Interviewing Senator Malcolm King, 2


In the year 2042, an oral history of the then 25 year-old ongoing Revolutionary Participatory Society organization/project in the U.S. will be published. The book’s fifteen chapters will excerpt and arrange insights culled from eighteen interviews to present events and ideas in a sequential, encompassing way. 

By unknown dynamics, the book’s introduction, its 18 source interviews, and even drafts of its chapters, have begun to appear via email in the present. The web site at http://rps2044.org presents more about the project, its aims, and ways to relate to it, and offers more of its substance as well.

In any event, the interviewer is named Miguel Guevara and the interviewee in this article is named Senator Malcolm King – this is part two of his interview. The year they meet is 2041. The interview is a virtually verbatim transcription. Also, as there are 18 interviews and since Guevara will seek to avoid undue overlap, no one interview serves as more than a facet of the larger whole.

–Michael Albert

What about the effect of the 2016 election on you? Did Sanders running and Trump winning impact you later becoming a candidate?

Yes, and not only via the lessons described above, and its effect on the overall situation of society. I had gone to college and majored in history. When I got out I was very radical and not at all interested in pursuing a lucrative career disconnected from people’s needs. I got an assembly job, then worked as a short order cook. My focus was organizing my workmates and trying to get involved more generally in worker based community and workplace organizing. I was very anti war, very aroused by ecological concerns. I had zero interest in anything electoral. I couldn’t stand electoral parties or process. But I didn’t just like Sanders, which I did. And I didn’t just try to aid him, which I did. He got me to see that as rigged, alienated, corrupt, and mindless as the political system was, there was nonetheless room in it to fight constructively, and even to win. He got me thinking about elections being part of winning major change.

And so all the above mentioned disputes and debates were important to me, but even more important was the simple fact that Sanders demonstrated it was possible to finance an electoral run. It was possible to be truthful about serious stances for change. Despite incredibly stacked circumstances, it was possible to educate, mobilize, and even win.

I guess I decided that while there was certainly more than one route to contributing to change, by my history and circumstances I was most likely to have impact on an electoral path. I think a great many folks came away from the 2016 experience with that thought, and while it was temporarily obliterated in a haze of recriminations and fears by Trump’s victory, it resurfaced pretty quickly. Of course not all who were inspired to run for office succeeded, but a great many who were are now in office, often doing excellent work. If Sanders were here to thank, I would thank him profusely.

There is another factor for me, I think. My working class background by birth and early upbringing, and especially due to my time as an assembly worker and short order cook including often waiting tables, was incredibly enlightening. I knew just how hard it was to not explode from the anger you feel at the customers with suits and ties and erudite language who oh so clearly looked down on you, or, really, didn’t even do that since for them you were as close to invisible and inconsequential as a person could be. That anger, as well as fear, is what Agnew had ridden long before, and what Trump rode too. It could clearly lead to reaction, to racism, to sexism, to a kind of macho defense of an impoverished situation. And it often did. But for whatever reasons I not only didn’t follow that path, I understood it. I could recognize it and I could also empathize with it enough to be able to talk to folks who were on it, one to one, without being hostile. I could hear them, and also convey to them hope and program.

I had a feeling, I think, that’s very hard to communicate, for how to talk to workers without condescension and taking their views and especially their desires seriously, not just as a tactic, but because it was precisely what I felt. I also had a feel for how to talk to coordinator class types, again, not making believe I liked where they were coming from, not condescending or manipulating them, but challenging their harmful inclinations and views even while clearly understanding their motives and rationales. It was a good mix that helped me win office later.

I wonder whether Obama winning the presidency also affected you.

As a black man I would by lying if I said it didn’t. Of course he was not a radical, not even about black white relations, much less everything else. So neither he, his program, or his administration informed my beliefs based on anything they said or did. Quite the opposite. I grew to be a very harsh critic and obviously have entirely different aims.

