Finding Common Ground

Noam, recently you gave a very powerful talk on the theme of extinction, the nightmare looming over us from climate change and nuclear war. As I listened and read the transcript, one gets the feeling that we’re entering a new stage of history. It’s not an easy stage to contemplate. What I want to focus on in this conversation is just what can everybody do, especially in the wake of Trump’s election as President. Trump’s agenda appears to be taking out the climate initiatives that gave a little hope on climate change. And foreign policy measures that would make nuclear conflict more likely deserve attention in our discussion of extinction.

Do you believe we have moved into this new era? Do you see the threat of extinction as fundamentally changing the way the Left movements have to think about what they’re doing?

It’s very difficult to talk about the Left as an entity because it’s a collection of very disparate movements involved in all sorts of endeavors, many of them quite valuable.

The Left needs to become unified and integrated because whatever particular issue you’re working on, this crisis of potential extinction is overshadowing it. There must be international solidarity.

The situation for organizing here is not that bleak. If you take a look at the last election, Clinton won a majority of the votes. The outcome has to do with special features of the U.S. electoral system, which is pretty regressive by world standards. Among younger people, Clinton did win a substantial majority. More important, Sanders won an overwhelming majority. That’s the younger part of the population. You take a look at Trump supporters. Many of them voted for Obama.

In 2008, they were seduced by his slogan which was Hope and Change. They pretty quickly found out that they’re not getting hope and they’re not getting change. Now they voted for someone else who’s preaching hope and change, different orientation. They want change. They’re right. The situation that much of the workforce and lower middle class has lived in is, it’s not starvation, but it’s stagnation. The system has been designed. It’s not a matter of economic laws. It’s policy and decisions, which have been quite harmful to a large mass of the population. In fact, a majority. It’s also undermined democracy, both here and even more so in Europe. There’s a natural and justified call for change. These are opportunities for the Left. Many of the people who voted for Trump could have voted for Sanders.

A lot of people are saying now, they’re putting a lot of onus of responsibility on Obama and on Clinton.

The Left has been highly critical of neoliberalism. But it hasn’t been seen broadly by the population. Particularly the working-class parts of the population that you’re identifying as being really harmed by this, as that somehow neither the Left nor the Democratic Party is really speaking to them. It’s speaking to coastal elites, it’s speaking to educated people, speaking maybe to young educated people. It’s not speaking to them.

Not speaking to people who are really deprived.

The Left should be working with and for the African-American community, it should be working on civil rights, it should be working for gay rights, for women’s rights, and so on. That’s fine. What it has dropped pretty much is class issues.

Would you encourage the Left to rethink the class issue and economic opportunities—that maybe a Sanders-style development will help reconfigure the Left? Not that it abandons the most depressed people in the society, but it finds a way to deal with larger forces of inequality, as you say, as integrated within the larger capitalist systems.

It’s certainly a must. The so-called identity politics has led to great successes, but when they are designed and presented in such a way that they appear to be an attack on the lifestyle, values, commitments of a large part of the population, there’s going to be reaction. That shouldn’t be done.

For example, the progressive movement uses the language of white privilege. Some of the people who live in working-class areas, white working-class areas, they look at that and they say, “What are you talking about? We’re not seeing this privilege.” Does this require the Left to re-assess its vocabulary?

It’s not just about our vocabulary. It’s about an understanding. Actually, Arlie Hochschild’s book is very revealing in this respect.

“Strangers in Their Own Land.” Hochschild is a noted sociologist.

We know the story. She’s lived for many years in the bayou country in Louisiana and gave a very sympathetic understanding, conception of what the people are thinking and why, from a point of view of a Berkeley progressive, which she is. She was accepted into the community. It’s very revealing. The images she uses, which they accepted as the correct ones, is that people . . . they see themselves as standing in a line. They’ve been working hard all their lives, their parents worked hard, they’re doing all the right things. . . . They go to church, they read the Bible, they have traditional families, and so on. They’ve done everything the right way.

All of the sudden the line is stalled. Up ahead of them, there are people leaping forward, which doesn’t bother them because according to the doctrine, that’s the American way. You work hard and you have merit, strange kind of merit, you get rewards. What bothers them is that the people behind them in the line, as they see it, are being pushed ahead of them by the federal government.

By liberal elites and so forth.

