November 8, 2012

TRNN Election Panel: Lester Spence and Marc Steiner

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TRNN Election Panel: Lester Spence and Marc SteinerPAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Baltimore. We're continuing our coverage of the U.S. presidential elections.

And joining us now in the studio is Lester Spence. (And we're going to cut to Lester. Here we are.) Lester is a contributor to the book We Are Many. He's an associate professor of political science and Africana studies at Johns Hopkins University, where he specializes in racial politics and urban politics and American political thought. He's also the author of Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip Hop and Black Politics.

Now also joining us again, Marc Steiner from The Marc Steiner Show.

MARC STEINER, RADIO HOST, WEAA 88.9 FM: Can't get rid of me.

JAY: Can't get rid of you. So, first of all, I'm going to go to Marc first just to get an update. What's happening? We're now at about 10:50 on election night.

STEINER: Well, I think it's going the way that (what's that FiveThirtyEight column in The New York Times?) they said it was going to go, I mean, that Obama's going to win this. He'll—looks like he's squeaking through on a popular vote and he is—they're neck-and-neck in all these states you can't call yet. And I just think that the horse race part of it is showing that Obama's going to—looks like he's going to win, unless something drastically changes by the end of the night.

JAY: And Florida, he loses Florida, he still wins 'cause he's slightly ahead in Ohio.

STEINER: Right. Exactly. And then you've got—looking at the Senate races, I mean, Warren won in Massachusetts, Akin lost to McCaskill in Missouri.

SPENCE: And Lieberman's seat went to a Democrat.


JAY: Now, do we know how close it has to be in Ohio for the absentee ballots and provisional ballots to matter? I think it's about 250,000, I think, is the number it has to be. If it's 250,000 or more in Obama's favor, then these ballots don't count, in which case it's not a big hangup in Ohio for a week or two weeks, and it's looking that way as we stand right now with 64 percent in—President Obama is ahead by about—a little more than slightly two points. So as we sit now, it looks like President Obama has won. That's what we're seeing.

LESTER SPENCE, ASSOC. PROF. POLITICAL SCIENCE, JOHNS HOPKINS UNIV.: I wouldn't be surprised if we still saw challenges, but I think that's right.

JAY: Okay. So, Lester, first of all, in terms of the mood in Baltimore, which is about a 63, 64 percent African-American city, a majority of people I talk to still have a sentimental attachment for President Obama, but in terms of what had been achieved over the last four years, there was a lot of disappointment. Did people vote? Were people energized? Did it matter?

SPENCE: Well, you know, Maryland's an interesting state, because it goes blue. So one way to think about it is if you go to the polls, the average Maryland voter goes to the polls, if they vote and wanted to vote for Romney, Obama's going to win the state. They wanted to vote Obama, Obama's going to win the state. They've wanted to vote third-party, Green Party, Libertarian, Obama's going to win the state.

Yet, still, at least in my polling place, it took us two hours. And a friend's polling place, who—and this friend has never seen lines before—my friend saw lines as well. So even though Maryland's a state that's pretty much determined, I think a number of people are turning out. And it's unlikely—in the case of Maryland, you have at least two ballot initiatives that are important. One's the same-sex initiative, and the other's the casino initiative. It's unlikely that those initiatives are the things driving turnout. So I think that people are very interested.

And then what they're doing is is they're not so much comparing the Obama they're getting to the Obama that they want if the world were perfect; they're comparing the Obama they're getting to what they get if Romney were the candidate—I mean, were the president. So that's causing them to turn out in large numbers.

JAY: Yeah, go ahead, Marc.

STEINER: I disagree with Lester completely. I mean, that's exactly what's going on here and across the country. I think that President Barack Obama is getting the votes because people are terrified of what the other side means. And we're not yet at the point—I heard of my good friends [incompr.] just before they came on, and I respect a lot of what they're saying in the third-party movement. As I said, you know, for years, 20 years I voted that way. But it's not—doesn't have an effect. We're not at a point where it has an effect at the moment. Jill Stein looks like she's not even going to make the same vote total that they made four years ago in the Green Party, 'cause people are terrified of each other in America.

