Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. We’re now more than a year into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators not only about how to resist but also about how to build a better world. Today’s interview is the 112th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.
Today we bring you a conversation with Richard (RJ) Eskow, writer and host of “The Zero Hour,” a syndicated radio program and TV show on Free Speech TV. Eskow discusses why simply resisting the GOP agenda is not enough and offers a comprehensive vision for economic and social justice going forward.
Sarah Jaffe: We are talking because you are the co-author of a new platform for — well, I will let you tell us what it is for.
RJ Eskow: I am one of the authors — there are a number of them — I am a signer and one of the authors for a pledge for good jobs, sustainable prosperity and economic justice.
The guiding principle behind it is one I have been writing about since the election, which is that resistance is not enough. I think I used the phrase “beyond resistance.” Others have done that, as well. The notion that we simply stand in abhorrence and rejection of the Trump agenda is not enough. The notion that we reject the Republican and conservative agenda — which I consider, personally, Trump not to be a deviation from, but the final fruition of — is better.
But then, it leaves open the question: Whether it is electoral in nature or whether it is activist in nature … what is the affirmative agenda that a resistance stands for? What is it that people would do? What should Democrats run on as a party, what should left independents run on if they are electable? What should movements be demanding in terms of an economic platform that concretely makes people’s lives better so that they become politically engaged in every dimension of that, from going out and voting to demanding a better life, rather than the kind of discouragement that comes with “Everything is horrible”?
That is, as best as I can explain, the gist of where this comes from. What can we get a lot of people to agree [on] is a real program for economic transformation, recognizing that both political parties, to a greater or lesser extent, have let us down in certain areas economically? What do people need? What do people want? What can we rally behind as a movement? That is the ambition here.
Most people who are consuming this probably agree that resistance is not enough. But we have had a hard time … the Democratic Party doesn’t really run on its platform. Our politics tend to revolve around personalities. I would love if you could talk a little bit about the usefulness of having a policy platform that comes before being attached to any particular personality or set of personalities.
First of all, our personality-driven politics, I think, has driven a lot of people over the edge a little bit. I think we have a tendency to view our elected officials as external manifestations of our own identity. And I don’t mean in the political sense of identity politics, but just ego almost. I think that gets us distracted. People say, “I like Hillary,” “I like Bernie,” “I don’t like Hillary,” “I don’t like whomever.” It is really beside the point. If you are really talking about building a movement of which electoral politics is a part — but only a part — then you have to have a set of beliefs that a large number of people can agree upon.
One of the things that has been very interesting to me in trying to help build consensus around this particular 11-point platform is … I worked for Bernie. I was Bernie’s writer during his presidential campaign. I clearly come out of the left-wing Democratic Socialist camp. I was not even a member of the Democratic Party for a number of years, although I have rejoined since I moved to Maryland. I come from that particular tradition.
What has been striking to me in this conversation has been, even though this document explicitly declares that both parties have failed to meet the public’s needs when it comes to an economic agenda, people from across the Democratic Party base … have all kind of come together around this platform. That, to me, is striking and tells me a couple of things.
One is that there is some room for optimism. Two, that all the polling that shows that Democrats and left-leaning independents want this is really verified by that. And three, it tells me — getting back to your question — that people have gotten distracted a lot by their affinity on a personal level or their dislike on a personal level for individual politicians and have failed to see that there are some underlying principles that they can agree on.
That is a really interesting, useful point to make. That gets us to, what are these principles? What is in the platform? Give us a quick rundown.
Well, one of them is to invest substantially in infrastructure and job creation. Another is to retool the US energy system so that we have a sustainable and truly green economy and grid. Reversing the Trump tax cuts and more reasonable taxation — that is, higher taxation on corporations and the wealthy. Reducing inequality by attacking economic racism. Targeting the communities that have been especially harmed by racism, xenophobia. Targeting restorative economic justice for women in the workforce and in the home. Free public college — that is to say, tuition-free for everyone at public colleges and universities. Medicare for All. Strengthening Social Security. And substantial additional banking reform to close down that casino that is open 24/7 there on Wall Street. And substantial political reform so that we no longer live in a functional oligarchy.
That is quite a list. I also noticed that there is a call for student debt jubilee, as well. So, dealing with existing student debt as well as the future production of student debt.
