The latest crisis orchestrated by the Republican House leadership and Tea Party congressional delegation, this time over raising the federal debt ceiling, shows more than ever a crying need to build a more powerful popular movement.
Otherwise, the Republican political establishment, taking advantage of its 2010 electoral victory, will continue to extort the president, Congress and nation into making ever-greater concessions.
The Tea Party faction’s insistence on no concessions unless the president and Democrats agree to deeper austerity measures is damaging Republicans’ standing with the public. Their intransigence could play to the Democrats’ favor in next year’s elections.
But the bottom line for the Republican congressional delegation, regardless of political persuasion, is full speed ahead with its scorched-earth austerity agenda.
Their goals include:
• Dismantling democratic institutions and social programs that took generations of hard struggle to win.
• Eliminating the fighting capacity of a powerful labor-led popular movement which has emerged in battleground states with Republican-controlled governments.
• Adding presidential and Senate victories in 2012, increasing their control of the House of Representatives, and potentially strengthening their slim Supreme Court majority.
• Putting on steroids the accumulation of wealth by ever-fewer private corporate hands.
The 2012 elections could be pivotal for the popular movements.
What happens between now and then will go a long way in determining the election outcome and the sustained momentum needed in its aftermath, whatever the outcome.
The big question is what must change for the American working class and people, and their progressive movements, to shift from defending past gains to winning new ones.
For starters, let’s listen to the people.
In myriad polls, solid majorities of Americans favor shifting the tax burden onto the wealthy and the corporations to bring down government deficits and help fund jobs, social programs and infrastructure.
Similarly, majorities favor ending the wars, curtailing military operations abroad and moving to a green economy.
Studies show the jobs issue continues to be uppermost in most people’s minds, though the deficit has gained ground.
After all, with military-like uniformity the right wing has been marching to the “deficit” drumbeat, bringing along many Americans who, like all of us, struggle incessantly to balance family budgets.
They have even managed to hijack the jobs issue.
Any time the president or anyone else suggests a bigger government role in stimulating the economy - closing tax loopholes, raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations, or tightening corporate regulations - it’s a financial disincentive for corporate “job-creators.”
The right has been dominating the terms of the national public debate over the economy as well as the agenda in Congress and in most states.
Unquestionably the far right can count on the huge economic and political resources of the most reactionary and powerful sections of capital.
But the resources on our side of the class and democratic divide are nothing to sneeze at.
The important thing is to recognize those aspects on which we can build a winning unified popular movement against the rightwing onslaught.
While uneven, the economic and political crisis and the experiences gained in struggle are thrusting the newly emerging labor-led popular coalition in a still-unfolding leftward trajectory. Among its components:
• Understanding that the Republican establishment and the Tea Party movement, and their corporate masters, represent the main obstacle to progress now.
• Keeping the main political fire on the Republicans while not letting Democrats off the hook.
• Appreciating the strengths and weaknesses of the class and social forces arrayed against unions and the people.
• Appreciating the main class and social forces whose interests coincide with those of the workers and their families, and understanding which are long-term strategic partners and which, momentary allies.
• Organized labor transforming itself into a social movement advocating for the cause of all sections of the people.
• Labor’s proactive challenge to racism and its championing of the fight for equality of people of color, immigrants, women, the LGBT community and other discriminated sectors as well as the cause of youth and seniors.
• The realization that capitalism itself needs to be replaced with a more people-friendly alternative system, which increasing numbers are recognizing is socialism.
This is coupled with a deepening appreciation of the importance of unity on many levels, including the loosely-configured broad 2008 coalition of class and social forces that won the historic election of our first African American president and a Democratic congressional majority after 30 years of far-right dominance.
Showing the way forward are this year’s labor-led popular upsurge against the assault on the public sector and collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin, Ohio and other Midwestern states, and the massive “One Nation, Working Together” rally in October, when movements formerly at odds came together in a magnificent expression of unity.
A line of reasoning is emerging that, if packaged in popular slogans and images, could resonate with the people.