And people who vote for President Barack Obama and the Democrats are terrified of what Romney represents. Look, the polls are busy everywhere. I live in a community now in this election—last election, I lived in a community that was really Democratic and mostly African-American. Now I live in a community that is really Republican, and the polls were jammed. I mean, they were jammed. So the partisans are coming out on both sides.

But I just think that that's where the American electorate is. I'm much more interested in what is underneath this vote—what do people believe in and why they voted the way they do. Why is it that these four counties I'm following in Virginia and West Virginia that are white working-class counties—they went for Obama in 2008. Why are they now leaning and going for Romney? What happened in those rural white areas that made them switch?

JAY: And do you have some answers to that?

STEINER: I'm going to find out. [incompr.] actually going to be talking to folks from Appalachian Mountain Radio on the air tomorrow and the next day as part of our new program, Beyond the Spin, to find out what's going on. We want to take a ride down there and meet with folks and just talk to them about what they think and believe about America and where they are. I really want to know what's underneath of all this. I mean, I, you know, fully expect young people, communities of color, black community, Jewish community to vote for Barack Obama. But I'm very curious to see what this swing back and forth is.

JAY: Right. The issue of race and racism in this election, it rose so much to the surface, it was even talked about in mainstream media.

SPENCE: Yeah, for the first time.

JAY: I mean, you saw another stark reflection of the reality of that after Sandy hits and you see who it is that's—houses are being demolished in lower Queens and in Staten Island. And it was—they're pictures of Katrina again, essentially. And we'll wait to see what happens—if we see another repeat of New Orleans, whether all these people get moved to nice little trailers halfway across the country so they can now gentrify those areas or not. And if you're a real estate mogul of New York, you're probably drooling at the moment at the possibilities.

But if you take this to Baltimore—so the election's over. We're kind of where we were before all this $2 billion were spent. The House is going to be Republicans, the Senate's going to be Dems, and President Obama's going to be President Obama. And how do people get engaged now about changing their lives if you're an African American, ordinary working person in Baltimore?

SPENCE: I think that the real key is local organizing. And so I agree with the previous—so with the previous panelists and with Ralph Nader. Ralph Nader hit the key, right? It's not necessarily about third-party organizing; it's about organizing people to understand what their local interests are and to get them to put levers to put—to hold local representatives accountable and then have that bubble up.

So in this case there are a number of issues that people in Baltimore are concerned about. People in Baltimore are concerned about foreclosure. People in Baltimore are concerned about the prison-industrial complex in Baltimore, best represented by the move to create a $104 million jail for youth charged as adults, right? There are a number of, you know, people in Baltimore concerned about job issues. People in Baltimore are concerned about urban development. They're concerned—one of the issues that's on the ballot in Baltimore is a ballot initiative that forces Baltimore City to undergo an audit, isn't that right?

STEINER: Right. The audit agencies, every four years. Right. They've never been audited before.

SPENCE: Yeah, they've never been audited before. And the city council has been split. But I think for the most part they and the mayor have not wanted this. But it goes up to the people, and the people really want this. So it's about mobilizing constituencies for local issues that really mean something to them, and then using that to connect with constituencies that may not have the same party as they do but still have the same beliefs, and then using that to bubble up. That's the thing that I believe that we've kind of—that some of us understand but not enough of us understand.

JAY: There seems to be, of people who are involved in these issues—and I was saying this in the earlier interview—there seems to be a wall. Some people kind of get involved in electoral politics, other people get involved in sort of movement-building politics, and there's this wall between them. But even if you want to do what Ralph Nader's saying, build some kind of broad front on very specific issues to influence specific congresspeople to try to shift Congress, well, the only thing that really is going to shift a congressperson is the threat of losing votes or gaining votes because they pleased somebody, which means you get into the electorial game. And doesn't there need to be some kind of fusion here, that people need to be able to play both the movement and the electoral-political game? Go ahead, Marc. [crosstalk]

SPENCE: So that youth jail thing is really important, because what you had there—and I've talked about this before here, and we've talked about this before, where you had the combination of not just white leftists and black youth, but you had a combination of kind of an inside game and an outside game where you had people who were engaged in forms of protest, some of them end up getting arrested, and at the same time you had people going to Annapolis making—appearing before the state legislature and then moving individual state legislators to say, listen, you know, we need to put a halt to this, we need to put a halt to this. So there are enough—there are not as many instances of those two coming together as we'd like, but there are definitely more of them.