By liberal elites and the federal government. That they resent. The facts are different. There’s no basis in fact, but you can understand the basis for the perception. That can be dealt with by serious activist organizing. Many of the people Hochschild was dealing with are committed environmentalists, but they hate the EPA. They want to destroy the Environment Protection Agency. The families are very interesting. Hochschild’s working in an area which is sometimes called cancer alley. Everybody’s dying from cancer from the chemical pollution plants. Nevertheless, they vote for a Congressman who wants to dismantle the EPA entirely.

There’s a reason. Turns out, there’s an internal rationality to this self-destructive position. Organizers and activists can go after that. The internal rationality is that what they see is some guy from the EPA wearing a suit and jacket coming down to tell them, “You can’t fish in this river.” Meanwhile, he does nothing about the chemical plants. Why do they want the EPA?

Do you see any examples of progressive Left organizing that really operate out of that Hochschild narrative and find a way to really connect with these communities in a credible way to these people?

The core of this, I think, which you’ve mentioned several times, is revitalizing the labor movement. Reasons include scale, history, and so on, the ways people interact, gain understanding, and become committed to work together for common goals that will benefit all. Labor has always been and will continue to be pretty much in the forefront of any progressive activities, just as it has been in the past. It’s been severely damaged by corporate and government programs going back to right after the Second World War, but escalating during the Reagan and Clinton period, the neoliberal period. It can be revitalized. These are not just people living in the bayous. They’re living 2 miles away from us. There are things to be done.

Just to take one example, a couple of years ago in a Boston suburb, Taunton, Mass., some multi-national decided to close down a factory. It was a factory producing specialized parts for airplanes. The factory was reasonably profitable, but it wasn’t making enough profit for the bankers that run the multi-national, so they decided to close it down. The union and the workforce offered to buy it and run it themselves. It could have been run and been profitable. If they had had popular support, community support, activist support, they might have been able to work that out.

That’s been done. Gar Alperovitz has documented that in Ohio . . .

It’s done, but this is a case right here in Boston. The things that Gar Alperovitz is doing, that are going on right now, these are indications of what could be done much more broadly. It could be done right here. It could be done on a mass scale. Go back to the financial crisis, really a housing bubble that burst and led to the financial crisis. At one point, the government, federal government, had basically nationalized the auto industry. Almost. There were choices at that point. If there had been a Left functioning, it could have influenced those choices. There was not, so it didn’t influence them.

You mean by a Left functioning, do you mean a more active labor, popular community-based . . .

Popular activist movements. There were choices that could have been made. One choice, the one that was taken, was to pay off the owners and managers, reconstitute the industry and hand it back to the former owners or other people much like them and have it go back to its old activities. That’s the course that was taken. An alternative course would have been to have handed the industry over to the stakeholders, the workforce and the community. They’d need some support but no more than . . . probably less than what was paid off to the companies. Instead of having them produce cars, have them own and run and manage it and produce what the country needs, which is not more cars. Drive through Boston and you see that’s not what the country needs.

What we need is some reasonable system of mass transportation, which goes right to the environmental problem and many others. Even just the simple comfort of not sitting in a traffic jam all day in getting where you want to go. That would have been an alternative. Was it feasible? It would have been feasible if there were an organized activist Left, just as in the Taunton case nearby. Those are directions in which activism can go. They can have massive effect on the economy, on the society, on the nature of the workforce, on what they perceive as real hope and change. Things like that can happen almost every day.

When you talk about this organized Left community as a front that’s . . . do you have a more concrete image of what that looks like? Does it mean environmental movements and anti-racist movements becoming part of a unified . . .

All of that, but even more than that. It can also become a serious independent party. In the U.S. system, which happens to be very regressive by comparative standards, it’s very hard for an independent party to enter the political system, but it’s not impossible. If an authentic independent political party would develop, it could become an electoral alternative. That means a party that doesn’t just show up every 4 years and say, I have a candidate for the election. It means starting at the local levels. School boards, town meetings, state legislatures, House of Representatives, all the way up. In some of these House of Representatives districts, a very small amount of money is enough to win the election. Many of them run unopposed. State legislature is the same.

Ralph Nader has been making this argument, that you have, district by district, a small number of people whom could be elected. There’s a lot of debate about whether this is an independent party or working with some of the Sanders people to align with progressive Democrats. What’s your view of how to think about that?

I don’t think you have to make a decision on that. You can try both and see which one succeeds. They’re not opposed.

I think it’s worth trying everything you can. If the Democratic Party could be taken away from the party bosses, the huge funders, the Democratic machine and turned into a popular party, fine. If an independent party . . .

In your view, just in terms of your personal view, is that a realistic possibility? Could Sanders, Warren, some of these new people who tried to get Pelosi out and dig in with labor, is this worth doing in your view?

