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On Contact: The Next Republic with D. D. Guttenplan

On the show this week, Chris Hedges talks to D. D. Guttenplan, the editor of the Nation, about the history of populism in America, its current rise and the problem of democracy. His new book, ‘The Next Republic: The Rise of a New Radical Majority’, focuses on nine progressive activists emerging during the Trump administration. Among them, new labor activist Jane McAlevey, racial justice campaigner and Mayor of Jackson, Mississippi Chokwe Antar Lumumba, and environmental activist Jane Kleep, all working to restore America’s democratic, political, and economic systems against the rise of proto-fascist forces and demagogues seeking power.

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CH: Welcome to On Contact.  Today we discuss the rise of American grassroots populism with DD Guttenplan.

DDG: In the ‘30s, the church issued a really important encyclical on the dignity of labor which was a big factor in bringing catholic AFL Unions into the New Deal coalition.  So that’s always been true.  And it’s also worth saying that it’s only people who’ve never had to really work for a living who dismiss the dignity of labor, you know, but if--yes, I think it’s a very important thing to offer people.  It ought to be a very important part of any Democratic small-d politicians’ offer to voters.  And, you know, and the fact that the Democratic Party, in fact, had nothing to say about it for the last 16 years is a tragedy. 

CH: Who are the new progressive leaders who will lead the post-Trump return to democracy and civility in America? How will we restore our Democratic institutions and rest back control of our economy and political system from corporate oligarchs?  What are the most effective tactics that will see a resurgence of grassroots populism?  To beat back the proto-fascist forces that have the country in a death grip.  How can we make sure demagogues, such as Donald Trump, are denied power?  DD Guttenplan, the editor of The Nation, in “The Next Republic, the Rise of a New Radical Majority” profiles nine activists, including the labor activist, Jane McAlevey, the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, Chokwe Lumumba, and the environmental activist, Jane Kleeb, who are battling back against the ruling elites.  Joining me in the studio to discuss his book, “The Next Republic” is DD Guttenplan.  So I think you would argue that the assault against American populism, which began with Wilson in World War I and…

DDG: Well, before that.

CH: Even before that, gave rise to the decayed political system and Trump.

DDG: That’s right.  Well, I mean, there are a couple of ways to talk about it.  The--you have to realize that populism, which is an American invention, although it’s used as a curse word, you know, by Liberals in Europe, it’s an American invention and it describes a working class alliance between poor farmers, the working class in the US, and initially, at least, African-American sharecroppers in the south.  And it was the most dangerous threat to the American oligarchy that ever existed.  I urge your viewers to read Lawrence Goodwyn’s “The Populist Moment” if they don’t already know about it so they can learn about it, but it was viewed as a threat by the original Gilded Age titans in the 19th century, they destroyed it, part of it turned rancid and anti-semitic and racist.  But it never went away and in a sense the force of populism, the program, the Omaha Demands, which were the People’s Party platform.

CH: Explain what they were.

DDG: Well, they wanted an eight hour day.  They wanted the federal government to give loans to farmers so they could retain their land, and use their crops as security for their loans, that was--you have to realize that in the 19th century in America, a lot of farmers operated on what was called the crop lien system, where you would take out a loan in order to pay for the seed for your crop.

CH: Well, that’s how sharecropping functions.

DDG: It--well, sharecropping is a little different because sharecropping, the--you were attending on somebody else’s land.

CH: You didn’t own the land.

DDG: That’s right.

CH: But you would often be in debt by the end of it all.

DDG: But you would often be in debt, yeah.  But the crop lien system was much bigger than sharecropping and kept farmers all over the south and the mid-west in debt peonage for generations.

CH: This, you know, indigenous populism that you correctly point out has been with us.  So, it--it’s--it is crushed.  I mean, as Dwight Macdonald said, the rock--World War 1, the--World War 1 was the rock on which these populist movements were broken.  The, you know, much of the propaganda and Espionage Act, the Sedition Act, were directed at these populist figures, including Eugene V. Debs and others, Emma Goldman’s deported in the Palmer Raids--after the Palmer Raids, after World War 1.