But it's like about having the type of—I don't want to say conversations, because to be honest I think we're confusing conversation with politics and political activism when it's not, it's just conversation. But for shorthand, we need to have those two groups having conversations in order to get them on the same page, 'cause you're—the only way a very important component in making the change we want to see is a legislative push. It's not the only way, but it's a very important component.

JAY: Like, there's a massive resource here for people that want this kind of change, which is that tens of thousands of people in Baltimore who aren't even registered to vote, never mind don't vote, but they need to be engaged, they have to be challenged, they have to really believe there's something in their interest that's worth doing. I mean, most people, it's—I mean, you can say there's a certain information level that's not there, but mostly people are for good reasons cynical about why vote, 'cause it doesn't ever mean anything.

STEINER: People don't think they have—they have a stake, but people don't think that they can control what happens with elected officials. They just don't think they have a say, that their votes, their voice is not as big as the money that's behind politics. People are very cynical about politics.

And I think that what you're seeing in this election is that—as I have said before, is this is an emotional issue. These are people who emotionally are terrified of Republicans—they're voting for Obama. People who are emotionally terrified of Obama and what he represents, they're voting for Romney. And that's what it's pushed on.

I think that people move on their viscera. We're given means. That's what we do. And I think that there's—the vacuum is that we—there is no movement that consolidates that anger in any major way. What consolidated it for the Republicans is the billionaires fueling their handmade Tea Party. And so they were able to fuel that that way.

The other side is [incompr.] becomes so groping, because unions are toothless in many ways. They don't fight for what—their old way anymore, so they get sucked into the process. And people—so people—you know, there's nothing [crosstalk] say something.

SPENCE: And the engine they had, they cut, right, that organizing for America joint that Obama had. Well, I mean, he reinvigorated it, but he had it four years ago, and he on purpose cut it, right? So it's not just a matter of folks groping; it's like the one engine that was generated just was allowed to lie fallow, and it was actually killed off.

JAY: Well, 'cause it would have broken the boundaries of, you know, parliamentary politics and he didn't want to go there.


STEINER: But it's still a union organizing in ground troops that are fueling Obama's victory in many ways. They're still the ones doing it. And I get Tweets all the time from the union workers in Baltimore who are in Richmond, VA, turning out the vote for Obama. So they're still there.

JAY: Yeah. And because they see themselves as incapable of any more, so you have to work for Obama 'cause you're so afraid of Romney's labor policies. But we talked about a question in an earlier interview, Lester, about what does it mean to build a movement in a city that's majority black and has black political leadership at the municipal level. And then you kind of—you could kind of extrapolate that nationally.

SPENCE: Yes, that's it.

JAY: So what does that mean now, another four years of a black president?

SPENCE: Yeah, and I've been having a conversation about this issue, right, because some people make the argument that the black left has been ostracized or in some ways really curtailed more under Obama, an Obama presidency, than they were under Clinton. And one way I agree with, one way I can see how that argument works is if we look at black mayoral empowerment, if you look at cities like Baltimore or Detroit and how black mayors have been able to kind of stifle black criticism using blackness as kind of a cloak, as it were. Right?

But the reality is is, like, even if we allow for that, black criticism under liberal to left-leaning governments has been small anyway. Right? So if we compare Obama to Clinton, yes, there was more pushback for Clinton, but the real pushback against Clinton came when Clinton threatened black middle class and upper class gains. Right? So there wasn't really a pushback against welfare, there wasn't really a pushback when Clinton signed the crime bill that made a number of offenses like federal offenses. There just wasn't that pushback.

