A Progressive Populist Tradition in the Midwest

Today, one thinks of the Midwest as a bastion of conservative politics. It was not that long ago, however, when the Midwest had a thriving left-wing populist tradition. This Midwest progressivism included politicians like Eugene Debs, William Jennings Bryan, Robert Lafollette, Hubert Humphrey and Paul Wellstone. It included artists like Regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton and 2 time Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist Daniel Fitzpatrick. It included writers like Carl Sandburg, Sinclair Lewis, Langston Hughes. It included musicians like Woodie Guthrie, Johnny Cash, John Mellencamp.

Here is a trailer to the PBS documentary on Carl Sandburg, the poet, biographer of Abraham Lincoln, musical historian and social activist. When Sandburg was young, he was a socialist. His politics stayed to the Left of the political spectrum all his life, using his poems and writing to advocate for the rights of working people and to fighting for racial equality.

Here is the trailer to a documentary on Eugene Victor Debs, an American Socialist leader and union organizer during the Progressive era, 1900 to 1920. He ran for US President on the Socialist Party ticket (SPA) five times, even once while he was in prison for speaking out against the US involvement in World War 1.

In this 2011 C-Span series, Presidential Historian Richard Norton Smith, Goucher College History Professor Jean Baker and Washington Editor of Real Clear Politics Carl Cannon discuss the importance of Democrat William Jennings Bryan.

Here is a documentary about the regionalist painter Thomas Hart Benton’s mural for the 1933 World Fair in Indiana. Benton was a New Deal liberal who wanted his art to represent the everyday people of the country.

Here is a documentary of folk singer Woodie Guthrie,who became a spokesman for a whole generation of downtrodden Americans during the 1930’s with poignant songs like Vigilante Man, Pastures of Plenty and the anthemic This Land is Your Land.

John Mellencamp discussed his seminal album “Scarecrow,” the family farming crisis, his thoughts on music in the mid-80s, and much more in this classic 1985 interview conducted by Mellencamp’s late friend Timothy White. Mellencamp was a liberal rock singer who helped found Farm Aid to help struggling farmers who were seeing their farms face foreclosures.

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The Fight for the Soul of the Republican Party

As a liberal, I think there are two separate but parallel political battles going on in this country that are necessary for the political health of this country. In the first fight, progressives need to fight to regain political influence in our federal government and in the Red states. In the second fight, progressives are not involved but we have a huge stake in its outcome. In this second fight, moderate Republicans and principled conservatives need to fight the racism, anti-immigrant prejudice and religious intolerance that is currently afflicting the Republican Party. These are two separate fights, but progressives, moderate Republicans and principled conservatives share a common foe: Donald Trump.

America’s democratic republic has thrived because of the healthy debate between the Left and the Right. Since the time of the Constitution, when the Federalists and the Anti-federalists debated about the proper role of the federal government, this country has benefitted from the vigorous debate of ideas of the Left and the Right. When our debate has reached an impasse, liberals and conservatives have been willing to compromise and find common ground. Right now, though, the right wing in this country is not healthy.

Any group or political party is vulnerable to extremism and demagogues if they are not vigilant. In the past, Republicans and principled conservatives have taken stands against extremists within the Republican Party.

In the 1950s, Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith denounced the red-baiting tactics of her fellow Republican Senator Joe McCarthy during the height of his political power. Senator McCarthy had been making unsubstantiated charges of communism towards any person with left-of-center views, destroying the reputations and livelihoods of many American citizens.

In the 1960s, conservative intellectual William F. Buckley fought the influence of the John Birch Society on the conservative movement. Buckley thought the racism and conspiracy theories of the John Birch Society would have a terrible influence on conservatives. In 1968, Buckley spoke out against segregationist George Wallace’s attempts to appeal to conservative voters. In 1992, Buchanan denounce Presidential candidate Pat Buchanan’s antisemitism and racism.

