Reflections on the Present Political Context

At 3 a.m. on November 9, my husband and I turned to each other with a look of relief, an emotion that was shared by some but not the majority of American voters who identify with the democratic left. Until Tuesday night we had been convinced that the oligarchy would have its way, and that the candidate supported by Wall Street would become president of this nation. For us that meant that any notion of democracy was an illusion. Of course, we were aware that one of the most bizarre candidates in history, a demagogue who insulted people of color, immigrants, and women, and even boasted of his sexual prowess and offensive behavior, had actually won the election. But we could not deny the fact that more than sixty million voters had said “No!” to the elites and voted for the candidate that they wanted. What came to mind was a somewhat bitter reminder that this is what democracy looks like.

Our view on the election results created a minefield in human relationships. We could not fully identify with the despair felt by one of our daughters, many members of our Unitarian Universalist congregation, or several Facebook “friends.” I faced a particular challenge at work. After retiring from full-time teaching I had taken a position as an adjunct sociology instructor at a college attended by very bright students, many of whom had voted for Clinton. I tried to approach the election results in my Social Theory class by asking the students to discuss a statement by Marx, paraphrased as “History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” It was clear that many were not accepting the idea that Trump was not as serious a threat as Hitler. In my Social Inequality class, I distributed an article by Chuck Collins that analyzed the relationship between the election results and economic inequality. Finally, I allocated some time in each of these two classes for an open discussion in which I made the effort to give students a chance to express their views, but later wondered about those who had remained silent. Did my occasional off-the-cuff remarks come off as an imposition of my own view? Did I fail to provide these students with a safe place for expressing theirs?

Beyond the personal issues of how to talk with and listen to people who do not share one’s exact view, there is the broader question of what the election of Donald Trump actually means. 60,834,437 people voted to make him their president. Some people think this means that there are more than sixty million people in this country who are racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic.  However, we need to put this in perspective: Millions of people did not identify with either candidate, but put aside their misgivings in order to vote not for one of them but rather against the other. Just as some people overlooked Clinton’s support of policies that may have contributed to institutional racism and sexism, others overlooked Trump’s blatant statements that sounded racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic. This does not mean that Trump’s voters support racism and sexism any more than Clinton’s supporters do. Although there is a lunatic fringe that has been going around attacking people in Trump’s name, the majority of his supporters appear to be ordinary people who are worried about economic survival. While it is true they have selected a president who is not looking out for their best interests, they voted against a candidate who they believed, perhaps correctly, would not do so either.

In order to understand the economic context of this election, we need to think back to the 1950s and 60s, when there was a balance between profits for corporations and living wages for workers. The postwar period was somewhat of an anomaly in its high level of prosperity for the working class. Generally capitalism demands the endless search for ways to increase profits, even when companies are doing well. This often means finding people who will work for lower wages. By the late 1960s improvements in long-distance travel came together with advances in telecommunications, allowing companies to begin moving manufacturing to countries where changes in the rural economy had forced millions of dispossessed small farmers to migrate to cities in search of work at whatever wage they could get. Nixon’s visit to China provided for the opening of its vast army of potential low-wage workers to American business. But that would come later. First the factories would move to the American south, later to Mexico, and still later to Haiti, Africa, the Pacific basin, and Asia.

As American workers lost their factory jobs, those who did not have the means to re-train to obtain good-paying positions outside the manufacturing sector had to settle for jobs at minimum wage or just slightly above it. The loss of the manufacturing sector severely weakened labor unions, which only recently have begun to make inroads into the service sector.

People compensated for their reduced income by working longer hours and taking second jobs. Mothers of young children entered the full-time workforce. As the real income of 80 percent of the population continued to decline, people began taking on credit card debt, and those fortunate enough to own their homes took home equity loans. But none of these measures were enough, and the traditional working class saw all hope of security vanish.

In 2016 three candidates for president attempted to persuade voters that they would solve their problems. Hillary Clinton continued to push her neo-liberal agenda. While affluent upper-middle class liberals, who had not felt the worst pinch from the global economy, supported her, as did many people of color, the white working class did not buy the Democrats’ version of trickle-down economics. Many of them responded to the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Donald Trump, convinced that it was foreign workers in this country, rather than the global corporations, who were taking away their jobs. But many other working class people saw hope in the message of Bernie Sanders, who seemed to be offering a vision of a European-style social democracy.