DDG: It’s the origins of the National Security State.

CH: Right, exactly.  And the rise of the FBI.

DDG: Right, and Hoover specifically.

CH:  And Hoover specifically, to deal with these populists.  Then you have quite a repressive period in the ‘20s where unions are outlawed.  And then with the breakdown of capitalism in the ‘30s, you have a resurgence then we--getting with Taft-Hartley in 1947.

DDG: ‘47.

CH:  ‘47, you have, again, this repressive--the resurgence in the 1960s, 1971 Powell Memo, and now we’re really at the bottom.  I mean, they have really put the heel of the boot on our neck.  And I think what you’re looking at in this book is what let’s all hope is the next wave.

DDG: Well, yeah.  I mean, I would--I would put it slightly differently.  I mean, besides the profiles of activists, there are three historical chapters in the book.  There’s a chapter called the Whiskey--the Whiskey Republic which is about what ordinary yeomen farmers who fought for independent from Britain thought they were fighting for.  There’s the Lincoln Republic which, for me, I lived part of the year in Vermont and Vermont never had slavery, and it also had the highest rate of participation in the Union Army of any state.  So, what were those Vermont farm boys fighting for?  What did they think they were fighting for?  They were fighting against something called the slave power, which was essentially oligarchic financial power based on human exploitation.  And then I have--there’s a chapter called the Roosevelt Republic which is about the new deal, the strike waves of the ‘30s, the rise of labor radicalism.  And one thing that all of these, particularly the Lincoln Republic and the Roosevelt Republic, the rock that they were broken on was racism.  The failure of the Roosevelt Coalition was that he had to accommodate Southern Democrats and exclude African-Americans from the New Deal and that created the conditions for the New Deal coalition to be fractured by the Cold War and fractured by Truman’s Red Scare.

CH: Let’s talk--let’s start at the beginning where you talk about organizing labor, and there is this criticism, which I found interesting, of Saul Alinsky, the great kind of organizer out of Chicago, wrote rules for radicals.  I mean, quite successful as an organizer.

DDG: Well, it depends on how you define success.  And I think that’s one of the things that’s interesting.  I mean, as I say in the book, I mean, I have rules for radicals behind my desk at The Nation and, you know, I’ve had it behind my--at my back for, I don’t know, 35 years.  It’s influenced everybody from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton but…

CH: In theory.  In theory.

DDG: But if you--but if you--well, no, I think it’s influenced him a lot, but I think that’s part of the problem.

CH: Maybe the--maybe the negative way.

DDG: And that’s why I found Jane’s critique of Alinsky so interesting because her point is when you do organizing--when you do--when you’re organizing workers, the question is who has agency?  Do the workers have agency themselves or does the organizer have agency?  And Alinsky was constantly telling his funders and his sponsors that he was the alternative to this--to communist organizers in the CIO.  He said, you know, the churches funded him in back of the yards because he said “I can beat the communists at their own game.  I can do better organizing.”  But part of his approach is to parachute people in like Barack Obama who had no ties to the community where they were organizing.  And who maintained a kind of top down approach.  And also at least, in Jane’s portrayal, a fundamentally dishonest approach, because they didn’t--they would use local problems, they would use local issues, and they would keep everything local and they would avoid--you know, Alinsky said “You shouldn’t take on the larger economic system.  You shouldn’t talk about socialism.  You shouldn’t aim at changing national power relations.  You should aim at changing local power relations.”  Now, we all need victories, every movement needs victories to sustain itself.  But her critique of Alinsky is that there was a fundamental dishonesty at work in the way his organizers operated.

CH: Well, in that sense, it was narrowly focused on a particular issue usually within the City of Chicago certainly when he began.

DDG: Well--and it--and it--and it wouldn’t tell the people what they were--what the wider goal was.  And also that it avoided--it actually avoided building sustained economic power.

