On TAP: Kuttner + Meyerson

Meyerson
February 14, 2019

Which Presidential Hopefuls Understand That It’s Progressive Breakthrough Time? As Prospect readers have doubtless noticed, we seem to have entered a golden age of breakthrough progressive proposals. Democratic presidential candidates and members of Congress are advancing proposals for universal Medicare, wealth taxes and much more progressive income taxes, full employment, co-determination, more upper-bracket payroll taxes to fund more adequate Social Security payments, and a Green New Deal. Unions and think tanks are promoting a system of collective bargaining that covers all workers in a sector—whether unionized or not. And in California, Governor Gavin Newsom has proposed requiring social media companies that monetize their data to share the proceeds of that monetization with their users.

That which was off the table, or nowhere even near it, is now on.

Historians will doubtless credit Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign for prying open this Overton Window, as they credit Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign for injecting rightwing ideas into the national discourse. They will also surely credit the 2008 financial crash and its long, unequal recovery for moving millions of Americans, particularly millennials, leftward, as they credit the 1929 crash and the ensuing Great Depression for creating the vibrant and powerful left of the 1930s.

As progressives and Democrats view the emerging 2020 Democratic presidential field, it seems to me the most important criterion (in addition to electability) by which to judge the candidates is simply whether they’re part of this dynamic. Do they grasp the need for curtailing our plutocracy, which requires not just political reform but serious taxes on wealth such as those that Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have proposed? Do they understand the disaster that shareholder capitalism has visited upon our middle and working classes, and seek to give workers much more power to bargain and steer their own companies? Do they get the need to break up the big Wall Street banks and establish a range of public banking alternatives? Do they understand that creating a healthier America requires moving to a Medicare for All system (which can be done in a multiplicity of ways)? Do they realize that the oncoming threat of catastrophic climate change requires something like the Green New Deal?

Some current presidential candidates (Warren) and some likely to become presidential candidates (Sanders) have checked off most if not all of these boxes; others (Sherrod Brown) have checked off many of them; and others (Kamala Harris) just some. Still others—Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke—are largely missing in action on these issues, which seems a sure way to depress Democratic turnout in November 2020. However, it’s early yet. 

Kuttner
February 13, 2019

Embarrassment of Riches. The word on the street is that Sherrod Brown and Bernie Sanders will soon join Elizabeth Warren as economic populists contending for the Democratic nomination. 

There has been a lot of argument in the press and among Democratic operatives and kibitzers about whether the party is better off with a populist or “someone who can win.” That’s a lot of hooey. It’s precisely a populist message and candidate who has what’s needed to win.

The risk is that Warren, Sanders, and Brown will crowd each other out and allow a more corporate Democrat to be nominated. Normally, a large field is winnowed down faster than one might imagine, because there is only so much money and so many volunteers to go around.

But these three could stay in for a while. Sanders has his loyalists from last time. Warren has an army of enthusiasts. And Brown will get a lot of labor backing. All will raise small money.

For almost half a century, not a single economic populist made it to the front of the pack. Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, Gore, Kerry, Obama, and Hillary Clinton were all moderate liberals—decent people, but not committed to radical change. 

The result of the inattention to profound structural power grabs, rigged rules, and the steady erosion of economic prospects for regular working Americans was Donald Trump.

If ever America was ready to elect a progressive economic populist, 2020 is the year. But now we will very likely have three, and three's a crowd. 

If anybody can think of a way for two of these good people to unite behind one, speak now.

Meyerson
February 12, 2019

Saturday Shutdown? Then Saturday Stayaway! The same 800,000 federal workers who went without pay last month are still in the Republicans’ crosshairs. While Congressional talks have arrived at a border-related compromise—reportedly, 55 additional miles of fencing, costing roughly one-third of Trump’s wall proposal—it’s not yet clear that Trump will accept that deal. Should he not, the federal workers and their families and the four million federal contract workers and their families could again fall victim to the president’s hostage-taking.

