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United States: Looking for a coalition against Trump

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American politician and Democratic activist, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (Image via Wikimedia Commons - edited)

Donald Trump's presidency has birthed a strong Left-wing movement, including some key female political influencers, writes Dr Lee Duffield.

MOST ELECTORS REJECTED Donald Trump by 2.8 million votes before losing to him through the electoral college system and there’s now a push to mobilise that majority against him.

Trump’s surprise 2016 victory stirred up a new Left-wing movement alongside or within the opposition Democratic Party. The time was right for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 29, to win a seat in Congress last year, with Trump’s Republican Party becoming unpopular especially with young voters and minorities.

Together with Rashida Tlaib from Michigan, the first Muslim woman to enter the House of Representatives, she was elected as a Democrat but endorsed by the resurgent Left-wing movement, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ

From a Puerto Rican community in New York City, Ocasio-Cortez has branded an uncompromising upfront form of socialist politics and taken a gigantic personal social media following into the legislature.

With the veteran independent Senator Bernie Sanders, she has already linked into programs from higher taxes on the rich to immigrant rights, or the “Green New Deal”, getting much traction, like this coverage from the CBS television network.

SEEING THINGS DIFFERENTLY

All this has generated a hateful reaction among legions on the conservative side who do not see the kind of logic that, so long as the system is democratic, why not some taxes on billionaires? Taxes to get government revenue for services and “social” needs, like public housing, adequate hospitals, public transport and good public schools. Why not environmental laws to preserve what we have and keep the Earth productive and beautiful? So why not some democratic big government?

“DONALD TRUMP NOT READY FOR A GIRL FROM THE BRONX”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez presents as exactly the kind of firecracker to worry the other side and there has already been much barking on the notoriously savage Right-wing talk shows. She doesn’t know this or that policy area, they say. She looked discomforted when Trump was giving his State of the Union address. She is impetuous (read: young, female, a “spic”, a “commie”).

Among the lower ranks, the person’s ethnicity, forthright ways and arresting good looks are bound to frighten socially-inept “ethno-nationalist” blackshirts — in an armed society, there has to be a concern for her safety.

Even within the Democratic Party, there is an impetus to “quieten her down” and get her at least a little into line, to avoid frightening the horses in more conservative constituencies.

MICHELLE OBAMA

The advent of such new leaders is a reflection in many ways of earlier campaigns, the most recent being the Obama movement in 2008. This saw otherwise dormant or suppressed support among African-Americans and other minorities, and grassroots campaigning pitched at helping ordinary folks get a place in the sun.

Just as the politics of 2019 heats up, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama has been hitting best-seller peaks with her memoir, ‘Becoming’, telling how it is when popular leaders on the Left make a challenge to dug-in conservative interests.

Michelle and Barack Obama made it on scholarships to Harvard Law School, signed on to big firms, but transferred to leading positions where they could give service in working-class neighbourhoods — for example, Michelle’s job directing Community and External Affairs at the University of Chicago Medical Centre.

AMERICANA, JUSTICE AND GETTING A CHANCE IN LIFE

They had no socialist pitch, unless you count reforms like public health care, but wanted to help people get opportunities, bringing out the “good side” of the American success ideology.

The memoir is peppered with Americana, like expressions of pride in country, where Michelle Obama became an avid supporter of military families.

This excerpt might give a flavour of both the culture and the social aspirations together, where the writer reflects on how or why she “swerved” from an orthodox career to activism and commitment:

‘Had it been on the summer night when I lowered my ice cream cone and leaned in to kiss Barack for the first time? ’

 

‘My mind sometimes landed back in the church basement in Oseland, on the Far South Side of Chicago, where I’d gone 25 years earlier to be with Barack as he spoke to a neighbourhood group that was struggling to push back on hopelessness and indifference…’

As First Lady, Michelle Obama became a popular figure, attractive and energetic, forcefully organising national programs on children’s nutrition or promoting life chances for girls worldwide, all with statistically measurable positive outcomes — they started calling her America’s “mom in chief”.

MURDEROUS OPPOSITION

She also documents the kind of murderous opposition that gets generated in conservative or reactionary America, where hopeful change is placed on the agenda.

It started on the presidential campaign trail, where they began circulating lies about the candidate’s birthplace or religious faith, then turned on the unsuspecting wife:

‘Over time, I’d gotten better about not measuring my self-worth strictly in terms of standard, by-the-book achievement, but I did tend to believe that if I worked diligently and honestly, I’d avoid the bullies and always be seen as myself. This belief, though, was about to come undone.’

Giving a speech, she had explained how she enjoyed promoting the campaign’s message of hope, incorporating the expression: “for the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country.”

It was stripped of context and thrashed in Republican media and the “fake news” online, making her be an angry, black, unpatriotic ideologue.

