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  April 9, 2012

Norman Solomon on Why Fight for a Seat in Congress

Norman Solomon: Progressives should build a movement and contend for political power
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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Washington.

In a few districts across the country, people who are progressive on the left of the Democratic Party are running in primaries. A few of them are quite progressive, and they think that activists should pitch in and get involved in their campaign because they think a breakthrough in a congressional district could make a difference on the national level. Now, some activists have given up on the Democratic Party. They think their efforts should go into Occupy politics or union politics or other forms of activism, and they don't think putting time into the electorial process is going to get them very far.

Well, here to argue with them and explain why he thinks his candidacy is worth their time is Norman Solomon. Norman is a independent progressive Democrat running for Congress [incompr.] an open seat in the district north of the Golden Gate Bridge in California. He's the author of a dozen books, including War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death, and a longtime political activist. He was cofounder of the media watchdog group FAIR. Thanks for joining us, Norman.


JAY: So what do you say to people who say that there's just no point? Like, for—let's start with the idea, what can you accomplish—if you win the primary, if you get elected, what can you accomplish once you're in the House?

SOLOMON: Well, I think anybody who runs for Congress thinking that as lone ranger he or she is going to transform much of anything is mistaken. Social movements are what this should be about. And the transformation's going to have to mean that we get people in office who are accountable to movements because of the values they have and the background that they bring to the table. We've seen way too often the opposite, where unaccountable people who climb career ladders end up in Congress, and there's no organic or visceral organizational connections to people around the country who are doing so much creative progressive organizing, activism, and analysis.

The flipside of that, though, is that—and you alluded to it, I think, at the get-go—is that there are some people who sincerely feel that electoral work is a waste of time, particularly anything that involves partisan politics that might involve the Democratic Party. I think that view is mistaken. We've learned the consequences, we've lived the consequences of having the electoral field left to a battle between corporate Democrats and Republicans. So if we want to leave the arena that way, to let the corporate Democrats and Republicans battle it out, then we have foreclosed the participation of progressives.

I think we've seen in Latin America in the last decade or so how valuable it can be when progressives, the left, are involved in electoral politics, and that it matters who has state power. And so the question, I think, is: what kind of healthy ecology, so to speak, progressive movements will have in this country? And can that ecology include strong electoral work? I think the answer has to be yes. It matters who's in elective office.

JAY: Now, in terms of your campaign, you're at the primary stage now. To what extent are you now connected to a movement to win your primary?

SOLOMON: Well, I come out of social movements, and they are integral to this campaign, which is in the six counties north of the Golden Gate Bridge. A lot of info is on our site at

In the course of this campaign, just in recent months, I've participated in, been at, and, when invited, spoken at Occupy demonstrations in half a dozen cities and towns within this district. And it's part of a process. I was the Occupy candidate in this race before there was an Occupy movement. We're now in our 16th month of campaigning, and from the beginning I talked about the way in which Wall Street power's undemocratic and how, if we want to have a democracy in this country, we've got to end corporate personhood, restrain, curb the power of Wall Street, and instead have a genuine economic progressive populism.

JAY: And how is that playing with the—I guess your first electorate is Democratic primary voters. How are you doing?

SOLOMON: Well, there's a new system in California where everybody gets the same ballot. So all the voters will see all the names on the ballot. And the voting begins very soon, early May. That's why we're urging and gaining so much support. People go to our site at and get more involved.

Really it's playing well, because there's so much anger, there's so much frustration. And I say not in jest but quite seriously that one of the two main political parties has given faith a bad name, and the other major political party has given hope a bad name. And the one faith that I think we all should and must share is faith in the potential of democracy. That's really all we have. That's the only opportunity that progressives, people by any name, label, or description have to be able to bring about the changes that we want—end perpetual war, have genuine democracy, help children, young adults, working people, the retired to have the kind of backup resources and security that they deserve, including the human right of health care. Now, I could go on and on, and I won't, but there's no plausible way to bring that about without a faith in democracy that's realized by our work, so to speak. And that means organizing inside and outside the electoral arena.

JAY: So one of the things people judge in a primary is whether a candidate is going to be able to win or not. Now, I'm guessing in your district this is probably a district that traditionally votes Democratic. So is the general election the big test, or is the real test the primary?

SOLOMON: [inaud.] both of them will be a real test. We're polling very well. We have raised more than half a million dollars without taking a single penny of corporate PAC money. Any lobbyist tries to send us a check, we send it back. We are continuing—.