To short-circuit such an outrage, a number of workers’ advocates have proposed a suitable response: A mass stay-away from work. Sarita Gupta and Erica Smiley, the co-directors of Jobs With Justice, have pledged that if Friday’s deadline passes with no resolution and workers are again rendered income-less, they will help organize a stay-away from work, which could be particularly effective in the sector where staying away compelled Trump to end the shutdown the first time around: air travel. In this, they’re expanding a proposal voiced by Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants (which is affiliated with the Communications Workers, CWA), in which her members would demonstrate at airports across the country on Saturday. A number of activist unions, including CWA, Unite Here and the American Federation of Teachers, have appeared to warm to this idea, as have leaders of such groups as People’s Action, the Center for Popular Democracy, Our Revolution, and Greenpeace.

Congressional Republicans are clearly reluctant to shutter the government after the political beating they took for the first one, and while Trump himself seems to grasp a second closure would redound against him as well. Even if they decide to keep the government up and running, however, the actions that Gupta, Smiley and Nelson have proposed signal a welcome intensification of labor’s transformation into a more solidaristic movement, at a time when red-state teachers have won groundbreaking victories outside the confines of collective bargaining laws.

For their part, federal employees are forbidden by law from striking, but the last shutdown ended just a few hours after air traffic controllers in the DC area called in sick (as Georgetown University history professor Joseph McCartin had suggested they do in a piece on the Prospect website), which paralyzed air traffic throughout the Northeast and led to the suspension of flights for several hours at LaGuardia. A similar sick-out would be an appropriate way to kick off Saturday’s action if there’s a Saturday shutdown, and there’s no law preventing flight attendants, pilots and other airline workers—none of whom are federal employees and hence faced with firing if they strike—from walking off the job that day, too. Nor is there a law prohibiting Americans who are indignant about the Republicans’ inflicting such arbitrary misery on federal workers from flocking to airports and demonstrating, too, as many did during the Muslim travel ban.

Indeed, there may be some informational pickets at airports on Saturday even if a shutdown is averted, to affirm the importance of federal employees’ work and to caution against a return to Republican shutdown-ism.

What we really need to forestall the Republicans from shutting down the government—now, or in the future—if they don’t get their way on an unrelated policy issue is a general strike of federal workers and their supporters, though given the constraints of the law, it would have to be a de facto general strike that takes the form of a de jure mass sickout. Coincidentally, yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of the concluding day of the nation’s first general strike, which closed down Seattle in 1919. The Seattle workers—who kept the city running through their own endeavors at the centers they established—were seeking better pay and conditions. Today’s federal workers would be seeking something more elemental than that: not better pay, but simply the pay to which they’re entitled for the work they’re required to perform.

Plan your Saturday accordingly.

Kuttner
February 11, 2019

Kevin McCarthy's Strange Love of the Jewish People. What a pleasure to see House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy deploring anti-Semitism in the context of Representative Rashida Tlaib’s comments about AIPAC. The suddenly philo-Semitic McCarthy tweeted:

“Anti-Semitic tropes have no place in the halls of Congress. It is dangerous for Democrat leadership to stay silent on this reckless language.” 

How very neighborly of the Republican leader, how very Christian. So let’s see, where was Kevin McCarthy and the rest of the Republican leadership when…

Donald Trump used a graphic straight from an alt-right site to pin a Star of David and a pile of money on Hillary Clinton, and then claimed it was a sheriff’s star. 

Or when Trump contended there were “good people on both sides” in the Charlottesville riot, where neo-Nazi marchers chanted “Jews will not replace us.”

Or when Trump somehow failed to mention Jews on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

A search reveals not a peep, much less a tweet, of protest from McCarthy.

Or, for that matter, when McCarthy himself tweeted (and then withdrew) a campaign slur demanding: “Don’t Let Soros, Bloomberg and Steyer BUY the election.” 

And a long, long, long, list of other Republican, Jew-baiting dog-whistles.  

No place for anti-Semitic tropes, indeed.

Kuttner
February 8, 2019

This Just In: Mother Teresa Will Not Be On the Ballot. Could we please get real about Elizabeth Warren and the great DNA brouhaha?

The story so far: Warren listed Native ancestry on a questionnaire and on a Texas bar application. It’s already been thoroughly documented that none of this furthered her career. 

