An Act of War

There was a vote last Thursday on S.722, “Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017,” a bill which slaps economic sanctions on both Russia and Iran. The vote passed almost unanimously in the Senate, except for two senators with fiercely independent streaks. One of them was Rand Paul. The other was Bernie Sanders.

On his website Sanders wrote that, if fashioned as a separate bill, he would have voted for Russian sanctions and noted he has previously voted for sanctions on Iran. But the bill, he wrote, “could endanger the very important nuclear agreement that was signed between the United States, its partners and Iran in 2015.”

Massachusetts senators Warren and Markey, however, both enthusiastically voted for the sanctions, as did every Democrat in the Senate. Warren had previously been opposed to Iran sanctions and supported the Iran deal. But on Thursday she voted with the herd to both jeopardize the work John Kerry had done and to wage economic war on Iran. In fact, Warren not only voted with the herd but was a co-sponsor.

Economic sanctions are acts of war. The Council on Foreign Relations characterizes them as alternatives to war, but the targets of sanctions understand quite well what they really are. When, in 2015, the EU slapped sanctions on Russia, one Russian banker called it “economic war.” And North Korea has never minced words: “We consider now any kind of economic sanctions to be taken by the Security Council as a declaration of war.”

As economic acts of war, sanctions can provoke military responses just as easily as bombing. Students of history may recall that reparations and economic sanctions against Germany following World War I fed both German nationalism and militarism leading up to World War II. Writing in Foreign Policy Journal, Gilles van Nederveen wrote:

Sanctions can lead to war “if the state is militarized and the central government is backed to the wall. Consider an example of pre-World War II Japan. American and Japanese militaries prepared for a confrontation throughout the twenties, but real tensions did not start until the 1931 invasion of Manchuria by Japan. At the outset of U.S.-imposed oil blockade in 1940, Japan estimated that it had a fuel reserve of just under two years. The Imperial Japanese Navy drafted plans to seize the oil fields in the Dutch East Indies (present day Indonesia) in order to maintain steady supply of oil and its military strength. International organizations like the League of Nations were powerless in curtailing aggression during the thirties. After the initial oil blockade in 1940, each Japanese move was met with yet another U.S. embargo: scrap metal, access to the Panama Canal, and finally, the U.S. froze all Japanese accounts in the US, effectively putting Japan on the collision course with the U.S.”

Sanctions are an overused tool of both neoconservatives and neoliberals. The Heritage Foundation pointed out in 1997 that, during Bill Clinton’s administration, Clinton managed to slap sanctions on 42% of the world’s population. Of course, this was twenty years ago when Conservatives were out of power and posing as reasonable statesmen. Fast forward twenty years: they’re back in power and they’re leading the charge themselves.

Economic sanctions are often accompanied by physical blockades, embargoes, interdiction of shipments on the high seas, proxy wars, and covert warfare. All of these apply to Iran. Speaking at the Carnegie Endowment, former Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew described sanctions in the same terms as precision bombing:

“The sanctions we employ today are different. They are informed by financial intelligence, strategically designed, and implemented with our public and private partners to focus pressure on bad actors and create clear incentives to end malign behavior, while limiting collateral impact.”

But economic sanctions do not limit collateral impact. Sanctions are every bit as lethal as bunker-busters. On May 12, 1996 — long before Obama awarded her a Presidential Medal — Madeline Albright was asked if the deaths of half a million Iraqi children from U.S. economic sanctions were worth it. Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State didn’t shed a tear or miss a beat when she answered “yes.”

Van Nederveen points out that during the Cold War — a time when there was no single superpower — economic sanctions had no teeth. But now that the U.S. is the biggest, meanest dog in the kennel it can do whatever it wants, whenever it wants. Returning to the Carnegie’s black-tie event, Obama’s Treasury Secretary went on to describe the restraint that the U.S. must show once it forces other nations to submit to its sanctions:

“To preserve the effectiveness of sanctions over the long term, we must use them wisely. We must clearly articulate our goals, and we must provide relief when those goals are met.”

