but complimentary movements together. I’ve said for a long time there’s a potential political party/movement that aligns closely around the values of young people and people of color/immigrants. You end up going basically with Occupy + Millenials + Internet Freedom. Core issues, in no particular order, would include:
  • Anti-racism in general and anti-police brutality/profile in particular
  • Legalized marijuana, end the war on drugs
  • Marriage equality
  • High minimum wage
  • Student loan / debt reform
  • Workers rights on the job, particularly against fast food and app-based employers
  • Net neutrality
  • Regulation of financial markets
  • Spending for renewable energy development / ending fossil fuel state

These is a great list of issues that Democrats have thoroughly failed to serve their natural, historic constituencies on. Maybe there’s space for someone to bring forth ideas that address them. I don’t hold out hopes that this will happen within the Democratic Party, but I’ve been wrong before.

Organizing & Occupy Sandy

Yotam Maron has a good piece on Occupy Sandy and turning community organizing in response to a crisis into organizing to produce proactive policy solutions that we need. It’s definitely worth reading.

Community-based organizing around mutual aid creates a tremendous opportunity to move people affected by crises to a new political viewpoint that is informed both by what happened to them and by who and how they were aided in response. That’s why organizing victims of bank greed in the foreclosure crisis and fossil fuel company greed in the climate crisis makes so much sense. Finance capital and the fossil fuel industry are two of the most powerful sectors in our country and the world. We will only be able to shift power from these few massive corporations to people in a democratic way when opportunities to organize and provide aid are seized in moments of crisis. Think of it like a reverse shock doctrine.

The immorality of climate inaction, the fossil fuel industry

I was offline last week, so I missed President Obama’s press conference last week. Included in it were the President’s remarks on climate change, which while acknowledging its existence offered nothing in terms of commitment to action, let alone action the scale needed to confront the climate crisis. Here’s some of what President Obama said:

So what I’m going to be doing over the next several weeks, next several months, is having a conversation, a wide-ranging conversation with scientists, engineers, and elected officials to find out what can — what more can we do to make a short-term progress in reducing carbons, and then working through an education process that I think is necessary — a discussion, a conversation across the country about what realistically can we do long term to make sure that this is not something we’re passing on to future generations that’s going to be very expensive and very painful to deal with.

I don’t know what either Democrats or Republicans are prepared to do at this point, because this is one of those issues that’s not just a partisan issue; I also think there are regional differences. There’s no doubt that for us to take on climate change in a serious way would involve making some tough political choices. And understandably, I think the American people right now have been so focused, and will continue to be focused on our economy and jobs and growth, that if the message is somehow we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anybody is going to go for that. I won’t go for that.

If, on the other hand, we can shape an agenda that says we can create jobs, advance growth, and make a serious dent in climate change and be an international leader, I think that’s something that the American people would support.

So you can expect that you’ll hear more from me in the coming months and years about how we can shape an agenda that garners bipartisan support and helps move this agenda forward.

Part of what is so confounding to me is the refusal for elected officials, including but not limited to the President, to refuse to understand the scope of the crisis in front of us. And not just the scope, the presence of the crisis as a crisis in the immediate term.

As Bill McKibben has made abundantly clear, we don’t have the time. We need immediate changes to the math behind global energy policy, otherwise the planet is screwed.

Surely in coming weeks and months, we’ll see environmental groups float potential legislative options for the President and Congress to consider over the next four years. While I’m all for some of the brick-and-mortar Beltway environmental groups providing concrete solutions with an eye towards pragmatism as always, I don’t think that’s actually what a left flank looks like.

In this case, the left flank on climate needs to built squarely around morality. Specifically the immorality of continuing to destroy our planet through a fossil fuel-based energy policy (let alone one which enriches a small handful of individuals and corporations at the expense of what will be a potentially infinitely large dollar amount in climate destruction). Continued inaction or action at the snails pace we’ve seen from all American elected officials is simply immoral.

Taking this a step further, it’s clear that at the end of the day, there will be no solution to this crisis without public officials having the moral clarity to say, “The fossil fuel industry is killing our planet. This is a crime against every living person and all future generations. As a result, they can no longer exist.” The left flank of the climate crisis isn’t a set of taxes or tariffs, it’s an abolitionist movement.

If Lincoln had speechified about the danger of wiping out half of the South’s GDP by ending slavery, abolitionists wouldn’t have stood for it. Why should contemporary climate activists stand for Obama or any other politician hiding behind bad economics* in the face of a fundamentally moral question? It’s time for anger, built around moral clarity that is clearly lacking from the debate playing out in DC and in the press.

* The President’s economics are bad – a massive shift to green energy sources would be a huge economic boost, both in terms of jobs created by the required infrastructure creation and the removal of massive negative externalities that come from our reliance on fossil fuels. So not only is he wrong to hide behind economic numbers as an argument against a green energy shift, but he’s using a bad argument.

Occupy Sandy & the climate crisis

Yotam Maron is must-read on how the Occupy Sandy response is a real-time model of what anti-climate crisis social movements look like:

Welcome to the climate crisis. There’s nothing abstract about it. It isn’t some apocalypse decades away or an event that comes down like one big hurricane to wipe us all out. It’s Hurricane Sandy. It’s all the economic, political and social conditions that were already in place. And it’s the opportunity for forces of profit and repression to push their agenda forward in the aftermath.

But guess what: The climate justice movement isn’t so abstract either. This is it. It’s dedicated organizers recognizing how their work can be aligned across issues. It’s relief providers and hard-working volunteers transforming into activists and community leaders. It’s the hardest hit neighborhoods taking control of their own liberation. It’s local community institutions with deep roots and long histories connecting to one another and mobilizing their efforts as part of a movement. It’s all of that alongside so many other fights for climate justice — from the blockade of the Keystone XL pipeline to the fight for water rights in Bolivia, from Indian women standing up to corporate seed monopolies to youth from launching campaigns to divest from fossil fuel companies.

There is much work to do. But people are doing it — day by day, block by block. Windows of opportunity have opened here in New York, just as they have in other places around the world. Many people are working to keep those windows open and continue the transformation that is already underway — from volunteer work to organizing, from emergency response to a genuine recovery, from relief to resistance.