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Burlington, Vermont— The campaign signs all say: “Paid for by Bernie 2016 (Not the Billionaires).”
That is a given with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the proud democratic socialist who decries plutocracy and oligarchy and proposes to tax Wall Street. Sanders is the presidential contender who is not looking to win the favor of the hedge-fund managers, bankers and CEOs who define and dominate American politics.
The whole point of the audacious bid that Sanders has now formally launched for the Democratic presidential nomination is to upset the calculus of American politics. “Today,” he declared at the opening of Tuesday’s announcement address, “we stand here and say loudly and clearly that; ‘Enough is enough. This great nation and its government belong to all of the people, and not to a handful of billionaires, their Super-PACs and their lobbyists.’”
The senator attracted more than 100,000 contributions in the average amount of $42, along with hundreds of thousands of volunteer commitments, in his first days as a contender.
How far that will get him remains to be seen, but Sanders says he seeks nothing less than a “political revolution”—a change sufficient not merely to propel him into competition with frontrunner Hillary Clinton but to shift the political dynamic in America.
At the heart of the matter is a determination to shift power away from what Sanders refers to as “the billionaire class.”
Sanders is ready to rip into the oligarchs and plutocrats with a fury Democratic presidential contenders have rarely mustered since the days when Franklin Delano Roosevelt bid for a second term by recounting that:
We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace—business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.
They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.
Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.
Almost 80 years have passed since FDR uttered those words.
Yet it was possible to hear an echo on the shores of Lake Champlain Tuesday, when Sanders quoted the 32nd president—“As Franklin Delano Roosevelt reminded us, a nation’s greatness is judged not by what it provides to the most well-off, but how it treats the people most in need. And that’s the kind of nation we must become.” And when a wildly-enthusiastic crowd of Vermonters and others who had come from across the country to help launch an insurgent candidacy cheered Sanders’ declaration that:
This campaign is going to send a message to the billionaire class. And that is: you can’t have it all. You can’t get huge tax breaks while children in this country go hungry. You can’t continue sending our jobs to China while millions are looking for work. You can’t hide your profits in the Cayman Islands and other tax havens, while there are massive unmet needs on every corner of this nation. Your greed has got to end. You cannot take advantage of all the benefits of America, if you refuse to accept your responsibilities.
There will be those who attempt to portray what Sanders is saying—and what he is doing with this campaign—as new or radical. It is neither. The Sanders campaign is about something very old and very American. The United States was founded in revolt against monarchy and the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few very wealthy men. Throughout much of American history, serious contenders for the presidency—from Abraham Lincoln to William Jennings Bryan to Teddy Roosevelt to Robert M. La Follette to FDR to Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower warned against letting the affairs of state be guided by self-serving millionaires and billionaires.
In recent decades, however, the balance has tipped toward the billionaires.
The eternal premise that “all men (and women) are created equal,” the battlefield promise that this would be a land “of the people, by the people, for the people,” the pledge of “liberty and justice for all,” has been replaced by a call from a campaign donor to a pliant politician. The shift in our politics and our governance has yielded broken trade policies, bailouts for bankers and corporations, wage stagnation and income inequality.
For Sanders, that is unacceptable. And, he believes, changeable. “The bad news is that people like the Koch brothers can spend huge sums of money to create groups like the Tea Party,” he says. “The good news is that, once people understand the right-wing extremist ideology of the Koch brothers, they are not going to go along with their policies. In terms of fundamental economic issues: job creation, a high minimum wage, progressive taxation, affordable college education—the vast majority of people are on our side.”
Sanders will test that notion in the weeks and months to come. There will be plenty of cynics. But on a sunny day in his hometown of Burlington, there were thousands of believers—cheering as the candidate announced:
American democracy is not about billionaires being able to buy candidates and elections. It is not about the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson and other incredibly wealthy individuals spending billions of dollars to elect candidates who will make the rich richer and everyone else poorer. According to media reports the Koch brothers alone, one family, will spend more money in this election cycle than either the Democratic or Republican parties. This is not democracy. This is oligarchy. In Vermont and at our town meetings we know what American democracy is supposed to be about. It is one person, one vote—with every citizen having an equal say—and no voter suppression. And that’s the kind of American political system we have to fight for and will fight for in this campaign.
Read Next: John Nichols on Not Underestimating Bernie Sanders
Burlington, Vermont— For the first century after the founding of the Grand Old Party in 1854, Republicans dominated the politics of the state of Vermont like no other. For more than 100 years, Vermont Republicans won every major race for every statewide office. Republican presidential candidates from John Fremont in 1856 to George H.W. Bush in 1988—with the single exception of Barry Goldwater in 1964—won the Green Mountain State. For one of Vermont’s US Senate seats, an unbroken Republican winning streak continued from before the Civil War to the beginning of the 21st century.
Only in 2006 was the Senate seat streak broken with the election of a candidate who was not a Republican.
His name was Bernie Sanders.
Of all the announced and potential contenders for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, none has a longer track record of taking on tough races, beating incumbents, and upsetting the political calculus. Sanders has won 14 elections in Vermont, including ten straight races for the US House and US Senate as the most politically successful and longest serving independent member of Congress in American history.
That does not mean that Sanders, who today will formally launch his first presidential campaign, is anything other than a longshot in the 2016 Democratic contest. The proud democratic socialist is the first to acknowledge that it would take “a political revolution” for him to win the nomination, let alone the presidency. Yet those who dismiss Sanders as the product of what they presume to be the steadily liberal politics of a small New England state do not know much about the electoral history of Vermont or about the role that Bernie Sanders played in reshaping the state’s politics.
Sanders played a critical role in forging Vermont’s progressive reputation as an outsider candidate who beat incumbents, won statewide races when Republicans were taking the other top jobs, and upset partisan patterns that once seemed to be locked in stone. He has done so by audaciously challenging both major parties—defeating a Democratic mayor of Burlington in his first winning race and defeating a Republican congressman a little less than a decade later. Sanders has won Democratic primaries several times and then refused the nomination in order to pursue a November run as an independent. Now he seeks to win Democratic presidential primaries in a race with front-runner Hillary Clinton.
Clinton’s poll lead is daunting, both nationally and in key states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. But Sanders is posting poll numbers that suggest he could win delegates in both states. And he is just getting started with a run about which he says: “Don’t underestimate me.”
Sanders has to say that because, of course, political and media elites do tend to count presidential candidates like him out. Insurgents with track records of voting against wars and domestic spying and tax breaks for the wealthy are often dismissed. And when outsider candidates talk about breaking up big banks, taxing Wall Street speculators, providing free college education, and lifting the spell of austerity, the insider narrative invariably warns that they are too bold, too idealistic, too radical.
But Sanders likes to challenge political expectations.
He is willing to go against all odds, as he did as a third-party candidate for governor and US senator from Vermont, running on the ballot line of the proudly left-wing Liberty Union Party. Sanders lost those races, but he made a name for himself as progressive who knew the issues. And when he challenged expectations again in 1981, as an outsider leading a dissident coalition of Burlington’s workers, students, small-business owners, and low-income families, he beat the veteran Democratic mayor by 10 votes.