But no such restraint was ever exercised with Iran following the nuclear deal. Virtually the moment the ink had dried on the deal, the United States began undermining it. Last year Roger Cohen, writing in the New York Times, described the Obama administrations sabotage of its own accord:

“But today America is undermining that balance, reinforcing Iranian hawks and putting the hard-won deal that reversed Iran’s steady advance to the nuclear threshold at risk. It’s a shoot-yourself-in-the-foot policy after a major diplomatic achievement.”

The professed American love of democracy and diplomacy now only provokes derision throughout most of the world. American power is out of control and neither Conservatives nor Liberals have any great urge to rein it in. American Exceptionalism, AIPAC, and tantalizing Saudi defense dollars are the real hammers that forge our foreign and military policy. It is in moments like Thursday’s vote that we see how bi-partisan American imperialism and aggression really is.

Bernie Sanders was right. The vote by every Democratic senator jeopardizes the Iran nuclear deal and creates a more precarious world. Here in Massachusetts we just learned our so-called “progressive” senators just couldn’t resist waving the flag and voting for more American bullying.

Americans might want to imagine the day when China slaps economic sanctions on the United States. And it is coming. Our global militarism has made us a “bad actor” that must be taught a lesson by the next superpower. Like Germany a century ago, when that day comes there is no doubt that Americans will regard those sanctions as an act of war.

A completely different perspective

On June 13th I headed up to the Massachusetts State House with a group from the Coalition for Social Justice working with Raise Up Massachusetts.

We were there to show support for Paid Family and Medical Leave. Several women in our group offered personal stories explaining why the legislation is so important. Many families in this state are already only a single paycheck away from financial ruin. Family Leave holds out a lifeline to families in the impossible situation of having to choose between keeping their job (and their home) — or taking care of a sick parent, a new child, or even themselves. For most of us this is a matter of economic and social justice.

The Joint Committee conducting hearings was patient and thoughtful and often gave speakers a minute or two more than their allotted time to speak. The committee heard from mothers holding infants and restless toddlers. It listened to testimony from fathers, gay parents, economists, healthcare experts, people who had experienced catastrophic medical crises, or had retired early or sacrificed to care for a sick parent. Present also were members of the business community holding both supporting and opposing views.

One group of business people offering testimony in support of Family Leave made a special impression on the committee. They were there to lobby for the bill as a perk to offer their high-tech employees. The committee showered them with disproportionate interest, praise, and questions. It seemed a bit odd — even just plain wrong — that offering Family Leave as another fringe benefit for Route 128 employers might be what actually sells the bill to the Democratic legislature. Forget the cute babies.

Then testimony was heard from Massachusetts Teachers Association president Barbara Madeloni, who told the Committee how important Family Leave was for her union’s 100,000 members, many of them women. Madeloni expressed a little surprise at the inordinate interest in a benefit program for entrepreneurs, reminding the Committee Family Leave was really a matter of economic and social justice. And so it is.

This example illustrates that, even in the absence of conflict, there are still significant differences between progressive and mainstream Democrats. Often our goals align perfectly — but we view the world from very different perspectives.

* * *

Nathan J. Robinson, in Current Affairs, writes that these differences are often downplayed as misguided tactics, dogmatism, impatience, mendacity or immaturity — while, In fact, they are simply different ways of looking at the world:

“The core divergence in these worldviews is in their beliefs about the nature of contemporary political and economic institutions. The difference here is not “how quickly these institutions should change,” but whether changes to them should be fundamental structural changes or not. The leftist sees capitalism as a horror, and believes that so long as money and profit rule the earth, human beings will be made miserable and will destroy themselves. The liberal does not actually believe this. Rather, the liberal believes that while there are problems with capitalism, it can be salvaged if given a few tweaks here and there.”

But we are in the fight of our lives to protect a democracy and a functioning government. Progressives and liberals both recognize that, whatever the differences, we share more than enough common values to work together. And we can’t lose sight of that.

A recent piece in the New York Times by Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin deceptively paints Jon Ossoff’s congressional bid in Georgia as a fight between the Liberal and progressive wings of the Democratic Party, one that “realist” Democrats are waging instead of progressives. In fact, the “conflict” here seems to play out exclusively in the minds of the authors:

“Outside Atlanta on Friday, Jon Ossoff offered a decidedly un-Sanders-like vision of the future in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, a conservative-leaning patchwork of office plazas and upscale malls, where voters attended his campaign events wearing golf shirts and designer eyewear.”

