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New Ground 74

January - February, 2001


  • Hooded in Snowballs in Skokie by Harold Taggart
  • Now the Tide is Turning by Bill Dixon
  • Citizen Action Meets in Peoria by Bob Roman
  • "Lord, Lord, It's a Bourgeois Town" by Robert Roman
  • Collaborating for Universal Health Care by Bob Roman

  • Hooded in Snowballs in Skokie

    By Harold Taggart

    On December 16, approximately 400 people from diverse ethnic backgrounds gathered in Skokie to greet White Supremacists with a fusillade of snowballs and a volley of verbal vitriol. About 20 Ku Klux Klan members from Mercer, Wisconsin staged the march in the village. Skokie boasts a large Jewish, Asian, Middle Eastern and Indian population and a small but growing Black population. A handful of Klan sympathizers blended into the crowd. Some of them were on the receiving end of physical abuse when they revealed their affiliations to White Supremacy groups.

    The KKK rally was held on the steps of the Cook County Courthouse located in the Northwest corner of Skokie. The location is in a relatively isolated commercial area near the Forest Preserve. The wooded and open spaces made crowd control difficult. Police forces from Skokie, the Forest Preserve, Illinois State Police, Cook County Sheriff's office and a couple northern suburbs participated in the "peace-keeping" effort.

    At the planning sessions, we anticipated nearly everything that happened. We incorrectly assumed the Skokie police would be less aggressive considering the city's ethic makeup and their past record of victimization at the hands of White Supremacists. We guessed the Sheriff's department would be the most savage. However, cops will be cops.

    After the school bus bearing the White Supremacists departed the rally site, the police became more aggressive. They were intent on dispersing the crowd as quickly as possible and overreacted according to several accounts.

    Groups spanning a large part of the ethnic spectrum attended the event. Palestinians came to reject any support the Klan pretended to give them. According to some Jewish sources, the Klan billed the event as a "march in solidarity with our Palestinian brothers." The Palestinians received some heckling from a couple Jewish participants, but an outcry from other demonstrators quickly silenced those who wanted to reenact the Middle East conflict.

    The city of Skokie claimed it spent a huge amount of money to insure that there would be minimum physical and property damage. It set up a protest pen which was as close to the Klan as the police allowed. Everyone had to be searched before going into the pen. Since no bags could be taken in, few protesters took advantage of the pens. The pen was the only location where the Klan speakers could be heard clearly, but few were there to hear the bile of the Klan anyway.

    About 10 people were arrested. A couple arrests resulted from scuffles with White Supremacists. Two occupants of a car displaying Tennessee license plates were arrested also. The police reported that small weapons were found on them. Other arrests seemed to be the usual random police tactics used to intimidate and remind everyone that exercising their First Amendment rights can have consequences. I talked to two of those who were arrested. They claim, and I know them well enough to believe them, that they were randomly picked out of the crown. They are leaders and could have been identified as such. Police probably were reacting to those in the crowd who called them Fascists and equated them to the Klan members. Many protesters used the occasion to emphasize their own agendas.

    Many seasoned activist groups participated. Anti-Racist Action, a local Wicker Park organization, was an impressive ally. Its members were dedicated to fighting racism and had detailed information about the Mercer KKK and its leader, Michael McQueeney. The ISO gave top priority to the event, participated in the planning and brought a large contingent to the rally.

    DSA members played a major role organizing, doing outreach, coordinating with leftist, ethnic and Jewish groups and the city of Skokie. They also were there to jeer the hate-mongering speeches.

    A large counter-rally would only play into the hands of the Klan and get them the publicity they craved, a few people argued during the planning period. That notion quickly was discarded. Many believe the White Supremacists already have a disproportionate amount of representation in the government. Who needs lynchings when people like the Bloody Bush Brothers have their hands on the state's execution tools?