Sanders kept beating the Democrats and Republicans in Burlington in the 1980s, thanks to a conscious strategy of bringing thousands of new voters into the process. “If you ask me now what one of the major accomplishments of my political life is, it is that I helped double the voter turnout in Burlington, Vermont,” recalled Sanders in an interview last year. “I did that because people who had given up on the political process understood that I was fighting for working families, that we were paying attention to low- and moderate-income neighborhoods rather than just downtown or the big-money interests. In fact, I went to war with virtually every part of the ruling class in Burlington during my years as mayor. People understood that; they said, ‘You know what? Bernie is standing with us. We’re going to stand with him.’ The result is that large numbers of people who previously had not participated in the political process got involved. And that’s what we have to do for the whole country.”
In the mid- to late-1980s, at a time when Republicans Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush were winning the Vermont’s electoral votes, Sanders sought to take the Burlington model of progressive organizing statewide. He waged losing races for governor and the US House as an independent. Yet, with each run, he built out that coalition of working-class voters not just in Burlington but in many of the state’s most conservative towns. Thousands of voters began to split their ballots, voting for Republicans in some contests, but also voting for the man everyone began to call “Bernie.”
The breakthrough came in 1990, when Sanders beat Republican Congressman Peter Plymouth Smith, a well-regarded former lieutenant governor whom many saw as the rising star of the state’s GOP. Even though a Democrat peeled off a portion of the vote, Sanders secured 56 percent to Smith’s 40 percent. That was the first time a Republican incumbent had been beaten in a general election for a Vermont US House seat since the founding of the Republican Party—and only the second time that a non-Republican had won a seat since 1854.
Though his was a breakthrough win, Sanders did not serve cautiously. Rather, he served as a steady progressive, earning top ratings from labor, environmental, and civil-rights groups; playing a vital role in forming the Congressional Progressive Caucus; voting against free trade deals, the Patriot Act and the authorization of George W. Bush’s use of military force in Iraq. And he was steadily r-elected, surviving the “Republican wave” year of 1994 and pushing his percentages into the high 60s, even as Republicans were winning other statewide posts.
When Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords, a Republican who turned independent in his last term, announced that he was stepping down in 2006, Sanders jumped into a race that a number of Democrats would have liked to run. He won the Democratic primary and then declined the nomination, mounting an audacious independent run that was not supposed to be easy. Sanders faced a wealthy Republican who poured more than $7 million into the race, much of it spent on a crude negative advertising campaign. Though he was outspent and attacked, Sanders secured 65 percent of the vote in November, 2006. Notably, he did so at the same time that the state was re-electing a Republican governor. He was re-elected six years later with 71 percent of the vote.
Of the Democrats who are running—or who might run—this year for the presidency, most have notable track records of taking on tough races and winning. Hillary Clinton waded into the big-elbows world of New York politics, scared off the likes of then–New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and easily won a Senate seat in 2000. Martin O’Malley beat the incumbent Republican governor of Maryland in 2006 and was re-elected in the Republican-wave year of 2010. Jim Webb beat Virginia Republican Senator George Allen in 2006. Lincoln Chafee was elected governor of Rhode Island in 2010 as a progressive independent. But Bernie Sanders has a distinct record of upsetting the political calculus—so distinct that, when he says “Don’t underestimate me,” he means it.
Read Next: John Nichols on Ireland’s vote for marriage equality
Ireland is not a perfect land, as the Irish are generally quite willing to acknowledge.
But Ireland did a perfect thing on Friday.
Other countries have permitted lesbians and gays to marry—and subsections of countries have done so, as is the case in the Unites States. But this have tended to happen via legislative and judicial action. Ireland has done so by a vote of the people—an overwhelming vote—and it is the first country in the world to have made the choice by popular referendum.
Headlines in The Irish Times recognized more than an election result. It was, they suggested “a national boat-rocking” that might well have “changed the republic forever.”
Ireland, a predominantly Catholic country that is often portrayed as socially conservative (and that still wrestles with a host of issues, most notable reproductive rights), has done a very socially liberal, very progressive thing. And it has not done so in small measure. The turnout for Friday’s referendum was over 60 percent— a notably higher level of participation than the United States saw in the 2012 presidential election, and a dramatically higher level of participation than was seen in the 2014 elections that decided control of the US Congress. The desire to get this thing right was so strong that Irish men and women who are working around the world came #hometovote, creating magical scenes of young people arriving on ferries singing: “It will not be long, Love, ‘Till our wedding day.”
Fintan O’Toole, the great Irish essayist who has been Europe’s wisest critics of the global stumble toward austerity and lowered expectations, hailed the result as the streets of Dublin and other cities filled for celebrations Saturday
“We’ve made it clear to the world that there is a new normal—that ‘ordinary’ is a big, capacious word that embraces and rejoices in the natural diversity of humanity. LGBT people are now a fully acknowledged part of the wonderful ordinariness of Irish life,” O’Toole wrote. “It looks like a victory for tolerance. But it’s actually an end to mere toleration. Tolerance is what “we” extend, in our gracious goodness, to ‘them.’ It’s about saying ‘You do your own thing over there and we won’t bother you so long as you don’t bother us.’”
“The resounding ‘Yes’ is a statement that Ireland has left tolerance far behind,” he explained. “It’s saying that there’s no ‘them’ anymore. LGBT people are us—our sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, neighbors and friends. We were given the chance to say that. We were asked to replace tolerance with the equality of citizenship. And we took it in both arms and hugged it close.”
The United States does not hold national referendums or constitutional concerns. There are no electoral structures for giving voters a chance to think big, to make bold statements on a national level, in the way that Ireland did this year on the issue of marriage equality, or that Scotland did last year when more than 85 percent of voters participated in a referendum on independence.
American governing and media elites have historically refused to recognize that what matters most in politics is not politicians or parties. It is the great choice making, where citizens are invited to weigh the most profound and consequential issues. Too many issues are taken off the table in the United States, where electoral processes are drowned in corporate and billionaire money and diminished by the negative ads that are the lingua franca of contemporary electioneering.
We have so delinked American democracy from issues that, in 2014, millions of Americans voted for an exceptionally progressive agenda in referendums—on raising wages, expanding access to Medicare, extending paid-sick leave, banning fracking, and amending the constitution to limit the dominance of corporations—and then turned around and voted for candidates and parties that opposed the agenda.
The people are not to blame for this. The candidates seek to create confusion, as do the parties. Campaign consultants work overtime to assure that partisanship prevails over principle. That’s why turnout keeps declining and frustration with our political and legislative processes grows with each election season.
