Political Alliances

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The fragmented state of the Left has become a bitter joke in American politics. Right off the top of my head — we have the True-Blue Democrats, the Blue-Dog Democrats, Progressive Democrats of America, Democracy for America, the Green Party, Democratic Socialists of America, Socialist Alternatives, Working Family, and even the Pirate Party. There are likewise a ton of PACs and think tanks devoted to the disparate threads of liberalism, centrism, neoliberalism, progressivism, and socialism. To Republicans, of course, we are all simply “The Left.”

Especially in light of recent events, we might be much more effective if we were a more cohesive “Left.” But we have one donkey-shaped hole into which everyone is supposed to jam all the odd shaped pegs. And we don’t have a parliamentary democracy to make coalitions like this work.

But progressives, at least, can forge cross-party alliances anyway.

In Richmond, California, a refinery town north of San Francisco, two progressive candidates for City Council went up against the Democratic Party establishment as well as a $3 million slush fund set up for Democrats by the Chevron Corporation. And the progressives won.

Both Melvin Willis and Ben Choi were fielded by an independent progressive political organization called the Richmond Progressive Alliance, originally founded by Greens. In addition, both received support from Our Revolution, a party-agnostic progressive organization Bernie Sanders created after the election.

In Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City, former labor organizer and author Steve Early writes about Richmond, its Green Party mayor, Gayle McLaughlin (still active today as a councilwoman), and the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), which unites progressive Democrats, Greens, and independents. Given RPA’s support from Our Revolution, it is not a surprise to find a forward by Bernie Sanders in Early’s book.

Next door, in Rhode Island, Democrat Marcia Ranglin-Vassell ran against RI House Majority Leader John DeSimone for State Representative in her party’s primaries — and she won by seventeen votes. Ranglin-Vassell snagged endorsements from both Rhode Island Progressive Democrats and Working Families, which also endorsed Bernie Sanders. Our Revolution supported Ranglin-Vassell against Roland Lavallee in the general election, which she won.

Although the Democratic Party often describes itself as a big tent, loyalty rules preclude endorsing progressive candidates outside the Big Blue tent. And it’s not yet clear the DNC will ever be a home for progressives. But in alliances — like Our Revolution, the Richmond Progressive Alliance and Working Families — progressives can join together to field candidates whose job #1 is to help everyday people.

It’s an idea progressives should be exploring right here in our little corner of Massachusetts.

The Origins of Totalitarianism

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When Donald Trump began mixing right-wing populism with the demonization of Mexicans, Muslims, and – well, just about everybody – it brought to mind an old, reptilian strain of fascism and it revived sales of Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here.” Lewis’ book shows us that fascism damn well can happen here. And, yes, that photo above is of an all-too real Nazi rally in Madison Square garden in 1939.

People have been dreading this week, and for good reason.

When the New York Times reviewed Volker Ullrich’s book “Ascent,” it was obvious that the review was not merely about Hitler’s ascent to power but about someone closer to home. Now, with real neo-Nazis and white supremacists in the White House, no one can say “It Can’t Happen Here” was just a piece of fiction.

It’s happened already.

A while ago the New Yorker ran a cartoon with an amusing caption: “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it, while those who do study history are doomed to stand around helplessly while everyone else repeats it.”

So recently I’ve been re-reading Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” Arendt begins with the rise of antisemitism and moves on to nationalism, then to how citizens are isolated, the weak are stripped of their humanity, the average guy loses his remaining power by being subsumed into a mob, and how myth and lies become the dominant narrative. The world of “fake news” articles in Facebook streams or denying science is hardly a new one. And the complete and blitzschnell capitulation by the Republican establishment is shocking, but one that Arendt would have predicted.

Totalitarianism depends on desperation and the suspension of critical thinking – in other words, a society gone mad. Arendt writes:

“In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. … Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”

Last year Republicans managed to turn serious social and economic woes afflicting all Americans into End Times for a very specific constituency. During the presidential conventions last summer, for Democrats the glass was half full – and could topped off at leisure. Yes, they said, there were problems, but the nation had made progress and we were going to make even more. But for Republicans, the glass was totally empty. And shattered. And there were shards of glass in dead babies. White, Christian babies. And Democrats were gunning for the fathers.

By studying the rise of Nazism, Arendt figured out the importance of lies, doubt, insecurity and self-delusion. Her insights still hold today.

So when Trump and his Breitbart buddies make up their own “facts,” declare war on the “lying [mainstream] press” (some of them even use the Nazi word “Lügenpresse”):

“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.”

And when Trump speaks to white crowds and promises to make “America great again,” whitewashing national crimes, institutional racism and promoting American Exceptionalism and Christian White identity:

“The antisemites who called themselves patriots introduced that new species of national feeling which consists primarily in a complete whitewash of one’s own people and a sweeping condemnation of all others.”