CH: So let’s talk a little bit about how her, you know, when she organizes, which he uses a kind of template, how that other model works.

DDG: Sure.  Well this is--that’s why Jane’s the first chapter in the book because it’s under--organizing under conditions of extreme adversity.  You know, I think we can all agree that right now we’re in conditions of extreme adversity, particularly for the left and yet I met Jane because I was going out to Nevada to do some reporting and I wanted to talk to somebody who worked out there, and who knew the political terrain.  And she’d worked for SEIU out in Nevada and eventually got pushed out of the Union.  That was the drama that’s in her book, “Raising Expectations and Raising Hell.”  But part of the way this kind of organizing works is you do power analysis.  And so you do a power analysis of your opposition.  Let’s say your opposition is a meat packing plant.  So, you want to know who owns it, who the board members are, where they go to church, what--where they send their kids to school.

CH: Yeah.  I find that kind of fascinating.  That--you--I forgot the word.  But that interconnectedness, you know, that it wasn’t just focusing on the meat packing plant but all of the…

DDG: Its whole…

CH: …auxiliary forces.

DDG: That’s right.  Well, she calls it whole worker organizing, realizing that workers are not just people who go to a factory and have a job, or go to a plant and have a job, or go to teach school, or work in a hospital and have a job, they belong to churches, they belong to bowling leagues, they send their kids to little league, they, you know, they have all these other associations.  And so any union organizer, whether they’re using Jane’s method or other methods, and her method by the way comes out of 1199, which was a radical New York based union, that’s where she was trained.  You do a power analysis of your opposition, that’s normal.  But what Jane does that’s also different is she does a power analysis of the workers and chose them that they--although they may think they don’t have any power, they have access to power, that their ministers may have, you know, access to politicians, that they can withdraw their buying power from supermarkets, you know, that carry non-union packed meat, that they can, you know, they can exert not just moral pressure but economic pressure.  I mean, her aim as an organizer is to build to a super majority where you have 90% of the workforce willing to lock off the job.  And her point is unless you can stick a pole in the levers or the gears of the economy, you’re not going to have power in America, so it’s how do you do that.

CH: But it’s--but it’s also understanding how the system creates these kind of conditions that these are systemic problems with--and this is, of course, her criticism of Alinsky, they’re not the problem of a particular factory or--but…

DDG: That’s right.  Well, I mean that--that’s right.  That’s--again, one of the reasons why it’s the first chapter in my book is because it’s about building power and solidarity, and they--those things go together, that you need to have--you need to organize in a way that the workers themselves are the agents, and they have a sense of their own agency, and therefore a growing sense of their own power.  But part of that is political education, and helping people see that they’re part of a system of oppression that, yes, you can--you can get a better job, you know, you can get more pay at this hospital, or you can get more pay, you know, at this casino to take, an example that’s pertinent this week.  But, you know, if that’s all you’re fighting for, if you get a Cadillac health plan and you’re a coalminer--because this is exactly what John Lewis did in the 1920s and 1940s, is he agreed that they could automate and fewer and fewer miners and they had better and better benefits, and then the whole coal industry ended up…

CH: Yeah.  I want to come back and…

DDG: …decimated and those benefits weren’t worth anything.

CH: …ask about unions.  When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation about the rise of a new radical majority with DD Guttenplan.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about the pushback against the ruling elite and the rise of a new grassroots populism with DD Guttenplan.  So you raised John Lewis unions because unions became established unions, became part of the problem.

DDG: Well, they became--yeah.  They became part of the establishment.  They were given a seat at the table in a certain way, or they got crumbs from the table depending on how you--how you describe it, but yeah.  I mean, you know, there was a--an enormous rise in organized working class power in the United States in the 1930s.  Many of the most gifted organizers in the Steelworkers Union and Auto Workers Union and in the Coal Unions were Communist Party members who went into unions and who, in the case of Lewis, were recruited by Lewis’s organizers.

