Thursday, October 29, 2015

Is a Progressive/Libertarian Movement Possible?

If a multi-issue movement could bring people together across the usual ideological barriers around galvanizing issues, how about this list: end corporate welfare, bring the troops home, new economic priorities, roll back repressive laws, and full financial transparency.
When was the last time a politician came across like the lone voice of principle railing against the dangers of an imperial presidency? That’s what it looked in Spring 2011 when Ron Paul, the Texas libertarian running for the Republican presidential nomination, wrote candidly about the War Powers Resolution, the Patriot Act and mission creep after 9/11. The column was called “Enabling a Future American Dictator.” At times he sounded a lot like Bernie Sanders.

In the column Paul noted that the 60-day deadline for getting congressional approval of military action in Libya under the 1973 War Powers Resolution had passed without notice. Predictably, he chided President Obama for not seeking a congressional OK and wondered whether he ever would. Forget Paul’s party for a moment. Wasn’t he right?

The Constitution, specifically Article 1 Section 8, clearly states that the power to declare war rests with the legislative branch. The original idea was to prevent the president from exerting the powers of a king. But presidents have been manipulating and ignoring such constitutional limitations for more than a century. Given the expansive nature of the federal government, Paul warned that “it would be incredibly na├»ve to think a dictator could not or would not wrest power in this country” at some point in the future. A bit of negative extrapolation there, but still, many people across the political spectrum do worry that it could indeed happen here.

It’s the kind of argument you expect to hear from Sanders. Actually, the two lawmakers did sometimes join forces when Bernie was a Congressman. Later, the godfather of the Tea Party movement and the junior Senator from the People’s Republic of Vermont teamed up to propose military budget cuts and push for a more thorough audit of the Federal Reserve.

Were these just isolated moments of Left and Right collaboration? Or could a movement that attracts both progressives and libertarians actually develop?

Paul also pointed to the Defense Authorization bill. It “explicitly extends the president’s war powers to just about anybody,” he claimed. The problem --- Section 1034, which asserted that the US is at war with the “associated forces” of al Qaeda and the Taliban. Bringing in civil liberties, Paul asked how hard it would be “for someone in the government to target a political enemy and connect them to al Qaeda, however tenuously, and have them declared an associated force?” It’s an argument that Left-leaning activists should find relevant.

His forecast was that even if we assume the people in charge at the moment are completely trustworthy – a major assumption – the future is far from certain. “Today’s best intentions create loopholes and opportunities for tomorrow’s tyrants,” Paul warned. Given the current crop of potential national leaders, it’s hard to disagree.

While a Texas Republican may not be the best messenger for a new alliance, Paul did have a following, based largely on his strict libertarianism and 2008 presidential run. Then the financial crisis seemed to spark something new: the potential for a convergence between progressives, liberals and traditional libertarians. In January 2011 Ralph Nader called the prospect of such an alliance the nation’s “most exciting new political dynamic.” Another element was generational change. Sparked by the excesses of elites and the wealthy few, a resistance movement fueled by youthful energy – an American Spring? – began to show the potential to catch fire and break down political boundaries. Among the issues that framed its agenda were intervention and military spending, individual freedom, and financial reform.

One of the unifying themes is the desire to limit, and whenever possible reverse the influence of centralized wealth and power. Sanders, who describes himself as a democratic socialist, has frequently expressed this perspective, forging alliances that cross party lines to challenge corporate secrecy and the powers of international financial institutions.

Much of Sanders’ early legislative success came through forging deals with ideological opposites. An amendment to bar spending in support of defense contractor mergers, for example, was pushed through with the aid of Chris Smith, a prominent opponent of abortion. John Kasich (now Ohio governor), whose views on welfare, the minimum wage and foreign policy as a congressman could hardly be more divergent from Sanders’, helped him phase out risk insurance for foreign investments. And a “left-right coalition” he helped to create derailed the “fast track” legislation on international agreements pushed by Bill Clinton.

The impact of the strategy was clearly felt in May 2010 when Sanders’ campaign to bring transparency to the Federal Reserve resulted in a 96-0 Senate vote on his amendment to audit the Fed and conduct a General Accounting Office audit of possible conflicts of interest in loans to unknown banks.

