What I Saw of the 2009 DSA National Convention

Originally published in New Ground 127, November — December, 2009.

by Bob Roman

“Why Evanston?” the reporter for a student newspaper wanted to know. “Because we got a great deal on a union hotel!” I answered with just a bit of asperity. But to answer the spirit of her question, DSA‘s biennial National Convention rotates through the regions of the country. The Midwest was next on the rotation. Chicago is a transportation hub: accessible and cheap to get to. It was Chicago’s turn.

Not that the Chicago Local’s Executive Committee had any great enthusiasm for the idea when it was proposed in 2008. The first answer was no. The last time the Convention was held in Chicago, 1991, we were able to subsidize all 9 of our delegates. In addition to a significant registration fee, each delegate is expected to pay into a travel fund that subsidizes the travel of delegates who journey a great distance. The 1991 subsidy from the Chicago Local amounted to a few thousand dollars. It was already clear in 2008 that we would not be in a position to offer any subsidy to our delegation. If Chicago area members were priced out of attendance, having the Convention here would not do us much good. In the end, the formula was modified somewhat for delegates travelling by public transit.

If 2009 found Chicago DSA in penurious condition, time has not been kind to the national organization, either. In 1991, there were several staff available to work on the event. Today, DSA employs a full time National Director, a part time clerk, and a full time Youth Organizer. (Frank Llewellyn deserves congratulations for juggling the various pieces as well as he did, but inevitably some dishes hit the floor.) Membership is roughly half of what it was shortly after that 1991 convention. And it is hard to say if the political environment is better today or simply very different.

For all that gloom and ambiguity, the 2009 DSA National Convention turned out to be a much better, more optimistic event than the 1991 Convention. Some of this spirit of optimism comes from some long overdue changes to the Convention itself. The typical DSA Convention had been something of an exercise in “resolutionary socialism.” While the delegates would some time on discussing and setting the organization’s priorities, much of the rest of their time would be spent on discussing and amending various organizational statements that, no matter how relevant to the events of the time, would be forgotten sooner than later. This was a considerable amount of work, often shouldered by just a few delegates mostly, and usually not terribly rewarding for the individuals or for the organization.

This Convention marbled decision and discussion with education and skills building. While this practice is not unheard of at DSA Conventions, this particular instance was imported from recent Young Democratic Socialists conferences, and it seemed to work very well.

This Convention included some resolutions: in particular three brief statements on the economy (see sidebar) and a brief statement in condemning the witch-hunt against ACORN. Most of the other resolutionary work was devoted to setting organizational priorities. The drafts of these resolutions are on the DSA web site (www.dsausa.org) and the final versions will be posted soon.

The Thursday evening “pre-convention” sessions were free, open to the public, and brought some attendees from Evanston. The first session was a showing of Never Turning Back , a documentary about a remarkable political artist and resident of Evanston, Peggy Lipschutz. The documentary was shown by its Producer and Director, Jerri Zbiral, and was followed by a question and answer session. The second was a presentation by Northern Illinois University labor historian Rosemary Feurer, who took the opportunity to show a documentary she had co-produced, Mother Jones: America’s Most Dangerous Woman .

The Friday evening outreach forum (a DSA Convention tradition) brought together Interfaith Worker Justice’s Kim Bobo, Black Commentator’s Bill Fletcher, and Washington Post’s Harold Meyerson. All three of these speakers have appeared for DSA in Chicago before, but this was the first time for all three together. The topic was “The Politics of the Economic Crisis: Right Wing Populism or Left Wing Resurgence?” People who make a point of attending DSA events might have considered this line up to be predictable. But each speaker brought a unique perspective and style to a particular aspect of the topic; however different the speeches, they were also complimentary. I couldn’t help but think of Neapolitan ice cream. I can’t do their presentations justice but this was one of the more powerful and informative panels I’ve witnessed at a DSA event. It should be available online soon.