It’s worth doing and it’s not an alternative to trying to develop an independent party. Both should be done. They could even cooperate.

This is only one stream. This should be going on alongside many other activist efforts. For example, the effort, say, to get to worker ownership in Taunton or at a large-scale level to shift the whole auto industry toward what it ought to be, which could have been done had there been some kind of activist Left like we’re talking about. I think there’s a basis for developing that.

I think you’re saying there’s a very pluralistic set of possibilities for the communities we’re talking about.

A healthy Left would be one in which individuals, of course, follow what they’re good at, what makes sense to them, what fits into their life, and so on. You have to make choices. You can’t do everything. Each of those individuals should recognize that the many other choices are parallel and mutually supportive, and we can get together and . . .

You want to build connections among these different organizations and different communities.

In the past that has often been built around the labor movement. If the labor movement can be revitalized, that can happen again. It doesn’t have to be just labor, but that should be a central part.

You brought up Trump and the neo-fascist trend we’re seeing across the world, across Europe, and so forth. You know a lot about fascism and the problems with popular fronts and so forth. Do you see unification emerging . . . extinction itself ought to be bringing people together because it’s the biggest crisis ever faced. The rising of Trump and his contribution to all these threatening things might unify people as well.

Could happen. First of all, in Europe, there are progressive alternatives developing just as there are here. Yanis Varoufakis’s DiEM25 initiative, Podemos in Spain. Corbyn in the UK . . .

New party, more visionary party . . .

Some of it is parties, some organizations . . . seeking to reverse the undermining of democracy in Europe and build it. Not to destroy the European union like Brexit, but to try to rebuild a democratic European union, save what was good and important in it. That could become an important movement. There are many things developing. They should develop in an integrated fashion. In fact, there are other possible alliances. The Right wing in Europe, many elements of it, are opposed to the increasing confrontation with Russia, on the Russian border. That’s fine. Trump is saying, let’s reduce tensions. Fine. We should be working for that. All of these are alliances of human beings, whatever their politics, whatever their religious beliefs, whatever it may be, with the interest in preserving human life on earth. Those interactions should be pursued and can lead to other ones. They don’t end there.

Ralph Nader has made very strongly the case, that there are ways that these communities can find common ground.

They do.

There are people like Thomas Frank who have argued the cultural differences are so profound, the religious differences are so profound, that he finds this very problematic. Then there are other people like Hochschild and a lot of other writers, like Nader, people who are saying if we do this in a way that we bring people in direct contact with each other . . .

With common interests.

For example, take the people that Hochschild was studying on the bayou, who are environmentalists, committed environmentalists, no reason why they can’t work together with environmentalists who say, “Look, let’s get regulations that really work. Not just against your fishing, but against your chemical companies.” That’s a common basis. It happens that many of them regard the Bible as a much more authentic source of information than science, but that’s not graven in stone either. That can be changed.

In fact, in the Evangelical community, there have been very progressive elements. Take the Central America solidarity movements. They were very significant. This is probably the first time in history that in the country that was responsible for the atrocities, individuals were going to help the victims. I don’t think that’s ever happened before. Nobody ever dreamt of going to a Vietnamese village to live with the villagers, to help them, to provide a white face, which is a little protection. It just never occurred to anyone. This happened with tens of thousands of people during the Central America solidarity period. Many of them were Evangelical.

I remember talking in Evangelical churches in the Midwest where people not only had direct experience, but knew more about what was going on than academics did. They were directly involved. For example, after the election in Nicaragua, the right-wing election, many of them stayed. Others gave up and left, but they stayed. There’s plenty of opportunities. These are also Evangelical Christians.

Organize in churches, organize in communities. How did the Central America solidarity movements develop? People totally secular and Left like me were perfectly capable of working together with Evangelical Christians on concrete things, like helping communities protect themselves from criminal atrocities, state crimes, and so on.

This would partly mean hooking up with people, say, like Jim Wallis, an Evangelical leader who is organizing young Evangelicals to do that. Also, you’re thinking also . . . I went down to the South during the civil rights movements. Are you imagining that some of this might be environmentalists who are now in colleges in the North, but would go back to their native South and would work there?

Civil rights movements are a good example. There was real interaction, very constructive interaction between Northern college students and deeply impoverished repressed Black areas in the rural South. Helped each other, worked together, created bonds.

I experienced that. It was powerful. I slept on the floor of a Black family and lived in Jackson, Mississippi. You’re saying, that’s in a way a metaphor for what has . . .