But, that said, Obama’s winning did affect me. In 2008 I was 23, black, working class, just out of college and working on an assembly line. My politics were gut level and certainly nothing like RPS. Still, I did not become liberal due to voting for and being ecstatic to see Obama win. And it was simple. To me his victory said we can step onto the stage of history. The country can rally around a black man. And I don’t know, but I think it is quite possible that had it never happened, I would never have become a candidate. I think Sanders’ affect on me would have been less than enough, had not Obama had an earlier affect on me. And I suspect something similar is true for a great many women regarding Hillary Clinton nearly becoming president even as they too didn’t become liberal, or even remotely like her.

I am curious. Were there any more technical, organizing related issues that emerged?

Yes, many small ones, of course, but also one very large one. In the state of Massachusetts,, for example, Sanders had roughly 120,000 people volunteering. He got just under 600,000 votes. When that fact became known it was absolutely disorienting for activists relating to elections. How many of the 600,000 would have voted for Sanders even if he had had no one volunteering, no one making phone calls, no one going door to door? 400,000? 500,000? My guess is the latter, and maybe more. Maybe nearly all of them. But let’s be, I think, conservative, and suppose only 300,000. If so, then 120,000 volunteers and thus many many hundreds of thousands of hours of effort, attracted, say, 300,000 votes, likely a very large exaggeration. On average, each volunteer got 2.5 votes in this maximal view of their impact. In my view, it was more likely the average was well under 1 per volunteer.

The question arose, was their time well spent? Were they talking to folks in the most useful ways? Couldn’t a volunteer for a couple of months of campaigning, in, say, ten or twenty hours, or more for many, win over more voters than that? We are talking about Sanders volunteers talking to future Trump or Clinton voters and winning them over. The time they spent chatting with people who were going to vote for Sanders because of his talks, views, ads, or whatever, wouldn’t win any converts, though it might certainly have other virtues. There was a lot to think about in all this for future campaigns, and mostly it centered, again, on how to address confusion among potential voters, and, even more, how to address doubt and despair.

Malcolm, what about blaming white workers, didn’t that happened a lot too?

Yes, many blamed white workers. First, it was undeniably correct that had fewer white male and female workers voted for Trump, he would have handily lost. Even just voting for Clinton instead of Trump at the same level that white voters had supported Obama instead of Romney would have sunk Trump’s boat. Unquestionably, therefore, the choice of a great many white workers to vote for Trump abetted Trump’s victory. But deciding why they voted for him is where heated controversy arose.

Some argued if you voted for Trump it meant you didn’t care about his misogyny and racism or you even welcomed it. Racism and sexism were what you desired. You were a little Trump. Most who said this sort of thing totally dismissed Trump voters as being beyond communication. Urged to reach out and organize Trump voters, they replied that that was ridiculous. They thought Trump voters were lost to reason. A subset added that while Trump’s voters’ views were horrible, still, we must reach them. However this seemed to mean we should shame people, “call out” people, confront people, label people as backward, ignorant, and worse, and demand that they repent. There was no room for discussion, debate, and organizing. Repent, and we will like you, or don’t repent, and we will hate you.

Others said, hold on. Do you really believe Latinos who voted for Trump are racist little Trumps? Do you really believe women who voted for Trump, which is most white women who voted, are misogynist little Trumps? If you don’t, then presumably you think that these groups saw reasons to vote for Trump that were not only not racist and sexist, but that they felt overrode even their self interested experiential personal distaste for Trump’s wild racism and sexism. But if you can see that for Latino and women Trump voters, then why should we assume that all white male working class Trump voters, or even most of them, didn’t see and weren’t moved by the same non racist and non sexist feelings as many Latino voters and the majority of white women voters?

If white workers who voted for Obama had voted for Clinton, Trump loses. Did many white workers vote for Obama but not for Clinton because they were racist? Did they vote for Obama but not for Clinton because they – and remember, this includes more than half of white women – were sexist? Why wasn’t it possible that white working class Trump voters from devastated communities who were suffering drug invaded and unemployment saddled neighborhoods, and who were bombarded with horribly faulty media mediated information, were mainly voting against the status quo and not for racism and misogyny?

Similarly, couldn’t even better off white working class Trump voters fearing job loss, suffering indignity, hating not so much the really rich as the doctors, lawyers, managers, and coordinator class elites they daily encountered, and inundated with confusing and contradictory information, have been voting against the status quo and not for racism and misogyny? Wasn’t their fear of continued working class decline that great?

