Democrats in Philly Fail to Confront Corporate Power
The Democratic Party must look inward at itself and America to fix broken institutions.
Philadelphia was feisty from attitude in the street to battles in the convention arena. Yet while official events highlighted diversity and the 2016 platform planks long championed by Bernie Sanders, the rhetoric against corporate power—in the ironically titled Wells Fargo Center—was often feeble.
The Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton must convincingly commit to priorities pushed by Sanders and the left on climate, war, agriculture, a living wage and trade. The time is now.
WHEN IN PHILLY
In Philly, much of the movement I saw on these critical issues was outside the Democratic National Convention (DNC), which took place on July 25-28. At a steamy climate rally, Green Nobel Prize winner Berta Cáceres’ daughter, Laura Zuniga Cáceres, stepped into the legacy of her mother with the “It Take Roots to Change the System People’s Caravan,” seeking to bar police and military aid pending investigation into human rights violations. Musicians, artists and activists watched Josh Fox’s film, How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change, on the eve of the convention.
At City Hall, Sanders’ delegates delivered a moving presser urging superdelegates to vote for him, citing solid stands on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and health care. Daily marches to FDR Park shut down Broad Street with peaceful Bernie supporters holding signs against fences and chanting to delegates arriving by train.
Jill Stein high-fived me before cheering us on the language of this broader movement. (Just minutes later we raced for cover in a spirit-salving monsoon). Global Women spoke out at the DNC and moving art included Zoe Leonard’s “I want a dyke for president” and “Rock the Vote’s work” by Keith Haring, Banksy and Shepard Fairey, which reimagined the possible. Yet the convention and inside-the-Beltway speakers were less inspiring.
Much of what happened inside Wells Fargo played as a counterpoint to the Republican National Convention (RNC), even as they reprised Sanders’ motto of “love trumps hate.” Many speeches sought to highlight the humanity of the Democratic Party and of Hillary Clinton. The religious fundamentalism and xenophobic rhetoric of the RNC certainly deserved an urgent, if loving counterpunch. But the need by the DNC to humanize a party and candidate also stems from Democrat policies that have, at times, greatly harmed people as they have failed to call out catastrophic global priorities of their corporate backers.
So, while we celebrate our strong opposition to a “Christian,” anti-poor, anti-woman platform and laud the critical gains made on college education, health care and other Sanders’ issues, Americans must collectively echo his truth to power. From Pope Francis to anti-austerity movements worldwide to Bernie Sanders, citizens seek societies rebuilt on the “common good.” Right wing and corporations push back, but instead of ceding, we must continue our progress.
We must recognize that our platform and rhetoric are highly regressive. It falls unimaginably short in tackling the unprecedented challenges we face in 2016—circumstances largely there for our unwillingness to prioritize people and the planet above corporate gains. Many positions are particularly horrifying when measured against the yardstick of other developed, more democratic nations. And the events of the past two weeks only amplify worry that Democrats will fail to confront power to radically reshape our world.
WAR THROUGH THE LENS OF PROGRESSIVISM
Evaluated against the morality of human rights, our inherent call to compassion and a desire to stem violence, our foreign policy has been catastrophic. The good news is we are finally admitting it. Bernie Sanders—and ironically Donald Trump—raised issues of our terrible record abroad during the presidential primaries. It continued during the convention as chants of “no more war” greeted former CIA Director Leon Panetta and other DNC speakers. (The latter were met with shouts of U-S-A, which felt as scarily nationalistic as a Trump rally.)
Since the convention’s end, we have embarked on a new phase of bombing Libya, citing support for the government. Yet neither the 2011 authorization of military force nor an immediate threat can be used as justification. And while the initial attacks on Syria featured a three-week, heavily pro-war and biased discussion, the time for discussing new wars has apparently shrunk to zero.
It’s not like we have a great track record. Our illegal wars have brought unimaginably tragic geopolitical consequences. The Iraq invasion, which resulted in an estimated 100,000 Iraqi civilians losing their lives in the first 18 months and 650,000 by October 2006, led to the subsequent destabilization of Syria by the flow of religious extremists and US-supplied arms. Then, the mass devastation of Syria included about 10 million Syrians being displaced as part of the largest refugee crisis since World War II. It overwhelmed neighboring and accessible nations in the Middle East, promoted the rise of the right-wing across Europe and contributed to Brexit in the United Kingdom.
The Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton must convincingly commit to priorities pushed by Sanders and the left on climate, war, agriculture, a living wage and trade.
“Bombing people causes people to hate you,” of course. A strong push back to world-is-our-battlefield policies helped both Sanders and Trump rise as they questioned America’s endless wars, NATO involvement, potential no-fly zones and Latin American record. It is impossible to justify the current state of drone warfare with no valid domestic authorization or compliance with international law.
Yet the convention and platform were strong on hegemonic bluster—even condemning the free speech of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, with little to say about drone warfare, mass surveillance and casualties (children, civilian or otherwise). Clinton’s hawkish record in Latin America and the Middle East seems to portend greater violence.
In addition to a vigorous debate on foreign policy, America needs a mental shift in which we accept the truth about our past and today’s realities. We need to accept that we have contributed to the deaths of tens of millions abroad—in many cases toppling democratic governments. Ignoring this reality in the name of unquestioning “patriotism” has only spread violence. Independent investigations should be done on Iraq, torture and drone warfare.
But we also need to change our mindset. We need to eliminate the unreasonable expectation that there will be no attacks in America by anyone who has any sympathy with movements abroad. None of us reasonably expect zero violent deaths a year or no car accidents: We know the price we would pay for destruction of civil liberties and our economy would be too great.
The stoicism and perseverance of the “Mothers of the Movement” must be our own. For the enormous misallocation of resources represents the degradation of our dreams: weapons could be traded for school supplies (or plowshares); instead of destabilizing oil-rich countries we could create a sustainable nation; and our government employees could rebuild our infrastructure and health.
TPP AND TRADE: TRADE FOR PEOPLE AND THE PLANET
Perhaps the most broadly called out issue at the DNC was trade with “No TPP” signs, pins and chants over multiple days. Three trade deals—the Trade in Services Agreement, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership—loom on the horizon. Democratic leaders have offered notably mixed signals on the TPP, with the other two being irrationally ignored. Tim Kaine praised it less than a week before being chosen as Hillary Clinton’s running mate. He was also one of a small minority of Democrats who voted for fast track authority.
Clinton has also praised the TPP many times saying it sets “a gold standard,” with statements by Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe and Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue saying that she will support it in the White House. Her TPP-related mails are oddly being held till post-November. After a bitter fight, language describing terms of good trade made it into the platform. Yet the Democratic platform does not take a solid stand against any of these agreements or condemn a vote in the lame duck session on the TPP, despite the opposition of all three major presidential candidates.
More recently, both Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine have spoken strongly against the TPP, with the latter expressing concerns over labor and environmental provision enforceability. Clinton somewhat ambiguously talked about job and wage losses and then, on August 11, said: “I oppose it now … I’ll oppose it as president.” But here’s why they are failing to lead their party: The White House is planning to push it in the lame duck, as they showed through their submission on August 12 of a draft Statement of Administration Action on the TPP.
Of the three deals, the TPP has received the most attention, garnering broad opposition from public advocates. More than 450 environmental, landowner, indigenous and other organizations oppose the deal as it would threaten the climate imperative of keeping the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground. How? Most notably through investor state tribunals by which corporations would be able to sue for lost future profits.
TransCanada has sued the US government for $15 billion for nixing the unpopular, climate-destroying Keystone XL Pipeline. Other such cases include corporations bringing over 600 cases against 100 governments. Thus, this provision alone would likely chill efforts to pass future labor, environment, climate, labeling, advertising and other laws in the public interest.
More generally, “NAFTA on steroids”—written by corporate lobbyists rather than those working in the public interest—would not increase American jobs. It would limit critical access to pharmaceutical drugs and otherwise expand environmental degradation. Additional fights won democratically or gathering momentum would be crushed too.
But the Democrats, not the Russians, engaged in voter suppression. The DNC emails were written by DNC staff, not the KGB.
