Prefatory note: Over the weekend, I used the wonder of social media to raise some questions about today’s primary elections. I received a personal message from someone in my union, the National Education Association of Rhode Island (NEARI), expressing their disappointment that I was not supporting the union’s endorsed candidate, Clay Pell, in the Democratic Primary. Below is my response.
As a quick note: exactly two years ago I published another piece on this exact topic. Es como si el tiempo diera vueltas en redondo y hubiéramos vuelto al principio.
I’m surprised that you were disappointed in my non-support for Clay Pell. I thought you knew that I have a firm, principled opposition to both Republican and Democratic Parties alike. I suppose it’s hard for people to think outside the binary—every non-vote for a Democrat must be a vote for a Republican, every non-vote for Pell must be a vote for Angel or Gina—but this is an incorrect appreciation of the situation. In my estimation, the catastrophe for us does not happen at the end of the electoral cycle when our enemy gets elected; it’s at the beginning, when we accept that the electoral arena belongs to the two parties—really, to the rich—and we have to go along for the ride.
Let’s make clear: the Democratic Party is a party of big business. Perhaps not the same big businesses as the Republicans, and they sure do like it when we give them money and volunteers. I assume I don’t need to go through the litany of Democratic betrayals of the 20th Century, how the Democrats courted the labor movement when we were strong to capture our votes, how they screwed us when we were weak, etc. I’ve heard you yourself talk about how worthless the Democrats are. But what I don’t get is how you don’t see the basic point: that as long as we don’t build an independent labor party; as long as we support Democrats, nationally or locally, no matter how progressive; we end up the adjuncts of a party that fundamentally opposes us.
Let me also just state that Progressive Dems are part of the problem. Maybe the bigger part—because they muddy the waters. It confounds me every time I hear people say that Gina is “not a real Democrat”, or that the “Blue Dog Democrats” were not real Democrats, or that they’re DINOs, etc. The politics of the Democratic Party as an entity are the politics of the Democratic Leadership Council, the Bill Clinton clique of the party that’s been in charge for over 20 years. When a progressive Dem’s vote could actually disrupt business as usual, they are reined in; but otherwise, they’re allowed to be as verbally left as they like, precisely to drag all of us on the Left back into the thrall of a pro-business party.
I suspect that when people talk about “real Democrats”, what they are wishing for is Social Democrats. I think a good chunk of Americans actually have social-democratic politics (e.g. you think the government should act to reduce inequality and take care of people—actually not a liberal position). But as there’s no social-democratic party, we just keep going back for the same abuse, refusing time and again to break free and build our own party. I’ve told you this before, and I’m serious about it: start building an independent labor party in Rhode Island, and I will be your most energetic party worker. But don’t expect me to come along as first mate when you’re on the wrong ship.
This is not all simply about abstract principles; it’s also about the practical experience of the last few years. Of course, the most famous example is how all of our unions were so excited about Barack Obama, who promptly buried the Employee Free Choice Act; appointed Arne Duncan as Education Secretary, imposed Race to the Top, and applauded the firing of the Central Falls High School teachers; and adopted RomneyCare for America over Republican opposition. This is what kills me: how do we not see the tweedle-dee tweedle-dum act before it happens? Every time!? But then you were talking about Rhode Island politics, and it’s probably unfair of me to assume that the national Democratic Party provides the framework or the limits in which local Democratic Party politics function.
Let’s talk about my district. Do you remember 2010, when NEARI backed Chafee for governor, and when NEARI intervened heavily in the District 68 election against Doug Gablinske? NEARI backed neophyte Richard Morrison in the hopes of unseating one of the most vocal proponents of the pension reform. It worked, right!? Oh, wait: Morrison unseated Gablinske, but then voted for the pension reform. Meanwhile, our Uniserv Rep got smacked down for his little internet prank against Gablinske. And do you remember how folks from NEARI came to our opening day union meeting and passed out flyers for Morrison? That got out, and people in the community were upset that paid teacher time was being used for politics, so we had to take out the contractual guarantee of time for our union meeting as part of the opening day’s activities. The administration has thus far scheduled a “break” for the union meeting time. But will all future administrations act accordingly?
And then there’s Chafee. I’m sorry, but I can’t help but see the similarities in class background between Chafee and Pell. And let’s review the Chafee debacle. Yes, the man ran as an independent, not a Democrat. But NEARI was all-out for this independently wealthy home-grown aristocrat. Yes, Caprio the Democrat was far worse—he was promising to deep-six our pensions. But in the event, Chafee backed Raimondo’s Wall Street scheme. Even worse, he did not ditch Deb Gist—no, he kept her on! When I asked our Uniserv Rep about this in a local meeting shortly after that election, his response was that we didn’t want to press our advantage because it would inevitably backfire, make Chafee look like our “tool”, etc. Don’t get me wrong—I like John, and I like that as a Uniserv for our local, he was always very open with the members about what was going on at the negotiating table. But I was dumbfounded as to how this could make any sense. If we throw ourselves into an election, don’t we want to see through what we got into the election for in the first place? Or did we just back Chafee because he’s a nice guy, and now we don’t want to ruffle his feathers?
Six years into Obama, four years into Chafee, and we’re worse off than before. We’ve played this game before, and even when we “win”, we lose. I’m sure that my missal is not likely to influence you this election season—we’ve had this conversation before, we’re having it now, we’ll have it again in the future. Maybe you feel like the voice of reason trying to bring the black sheep back into the herd, but I feel like the mild-mannered psychologist trying to stop the patient from repeatedly banging his head against the wall.
As for today, it looks to me like Pell has taken many of his votes from Angel, while Gina’s numbers have gone up slightly. You sank one neoliberal, but you couldn’t sink both. Voters are pragmatic, and if they’re not running scared like our union members, they can see through the pretty face to the aristocratic neophyte. I suspect the Republican will have a pretty easy time in November, as the traditional “Democratic” base will be demoralized with Gina, demoralized with Angel, or defending a weaker candidate with Pell. Once again, we’re voting against what we fear, not for what we want.
Thanks, but I’m voting no.