    The only victim of the White Supremacists was a black lady. She was walking with her friend back to the parking lot after the demonstration ended. A couple of hate-group sympathizers jumped out of a car and began beating her. When protesters came to her aid, the White Supremacists flashed knives. The lady suffered only minor injuries, but the act served as a reminder of the random hatred the Klan is capable of perpetrating.

    If the Klansmen who appeared in Skokie were examples of the super race, we will need to pass though several simian stages of evolution to reach the human level. They were standing on two legs but it appeared to be an uncomfortable effort.

    All parties involved called the anti-Klan rally a great success. Certainly it brought together groups that had rarely cooperated in the past. The Klan seems to think its ends were met also. According to one report, the Klan plans to return in August. The Klansmen apparently want to avoid the snowballs even if they are white.

    Now the Tide Is Turning

    By Bill Dixon

    There was a time not long ago when the issue of immigration again made an easy target for the meaner forces in American politics.

    That trend started in 1992, when Patrick Buchanan put forth a particularly vicious anti-immigrant message and rose from his humble station as a minor pundit to become the leading voice of the Republican right and a significant factor in the defeat of George Bush senior. In 1994, brazen political attacks on immigration helped Republicans win the U.S. Congress as well as pass dangerously punitive anti-immigrant legislation in California. By 1996, the backlash even swept up President Clinton, who signed into law a Republican bill stripping even legal immigrants of a wide range of civil rights, including due process before criminal charges.

    Now the tide is turning. Thanks to a tight labor market, the growing power of the Latino vote, the new immigrant-friendly orientation of a smarter labor movement, and diminished nativist rancor on the part of the public, the immigration issue is no longer a ready cudgel for the far Right. That's good news for immigrants and their families, and it's also good news for the Left. The immigration question is a crucial test for progressives, whose political project depends on building a bottom-up majority for higher wages, universal health care, affordable housing, better public education, and stronger civil rights protections for women and people of color.

    Historically, the cultural, political and economic problems brought on by immigration in the US have created deep and longstanding divisions among the poor and working class, a reality constantly manipulated by business and never quite overcome by labor and its allies. And while the radical Right's crazed xenophobia has for the moment lost its audience, the bigger battle over how to bring more freedom and fairness to U.S. immigration policy remains unfinished.

    Still, the recent struggle over immigration policy in the final days of the last Congress was as promising a sign of progressive power as could be hoped for in the aftermath of a Bush victory and continued GOP control of Congress. Republicans found themselves pushed into outright reversal on a range of controversial questions, particularly amnesty for hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens. Led by Chicago's own Congressman Luis Gutierrez, the Democrats rallied around the Latino and Immigrant Fairness Act, which would have granted permanent residency to over 800,000 people. The Republican leadership, along with Senator Phil Gramm of Texas, firmly opposed the very concept of amnesty, arguing that even those who have lived and worked in the US for more than fifteen years have no claim to permanent legal residency.

    The Republican stance changed dramatically, however, when the November election nearly threw them from power, in large part because of Latino mobilization. By December, a compromise was reached on amnesty, extending it to some 400,000 people, many of them family members of citizens or residents. Also, the 1996 law stripping legal residents of due process before deportation was modified slightly to allow for more avenues of appeal in certain instances. In another small victory, thousands of cases of amnesty seekers will also be reconsidered in light of errors and abuses by the Immigration and Naturalization Service since 1986.

    The final package of compromise agreed to by the White House and the Republicans is hardly cause for celebration. Hundreds of thousands of family members of citizens were left out of the final bill as well as longtime but "illegal" US residents. And while the Democrats won partly on the merits of the civil rights arguments, the open pressure exerted by business shouldn't be overlooked. In need of both skilled and unskilled labor in a period of four percent unemployment, business pushed hard for new visas for temporary workers, and got them, despite opposition from both conservatives and labor.

