A Small Battle in a Larger War

Originally published in New Ground 159, March — April, 2015.

Mujica Money

by Bob Roman

The usual practice for lefties defeated in electoral politics is to claim victory, victory in the sense of having spread the word, victory in the sense of building an organization, victory in the sense of whatever plausible argument comes to hand. In the case of Jorge Mujica’s campaign for 25th Ward Alderman, we can safely assert it was a successful proof of concept: The “socialist” label, in some neighborhoods, is not a handicap even if it is not an asset. Begging your pardon but I’ve been saying as much for years. Through our participation, Chicago DSA did earn a reputation as an organization that delivers on its commitments. But the campaign intended to establish a socialist presence in Chicago government and that requires victory.

Chicago's 25th Ward, 2015
Chicago’s 25th Ward: Darker Areas = Greater % Votes for Mujica. Graphic by Roman

Chicago’s 25th Ward is a gerrymandered district that was drawn for the benefit of the incumbent, Danny Solis. Solis is an erstwhile community organizer of the Alinsky school gone over to the dark side. The ward is located just southwest of Chicago’s downtown, forming an upside down “U” wrapped around the University of Illinois at Chicago campus. The west wing includes parts of the largely Mexican Pilsen neighborhood. The apogee includes parts of Chicago’s well-to-do, professional near west side then swoops down through the Union Station rail yards to include much of the south side’s Chinatown. The previous ward boundaries made a district heavily Latino. The current ward has a bare majority of Latinos, Mexican mostly, with some Puerto Ricans and other Latino nationalities.

The ward ended up with three other candidates in addition to Solis and Mujica. Roberto Montano is a businessman and, in the past, Solis’ Chief of Staff. It’s hard to say why he was running though it may have had something to do with Mayoral candidate Willie Wilson. Byron Sigcho was the other credible left of center candidate. An immigrant from Ecuador, a doctoral candidate in Education at UIC and very much a student politician, he had done some significant research into charter schools. Sigcho had the endorsement of Reclaim Chicago, the electoral coalition backed by National Nurses United. And finally there was Ed Hershey, a member of a small obscure Trotskyist sect. Was that redundant? In any case, Hershey seemed to feel the campaign needed a real socialist.

Mujica’s campaign grew out of the Chicago Socialist Campaign (CSC). The CSC was organized in response to Kshama Sawant’s victory as a socialist in Seattle. Initially there was interest from several possible candidates for alderman. Ultimately, three ran for office. One won. Only Jorge Mujica decided to run as a socialist.

Meetings of the CSC sometimes were as large as a hundred people, many of whom were not members of any socialist organization. Unfortunately this did not translate into election workers. Those who did volunteer were often totally without experience in election campaigns and most did not live in the district. It’s easy to be snide about this, and people have commented about leftists who like to sit and complain about Democrats. But Mujica pointed out that the CSC drew people from across the city. If he had been running for a citywide office, as Sawant did in Seattle, there would have been opportunities to be involved near at hand for everyone. Instead, there were often important contests closer to home.

And it’s not as if Mujica himself was able to put in the time a campaign requires. He’s not a rich man and had to work most of the campaign season. Otherwise, Mujica himself is reasonably credible as a candidate for city council. He was one of the organizers of Chicago’s huge May Day immigrant rights marches several years ago, and that’s just the most visible of the organizing he’s done. He’s been involved in Mexican electoral politics, and the aldermanic campaign was his second campaign in the U.S. Mujica is a personable fellow with a lively personality, articulate in both Spanish and English, and easy to look at even if he is rather more shaggy than the bourgeois image of an official. Well this is a socialist campaign, yes?

Money was a problem for the campaign. It did have a paid campaign manager. The campaign did manage two bulk mail drops targeted at voters in the Pilsen neighborhood. And the campaign did have a good social media campaign directed at that same constituency. AFSCME Council 31 endorsed Mujica, as did a council of Chicago area CWA locals, bringing some mainstream credibility and money to the campaign. Chicago DSA raised over $1600 in early money and not all of it from DSA members.

The mayoral contest also was a problem for the campaign. The Mujica campaign made no endorsement for Mayor. But many election activists in the ward were committed to working for Jesus Garcia’s campaign for Mayor. An endorsement of Garcia by Mujica might have attracted some of those campaign workers but then again maybe not because it was clear that Garcia’s campaign was not likely to endorse Mujica. The 25th Ward is in the backyard of Bob Fioretti, another a liberal candidate for Mayor, and neutrality left open the possibility of some support from his people. Ultimately though, the CSC, with its commitment to independent electoral politics, mostly felt Garcia was too much of a “Democrat.”

A great deal has been said about voter turnout. It was considerably less than the municipal election four years ago, but it was actually not much different than the municipal elections eight and twelve years ago. The 25th Ward was near the median for this election. The Board of Election did have its thumb on the scale, though. It set up the Ward’s early voting site in Chinatown. Solis escaped a run-off election by only several dozen votes, prompting the Sigcho campaign to file for a recount of several precincts. A few of the items listed in the complaint may have plausibly been voter fraud but most of it sounded like sloppy inattention to procedure. Whatever the case, it made no difference. The official results put Solis at 3811 (51.07%), Sigcho at 1383 (18.53%), Mujica at 907 (12.15%), Montano at 748 (10.02%), and Hershey at 614 (8.23%).