Here is Sanders’ overall view in a nutshell: International financial groups protect the interests of speculators and banks at the expense of the poor and working people – not to mention the environment – behind a veil of secrecy. Meanwhile, governments have been reduced to the status of figureheads under international management, both major political parties kowtow to big money flaks, and media myopia fuels public ignorance. Many libertarians, even a good number of Tea Party people, agree.

But how do you mobilize and unite people across traditional cultural and political lines? A key may be found in sovereignty and nullification campaigns. Diverse as these efforts are, most rest on the proposition that the states and sovereign individuals created the national government. Therefore, they have the right to at least challenge the constitutionality of federal laws, and potentially even decline to enforce them. Though this may sound more conservative than not, liberals and leftists do also adopt such a stance at times.

The unifying idea goes something like this: In the face of oppression (however you define it) withdrawal of consent can make all the difference. When people refuse their cooperation, withhold their help, and maintain their position, they deny their opponent the support that oppressive, hierarchical systems need. Gene Sharp, author of Social Power and Political Freedom, once observed, “If they do this in sufficient numbers for long enough, that government or hierarchical system will no longer have power.”

Centuries back, the tactic was used when American colonists nullified laws imposed by the British. Since then states have used it to limit federal actions, from the Fugitive Slave Act to unpopular tariffs. Before 1800, support for nullification emerged in reaction to the Sedition Act, which prompted the Kentucky Resolve of 1798, written by Thomas Jefferson, and the almost identical Virginia Resolve penned by James Madison. In Section One of his version, Jefferson wrote:

Resolved, that the several States composing the United States of America, are not united on the principles of unlimited submission to their General Government; but that by compact under the style and title of a Constitution for the United States and of amendments thereto, they constituted a General Government for special purposes, delegated to that Government certain definite powers, reserving each State to itself, the residuary mass of right to their own self Government; and that whensoever the General Government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force . . . .

That the Government created by this compact was not made the exclusive or final judge of the extent of the powers delegated to itself; since that would have made its discretion, and not the Constitution, the measure of its powers; but that as in all other cases of compact among parties having no common Judge, each party has an equal right to judge for itself, as well as of infractions as of the mode and measure of redress.

In plain English, this means that federal authority isn’t unlimited, and if it goes too far government actions need not be obeyed. In essence, Jefferson suggested that the federal government isn’t the “final judge” of its own powers, and therefore various states have a right to decide how to handle any federal overreach. Madison’s Virginia version declared that in the case of a deliberate and dangerous abuse of power, states not only had a right to object, they were “duty bound” to stop the “progress of the evil” and maintain their “authorities, rights and liberties.”

After Jefferson enacted a trade embargo as president in response to British maritime theft and the kidnapping of sailors, state legislatures nullified the law using his own words and arguments. On February 5, 1809, the Massachusetts legislature declared that the embargo was “not legally binding on the citizens of the state” and denounced it as “unjust, oppressive, and unconstitutional.” Eventually, every New England state, as well as Delaware, voted to nullify the embargo act.

Moral for Jefferson: Be careful what you resolve.

Two centuries later, in August 2010, the Missouri legislature used similar logic to reject the health care mandate in the Democrat’s health care reform, followed by a flood of legal challenges from state officials. In recent years, several states have also either passed or proposed legislation or constitutional amendments designed to nullify federal laws in the areas ranging from firearms to medical marijuana.

The Tea Party movement, set in motion in 2009 by widespread disapproval of the federal government’s bailout of financial institutions, initially swelled into a tidal wave of anti-big-government sentiment that helped the Republican Party regain control of the US House in 2010. Supporters said the movement marked a return to core values. Critics called it reactionary and possibly racist.

It is certainly funded in part by wealthy interests who see its angry members as tools to advance their own deregulation, limited government agenda. And yet, the Tea Party phenomenon is also a loose and relatively diverse association that includes fiscal conservatives, Christian fundamentalists, secular libertarians and more. A March 2010 poll estimated 37 percent support for its basic economic agenda, although that may have been its high water mark. The main take away is that it encompasses a variety of impulses, from orthodox libertarianism and neo-isolationism to populist anger directed at elites, deficit spending and perceived threats to US interests.

Some have written off the recent anti-federal government rebellion as a Republican ploy. But there have certainly been Left-wing crusades against federal abuse of power in the past, and liberal nullification campaigns to decriminalize marijuana and bring National Guard units home from wars overseas.