Yes. That is a personal issue of mine that I have been on for quite a while. There was a report released by the Levy Institute at Bard College showing that a complete cancellation of student debt in this country … all of it — 92 percent or thereabouts which is held by the federal government — would actually have a significant boosting effect on the economy. It would grow the GDP and would create more than a million new jobs.
There is no reason not to do it other than the perceived questions of “moral hazard” and all that sort of thing, which is a whole other conversation we could have. But there are compelling reasons economically to do it, and there are compelling moral reasons to do it, since these 44 million Americans who struggle with it today really are the victims of a failed social experiment that said we could transfer the cost of their higher education onto them as individuals and somehow it would all work out. It was a neoliberal idea and didn’t work out. So, tuition-free public higher education plus cancellation of current student debt, to me, is a very compelling agenda.
Tell us a little bit about the process, the people that came together to write this and how folks decided on coming up with a platform.
At the initial impetus, Roger Hickey, who is co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future — I think he has really been a key driver on all of this — convened a small group some … months ago, including Robert Borosage who was the other co-director for the Campaign for America’s Future, [and] Larry Cohen, who was the head of the Communication Workers of America and then a key Bernie adviser … and is now a board chair of Our Revolution. So that was the gang of four that started drafting this thing.
Then, as it moved along, we started getting feedback from people that might be potential signers to see where the points of disagreement were. From my perspective anyway, that was a pleasant surprise in the number of people who, first of all, were willing to agree that both parties could have done more, which is something I thought would be more contentious than it proved. Not everybody was okay with that, but most people were, and that was a pleasant surprise for me. And the fact that these really ambitious ideas for the future were things that so many people could endorse and embrace…. A number of different people. Really, a diversity … of viewpoints reflected.
I guess my main point is, we got a lot of people who were willing to say, “Yes, we will not only sign this thing, but….” It is a pledge. It is a personal commitment to say, “I will be a spokesperson and advocate for this agenda.” For me, that was a point of surprise.
It is an election year, with all the fun and excitement that that brings. But it is an election year where Democrats are counting on some of this “resistance” energy to carry them through. What role do you envision this platform and the people who signed it playing this year?
When we talk about the Democratic Party, I always feel we have to distinguish the rank-and-file members of the party from the people of influence who have power and the party leadership, because I think there are two very distinct populations. I have written a lot over the past year about the opinions of Democratic Party-registered Democrats. They want the party to move left. They want new leaders. Polling shows that they are strongly progressive, economically.
Then, of course, it is no secret to you or most of the people reading this that there is an entrenched resistance … within the Democratic Party. I think there will be a lot of people who are hoping that the party can make it to victory in November without committing to any specific transformative economic agenda. That is, enough to say, “Oh, that Trump. We hate him. He is awful. Don’t you hate him, too? Come on out and vote.” There are only two ways that can play out in my book.
Number one, I think we tried it in 2016 and it didn’t work out that well. We are already seeing now [that] the latest polling is showing that the generic Democrat is losing ground to the generic Republican, because there is that vacuum, I believe, where the Democratic Party doesn’t talk enough about how it will affect people’s lives, and when it does talk about it, it is in sort of mumbo-jumbo lack of specificity. I think there is a leadership contingent that would like to keep things vague and just run on resistance, meaning: “Let’s all talk about how much we hate that guy and maybe we can get some upset Republicans to vote with us” — which didn’t happen in 2016 — “and all will be well and good.”
Now, either they will eke their way to victory, which I don’t think will happen, or, if they do, the best-case scenario is they eke their way to a victory. They still don’t have the Senate or the presidency, and they have no mandate to propose anything new, so they have no case to make when it comes time to try to win back the Senate and the presidency. So, either they lose in November or they are in a long-term state of continued decline. I don’t see it working out any other way.
But if the rank-and-file can pressure the party, can demand an agenda like this from the party, things will be different because more leaders will commit to it, more people who will prevail in the primaries who stand for this kind of an agenda. The party will really be something people can identify with, and I think that greatly improves its chances in November and its chances going forward.
What can people who are listening to or reading this do to support it?
Number one, they can go read it at www.campaignforamericasfuture.org. When they read it, and realize how strongly they agree, then they can sign it and add their name and they will be part of all of the follow-up communication and there will be further actions down the road.
How can people keep up with you and your work?
Well, that is a moving target, but patreon.com/TheZeroHour is one way and www.ourfuture.org is another. Otherwise, I will be there…. What is the Grapes of Wrath speech? “Wherever cops are beating up a guy.”
We hope people will join us and that we really think we can get something started here.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.