Of the groups participating in the CSC, the International Socialist Organization, Solidarity, and Chicago DSA came through. DSA raised money, provided opposition research, did issues research, provided mailing services, and had a dedicated handful of members who gathered petition signatures, canvassed voters, blitzed precincts, leafleted L stations, and did election day work. I think we could have done better, particularly with recruiting more people to work, but it’s also true that Chicago DSA has no members in the 25th Ward. Will this coalition effort be duplicated in future elections? It would be a good thing if it were, but I’m inclined to be skeptical. Chicago DSA is open to the possibility. We’ll see.

Socialist International Meets

This was originally published in New Ground 144, September — October, 2012.

by Bob Roman

The Socialist International (SI) met in Cape Town, South Africa, August 30 through September 1. This 24th Congress was the first to be held in Africa and the location seems to have attracted some attention and participation that it would not have had otherwise. The meeting was hosted by South Africa’s African National Congress. Over 400 people, representing more than 100 political parties and organizations, participated.

DSA is somewhat incongruously a full member of the SI; the SI is an organization of political parties and DSA is not a political party. DSA was represented at this Congress by Maria Svart, Skip Roberts, Gerry Hudson, and Mark Levinson: a heavily SEIU delegation and, therefore, maybe taken somewhat more seriously than many past DSA delegations. (“There goes the ghost of Michael Harrington.”) Possibly because it is an election year, the National Democratic Institute (an associated organization) was not represented, but then, not many other associated organizations were represented either.

While George Papandreou was re-elected President, there actually was a contested leadership election. Incumbent Secretary General Luis Ayala (Chile) was opposed by Mona Sahlin from Sweden. Ayala was re-elected.

The SI Congress adopted three resolutions.

“The Struggle for Rights and Freedoms” was an examination of the current upsurge in demands for democratic rights. In principle, there’s nothing difficult for the SI about it except that in far too many cases (the former member parties from Egypt and Tunisia, for example) SI parties have been an embarrassing part of the problem.

One might suppose “The Need to Secure Multilateralism” resolution would be aimed at the United States. But there are far too many other countries also willing to take matters into their own hands, and the resolution wisely recognizes this. Given the SI’s inability to enforce anything, it does end up having a well-meaning, hand-wringing affect to it. For example:

“With regard to Syria, the SI is following with deep concern the massacres that take place on a daily basis, as the Assad regime refuses to accept that change is inevitable. We stand firmly on the side of the Syrian people in their fight for democracy and human rights and condemn the brutal actions of the regime. We call for all sides to end hostilities and enter into negotiations without any preconditions. We are not in favour of foreign military intervention, which can lead to further human suffering and instability in the whole region. We strongly support a Syrian-led process of transition to democracy.”

One should not be totally dismissive of this, however, as the SI seems to serve as a diplomatic back channel for “progressive” elements in governments.

The economics resolution calls for a progressive fiscal policy:

“a bank levy or increased income tax on high earners, redistributing wealth from the top to the bottom; the introduction of a Financial Transaction Tax; a new global reserves system that could provide developing countries with access to financing, giving them purchasing power and helping to drive demand by using resources that would otherwise be idle; and by establishing new financial institutions such as development banks and green banks that could create new credit mechanisms, enabling credit to flow once more and provide more liquidity to ensure the resources meet public needs.”

The resolution goes on to condemn austerity as a solution to the fiscal crisis and calls for

“a bold approach based on a new culture of solidarity, solidarity that works separately and simultaneously at different levels: economic, political and social. Otherwise, any government that acts alone risks being crushed by markets and ratings agencies. Common action and creative initiatives are needed to bring about a paradigm shift from the failed austerity policies; that is the only way to a sustained recovery.”

Previous meetings suggest that the SI is evolving in ways that may or may not be encouraging, and the accounts of this meeting suggest the process is slowly ongoing. For more details about the 24th Congress, see http://www.socialistinternational.org .

Post Script: I think this was the last SI meeting at which DSA was represented. The 2017 DSA National Convention voted to terminate DSA’s membership in the organization. In my humble opinion it was a brainlessly symbolic decision, but it does have the advantage of saving several thousand dollars in dues. Since DSA hasn’t had an international political agenda that I know of, this is money wisely not spent.

When the Democratic Party Lost Its Soul

A version of this was originally published in New Ground 132, September — October, 2010.

by Bob Roman

Kennedy vs. Carter: The 1980 Battle for the Democratic Party’s Soul by Timothy Stanley (University of Kansas Press, 2010)

Kennedy vs. Carter is an historical narrative covering 1976 through 1980, a time when liberalism, left-wing radicalism, and labor were in retreat. Its author, Timothy Stanley, is a fresh British historian (Leverhulme Research Fellow at Royal Holloway College, University of London) and a left of center Labour Party activist. Because these years are considered a turning point in American political history, it’s a subject worth reading about. Obama in particular seems vulnerable to comparisons to Jimmy Carter though Marx would probably furiously scribble a two or three page tirade against such superficial foolishness, as he did in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. But DSA members have an additional reason to read Stanley’s book as it’s one of just a few histories of mainstream politics that spends any time discussing the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), a predecessor to DSA.