Ossoff’s campaign style indeed reflects the blue-red sensibilities of his Congressional district. Drilling into Ossoff’s positions he looks like any other liberal Democrat — entrepreneur, Zionist, pro-choice, not explicitly in favor of single-payer healthcare, vague on foreign policy positions but eager to strengthen the military and support an undeclared war against ISIS. Ossoff is a baby Bill Keating.

Yet despite the New York Times’ mis-characterization of Ossoff as a DNC project, his campaign was in fact first supported by progressive organizations Democracy for America and Our Revolution. Only after the first round Georgia “jungle” primary did the Democratic National Committee offer Ossoff any help.

But let’s fast-forward past the finger-pointing right to the good news:

Far from adopting a dogmatic strategy, progressives embraced a guy who represented enough of their values that they could live with him, gave generously to his campaign, and stepped into a vacuum created by the DNC. And to the DNC’s credit they ultimately joined the fight and are now doing the same in other races.

In Washington Monthly David Atkins also took issue with the New York Times piece:

“As usual, the intramural battle on the left is being framed as one between intelligent pragmatists who want to win, and unrealistic ideologues who want to make themselves feel good.

Like me, Atkins sees hope. Progressives have a winning perspective and pragmatists have institutional memory and experience running campaigns. He writes that “the populist left’s premises have proven themselves over time. Clinton’s own SuperPAC did the research and discovered that the Obama-Trump switchers who made the difference in the election were driven by economic anxiety and a loss of faith in the Democratic Party…” Then Atkins argues:

“But establishment pragmatists also have points that cannot be ignored. First and foremost is the reality that the path to retaking the House lies less in rural economically ravaged districts full of angry voters, than in bourgeois suburban neighborhoods uncomfortable with Trump’s lack of seriousness and gentility.”

Keep in mind that this is not a progressive disagreeing with a liberal, but a liberal Democratic political consultant splitting hairs with fellow liberals. I don’t agree with Atkins that avoiding races in places like Montana and Idaho is wise. After all, the Democratic Party is barely hanging on in its urban archipelagos. Democrats need to return to a Fifty State strategy and only grassroots activism can make that a reality. Progressive Arizona Democrats point out that, in Tucson alone, 44,000 seniors live in trailer parks and only Republicans are talking to them. The future for these older Americans looks increasingly bleak as healthcare becomes unaffordable and the social safety net is deconstructed.

Failure to engage is insane and irresponsible.

Atkins himself demonstrates that there is a legion of Democratic political experts who can be repurposed for progressive campaigns. Bernie Sander’s media guy, Tad Devine, gave a talk in Westport, Massachusetts just last night delivering much the same message. And at the same talk former New Bedford mayor Scott Lang provided historical context for the party’s missteps and his own views for getting it back on track. Institutional memory and experience.

But whatever the outcome of this relationship, eventually the Democratic Party must unequivocally choose between a progressive and a centrist message. And this is already starting to happen. Young voters have not been well-served by crushing student debt, endless war, and dim prospects for good jobs and their own homes. Senior citizens also face an uncertain future. Call it neoliberalism, globalism, or any euphemism you like, but Capitalism’s warts are showing and progressivism is on the rise.

Global economic injustice and insecurity is as real and terrifying as global warning. Democrats should remember — and with considerable pride — how the New Deal met the challenges of a global economic crisis head-on 85 years ago, literally saving the lives of millions of Americans.

Democrats can do it again but it’s going to requires a completely different perspective.

Purgatory

Four years ago the Massachusetts legislature considered the Massachusetts Trust ActH.1613 and S.1135 — twin bills which placed limits on ICE but had only a handful of co-sponsors. The bill was not sent directly to hell, but it landed not that far away. This is how spineless state Democrats deal with controversy.

In the last legislative session Senate bill S.1258 once again tried to protect Massachusetts refugees — and once again the bill was sent to the purgatory known as the House Rules committee. This time it had 25 Senate co-sponsors.

In the current legislative session, S.1305, the Senate version of the Safe Communities Act, has 53 co-sponsors and H.3269, the House version, has 80. Political tides are turning and many Democrats have lost patience with spineless do-nothing representatives like mine and autocratic House speakers. And to those of you (Chris Markey and Robert DeLeo) effectively collaborating with the enemy’s ICE roundups — you have turned yourselves into a list of hacks who ought to be primaried.