CH: Yeah, that’s right.  That’s been written out of American history.

DDG: Yeah.  Well, Lewis said--somebody said to Lewis, you know, “What are you doing bringing all these communists into your union?”  And he said, “Who gets the--who gets the bird, the hunter or the dog?”  I mean he felt he could control them and, indeed, when they served his purposes, he purged them.  But that happened on a much wider scale because of Taft-Hartley.  And, you know…

CH: And let’s explain because it’s a very pivotal moment in American labor history.  Explain what Taft-Hartley was.  It was the--not the first, but one of the first assaults against Roosevelt’s New Deal.

DG: That’s right.

CH: The first was actually shutting down the Federal Theatre Project under the Dice commission before the war.  Talk about the importance of Taft-Hartley and then what happened to the union.

DDG: Okay.  So have to remember that the New Deal coalition was a coalition of--that was built around the power of organized labor.  It was organized labor, it was the Solid Democratic South, and it was certain enlightened capitalists who bankrolled the Democratic Party and, you know, certain non-Republican Northern industry.  So it was all those things together and in that sense, it was perhaps inherently unstable coalition.  But after Roosevelt died, the chamber of commerce and the, sort of, Republican Party had always had a purge labor, clamped down on labor, wish list bill almost like the bills that ALEC, you know, drafts today.  And so they drafted Taft-Hartley, which required unions to--officers to swear that they were not members and had never been members of the Communist Party.

CH: But that loyalty of…

DDG: The loyalty of…

CH: With then gave them excuse to start the purges.

DDG: Well, that’s right.  And if you didn’t--if you--if you couldn’t--if your officers wouldn’t take that loyalty oath, then you were not eligible for any of the NLRB adjudications, elections, benefits, you wouldn’t be recognized by the NLRB.  Now, some unions--a couple of unions wanted alone and they didn’t take the loyalty oath and of course, they suffered enormously, but some of them came through.  But most unions purge their officers, which meant that they got rid of most of the most gifted, talented, and experienced organizers.  Now, Truman vetoed Taft-Hartley because he was a Democrat.  And although he acquiesced in the Red Scare…

CH: But there were other restrictions on Taft-Hartley besides the loyalty oath.

DDG: Well, there were--there were all sorts of restrictions on what--it banned secondary picketing.  So you couldn’t--you couldn’t go out in support of another union strike.  I mean it had put a series of shackles on union and working class power.  Truman vetoed it and it--his veto was overridden not because the Republicans controlled the Congress, because they didn’t, but because Southern Democrats Who were afraid of, for example, the CIO’s project Dixie which was a campaign to organize cotton mills in the south using an--integrate the workforce in cotton mills in the south, they didn’t want that.  So they--so democrats acquiesced in Taft--in Taft -Hartley and ion the sense that was the beginning of the destruction of the Roosevelt Republic.

CH: And that assault on union activity I mean we’re now at the height, I think, what was it 36% of the American workforce was unionized.

DDG: And now we’re down to what, eight?

CH: Eight percent, eleven percent if we count public section unions, many of those are not allowed to strike.  And that desolation.

DDG: No, it’s an important point which is--and, again, this is a point that, not my point, it’s Jane’s point but it’s an important one, which is that the strike is not--the strike is the key weapon for labor.  And the reason that the strike as the key weapon is because the only weapon that working class has is our numbers that we are many, they are few as Shelley put it.  And so if you can’t strike, if you can’t withdraw your labor, if you can’t cause a crisis for the employer then you are essentially defenseless.

CH: Let’s talk about it because that’s a word you use as fundamental, the creation of crisis.  What does that mean?  Spell that out.

DDG: Well, what that means is what happened on the West Coast in the 1930s when Harry Bridges--when the refused to load ships that were taking oil or weapons to Spain, when they shut down the West Coast ports.  It means that you bring an economy to a standstill, it means that you remind the owners of the country who does the work here and how reliant they are on the people who do that would work.