What about blaming young Sanders supporters?

This view claimed that by abstaining young Sanders supporters helped Trump over the bar. If you look at Clinton’s relatively anemic youth support compared to Sanders or to Obama, you can see, I think, that this claim has some weight. Whether the scale of youth abstention was sufficient to have alone turned the tide, we can agree it certainly played a role. Why did it happen?

Suppose you thought Trump was terrible, Clinton was terrible, and you didn’t see all that much difference. Or maybe you thought Trump winning would be good due to the reaction it would generate. Having those views, I can see how you might abstain. Once the election was over, you would protest and organize as best you could, and since Trump won, that meant going into the streets. So you did that. And you felt no need to apologize for having not voted for Clinton even in contested states.

One lesson is that it is possible for wonderful, caring, courageous people to have very distorted perceptions, something we all already knew, of course, from all of history, including moments in our own personal pasts.

What I found especially striking, however, was that Sanders had no such confusion. Nor did many radicals writing tireless warnings of Trump’s evil and his potential to win, and urging strategic lesser evil voting throughout the campaign. And because such clarity did exist, including coming from Sanders, it took some effort, I think, for even a few Sanders supporters to abstain in contested states. I thought that however painful to dwell on, this was worth understanding and that some lessons lurked in the experience.

Simplifying a bit, I think the pattern of Trump’a voters and also some Sanders  supporters discounting Trump’s evils was two sides of one coin. Trump voters discounted Trump’s racism, sexism, climate denial, and fascistic leanings. Sanders supporters didn’t vote against Trump discounted the same evils (all of which Sanders supporters had every reason to be fully aware of). Both Trump’s voters and the Sanders voters who abstained seem to have acted based on short term feelings of anger and fear. For the Trump voters it was anger at their life situation. For the Sanders abstainers it was anger at their electoral mistreatment. I felt that both groups allowed their warranted anger and fears to overcome compelling evidence and logic and that that suggested that organizing needed to become compassionate, subtle, persistent, and informed enough to overcome this tendency.

What about the role of the third party Green candidate Jill Stein and some of her advocates?

Jill Stein’s voters and Stein herself as well as various left pundits disseminated endless messages claiming there was no difference between Trump and Clinton, claiming that Clinton was absolutely going to win, and claiming that votes for Stein mattered because she could win or at any rate do quite well. This took votes from Clinton in contested states and beyond that, by relentlessly adding to an inflated anti Clinton mood while leveling far less fire on Trump, it made credible a decision to abstain, particularly by Sanders supporters.

Of all the issues this one was, for me, most difficult to navigate because this is where my own emotional anger surged greatest.

First, we should not put our heads in the sand. This claim, like the others, was true. It wasn’t just that had Stein’s voters all voted for Clinton in contested states it would have alone tipped the tide. It was also that abstentions generated by Stein’s anti Clinton emphasis and her disparaging voting for Clinton as evidence of selling out or being a shil for the Democrats also reduced Clinton’s votes in contested states.

It was one thing for a constituency that was quite reasonably fearful, suffering, and subject to very poor information to make a desperation-motivated electoral mistake. It was another thing for people with lots of political experience and who enjoyed relative safety to not only make a mistake, but to adamantly and hostilely urge it on others, and to even slander those who were rightly trying to correct the error.

I don’t want to belabor this twenty years later, but one lesson it conveyed to me was that strategic lesser evil voting obviously makes sense whenever the gap between evils is large enough and no other use of the votes offers any great benefit. Of course, both assessing the size of the gap and the merits of other choices can and should be debated – but in 2016 there was no real debate but only baiting, disparagement, and dismissal. And yet the gap was so wide, and the benefits of voting Stein or abstaining were so minor, that it was hard not to wonder whether prominent celebrators of Trump, advocates of abstention, and defamers of strategic lesser evil voting would have the integrity to acknowledge their error, or would, instead, double down by offering incredibly callous formulations that we should all celebrate Trump winning as a prod to resistance. Time showed that some would go each way and regrettably it was often abetted by poor behavior from others.