Between February and July of this year, while Trump continued to gain ground with Republican voters, there emerged a bizarre conflict between the two candidates for the Democratic nomination. Huge rallies, unprecedented numbers of small contributions, and tens of thousands of very enthusiastic campaign volunteers suggested that Sanders had a strong chance of becoming president and setting the country on a new economic course. At the same time there was growing suspicion by some of his volunteers of infiltration and sabotage of the campaign by the opposing Democratic camp, possibly aided by the Democratic National Committee and by an oligarchy that preferred a neo-liberal to someone who might raise taxes on the wealthy to fund a his proposals. There were also allegations of fraud in caucuses and primaries. Finally, there was widespread anger among Sanders supporters at the manner in which Hillary Clinton was nominated at the convention, along with rumors of the bullying of Sanders into giving the speech for her nomination, ranging from physical threats to damage to his political power in the Senate.

In November the voters faced a choice between an offensive demagogue and the more polished candidate of the neo-liberal elite whose main campaign points seemed to be that she was not Trump and she would be the first woman president. The polarization in the nation was highly visible. Not only was it between Democrats and Republicans but the split among Democrats was more severe than anything since 1968. There were millions of people who believed that the primary had been won fairly, but many Sanders supporters were not accepting this notion. They saw lying and cheating that many believed had been the Clinton modus operandi for twenty-five years. They could not in good conscience vote for her. Others had opposed her from the beginning of the campaign because they did not view her as a genuine progressive.

Let’s get back to the nearly one out of four eligible voters who chose Donald Trump. Opponents of that selection have raised the alarm that this demonstrates a wave of fanatical, overt racism, and attacks against black people and Muslims have reinforced that belief. Granted that the lunatic fringe among Trump supporters has been causing serious trouble, what about the rest of those 60+ million people? What did their vote mean? For one thing, it showed a profound mistrust of Hillary Clinton, which should not be confused with sexism. Many people were not opposing a woman president, but only this particular one. There had been too many whiffs of scandal and too much coziness with Wall Street.

The vote also reflected the absence of a desirable alternative within the Democratic Party. During the primaries, the counties in which Sanders won the Democratic vote were also those in which Trump most often won the Republican vote. These tended to be in rural areas and small towns that had experienced deindustrialization. In other words, these were people who were struggling to survive in the global economy. Campaign workers for Sanders were often surprised to discover that working-class voters who were leaning toward their candidate saw Trump, not Clinton, as a possible alternative. What appeared to happen after the convention was that upper-middle-class liberals who had been Sanders supporters switched to Clinton, while millions of working-class voters switched to Trump.

Where do we go from here? How do we salvage what we can from this political mess? In the immediate situation, we need to be concerned about people of color, Muslims, LGBTs, and anyone else who is feeling unsafe under a Trump administration. We need to be vigilant about signs of attacks on people, intervene if it is safe to do so, and demand a rapid response from the police. We also need to protest any policies by the new administration that are regressive—such as more tax breaks for the rich, attacks on Social Security and Medicare, cuts to what is left of safety nets for the poor, and support of pipelines and other measures that threaten the ecosystem.

In the long term we need to address the rapidly increasing economic inequality that is creating increasing hardship for four-fifths of the population. This will not be easy under a Trump presidency. But we need to keep up the pressure for a living wage, universal health care, investment in higher education, job creation through the repair of our crumbling infrastructure, and paid family leave, as well as demanding that the wealthy pay their fair share of income taxes and Social Security—in other words the very proposals that drew enthusiastic crowds to Bernie Sanders rallies. Finally, we must recover from the shock of becoming more aware of the depth of corruption within our political system, work to regain the Senate for progressives in 2018, and try to make inroads into the House as well. People who care about building a just society have suffered a serious setback, but we must continue the struggle for what is right.

MassHealth Overhaul: Improved Care or Just More Cost-Cutting?

Dear Readers:

I am especially inviting comments on this article. Please let me know whether you think I am on target or am missing something.

MassHealth is the single largest expenditure in the state budget. This is the program that provides Medicaid funds to enable low-income people to obtain health services. Now, according to an article in today’s Boston Globe, it is going to be overhauled, supposedly to provide better care, but also to lower costs. I read this as really to lower costs. The record of our governor, as a former Secretary of Human Services for Massachusetts and also a former CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, suggests that cost cutting is generally the priority.