The Saturday evening banquet is also a DSA Convention tradition. This time the speakers were to be Harvard University’s Elaine Bernard and In These Times’ Joel Bleifuss. Unfortunately, Elaine Bernard was suffering an allergenic reaction to medication and was unable to come to Chicago. Much of Joel Bleifuss’ speech was based on an article by William Domhoff that will be appearing in the In These Times January issue. DSA should have the speech online before then.

Delegates also elected a new National Political Committee (NPC). This body functions as DSA’s board of directors and is evenly split between males and females with seats reserved for minorities. Also traditional at DSA Conventions: only the male seats had more candidates (by one) than seats. Only one female seat remains unfilled. No co-chairs were nominated or elected. Five of the fifteen NPC members are from the Young Democratic Socialists (YDS). This pretty much reflects the demographics of DSA membership with a majority of members being either over 55 years old or under 30.

The delegates also elected the honorary chairs and vice chairs of the organization (see sidebar). These are roughly equivalent to the “advisory boards” that many other organizations have, except that the positions are somewhat less anonymous (more a part of the individual’s public biography) than most advisory board memberships. Like the NPC, these positions must be balanced between male and female and have positions reserved for minorities. There are vacancies to be filled by the NPC.

As an experiment, selected sessions of the DSA Convention were streamed live over the web. No one was hoping for a large audience so much as learning how to do it. And the small audience did report problems, so it was very much an exercise in learning.

What I saw of the 2009 DSA National Convention was very positive. The delegates were serious about both their politics and their organization. They were serious about cultivating new and young leadership. And YDS is showing signs of organizational strength, with several of its stronger chapters surviving changes in leadership. Finally, for the first time that I can recall, the majority of delegates also regarded DSA’s finances as a serious political issue. These are seriously good signs for DSA.

But good signs for DSA is not the same thing as good signs for socialism in the U.S.A. Various Trotskyist and communist organizations would have their own reasons for agreeing, but what I mean is this: DSA’s “market penetration” among the population of lefties is shallow enough that we could quadruple our 6,000 members while only somewhat increasing the broader left.

That population of lefties is not huge. As a political movement, socialism (democratic or otherwise) in the U.S. has been dead for many decades, despite sparks and occasional flashes that last a few years before dwindling. As Joel Bleifuss pointed out, the combined circulation of left publications in the U.S. amounts to somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000, making socialism very much a particular interest though larger than miniscule. But the conflicts that fueled the growth of socialism as a political movement in the 19th Century have not gone away.

People have devoted entire careers to investigating American exceptionalism with respect to socialism. (See, for example, New Ground 74: “Lord, Lord, It’s a Bourgeois Town” ) The task for DSA in the short term is not to solve that conundrum but to provide political activists with a means of making sense of the current crisis and the proposed solutions, and to grow with respect to the larger left. This Convention gave me confidence that DSA can reasonably do this.

In the longer term, DSA needs to be able to do the above and to bring home the bacon on national projects. This is an issue for small organizations on a national stage. Doing that, DSA can begin to grow the left and not just itself.

You’re Either At the Table or On the Menu

Originally published in New Ground 123, March — April, 2009. In retrospect, too many of us in DSA spent time defending Obamacare, I think mainly because it had such a rogue’s gallery of enemies. In any case, I also regret my ambivalence in this article.

by Bob Roman

Having spent a week in the hospital recently, I followed the Obama Administration’s White House health care summit with some interest. That the principles Obama hopes Congress uses in drafting health care legislation emphasizes lowering the cost of health care over everything else (despite his remarks that bowed toward universality) was no surprise. Obama made it clear enough while campaigning for President that he had no interest in pushing for a universal publicly run health insurance plan (a.k.a. “single-payer”). What was a surprise was his Administration’s hostility toward advocates of such a plan. That they did not invite a single advocate for the “single-payer” option until pressured to do so is hardly likely to have been a mistake. It was instead a message.