In 1968, Republican Jackie Robinson denounced Richard Nixon’s coded racists appeals to try to attract Southern white voters. Robinson had integrated Major League baseball and had joined the Republican Party because it was the Party of Lincoln that in the 1940s and 1950s were often better on civil rights issues than the Democratic Party. In the 1960s, Robinson had constant fights within the Republican Party as segregationist Democrats began to switch party affiliations and negatively influence the Republican Party. Nixon’s tactics evolved into the Southern Strategy, where the Republican Party would use coded racism to appeal to Southern white voters.

In the 1980s, conservative Senator Barry Goldwater fought against the influence of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority on the Republican Party, feeling that they were a threat to this country’s separation of Church and State.

When we look at today’s Republicans, the conservatives who have taken the bravest political stands against Donald Trump and the Alt Right have been conservative writers and intellectuals. David Brooks, George Will, Charles Krauthamer, Jennifer Rubin, Bill Kristol, David Frum, Peggy Noonan, Mary Matalin and some of the writers of the National Review. They have consistently criticized Trump’s racism and breaking of democratic norms, and they have denounced the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish sentiments in the Alt Right movement.

Relatively few Republican politicians have been as brave as these conservative writers. Though I disagree with his political views, I’ve developed a deep respect for conservative Senator Jeff Flake for sacrificing his political career to denounce Trump’s racist, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim appeals and for being willing to criticize the Republican Party for acquiescing to Trump. Flake’s willingness to criticize Trump stands in stark contrast to supposed conservatives like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Lindsey Graham, Paul Ryan and others who kept talking about their reverence to the Constitution and their reverence to conservative ideals, yet are willing to see Trump to trample over many conservative values.

I personally think Donald Trump is a demagogue who is cynically exploiting the racial and cultural divisions in this country for his political gain. He also has authoritarian tendencies and does not respect the democratic norms that are important for a functioning democratic republic. Though I think Trump is exacerbating the divisions in this country, I do not think Trump is the cause of these divisions.

I keep reading that Trump’s approval rating among Republicans right now is around 80%. Conservative John Kasich thinks that polling may be skewed, as he theorizes that many conservatives and moderates who oppose Trump left the Republican Party to become Independents.

I don’t know how moderates and principled conservatives can win their fight against the Trump and Alt Right influence in their political party. But they need to persist in fighting. If the racism, anti-immigrant prejudice, Islamophobia and Antisemitism become normalized within the Republican Party, that leaves no common ground for moderate and progressive Democrats to work with. It’s impossible for Democrats to constantly have to win supermajorities to overcome Republican obstructionist tactics. So this dooms the Congress to dysfunction where nothing gets done. This is bad for progressives, moderates, conservatives and all Americans.

On October 24, 2017, Senator Flake announced that he would not run for reelection for his Senate seat. Here is an excerpt of that speech

During the 1960s, liberal Republican and baseball great Jackie Robinson found himself drawn to many conflicts within the Republican Party. As Democratic Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson began to take stronger stands on civil rights issues to help the African American community become more equal citizens in this country, disaffected segregationist Southern Democrats began to switch party affiliations and this began to affect the Republican Party in a negative way. Though conservative Senator Barry Goldwater himself was not a racist, his 1964 presidential campaign tried to appeal to segregationist Southern white voters to compensate for Lyndon Johnson’s support in most of the country. Jackie Robinson attended the 1964 Republican Party to support liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller and was drawn into shouting matches against some of Goldwater’s Southern supporters.

During the 1980s, conservative Senator Barry Goldwater began to denounce the influence of the Evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority on the Republican Party. Goldwater worried that the Christian Right was having a negative influence on the Republican Party and was a danger to this country’s separation of Church and State. He denounced the efforts of conservative Christians to put a political litmus test on Republican candidates on social issues like abortion. When Goldwater spoke out strongly in favor of gay rights, he earned even more animosity from the conservative Christian segment of the Republican Party.