CH: I want to quote her, you--from your quote of her, this is you, “A strike isn’t just a tactic, it’s a manifestation of power, the power of the majority.”  And then I think you’re quoting her, “To win the hardest fights, to win a presidential race, to reclaim the United States of America at the statehouse level, to actually tame global capital, we cannot rely on advocacy and mobilizing because they surrender the most important and only weapon that ordinary people have ever had which is large numbers.”

DDG: That’s absolutely right.  I think that is fundamental.  So let’s--but there’s--you touch on something else too which I think is, in the current climate, important to talk about, which is the difference between organizing and mobilizing.  So we, on the left, do a lot of mobilizing.  You call a demonstration, you want to protest…

CH: The Women’s March.

DDG: Yeah.  The women’s march is a perfect example but, you know, so is a lot of the El Salvador, Central America protests that you and I probably went to on in our youth.

CH: I was in--I was in El--I was in El Salvador.  I was there as a reporter for five years, you know.

DDG: Well, I went on a lot of marches, I can tell you.  And, you know, they…

CH: I was--I was marching with the FMLN, so.

DDG: And they were great.  But the problem is that your--or the Fight for $15 is another example of a--of mobilizing, not organizing.  You’re talking to people you agree with.  You’re getting--you’re turning out people who already agree with you which is nice, but it’s not the hard work that needs to be done.

CH: Well, let’s go back to the point.  I mean Jane makes exactly that point that the point of organizing is to talk to people who don’t agree.

DDG: Exactly.  Exactly.  That’s the thing that we, on the left, find difficult because it is difficult.  It’s less immediately rewarding.  You know people aren’t saying, “Oh, yes, we’re all Progressives.  We all agree together.”  They say, “No.  You know, I’m--Hillary Clinton said that she’s going to shut--deprive a lot of minors of jobs, why should I vote for her?” you know, or they’re saying, you know, they’re saying things that don’t chime in with your cultural value so you have to make the effort to cross that cultural bridge to convince somebody that you do have common interests that are more important than the cultural bridges, than the cultural things that divide you.

CH: What has the assault against populism done to the country and why is Trump the, kind of, natural result?

DDG: Well, I think because you had in 2106 a country where people--when Trump talked about American carnage, the Liberal media didn’t like his language.  They felt it was overblown.  But then they’ve never obviously been to the Mon Valley value in Pennsylvania and seeing, you know, entire gutted towns, empty steel mills, you know, empty auto factories.  If that was your life, if your town revolved around steel mills or an auto factory, or metal works, and it was the kind of place where somebody once said to me in Youngstown, you could quit a job at 11:00 in morning and walk down the street…

CH: That’s in your book, yeah.

DDG: …and have another job after lunch, and suddenly there are no jobs anywhere.  You know what American carnage is and you know what Trump’s talking about, and the thing is people were desperate for change, they were desperate for a sense that workers mattered in high dignity which is very different from giving them a universal income and saying, “Don’t bother us, we’re bribing you to go away.”  And so the--and Hillary Clinton had closed the door to a populism of the left because she was the opposite of a populist.  She was somebody who thought that you take $250, 000 for giving a speech to Goldman Sachs because, of course, that’s just what you do.

CH: Actually 675 for three speeches, but yeah.

DDG: So, you know, if the--if the door on the left was closed and you wanted out at any price, people would take the door to the right and I think that’s what happened.

CH: So how, you know, where do we start because you--and you report out of Youngstown, the steel mills aren’t there.  The jobs aren’t there.

DDG: They’re not there.  That’s right.

CH: So with deindustrialization, that manufacturing center, that factory provided a kind of structure by which you could organize and build a union and push back.