Another lesson that actually had more importance later, and very much so for me, was that having an astute analysis of the ills of elections but applying it only to mainstream participants is incredibly arrogant. Jill Stein, the Green’s candidate, horribly deluded if not herself, we don’t know about that, certainly her supporters, simply in pursuit of votes.

Stein allowed desires for votes to dominate trying to achieve good or to ward off bad. And this was done by many radical writers too, who became caught up in Stein’s campaign or who accepted the ridiculous formulation that people saying we should vote for Clinton in contested states were, on that account, sometimes despite decades of evidence otherwise, mere shills for Clinton, which was a convenient label that eliminated need for real debate and caused many to want to avoid that false stigma. People who earlier gloried in his work even labelled Noam Chomsky this way, which was incredibly striking.

We saw, then, that progressives and radicals needed a far more nuanced approach to elections and, when we managed to win one, also to holding office, than we had ever before formulated. We needed to attend not only to maintaining good programmatic aims but also to not getting sucked into the vote-emphasizing and audience-manipulating ills we ourselves rightly decried in the mainstream. And I believe RPS did arrive at such insights, and implement them, later.

Malcolm, I would like to move on if that’s okay. You attended the founding RPS convention, though you weren’t an organizer. How did you relate to the pre convention proposals? Were you confident that the convention would work well? Did it? What are some key things you remember from it? 

When I got the pre-convention package I remember being simultaneously hopeful and doubtful. But confident? Not nearly. I first feared that too few people would agree to attend. Then, I worried that all the fine folks who were indicating they would attend would do so, and would agree on nothing, and it would fail, squandering our potential by leaving people demoralized. There were so many issues and ideas. So much to consider. I worried people would turn away, or make believe they were prepared, but on getting together, fragment.

In fact, however, the convention was a big success. I remember arriving and being impressed with the crowd. But once the convention got going something more became evident. People didn’t come to have their own way. But neither was the mood to reflexively compromise simply for the sake of unity. Instead enlarging real solidarity was everyone’s aim. And everyone really had immersed themselves in the ideas and issues.

How do I explain? You know how people will discuss some possible wording of something and it will be endless and tedious with each party fighting more to ensure that their words should win, so that they would personally win, rather than with each seeking the best outcomes? Each person wants their own words with little or no attention to what others want. And they just keep pushing. We avoided that.

But how did you avoid it?

The sessions to address organizational vision and definition always started from pre-convention amended versions of what had been earlier circulated. The decision making went item by item. As people had paid attention before arriving at the conference, and had in some cases added refinements beforehand, often there was no dissent and an item would pass immediately. Other times someone would have an amendment or even a replacement to propose. It would be heard, and the person would give a case for it.

Rather than at that point asking for an immediate rebuttal, the chair would ask for a straw vote. If there was only minimal support for the amendment, she would ask to have a second advocate speak, and then ask if anyone wanted to speak against – and for the most part, no one would. There would be no point. She would ask if the proposer had any questions. Generally not. Did anyone want to add an additional case for the proposal. Sometimes someone would, mostly not. A vote would occur, and the item would typically fail as it simply didn’t have support. No rancor and no time wasting.

On the other hand, if the straw vote showed a considerable majority, or even overwhelming support for the change, the chair would ask if anyone supporting the unchanged version wanted to reply. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. If no, the change would quickly win. If yes, the person would present, and there would be some discussion and what was special was that no one wanted to win just for the sake of winning. It was not  contending egos. Everyone wanted a decision that would be worthy and universally supported. And it happened, over and over.

Whenever a decision was close, even after a few arguments were offered, debate would continue or the whole decision would be delayed so people could think on it over night. As a result, every ratified decision was at least two thirds for, and often far more than that.

I think this wasn’t that our group was better people than past groups, or more mature, or anything like that. It was that we had informed hope that what they were doing was going to really matter. We felt, let’s get this right and we knew that right wasn’t so much a matter of the abstract virtue of agreed positions, but being sure to have agreement about positions, and to have flexibility going forward regarding improving them.