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Thoughts for Progressives on the Elections 2020

The great civil rights activist Bayard Rustin always emphasized the need for strategy in fighting for social change. Ava Duvernay’s wonderful Martin Luther King Jr movie “Selma” has Bayard Rustin constantly emphasizing to his fellow activists the necessity of thinking about tactics. Rustin believed that to fight for social change, you have to see it as a chess game where you plan several moves in advance for any possible contingency. What are our plans if situation A happens? How do we plan if we have a setback? If we win a victory, how do we plan for the eventual conservative backlash?

Many progressives are putting a lot of hope in 2020. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Tulsi Gabbard, Kirsten Gillibrand, and many of the Democratic candidates are proposing ambitious plans. I think 2020 has the potential to be a progressive wave year like 1932 or 1964, when FDR and LBJ were elected with huge majorities in both houses of Congress. To be able to enact any ambitious progressive program, Democrats are going to need to win the Presidency and both houses of Congress. We’ll also need to do several things to make progressive change possible.

One thing we need to do is find someone to challenge Mitch McConnell in his reelection bid in 2020. I think McConnell has been a terrible influence on both the Republican Party and in this hyper-partisan climate where his obstructionist tactics have destroyed the ability of Congress to function in a healthy way. Any Democratic President will be forced to abandon ambitious plans if the Democrats don’t get 60 Senators and they face McConnell’s obstructionist tactics. After seeing how well Stacey Abrams and Beto O’Rourke did in Georgia and Texas, I think a viable Democrat could really compete against McConnell. Emphasize McConnell’s record of cutting social programs that help the poor and middle class (especially McConnell’s eagerness to cut Social Security and Medicare), show how McConnell’s tax cuts only help the wealthy and hurt everyone else. Put McConnell’s record in stark relief to the Kentucky voters. Kentucky was one of the states that had massive teachers’ strikes. I think McConnell is more vulnerable than people realize.

Another thing that we need to do is reach out to the working class white neighborhoods that went for Trump in 2016. I know many progressives think that these communities are a lost cause or that we have to compromises our fight to defend minority communities in order to appeal to these white communities. I don’t buy that. If we look at history, liberals like Eleanor Roosevelt, Bobby Kennedy, Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, and Paul Wellstone appealed to both working class white communities and minority communities. These liberals constantly spoke out against racism and they fought for minority communities. But they also fought to protect working class white communities from the worst effects of the free market system.

Make the argument in Red states that progressive policies will do more to help them than conservative policies will. This is especially important in order to get our majorities in the House and the Senate. We’ll need to emphasize how our health care policies will help fight the opioid crisis afflicting those areas. We need to emphasize job retraining programs in areas where their jobs have been outsourced. We need to show them concrete ways in which the federal government is their friend and not their enemy. To do this, we’ll need to break the Fox bubble. This won’t be easy. Any Democrat, moderate or progressive, will be tarred and feathered by the right wing media. But we have to make the effort.

If we win the presidency and large majorities in both houses of Congress, we have to pass as much legislation as we can in a two year window. Both Clinton and Obama had the most legislative success in their first two years of office, before they both lost their congressional majorities in the midterms. Along with passing climate change legislation, health care legislation, legislation to tackle economic inequality, we should also pass legislation specifically to help Midwest and rural communities to undercut Republican appeals to demagoguery against immigrants.

If we get 60 Democratic Senators, we should go for Medicare-for-all. If we don’t get 60 Senators, we should work to improve Obamacare: lower the age to qualify for Medicare to 55, create a public option, and work on the flaws of Obamacare. Expect a huge fight from McConnell and the Republicans.

Tackle immigration reform. Even if Democrats do not win 60 Senators, there are several Republican Senators who are open to a bipartisan deal on immigration. The problem has always been the House of Representatives, specifically the Freedom Caucus. If the Democrats win the House and win 60 Senators, they can have an immigration bill with both border enforcement and a pathway to citizenship for all 11 million illegal immigrants. If we win the House but less than 60 Senators, then we’ll need to work with Republicans for a less ambitious bill. I think immigration reform may actually have the most potential for bipartisan support.