The usual lefty narrative for why repeated attempts at a national health plan have failed is to blame the medical and insurance industries (or more generically the “capitalists”). We’re not wrong about that. But the fact is that our government is structured to discourage any legislation that is not supported by some degree of consensus among all the interested parties. The need for a super-majority in the Senate to end debate is simply the most obvious aspect. There is also the committee system within the House and the Senate, the need for the co-equal House and Senate to negotiate their differences, the possibility of a Presidential veto and the super-majorities needed to over-ride it, and ultimately review by the courts. At each step along the way, there are opportunities for a willful party to kill outright or fatally sabotage a proposal.

During the last significant attempt at systemic health care reform during the Clinton Administration, advocates of a “single-payer” approach to health care were every bit as enthusiastic in opposing Clinton’s proposal as the usual suspects from industry and finance were. With no consensus, none of the competing plans went anywhere. “But. . .,” Obama said, “this time will be different.”

So should advocates of “single-payer” get with the Obama program? Certainly Obama is correct in that the air of desperation that exudes from the less well off on this issue has not only grown but also spread to business and to health care providers. This gets politicians’ attention. The aggravated distress provides a perfect rationale for some past supporters of “single-payer” to accept whatever comes out of the process and proclaim victory.

But it also makes sense to continue demanding the whole loaf: in this session of Congress, HR 676 “Medicare for All” for example. But failing that, would we settle for legislation that allowed for and supported experiments in “single-payer” health care on a state level (HB 311, currently being considered by the Illinois General Assembly, for example)? Or would a reform that would gradually erode private insurance in favor of a public system suffice? At what point, if any, should advocacy for civilized social medicine become part of the veto process?

Thirty Seconds Over Burger King


Originally published in New Ground 119, July — August, 2008.

by Bob Roman

On May 23rd, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and Burger King held a joint news conference in Washington, DC, to announce an agreement to directly pay workers who pick the tomatoes that Burger King buys an additional penny per pound. The agreement goes beyond previous agreements in that Burger King is also offering the employers of the tomato pickers an additional half cent per pound to cover the additional payroll taxes and administrative expenses.

The agreement also establishes zero tolerance guidelines for certain unlawful activities, requiring immediate termination from the Burger King supply chain of any grower in violation, and provides for farm worker participation in the monitoring of growers’ compliance with the company’s vendor code of conduct.

While the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange has not dropped its opposition to buyer / CIW agreements, it has dropped its policy, adopted last year, of fining any member of the cooperative who participates in such agreements.

The relatively quick collapse of Burger King’s opposition to CIW was a consequence of activist pressure, changed circumstances, and most especially Burger King’s amazing talent for shooting itself in the foot.

Among other things, the company was revealed to have an ongoing relationship with an unlicensed private detective agency when it attempted to use the service to spy on CIW and its allies. A vice-president of the firm (not top management, according to Burger King) was fired when it came to light that he was using his daughter’s email accounts to post scurrilous attacks on CIW and CIW supporters.

Circumstances had changed from the Taco Bell and McDonalds campaigns as well. With Democrats now in control of Congress, the Senate (where Senators Bernie Sanders and Dick Durbin deserve considerable credit) was able to hold hearings that help put the campaign in the public spotlight in a manner distinctly unfavorable to Burger King and the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange. Another case of farm labor slavery in Florida and growing editorial sympathy among the news media most especially in Florida also helped.

Activist pressure was also a factor. While the Burger King campaign never developed the national coherence of the two previous campaigns (particularly in Chicago), CIW was able to exert some credible pressure in Florida where both the Burger King HQ and CIW are located.

CIW currently has a campaign that is directed at bringing Chipolte Mexican Grill into an agreement. This is yet another fast food chain that boasts of using its buying power to “revolutionize the way America grows and gathers its food.” There are grocery chains that make similar claims, and CIW has already begun pressuring Whole Foods to come to agreement. Wal-Mart and Subway have also been mentioned as possible near future targets. The Student / Farmworker Alliance, one of CIW’s allied organizations, is planning a conference (an “enceuntro”) in Immokalee on September 18 through 21, and it’s reasonable to expect the CIW’s priorities will be settled by then.