We thought, this is no game. This can win. We have a responsibility. Dump ego. Cultivate mutual respect. That kind of feeling largely wiped out anti social inclinations except in the most narcissistic folks – and, well, I guess the overwhelming tone of the event kept even that group quiet. I suspect this arose overwhelmingly from the advance preparation.

In particular, at the convention itself, I remember some late night small group chats. No one was fixated on battling over specifics. Everyone was excited about the emerging level of unity and mutual trust. Instead of each person acting as a kind of atom competing to have the most of his or her own words or suggestions adopted, each person was intent on generating great unity and flexible readiness for innovation regardless of the source of each idea or phrase. And the discussion of initial specific activist program for the organization was similar. In that case, it started almost from scratch. The discussions went longer, but accommodations occurred and everyone supported the results.

Do you remember the initial activist program?

Sure. We didn’t want a laundry list but it was hard to prevent. Remember we were just getting started. There were nearly 3,000 people at the convention. On the one hand, we needed to focus limited initial energies on some key campaigns that we could start organizing around. On the other hand, people were thinking about programmatic ideas two ways. First, we each wanted pursuits good for the organization. Pursuits that met the programmatic guidelines the convention settled on. But second, we wanted pursuits we could immediately strongly support. Among so many people from so many backgrounds, there were many favorite ideas. It was a bit of a miracle, then, but we managed to limit our first campaigns to seeking:

  • 30 hours of work for 40 hours pay
  • Sharply progressive property, asset, and income taxes, with no loopholes
  • A dramatically-increased minimum wage of $20 an hour
  • A comprehensive full employment policy
  • Curriculum reform, improved teaching methods, enriched teacher-student relations, and reduced average class size to a maximum of 20 students per teacher in all schools.
  • Guaranteed free education (through college) for anyone who wants it – plus debt forgiveness.
  • Amnesty for immigrants and regulated but ultimately open borders for refugees.
  • Community control of police, an end to mass incarceration, and reassessment of current prison terms and policy.
  • Protecting the rights of women to control their own bodies and to enjoy equal benefits and responsibilities throughout all parts of society, including abortion rights, public day care, and equal payment requirements.
  • Cessation of arms shipments abroad and elimination or conversion to peaceful purposes such as natural crisis assistance of overseas military bases.
  • Improved preventive medicine, including increased public education about health-care risks and prevention, a massive campaign around diet, and penalties for corporate activity that subverts health in employees or consumers.
  • Universal health care for all, including a single-payer system with the government providing comprehensive and equal coverage for all.
  • Civilian review of drug company policies including price controls and severe penalties for profit seeking at the expense of public health up to and including nationalization of offending pharmaceutical companies under the auspices of Congress and an expanded Center for Disease Control.
  • A truly massive Marshall Plan level national and international campaign to turn the tide against global warming, water depletion, and other life threatening environmental trends

Do you have any special memories of the convention?

A few, yes. Remember this was nearly twenty years ago. One, is a bit personal. There was a speaker who galvanized the place. She recounted her trajectory, as many had, to become revolutionary. It was first student organizing, and then, not long before deciding to come to the convention, community organizing.

She spoke very eloquently of being sick of hearing activists and leftists constantly complain about how bad things are, perpetually blaming everyone but themselves for lack of success. She told how she had been moved, a few years before, by hearing a report that was very different in that it pinpointed problems with radicals with the intent of correcting them. Her talk was immediately memorable, but the fact that we got together and became partners made it all the more so.

Another thing, in particular, that I remember, was the down time. By that I mean the periods when people could congregate, meet, and share experiences. You could call together groups for such sessions – for example, by job, or locale, or whatever. I think those sessions may have been the real birth place of RPS, even more than the general assemblies where decisions were made. The informal meetings were what led to local chapters and to work groups in particular fields like medicine, sports, and so on.

Later, I think you ran for and won your first local election not long after the second convention. What was the attitude toward elections that emerged from the first and then the second convention? What impact did RPS have on your efforts then, and later too? 

Yes, I did win my first election back then. The RPS attitude, which hasn’t changed much since, was that to run for office was potentially good, and to win was potentially good, but there were also pitfalls that could pervert good into bad.