Instead of worrying as much as we do about candidates and campaigns of the moment, Americans ought to be asking themselves: How do we get a better politics? They should not hesitate to embrace big reforms: constitutional amendments along the lines suggested by Congressmen Keith Ellison and Mark Pocan, new voting systems along the lines suggested by FairVote, new models for direct democracy along the lines considered by Yale Law School professor Akhil Reed Amar. The goal ought not be to advantage one side or another. The goal ought to be to make real the promise of democracy: with exceptionally high turnout elections that put big issues on the table for everyone to decide—and that value votes more than the cynical manipulations of campaign consultants and the billionaires they serve.
“Nobody has been diminished,” Fintan O’Toole wrote after the referendum results were recorded. “Irish people comprehensively rejected the notion that our republic is a zero-sum game, that what is given to one must be taken from another. Everybody gains from equality—even those who didn’t think they wanted it. Over time, those who are in a minority on this issue will come to appreciate the value of living in a pluralist democracy in which minorities are respected.”
“By pushing forward on what only recently seemed a marginal issue, the LGBT community has given all of Irish democracy one of its greatest days. It has given our battered republic a new sense of engagement, a new confidence, an expanded sense of possibility,” explained the great champion of vibrant social engagement. “It has shown all of us that the unthinkable is perfectly attainable. We now have to figure out how to rise to that daunting and exhilarating challenge.”
Americans should want to feel that same sense of hope and possibility. We, too, should recognize that the unthinkable is perfectly attainable. And we should forge a politics that embraces to that daunting and exhilarating challenge. O’Toole sent a tweet amid all the celebration in Ireland. It read: “To all our US friends watching: this is what ‘the pursuit of happiness’ means. Go for it.”
The decision on whether to surrender the authority of the US Congress to amend and potentially improve trade agreements goes to the very heart of whether the United States respects democracy. If members of the House and Senate cannot check and balance executive branch choices that will define the economic future of the country, then the ability of the American people to petition for the redress of economic and social grievances and to have those grievances addressed by their elected representatives is severely undermined. That is what is at stake with debates about whether to eliminate basic congressional oversight of trade deals, via the “fast track” Trade Promotion Authority that President Obama seeks.
The vote Thursday by the Senate to shut down debate on a measure to provide Obama with this authority was the first step in the deconstruction of the democratic processes by which citizens can influence not just trade but economic policy. If the Senate now approves fast track, and if the House goes along with the plan, then the ability to alter or improve sweeping new trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership will be lost. All that will remain is a take-it-or-leave-it vote on final approval of a deal negotiated behind closed doors and without adequate scrutiny by the American people or their elected representatives.
It came when 13 Democrats joined 49 Republicans in supporting a cloture motion Thursday. Thirty-one Democrats, two independents who caucus with the Democrats, and five Republicans opposed the move to shut down debate about amendments and to effectively restrict meaningful discourse on what the measure’s sponsor, Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, described as “quite possibly the most important debate that we’ll have all year in Congress.”
Among the senators who are current or potential presidential prospects, Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, voted “no,” as did Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts. So, too, did Senator Rand Paul, R-Kentucky. But Republicans Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida sided with the Obama White House and the corporate interests that have advocated aggressively for fast track and the TPP.
The Senate’s 62-38 decision to end debate on the president’s proposal to fast-track what could be the largest trade deals in American history was a travesty. Senators who had put up some resistance last week rushed to approve a proposal before a scheduled holiday break. “Instead of getting this bill done by Memorial Day, we should get it done right.” argued Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown. “We should not vote on fast track without debate on amendments that would stand up for workers and manufacturers against unfair foreign trade practices.”
Brown’s objection was spot on. But it did not end there.
The Democrat who, since the mid-1990s has been one of the ablest and most engaged analysts of trade policy, detailed the absurdity of Thursday’s rushed vote.
“Fast track authority hasn’t been debated in 13 years and this bill will allow expedited consideration of the largest trade agreement we’ve ever negotiated. More than 200 amendments have been filed by 46 senators, yet we’ve only voted on two,” argued Brown, the author of a highly regarded book on trade debates and policies, Myths of Free Trade: Why American Trade Policy Has Failed (New Press). “With American jobs and more than 60 percent of the world’s economy on the line, we need to get this right.”
The Senate did not get it right on Thursday.
Specifically, the cloture vote limited debate and blocked amendments.
Practically, the cloture vote erected another barrier to the popular input and pressure—and the responses of elected representatives to this input and pressure—that makes real the promise of democracy.
Read Next: John Nichols on Jim Kenney and Philadelphia
The billionaires who play politics with America make some of their biggest plays in some of our biggest cities. They identify candidates who share their penchant for “school choice” schemes, vouchers, and privatization—like Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel—and they pour money into slick TV ads that sometimes tip the balance of urban elections.
Sometime, but not always. Bill de Blasio was elected mayor of New York in 2013 as a progressive, as were Marty Walsh in Boston and Betsy Hodges in Minneapolis. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka scored a breakthrough victory in 2014 as the candidate of a coalition of union activists and public-education advocates. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia forced a runoff against Emanuel in Chicago this year and took a solid 44 percent of the vote on April 7. Then, on Tuesday, the guy the Philadelphia Daily News called “Jimmy from the block” beat the big spenders to become the Democratic nominee for mayor of America’s fifth-largest city.
Jim Kenney, a 56-year-old Irish-American pol from South Philly whom few expected to see making a serious bid for the city’s top job this year, won an epic landslide victory and is now the favorite to lead the city after next November’s election. If that happens, Kenney will lead from the left, as a progressive who Pennsylvania Working Families Executive Director Kati Sipp says “ran on a platform of supporting Philly public schools, raising the minimum wage, and ending stop-and-frisk.”
“This election shows that a candidate propped up by big money can be beaten out by a candidate who stands for true progressive values,” explained Sipp.
That’s right. But there is a little more to it.
Kenney did not make a timely embrace of the big-tent progressive politics that is suddenly in vogue—at least among Democrats—as America struggles to focus on issues of racial and economic injustice, environmental crisis, wage stagnation, and income inequality. He practiced it, for decades. When unions went on strike, “Jimmy-from-the-block” showed up with his picket sign—telling folks about how he “washed dishes after school as a member of Local 274” and earned his first union card at 17. When concerns arose about racial and ethnic divisions, he showed up for community meetings and established alliances with African-America, Asian-American, and Latino activists. When he saw discrimination against gays and lesbians, he championed a groundbreaking LGBTQ Equality Bill. When kids were getting busted, facing the threat of criminal records and even jail time for minor offenses, he worked to decriminalize marijuana. When neighborhoods were getting socked by corporate polluters, he helped set up a City Council Environmental Committee to put clean air, clean water, and solar power on the agenda in City Hall.
Kenney toyed with a mayoral bid. But it didn’t look likely even as the campaign was getting started.
State Senator Anthony Williams was the early front-runner, and he seemed to have all the advantages in a multi-candidate field that included a former district attorney, a former city solicitor, a former legislator, and a corporate executive. Williams was a powerful legislative leader and former gubernatorial candidate; he had a lot of the right connections in city and state government; and he was closely aligned with a group of billionaires who, The Philadelphia Inquirer noted, “share Williams’ views”—especially on “expanding charter schools, and using tax dollars to pay for private-school tuition vouchers.”