    But the substantial if limited amnesty won by the Democrats by way of a Republican turnaround is reason to hope for a new political season on the question of immigration, where perhaps Luis Gutierrez will have more influence than Phil Gramm. That this fight was followed three weeks later by the defeat of Labor Secretary nominee Linda Chavez for lying about having hired an illegal alien herself for less than the minimum wage was not only a well-deserved defeat for Chavez and her supporters but also yet another symbolic blow to the Republicans' cruel and cynical hypocrisy on immigration.

    Citizen Action Meets in Peoria

    By Bob Roman

    Citizen Action / Illinois held its annual convention at the Hotel Pere Marquette in Peoria on Saturday, December 2. The daylong event was preceded on Friday evening by a meeting of Citizen Action's Policy Council. This meeting elected new members for the coming year and approved a 20 page book of Program Resolutions. Ron Baiman, Chicago DSA's representative to Citizen Action, was unable to attend, so I went instead. I was unable to attend the Friday session.

    Saturday morning started with a stem-winding speech by William McNary, Citizen Action / Illinois' Co-Director (with Lynda DeLaforgue). Mr. McNary is an excellent orator, and his theme was "Count the Votes!". It was an unabashedly partisan speech; supporters and sympathizers of Ralph Nader would have been irritated at least but Mr. McNary knew his audience.

    The morning session was essentially a political fashion show. It put Illinois politicians with some sympathy for consumer issues on display and provided them with a sympathetic, potentially useful audience. This was more interesting than it might seem. Unless you deal with these folks on an ongoing basis, it's not always otherwise obvious who the total idiots are and are not.

    There was an awards luncheon at noon that was not a fundraising event. It was instead an opportunity honor members of the Citizen Action community that had been particularly helpful.

    The afternoon was largely devoted to three breakout sessions. The main event was a continued discussion of electoral politics. Citizen Action also took advantage of the venue to hold a "public transit summit" for the Peoria metropolitan area, part of Citizen Action's Campaign to Build Illinois Transit.

    I attended the meeting on public education. This was an introductory meeting for a project (the Public Engagement Project) that was successfully implemented in Michigan by Citizen Action. The approach is to build a consensus among constituencies sympathetic or potentially sympathetic to public education, using public meetings where invited participants bring concerns about public education and in turn learn about the actual state of public education. From there, participants develop goals and a plan of action. Citizen Action feels this project provided the margin of victory over the latest voucher initiative in Michigan.

    The convention concluded with a brief summary plenary session.

    This was the second Citizen Action convention that I've attended, the first having been sometime around1980 in Kankakee. At that time, Citizen Action (then called Illinois Public Action) was seen as an extra-parliamentary venue where a broad spectrum of labor, community and political groups could unite, at least potentially a sort of ersatz political party or a community group writ state wide. There was a vital internal political life; the convention agreed, disagreed, exchanged information, made decisions, maneuvered for position. The convention was indeed structured to encourage participation by Citizen Action's constituent organizations. In this respect, the 2000 Citizen Action convention was quite different, being much more of a conference than a convention.

    The consumer movement has matured, and Citizen Action is no longer the only game in that town. There are a few other consumer organizations that span the range of issues as Citizen Action does. There are very many more that, like the Campaign for Better Health Care for example, are focused on particular issues.

    But Citizen Action is still an organization that unites labor, community and constituent groups, political organizations and elected public officials in a single venue and they continue work to expand that coalition. Over the past year or so, Citizen Action, both in Illinois and nationally (US Action), has developed a good working relationship with the NAACP. Prior to the elections, they cooperated on get out the vote projects; now they are working on campaign finance reform. Likewise, Citizen Action is working on expanding its contacts with the environmental movement, particularly the Sierra Club.

    "Lord, Lord, It's a Bourgeois Town"

    By Robert Roman

    It Didn't Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States by Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks. New York, W.W. Norton & Co, 2000. 379 pp Hardcover, $26.95

    Lefties may be glad to know that some reviewers greeted the central question of the book with some skepticism. What failure, the American Spectator harrumphed. See, comrades? Our enemies need us.