No Private Armies

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary…”

Originally published in New Ground 117, March — April, 2008.

by Bob Roman

Back in 1879, Herman Presser was busted for leading, down the streets of Chicago, a parade of armed men from the Instruct and Defend Association. He had no permit for the parade nor had the Association any license from Illinois to function as a militia. Loosely affiliated with the Socialist Labor Party (which eventually forbade joint membership), this militia had been active in Chicago since 1874 as a counter-threat to armed private employer security forces that were frequently used to “discourage,” by any means necessary, strikes and strikers and unions in general. Something of an anarchist, Presser nonetheless appealed his conviction to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that his (and the Association’s) rights under the 2nd Amendment had been violated. The Court, no surprise especially as it was 1886 just after Haymarket, decided Illinois and the other states had every right to regulate private militias.

Fast forward to the 21st Century. The infamous private mercenary army, Blackwater, has invaded Illinois, establishing a training facility in northwestern Illinois’ Jo Daviess County. Local citizens, mindful the loose gun play and casual disregard for human rights documented in connection with Blackwater and other “private security firms” react by forming Clearwater. The group has the immediate aim of forcing out a bad neighbor, but its overall mission is “to preserve the public nature and civilian control” of the military and of the police. More information about Clearwater can be found at http://www.noprivatearmies.org .

With the active support of Clearwater, Illinois State Representative Julie Hamos (Democrat from Evanston) has introduced HB 5700, a bill that regulates such private security firms as Blackwater. A synopsis of the bill describes it as:

“Creates the Limitations on Private Military Contractors Act. Provides that no State funds shall be used to contract with or purchase services from any private military contractor or related security or law enforcement training entity for training of law enforcement officers or security guards; no military weapons or explosives may be used by private military contractors or related security or law enforcement training operations, except on secured U.S. military bases, other established government-regulated facilities, or government-related facilities designed for that purpose; and, in the event of any natural disaster, civil disorder, labor dispute, or terrorist attack, no personnel trained by any private military contractor shall be used, employed, or contracted with to patrol, guard, control, contain, or arrest any Illinois resident or citizen nor to provide any type of security services of any kind during such emergencies. Effective immediately.”

As New Ground goes to press, HB 5700 had been assigned to the House Homeland Security & Emergency Preparedness Committee and a hearing on this and two other items of legislation had been scheduled for March 13 in Springfield. In order for the legislation to go anywhere, members of the Illinois House of Representatives need to hear from you: members of the Committee in particular but not at all exclusively. What the bill needs now is cosponsors. So in addition to asking your representative to support the bill, ask your representative to become a co-sponsor.

Putin on the Ritz

Happy (?) Presidents Day

Alas that Minimovie is out of business; I’d love to see what they might have come up with for Trump. Their YouTube channel remains, however. (They do seem to have had a rather dim view of women.)

Lacking Minimovie, here is a pre-election take on Trump:

I’m no fan of the Clintons. Let’s imagine Hillary Clinton had not lost the Electoral College election in 2016. This video was done after the 2008 election, but it works:

Cook County Saved?

the fiscal problems are nothing new

Originally published in New Ground 117, March — April, 2008.

by Bob Roman

Supporters of county health care services (and supporters of county government in general) had some reasons to celebrate on March first after the Cook County Board, very much at the last minute and by the skin of their teeth, passed a “balanced” budget that preserves County services, including health care. Better still, from the perspective of the Emergency Network to Save Cook County Health Services, was the passage of an ordinance that essentially puts the county’s Bureau of Health Services into receivership. The ordinance passed is largely the ordinance proposed by the Network except for one major pill embedded in the dog food. The original legislation proposed a board formed entirely independently of County government by representatives from a list of stakeholder organizations. As passed, representatives from a select list of “stakeholder” organizations will meet to nominate candidates for the independent board. From that list of 20 candidates, Todd Stroger (as County President) will select 9 board members. This board will be expected to reorganize the Bureau into a reasonably efficient organization, including setting up a billing system that will allow for greater reimbursement from Medicare and Medicaid. After three years, unless the County Board decides otherwise, management of the Bureau will return to the County Board.