Senator Elizabeth Warren joins Chris Hayes for a town hall in Fort Wayne, Indiana, to talk about issues that are key in the Industrial Midwest.

On March 8, 2019 Senator Bernie Sanders spoke to supporters on day two of his three-day trip to Iowa.

Senator Kamala Harris held an MSNBC town hall from Spartanburg on Tuesday, May 28 and the following day she held events in Anderson and throughout Greenville.

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The Dialogue Between Left and Right

This democratic republic has thrived through the healthy debate between the Left and the Right. During the debate over the Constitution, the Federalists argued that a strong federal government was necessary for this country to thrive, while the anti-Federalists argued that the United States needed strong state and local governments to protect our civil liberties. In the early days of the republic, Alexander Hamilton forcefully advocated for a urban vision of an America of commerce and big business while Thomas Jefferson advanced a rural vision of an America of yeoman farmers.

As American history has unfolded, liberals and conservatives have debated the most important issues of the day: slavery; imperialism; women’s suffrage; workers’ rights; civil rights; war and peace; LGBTQ rights; reproductive rights. There are some questions that a healthy democratic republic will forever debate. How do we balance majority rule while protecting minority rights? How do we create a climate where businesses can thrive while also protecting workers from being exploited? How do we address issues of economic and racial inequalities that prevent large segments of our population from enjoying the American dream? How do we balance the needs of the community with the rights of the individual?

I’m a proud liberal Democrat. But I don’t think liberals are perfect. If you look at American history, liberals have been right about some things, wrong about some things. But you can say the same thing about moderates, conservatives, radical leftists, libertarians. No one group or political philosophy has a monopoly on truth.

In a healthy democratic republic, all sides vigorously debated their points of view to try to persuade a majority of people to agree with them. But there was also a willingness to compromise and find common ground to try to address the problems of the day. One can look at the collaboration of liberal Ted Kennedy and conservative Orrin Hatch that produced the American With Disabilities Act, the Ryan White Act to help AIDS victims, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program which provided health insurance to thousands of the working poor. Liberal Paul Wellstone collaborated with conservative Pete Domenici on the Mental Health Parity Act to give mentally ill people greater access to health care insurance.

I complain a lot about the Republican Party and the cult of personality that has surrounded Donald Trump. It saddens me to see more independent minded conservatives and moderates get marginalized within the Republican Party. I’m critical of the Republican Party, but I also realize that it’s important to all Americans for the Republican Party to return to a more sane and healthy state.

For all our political differences, liberals and conservatives should have common ground on opposing racism and anti-immigrant prejudice and religious intolerance. Though they seem to be small in number, I respect those moderates and principled conservatives who are trying to fight the racism, anti-immigrant bias and religious intolerance within the Republican Party.

It is in the interests of progressives and all Americans that these principled conservatives win their fight.

In this Jubilee video, Liberals and Conservatives came together to work through differences of opinion and see if they can find middle ground by discussing Trump, voting, and partisanship.

Conservative pundit Rachel Campos-Duffy and liberal pundit Cathy Areu are total political opposites and best friends. They talk about how they teach their kids to respond when they’re challenged on their political views.

Black conservatives and liberals hash it out in this VICE video

Trump supporters and Hillary supporters talk about politics in this Buzz Feed video

In this Jubilee video, Democrats and Republicans talk about their similarities and differences.

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To Get Progressive Legislation, The Democrats Need to Win Back Both Houses of Congress

Many of today’s Democratic candidates are proposing ambitious progressive ideas that they hope to convince American voters are necessary reforms to fix many of America’s problems. As a liberal, I think these progressive proposals are necessary. But it’s not enough for Democrats win the Presidency for these ambitious programs to be enacted. The Democrats also need to win majorities in both houses of Congress. They’ll need to keep their majority in the House of Representatives and they’ll need 60 Senators to overcome Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s obstructionist tactics. If neither happens, then a Democratic President will have to scale back his or her ambitions.