In January, as labor and community groups sought to identify a progressive alternative to Williams, they turned to Kenney. It was an audacious notion: that “Jimmy-from-the-block” might beat the political and economic power that was arrayed to seize City Hall. But he gave up his council seat and started running.
What made the run work was not just Kenney’s stands on the issues. It was memory. Folks remembered when “Jimmy-from-the-block” had been there for them. When Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals President Patty Eakin announced the union’s endorsement, she recalled that “Jim Kenney stood by us in 2010 when we had to strike at Temple University Hospital in order to protect our right to advocate on behalf of our patients.” The nurses were out knocking doors for Kenney on their breaks, as were the teachers, whose union, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, noted that “Kenney’s views on public education and other issues faced by working families made him the clear choice of Philadelphia’s educators.” On Earth Day, the city’s major environmental groups backed the candidate who promised to make Philadelphia “the greenest city in America.” And, despite suggestions from pundits that a white councilman could not hope to secure substantial support in a race with a prominent African-American official such as Williams, Kenney started winning endorsements from African-American legislators and council members who celebrated his opposition to stop-and-frisk policing and public education. “I know what’s in Jim’s heart,” declared Councilwoman Marian Tasco. “He sat next to me in city council for 23 years…”
As a labor- and community-backed, multi-racial coalition came together for Kenney, and as he began to surge in the polls, the billionaires doubled down. “One group, American Cities, raised $6.8 million as of May 4 to support state Sen. Anthony H. Williams for mayor, with 97 percent coming from three guys on the Main Line who founded a stock trading firm,” reported the Inquirer.
That was roughly five times what the Kenney campaign raised. In fact, as Philadelphia magazine explained a week before the election, “the amount of the money that American Cities still had left in the bank Monday is more than any of the individual mayoral candidates raised since Jan. 1st. Or here’s another way to think about it: American Cities raised more money this year than all of the six Democratic mayoral candidates combined.”
But Jim Kenney still had those nurses and teachers and gay rights activists and environmental advocates and Councilwoman Tasco, and they were still knocking on doors—still arguing that cities should be on the side of workers and neighborhoods and civil rights and public education.
When the votes were counted Tuesday night, that message—not the one in the ads paid for by the billionaires—prevailed.
Former Philadelphia city solicitor Ken Trujillo, a progressive favorite who stepped out of the race early on and backed Kenney, said that, while some candidates might project a sense of political entitlement, “Jim, from the beginning, had a humility about his candidacy. He never acted like he was entitled to it.”
On election night, in a packed banquet hall on Philadelphia’s North Broad Street, Kenney’s “historic coalition” gathered on Tuesday night. The Inquirer declared that here “stood the real-life evidence of the unlikely coalition that Democratic nominee James F. Kenney created—Irish Catholics, cops and firefighters, gays and lesbians, building trades unions, black politicians who crossed the color line for a white candidate.”
“It’s a great hodgepodge,” State Representative Brian Sims, Pennsylvania’s first openly gay elected legislator announced. “We wanted somebody who knew all of us and had worked with all of us.”
Up on the stage, Jim Kenney waved a clenched fist of solidarity to the cheering crowds and proceeded to thank the unions and the activists and elected officials, one by one, name after name, for sticking with him. They had proven something about politics, not just in Philadelphia but in America.
Sometimes, great piles of money are not enough.
Sometimes, great coalitions of people win out.
Sometimes, “Jimmy from the block” beats the billionaires.
Read Next: John Nichols on Bernie Sanders’s plan to tax wall street and make college free
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders keeps bending the rules of Senate service and presidential campaigning by offering up proposals that imagine America as the fair, functional, and prosperous country it could be. Instead of playing politics within the narrow lines prescribed by the partisans and pundits who police the political process in America, the recently announced contender for the Democratic presidential nomination is going big—this week with a plan to provide tuition-free higher education for students at four-year colleges and universities in the United States.
“We live in a highly competitive global economy and, if our economy is to be strong, we need the best-educated work force in the world,” says Sanders. “That will not happen if, every year, hundreds of thousands of bright young people cannot afford to go to college, and if millions more leave school deeply in debt.”
The contender for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination is, of course, right.
But the United States isn’t supposed to be able to do the right thing anymore.
According to the Republicans who are running Congress—and running for president—there’s just no money for free higher education. Or for other useful initiatives. In an age of austerity, as defined by House Rules Committee chairman Paul Ryan and his minions, we are told that all Americans have to look forward to are more cuts, more privatization, wage stagnation, and staggering income inequality.
Ryan and his ideological amen corner moan that there’s just no money for programs that might educate and employ and care for Americans.
Of course, there is money: trillions of dollars that can be freed up, at the drop of a hat (or a stock market), to bail out banks and fund wars. But Republicans like Ryan and the contenders for his party’s 2016 presidential nomination claimthe country is damn-near broke—with just enough money left for one more tax cuts for one more billionaire campaign donor. And, too frequently, America’s “fair and balanced” media and compromised and compromising Democratic Partygo alongwith the fantasy.
What has distinguished Sanders’s Senate service and his presidential bid is a refusal to buy intothe lie of austerity. Instead, the senator is identifying problems that need to be solved and identifying where the money to solve them can be found.
Consider the legislation Sanders is sponsoring to provide tuition-free higher education for college students. This is not a new idea. As the senator notes, “Countries like Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and many more are providing free or inexpensive higher education for their young people. They understand how important it is to be investing in their youth. We should be doing the same.”
“We used to lead the world in the percentage of our people who graduated college. Today we are in 12th place,” argues Sanders. “We used to have great universities tuition free. Today they are unaffordable. I want a more educated work force. I want everybody to be able to get a higher education regardless of their income.”
The case for eliminating undergraduate tuition at public colleges and universities—and for substantially lowering student debt and bringing down interest rates on college loans—is sound. And popular.
So we have an appealing proposal that makes economic and social sense.
Cue the chorus of “we can’t afford that.”
But Sanders says we can.
At the same time that the senator is proposing to make higher education free he is also proposing that the United States follow the lead of other countries that have introduced a financial transactions tax. Under the comprehensive plan proposed by the senator—which would also overhaul student loan programs to eliminate profiteering and expand work-study options to keep costs down—“the federal share of the cost would be offset by [revenues raised from the] tax on Wall Street transactions by investment houses, hedge funds and other speculators.”
Specifically, Sanders is sponsoring Senate legislation to introduce a nominal financial transactions tax on speculative trading in stocks, bonds, derivatives, and other financial instruments. Parallel to the Inclusive Prosperity Act, a measure sponsored by Congressman Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, the Sanders proposal would bring the United States up to speed with the dozens of other nations that have recognized the wisdom of establishing financial transactions taxes.