Stanley is very much a traditional historian, for whom the past is a foreign country and for whom history is as much story telling as social science. This makes for a very readable text with a wealth of details, each contributing to the narrative. If you lived through the Carter Administration, you’ll find much to be reminded of but also some that’s new. If you are too young for that, you’ll learn much about the period, though the book’s focus is pretty tight on the years in question and the conflict between Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter in particular. Some context will be lacking.

For context, you might pick up Judith Stein’s recent (Yale University Press, 2010) Pivotal Decade. While there is some overlap with Stanley’s work, Stein’s concern is just how the United States economy traded industry for finance. As this had (and has) profound consequences for the union movement, it drives many of the events described in Stanley’s book. Also worth referring to: William Greider’s book on the Federal Reserve, The Secrets of the Temple (Simon and Schuster, 1989) and Michael Harrington’s presentation on the crisis of economic theory (http://www.chicagodsa.org/audarch4.html [deleted]).

Kennedy vs. Carter is a polemical book. The conventional argument concerning this transitional decade is, in Stanley’s words, “that while President Jimmy Carter had been a moderate, decent man, his base had failed to appreciate the changing dynamics of the era. The American public rediscovered its innate conservatism. [I]n an act of extreme and arrogant opportunism, Edward Kennedy agreed to lead [liberals] in an ill-considered, futile charge against the president. His defeat in the 1980 Democratic presidential primaries suggested that liberalism was on the decline even among Democrats.” Stanley hopes to demonstrate that liberalism and the left were still a very potent force during the later 1970s, and that Kennedy was actually a stronger general election candidate than Carter; among other things, despite his liberalism, Kennedy also drew support from conservatives. “The American public in the 1970s,” Stanley writes, “was neither liberal nor conservative, but instead anxious, angry, and desperate for leadership from any direction.”

Stanley supports his argument in detail, including a fair amount of polling data. It’s helpful that Stanley’s “revisionist” version of the late 1970s is largely common sense; he mostly needs to demonstrate Kennedy’s potential strength as a candidate against Reagan and Anderson. I think he does that. It’s more difficult to imagine Kennedy overcoming the advantage that came with Carter’s incumbency to win the Democratic nomination, but the case Stanley makes does serve to demonstrate the strength of liberals and the left in the late 1970s.

The book has a number of weaknesses and problems. In discussing conflicts within what he calls liberalism, Stanley draws a distinction between “older New Deal liberals” and what he refers to as the “New Politics.” He never adequately defines these terms, though he does deal with it briefly in the introduction. Mostly, you are left to pick up what is meant from the context of its usage. New Politics are Democrats who are “liberal” on social, environmental, civil rights, or foreign policy issues, but “conservative” on economic issues, particularly those related to labor. Typically, these are politicians who represent constituencies where the labor movement was weak if not absent: suburban or rural districts, states in the Great Plains, the south, or the Rocky Mountain west.

It also would have been helpful to discuss just where the term “New Politics” came from. I vaguely recall it being in the vocabulary of insults used by George Meany / Max Shachtman social democrats, evoking the disastrous National Conference for New Politics held here in Chicago in 1967 (a big to-do: some 5,000 attended, few left unscathed). You can get a better sense of Stanley’s thinking from an essay he posted at The Utopian about the U.S. Anti-Vietnam War movement: “The Long Haired Conservatives: the Children of ’68 Reconsidered” at http://www.the-utopian.org/2008/05/000026.html [deleted; it can be found (2017) at Attack the System]. There are also relevant references included in the book’s notes, but these are sources inconvenient to the average reader.

While Stanley does use a considerable amount of polling data, this is all integrated into the text. This is where well done tables and graphs could have made his argument much more compelling. The same data could be used to game possible alternate outcomes of a Kennedy – Reagan – Anderson 1980 election, but that would likely have made for a dry and technical book.

Being British, and a lefty, Stanley takes organizations more seriously than most academics and political observers in the United States. Consequently, one gets an account of the doings of not just political leaders but various political organizations as well. Given the multitude of national organizations, Stanley inevitably must be selective. The New Democratic Coalition (a 1970s version of Progressive Democrats of America) ends up with but one mention, in passing, and no listing in the index, for example. So how does DSOC rate several pages?

During the 1960s and 1970s, there was an effort on both the right and the left to “realign” the Republican and Democratic parties so that all the conservatives would be Republican and all the liberals would be Democratic. On the right, William Buckley and the Young Americans for Freedom, among others, led the effort. On the left, getting a later start, there were groups including DSOC and the New Democratic Coalition. Both sides had some reason to believe that a majority of the electorate would be on their side.

Among Democrats, the quest for realignment dated back to the New Deal, but by the 1970s this effort at realignment was conflated with a populism that sought to cut out the middle-man of party organization, making candidates, as much as possible, directly selected by the Democratic Party electorate. And as public officials, they were to have some accountability to that same electorate. The demand for direct selection of candidates led to an accelerated spread of primary elections over conventions and caucuses as a means of selecting candidates, delegates, and party officials. This has facilitated the “realignment” of what we call the Democratic and Republican parties.