The reform ordinance was a way of taking health services out of the stalemate between those wanted to raise taxes and were defensive regarding management and those who, out of opportunism or out of middle class outrage or out of a hidden libertarian agenda, felt no tax increase was necessary but a lot of “fat cutting” was.

The Emergency Network to Save Cook County Health Services was formed early last year with the blessings and support of AFSCME and SEIU when it became obvious that Cook County was headed for a fiscal crash landing with health services being one of the biggest casualties. Chicago DSA signed on in October. Based at Citizen Action/Illinois, it did a great deal of the coalition building necessary for this victory. Some of the members do not love some of the others though apparently they worked together well enough while facing the crisis. Afterwards, the self-congratulations often did not credit others in the effort.

A great deal of credit also belongs to Chicago Federation of Labor President Dennis Gannon. By some accounts, his shuttle diplomacy at the climax pretty much clinched the deal between County President Todd Stroger, liberal board member and swing vote Larry Suffredin, and some of the other stakeholders. The tax increases were no larger than immediately necessary and the health services reform ordinance was largely what the Network had proposed albeit possibly less “independent.”

Taxes were the big story for the mainstream media. This increase will make the sales tax in Chicago the highest in the nation. In addition to being regressive, it will likely discourage commerce compared to the suburbs. But this is only a small part of the story. The sales tax increase is estimated to be worth $400 million in additional revenue per year but only brings $74 million (the increase happens just in time for Christmas shopping) against the estimated $234 million deficit this year. The rest of this year’s deficit is being made up by the anticipated surplus next year. But according to the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, Cook County’s revenue problems are primarily structural. The taxes the County has available to it will not cover the anticipated increases in expenses. If this year’s deficit was about $200 million, next year’s will likely be about $400 million. The problem is resolved for this year, and with management efficiencies maybe next year, but feces will be airborne again in 2010.

In this context, a possibly independent and professional board may be a risky victory. Stroger is certainly sensitive to the issues of services and good jobs in “The Community.” Cynics, with more than a little justification, will sneer “patronage” instead. Yet most patronage these days is not in the form of jobs but in the form of contracts. Politics is nowhere near as labor-intensive as it once was; money counts for more. If County finances become impossible, what better armor for a politician’s hind end than an independent board to make nasty decisions like privatization or massive cuts?

The other part of the tax story, though, is the money not being collected. Some of this is part of the current left critique: the ubiquitous Tax Increment Financing districts that skim increases in property tax revenue to opaque and unaccountable local projects. But with regard to property taxes, there is always a considerable pool of other money that is not being collected. Tax bills that are being appealed, bills that are being contested in court, bills that are being settled for change on the dollar, bills that won’t ever be paid. Likewise, the sales tax is also evaded. How many dollars are missing? It can amount to more money than you might expect, but that’s a subject for another story.

Politics and Christians

a review

Originally published in New Ground 116, January — February, 2008.

by Bob Roman

The Truth About Conservative Christians: What They Think and What They Believe by Andrew Greeley and Michael Hout. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. 206 pages, $22.50

This is a polemical book, based on public opinion research, written as an answer to popular political commentary that equates conservative Christian theology with conservative politics. The basic contention is that conservative Christians are “far too varied in their political views to be President Bush’s political base” Or, in the words of a popular bumper sticker of some years ago, “Christians are no better than other people, they’re just forgiven.” The Truth About Conservative Christians examines the opinions, voting behavior, and consumption patterns of Christians (and others, for comparison), in order to draw conclusions not just about politics but culture and religion.

Chicagoans will recognize one of the authors, Andrew Greeley, as a Catholic Priest, columnist for the Sun Times, and a highly prolific author: possibly Catholicism’s answer to Isaac Asimov, though Greeley’s attempts at science fiction were pretty lame. What they may not know is that Greeley is also a sociologist with, naturally, an interest in the sociology of religion. He’s currently a professor at University of Arizona but is also on the staff of the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center. I remember him as being more than a bit conservative back in the 1970s but most would likely regard his contemporary columns as being rather liberal, at least.