    But in fact, the general consensus has been that the lack of a mass labor, socialist or communist movement in the United States is exceptional. Certainly us lefties have worried the subject enough. And this conundrum has been a recurring theme in Seymour Martin Lipset's entire career; it is perhaps the original motivation for his interest in political sociology. In this book, he's teamed up with a former student, Gary Marks, who is now a professor of political science and the founding director of the Center for European Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, to visit the subject once again.

    I recommend this book, but it should be used with caution.

    First of all, while the book makes extensive use of historical data and, sometimes, narrative, it is not a history, not like James Weinstein's classic The Decline of Socialism in America, for instance. Even people familiar with the history of the radical left in the States will discover new details from this book but anyone imagining they're learning left history here is instead receiving a fragmentary, sometimes distorted albeit always interesting picture of our past. The book was not intended as a history.

    Further, Lipset and Marks disavow any ambition to actually answer their question; it "may never be ultimately resolved". Which is not to say that they don't claim any answers. But the authors' immediate goal was "to explore the explanatory power of comparison within the United States, across (and within) different national contexts, and over time for a classic question of American historiography." (p. 10) It is, they concede, a big task. The problem is not that there are too few plausible explanations but there are so many as to suggest little new may be said on the issue.

    Lipset and Marks begin the book rather like a concerto, with an overture, with a survey of the arguments, mostly those of leftists, about American exceptionalism: Why did the United States, alone among industrial societies, lack a significant socialist movement or a labor party? Each of the following chapters then examines a particular set of assertions using basically an historical, cross-cultural compare and contrast technique. These chapters are worth reading as much for what has worked for U.S. socialists as for an explanation of failure.

    The final chapter asks: "The End of Political Exceptionalism?" It actually deals with two issues. Given American exceptionalism, where has that left us? Lipset and Marks draw upon comparative data from a variety of sources (including Chicago DSA expatriates to North Carolina, Evelyn Huber and John Stevens) to demonstrate that most of us are worse off as a result. The other is a sort of reprise of the "End of Ideology": the observation that socialist, social democratic and labor parties world wide are becoming more like the U.S. Democratic Party: an end to exceptionalism?

    So what happened? In summary, Lipset and Marks seem to favor these factors. First of all, the American political system is a tough nut to crack: a plurality electoral system, winner-take-all presidency, consensus legislative process:

    "The fact that the two major parties have sustained a duopoly of 95 percent of the congressional and presidential vote since the Civil War in a society that has spawned literally thousands of political parties indicates just how stifling the American political system has been for challenging new parties." (p. 264)

    Then too, strategic and tactical decisions are relevant:

    "one of the key features of modern American politics that makes life so difficult for minor parties, the primary system, made a strategy of contesting primaries within the major parties more feasible." (p. 265)

    Culture also made socialism a tough sell; Lipset and Marks argue that American political culture has been overwhelmingly anti-state, if not libertarian. Then there was the split between the socialist movement and the labor movement, which was not entirely the fault of the socialist movement. Socialism's failure, then, was "over determined".

    Lipset and Marks find some of the arguments advanced for the failure of the socialist movement do not withstand comparative scrutiny. Historically early manhood suffrage was not a barrier to socialist parties elsewhere. Federalism both hurts and helps socialist movements. The influence of the courts on the willingness of the American Federation of Labor and its constituent unions to pursue a political rather than an economic strategy has been overblown. State repression cannot explain the failure of socialists in America.

    Some reviewers have hailed It Didn't Happen Here as the definitive work on the topic. It is not, or if it is, it will be because people will have finally given up on the subject. Nor have the authors built "a plausible explanation of our own". They do succeed in evaluating the diverse explanations for American exceptionalism. Though I have some misgivings about some of their evaluations, anyone interested in an explanation now has some basis for weighing the various factors that have been advanced in the past.

