Friday, September 2, 2016


By Harry Targ,

The original essay appeared in The Rag Blog / September 9, 2010

 (Since the issues and context of 2016 are uncomfortably similar to what was written about 2010, it seemed appropriate to repost this essay making revisions adapted to 2016. The essay substitutes the Trump campaign for the then, but not deceased, Tea Party movement. In addition, the call for a broad-based movement to elect progressive candidates at all levels of government in 2010 parallels the Sanders campaign and his initiation of a grassroots organization called Our Revolution).

The working class built this country: Now we must mobilize to transform it

I want to add my voice to the thousands of essayists and bloggers who have been contemplating the 2016 elections, the media “framing” of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy, the role of progressives in the elections, and mobilizing for the last two months before the elections.

First, I think elections still matter. Since most people see politics and elections as equivalent and some of them actively participate in the electoral process, progressives need to be there as well.

In addition, in states and communities decisions will be made about how government money for local school corporations is to be allocated, about workers compensation for victims of asbestos related workplace injuries, so-called Right to Work laws, rules governing bargaining and organizing, support for women’s health,  and how congressional and state legislative districts will be redesigned.

At the national level, policy decisions about such critical issues as jobs, climate change, education, military spending, and judicial appointments will be affected by election outcomes.

Second, most of these issues have not been the main narrative. The media have framed the fall elections around personalities, particularly the inarticulate, bizarre, racist, and personality attacks of the Trump candidacy.

Third the “liberal” media, while more sophisticated and entertaining in its coverage of election year stories, over-emphasizes “making fun” of the outlandish Trump candidacy and his spokespersons and supporters.

In response, Trump staffers have decided to do two things: forget about trying to put together logical, coherent plans for an alternative set of policies. When they are occasionally challenged by enterprising reporters, they just walk away or the potentially embarrassing reporters are ejected from rallies.  Since the media is the enemy, for most Trump supporters, incoherence and evasiveness resonate well with a disillusioned public.

Fourth, part of the context for the unstable politics of the fall, 2016, is the continued economic crisis that grips working people. Unemployment, declining real wages, indebtedness, crumbling public services remain all too real, an actuality or a fear for the majority of Americans.

In addition, the Obama administration has failed to propose an economic stimulus program that could bring millions of un- and underemployed workers back to work, making livable wages. A massive green jobs program to create a well-paid workforce that would rebuilt the American infrastructure while shifting away from an economy based on fossil fuels never materialized as many had hoped. Meanwhile, the political system at all levels has failed to address institutional racism: police brutality, grotesque inequality, and political marginalization.

Having said all this, the administration since 2009 has forestalled return to depression with a modest economic recovery program, “saved” the U.S. auto industry, and has secured the passage of an inadequate health care reform bill but one which may stimulate movement toward a single payer system in the future.

A little history

A high level of distrust of government, low regard for politicians, and periodic active anger at our public institutions is a characteristic feature of American history often reflected in voting against political incumbents and supporting candidates who are most vocal against government programs.

For example, the American National Election Studies (ANES) prepared an index of Trust in Government made up of several questions reflecting the points just raised. Looking over time the level of trust in government was at a score of 49 in 1958, 52 in 1964, 27 in 1980, 29 in 1992, 36 in 2000, and declined to 26 by 2008. Only twice in the Johnson years, did the Trust Index reach a score over 60 and six times since 1958 the index score was below 30.

In addition, a constant feature of political life has been active and extremist politics. For example, the American Party of the 1850s, or “Know Nothing Party,” got its name from members being instructed when asked about the party to say “I know nothing.” While short-lived they elected several national and state office holders before the civil war.

Throughout U.S. history so-called “nativist” groups formed and mobilized against waves of immigrants: Catholics, Germans, the Irish, Chinese, Jews, and Latinos. Armed Klan organizations terrorized the South and the Midwest in the 1880s, 1920s and 1930s and dominated the political life in many states in these eras. The Klan and white nationalist groups have been reenergized in recent years.

Of course, extremist movements, often organized and funded by corporations and wealthy individuals, scared the American people during the dark days of anti-Communism in the 1940s and 1950s. Red Channels, a small but well-funded political organization, published lists of suspected Communists in the entertainment industry and pressured the new television corporations and advertisers to purge actors and actresses, with views supportive of labor, racial integration, and peace, from the airwaves. Their activism paralleled and reinforced Congressional reactionaries who used investigative committees to hound individuals and groups.

Alternatively, for all of Labor’s flaws, the history of the American labor movement has been central to social progress in the United States: from the demands for an eight hour day, skilled trades controls of the pace of work, health and safety at the work place, a fair wage, programs of health and retirement benefits, and, after much internal conflict, support for the struggles against racism and sexism. The civil rights, women’s, gay rights, environmental, and peace movements also have contributed to improvements in the quality of life in the United States.

There is no question that workers mobilizing in struggles such as “The Fight for Fifteen,” and young people of color in mobilizations like Black Lives Matter, represent the most powerful forces in today’s society resisting neoliberalism, state violence at home and abroad, the privatization of public institutions, deregulation of the economy, and attacks on the  environment.

A progressive campaign program

So what to do now? We live in a time of enormous distrust of government and corporate support for campaigns to undermine progressive government and pro-worker policies (the Koch brothers for example). In addition, racism, Islamophobia, and fear of foreigners run deep in American political culture and is being fueled by reactionary political candidates. Therefore, progressives have only one choice for the next two months: work to elect political candidates from the city council to the Congress of the United States who support an anti-racist “working people’s agenda.”

American political history tells us that the Tea Party and grassroots support for a candidate such as Donald Trump are not new. While the concern and anger reflected among those grassroots activists who participate in rallies and marches is usually sincere and motivated by fear of strange times and economic crises with no seeming resolution, its leaders offer no program, no vision, and no coherent agenda.

Progressives cannot argue with the Trump supporters. But, they can campaign, not just for individual candidates or just for a party but for an anti-racist “working people’s agenda,” that includes rebuilding America’s schools, roads, and energy systems; expands support for the maintenance of state and local public services; puts all people who want to work in jobs that need to be done; and regulates banks more effectively so that they are required to support local projects that create businesses which will create jobs. Also institutions at the local and state level must be controlled by the communities of people that these institutions are supposed to support.

Most important, progressives must work in their communities and in solidarity with workers, people of color, and youth to elect progressive candidates to public office and to monitor their conduct once they are elected. It must be made clear to all that the progressive majority is not engaged in politics to support candidates or parties but to transform America.