On the national level among Democrats, the 1970s effort at accountability led to the establishment of a “mid-term” national convention. The first such convention was held in 1978. It was the only such convention because of the near success of Democratic Agenda, a project of DSOC, at holding Jimmy Carter accountable to the many promises he made to win his nomination by the Democrats in 1976. Democratic Agenda elected, lobbied and organized convention delegates, and came very close to defeating a sitting president on a number of votes. The votes were close enough that Carter’s victories were counted as defeats. An American analyst would have ignored these organizational details and labelled Democratic Agenda as a stalking horse for the Ted Kennedy for President campaign and paid no more attention to Democratic Agenda. Stanley does not.

Democratic Agenda at the 1978 convention gave DSOC a great deal of “street cred” among political professionals. It also is the root of the enduring DSA stereotype: that DSA works exclusively within the Democratic Party. Oh, yes. Carter’s floor manager (thus DSOC’s chief opponent) at the mid-term convention? Hillary Rodham.

Democratic Agenda’s campaign was accomplished on a shoestring by mainstream standards. Democratic Agenda had a yearly budget of about $61,000 (in 2009 dollars, about $217,000) half of which was donated by three unions: the UAW, the Machinists, and AFSCME; a Washington office; one full time director and two part time field staff. Part of the point Stanley is making is that Democratic Agenda was able to accomplish so much with so little because it was sailing with the political wind.

Stanley does get some things wrong. He moves DSOC off the stage with a paragraph that begins dramatically: “an acrimonious internal split tore DSOC apart over primary tactics.” This is story telling. In fact, no such split occurred and the reference he cites does not support it. He is correct, however, that the opening DSOC exploited was closing. The 1978 mid-term convention was the only one the Democrats ever held though a carefully neutered 1982 mid-term “conference” was held in Philadelphia, mostly as a way of gracefully backing out of having such meetings. The 1980 Democratic National Convention was the last convention where delegates actually had much autonomy or anything of consequence to decide. Subsequent conventions became extended TV commercials for the putative nominee. DSOC never came to any consensus regarding what to do in response and the debate about that was indeed sometimes heated. Instead, DSOC began negotiations with the New American Movement to merge, all the while continuing to press the Democratic Agenda lever (later rebranded and repurposed as “Democratic Alternatives”) like some over-trained pigeon in a Skinner Box. Even so, DSOC continued to grow. Stanley notes that membership stood at about 3,000 in 1979. That year the organization set a goal of 5,000 members by 1980, and exceeded it.

Stanley also misattributes the December, 1980, “Eurosocialism and America” conference to Democratic Agenda. The conference brought together political leaders (indeed, future presidents and prime ministers) from Europe and the United States for an extended policy discussion. Some 2,000 people attended, and an unknown number were turned away by the Washington, DC, fire marshal for exceeding the venue’s capacity. The conference was a DSOC project, held under the auspices of the Institute for Democratic Socialism, DSOC’s 501c3 affiliate, and it says so in the reference Stanley cites (Eurosocialism and America, edited by Nancy Lieber, Temple University Press, 1982). The conference, incidentally, seriously irritated AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland and the now defunct Social Democrats USA; the AFL-CIO did its best to sabotage the event while not being too public about it.

These are minor points but worth mentioning because, after all, this is a DSA newsletter.

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.

Big Box Living Wage Referenda and Other Election News

2006 was an interesting election in Illinois

Originally published in New Ground 109.1, email edition 11.28.2006.

by Bob Roman

In New Ground 108.3, we noted a number of important referenda and campaigns to be decided by the November General Election. Generally, things went well.

Danny Davis, endorsed by national DSA’s Political Action Committee, won re-election to Congress with no difficulty and to no surprise.

Rich Whitney and Julie Samuels, endorsed by the Greater Oak Park branch of Chicago DSA, did very well as Green Party candidates for Governor and Lieutenant Governor, respectively, receiving over 10% of the vote statewide. In some counties downstate (mostly small, rural counties), their share approached a quarter of the vote.

Green Party partisans regard this as a victory even if most political professionals would feel humiliated by such a showing. The context is different though. The most important difference is that across Illinois the Green Party is now regarded by the State as an official party. This means prospective candidates will have an easier time appearing on the ballot as radically fewer signatures need be gathered on nominating petitions. This is a victory, make no mistake about it.

Unfortunately, it also means that the Green Party has also lost control of selecting its candidates and control over its party structure. Like the “regular” organizations in “major” parties, the Green Party locals have now become one competitor among potentially many in a state run venue labeled “Green Party”. This comes at a time when the Green Party is still pretty rudimentary as an organization. This is not an insurmountable issue, particularly in Illinois, though it would be reassuring if more minor party advocates were talking about it and exploring what changes would be necessary to make party government possible (or at least more likely) in the United States.

For those interested in tracking the progress of minor parties, including the Green Party, and the legal issues they face, I highly recommend book-marking the Ballot Access News web site: http://www.ballot-access.org/

The left also fared well with referenda in Illinois. Opposition to the Iraq occupation was on the ballot in Cook County and in a number of townships across Illinois. These questions won by large, often landslide margins everywhere except one township. In DeKalb County’s Sycamore township, the question lost by a narrow margin. This puts lie to the cynical dismissal of non-binding referenda questions as ill-considered and unrepresentative and unscientific public opinion polls. Voters do give these things some thought. It also makes the victory of the “Big Box Living Wage” referenda in selected Chicago precincts that much more significant.