MIRA has a great write-up on the Safe Communities Act but in a nutshell this is it:

Massachusetts has its own laws, which must be respected. Police departments, officers, and prisons may not be federalized. The Fourth Amendment must be applied equally to all residents of the Commonwealth, regardless of status. State resources and monies are not to be used for federal purposes. Constitutionally- guaranteed rights are to apply equally to everyone in the Commonwealth. The state will not make its databases available to ICE or Homeland Security. This is the Safe Communities Act.

Progressive Massachusetts has a great script for calling your legislator.

Flood the State House with calls. Remind your representative that sending Safe Communities to purgatory will result in similar political consequences for himself.

Notes from the Oligarchy

Forget the fake news for a second. It’s real enough but the most insidious assaults on democracy come in the form of endless “opinion shapers” and legislation from right-wing think tanks and lobbyists doing the bidding of an American oligarchy.

I just finished reading a piece in CommonWealth which argues that the Fair Share Amendment is liberal-elitist. The author, Josh McCabe of Wellesley College’s Freedom Project, says that by increasing taxes on multi-millionaires the federal SALT (state and local tax) exemption will be triggered, permitting gazillionaires to pay lower federal taxes. McCabe goes on to say that SALT has cost the feds about $100 billion in revenues and states will have to scramble to pay for their own services out of pocket. He asks:

“The amendment means residents of poor states such as Mississippi (ranked 50th in per capita income) will partially subsidize residents of wealthy Massachusetts (ranked third in per capita income). In what sense is it fair to place some of the burden on Mississippi to pay for schools in Wellesley or roads in Andover?

If this sounds almost reasonable on the surface, consider for a moment that the super-rich already pay lower tax rates than wage earners and have many opportunities and legions of tax lawyers helping them to avoid paying their fair share. States like Massachusetts that want to raise taxes to pay for services are simply being smarter and more responsible to their citizens than, say, Mississippi. And Mississippi is already a drain on the rest of the nation, particularly Blue States, receiving $2.02 in federal money for every $1 their citizens pay in taxes. Nice try, though, Mr. McCabe.

Besides following the money it’s always a good idea to see who’s advocating for tax breaks for the super-rich. Predictably, the Freedom Project (as in “freedom” from paying taxes) is dedicated to the free market fundamentalism of Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman and Friedrich August von Hayek.

Oh, and did I forget to mention that Wellseley’s Freedom Project is bought and paid for by Charles Koch?

So nice of CommonWealth to give them a free platform.

* * *

And, while we’re still talking about oligarchs: if you were watching the British election and envied the Brits their chance to call an election and throw out the government, you’re not alone.

Impeachment right now seems like the only option open to citizens, but Paul Street’s article Impeach the U.S. Constitution points out that the real problem is our system of government — not factionalism, not Donald Trump.

Yes, the Founding Fathers were either high on crack when they came up with this insane system — or the founding slavemasters were intent on building an oligarchy. Turns out, it was the latter:

I am always darkly amused when I hear one of my fellow Americans call for a return from our current “deep state” plutocracy and empire to the supposedly benevolent and democratic rules and values of the nation’s sacred founders and Constitution. Democracy was the last thing the nation’s founders wanted to see break out in the new republic. Drawn from the elite propertied segments in the new republic, most of the delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention shared their compatriot John Jay’s view that “Those who own the country ought to govern it.”

As the celebrated U.S. historian Richard Hofstader noted in his classic 1948 text, “The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It”: “In their minds, liberty was linked not to democracy but to property.” Democracy was a dangerous concept to them, conferring “unchecked rule by the masses,” which was “sure to bring arbitrary redistribution of property, destroying the very essence of liberty.”

Donald Trump is their crowning achievement.

The War on Terror is a failure

Britain was still in the grip of the May 23rd suicide bombing in Manchester which claimed twenty-two lives. Tory Prime Minister Theresa May was running on a “fear and crackdown” platform in the last days of her collapsing campaign, even promising to curtail civil liberties “if they get in the way” of cracking down on terror.