So what is incumbent upon us in this moment is to realize that, okay, there wasn't some type of magic moment when the black left was really organized, not in the modern period, anyway. What we have to do is kind of go back to basics, go back to organizing peer-to-peer organizing in local communities around local issues. If you're a black academic like myself, this means you—you know, and to the extent you want to kind of pontificate about this issue, you pontificate, but you organize locally. If you're a professor at Hopkins, you organize in your neighborhood and at Hopkins. If you're a professor at Princeton, you organize at Princeton. Right? Instead of talking about this black community or organizing at a national level against Obama, you work instead on very local issues to get people to understand what their interests are, and then use that to bubble up. There's no substitute for it. That's the only way.

STEINER: I mean, the reality is that most black political leadership on the local level are ruling over territories that are deindustrialized in America, where there's very little power, where most people who are poor and working-class do not vote, they don't come out to vote at all, and their issues and what's important are never at the forefront. You've seen [incompr.] like in Baltimore with this movement to stop the youth jail, just right around the corner from where your studios are. That's galvanizing some people. The question is: they stopped it once; can they stop it again? This could be the birth of a different kind of movement that could take place in this town. And that's [incompr.] you see that bubbling up.

But the question is—can it motivate people in communities to come out is another question. We'll see. We don't know. I think that—look, you know, part of the problem is that people understand, I think, that the answers they're hearing from politicians are not the answers that are going to solve the problems of this country or their situation.

JAY: Well, that's what I was about to say is: isn't there missing a vision to fight for this more comprehensive—. Like, I was getting my hair cut the other day, and I was talking to the woman cutting my hair, and I—.

SPENCE: You were getting your hair cut?


JAY: Excuse me, are you one to talk, sir? Are you one to talk?

SPENCE: I was just—I'm sorry, man. I just—like, no, I just—. No. You're a man. I mean, I'm just—I'm sorry, but—.

STEINER: Did it have to come out like that?

JAY: No. This is—.

SPENCE: I'm sorry. Go ahead.

JAY: That was like shooting fish in a barrel, except you're in the same barrel, man.

SPENCE: I know. It's coming, man. It's coming.

JAY: Alright. I think I've probably forgot what I was going to say. I was getting my hair cut, and I said, you know, if you can't solve—and it wasn't so profound, what I said—if you don't have jobs for kids that get out of school here, that, you know, if you can't think that you're going to work hard in high school, graduate with decent marks, and then your best job's going to be trying to work with a dealer or work at a McDonald's, you know, [an] obvious solution, which you can even do at the municipal level, is try to guarantee a certain amount of jobs in the public sector for kids getting out of high school and start building on that. You know, one could work out that idea more thoroughly, but her eyes just lit up, only 'cause I was actually saying something that actually started sounding like a constructive public policy that you could imagine would be good for you.

SPENCE: Yeah. I mean, so what we have to do is figure out how to—our political imagination—I use that word, and that's so—our political imagination has become so narrow. And I remember the first time I really saw this. It wasn't the last election; it was eight years ago, when I was talking on a radio show in Detroit with a black audience, a black liberal audience. And the talk show host—I mentioned to the talk show host, well, we should make college education for public colleges free. She was like, no, we shouldn't do that; people have to work. And I was like, oh my God, this is supposed to be the hub of black liberal thought, and in some ways black left thought, but you have pushed back against that.

What we have to figure out how to do—and there are a number of institutions that naturally lend themselves to these types of conversations, whether it's churches or fraternities and sororities or community organizations—is figure out: how do we have—is to have—again, I hate that term, conversation, but to talk about political alternatives, and then to figure out what those alternatives might do for us if they're put into practice, and then, once that happens, get peer-to-peer organizing networks that get people to move for that.

JAY: Okay. Well, we're going to take a small break and we're going to go to a—bring some other people in, and we're going to continue in just a minute. So I'm supposed to—I've been told I have to plug for donations, so please call 410-779-3021, or you can go to (I guess you may already be at if you're watching). Click the Donate button, 'cause if you don't click it, we can't do this.

So we'll be back in just a minute.


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