The “Big Box Living Wage” questions asked voters to endorse the ordinance recently vetoed by Mayor Daley that would require a living wage and benefits for employees of large retail operations such as Wal-Mart or Target. The question was on the ballot in a bit less than 200 of Chicago’s 2,605 precincts, but the precincts were selected to embarrass certain aldermanic opponents of the ordinance and bolster support among others. None of the referenda lost. Overall, the questions won 80.4% of the vote, though in a few precincts “Yes” dropped into the mid-60s. Daley the Elder never did so well.

Already some of the Aldermen who voted against the ordinance or who switched their votes have opponents professing support for the ordinance. Even with a discount for opportunism, it should make for an interesting election next year.

A Meeting of Terrible Lizards!

The Socialist International lumbering toward extinction at its 22nd Congress

Originally published in New Ground 91, November — December, 2003. In the years since, DSA has dropped its membership in the Socialist International (2017). The main rationale for DSA’s membership (and the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee before it) was largely symbolic, as a way of saying that DSA was a legitimate part of mainstream politics, not disqualified from governing by label or ideology. As DSA was never a political party, we really had no other business being a full member. The other reason for membership was to stick it to the Social Democrats USA, the sad and tiny remnant or the Socialist Party of America, who never really forgave Michael Harrington from leaving their organization and then succeeding. The Social Democrats USA left the SI sooner, probably because they could not afford the dues, then went belly-up. The name Social Democrats USA, at least, was rescued from the dust bin of history by some oddly sentimental folks, but it’s mostly a blog site. I believe the International Union of Christian Democrat and Peoples Parties is also defunct.

by Bob Roman

The Socialist International (SI) held its 22nd quadrennial Congress in São Paulo, Brazil, on October 27 through 29. For DSA members, a more detailed, intimate account will probably appear in a future issue of Democratic Left, but here are a few quick observations.

The SI is a political club of national political parties established in 1951. You could regard it as a successor to the early 20th Century Second International of socialist parties, a sort of Second International version 3, perhaps. At about 170 members, it’s the largest of several similar international clubs, there being one for most parts of the political spectrum.

The mainstream press accounts (Associated Press, mostly) emphasized the national leaders (such as Tony Blair) who were scheduled to attend the Congress but cancelled. The implication being that the SI Congress was simply not worth their while (a meeting of “dinosaurs”) though coincidence as a possibility was conceded.

In fact, it was the São Paulo location that was probably the most significant news. If anything remains in the SI of the late Willy Brandt’s idealism, it is a continuing interest in expanding the base of the club beyond SI’s industrial and European roots. The Congress was hosted by Lula’s Workers Party, which is not a member of the SI but is being actively wooed to join (the present Brazilian member is the Democratic Workers Party). And this Congress was the occasion of one of the larger expansions in SI membership: 18 parties admitted to Full membership and 20 parties given Consultative status, Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe predominating. It was probably a disappointment that Lula’s Workers Party did not take the occasion to at least apply for membership, but that question is still on the Workers Party agenda.

Most of the new Full membership parties previously held Consultative membership, an example being one of the bigger disappointments on the list, Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). One party directly admitted to Full membership is Bulgaria’s old Communist Party, now known as the Bulgarian Socialist Party. And for the delight of all those American devotees of paranoia and conspiracy, the Democratic Party’s non-profit foreign policy foundation, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), has joined the SI as an Associated Organization.

For the confusion of the paranoid, the NDI has a similar membership status with the Liberal International. The Republican Party is a full member of the International Democrat Union. Dual memberships are not typical but not unusual. For example, Germany’s conservative party, the Christian Democrats, is a member of both the International Democrat Union and the International Union of Christian Democrat and Peoples Parties.

The Greens are organized somewhat less formally in a Global Green network. There are probably several Trotskyist internationals.

For the SI in particular, it’s not unusual for more than one party in a country to be members of the international. In the Mexico, both the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) and the PRI are members. In the United States, both DSA and Social Democrats USA are Full members in addition to Associated Organization membership of the NDI.

The expansion of the SI membership does appear to be having an effect on the organization’s culture. Traditionally, the SI has expressed a consensus of its members, an agreement that is reached before anything comes to a formal vote. At this Congress, some of the disagreements made it to the floor, mostly at the initiative of some of the Latin American parties. Specifically, a resolution demanding immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq was proposed but defeated. And Tony Blair’s election as a Vice-President of the SI was opposed. He was elected.

Obviously the SI has a ways to go for it to be a more congenial place for the likes of DSA and perhaps for Brazil’s Workers Party.

For more information about the 22nd SI Congress, click here.

What I Saw of the 2018 Women’s March

in Chicago’s Grant Park

Click on any of the photos above for a larger view.

Despite the beautiful weather, this year’s march was smaller than last year’s event. It may have been at most half the size, but that is still a sizeable event; last year was a monster.

Chicago DSA brought a few dozen to the march this year: more than last year.

Despite a considerable investment in stage, sound and TV, most of the program was inaccessible to attendees. It was carried live by Chicago’s community access cable network, so you may be able to pick up the archived recording at CANTV eventually.