The two greatest eras of progressive legislation were the New Deal era and the Great Society era. In 1935, when the most radical stage of the New Deal legislation was passed, there were 322 Democrats and 103 Republicans in the House of Representatives and 68 Democrats and 25 Republicans in the Senate. In 1965, at the height of the Great Society legislation, there were 295 Democrats and 140 Republicans in the House of Representatives and 68 Democrats and 32 Republicans in the Senate. At that time both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party were more ideologically diverse, with moderate and conservative Democrats and moderate and liberal Republicans crossing party lines often to vote for bipartisan legislation. That sort of ideological diversity in both parties is gone.

Both Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson were shrewd political strategists who knew how to get legislation passed through Congress. Roosevelt and Johnson had good working relationships with the Democratic leaders in the House and Senate and they were blessed with progressive legislators like Robert Wagner, Ted Kennedy, Robert La Follette, Mike Mansfield, and Birch Bayh.

Along with majorities in Congress, we’ll need a Democratic President to be a shrewd political strategist to get any ambitious progressive legislation passed. This President will need to be able to coordinate well with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, and they’ll need the help of progressive legislators who are skilled in forming coalitions within the Congress. This President will need the communication skills to make their case to convince the American public and to defend their proposals from the inevitable right wing attacks.

This year, I’m more willing to support a Democrat with a more ambitious plan because I think the Democrats have a chance to have sizable wins in both Houses of Congress. As long as the centrists and the progressives don’t get into a huge fight and know that they need each other to win the diverse areas of our country, I think the Democrats will do well.

Here is a video of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the last great era of progressive legislation, and it’s positive benefits to American society.

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A May Day March in Mountain View, California – 2019

On May 1, I attended the May Day March in Mountain View, California. I was hoping to bring my niece, but she had homework that she had to do. So I went alone.

It was a fun march. One of the organizers told me that they began advertising the march a little late this year, so there was less people who participated than in past marches. But I still got a chance to talk to several activists whom I never met before.

For me, that’s always the most fun that I have from participating, talking to various people and taking photos.

This year, Judge LaDoris Cordell was the main speaker. She talked about the various struggles that immigrants and workers had in living in the Bay Area.

Here is a video I made of the march and rally.

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Me and Theon Greyjoy and Redemption

The two characters in Game of Thrones that I relate to the most are Sam (the bookish character) and Theon. Like Sam, I’m a bookworm who is terrible at physical combat. Like Theon, I’ve struggled to learn how to be brave.

I’ve found that some individuals, like Lyanna Mormont or Brienne of Tarth, are just naturally brave. For me though, sometimes I’ve had courage and sometimes I haven’t been courageous. I’m not a naturally brave person. So I really relate to Theon’s character arc.

I’ve never done anything as despicable as Theon. But in the 1990s I attended a church where I’ve witnessed several individuals gets harassed and I didn’t have the courage to intercede. I saw a group harass a woman for dating a Catholic, whom the group saw as not a true Christian. I witnessed a few individuals get harassed for being gay. I saw a group hassle an individual who was baptized as a baby when the group believed only adult baptisms were valid. And I saw others get harassed for various different reasons. In all those instances, I didn’t have the courage to speak out against the group.

It’s been almost 2 decades now since I left that church. To redeem myself, I’ve been trying to learn how to speak my opinions even if it is unpopular or goes against the group. Like Theon, it’s been a two step forward and one step backward process. I’ve been in conflicts that I’ve never gotten into before. In all those cases, some individual or group was angry that I dare express my own opinions rather than blindly follow theirs.

So it’s been very satisfying for me to watch Theon Greyjoy’s character arc as he’s learned to be brave. This particular scene from Season 8’s episode 3 between Theon and Bran is not one of the major scenes of the show. But it meant a lot to Theon. And it deeply moved me. Redemption is possible.

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