Michael Hout is apparently from a similar Irish Catholic background as Greeley though of a younger generation. He’s presently the chair of a joint program in demography and sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. Hout has collaborated with Greeley in a number of other papers.

Back when I studied the subject, there were two methodologies used by sociologists, and it typically was a matter of one or the other but not both when it came to individual sociologists, even departments. One was participant observation, a methodology akin to journalism crossed with some aspects of anthropology. The other was statistical: reducing society to numbers in a variety of ways, finding correlation, and trying to tease out causality from the observations. Both Greeley and Hout are firmly in this latter camp. But be assured that the statistics are largely behind the scenes in this book, and the findings are presented in tables that, with few exceptions, are very accessible.

One major pitfall to a statistical approach to the study of society is: Just what is it that you’re measuring? When a person answers a survey question, for example, just what does that answer mean? Sociology is humble enough (unlike economics, for example) to be acutely aware of the ambiguities of measurement, and, with one exception, so are Greeley and Hout.

With respect to politics, the authors demonstrate that conservative Christians do vote more conservatively, but not nearly so much as one might expect: Class and especially race matter more. A majority of working class conservative Christians vote Democratic though not as much as other working class populations. But if biblical literalism reduces the Democratic vote among whites, exactly the opposite is true among Blacks: “Bible Christians in Afro-American denominations are even more likely to vote Democratic than are other African Americans”

The authors’ conclusions boil down to the following political advice to Democrats on the conservative Christian vote:

“1. Try to arrange that you don’t have to run against an incumbent who has managed to portray himself as a wartime president.

“2. Try not to lose your gender gap advantage because your own candidate cannot present a credible national security strategy.

“3. Try to remember that poor and working class conservative Christians share attitudes on equality that are closer to yours than you realize and vote your way when you give them cause to.

“4. Try to understand that Catholics lean your way, that they do not vote as their bishops tell them to do, and that they are more likely to vote Democratic than others who hold the same views ­ whether we are talking about the economic agenda, the social agenda, or the military agenda. Call it loyalty. They like that.”

The first two points are really different aspects of a single thing: What is the individual’s relation to society and how does one find security among one’s fellows. This is not examined in this book. It’s a major omission as the advice above implies that the candidate must credibly promise both guns and butter. It also has implications about what policies would be perceived as “credible.”

Finally, Greeley and Hout assert that economic justice is back on the table: “Get economic justice right, and the Conservative Christians held back by economic injustice will back you.”

These recommendations are not based on voting behavior alone, but also on research into opinions, sexual behavior (the authors have fun with this), and consumption patterns. It’s interesting that the authors’ research tends to lend some support to economic historian Robert Fogel’s The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism and has thought-provoking links to Senator Jim Webb’s history of the Scots-Irish, Born Fighting, though neither work is mentioned in the bibliography.

The one major disappointment in this book is the authors’ attempt to measure anti-Catholic bigotry. As someone who grew up in a small Midwestern village dominated by descendants of Yankees out of New England, a village where Catholics were most certainly “outsiders” no matter how long (indeed no matter how many generations) they had lived there, I have some interest in the question. But arguing that if “a majority of a minority group says that a statement about them is not true, they have the right to interpret the statement as a slur,” the authors chose to measure anti-Catholicism by answers to two assertions: that Catholics are not permitted to think for themselves and the Rosary is a superstitious devotion. The right to interpret a statement as a slur does not automatically make the statement a good choice to measure bigotry or racism. In my opinion, the choice of these measures is more self-righteous and provocative than useful, a pity because this is still an important issue — as is bigotry towards Jews, a topic not touched in this book.

Even so, this is a useful book, not because it promises that everything will be all right for the center-left if only we learn to love Jesus, but because it provides information on how we can build a progressive majority coalition on the basis of policy, not just framing and spin.