Creating jobs and putting money in workers’ pockets will revitalize the economy and expand the tax base with which to pay down the deficit and pay for the nation’s needs.
On the flip side, the just concluded federal debt deal – largely the product of Republican extortion – combined with continuing Republican state government attacks on the public sector will result in job losses that threaten to send the nation into a double-dip Great Recession and make government deficits worse.
Majority public sentiment also makes it possible to take on the right-wing lies about “big government” and government “deficits” being the main problem.
The big banks and transnational corporations are refusing to make use of trillions of dollars in accumulated wealth to invest in job creating ventures.
If the private sector won’t create jobs, then the public sector – government – must step in to fill the void. This was done during the 1930s Great Depression. If it worked then, there is no reason it can’t work today.
Most people resent that millionaires and billionaires, transnational corporations and big banks are making huge - in some cases record - profits, and still want more tax breaks.
Taxing the rich and closing corporate loopholes are also backed by broad and growing public support and popular movements.
So is bringing troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan, curtailing military operations abroad and using the money saved to recharge the economy and reduce the deficit. But some sections of the popular movements, including in labor, have been shy of integrating those demands into their programs. This makes it all the more necessary for the peace movement to broaden its base while work continues to win people over in the base of the labor and other movements.
The Obama administration’s initial efforts to move towards a green economy have faltered, in part because of the political fallout from the 2010 elections. But public sentiment and support remains strong. It must continue to be a critical element of any fight for jobs, if we are to save humanity from far worse consequences of climate change.
A successful campaign for jobs and against an austerity economic paradigm will need unity of message and action of the organized labor movement. Organizing the unemployed and underemployed will be essential, with organized labor leading a multi-union-led campaign for jobs and jobless relief involving other social movements, especially those representing people of color, immigrants, women and youth. Jobs with Justice, the Machinists union and local groups are gaining valuable experience for building a much broader united campaign.
Such a movement can draw in labor-related formations like Working America, as well as Moveon.org, Rebuild the Dream, Organizing for America and other online and neighborhood based movements. The environmental and peace movements must and can play a role. Small business is taking a big hit and would be receptive.
Sections of medium and even large business interests could be drawn in around particular demands. Federal government bodies like the congressional Progressive and Black Caucuses need to actively promote a jobs campaign. These can be joined by government bodies at state and local levels which are being forced to cut social programs and public services and lay off countless employees.
A successful campaign for jobs would go a long way to reset the framework for the public debate going into the critical 2012 elections.
Required for victory is unity of the popular forces – and its companion, divisions in the enemy’s camp.
The more united, grassroots-based and clear its message and plan of action, the more likely the labor-led popular movement will be able to leverage its new-found power, intensifying the fissures in the enemy camp, encouraging progressives in government, and putting effective pressure on conservative and middle-of-the-road Democrats.
This will give the president political space to move away from austerity measures into stimulating the economy and creating jobs, as he did during his first year in office. It will help shape public opinion, give Democrats a reason to vote, and win over a large share of the independents and even some Republican and Tea Party supporters.
It won’t be easy. The dominant sections of capital are set on an austerity course. And why not? They’re raking in profits by the bushel even as the economy languishes.
A unified message must reverberate from town halls and union halls, find its way into services at churches, synagogues and mosques, seep into conversations in lunchrooms and across neighbors’ fences, permeate educational, cultural and recreational venues. It must come forward from city councils, school boards and all form of government at the local, state and federal levels. It must become legislation around which to organize this broad constellation of class and social forces.
Action must be coordinated but needs to take multiple forms: petitioning, letter-writing, lobbying, street heat, sit-ins and job actions. And most importantly, a 2012 election campaign waged on the level of the 2008 elections and bigger.
Most likely, we won’t see significant changes for the better until and unless we win the 2012 elections. But today’s struggles will go far to shape the political landscape leading to the elections and the necessary struggles afterwards.
People are in pain, confused, angry and many are ready to move if given the opportunity.
We need an infusion of the Wisconsin spirit – from “California to the New York Island, from the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream water,” in the words of folk-singer legend Woody Guthrie’s immortalized song, “This land is your land.”