These trade deals do not serve mankind. They are not based on the Universal Declaration of Human Right, nor are they compliant with international labor law. They threaten critical climate and environmental priorities. Indeed, our food sovereignty and safety, jobs and the very ability to govern ourselves—including ensuring our planet remains viable—would be traded for a boost in corporate profits. Therefore, we must all continue the fight in the lame duck and beyond against trade deals affecting all aspects of American lives.
AGRICULTURE FOR OUR HEALTH AND CLIMATE
It’s not complicated. There is a huge role for organic and regenerative agriculture, which is more nutritious and could tamp down climate change, increase soil quality, decrease erosion and promote biodiversity and sustainability. It’s as American as apple pie, made with the right apples. Conversely, genetically modified organisms (GMO) include Monsanto’s glyphosate, which was called “probably carcinogenic” by the World Health Organization.
Yet progress to a healthy agricultural system has been slow. Then, on July 29, conveniently sandwiched between the convention and the Libya bombing, President Barack Obama signed into law the so-called Denying Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act, which preempts Vermont and other states’ laws (referred to as “textbook examples of democracy in action”) from taking effect. It also allows inconvenient, inaccessible and targeted marketing versus front-of-package labeling and creates new definitions that could exempt many GMOs from labeling.
The Democratic platform does not mention these central issues, and they had a minimal, if any, role in the convention. Hillary Clinton was once called “one of the powerful people” who support GMOs and has longstanding ties to Monsanto.
What has our corporate agriculture system, including GMOs which have skyrocketed as US crops and in US consumption, brought us? Has any other nation seen as large a decrease in public health outside of war or famine?
Over the past two generations, we have seen skyrocketing diabetes, obesity, thyroid disease, disability and pain. A majority of Americans are on two or more medications, and use of pain medication is growing by leaps and bounds. A new, failed evolution of pharmaceutical pills is not fixing us. Our agriculture and food affect our health, creating a vicious cycle that rockets through our bodies, our economy and our society. The food we eat causes obesity and other diseases that amp up pain, leading to disability and an inability to work with mounting depression, addiction and suicide.
With a dramatically different system, we could see the return of good health and employment. The battle must not lag scientific certainty—a “Merchants of Doubt” strategy that was used to cast doubt on science of cigarettes, flame retardants and climate change that cost us critical time in those fights. Instead, we must adopt the precautionary principle or just common sense. We must move to diets that worked for thousands of years for the planet and its people, and follow in the footsteps of tens of nations who have adopted GMO labeling or banned GMOs and experience far better health.
BEES AND OUR FOOD SUPPLY
Food, shelter and clothing: Why sacrifice a key essential? Bees are responsible for one in three bites of food we eat and would be even more were we to move to a widely acclaimed and proven plant-based diet. Yet we are ravaging our ability to produce healthy food. Beekeepers are losing one-third of their bees annually. Yet it neither appears as a platform or Democratic Party priority. How can this not be front and center in our national debate?
It has long been a priority for the environmental and health community to decrease the widespread use of neonicotinoids—insecticides implicated in studies as causing bee declines. The European Union greatly restricted most toxins starting in 2013. Here, a variety of actions must be taken on a local, state and national level to save the bees and us.
CLIMATE SURMOUNTS ALL SO KEEP IT IN THE GROUND
For generations, we have known that there is a need to limit the global temperature rise to 2, if not 1.5, degrees Celsius. The Paris Agreement, if fully adopted, will take us to 2.7 to 3.5 degrees. Obama has spoken to the urgency and made progress largely through a push for renewable energy. Yet he has largely fallen far short on rhetoric and actions to keep 80% of identified fossil fuels in the ground, which would have exerted critical leverage in expanding renewables, even as the approach would frustrate oil and gas companies. In fact, administration officials even criticized a call to end new federal fossil fuel leases on public lands and oceans.
A huge platform battle was fought over climate language. Many keep-it-in-the ground measures are not Democrat priorities—there is no moratorium on fracking, ban on eminent domain for oil and gas companies, or ban on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico in the platform. While a carbon tax is in the platform, Clinton has backed away from it. California Governor Jerry Brown’s speech—surprisingly one few DNC climate talks—comes from a mixed record in the Golden State. Clinton, a candidate with stronger corporate and Wall Street ties than Obama, not known for climate leadership, may well be Obama 2.0.
