On Saturday evening, September 20, on the eve of the People's Climate March and before an overflow audience at All Souls Church in New York, Kshama Sawant led us out of the wilderness.
I know that sounds grandiose, but I'm really not exaggerating. I know it smacks of the glorification of an individual, something Sawant herself would probably not approve of. And I know my tone is a little bombastic. I can't help that. It's deeply ingrained. But I don't think I'll hurt my own case by stating it loudly and clearly, or by simply speaking up about what progressives need to hear--and what they need, at long last, to act on.
In her address, Sawant's tone was assuredly not bombastic. It was superbly rational, concise, and clear. She called for:
1) Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (who was seated beside her on the dais) to run for President as an independent, not as a Democrat.
2) Nationalization (her phrase was "public ownership") of the U.S.-based fossil fuel corporations.
3) The formation of "a new party" dedicated to representing the interests of working people.
She introduced No. 1 with a qualification, explaining that she did not agree with Bernie on everything, particularly some of his Senate votes on foreign policy. (This may have referred to his failure to object to a "unanimous consent" resolution in the Senate in support of Israel's attack on Gaza this summer, among other lapses.) This brought a yowl of support from many in the crowd, which must have somewhat unnerved Sanders and his well-wishers.
On No. 2, Sawant's straightforward presentation was a breath of fresh air. We're accustomed to hearing "progressive" politicians (read: Democrats) call for big reforms in loud, ringing tones"often followed by equivocations, double-talk, and excuses. Not Kshama Sawant. She was doing more than just critiquing U.S. policies. She was offering a concrete solution to the problem. This apparently won the audience's respect. Many people in that capacity crowd were obviously sick to death of all the meaningless promises they hear from "progressive" elected officials. Now people were finally hearing someone who really means what she says. It was liberating, exhilarating.
I was even a bit surprised at my own reaction. When Sawant declared that we need public ownership of energy resources, another roar went up from the crowd, and I was roaring right along with them. Not that many years ago, I might have smiled at such a declaration--not because I would have disagreed with the idea of nationalization but because I wouldn't have taken it seriously as something we could achieve. But coming from the woman who got the $15-an-hour minimum wage law passed in Seattle, "public ownership" sounded like more than just a slogan. It sounded like an attainable goal. She stated it so simply--without bombast, without equivocation--that I immediately thought, Yes, she's right. Why are we, the public, always asked to give these gargantuan corporations the benefit of a doubt? Why are we expected to go along with their ownership and control of a commodity that seems to be deranging the global climate? Why are their holy property rights more important than our democratic decision-making about a matter as crucial as the health of the Earth and our prospects for survival on it? Our whole screwed-up culture is so used to hearing the standard laissez-faire dogma that even we enlightened radicals tend not to challenge it, or even think about it very much. And here was an activist inviting us to take action on what we claim we really want. The country--the world!--needs this kind of candor and courage very badly.
Naturally, on hearing such bold words, some progressives in that audience probably rolled their eyes and muttered that public ownership of any major U.S. industry is a fantasy, just pie-in-the-sky. All right, then--for the sake of argument, let's grant that. What, then, might be the compromise position? How about a substantial increase in taxation on the big oil, coal, and natural gas companies? A capital idea! But who in Congress will fight for such an idea? The Republicans? Probably not. The Democrats? Probably not. Will all the progressives threaten to withhold their votes for their Democrats in the House or the Senate in the next election unless they get some action on taxing Big Oil?
This is the heart of the matter. If we rely on complacent middle-class liberals (read: Democrats), we will get nowhere. They will say the right things, of course. They will talk and talk and talk and talk and talk some more--and do nothing. Why do they insist on doing nothing? I don't know. Maybe some of them work for non-profit organizations that depend on funding from corporate foundations. Maybe they benefit somehow--professionally, or personally--from supporting corporate Democrats. Or maybe they just carry on that way out of habit, or out of fear of striking out on a new path. In any event, millions of Americans do not have those kinds of commitments holding them back from taking action. It is those millions that we need to reach out to.
Please also take note that not just liberals but some middle-class radicals might do a different kind of stalling. They might shout out a slogan such as, "Break with the Democrats!" To which some might ask, "And go where?" Sawant, of course, has already urged us to go the route of establishing a new party. But some radicals might respond to that question with the same befuddled silence you'd get from do-nothing liberals. Unlike Sawant, many American socialists reject the electoral process altogether, almost as if they don't trust their own fellow citizens and residents to hear the socialist case and pass judgment on it in the voting booth. It's as if they don't have confidence in their own program. That's an old problem. Sawant's success in winning office should help socialists see the value of going electoral.
So, we have two basic choices. We can wait and wait and wait for the self-styled "progressives" to do something"or we can head off on our own. "Thank you for your time," we can say, without any bitterness. "But we gotta go." And then we go. And we run our own candidates and build our own party.
It was perhaps on this point--her No. 3--that Sawant was most articulate. I was inexpressibly happy to hear her repeat her call for a new, independent political party of working people. This idea has been the heart and soul of my own politics for more than 20 years. We need to run many, many new progressive, populist, and socialist candidates--people who have never run for public office before--on a new, independent ticket.
According to the last census, there are 310 million people living in the United States. Surely out of that oceanic talent pool we can find 10,000 or 20,000 or more independent activists to run for those thousands of local and state offices that are currently held by Democratic and Republican hacks. Of those few who are not hacks or Big Business stooges, let them come over to our new party and swell our ranks. However, I think it will mostly be those first-time candidates who will serve as the new blood that can revive a dying democracy.