Will most Tea Party people join forces with progressives? Not likely. The main obstacle is several generations of cultural war, passionate and sometimes violent disagreement over racism, abortion, immigration, entitlements and climate change, among other things. In fact, progressives and Tea Party people can sometimes perceive different “realities.” Since 2008 many on one side have decided that Obama is a socialist, maybe even a Muslim Manchurian Candidate. On the other side, many say he is at best a sell out, and in some ways has doubled down on the mistakes and abuses of the previous administration. One group says climate change is a hoax or at least exaggerated, and the government should institute literacy tests for voting. The other sees ecological (or economic) catastrophe around the corner, thinks guns should be carefully controlled, and sometimes even argues that states ought to seize public resources as “trustees” of the commons.

At the same time, however, there’s enough common ground to attract people from across the conventional divide. Don’t both libertarians and progressives believe that the size and reach of the US military should be limited? Don’t both think that civil liberties are being eroded by executive orders and legislative overreach? Beyond that, they also agree, perhaps more than either has yet acknowledged, about the greed and dysfunction of big institutions, and the need for more transparency and oversight. In this regard, Sanders has pointed the way. At times libertarian voices are even bolder than progressive counterparts, especially those who say that the War on Drugs should end and most if not all drugs should be legalized. But Sanders is gradually joining this campaign.

If that’s not convincing, ask yourself what could happen without some attempt to create a progressive-libertarian connection. Most libertarians, Tea Party members and others dissatisfied with the status quo will be actively wooed and deceived by conservative demagogues. Many will be sidetracked into grievance and resentment. Where else will they have to go? So, shouldn’t there be a struggle for the hearts and minds of all those disillusioned casualties of the financial crash and culture war?

Still, it remains to be seen whether the issues on which there isn’t much common ground – and these should not be underestimated – will make it impossible to create or sustain some solidarity. It would certainly help if an alliance of some sort had a chance to grow outside the two-party system. But that requires credible leaders and a basic agenda.  

In any case, if a multi-issue alliance could bring people together across the usual ideological barriers around galvanizing issues, how about these: end corporate welfare, bring the troops home, new economic priorities,roll back repressive legislation, and full financial transparency.

Such a list is probably incomplete, and for some, may not go far enough. Fair enough. But it does potentially bridge some of the divisions that keep many people fighting among themselves while realigning conventional politics. In the long run, a Progressive-Libertarian alliance probably wouldn’t last. But before it faded – if people overcame some traditional divisions, if the debate really changed and some  new thinking took hold – wouldn’t the stakes be worth it?

This is adapted from Greg Guma's Rebel News Round Up, originally broadcast live on The Howie Rose Show, Friday, June 3, 2011, on WOMM (105.9-FM/LP – The Radiator) in Burlington. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

We're All Socialists Sometimes

Like most western democracies, for many decades the US government has been operating with some socialist programs – within an undeniably capitalist economic system. But what are we really talking about? We clearly don’t have the state running the economy. It can barely manage itself. But we have adopted programs designed to increase economic equality – and sometimes programs that have done the opposite. 
In other words, we’ve had redistribution of wealth. As Bernie Sander has been arguing in his presidential campaign, during the last few decades it’s largely been redistribution toward the top.
What do socialists believe? Most would probably agree that capitalism unfairly concentrates power and wealth, creating an unequal society. Basically, a no brainer so far. Where they disagree is about how much and what type of government intervention will work. A few advocate complete nationalization of production. But more prefer some state control of capital within a market economy, while democratic socialists often talk about selective nationalization of key elements in a mixed economy, along with tax-funded social programs. On the other hand, libertarian socialists don’t favor state control and prefer direct collective ownership – workers coops, workers councils, basically workplace democracy.
Libertarian socialists, like libertarians in general, weren’t happy about the 2008-2009 financial bailouts. Democratic socialists, in contrast, felt they didn’t go far enough. And most capitalists? Well, many decried the situation but went along. Some even chirped that “we are all socialists now” – at least as far as losses are concerned.
The truth is, Americans have been adopting socialist ideas – although not living in a socialist society – for many years, and the sky hasn’t fallen. But this doesn’t matter to the politicians and talking heads who hawk “out of control” government and a hostile takeover of the country. 
The attempt to stir up fears about socialism, and link it to xenophobia and un-American activity, is a cheap but tried-and-true political ploy. That's probably why it appeals to Donald Trump. It’s also the latest incarnation of an ongoing culture war based on resentment, ignorance, and selfishness. The subtext is that we are not equal, that being "truly American" includes a very narrow set of values, and that the government shouldn’t be a force for equality. How Sanders defines the issue -- and handles the topic from here on -- may determine whether voters decide he's electable or ultimately just a protest candidate. 
But let’s give a conservative the last word. During the 2008 presidential campaign, George Will put it this way: “Ninety-five percent of what the government does is redistribute wealth. It operates on the principle of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. Case in point: we have sugar subsidies. Costs the American people billions of dollars but they don’t notice it it’s in such small increments. But the few sugar growers get very rich out of this. Now we have socialism for the strong – that is the well-represented and organized in Washington like the sugar growers. But it’s socialism none the less and it’s not new.”