    A bigger problem, though, is that the book, for all its use of history, is basically ahistorical. Socialisms, including various the various labor, farmer - labor, socialist and communist parties, didn't just fail. They succeeded and failed, succeeded and failed, each successive trial carrying the burden and the benefit of the preceding, in the context of a political system that was constantly evolving. Factors that were influential at one point in history were absent or subsidiary at others. Factors that by themselves might not be particularly decisive, might be in combination and in sequence deadly. This seems to me to be particularly apt when considering World War I and the Bolshevik revolution.

    The authors' own comparisons can be used to argue that the Socialist Party in the first quarter of the Twentieth Century, while far weaker than what would be predicted by a marxist paradigm, was not extraordinarily exceptional. The party was: radical, yes; unstable, yes; ideological if not principled, yes; exceptional, no. It was a plausible political vehicle even if it was ultimately an unsuccessful one. The question then becomes, once the left was smashed by repression and by sectarian hysteria, why wasn't it reformed as happened in many other countries?

    Lipset and Marks indirectly deal with this question when they compare and contrast strategies and tactics of the Socialist Party and the Communist Party during the Great Depression. Their analysis greatly parallels Michael Harrington's argument in his book Socialism. In this context, it's interesting that the authors, while referring to Michael Harrington frequently in the first chapter and to that particular book, do not choose to examine Harrington's thesis that the U.S. labor movement represents a sort of crypto social democracy, which of course would be an argument that the U.S. is not all that exceptional after all. And once again, because Lipset and Marks are attempting to isolate and test particular factors, the treatment of the 1930s is largely ahistorical and therefore less helpful than it could be.

    Finally, there are arguments that Lipset and Marks do not consider, at least directly, possibly because they may not be part of the literature that the authors set out to test. It seems to me that there are three major omissions.

    First, it's difficult for me to see how any discussion of U.S. politics can be complete without a discussion of slavery, the failure of Reconstruction and its consequences for electoral politics and government, especially in the context of the tidal wave of immigration that dominated the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries. The result being that the dominant theme of U.S. politics has been not so much class war as culture war. The authors deal extensively with immigration and with federalism, of course, and deal somewhat with racism, but not in this context and that makes a major difference in how these factors are to be judged.

    Second, the very practice of electoral politics has evolved radically over the Twentieth Century. To some extent Lipset and Marks do indeed deal with this by discussing the agrarian Nonpartisan League and the 1930s Communist Party and the direct primary and this is valuable. But this evolution has had consequences for the party system and thus for minor parties and thus for the ways in which social movements find expression in electoral politics.

    Even when political parties give voice to the interests of their members and constituencies, they exist first to serve the immediate interests of politicians. The primary election frees politicians from direct accountability to partisan organization. The regular schedule of elections in the U.S. (in contrast to the uncertain scheduling of elections in parliamentary systems) means that politicians can, by starting early, develop their own personal organizations and coalitions of non-party organizations in time for the elections without needing to maintain them between elections. When you add the ability and the efficiency of mass communication to appeal directly to the voter with a precisely tailored message without going through any organization, why would any rational politician choose to be subject to the burden of organizational accountability? How, then, can you talk of having a party system in any meaningful sense of the word? How would a left movement, how would any movement, find expression in that kind of electoral system? These particular questions may be beyond the scope of the book except that they reflect Harrington's thesis that the U.S. has not been exceptional in the traditional sense of the question for a long time.

    To the extent that this change is spreading (consider how U.S. political consultants have started earning a living overseas), this fully supports the authors' view of the U.S. as the world's future, except that the convergence of policies is a symptom not a cause.

    Finally, Lipset and Marks do not discuss the changing efficacy of ideology to mobilize political movements. The ability of ideology, all ideologies not just the varieties of socialisms, to mobilize people has declined over the Twentieth Century, not continuously, not without upswings (and it appears we're in such a period now), but generally it's been a "bear market" for ideology for most of the past century.