Post script:

The organizers of the march are claiming that the turnout was larger than 2017. Maybe it was. Crowd sizes are always difficult to numerate. Plus, are you counting everyone who participated or just the maximum crowd size? But here is what I observed:

  1. In 2017, the Red Line CTA trains southbound from Howard were packed beyond capacity. People were actually taking trains north in hopes of finding a station where trains would have some space. This year, it was pretty much a normal rush hour, extraordinary for a Saturday morning but not like 2017. I saw no evidence that there were more trains on the Red Line. The CTA did announce more buses on Route 147 that parallels the Red Line, but I rather doubt that this did anything more than maintain the usual Saturday capacity by making sure there were at least a few buses that were not trapped down in Grant Park. The CTA did add cars to the Brown Line, at least, and maybe the other lines and Metra did add a few trains and and extra cars. I’m skeptical that any added capacity would have accounted for the difference in crowding if the turnout was actually greater than 2017.
  2. In 2017, it was very nearly impossible to navigate around the demonstration. It was that packed. Maybe this year had better logistics, but apart from the space directly in front of the stage and giant TVs, it was possible to navigate the park.
  3. Columbus Drive was reserved as far south as Balbo but occupied not quite as far south as Congress. I recall the 2017 event as larger.
  4. On the other hand, I left somewhere mid-program, before the actual march, and while I was not alone in leaving there were others (and more of them on Congress) still arriving.

So how big was it? {Shrug} You’ll have to decide yourself. Regardless of how big it was in relation to 2017, it was still really big.


Small But Beautiful

Back in 1991, DSA met nationally every year. There was a national convention in odd years, delegated from the membership in chapters and at-large. In even years, there was a meeting of the National Board. The Board included members elected from chapters and commissions, the National Political Committee, and (IIRC) the DSA national vice-chairs. In principle, as a standing body, the Board could have met any number of times but in practice it was never more than once. In 1991 there was a move to abolish the National Board. That proposal was highly controversial. I no longer recall if it was successful in 1991, but eventually the Board was abolished. In its place in the by-laws was a requirement for an off year national conference. This proved to be beyond the resources (including members’ interest) then available. They tried regional conferences instead one year, and this is my account of that Midwest conference, originally published in New Ground 89, July — August, 2003.

by Bob Roman

The Midwest Regional DSA Conference was considerably smaller than the originally envisioned, and rather more focused on DSA. Held at the International House on the University of Chicago campus during the July 12 weekend, no more than a few dozen people attended. Yet this provided an intimate, interactive environment in which everyone could participate. Better still, while not all Midwestern DSA chapters were represented, there was a good mix of people from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, as well as many of the usual suspects from Chicago. Nor were all the participants DSA members; about a quarter were non-members with varying degrees of familiarity with DSA.

In this intimate setting, it would probably mischaracterize Congressman Danny Davis’ presentation as a keynote address. It was that, yet it was also a political sermon. Billed as “Finding a Winning Politics in 2004”, he actually provided a quiet, thoughtful monologue on a theme of faith, hope and charity, with an emphasis on the first two (faith being as much a commitment to values as to any theology), illustrated by brief parables and a colloquial marxism. Anyone hoping for the insider political technician speech typical of many DSA gatherings would have been disappointed. But Representative Davis’ talk was very much an affirmation of progressive politics and activism, and the audience was very much refreshed by it.

Each of the conference sessions started with a presentation followed by a question and answer and discussion period. It was here that the relatively small size of the conference really made a difference, allowing for participation by the most reticent of the attendees.

With Joe Persky, Ron Baiman, Mel Rothenberg and David Schweickart discussing the “New Global Economy”, one might have once again expected a heavily academic, technical discussion of politics. And indeed, the panelists offered a cogent discussion of the current state of affairs. But again, the program exceeded expectations by going beyond the usual diagnosis of systemic injustice to a discussion of democratic socialism, workplace democracy and other related topics. This was a panel that was both informative and stimulating.

Dr. David Green from Detroit DSA presided over a discussion of the Living Wage Campaigns that, in Detroit, have been instigated by DSA. They’ve won Living Wage Ordinances in five governments since beginning the project, including some that include a differential designed to encourage vendors and contractors with the particular government to offer their employees health insurance.

It turns out that all of the DSA locals with members at the conference had participated in Living Wage campaigns. There was an extended discussion of the Detroit and Chicago experiences. (See New Ground 66, 60, 54, 49, 48 and 44.)

Past Chicago DSA Political Education Director Kim Jones did indeed provide a survey of 2004 Democratic Presidential politics in Iowa, but his intent was more to stimulate a discussion of the role of Presidential campaigns in organization building, both specifically DSA and the broader left. He was rewarded with an extended discussion that was interesting in that there was little discussion of the Green Party and little faith in any of the Democratic candidates though many had their preferences. It seemed to me that the overall feeling was that Presidential campaigns were too important to be ignored but not very useful in organizing.

Lucinda Scharbach, from HERE Local 1, gave a brief presentation on the Immigrant Workers Freedom Bus Ride. This is a national tour, with routes starting at various major metropolitan areas around the country, all coming together in Washington, DC, with stops in various cities and towns along the way. From DC, the convoy will proceed to rallies in New Jersey and New York. Chicago will be the starting point for one of the routes in late September. Even at this early date, the Chicago convoy is up to nine buses.