Every university that hired or promoted her assumed she was a white women—in that era of gender discrimination, this was barrier-breaking all by itself.  

And she never claimed tribal identity, only some Native ancestry. Which happens to be true. She has apologized for the confusion. 

But the press, abetted by a whispering campaign by Warren’s rivals and of course by the Republicans, won’t let this go. She has been pronounced fatally blemished on several occasions. Yet Warren persists, to coin a phrase. 

Gentle readers, Donald Trump has been caught in over 7,600 documented lies by The Washington Post, and that’s only since he became president. His State of the Union address all by itself was a lie-fest. All of Trump’s mendacity includes far worse sins than some confusion about his ancestry.

Can you imagine a debate between Warren and Trump on the subject of truthfulness or on the subject of whose policies help ordinary working Americans?

And if you think that the rest of the Democratic field will not be raked over the coals for similar canards, please think again. Mother Teresa will not be on the ballot (and Republican operatives could probably find something on her). 

There is nobody in public life who hasn’t goofed up at some point. The point is their career, values, and leadership taken as a whole.

The press, alas, is superb at blowing up minor flaws into major sins. Warren’s gutsy stances on the issues, making heretofore radical ideas mainstream, remains her most compelling asset, and the dust-up over her ancestry is trivial by comparison.

Would that all Democratic politicians had such minor blemishes—and that the public and the media had a sense of proportion. Warren officially declares for the presidency on Saturday. We can expect that she will continue to persist

Meyerson
February 7, 2019

The Enduring Shelf Life of Blackface Culture. If we take a step back from the individual cases of Virginia leaders Ralph Northam and Mark Herring, what’s more than a little astonishing and revolting is the persistence of blackface as an apparently normal form of dress-up as recently at the 1980s in some quadrants of American culture. This isn’t to exculpate Northam and Herring, but rather to note how much of that which is presumably dead lives on in multiple corners of our far-flung nation.

Blackface was at the center of mainstream popular entertainment in America through much of the 19th century, beginning with minstrel shows and then moving on into any number of vaudeville acts and silent pictures. For some of the stars of the annual Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway in the 1900s, 1910s and into the 1920s, for Al Jolson and occasionally Eddie Cantor, appearing in blackface was part of their shtick. The great African American comic Bert Williams, who also starred in the Follies as well as in his own shows, also wore blackface—it wasn’t enough, apparently, to be actually black. By the time of the Follies, however, blackface had become far less a national norm in popular entertainment than it had been 30 years previous. In popular consciousness, it was chiefly Jolson who kept it alive, not least through his role in the first breakthrough talking picture, 1927’s The Jazz Singer. Nineteen years later, when Columbia Pictures released a Jolson biopic—The Jolson Story—blackface (at least to Hollywood and Broadway) had become an element of period re-creations of an older culture. Its aural equivalent—the hugely popular Amos and Andy radio show of the 1920s and 1930s, in which white actors wrote and performed the roles of horrendously stereotyped blacks—also died out by the 1950s (though for a time, there was an Amos and Andy TV sitcom in which black actors took the leading roles).

One medium in which blackface had a somewhat longer run was parades, most notably Philadelphia’s yearly Mummers’ Parade, featuring whites in presumably comic garb and blackface. As the civil rights movement surged, parade organizers realized they’d have to drop the blackface, and the Mummers officially abandoned blackface in 1964. However, parade entrants in blackface have continued to pop up ever since.

And now, we discover that in the frat boy—or even the non-frat boy—culture of Virginia universities, and who knows what other colleges, universities and high schools, blacking up was, if no longer widespread, at least widespread enough to be unremarkable as late as the 1980s, and, we’re also discovering, thereafter, too. We all know (or should know) that white racism is America’s most hardy perennial, but it is still somewhat surprising to find that a white racist entertainment meme that went out of fashion nearly a century ago was still popping up in the 1980s, and was by no means confined to segregationists, Klansmen, and Nazis.

What a country.

Kuttner
February 6, 2019

Yes, Virginia, There is a Double Standard. For the past several decades, Republican state governments have systematically targeted black citizens to deny them the right to vote. Republican courts have colluded. 