European nations have focused on financial transactions taxes because, as the European Commission explains, “Member States and their citizens want to ensure that the financial sector makes a fair and substantial contribution to public finances. Moreover, the sector should pay back at least part of what the European tax payers have pre-financed in the context of the bank rescue operations.”
In addition to raising revenues, financial transactions taxes have been embraced as tools to reduce the risks of high-speed and irresponsible speculative trading, explains the commission.
National Nurses United Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro, whose union has been outspoken in its advocacy for a “Robin Hood Tax” on the speculators, says that the Sanders plan can raise hundreds of billions of dollars every year to pay for higher education.
The financial transactions tax “is the perfect way to fund this program, as well as providing the resources we need for other vital humanitarian needs, including healthcare and good paying jobs for all, affordable housing, eradicating poverty and environmental justice,” said DeMoro. “It is the hallmark of a civilized society and a more just nation.”
More than 170 labor, civil rights, religious, environmental, community, consumer, and student groups have endorsed America’s campaign for a Robin Hood Tax, joining groups in countries around the world that have embraced the movement.
There’s a reason for this widespread interest in financial transactions taxes: economic realism.
“Income inequality is now at the center of our national political discourse, with politicians of every stripe recognizing it as a major problem of our time,” explains George Goehl, the executive director of National People’s Action. “What too few are willing to say is that we must demand more revenue from corporations and the one percent to level the playing field.”
Sanders, Ellison, and a hardful of other members of Congress are saying it: arguing that the United States can recognize human and societal needs, come up with plans to address them, and find the resources to get the job done.
That’s a rejection of economic austerity. But it is also something else: a rejection of the political austerity—as practiced by Republicans and Democrats—that has prevented progress for too long.
Read Next: John Nichols on Russ Feingold Running for the Senate
Russ Feingold is running again for the United States Senate. That’s got DC insiders excited, because the former senator is way ahead in the polls and his victory in 2016 could play a critical role in tipping control of the Senate backed to the Democrats.
But Feingold has never been one for simple partisanship. His independence is legendary—as is his determination to stand on principle against not just Republicans and Wall Street but his own party and its leaders.
To a greater extent than anyone who has served in the Senate in recent decades, Feingold has a reputation for getting ahead of major issues and getting them right. It is a reputation forged not by reading polls or accepting the compromise-prone Washington way of doing things but by rejecting a failed political “consensus” and instead choosing to champion civil liberties, peace, clean elections, and, above all, economic fairness.
Russ Feingold cast the sole Senate vote against the Patriot Act in 2001. He was right about that, and most people who pay attention to politics are aware of his visionary stance.
Russ Feingold was in the minority that voted against authorizing George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to take the United States to war with Iraq in 2002. He was right about that, and most people who pay attention to politics are aware of his visionary stance.
Russ Feingold fought for the better part of a decade (usually with Arizona Senator John McCain) to address the worst abuses of a campaign finance system that the Wisconsinite warned was becoming a vehicle for the “legalized bribery” of elected officials. Feingold was right to fight when he did, and most people who pay attention to politics are aware of his visionary stance.
What fewer people are aware of is the fact that when he served in the Senate from 1993 to 2011 Feingold was equally visionary on the great economic issues of the our times. Indeed, long before there was an Elizabeth Warren in the Senate, there was a Russ Feingold—opposing bad trade deals, taking on the big banks and battling to forge an economy that worked for all Americans.
As he bids again for the Senate, in a candidacy announced Thursday, Feingold will focus on the economic fairness issues that have been his passion since his days as a state legislator representing the farms and factory towns of south-central Wisconsin.
“People tell me all the time that our politics and Washington are broken. And that multi-millionaires, billionaires and big corporations are calling the shots. They especially say this about the U.S. Senate, and it’s hard not to agree. But what are we going to do? Get rid of the Senate?” Feingold asked in his campaign announcement. “Actually, no one I’ve listened to says we should throw in the towel and give up—and I don’t think that either.”
Feingold says his focus in 2016 will be on the restoring the “economic well-being” of a state and a nation hard hit by the austerity agendas of Republicans in Washington—including Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan and the senator Feingold is challenging, Tea Party favorite Ron Johnson.
Johnson, a millionaire who says he takes his cues from Ayn Rand novels, beat Feingold in the Republican-wave year of 2010 by a 52-47 margin. But the incumbent’s over-the-top partisanship and extreme stances (on economic and foreign-policy issues) has saddled him with dismal approval ratings. The latest Marquette Law School Poll gives Feingold a 54-38 lead over the incumbent. The same poll pointed to widespread frustration with the budget proposals of Johnson ally Scott Walker, and with the weakness of the Wisconsin economy.
That Feingold is framing his campaign on an “economic well-being” agenda will come as no surprise.
The last several years have seen a great turn in American politics toward an understanding of popular frustration with economic inequality and crony capitalism. It’s not just Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders; even traditionally centrist Democrats such as Hillary Clinton and Republicans such as Jeb Bush are talking about restoring a measure of balance and fairness to the American economy.
What distinguishes Feingold—who spent the last five years writing, teaching, serving as a diplomat in Africa, and working with the group Progressives United—is a track record on economics that makes him, in the words of Democracy for America chair Jim Dean, “precisely the kind of fighter and truth-teller our country needs in the U.S. Senate.”
Feingold was in the Senate minority that voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, and against the permanent normalization of trade relations with China in 2000. He warned of the threat that corporate-guided globalization would put the United States on a race to the bottom that would see factory closings, job losses, and an undermining of democracy.
Feingold was one of just eight senators to vote against lifting Glass-Steagall Act protections against abusive banking practices. He warned about the threat posed to consumers and to the whole of the US economy by the growth of “too-big-to-fail” banks—and about the prospect that those banks would use their power to force taxpayers to pay for their failures. When the meltdown came in 2008, Feingold voted against the Wall Street bailout. And two years later, he opposed the watered-down Dodd-Frank “reforms” because they failed to address the fundamental flaws of a ‘regulatory’ system that let’s big banks call the shots.
Feingold fought, throughout his Senate career, for a rethinking of tax and investment policies that would stop rewarding firms that shut factories, lay off workers and move jobs overseas, and instead use the power of tax policy and investment to encourage the creation of living-wage jobs in the United States. Instead of corporate-welfare giveaways, he proposed incentives for firms to expand employment and payrolls—especially in the hardest-pressed neighborhoods and most-neglected rural regions of the country. As the Economic Policy Institute observed several years ago, Feingold’s approach represented the smart alternative to austerity.
Again and again as a US Senator, Feingold broke with Democratic and Republican presidents to stand for Main Street economics—fighting for jobs and job creation while challenging the excesses and abuses of behemoth banks and multinational corporations.
He’s ready to take up the fight once more.
As Feingold says, “We need to get started fixing all this.”
Read Next: John Nichols on the federal funding of transportation and infrastructure
America’s “high-speed” rail lines are slow compared with those of the countries with which the United States chooses to compare itself. The schedules are unsteady. And, as the horrific crash of an Amtrak train in Philadelphia Tuesday night illustrated, safety concerns are on the rise.