Styled after the Freedom Bus Rides that desegregated public transportation in the South, this event is intended to lobby for legislation that, at minimum, will include:

1) a new Amnesty Program for undocumented tax paying workers in the U.S.,

2) better family unification laws,

3) improving the right of undocumented workers to organize (e.g., repeal the Hoffman decision).

It’s very much a coalition effort, and under the umbrella of these three demands, coalition members are formulating their own demands. DSA is part of the sponsoring coalition nationally.

Kathy Quinn of Greater Philadelphia DSA chaired a discussion of “Building DSA”. It was actually a discussion of “best practices”, intended to encourage conference attendees to share “what works”.

The last session of the conference was a meeting of DSA’s new International Commission. DSA is a member of the Socialist International. Traditionally, relations with the International and with other member parties has been handled by a committee of DSA’s National Political Committee. The new Commission includes non-NPC members and fulfills the same role.

Post Script: The International Commission never functioned effectively. By 2003, it was also becoming debatable whether DSA’s membership in the Socialist International was in any way useful. There were, apparently, a few DSA members with sentimental attachments who were willing to finance the annual dues so we kept on. DSA eventually dropped its membership in 2017.


Originally published in New Ground 85, November — December, 2002.

by Bob Roman

The Chicago DSA web site experienced a minor surge in traffic immediately after the election, as if people were wondering what our reaction to the results might be. For my part, I’d suggest you check out the spin masters at The American Prospect for usable prefab opinions.

Some may take comfort in Nancy Pelosi’s election as the Democratic leader in the U.S. House. It is an improvement. But it bothers me that when challenged by reporters on her “liberalism”, she declined to make liberalism a banner and instead retreated into the proverbial “big tent”.

Here in Illinois the Republicans lost badly and I take a dismal satisfaction in it. But the state faces a significant financial problem, and I can’t help thinking of the one time about a decade ago when the New Democrats won the Canadian province of Ontario under similar circumstances. There were some good people in that government. Instead of challenging the power of wealth, they followed a fairly conventional approach to resolving the budget problems, an approach that was almost guaranteed to alienate their base. They’re still paying for that mistake, big time.

Chicago DSA sat out this election. Chicago area progressive candidates that we might agree on did not face any significant challenges. There were two Greens running for the Illinois House, and some DSA members worked as individuals for them. Greater Oak Park DSA did a candidate survey on the death penalty. YDS did send some students to Minnesota to do voter registration. DSA’s most significant contribution to the election was as a target.

Red Baiting

Some years ago, an obscure group of Ayn Rand-ite libertarians, the “Free Republic”, noticed the link from the DSA national web site to the Progressive Caucus web site. Being a group that enjoys fantasy far more than they enjoy the truth, they concocted a wonderful story about 52 secret socialists in the House of Representatives, about the Progressive Caucus being a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic Socialists of America. After spreading a while on the web, it was picked up by more mainstream conservative media in DC and used as an attack on the Progressive Caucus. It worked.

The story subsided like a case of herpes until this fall when, for obscure reasons, boredom perhaps, it was revived by a few other conservative news sites on the web. It was then picked up by Pete Calderon, a conservative fanatic from Galesburg, Illinois, who was running for Congress against Lane Evans. For some reason, local media picked up the story. DSA was front page news in Peoria and Springfield. This was all for naught. Evans kicked Calderon’s ass.

But it did pique conservative curiosity about DSA. Conservative activist David Strom in Minnesota discovered DSA’s “send a student to Minnesota” campaign. This was just too tempting. Not only is it risky business to mention electoral politics in the same context as an appeal for tax-exempt contributions, but the “same day” voter registration provisions of Minnesota election law are a bete noir of U.S. conservatives. By squinting at the text, you could actually imagine that DSA was raising tax exempt money to send legions of wild, porcupine pierced punks to vote for Wellstone. Fraud is their standard argument against making it easy for people to vote, and here was such a lovely hate-object seeming to conspire to just that. The story made it to the Drudge Report and Rush Limbaugh’s program in mid-October. That day the national DSA web site received 98,000 hits. Even Chicago received 600, somewhat over a hundred coming from Minnesota.

Interestingly, David Strom later claimed that his original press release was “tongue in cheek” as “There are so few socialists left that they could meet in a phone booth.” Also interestingly, Wellstone’s press secretary was less than truthful when he claimed Wellstone “knew nothing of the group”. There had been a Youth Section (YDS) chapter at Carleton College for which Wellstone had been the faculty adviser.

Rather more seriously, DSA was used against a “former” member and past director of United for a Fair Economy, Dennis Kalob, who was running for the New Hampshire legislature. This was used both underhandedly (as in “push polling”) and openly (direct mail pieces), financed by the Republican Party. It was a close election. Kalob lost; it may have been his lack of candor on the subject that did him in.

Nancy Pelosi is a member of the Progressive Caucus’ Executive Committee. You can imagine what the extreme right web sites are doing with that.