Monday, October 12, 2015

The People's Republic: Vermont & Bernie Sanders

A revealing look at the rise of Bernie Sanders and the progressive movement that changed Vermont

Available from Maverick Media

Recently mentioned in...

Mother Jones: How Bernie Sanders Became a Real Politician
New York Times: Bernie Sanders' Revolutionary Roots
CNN: Can Bernie Sanders Win Black Voters?
Politico: 14 Things Bernie Has Said about Socialism
Politico: Bernie Sanders Has a Secret
Washington Post: Sanders is in with the enemy, so old allies say
CNN: How Bernie Sanders Turned Himself into a Serious Contender
Mother Jones: Here's How Bernie May Be Changing Politics for Good
Washington Post: Sanders Prepares for His National Debate Debut
New York Times: Setting Bernie Sanders Apart from the Debate Field
Mother Jones: Here's What Bernie Sanders is like as a Debater
CNN Video: What is Bernie Sanders' Debate Style?
ABC: What to Expect from Bernie Sanders in Tuesday's Debate
International Business Times: Bernie Sanders' Debate Plan
Washington Post: A Somewhat Reluctant Socialist

Bernie Sanders' election as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, in 1981 caught the attention of the entire nation and inspired progressives throughout the world. Originally published in 1989, just before Sanders won his first race for the US House of Representatives in 1990, The People's Republic: Vermont and the Sanders Revolution was the first comprehensive analysis of Sanders' mayoral years and the progressive movement in Vermont. It remains the most intimate and revealing. 

Greg Guma's exploration of the "revolution" goes far beyond Sanders and his impact on Burlington. The factors behind the initial surprise victory, the tension between leftist ideals and pragmatic politics, the evolution of an effective political coaliton outside the two-party system -- all these topics and more Guma investigates, with an eye on global political implications as well as the immediate local impact. The People's Republic is for all those interested in progressive politics and political history, not to mention those in places where a similar "revolution" is possible.

A fast-moving description that illustrates one of the great efforts at innovative government of the past fifty years…
--Pierre Clavel, Cornell University

If you were going to create somebody to write about Bernie Sanders’ years as socialist mayor of Burlington, you might make him a fortysomething Vermont journalist and bookstore founder and former government worker who almost ran for mayor of Burlington himself…That’s what you have in Greg Guma.
—Mark Satin, New Options

A treasure house of first-hand information and perceptive, if often controversial analysis of great value to anyone concerned to explore realistically the possibilities for combining third-party electoral politics with other methods of working for justice, peace, environmental sanity and genuine democracy.
– David Dellinger, author/activist

If you are at all interested in Vermont and Burlington, and public policy, get this book.
– Phil Hoff, former Vermont Governor

Tap photo for more books

Uneasy Empire
How an international establishment has used fear of socialism, communism and terrorism to justify repression and a massive military establishment. Pointing past nationalism and corporate empire, Uneasy Empire: Repression, Globalization, and What We Can Do combines a radical critique with hopeful solutions and a vision of democratic globalism through which people can regain control of their futures.

Spirits of Desire
Set during the spirtualist craze of the 1870s, Spirits of Desire follows a group of extraordinary people, including the extraordinary Russian theosophist Helena Blavatsky, as they search for the truth about ghosts through a notorius family of Vermont mediums. The trail leads them into a world of seances, deadly elementals, astral forces and past lives.