The new plan comes with a “massive infusion of funds” from the federal government. So the Commonwealth of Massachusetts needs a whole pile of money in order to lower costs. O . . . K . . . And how will this money be spent? It will be to help providers to change to “a new business model.” That language alone should raise a red flag. Or should we be pleased that at least they are admitting that healthcare is a big business?

Let’s take a look at the plan itself. Instead of being paid a fee-per-service, the providers will be given a set amount of money to care for patients. These providers will then be scored on quality of the care delivered. This sounds good on the surface. But consider this: They will be paid less and will have more demanded of them. Isn’t this a guaranteed way to reduce the number of providers who are willing to accept MassHealth? Physicians, psychotherapists, and other providers have the right to opt out of the program. There are already too many who have done so, thus reducing patients’ choices for routine health care.

According to the Globe article, the infusion of federal funds will serve to increase the number of hospitals in the program. This seems like a good thing. However, we need incentives to encourage all providers, not only hospitals, to stay in the system. When people are in need of health services, it is important that they can find primary care physicians easily, so that they do not go to emergency rooms for non-emergency problems—an expenditure that really is unnecessary.

But there is a bigger question hovering around the edge of this issue. Why are the costs so high to begin with? Because in approving MassHealth in 2006, then-Governor Mitt Romney inserted a provision requiring the inclusion of private insurance companies. This is the real business model. Health care in the United States is profitable for the private sector. If we want to understand why Canada provides good quality health care without going bankrupt (in addition to discouraging older people from immigrating and placing a large burden on their system), we need only think about two words: single payer. In Canada there is no “cut” for private insurance companies. If policy makers in Massachusetts really want to make health care cost effective for everyone, middle-class as well as poor people, they need to re-design MassHealth to exclude the profit-making sector. Of course, this also applies on the national level, but that’s a whole other article.

Standing for All of Us

standing-rock

(Photo credit: Rob Wilson Photography, http://www.yesmagazine.org)

The story is not new. The Sioux people of Standing Rock, like all indigenous people, know that the federal government cannot be trusted to respect treaties and land rights. There is a long history of robbing land from those who have occupied it for centuries, and pushing inhabitants to places considered worthless, until the land turns out to be useful to those with wealth and power. This time the government and corporations are not throwing people off the land but endangering their lives instead.

We have heard the propaganda so many times that many people now believe it. We heard it from TransCanada defending the XL oil pipeline. We continue to hear it from Spectra Energy defending the Algonquin gas pipeline. (It is sad to see an indigenous name given to something that endangers the ecosystem.) The pipeline is safe, they tell us. All the precautions have been taken so that it will be well constructed and will not leak. Besides, the construction will provide jobs, and most important, the fuel that we all need. Then we learn about gas explosions and oil bubbling up through the ground in residential neighborhoods. And after the construction is over, there are very few jobs. Furthermore, the proposed termination of XL at the Gulf of Mexico suggested that the oil was to be exported, not provided to local people. Finally, the emphasis on fossil fuel dependency diverts resources from the development of renewable sources, which provide the greatest hope for future sustainability rather than self-destruction.

So now after the defeat of XL, we are faced with the Dakota Access Pipeline, being built by Energy Transfer Partners of Texas and financed by seventeen banks from countries on three different continents. It would transport billions of gallons of crude oil to Illinois from North Dakota’s Bakkan oil fields, which were opened up by means of fracking (which is a whole other serious environmental issue).

The proposed pipeline would not only violate land that is sacred to the Sioux, including ancient burial grounds. It would pass under the Missouri River, a major source of drinking water for the region. Just one leak could contaminate this water.

The Sioux have a particular moral weight in this controversy. They are defending their ancestral lands and the survival of future generations. This is not only about the sanctity of Mother Earth and cultural traditions but also about the protection of the health of their children and their children’s children. Water is the last stand in the battle for human rights because the protection of water is fundamental to life. And yet in the 21st century it is not only bought and sold as a commodity but is also treated as though dispensable. The people of Standing Rock are reminding us that it is neither of these.

And this is why we need to acknowledge an enormous debt of gratitude to them. In standing up for their children, they are standing for all of us. People all over the world are being affected by threats to their land, air, and water because of the short-sighted profit motive of modern corporations. In my own city I am witnessing the construction of the West Roxbury Lateral Pipeline (a branch of the Algonquin), despite the opposition of some of our local political leaders and repeated acts of civil disobedience by people who understand its dangers.