Post Script: As I recall it, Dennis Kalob complained that he “was a sociologist not a socialist” and for that I probably would have skipped voting for him, too. Conservatives have complained about being victims of the Internal Revenue Service because the IRS questioned the exempt status applications. DSA had to document its procedures as a result of David Strom’s complaints, so I’m not quite as ready to dismiss as whining conservative complaints about the IRS as other lefties might.

Falling Towers

Falling Left

Originally published as “Comments and Opinions” in New Ground 78, September — October, 2001.

by Bob Roman

Does New Ground seem particularly antique this issue, like a surviving specimen of an extinct species? The answer is yes and no. On September 11, the political world changed. It changed decisively, massively, but not completely. Yes, in many ways, this issue of New Ground belongs to the previous era.

The World Trade Center attacks were equivalent in political magnitude to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Dubya is now every bit as popular as Roosevelt was. People are every bit as angry. And, like Pearl Harbor, the story leading up to the attacks will likely unfold as rather more complicated and less straight forward than is currently known.

But as so many commentators are fond of pointing out, this is not Pearl Harbor. There is no return address that accompanies these acts. And more importantly, there was no message either, no effort by the organizers of the attack to give it meaning, to state demands or grievance.

How is one to interpret this silence? Cowardace? Contempt? Hatred? In the context of mass media that continually replay scenes of horror, as if we were in the grip of some national collective Post Traumatic Stress disorder, the lack of meaning leaves a political (and spiritual and psychological) vacuum larger than the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in each of us.

Politics, to coin a cliché, abhors a vacuum. Dubya and His Band of Thieves have been busy filling it with something simple: a villain, Osama bin-Laden. How could this fail to be effective? It’s uncomplicated, dramatic and concrete. Mr. bin-Laden may even be guilty. And it conveniently avoids the complexities of “blow back” and links between corporate interests and foreign policy.

Unfortunately, it also begs the question of what to do about Osama bin-Laden. In his efforts at reassurance, Dubya’s unfortunate attempts at coherence will be forgiven for now. If his actual policies match his syntax, he may end up facing a domestic blow back though not necessarily one to the left’s advantage.

Unfortunately, the left, what there is of it, has been every bit as ineffective at providing meaning as Dubya’s attempts at speech. Much of it has been an attempt to point out how these attacks are a natural consequence of our own foreign policy. This is not something most people are prepared to listen to right now even if it’s a point that needs to be made. But like Osama bin-Laden himself, it’s not the whole story and it begs the same question. What do you do about it?

If we have played Dr. Frankenstein and created a gollum in our own image, even if people can be persuaded that this is the case, you might forgive them for being skeptical that providing flowers, an apology and a promise to never do it again will count for much in preventing future attacks.

But who said anything about preventing future attacks? There is a significant body of opinion on the left that holds Western society, and the United States in particular, as being hopelessly corrupt, hopelessly exploitative, domineering, and ultimately self-destructively morally bankrupt rather like Osama bin-Laden is said to regard the West. While it would be untrue to say any but lunatics would approve of mass murder by airliner, it would be unreasonable to expect people with this opinion to react in quite the same way as everyone else. After all, isn’t the enemy of my enemy my friend? Not necessarily, and this confusion will be an ongoing problem.

So in this new dismal period of politics, what strategy and tactics should we be pursuing?

First, a peace movement is absolutely necessary even if it may be ultimately wrong. This situation is far too dangerous to allow the Bush Administration a blank check.

Second, hate crimes and racism should be another priority. The left is not in a position to defend the immigrant communities, but we are in a position to build coalitions. The realization they are not alone will make a major difference in how these communities react.

Finally, the ball is not in our court. If the Bush Administration is willing to sacrifice much of its domestic agenda and some of its “free” trade agenda in exchange for liberal and labor support, there will be almost no space for the left: democratic, anarchist or otherwise. It’s not clear to me what we might do except try to survive. Under these circumstances, the divisions within the left will become far more prominent and history does allow for much optimism when that happens.

But if this most ideological of American presidencies insists on having it all then the answer to my initial question is also “no”. We will still need to fight the FTAA. We will still need to defend Social Security. All the fights we were involved with will continue, even if their context has changed.

By chance, the Chicago DSA Executive Committee met the evening of September 11, 2001. We adopted the following resolution with regard to the World Trade Center / Pentagon terrorist attack:

Chicago DSA Statement on the World Trade Center Bombings

Chicago DSA condemns this act of mass murder directed at the World Trade Center, civil aviation and the Pentagon. It leaves us sickened, dismayed, outraged. These bombing are hardly a political act; they do have political consequences and it’s hard to imagine many of them being good.

It’s hard to imagine how this tragedy will move the Middle East toward peace rather than a hardening of positions and passions. It’s hard to imagine how this will not result in further restrictions on civil liberties. It’s hard to imagine that there will not be economic consequences.

We are not accustomed, in the United States, to being victims. There will be talk of war. Certainly the organizers of these acts should be brought to justice. In considering justice, and in considering future U.S. foreign policy, we should not forget these acts, but we should also not forget that the easiest lesson learned from hate is not love but how to hate; the easiest lesson learned from oppression is not freedom but how to dominate; the easiest lesson learned from exploitation is not fairness but how to steal.

Adopted by the Chicago DSA Executive Committee, September 11, 2001.