Such things would have a wearing effect, like the strongly partisan blocking actions against the Obama health program in government, by a Republican-dominated Congress, or the constant shootings across America, many of the victims very young — while again the Congress majority blocked off any gun controls.

GETTING FED UP

The book is honest about such bitter experience and frustrated hopes for change:

‘Because people often ask, I’ll say it here directly: I have no intention of running for office, ever. I’ve never been a fan of politics, and my experience over the last ten years has done nothing to change that.’

The former First Lady is sternly contemptuous of the successor President:

Donald Trump had announced his candidacy… standing inside Trump Tower in Manhattan and railing on Mexican immigrants – “rapists” he called them – as well as the “losers” he said were running the country… Nothing in how he conducted himself suggested that he was serious about wanting to govern... Since childhood, I’d believed it was important to speak out against bullies while also not stooping to their level. And to be clear, we were now up against a bully, a man who among other things demeaned minorities and expressed contempt for prisoners of war, challenging the dignity of our country with practically his every utterance. I wanted Americans to understand that words matter… I am not a political person, so I am not going to attempt to offer an analysis of the results… I just wish more people had turned out to vote.

FAST FORWARD TO 2019

These reminiscences echo through the mobilisation movement of the Democratic Socialists in 2019.

Isaac Silver, from Chicago, is an organiser with the DSA, a calmly rational and articulate speaker just as his opposite numbers on the radical Right are wild and abusive.

LEFT MOVEMENT BUILDING UP IN AMERICA

In Australia to speak at a conference of the Socialist Alliance last month and new members like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, he effortlessly tossed up a concept cloud of related ideas to outline a view of America and issues demanding change:

  • white nationalism stirred up since the time of Trump’s election;
  • systematic racism and black poverty;
  • fundamentalist ideas on the religious Right wing;
  • a neo-fascist movement in the streets;
  • attacks on democracy, like the gerrymandering and “felon disenfranchisement” — permanently denying the vote to ex-prisoners. Numbers of prison inmates have been bloated since the Reagan era of the 1980s. Other devices to prevent voting are applied, like I.D. rules working against less educated voters;
  • deliberate loading of courts with conservatives or reactionaries on the bench, up to and including the Supreme Court;
  • controls on day-to-day life and micromanagement, not by government but by business corporations, along with commercial lobbies being positioned within government;
  • cases like disruptive impacts of U.S. corporations that were let into Mexico under free trade in the 1990s — impoverishment feeding into present-day chaos in the country and the migration “crisis”;
  • militarisation of the country’s borders;
  • undermining of law and order, police well-armed, poorly disciplined, many politicised, voting for Trump, themselves an element in constant shootings across the country; and
  • an environmental crisis, nothing being done about it, or government making it worse.

Another set of indications has arisen, pushing in the other direction:

  • consistent low polling of Trump and allies on voter intentions and other issues like climate change denial;
  • an economic crisis and accompanying public disillusionment, as with the Global Financial Crisis and wages paralysis;
  • the rise of opposition movements like the DSA and actions it has been engaged in;
  • a strong immigrant youth movement;
  • “Black Lives Matter” against disproportionate African-American deaths including shooting by police;
  • younger Americans getting behind change;
  • the occupation of the Wisconsin capital, sparking strike action by teachers and gains for teachers, in several states;
  • other industrial awakenings, like action by air traffic controllers, the workforce attacked by the Reagan administration, over the government shut-down in 2019 — called the “shut down ended by workers’ action”; and
  • the climate movement reaching mass level activity since 2014.

PUBLIC MOOD?

Isaac Silver produces polling done by his organisation that tends to contradict the idea of a passive population under the conservative thumb:

  • half of the Democratic voters who were “millennials”, aged 29-38, identified themselves as socialist or democratic socialist in orientation;
  • respondents viewed labour unions more favourably than they did corporations;
  • 70% wanted full Medicare for all up to 65 (then taken up by Medicaid);
  • similar support for job guarantees in the workforce and 58% support for a higher minimum wage (to $US15 per hour, approximately A$43000 p.a. — about half the Australian median wage); and
  • 57% saying break up big banks.

It’s a movement that makes a point of operating on small donations, averaging $US27 versus $US7000-a-plate fund-raisers for more conservative politicians in the Democratic Party “mainstream”. It has set up 189 branches in 49 states (the hold-out about to change) and has endorsed 70 candidates (Democratic, Green, Socialist or independent) at city, state and national levels, backing them with active campaigns.

NOT RADICAL IDEAS

In Brisbane, Silver made a point that the program and objectives of the new movement are for reform, not directed at revolutionising society — no dragging billionaires out of their mansions and shooting them in the street.

(The public has had enough shooting in the streets of America.)

Silver said during his talk:

 “We would say medicare for all, and nobody to go hungry.”

 

“These are not radical ideas, it is about clarity on what can be done, about what people need and we will fight for that against a system favouring a few at the expense of the many.”

(Video via Sydney Socialist Alliance Facebook page)

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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