But let’s get back to North Dakota. The global significance of the Dakota Access Pipeline is the reason why people are coming from all over the world to stand in solidarity with the Sioux. Dennis Brutus, the late South African activist, once said, “Global oppression is generating global resistance.” Some of the news media have attempted to twist this international solidarity as evidence that the local people really don’t care about the pipeline. It’s the old stereotype of “outside agitators.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. The resistance began with local indigenous people, who define themselves not as protesters but as protectors. They are protecting the purity of the water that the pipeline threatens to contaminate. The international solidarity emerged because people from all over the world understand that the Standing Rock Sioux are standing up for all of us.

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For people in the Boston area: There is a Standing Rock vigil today at 5:30 p.m. on the Harvard (Massschusetts Avenue) Bridge.

Beginnings

What does it take to create a truly just society – one in which everyone has a basic decent standard of living and equal opportunity to achieve as much as they wish socially, economically, and creatively without trampling on the rights of others? There are no easy answers to this question, but I would like to explore possibilities. I am writing this blog as a seeker of social justice, and would like to share my concerns, struggles, and small victories and to hear from others who may be on similar journeys or who have ideas  that they want to share about this subject.

From time to time I may make reference to the spirituality that underlies my commitment to social justice. However, in this context the term “spirituality” is meant to be broadly interpreted. It is not about religion per se, although one’s religious beliefs may certainly inspire work for justice. Historically this has been evident in the activism of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and people who have risked their lives advocating for poor farmers and urban workers in Latin America. But spirituality can also be about the personal values, whether religious or humanistic, that move a person to action, and even more important, that provide the psychological support to sustain a person when that action or the consequences of it become difficult. It may include a practice of yoga and meditation that helps to maintain one’s sense of balance in a complex world—something that is always on my list of good intentions and sometimes actually finds its way into my day.

I have spent many years of my professional life as a sociologist doing research in situations in which religion or spirituality supported movements for social change. The main focus was on Catholic activists in Brazil. This research provided contacts for my own activism. For ten years I coordinated the U.S. branch of the Rio Maria Committee, a network of human rights groups that organized letter-writing campaigns in the effort to reduce the violence against rural activists in the eastern Amazon region. I discontinued this work in 2001, when it seemed to become redundant with the activism of the Movement for the Landless. For a variety of reasons I was unable to get back to Brazil for many years. Then in 2015 I received a small grant to spend a month in the city of Belo Horizonte. There I discovered a relatively new pattern of cooperation between a progressive church and leftist governments at both the state and local levels in creating and funding programs to empower poor people. This year I received a slightly larger grant to return for two months. In the meantime, I have begun doing interviews in Boston with people involved in the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, a grassroots organization that has revitalized a low-income community. But I am still searching for a vehicle through which I can contribute my own efforts for social change.

I recently retired from full-time teaching and was fortunate to obtain an adjunct position at the college where I received my undergraduate degree many years ago. This college has an explicit commitment to social justice, which is particularly evident in the Sociology Department. Many of the students are interested in this perspective, as well as being bright, hard-working, and engaged in their education. One of my courses is Social Class and Inequality, and the enrollment in that course grew very rapidly until the end of the “add” period finally put a stop to it. It is gratifying to be in an environment in which social justice is of such great interest to the students and is supported by the administration.

Outside of the college it is not easy to find a channel for activism. There are so many problems in contemporary society—racism, gender discrimination, the escalation of economic inequality, the environmental crisis, and mass incarceration, just to name a few—that it is difficult to find a focus for one’s efforts for change. Then there are organizational problems. Just when one seems to find the group that is going to bring about change, intra-group conflicts emerge, the leadership abruptly changes, and suddenly there is a hiatus in the scheduling of meetings and communication with the membership. In the area of criminal justice reform, I have moved from one group to another, seeing them become inactive or fall apart entirely, and even made an attempt to start a group, only to see the same things happen. I have tried working within churches, only to find people sometimes more interested in study groups than in concrete action.

Despite these setbacks, I cannot stop seeking ways to work for social justice. My values could be described as a combination of liberation theology and karma yoga – the former providing the idea that personal ethics are inseparable from the struggle to bring about a better world and the latter suggesting that we take action in the world and surrender the results to a power greater than ourselves. If these values are in any way compatible with yours, please join in the discussion.