We have a new Republican supreme court justice, Brett Kavanaugh, who sure as hell looked as if he flat out lied under oath in the face of persuasive evidence by a credible woman that he had sexually assaulted her. Not to mention a Republican president who brags about his serial sexual predations of women.

The common element is disgraceful conduct, coupled with cynical shamelessness. So who takes it on the chin for somewhat less systematic racial blunders and alleged sexual assaults? 

The Democrats, of course.

I am not making light of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam dressing in blackface and allowing minstrelsy and a Klan photo to grace his yearbook page. Nor am I excusing Attorney General Mark Herring’s blackening his face in a college party stunt. Even less do I condone Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax’s alleged episode turning consensual kissing into what his accuser says was an assault.

This kind of stuff was all too normal a generation ago. No longer. There is no statute of moral or political limitations for racist symbols or sexual assault.

All of these Democrats have expressed degrees of remorse, while the Republican style is to do far worse, and to piously stonewall. In Virginia, this will likely end with at least one resignation, and some serious political damage to the Democrats. Yet the Republicans manage to engage in far more systematic racism and serial offenses against women and the rights of women—and to an appalling degree they get away with it.

Something is wrong here. If the Democrats are going to devour their own in the name of racial and gender justice, they owe it to themselves and to their country to hold the Republicans to at least as high a standard. 

Meyerson
February 5, 2019

De-Fissuring the Workplace. Last year, the California Supreme Court came out with a ruling that could prove of huge benefit to many—perhaps more than a million—California workers. In a if-it-walks-like-a-duck-and-quacks-like-a-duck-it’s-a-duck decision, the Court ruled that delivery drivers for Dynamex were not, as the company claimed, independent contractors, but actually employees.

To reach that decision, the Court said it applied a three-part test – and only if workers met all three of these criteria could they be legally classified as independent contractors: First, the company hiring them doesn’t direct how their work is performed; second, their work is in a field different from the company’s business; and, third, the worker runs a business doing the same kind of work performed for the hiring company. By these three criteria, which are known as the ABC test, Dynamex’s delivery drivers were plainly employees, not independent contractors. And accordingly, the Court ruled that the drivers were covered by minimum wage and overtime laws.

Since last April, when the Court make its ruling, the Dynamex decision has been ticking away, like an unexploded time bomb, under the underside of the California economy—where at least hundreds of thousands of delivery drivers, port truckers, the workers at car washes and nail salons, the drivers for Uber and Lyft, and who knows how many others are routinely misclassified as independent contractors so their employers don’t have to pay them the minimum wage or overtime pay or provide them with the paid family leave that state law requires employers to give their employees. Nor do the companies have to pay into the unemployment insurance or worker comp funds that employers are required to support.

Now, Democrats in the California legislature, where they hold three-quarters of the seats in both houses, are developing bills that could apply the Dynamex ruling to all the state’s employers who’ve been misclassifying their workers. Not surprisingly, the businesses that rely on that model, most prominently Uber and Lyft, are mounting a vociferous and well-funded opposition, while labor is pushing for legislation that would cover the largest possible share of the misclassified precariat. It’s possible that some compromise legislation might ultimately emerge—possibly along the lines of a proposal that Nick Hanauer and David Rolf made in a 2017 Prospect article that would require such companies to pay into a portable benefit fund for their contractors. As the state’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, was backed by both labor and the tech companies, some kind of compromise might well be required to win his signature.

The California Court’s decision, by the way, runs almost exactly counter to a recent decision by the National Labor Relations Board, whose Republican majority ruled in January that SuperShuttle drivers were independent contractors, not employees, as Moshe Marvit reported last week in the Prospect. Not all methodologies, it turns out, are created equal. The California Supremes opted for empiricism, while the NLRB Trumpistas preferred the comforts of ideology.

Kuttner
February 4, 2019

State of the Union. Trump doesn’t appreciate it, but Nancy Pelosi did him a big favor when she put off his State of the Union address. And now, Trump has blundered once again when he decided to go ahead with it tomorrow, before the issue of reopening the government is resolved.

Trump has two challenges—tone and content—and he is playing a very weak hand on both.