Not to be out-done American Defense Secretary “Mad Dog” James Mattis was promising a policy of annihilation toward ISIS, telling West Point cadets, “Manchester’s tragic loss underscores the purpose of your years of study and training at this elite school. […] We must never permit murderers to define our time or warp our sense of normal. This is not normal.”

It was a perfectly normal day in the War on Terror. Where killing civilians has become the new normal. Not only for ISIS but for the United States and its allies.

Although the U.S. admits killing only 352 civilians, human rights groups that track the civilian slaughter put the number closer to 4,000. But for Mattis civilian deaths are just too damned bad when one is waging just war (the West’s word for jihad) against ISIS. Appearing on Face the Nation Mattis commented, “Civilian casualties are a fact of life in this sort of situation.”

The “sort of situation” Mattis means is the permanent war the United States has been waging in the Middle East for going on 30 years.

The savagery of ISIS-encouraged suicide bombings, drivers plowing through pedestrians on crowded bridges and, in one case, three attackers setting upon one woman with knives, is enough to sicken anyone. But if we look at ISIS attacks somewhat dispassionately, this is simply asymmetric warfare.

This is how people fight when they don’t have an air force or SEAL teams to slaughter civilians the “proper” way.

Two weeks ago the Pentagon admitted it had killed two ISIS snipers in the al Jadidah district of Mosul, Iraq — with “collateral damage” of 100 civilians. In Yemen, the U.S. military killed five civilians, including a blind seventy year-old man. This followed another disaster in Yemen last January in which SEALs killed twenty-five civilians, including fleeing children. Regardless of which news outlet covered it, the civilian deaths were downplayed. If it’s not on TV, it’s not real.

Most Americans think that the war in Yemen is just another fight against ISIS but it is in fact a civil war, and it involves a Shi’a insurgency in the south being put down by a Saudi-allied dictator in the north. It is fair to call it a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran — one into which we have poked our noses.

After all these screw-ups CENTCOM was recently forced to undertake some damage control, so it released figures claiming that, regretfully, 484 civilians have been killed. But regardless of the number — whether 484 or 4,000 — U.S.-led wars have displaced, killed, and terrorized millions of people throughout the Middle East. In Mosul alone 200,000 people were driven from their homes. In Syria, half the population are refugees.

In Syria, the U.S. has stepped up indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Raqaa. In Tabqa, a nearby town, eleven people — “including eight members of the al-Aish family: three women between the ages of 23 and 40, and five children, the youngest one just 6 months old” — packed themselves into a vehicle to flee from U.S. bombing. They didn’t make it. They were hit with heavy machine gun fire by a U.S.-led coalition forces. It was a tragedy local reports called a “massacre.”

Or, as Mad Dog Mattis might call it, Annihilation.

But if you really want to do repression and terror right, there’s nothing like State Terror. And the United States and its “allies” throughout the region are the undisputed experts. The Saud family, which owns and runs Saudi Arabia as a family-owned and operated kleptocracy, is barely distinguishable from ISIS in its repressive version of Wahhabism. Shortly after Donald Trump visited the country, the kingdom announced it would expand the use of the death penalty for peaceful protest.

Appearing with Donald Trump and Saudi King Salman in Riyadh, all touching a curious glowing orb together, was Egyptian dictator Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who is cracking down on protests and journalists. In Egypt, where Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein is now beginning his seventh month of prison, el-Sisi has also severely restricted the ability of NGOs, particularly those focused on human rights, to operate.

I could go on about Erdogan and Duterte, two of Donald Trump’s favorite thugs, but what’s the point? America’s commitment to human rights is hypocritical. The same Trump who was wined and dined by the Saudis — where no one dares challenge the royal family — criticizes Venezuela for repression and calls for free elections. The same U.S. government, outraged by Cuba’s treatment of political prisoners, has looked the other way at Israel’s imprisonment of almost a million people since 1967, where 40% of all Palestinian men have been in jail.

* * *

While Conservative PM Theresa May was campaigning on fear and xenophobia, crackdowns and ditching civil liberties, Jeremy Corbyn was campaigning on fresh ideas and offering unpleasant truths.

One of Corbyn’s truths was that the War on Terror is a failure. And that only a new foreign policy can solve the problem:

“Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services pointed out the connections between wars that we’ve been involved in or supported … in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home.”