    After having said all that, I would urge DSA members and democratic leftists in general to read this book. There are lessons we can use, not so much from the failures of socialism in America but from its successes.

    Collaborating for Universal Health Care

    By Bob Roman

    The Campaign for Better Health Care held its annual meeting at the Congress Plaza Hotel in Chicago on December 8th. About 150 people attended the meeting, which was a combination of conference and fundraiser, complete with a luncheon, speaker and awards. CBHC is a statewide organization, a grassroots coalition of more than 300 local and statewide organizations including consumers, health care workers and providers, community organizations, seniors, religious, labor, disability rights organizations, and Chicago DSA. The organization advocates for a single payer, universal health care system.

    "Onward! The Fight for Health Care Justice! Collaborating for Universal Health Care" was the theme for the event. Despite the positive title, it's been a tough time for advocates of a national health plan. Since the Clinton health care bubble burst, it's been hard to know what to do on a state level, particularly when the government is in the hands of people hostile to the concept. Many other state health care advocacy groups have not survived this political depression. CBHC deserves some credit for maintaining itself and finding ways of nibbling at the edges of the issue.

    There have even been some victories, such as the Illinois legislature's passage of a rather less than perfect Health Care Bill of Rights, or health insurance for specific sympathetic constituencies, such as KidCare, a program for the otherwise uninsured children of less well off families.

    The meeting began in the morning with a panel discussion comparing and contrasting organizing strategies and tactics across constituencies and venues: disability rights, labor and community organizing. Based on the discussion, it's not unlikely that CBHC will be doing some demonstrations this year. CBHC has used these tactics in the past and clearly never intended to discard them, but in recent years the turn out at such efforts has not been great. Times are changing.

    The Campaign will also continue its legislative efforts in the state legislature. Among these is a bill to regulate the sale of non-profit hospitals to for profit corporations ("conversions") and a bill to form an Illinois State Health Care Commission mandated to plan an Illinois universal health care system.

    Administrative advocacy has also become part of CBHC repertoire. The organization is actively involved in monitoring the performance of hospitals (including being prepared to intervene in mergers and "conversions") as well as ensuring the limited health insurance programs (e.g., KidCare and Medicaid) enroll all of the target constituencies.

    Individual advocacy and technical assistance is also now part of CBHC's work. The organization maintains a number of hotlines: the Uninsured Hotline (888.544.8272) for questions regarding services for the uninsured and any free or low cost medical clinics in the caller's area; the Medicare / Medicare Managed Care Hotline (888.544.8271) for questions about Medicare HMO benefits, access to specialists and how to enroll and disenroll; the Managed Care Hotline (888.544.8269) for consumers having trouble with their health plans to learn what their rights are; and the Children's Hotline (888.511.0290) for families whose children are enrolled in Medicaid or KidCare or who are uninsured and are having trouble accessing health care. Callers have the option of adding their story to the consumer story bank, thus aiding CBHC's legislative advocacy efforts.

    The CBHC luncheon was to be addressed by Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., who did not attend. This is the second time CBHC has been stiffed by one of their invited speakers; they do not deserve such behavior. But the Chicago Women's Health Center was awarded "Provider of the Year". "Best Investigative Reporting" was awarded to Illinois Public Radio. Emily Carter and Samuel "Bud" Wintroub were given the appreciative "Volunteers of the Year" award. State Representative Tom Dart was given the "Outstanding Legislator of the Year". And the less coveted but highly decorative "Golden Bedpan Award" was given to the Illinois Hospital and Health Systems Association. They unfortunately sent no representative to accept the award.

    Three simultaneous workshops were scheduled for the afternoon. One workshop addressed the recent Olmstead U.S. Supreme Court Case. Another was devoted to ongoing strategies for universal health care. The third was about strengthening health care for all children.

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