Dons of Time
Unsolved mysteries collide with cutting edge science and altered states of consciousness in a world of corporate gangsters, infamous crimes and top-secret experiments. Based on eyewitness accounts, suppressed documents and the lives of world-changers Nikola Tesla, Annie Besant, Ignatius Donnelly and Jack the Ripper, Dons of Time is a speculative adventure, a glimpse of an alternative future and a quantum leap to Gilded Age London at the tipping point of invention, revolution and murder.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Jeb's Dark Alliances: Bush, Batista & the Contras

Over the years various researchers and investigations have suggested, even asserted at times, that as Vice President George Bush, along with some of his national security advisers, maintained close ties with a secret air-re-supply operation in El Salvador during the Reagan years. In October 1986, a week after the Nicaraguan government shot down a plane carrying supplies for the Contras, front page press reports actually announced that the operation led to both the CIA and Bush.

When it was revealed that Contra resupply project Chief Felix Rodriguez met several times with Bush and a key aide, the VP claimed they didn't discuss Nicaragua. That actually worked! But here's where it gets really interesting: the trail also led to the vice president’s son, Jeb. According to the Manchester Guardian, Jeb Bush “long acted as a liaison man with the fiercely pro-Contra, anti-Cuban and Nicaraguan settlers in Miami.”

Yes, this is the Republican "establishment choice" for 2016.

When the Iran-contra scandal began to break in October 1986, mainstream sources like CBS Evening News and the Miami Herald quoted unnamed officials as saying that Jeb Bush had served as his father’s chief point of contact with the contra rebels. Jeb’s denials were narrow. He didn't deny being his father’s liaison to the contras, only the idea that he had participated "directly" in the illegal contra resupply effort directed from the White House.

And yet, like Keyser Soze, such stories just vanished. George Bush, by then heir apparent to Reagan, was insulated from probing questions as he campaigned for president for the next two years. The one person who connected the CIA, NSA and the mercenary forces on the ground. Instead of being investigated he became president.

Robert Parry, an Associated Press reporter who investigated the Reagan-Bush administration’s secret support for the Contras, confirms Jeb Bush’s association with Contra supporters operating out of Miami. More recently, he recalled that one Nicaraguan businessman with close ties to both Jeb and the Contras told Parry that Jeb Bush was involved with a pro-Contra mercenary named Tom Posey, who was organizing groups of military advisers and weapons shipments. In 1988, Posey was indicted along with several other individuals on charges of violating the Neutrality Act and firearms laws. The charges were dismissed in 1989 when a federal judge ruled that the US was not "at peace" with Nicaragua.

Jeb was also integral in securing a number of “pardons” of Cubans involved in terrorist acts. A prominent example was his intervention to help release Cuban terrorist Orlando Bosch from prison and grant him US residency. A notorious figure, Bosch was convicted of firing a rocket at a Polish ship en route to Cuba and was implicated in many other acts of terrorism, including the 1976 mid-air bombing of a Cubana Airlines plane, which killed 73 civilians.

The Cubana Airlines bombing and several other major acts of terrorism by Cuban right-wingers occurred while George H.W. Bush was CIA director and was working closely with anti-communist Cuban exiles employed by the CIA, including Rodriguez, a close associate of Bosch’s alleged co-conspirator in the Cubana bombing Luis Posada Carriles.

Bosch’s release, often called a pardon by media, was the result of pressure by hardline Cubans in Miami -- with Jeb Bush as their point man. In July 2002, while he was Florida’s governor, Bush nominated Raoul Cantero, grandson of Cuba's deposed dictator Batista, as a Florida supreme court judge despite his lack of experience. Cantero had previously represented Bosch and acted as his spokesman, once describing Bosch on Miami radio as a "great Cuban patriot.”

Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana recounts that in 1984 Jeb “began a close association with Camilo Padreda, a former intelligence agent under the Batista dictatorship, overthrown by Fidel Castro. Jeb was then the chairman of the Dade county Republican party and Padreda its finance chairman.” Later, Padreda was convicted of defrauding the housing and urban development department of millions of dollars.

With baggage like this, it's hard to imagine Bush making it through the race -- or just the primaries -- without opening up his shady past. And as for improving relations with Cuba, at least Trump would just want his name on a casino.