The Federal Railroad Administration’s Office of Safety Analysis has seen a steady rise in Amtrak derailments in recent years. According to a Washington Post review of the data, “there were two in 2012, three in 2013, six in 2014…”
In the first two months of 2015, however, there were at least nine derailments. But it is the latest Amtrak Northeast Corridor derailment, with at least seven dead and roughly 200 hurt, that is renewing talk about how this country’s rail system is in serious need of repair.
The first priority is to mourn for the dead and to care for the injured in a regional tragedy that has national implications. But even amid the initial news reports, there was constant referencing of what Donald Trump was quick to decry as America’s “horrible infrastructure problems.” The Obama White House agreed, with spokesman Josh Earnest saying Wednesday morning, “There is clearly more that can be done when we’re talking about a railway infrastructure that is decades-old.”
The cause of the crash is still being investigated. There are reports that the train was traveling too fast for a turn it had to make—raising issues of human error, safety protocols, unaddressed dangers, and the role that smart infrastructure investment might have played in making the route smoother and safer. The most telling headline in this regard appeared in Friday morning’s New York Times: “Technology That Could Have Prevented Amtrak Derailment Was Absent.” The fact is that train crashes happen for a lot of reasons, some of which are difficult to control against. But there is no question that the role played by outdated and decaying infrastructure can be addressed by the federal government. Nor is there much question that one of the best ways to assure that human errors do not lead to disasters is by keeping equipment, track and systems up to date. Unfortunately, as a Bloomberg Business report explained Wednesday morning, “There’s a lack of political will.”
Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, a key Democrat working on transportation issues in the Senate said Wednesday that “even before last night it was clear that there’s more we can do as a nation to make rail travel safer and more reliable. Millions of Americans rely on rail to travel up and down the Northeast Corridor each year, and yet Congress refuses to make the investments needed to maintain and expand rail lines and safety features.”
The Philadelphia derailment, which occurred in the middle of national Infrastructure Week, highlights mounting concerns about infrastructure decay. “The Northeast Corridor, which runs between Boston and Washington, is one of the railroad’s busiest and most profitable lines,” reported The New York Times in its main story on the crash. “But officials have long complained that the agency needs more subsidies from Congress to improve the railroad’s deteriorating infrastructure and replace aging equipment.”
Bloomberg’s Wednesday morning report asked: “Did Old Infrastructure Contribute to Amtrak Derailment?” Answer: “It’s not just the trains, it’s the tracks.… they are getting old and they need a lot of maintenance.”
This is not a new concern. Officials in Washington have been regularly reminded in recent years of the problems plaguing America’s passenger rail system.
In a prescient article published last month, National Journal asked, “Why Can’t America Have Great Trains?”
The answer had a lot to do with politics—especially the politics of those whose determination to cut federal spending is as ardent as it is impractical.
“Along with PBS and the United States Postal Service, Amtrak is perpetual fodder for libertarian think-tankers and Republican office-seekers on the prowl for government profligacy,” explained Simon van Zuylen-Wood. “Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush repeatedly tried to eliminate its subsidy, while Mitt Romney promised to do the same. Democrats, for their part, aren’t interested in slaying Amtrak, but mostly you get the sense they just feel bad for it.”
National Journal detailed the challenges facing Amtrak, as compared with the ever-improving rail systems of developed nations, and concluded that “those stats don’t figure to improve anytime soon. While Amtrak isn’t currently in danger of being killed, it also isn’t likely to do more than barely survive. Last month, the House of Representatives agreed to fund Amtrak for the next four years at a rate of $1.4 billion per year. Meanwhile, the Chinese government—fair comparison or not—will be spending $128 billion this year on rail.”
The House proposal for Amtrak reauthorization includes one change of consequence, and it looks good at first glance. The House measure would make it easier for the Northeast Corridor to reinvest in infrastructure improvements on its own lines rather than forcing it to subsidize improvements on less-profitable routes nationwide. But that’s not an appropriate response, as it attempts to solve one funding problem by creating another.
The Senate has not gotten around to acting on Amtrak reauthorization. The awful news from Philadelphia, involving a rail line many members of Congress and Washington insiders ride, is likely to bring action. But simple reauthorization is not the answer. The House measure is ill-conceived and insufficient.
That is just the beginning of the investment that is required for the renewal of rail—and the broader infrastructure of the United States.
Safety concerns can and should motivate investment. But so, too, should concerns for job creation and economic development.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has made the case for a broader commitment to infrastructure central to his advocacy for a progressive agenda.
Reflecting on crowded mass transit, traffic jams and related issues in a Wednesday New York Times opinion piece, de Blasio, one of the nation’s most prominent Democrats, and Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, a Republican, wrote:
Federal investment has not kept pace with this demand, resulting in an outdated, overburdened surface transportation system that is ill equipped to handle current, let alone future, need. Spending on infrastructure in the United States has sunk to 1.7 percent of gross domestic product, a 20-year low.
The Department of Transportation estimates that by 2030, it will cost $84 billion to $105 billion a year just to keep the highway, bridge and transit systems in good repair, and up to $170 billion a year to improve conditions and performance.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world races ahead. Europe spends 5 percent of G.D.P. on infrastructure, and China 9 percent. Global cities like London and Beijing are investing in transit and rail projects on a vast scale, while in New York City, more than 160 bridges were built over a century ago, and large portions of our subway’s signal system are more than 50 years old. Some of the subway cars we ride in were built before 1975.
This isn’t for want of local resources. Over the past decade, New York City has increased commitments to capital projects by 50 percent. But we could not do it all on the local level even if we wanted to.
That’s a wise assessment. And it ought to be taken seriously by a Congress that has neglected infrastructure for too long. The Laborers’s International Union of North America sums the problem up well when it says, “Our nation’s infrastructure is failing us and so is Congress by not fixing it.”
Read Next: John Nichols on Democrat’s rejecting the TPP deal
President Obama takes it personally when Americans disagree with his free-trade fundamentalism. He keeps griping about the Democrats who usually support his agenda but are ardently opposed to his request for “fast track” authority to bypass congressional input and oversight on a sweeping Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
The president has from the start of the debate over fast track and the TPP had a practical problem: If most congressional Democrats align with labor, environmental, and human-rights activists rather than the White House—as they appear intent upon doing— they can block Obama’s trade agenda. In the Senate, just 40 votes are required to erect a procedural barrier to fast-track legislation. In the House, a reasonably united Democratic caucus could align with the significant number of Republicans who have traditionally opposed unrestricted free trade to thwart fast track and/or the TPP itself.
On Tuesday, the first major test came in the Senate, and the president lost. Sixty votes were required to open a debate on fast track, but only 52 senators voted to go forward. Forty-two Democrats and two independents who caucus with the Democrats, Vermont’s Bernie Sanders and Maine’s Angus King, voted “no.”