And how can anyone really refute his argument? Killing civilians, propping up dictators, wrecking entire countries, and creating millions of refugees doesn’t make you any friends.

This is why they hate us. This is why they fight us.

If we really want to end terrorism, we’d better stop terrorizing other people ourselves.

We have a lot to do

Dear Dartmouth Dems,

The convention is barely over and we’ll be meeting again on Monday, June 12th.

In February there were 7,609 registered Democrats in Dartmouth. The percentage of town Democrats (like the rest of the state) is roughly 33%, while for Republicans it is about 11%. Raw numbers of both Republicans and Democrats have been constant (and therefore stagnant) since about 2000, while the share of unenrolled voters has risen sharply to the 55% it is today. People are not happy with either party in this state.

party-enrollment

And we Massachusetts Democrats need to do something about it.

It’s not just Trump. Here in Massachusetts democracy has been in trouble for some time. Our state ranks last in competitiveness in political races. In the 2016 Democratic Primary there was not one challenger in all nine U.S. Congressional districts. At the state level half the candidates for the Governor’s Council ran unchallenged. In County Sheriff Democratic primary elections, six out of fourteen ran unopposed and two slots were never filled, including Bristol County where Republican Tom Hodgson won by default because of Democratic complacency. In almost half the state legislature primaries and in 29 out of 42 state senate races there was no challenger.

We need to do something about this, and soon.

There are a number of elections coming up in 2018: U.S. Senator (Warren); U.S. Representative (Keating); Governor (Gonzalez, Massie, Warren); Secretary of the Commonwealth (Galvin); Attorney General (Healey); Treasurer (Goldberg); Auditor (Bump); Governor’s Council (Ferreira); State Senator (Montigny); State Representative (Markey); County Commissioners (Kitchen, Mitchell); District Attorney (Quinn); Register of Deeds (Treadup); and Clerk of Courts (Santos).

We’re going to have to have to debate the merits of some of these candidates. At least a couple of them need to find new jobs.

For campaigning and voter outreach, Dartmouth Democrats should look into using the VoteBuilder system that MassDems makes available to towns and wards. The DTC Chair will need to sign a VoteBuilder contract and several people must sign up for one of the weekly training classes that the party’s Operations Center offers or will be offering shortly.

According to the Massachusetts Democratic Party’s Field Manual for City, Ward, and Town Committee Chairs, a Local Committee:

“shall conduct, according to duly established and recorded local by-laws, such activities as are suitable for a political organization; among which (without limitation) are:

“Endorsement of enrolled Democratic candidates; Financial Support of the State Committee; Adoption of resolutions and platforms; Raising and disbursing of funds for political purposes; Voter registration campaigns, and Calling of caucuses for the purpose of endorsing candidates, adopting resolutions, or Conducting other Party business as provided for in the Call to Convention.”

Other ideas might include scholarships or essay contests to involve students and their families, voter registration, phone banking, a speakers series, or candidate nights.

According to the MassDems Town Committee Bylaws, there is a formal Affirmative Action and Outreach Advisor position. Dartmouth may be demographically 89 to 95 percent white but we still need to make sure the committee is more diverse.

According to Article V of the bylaws, the Town Chair presides over all meetings and supervises all subcomittees. In addition, the Chair sets meeting dates and frequency “subject only to the vote of the Committee in fixing the number of regular meetings to be held during the course of the year.”

With all we have to accomplish, I will make a formal motion at our first meeting on the 12th that we hold 12 monthly meetings thereafter. And I hope some of these ideas find their way onto the agenda for this meeting.

We have a lot to do.

David

Ideas, Inaction

The motto of the Massachusetts Democratic Party is, was — or should be — Ideas in Action. And if it is we should really mean it.

Replying to my first-timer’s impressions of the party’s convention in Worcester last Saturday, I heard from Jonathan Cohn, co-chair of the Issues Committee at Progressive Massachusetts, who asked the cheeky question:

If a platform is adopted and no legislators are there to enact it, did it make a sound?

— which was precisely my concern about a convention that put so many progressive ideas down on paper. But while Massachusetts Democrats have plenty of good ideas, and no doubt many have good intentions and good hearts, the follow-through is often lacking, and has been for some time.