And when Trump promises: “I’m going to fix everything. Trust me.”

“The point is that both Hitler and Stalin held out promises of stability in order to hide their intention of creating a state of permanent instability.”

We can feel the instability beginning this week as Trump begins dismantling all the agencies that protect citizens.

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And, as if he had somehow been reading Arendt himself – perhaps as a cookbook – this week the new president, his press secretary, and his apologists went to war with the press and with facts. Trump ordered media blackouts on a number of federal agencies.

Last year’s election season, with the emergence of an authoritarian candidate, got at least a couple of scholars wondering how a coup might unfold in the United States. Taziz Huq and Tom Ginzburg of the University of Chicago Law School, write:

Is the United States at risk of democratic backsliding? And would the Constitution prevent such decay? To many, the 2016 election campaign may be the immediate catalyst for these questions. But it is structural changes to the socio-economic environment and geopolitical shifts that make the question a truly pressing one. […] By drawing on comparative law and politics experience, we demonstrate that there are two modal paths of democratic decay, which we call authoritarian reversion and constitutional retrogression. A reversion is a rapid and near-complete collapse of democratic institutions. Retrogression is a more subtle, incremental erosion that happens simultaneously to three institutional predicates of democracy: competitive elections; rights of political speech and association; and the administrative and adjudicative rule of law. Over the past quarter century, we show that the risk of reversion has declined, while the risk of retrogression has spiked. The United States is not exceptional. We evaluate the danger of retrogression as clear and present, whereas we think reversion is much less likely. We further demonstrate that the constitutional safeguards against retrogression are weak. The near-term prospects of constitutional liberal democracy hence depend less on our institutions than on the qualities of political leadership and popular resistance.

We’re at risk. We’re not immune. And our now-gutted Constitution can’t help us. But while a coup may not be in the immediate future, Ginsburg says:

"We’re at this moment where it’s very good to be considering these things.

Indeed it is.

The Trump presidency

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Welcome to the Trump presidency.

In most democracies, leaders are elected by popular vote, not some crazy slave era concoction like the Electoral College. And in most parliamentary democracies citizens don’t have to suffer incompetence and corruption without relief. In most democracies there is a provision to hold new elections on a vote of no-confidence. But in the United States we either wait four years to throw the bum out – or we can try to impeach him. There is already a campaign underway to get rid of a president who started his term in violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution:

“… no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.”

Although conservatives wave away the word “emolument” as vague, it appears in Samuel Johnson’s 1775 dictionary, and still means today what it meant back then: profit; advantage. Constitutional lawyers, including Fordham Law Professor Zephyr Teachout and others from the Brookings Institution, argue that Trump cannot continue profiting from his international “deals,” especially when he is the only president in American history to refuse to divest himself of conflicts-of-interest.

The Trump cabinet, while not yet rubber-stamped by the Republican Congress, is shaping up to be a weird assortment of billionaires, generals, scammers, ideologues, and incompetents. God help us when Rick Perry assumes control of the Dept. of Energy’s nukes. Or when Ben Carson puts up the photo of himself and Jesus in his new HUD office. Before settling down to a nap. Or when Betsy deVos becomes the homeschooling czarina. Or when Jeff Sessions dismantles programs to reign in police violence against black lives.

You think Ferguson was bad…

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While Bill Clinton was actually impeached for consentual sex with a White House intern, Republicans seem less inclined to hold Trump to the same standard – or any standard at all. Trump’s ex-wife’s divorce deposition included charges that he raped her and there is a very long list of victims of his sexual abuse, including Summer Zervos, who is suing Trump for defamation. This particular case could bring evidence, including videos, to light.

A serial misogynist and abuser and his incompetent cabinet.

Thus, it was appropriate that millions of women marched in hundreds of American cities. By one count as many as 4.6 million women in 600 cities protested the crotch-grabber-in-chief:

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Pictures of the march were truly impressive. Washington DC was awash in pink. If you click on this link you can see the crowd from a drone-eye view:

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People from the SouthCoast (MA) also took part in local rallies.

And even before Trump’s inauguration, local demonstrators from the Coalition for Social Justice, the ACLU, and various unions and church groups were protesting Sheriff Thomas Hodgson’s publicity-stunted proposal to use prisoners for slave labor to build Trump’s Mexican wall. A photo from Ash Street:

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In today’s local paper Robert Xifaras wrote that, in his 87 years, he has never seen so many “‘shameless deplorable unpatriotic divisive malcontents’ who have entered into a conspiracy not only to attack the legitimacy of the election, but to further espouse […] hatred.” Show some respect for the office!

Mr. Xifaras has apparently only recently started following the news since he obviously missed the Birtherism and racism that Trump had a major hand in spreading.

Well, Republicans, have fun being in charge.

For now.