DDG: And you could have a decent job.  People in the working class could have dignity.  They could send their kids to college if, you know, if we live in a world where everybody needs to go to college.  They didn’t have to worry that if their wife got sick, they were going to lose their house, or their husband got sick, they were going to lose their house.  You know there was--there was a possibility of a dignified life.  And if you go around the country, by the way, and it’s not just heavy industry, it’s like Wooster, Ohio where they’re used to make rubber-made, you know, plastic things, you know, or Newton, Ohio where they used to make--where they used to make Maytag washers and dryers, you know, these are all places where Trump gave speeches.  He knew what he was doing.  You know, he was signaling, “I see you, I recognize the fix you’re in and, you know, trust me.”  Now of course it was a con but, you know…

CH: Oh, you’re right about how the Democratic Party didn’t go there.  And I think there was one place you talked about how was it Kennedy and…

DDG: Yeah, McKeesport Pennsylvania.  Kennedy and Nixon had debated there in ‘47.

CH: Yeah, I imagine.

DDG: And John Fetterman, who’s now the deputy--The Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania but was then the mayor of Braddock, which other is outside of Pittsburgh.  It’s a steel own outside of Pittsburgh.  He said to me, “Politicians never come here.  These are the places the politicians never come.”  And a month later Trump, came and gave a speech.  So, you know, I think part of it is that people felt recognized and part of it is that these particular jobs may never be coming back.  But what’s really interesting and crucial about, for example, the Green New Deal, is that it provides both an ecological rational, which appeals to people who care about the planet which, you know, given the chances, most of us, but it also provides the rational from an enormous select economic stimulus for domestic industry.

CH: Well, that’s really model on the public works, twelve million Roosevelt employees, twelve million workers.

DDG: Exactly.  That’s what--I mean even that, you know, notorious radical Paul Krugman used to say about Obama’s Stimulus Package that it wasn’t nearly big enough and that was absolutely right.  You know, and it--but the Green New Deal was going to need to be big.  But if it is big, if it is at scale, then you’re offering people in these places real hope because you’re offering them real jobs.

CH: I think you touched on an extremely important point and that is the word dignity.  And John Paul II, not a pope I love, wrote a wonderful encyclical on labor where he talked about exactly that, the importance that work is not just about exchanging labor for a wage, it is far, far more than that.  It is about self-actualization, dignity, a place in the community.  He actually talks about the importance to work to maintaining the family.  And I think that’s what you’re cognizant of.

DDG: Well, I think, first of all, the church has always been good on the dignity of labor.  Whatever there are, there are many flaws, they’ve always been good on the dignity of labor.  I mean this pope is very good in the dignity of labor.

CH: Yeah.  He’s great.  This one is great.

DDG: But other popes have also been good in the dignity of labor.  In the ‘30s, the church issued a really important encyclical on the dignity of labor, which was a big factor in bringing Catholic AFL Unions into the New Deal coalition.  So that’s always been true.  And it’s also worth saying that it’s only people who’ve never had to really work for a living who dismiss the dignity of labor, you know, but if--yes, I think it’s a very important thing to offer people.  It ought to be a very important part of any Democratic small-d politicians’ offer to voters.  And, you know, and the fact that the Democratic Party in fact had nothing to say about it for the last 16 years is a tragedy.

CH: Well, let’s hope that all of the figures of profile on this book rebuild from the ashes of this new populist wave that has been a current in American history.

DDG: Well, I think, you know, the last thing I’ll say about that is that the book talks about labor, but it also talks about racial justice, environmental justice, the howling out of rural America, and the importance of movements like the Women’s Movement like Gay Liberation.  And the point is that it’s a new radical majority.  If you’re a small-d Democrat like I am, then you have to believe that we have to put together a majority.  It’s not that we’re the vanguard that we’re Leninists that we’re going to win because we’re right.  We’re going to win only if we can put together sufficient numbers to win.  And so the coalition that I outlined in this book, every piece of it is essential.  It’s not like, “Oh, we can just do it with labor.”  You need every piece.

CH: That’s right.  Great, thank you.  That was the Author and the Editor of The Nation Magazine, DD Guttenplan, about his new book, “The Next Republic: The Rise of a New Radical Majority.”

DDG: Thanks.

CH: All righty.  Thanks.

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