The trade fight is not finished; negotiations with Senate Republicans who favor Obama’s agenda could make the fast-track proposal more attractive to at least a few wavering Democrats. And if that happens, expect Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell to exercise the option he has retained to bring the issue up again.
Unless and until that happens, however, the president has taken a hard hit. It happened because a number of traditionally pro–free trade Democrats, who had been expected to vote with Obama and the Republicans, joined with the Senate’s growing caucus of fair-trade Democrats to block action.
This was what the president feared would happen.
In the run-up to Tuesday’s vote, the president made no secret of his frustration with his fellow Democrats.
“There have been a bunch of critics about trade deals generally and the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” he griped to the crowd that was assembled last week for his appearance at the corporate headquarters of Nike, a US-based firm that (with its contractors) now employs roughly 40 overseas workers for every one American. And, the president explained, a lot of the critics are Democrats who he has traditionally thought of as his partisan and ideological allies.
Instead of listening to their objections, however, Obama simply announced that he was right and the Democrats who have backed him on so many other issues were wrong.
The problem is that the “evidence” the president has mustered on behalf of fast track and the TPP is unconvincing. In part that’s because, as Bernie Sanders warned with regard to proponents of free-trade deals during Tuesday’s Senate debate, “These folks have been proven wrong time after time after time.” But there is also the fact that the current promises are so hollow. Consider the case of Nike and that 40-1 ratio. Even if every promise about the benefits of free trade and the TPP were to come true—an exceptionally unlikely prospect if the history of trade pacts is any guide—the ratio of overseas workers to Americans employed by Nike and its contractors would shift to somewhere in the range of 30-1. That best-case scenario, everyone admits, would take more than a decade to be achieved. And, though fewer admit it, much of the new employment would likely involve technical workers developing automated production schemes that reduce rather than increase living-wage employment in the US and abroad.
Yet Obama has dismissed those who disagree with him as somehow wrongheaded and ignorant. “[What’s] interesting is typically they’re my friends coming from my party,” he said of the fast-track and TPP critics. “And they’re my fellow travelers on minimum wage and on job training and on clean energy and on every progressive issue, they’re right there with me. And then on this, they’re like whupping on me.”
Why does the president think this is so? “[On] this issue, on trade,” he says, “I actually think some of my dearest friends are wrong. They’re just wrong.”
Obama’s criticisms of fellow Democrats, which became more and more intense as Tuesday’s Senate vote approached, disregarded not just the honest concerns of Democratic members of the House and Senate but the sincere objections of union members, environmentalists, civil-rights, and human-rights activists.
Ultimately, the president’s approach harmed his own credibility, as his comments created the impression that he was unaware of the long experience, and the deep insight, possessed by progressive critics of free-trade absolutism. The largest and steadiest public-education project on a major economic issue in modern history has played out over the past quarter-century in union halls and church basements and community centers across the country, as Americans have wrestled with the promises and realities of trade policy.
The people the president keeps saying are “wrong”—a group that includes Senate minority leader Harry Reid, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Sanders and most House Democrats—are not unthinking protectionists or crude isolationists. They are supporters of workers, the environment, and human rights in the United States and abroad. They have come to recognize that, while fair trade holds immense promise, free trade along the lines the United States has practiced it in recent decades has done immense damage.
The most ardent opponents of fast track and the TPP have firsthand experience with failed trade policies. They have seen what the North American Free Trade Agreement, the permanent normalization of trade with China and other trade arrangements have done to their communities.Their current position is rooted in an understanding that, as Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison (a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and an early supporter of Obama’s 2008 presidential run) says, “We cannot afford to rush through another NAFTA that values corporate profits above families.”
As a presidential candidate in 2008, Obama visited many of those communities and stood side by side with many of the leading opponents of ill-conceived and poorly administered trade agreements. He decried “a Washington where decades of trade deals like NAFTA and China have been signed with plenty of protections for corporations and their profits, but none for our environment or our workers who’ve seen factories shut their doors and millions of jobs disappear…”
Now Obama suggests that those he sided with in 2008 are clueless in 2015.
That is not the case.
“American workers have seen the effects of unfair foreign trade on their jobs and manufacturing facilities—they don’t need their elected leaders making personal attacks on each other during an important policy debate,” says Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat who remembers when Obama stood with the critics of failed free-trade policies.
“During the 2008 presidential primary, I watched President Obama argue in Cleveland that we should renegotiate NAFTA. Instead, we’ve seen more empty promises of jobs through exports while American workers are hit with a flood of imports and jobs shipped overseas,” says Brown. “It’s clear that the American public doesn’t support these trade deals and I am disappointed the president has resorted to name calling in an attempt to shift the debate.”
Brown’s opposition to fast track and the TPP is inspired by what he has seen happen to Ohio communities like his hometown of Mansfield, and in statistics that confirm the failure of trade deals to live up to promises made by Republican and Democratic presidents:
The Obama Administration predicted that the South Korea Free Trade Agreement would create 70,000 jobs and deliver up to $11 billion in exports. Instead, it only increased U.S. exports to Korea by $1 billion, while Korean imports have skyrocketed to more than $12 billion. The growing good trade deficit with Korea has eliminated over 75,000 jobs in the last three years.
The U.S. already has a trade deficit with Japan and 10 other countries included in the TPP. Since 1997, the deficit with these countries has increased by $151.4 billion.
Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, a Democrat who has worked on trade policy since the 1980s, explains that the president’s suggestion that his critics do not understand the issue is “absolutely inaccurate.”
“We know exactly what we’re talking about,” says Slaughter, the daughter of a coal miner who has charted trade-related factory closings and job losses in her upstate New York district for decades. “My concern is that he does not understand what’s in it.”
Congressman Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, explains that “Over the last three decades, in large part because of bad trade deals like NAFTA and CAFTA, Americans have worked harder than ever for less. In fact, hundreds of thousands of jobs—factory jobs, middle-class jobs—in states across the country were lost.”
Pocan’s a native of Kenosha, Wisconsin, an auto-making town for more than a century that saw the closing of its Chrysler plant in 2010—despite the fact that the plant had been recently modernized and rated as one of the most efficient in the United States. “Anyone who does not see the connection between our economy and the failed trade agreements of the past,” says the congressman, “will remain on the wrong side of the future.”
It is not ignorance but experience that has caused so many progressive members of Congress to join activist groups that have developed deep expertise on trade policy to oppose the president’s embrace of the trade agenda of Senate majority leader McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner.
Major unions have developed research teams to study trade and worked closely with experts on trade policy for decades now. They have also aligned with international trade unions to oppose the free-trade absolutism of the president and his Wall Street backers. Labor’s opposition to fast track and a TPP deal that the Communications Workers of America union refers to as “NAFTA on Steroids” is driven by fact—not fantasy.
The same goes for the criticism of current trade policies expressed by environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth, and for the outspoken opposition to fast track by progressive farm groups such as the National Farmers Union.
