In this live interview, Danny Katch, author of ‘Why Bad Governments Happen to Good People,’ discusses how direct action impacts politics, from immigrant rights demonstrations to the NFL players’ protests
BARACK OBAMA: People have a tendency to blame politicians when things don’t work. But as I always tell people, you get the politicians you deserve. And if you don’t vote and if you don’t participate and if you don’t pay attention, then you’ll get policies that don’t reflect your interests. JAISAL NOOR: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. We are live on Facebook, so be sure to send your questions and comments right on the comment screen below. Thank you so much for joining us today. So, as former President Obama said, do we get the politicians we deserve, or do bad governments happen to good people? That’s a question we’ll be exploring today with our guest, Danny Katch. He’s joining us here in studio. He’s got his new book out, ‘Why Bad Governments Happen to Good People.’ He is a columnist for the Socialist Worker. His previous book is called, ‘Socialism… Seriously.’ Thanks so much for joining us live here in Baltimore. DANNY KATCH: Oh, thank you for having me. JAISAL NOOR: So let’s start off by talking about your book, and then going into some of the news that’s happening today and get your response to it. But our viewers just heard this clip of President Obama speaking in Italy in May, where he said, “You get the politicians you deserve.” Talk about your response to that and that kind of argument, which I feel a lot of people believe that it’s a democracy, you have a freedom of choice on who you vote for, and you get what you vote for. DANNY KATCH: So, I do not think that Americans deserve Donald Trump. I also don’t think Americans deserved Hillary Clinton. And so, that maybe gets to part of the problem here. There’s an element of truth in what Obama was saying that I think many of us can relate to. It is up to the people to shape the government and the world we live in. I’m going to butcher this quote from the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, but he one time said, “You show me the level of tyranny that a people will endure, and that’s exactly the level of tyranny that they will endure.” Right? And so this idea that it’s up to us – “without struggle, there is no progress” – another quote he had. There is something very true about that. But to suppose that a government that has given us nothing but choices between a far right Donald Trump and a corporate funded Hillary Clinton and the rest of the Democratic party, to me the resistance that the, the responsibility that is on people is to challenge even the structures of that limited choice. And so I do think that’s up to us. But the idea that, oh, well because people chose not to vote for, didn’t turn out as much for Hillary Clinton then we deserve Donald Trump, is really unfortunate that that’s the tack he’s choosing to take. JAISAL NOOR: And so, you start your book off with this really interesting quote about … I guess I won’t reveal to people where it was from, but I do want to read the quote. The quote is, “The borders are more leaking today than they were before 9/11. The fact is, we haven’t done what we need to do to toughen up our borders, and I will.” And this is from a presidential candidate speaking in 2004, I believe. And so, if our viewers want to guess who this was, go ahead now. But I’ll give you guys a second. But can you give a little context to that quote, and why you chose to start your book off with that? DANNY KATCH: Right. Well, that’s okay. We can reveal the spoiler. It’s a privilege watching The Real News Network; that’s fine. But I start off with a quote that I think sounds very Trumpian, not just in its hostility towards the immigrants, and specifically the speaker then goes on to say, “We’ve received reports that people from the Middle East are crossing the border.” But to point out that it actually came from – can I reveal? Are we gonna-? – it was John Kerry, not echoing something that his opponent, George W. Bush, had said, but trying to outflank Bush to the right by making himself look tougher on terror, tougher on borders. And really, for the first time that I was aware of, linking the issue of immigration, about people mostly from Mexico and Central America looking for a place to work, looking for a safe place to raise their kids, with the specter of terrorism. And I brought it up right in the beginning of the book to make the point that so much of what happens in our political process is, the choice that we’re supposed to have between a right and left, actually where is there for us to go when the supposed left wing choice is actually pushing the whole conversation to the right? And I think you can draw a line all the way up to Obama’s immigration policies, which saw more people deported than ever before, from back from that moment. JAISAL NOOR: And NAFTA, which destroyed Mexican agriculture, which helped fuel this massive migration to the north, that was under Bill Clinton and Trump ran on repealing it. So I think that’s- he’s sort of addressing in his own way the cause of this, but in a kind of sort of the opposite way. DANNY KATCH: And I think there is, when Donald Trump does things like he just did this past weekend, saying that if we’re going to restore DACA, the Deferred Action program for young immigrants, then it needs to come along with a host of horrible anti-immigration measures, you’ll often hear people complaining, “Oh my God, he’s playing to his base. I can’t believe he’s playing to his base.” I despise everything Donald Trump is doing on immigration and many other things, but we should be clear than when someone who gets elected is said to be playing to their base, there is an element of democracy in that. The question I think we should be asking was why was it that Barack Obama, who was elected in 2008 on the campaign slogan “Yes we can” coming from the movement of immigrant farm workers led by Cesar Chavez, when he was president he absolutely had the power to play to his base and declare amnesty for people who are undocumented, or at least use that as a negotiating threat in order to bring Republicans to the table for, you know- But instead, his method of negotiation was to increase deportations to try to prove to Republicans that he was quote-unquote “serious” about border enforcement and push the whole thing to the right. So I think the crisis, and the thing I write about in the book a lot, our main problem right now certainly is Donald Trump for a host of reasons. But the deeper- I call Donald Trump the tumor, not the cancer. A tumor can kill you if you don’t stop the tumor, but the deeper cancer is a system where there’s a right wing playing to its base, but for those of us who are progressives and on the left who want to see undocumented immigrants get amnesty, we want to see police officers who get away with murder not get away with murder, no one is playing to our base. And there’s nothing wrong with playing to your base; there’s something democratic about that. We find ourselves hamstrung by not having a party that represents us. JAISAL NOOR: Yeah. Trump didn’t just increase deportations, he deported more than the last 70 years of