On tone, he can either be defiant and belligerent, his default setting; or he can be conciliatory. In recent public statements and tweets, he has insisted that there is nothing to negotiate about as long as Congress doesn’t give him his wall. If Trump sticks to that tone, he only continues to poison the negotiations—only this time he doesn’t have the Republicans with him. 

As The Washington Post has reported, if he threatens again to use emergency presidential powers to build the wall despite an absence of appropriated funds, that takes a resolution of Congressional concurrence. If the House passes a resolution denying approval, it would put the Senate Republicans in an excruciating jam. That’s one of the reasons why Mitch McConnell and the gang have warned Trump not to raise that threat. 

Conversely, if Trump strikes a more conciliatory tone, he contradicts himself and demonstrates even more weakness. Given that it’s Trump, he could well try to be both belligerent and conciliatory, which is to say incoherent. 

The worst nightmare of his handlers is that a speech is carefully drafted and agreed to, and then Trump wanders off script and ad-libs God knows what.

As for content, a classic Trump tactic is to change the subject. Only this time, there is just about no good news to change the subject to. 

His Syria policy is a shambles, Republican leaders are objecting to his foreign policy on several fronts, leaders of intelligence agencies are calling out his lies on North Korea and Iran, he is about to be taken to the cleaners by the Chinese, and Robert Mueller keeps tightening the noose. A buoyant stock market only takes you do far.

And just to add to his self-confidence, Trump will have Nancy Pelosi looking over his shoulder. If Trump begins with the usual line that “The State of the Union is strong,” it will be the best laugh line of the night.

Kuttner
February 1, 2019

Race, Economics, Identity, and the Democrats’ 2020 Nightmare. When I had my 15 minutes of fame in the summer of 2017 and managed to help Steve Bannon get himself fired, Bannon told me this: “The Democrats—the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

Well, brother Bannon may get his wish. I’ve been arguing for as long as I can remember that progressive pocketbook economics is needed to bridge over schisms of race—to remind non-rich citizens of all classes that their common foe is the 1 percent, not each other.  

The likely candidates who do that best happen to be white—Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, and maybe Jeff Merkley. Of the two African American or mixed-heritage candidates in the contest so far, Kamala Harris is more center-leftish, and Cory Booker is pure corporate Democrat.

Both, of course, talk a lot about race. Booker’s opening line, in his announcement today, talked about black-white bridge-building, but in a context that was about race, and not class. In Booker’s emailed announcement, he said: 

Robert,

We are better when we help each other. I learned that early in my life.

When I was a baby, my parents tried to move us into a neighborhood with great public schools, but no realtors would sell us a home because of the color of our skin. A group of white volunteer lawyers, who had seen the news of civil rights activists marching in Selma on Bloody Sunday, were inspired to help black families in their own community, including mine.

They didn’t know me or my parents. They helped a family they had never met—and it changed the course of my entire life.

That’s Booker’s life experience and if that’s how he plans to use it in his campaign, I have no right to challenge it. At the same time, if race is front and center to the exclusion of pocketbook populist and anti-corporate themes, it’s a gift to Bannon. 

It’s also the case that Booker and Harris are looking to the early Southern primaries, especially South Carolina, to certify themselves as front runners. Most of the Democratic primary voters in those primaries are African American. 

That dynamic will also bring race to the fore. It will take a very brave African American leader in South Carolina to support, say, a Sherrod Brown or an Elizabeth Warren, both of whom have superb records on civil rights, over a Kamala Harris or a Cory Booker.

Look, it’s a free country (just barely since Trump.) I can’t tell people whether to run, or how to campaign. It’s also the case that America has a great deal of disgraceful unfinished business on the subject of race that is long overdue for remedy, and white people need to recognize that. And we do need to talk about race and racism.

I also know that if race, rather the common economic screwing of both blacks and whites by America’s plutocrats. becomes the defining issue of the 2020 election, Steve Bannon will be laughing all the way to the bank.

This will be a majority-minority country by mid-century. It isn’t that yet. To defeat Trump, we need the broadest possible multiracial coalition around progressive pocketbook issues.

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