Philly demonstrated that, as of now, the Democrats lack the vision and will to surmount the major challenges of our times which, simply put, require choosing people over corporations.
Carbon emissions are having calamitous effects on our agriculture, homes and livelihoods. They pose the “Mother of All Risks” to national security as well as being a proximate cause of the Syrian war. Regardless of one’s politics or identity, it must be a key priority that we advocate for aggressively, consistently and effectively.
A LIVING WAGE
Will half the jobs be outsourced? How many and what hours will people work? Will monopsony of Walmart and Amazon relentlessly drive down prices by exploiting workers and the environment? Are the labor rights of the 20th century—which brought us regular work hours and weekends off—going to be abandoned? Will we bring back debtors’ prisons and what can be considered slave labor at for-profit prisons? And how will people earn enough for a decent and dignified living? What happens when we experience what Jacob Hacker calls “The Great Risk Shift” in our professional as well as personal lives?
Certainly this includes a fight for $15, but it is critical to recognize that this wage alone is not sufficient in an anti-worker, anti-consumer world. It must include measures to keep money in people’s hands—even as hedge funds drive a new wave of foreclosures; Americans incur massive debt due to our lottery-price-approach to health care; fraudulent billing; corporate practices that target anyone without good access to lawyers; identity theft; and unpredictable pricing and work hours that become the norm. Certainly, predatory variable pricing schemes—which bar planning for American workers—should be cracked down on and a cash economy would help. From housing and nutritious food to health care and transportation, we must work to make the costs of basics predictable and affordable. We all deserve healthy and manageable lives.
A quick DNCLeak side note: This review may well have not been made had the Democrats chosen a different nominee and, therefore, it is important to address the primary. The outcome reflects a highly unjust process—as shown by the DNCLeaks—that merit far more than cursory firing of email drafters and blame for Russia (the neo-McCarthyism has been criticized by Glenn Greenwald and The Nation, among others).
The estimated 184 missing delegates that would have flipped the pledged delegate count—causing many superdelegates to revisit their allegiance, as they said—is on top of massive manipulation of the democratic process.
But the Democrats, not the Russians, engaged in voter suppression. The DNC emails were written by DNC staff, not the KGB. The pervasive media manipulation and bias were the corporate media’s alone, and the DNC “money laundering” and promotion of Clinton were acts of a party many of us thought represented us.
The lack of answers is not OK and calls for unity and short accountability reek of entitlement that has pervaded the primary. Future rumored Russian manipulation of our elections, should it happen, comes after Democrats willingly exploited a notably faulty election process.
Many talking points ring hollow. Clinton supporters, in fact, targeted Sanders’ supporters and social media; the US State Department under Secretary of State Clinton okayed the control of transfer of one-fifth of our country’s uranium production capacity to a Russian firm; and we have been involved in 40-plus changes of governments and many more elections since World War II.
The Democratic Party must look inward at itself and our nation to fix broken institutions rather than playing the foreign government blame game, even as it refocuses itself on the global factors above.
“Let love rule” sang Lenny Kravitz in a highly memorable moment at the convention. But love is an action reflecting kindness and commitment to the wellbeing of others. Love involves sacrifice. Love mandates abandoning models that have little to offer humanity in 2016 and beyond. Love calls on us not only to showcase minorities, but also to shape global forces such that they—and all of us—thrive in a world of justice and sustainability. Obama’s symbolic presidency has fallen short, which provided the impetus behind Bernie Sanders’ revelatory candidacy and recent successful social movements.
So, will the Democratic Party put Americans first?
An old boss of mine used to say, “Make it so.” Philly demonstrated that, as of now, the Democrats lack the vision and will to surmount the major challenges of our times which, simply put, require choosing people over corporations. But as we all continue, imbued by the spirit that brought us together, we will take action in the name of our values and our power. We will make it, a world serving common good with unbounded potential, so.
*[This article was updated on August 13, 2016.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Bastiaan Slabbers