Opposition to fast track and the TPP is rooted in the fact of trade deficits and in the facts on the ground witnessed by those who voice the criticism. Yet critics of free trade do not see the current wrangling over fast track and the TPP merely from the perspective of the past. As Pocan says, “People recognize that this is a fight for the future.”
The president has every right to side with Wall Street in trade debates. But he does his cause no favors by suggesting that those who sincerely disagree with him are unaware of what is at stake. In fact, the reason they are opposing Obama’s fast-track request is because they know precisely what is at stake.
Read Next: John Nichols on Scotland’s anti-austerity message
If the Scottish National Party was a small anti-austerity party that had never before made a real dent in British politics and suddenly shot into contention—grabbing dozens of seats away from the traditional parties and elbowing its way into position as the third-largest party in new Parliament—the world would take notice.
Well, the Scottish National Party is a small—make that formerly small—anti-austerity party. And it just made a real dent, a huge dent, in politics with an epic electoral breakthrough. “The tectonic plates of Scottish politics shifted yesterday,” said SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon on Friday morning. The veteran British political commentator Andrew Marr declared as the election results came in that “Scotland has moved decisively to the left.”
That move offers an important lesson for American progressives about going big in politics—especially anti-austerity politics. It is not just possible to run against the failed conservative policies of seeking to balance budgets with cuts to public services, attacks on public employees and their unions, and crude policies of privatization that redistribute wealth upward. It is necessary.
“The vote yesterday was an overwhelming vote against continued austerity and that, the issue that we put at the top of the campaign, is the issue that we will seek to put at the top of the agenda in Westminster,” declared Sturgeon in interviews aired nationally Friday morning.
It did not used to be that what the leader of the historically small, historically marginalized Scottish National Party had to say was big news on the day after a nationwide election. But a lot has changed in recent years, and a lot more changed Thursday. Sturgeon, the First Minister in Scotland’s devolved parliament (the rough equivalent of a state legislature in the United States or a provincial assembly in Canada), put not just a party but an economic agenda on the table in the 2015.campaign. “I am not,” she declared. “going to support governments that plough ahead with austerity that damaged the poorest in society.”
That message resonated, with unprecedented force.
The big story out of Britain’s 2015 parliamentary election had two parts. Part one was, of course, that Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party retained power. That’s the news that most Americans will get. But part two was at least as dramatic. The SNP—running on a fervent anti-austerity platform that rejected Cameron’s policies and promised to work with any progressive party seeking to unwind them—won 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats in the British Parliament.
The divide between England and Scotland (as well as the divide between England and Wales) that was revealed by the results is stark. It points to ongoing tensions and the prospect that calls for Scottish independence—which the SNP backs and which won 45 percent of the vote in a dramatic referendum last year—will rise.
But there was a subplot to the tale of the SNP success story. The UK’s traditional party of the left, the Labour Party, ran an unsteady (sometimes bold, sometimes cautious) campaign that failed to displace Cameron and the Tories from enough English seats and led to a severe setback across Labour’s traditional stronghold of Scotland. With Labour and the national third party, the Liberal Democrats, slipping badly, the SNP grabbed dozens of seats it had never held before. It did this, at least in part, by creating an excitement factor that translated into turnout.
In England, the turnout Thursday was 65.8 percent, almost the same as the 65.5 percent rate in 2010.
In Scotland, the turnout was more than 71.1 percent, way up from the 63.8 percent in 2010. For some competitive seats in Scotland, turnout was over 80 percent. Turnout among the young and low-income voters was high, in no small part because, as The Guardian’s Ian Jack noted, “Here is the queer thing, the thrilling thing and the frightening thing. Among the food banks and the trampled front gardens of the big housing schemes, poor people here have begun to feel they have power.”
What changed? The 2014 Scottish independence referendum shifted a lot. It put fundamental issues of self-determination on the table, as well as the prospect of rejecting austerity with an exit strategy that, as the slogan suggested, would “End Tory Rule” forever. Independence did not win, but it reshaped thinking about political and economic possibilities.
Historically, the SNP was seen as a narrowly nationalist party that focused first and foremost of independence for Scotland. It’s still pro-independence. But, in recent years, it has clearly identified as an anti-austerity party that has rejected cuts imposed not just by the current Tory government but the preceding Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
“The entire focus of the Westminster debate is on the deficit. Now, the deficit is hugely important. But it is a symptom of economic difficulties, not just a cause of them,” argued Sturgeon in much-reported remarks in February. “It’s simply untrue to say that we are ‘all in this together’. The cuts have had a disproportionate impact on women, people with disabilities and people on low incomes. The most vulnerable are bearing the heaviest burden.”
There was no mystery about the point of the independence referendum in 2014. Supporters of the referendum, led by the SNP and activist groups such as Scotland’s Radical Independence Campaign, sought not just a physical break but an economic break from Britain.
There was no mystery about the point of the Scottish National Party campaign of 2015. The SNP decried austerity and ripped not just the Tories but the whole political process for failing to establish a humane and functional economics.
There was far more clarity, and force, in the SNP campaign—so much so that, when Sturgeon appeared in a national debate with the leaders of the other parties, she sparked excitement far beyond Scotland. British papers announced that the Scottish first minister had “won” the debate. From across England came the ask: “Is there any way I can vote for the SNP here.” They couldn’t. The SNP was not an option on English ballots. (“Don’t tempt me,” said Sturgeon when asked about extending the party’s reach. But, in fact, she spoke favorably about the Green Party, which won well over 1 million votes and retained its single seat in parliament, and the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru party, which will have three seats in the new British Parliament. Throughout the campaign, Sturgeon proposed a grand alliance, including Labour and all the smaller parties of the left, to upend austerity once and for all.)
The Labour Party worked hard to be the alternative to the Tories, and it made some progress—increasing its share of the vote by 3.6 percent in England and picking up 15 new parliamentary seats there. But that was insufficient. “I’m bitterly disappointed that we’re looking at another Conservative government,” explained Sturgeon, even as she bluntly noted that ”Labour wasn’t strong enough to beat the conservatives in England.”
When Labour and the SNP went head-to-head in Scotland, Labour lost more than 40 seats. Why the wipeout? Despite the fact that Labour was the opposition party to Cameron and his government, it fully aligned with the Tories to oppose the 2014 Scottish referendum. Labour leaders failed to recognize that the referendum vote was not merely raising the issue of independence but the issue of austerity. While Labour was not going to back independence, its shoulder-to-shoulder campaigning with Cameron’s Conservatives blurred the lines of distinction.
Blurred lines are bad politics, especially when essential economic issues are being debated. They suggest what Sturgeon refers to as a “cozy consensus” around “slash-and-burn austerity.”
The message of the SNP breakthrough, not just for Scotland, and not just for Britain, is that people are sick of the “cozy consensus.” And they are ready to vote for radical alternatives. Americans progressives can, and should, learn from the emerging anti-austerity politics that says, unequivocally, that the cuts must end and a new economy must emerge.
Read Next: John Nichols on whether Bernie Sanders can break through the status quo