JAY: How many have you had to send back?

SOLOMON: We're able to have a campaign that's genuinely grassroots. I call it—.

JAY: Norman, how many checks have you had to send back?

SOLOMON: Well, there's a number of people who've offered to come to our fundraisers who are lobbyists, and we've told them, stay away, because we won't take your cheques and you can't get through the door. And I think it's reflective of the system we have that even corporations, corporate PACs, and lobbyists who know that they don't see eye to eye with you, they begin to pay what is equivalent to sort of hush money or protection money or just hedge your bets, even if you're not going to carry water for them. Maybe if you start to take their money, you'll tamp down on your opposition, you'll lower the decibels that you might have otherwise used to denounce them. So I think what's essential is to have all the way along the line a campaign and to be in office in a way that is financially accountable not to corporate America at all.

So, as I was mentioning, we have more than 5,000 different individual contributors, and equally important we have more than 1,000 volunteers. And so in the weeks ahead, as the ballots are getting ready to drop in the mail around May 8, we've got to mobilize. We have to do the messaging. Of course, we're still raising money, and also volunteers fanning out across the district. That is the reality, I think, of how grassroots can defeat astroturf.

JAY: Now, one of the things primary voters normally judge is they try to decide, well, which of these candidates is likely to win the general election. So when you're out—let's assume you win this primary and you're out fighting for election against a Republican. How do you deal with the critique of President Obama's administration, given that you yourself have been quite a critic?

SOLOMON: Well, you know, I was elected from this district as an Obama delegate to the National Convention four years ago, and I have never tamped down or reduced my genuine opposition to some of the policies that have been wrong. I'll support the administration when it's correct. I will challenge it when it's wrong. And I have done that.

This is a very antiwar district. And in the debates, I have colleagues, candidates who say, well, we've got to bring the troops home. And I say, yeah, and the reason we've got to say that is that they were sent in the first place. From day one I was going on TV, radio in the district as the president was considering escalating the war in Vietnam, saying—or the war in Afghanistan, I should say, and I said, don't do it. I went to Afghanistan to oppose it. Same thing with throwing—for the second time, second administration in a row, throwing habeas corpus under the bus; kowtowing all too often to Wall Street; unfortunately, throwing Social Security and Medicare, according to Paul Krugman and others, from the White House, throwing and even keeping in the Wall Street—or, rather, The Washington Post reported a few weeks ago, keeping Social Security and Medicare on the table for possible carve-up. That's a White House role that continues. I have been steadfast in opposition. So I think a strong position is consistent with the reality that if you want to defeat a heartless agenda, you've got to be willing to have a spine.

JAY: Now, I'm assuming that the Democratic machine—I'm assuming there must be one—you're not their favorite son. How much are they pushing back on you?

SOLOMON: Well, you know, I'm running against the party establishment. But what's been so heartening is that when you organize from the base up, you've been able to create momentum, we've been able to create momentum that really can't be stopped. I mean, a quick example is that there's a quaint and rather insidious custom in the California Democratic Party of having the state party do an endorsement before the primary. And with somebody who (as our main opponent has been) is in the state legislature as a Democrat going up the ladder, it's almost automatic. And yet we were able to, through the grassroots organizing, prevent any party endorsement in this race. That's been a big victory, and it's reflective of the kind of work that we're doing. I think that quite often progressives forget to transfer into the electoral arena what we know when we're organizing in other spheres, and that is, you've got to talk with people, you've got to listen to people, and you've got to be methodical about messaging and creating change block by block.

JAY: So if this does—do you get the question that if you're so critical of the administration, is that somehow going to affect your ability to deliver for your district?

SOLOMON: Well, I'm an independent progressive Democrat. And I point out that to be a good Democrat, in the best sense of the word, the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy in his last years, being a good Democrat means fighting the right-wing Republican agenda, the agenda of war, the agenda of letting Wall Street run our country, fighting that agenda, including when it begins to have a major sway over leadership of the Democratic Party. And I feel that in the best sense of being an independent progressive Democrat, the best way to be a strong Democrat is to challenge the leadership of the Democratic Party when it's wrong. And I've been consistent with that message. There's a lot of resonance, much stronger resonance in the district than you'll ever find on Capitol Hill in terms of that messaging.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Norman.

SOLOMON: Thank you, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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