Cohn recently devoted an entire piece in Commonwealth to the discussion of the 80% Democratic majority in the Massachusetts Legislature that is, somehow, and chronically, unable to enact progressive legislation. Thomas Frank made many of the same points in his book, Listen Liberal, and in a Nation article entitled “Why Have Democrats Failed in the State Where They’re Most Likely to Succeed?”

Cohn’s piece is worth your time and he has graciously given me permission to reprint it with attribution.

And while you’re online, check out Progressive Massachusetts’ Legislator Scorecard.


Democratic supermajority not so super

Jonathan Cohn, reprinted from Commonwealth Magazine, May 27th, 2017

IN THE YEAR FOLLOWING a presidential election, the Massachusetts Democratic Party updates its platform. A party platform can stand as a defiant statement of goals and ideals, and a roadmap for a legislative agenda and priorities. In today’s national political climate, such aspirational declarations are especially important as they offer voters something to fight for and something to vote for.

The platform released just last week contains new planks on paid family and medical leave, a $15 minimum wage, automatic voter registration, and the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences, bolstering what was already, by and large, a progressive document.

On Saturday, June 3, delegates from across the state will convene in Worcester to approve the platform, perhaps with a few amendments to make it stronger.

On Monday, June 5, if the past is any guide, our overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature will proceed to completely ignore it.

But a supermajority has value only to the extent that it stands for something, and to the extent that it is put to work. When one looks back at the party’s 2013 platform, the contrast between the aspirational document and actual policymaking can be quite stark, perhaps most so in the realm of health care.

For years, the Massachusetts Democratic Party platform has called for a single-payer health care system, one that would truly enshrine health care as a right. The momentum that exists behind single payer in other parts of the country does not seem to have yet reached Beacon Hill. Single-payer legislation recently advanced out of committee in the California Senate and was passed by the New York Assembly. On the national level, the majority of the House Democratic Caucus in Congress now supports single-payer, an all-time high. But only about a third of Democrats in either branch of the Massachusetts Legislature have taken heed of their own party’s platform.

Or take another hot topic: immigration. The 2017 platform, like the 2013 one, calls for “the elimination of policies that make state and local police responsible for the enforcement of national immigration laws.” The Trust Act, which would have done just that, died in the Legislature without ever getting a vote in the past two sessions, and House Speaker Robert DeLeo seems inclined to let the Safe Communities Act, its new, expanded incarnation, see the same fate.

Or take a look at public transit. The MBTA has a $7.3 billion – and growing – repair backlog and is the victim of years of disinvestment. The 2013 platform recognized the importance of increased investment in public transportation to economic prosperity, to equity, and to climate mitigation. But the Democrats in the Legislature have preferred to side with Gov. Charlie Baker’s misguided mantra of “reform, not revenue,” authorizing the creation of a control board that has mainly sought to cut and privatize basic services. The Fair Share amendment, broadly supported by Democrats, will help bring in some more money for public transit, but it’s only a start, and a late one at that.

Sometimes it isn’t just inaction; at times, the Legislature has done the exact opposite of what the platform calls for. The Massachusetts Democratic Party platform advocates for allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, a move backed by sound public safety logic. However, the Legislature voted to ban them from doing so at the end of last session.

It would be unfair to blame both branches equally when it comes to the inertia characteristic of Beacon Hill. Several of the new planks of the 2017 platform, such as paid family and medical leave and more aggressive enforcement of wage theft laws, did make it through the Senate last session, only to languish in the House. Platform mainstays like Election Day registration have passed the Senate in the past as well.

The divide between the two branches is reflected in the scorecard that Progressive Massachusetts releases each session, in which one can see a Senate where members are more willing to vote – on record – for progressive policies and a House where voting in lockstep with the Speaker is the norm.

With full Republican control in Washington, we are already seeing attacks on workers’ rights, voting rights, immigrant rights, reproductive rights, and vital social and environmental protections. It is up to states to serve as laboratories of democracy, to use Louis Brandeis’s apt phrase.

Massachusetts Democrats could make our Commonwealth a beacon of progressive policymaking. If they aren’t interested, it’s up to activists and voters to make them.


Jonathan Cohn is an editor and activist in Boston and the co-chair of the issues committee at Progressive Massachusetts.