The main benefits we liked were that running could facilitate outreach to new audiences, raising consciousness, and boosting morale. Winning could gain access to resources to help win more gains in the future.

The main pitfalls were that candidates might fixate on winning votes and lose track of larger aims. We might worry more about vote tallies and fund raising then about actual program. Having won an election, or even just done reasonably well, we might develop an elitist “better than thou” self perception. We might fall in love with holding office more than achieving worthy aims.

As individuals, RPS members aided campaigns we favored, and we evan ran for office, but to avoid getting sucked into electoral dynamics at the expense of its broader agenda, as an organization RPS opted against electoral participation.

RPS members helped immeasurably with my campaigns and my work while in office as well. RPS gave me a rooted sense of my role. It helped me arrive at my views and practices. It pushed me to be accountable. During my Senate run almost everyone centrally involved in the campaign was in RPS. Yet, as an organization, RPS never officially had anything to do with it.

Malcolm, do you anticipate RPS winning in the 2044 election?

Well, it is still nearly four years off, so we are on thin ground predicting anything. But, taking that into account, yes, I think this time we will win outright with over 60% support, and perhaps even more than that. We have had a number of progressive administrations that negotiated with us in good faith, that sided with many of our reform efforts and that had to give in on much of the rest of what we sought, as well, due to the scale of popular pressure. The population is now ready and eager for the whole transformation.

When New York, California, Ohio, and surprisingly Texas elected not only progressive but RPS governors, and did so by large margins, and when those governors proceeded to aid RPS efforts at the state and local level, the result was incredibly positive for nearly everyone and the die was cast. The momentum is now undeniable.

I think the biggest consciousness shift was perhaps back in 2024 when working class votes for right wing reaction fell off dramatically. Fear of immigrants and minorities polarizing millions into conservative votes, as had occurred earlier, collapsed. People had come to understand that the real source of pain and suffering for working people was profit seeking and, as well, people were enjoying steadily growing racial solidarity.

By 2028 and then especially by 2032, the class antagonism toward coordinator elitism and their material advantages had also largely transformed. It didn’t disappear, of course, but it became highly informed and switched from opposing liberalism or progressivism to opposing coordinator obscurantism and elitism aimed at maintaining coordinator dominance. It had grown to understand the division of labor and the need for allocation of resources to education for all. In 2036 and 2040, those trends continued, but I think the tipping point change was the growing popular belief in a viable alternative system. We moved from people siding with RPS views and values in their hearts but not believing that RPS could actually deliver, and thus not being willing to support RPS program for the country as a whole, to steadily more people having informed faith that a new society is possible and worth winning, so that supporting a candidate offering RPS program would be a step forward.

So I think in 2044 the campaign and debates won’t have to spend much time arguing the ills of mainstream approaches, or the virtues of our preferred candidate as a person or as a potential President. There will be, instead, pretty much one pivotal issue. If I vote for revolution, am I voting for an idea I like but unlimited chaos and civil strife that ultimately won’t usher in a new society because opposition to a new society will be too strong to overcome – or am I voting for a careful but unrelenting struggle that will culminate in implementing a new society at every level? And I think the answer will now finally come down as the latter for an overwhelming majority of our population, so we will win the election handily.

And I think that winning the presidency even if we don’t get Congress and the Senate too – though I think we will – will greatly speed up our long march through the institutions, both changing them from within and replacing them with complete alternatives. It will be far easier and quicker to finish that process with the government actively abetting every step, rather than with the government as a receptive listener, as for the most recent administrations, or, as earlier, as a powerful opponent.

Just think of a new president using executive orders to support workers taking over companies even beyond what we have already accomplished. Or think of a new President transitioning military production and bases to social uses, not just in grudging response to mass movements, case by case, but as a matter of positive desire and principle across the world. Or think of a new president aiding creating the infrastructure of a new society, not simply from above, but responding to pressure from movements even while welcoming that pressure and aiding its development.

We still have to be alert to the kinds of disruptive issues that arise, not least to the dangers of a new administration losing touch with the self managing desires of the population and thinking its own views must dominate – but, honestly, given the emergence of RPS insight and commitment throughout society, I think that such danger will be quite possible to curtail.

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