It can be done. There’s no point arguing that it can’t be done because the cultural differences are too great. Press forward as far as you can. My guess is one will find that the cultural differences, though they’ll remain (why shouldn’t they?) can be overcome by common concerns and interests.

Trump may end up simply crushing with brute repression many of the Left forces.

I don’t see any reason to expect real neo-fascism. Could happen, but I don’t think the indications are strong.

We shouldn’t be frightened of it. We should proceed with the opportunities we have which are considerable. Others can be brought in as well. The repressive forces themselves can be undermined. That’s happened often. They have shared interests in many ways. If demonstrations and other activities are taken with an eye toward reaching out to those who are unsympathetic and bringing them in, I think a lot of progress can be made.

That’s hopeful. Nonetheless, given what Trump represents and particularly around climate issues and nuclear proliferation, do you feel there’s an imperative that the progressive Left community, the public sensibility that you’ve described, needs to find some common ground to organize against Trump on these extinction issues?

First of all, on climate, Trump is not all that different from the leadership of the Republican Party, or those in the primaries. Every single candidate either denied that climate change is happening or said we shouldn’t do anything about it. Trump’s position is maybe rhetorically more extreme, but not fundamentally different from the Party. That’s a big educational and organizing opportunity for the Left. The United States is off the spectrum, global spectrum on this issue in some respects, which can be dealt with. Almost half the population thinks there can’t be a climate change problem because of the Second Coming within a couple decades. That is not dealt with by demonstrations, but by sympathetic interactions.

I like the spirit of what you’ve been arguing, which is very invitational. I think what you’re saying, contrary to Thomas Frank, for example, is that one can bridge a lot of these cultural differences. You don’t want to go around labeling these people a cultural backwater.

You don’t come to people and say, “You’re a cultural backwater.” You deal with the fact that the beliefs that they have ought to be changed through their own recognition that these beliefs are not . . .

You don’t mean their cultural values in terms of religion and that . . .

Yes, I do.

You do?

The belief, if the Bible and science conflict, that science is automatically wrong, people can come to see that’s not true. Many people have. Much of the population has already passed through that change. Others can as well.

That seems like a struggle because when you get to people who are deeply into Biblical studies and Biblical beliefs . . .

It’s all of us, if we go back a couple generations, that’s . . . If I go back to my grandfather, that was his belief. Things change.

That’s an optimistic flavor in the analysis, because you’re saying the progressive community should not be deterred in the way that Thomas Frank suggests.

No. It should not be deterred and it shouldn’t be contemptuous. It should be sympathetic, understanding, find common ground, things you can work on. Not put aside these questions of belief and understanding. They can be changed too.

Incidentally, just look at other possible common grounds. One major area is Trump’s proposal for infrastructure development. The country needs that. It’s needed it all along. These are actually Obama proposals which were blocked by the Republican Congress. The Republicans were a wrecking machine. Don’t allow anything to work. One of the good things about their having control of the government is they might actually implement the policies instead of killing them. Here there are possible grounds for serious organizing and activism with the Trump backers and the workforce. These are jobs for them if it’s done properly. A big “if.” The vague indications about how to proceed from the Trump team are not encouraging, to put it mildly.

There are unions who worked their hearts out during this election. Michael Moore, he was writing a lot about this. They found their own members were voting for Trump for many of the reasons that we’ve talked about. What is your response to that?

Labor union activists generally work hard and have achieved a great deal for union members and the rest of us. They now have to go back to their own unions. There’s every reason to work with their members. There’s a reason, after all, why they voted for Trump. No alternative was being presented to them. Present an alternative to them. Even Sanders didn’t manage really to bridge the class issue. It should be done.

You’ve offered a very realistic but hopeful view of how to invite conversation and dialog and build connections to the whole country.

Pursue the opportunities that exist. There are many of them. We don’t know how far they can reach. There’s no point mourning the bad things that happen. Find the things that can be done. Many of them with international connections, because there are similar problems. Many of them integrating people who seem to be on opposite sides of the divide, but really have common interests. Those could be extricated and pursued.

Wonderful. I feel very much in sympathy with the spirit of invitation and dialog and connection and unity. I think it’s the way . . . it’s at the heart of the progressive Left agenda in some way. We haven’t done it very well very often, but it’s consistent with our core values.

That’s what we should be pursuing.

That’s what we should be doing. Thank you very much, Noam.


Charles Derber is a life-long activist, public speaker and the author of over 20 books. His latest book is “Welcome to the Revolution: Universalizing Democracy for Social Justice in Perilous Times” (Routledge, August 2017, paperback).

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