administrations combined. He was more than 2 million people deported, and Trump has vowed to deport more people but he just physically has not been able to. DANNY KATCH: He’s finding it hard to top Obama so far. We shouldn’t be sanguine about that, but yeah. JAISAL NOOR: Absolutely. And so I wanted to talk about those developments over the weekend, including this deal on DACA that Trump has proposed. So he has said he wants a border wall, he wants increased federal agents – and that’s been one of the things that’s been holding him up is that there are I think only 50,000 federal ICE agents nationwide- DANNY KATCH: Right. “Only.” JAISAL NOOR: -and some of the other proposals, including defunding so-called sanctuary cities nationwide. The Democrats have responded to this saying, the Democratic party leaders saying the administration can’t be serious helping the Dreamers if they begin with a list that is anathema to the Dreamers. So give us your reaction to this deal, because Trump has boasted about being able to work with the Democrats and get them to the table. He met with the Senate leaders and the House leaders just a few weeks ago. How do you analyze this move by Trump? DANNY KATCH: I mean, to me this move by Trump isn’t surprising in that- And first, it’s Trump responding to whoever the most recent person was who talked in his ear, who was probably Steven Miller in this case. When Chuck Schumer’s the last person who talks in his ear, he says maybe we’ll work something out for those young people. But this is what the people who are in charge of the Trump administration, the Bannons, who is still very much playing a role, and the Steven Millers, and Jeff Sessions. This is what they’re pushing. What comes next on our side, on the side of people for immigrants and people who support full equality for immigrants is going to be very decisive. We know that there is widespread support in the immigrant community and the immigrants’ rights movement for fighting on the Dream Act as a stand-alone thing; for not making, trading it away for more enforcement. And frankly, there’s incredible potential to build a real resistance around this. One of the reasons why the issue of DACA recipients is so powerful is because of the DACA program, it has integrated 900,000 young immigrants into workplaces, into colleges, into communities where they have been out in the open, not living in the shadows. Which means that for every DACA recipient, there are five to 10 to 20 people in that person’s workplace or community who are frightened and upset at the possibility. There’s a tremendous possibility for organizing real resistance, workplace actions, campus walkouts in the lead up to the expiration of this in March. And if our side looks at that kind of direct resistance and protest, I think we can move a lot. If, instead, we are just – which I think many people feel like there is no other option – hoping that our quote-unquote “representatives” in Washington will work out a deal for us, will stand tough, then I think we could be in a lot of trouble. We saw right away Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi last month went to Trump’s place to work out a deal for DACA that did involve making concessions around a border wall and security. And this is an issue where DACA recipients are being told ‘we will trade your temporary legalization – it’s not a path to citizenship; it’s just being here for another two years, having to pay $450 each time – for greater enforcement against your parents, against your relatives.’ And that is not actually what people are saying they want. So to me, this really is an issue of do we see democracy as just hoping that our representatives, so-called representatives, do the right thing? Or taking action into our own hands and building resistance in our communities? JAISAL NOOR: And what’s interesting is that after that meeting with Trump, Pelosi was actually protested. She was targeted by Dreamers saying, “Don’t sell out. We don’t want our community sold out for this deal.” So I think what you’re saying is absolutely right. The grassroots have been leading the way and have been shaping Democratic policy throughout. And we have a question from our viewer, William. I know you talk about voting suppression and just the system, the unfair system that exists, and the issue of voter suppression and issues like gerrymandering do not get the attention they often deserve. William’s question is about gerrymandering. How much of a difference can it make if gerrymandering is abolished or reigned in in some way where voting districts aren’t so stacked for one party or another? Do you think that’s a critical fight right now? DANNY KATCH: It’s a great question. I’ll be honest, I don’t know. I think we’ll have- I mean, I really hope that the case that’s going to the Supreme Court right now strikes a blow against gerrymandering. It’s clearly a violation of basic democratic norms. The part of me- I shouldn’t say cynical, but I think that the larger issue that we face is the huge gap in wealth and power between the people who run our democracy and the rest of us. And I think the idea that in a society of vast economic inequality that you could have political equality doesn’t really work. I say that to mean there are so many resources among the leaderships of the Republican and the Democratic parties, even if gerrymandering is reduced they’ll find other ways to do it. It doesn’t mean that it’s not an important fight. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t absolutely be invested in knocking that down. But to me, it wouldn’t be the first thing that I think people in grassroots, people in their communities, should be trying to build a fight around. But for those who are fighting it, I’m completely supportive. JAISAL NOOR: And I wanted to turn to another development this weekend. This Mike Pence, who left an NFL game in protest of a national anthem protest. I think we have some video of that. But it was an interesting development because Pence walked out of the game, and he left the media wondering if it was staged or not. He claims it wasn’t staged- DANNY KATCH: Oh yeah, purely spontaneous, of course. JAISAL NOOR: -but a photo that was posted immediately after was actually from several years ago; it wasn’t of the day. And it’s also been called attention to the fact that this little trip, this brief visit to this game, cost taxpayers almost a quarter million dollars. And it was Pence’s protest against African-American football players that are protesting police brutality and inequality, something started by Colin Kapernick and WNBA players over the past few years. And so, again, do you think this is Pence and Trump playing to their base, coming out against these black players that are just asking for basic, having their human rights respected, and then going after them? What’s behind this? DANNY KATCH: I think absolutely they’re trying to rally their troops on this. Frankly, if it wasn’t so politicized, I couldn’t blame anybody for walking out of a game between the Colts and the 49ers. I don’t know anyone who would want to watch that. More importantly, sure, they’re playing to their base. But I think what can sometimes get lost in that in some of the frenzy back and forth, hot takes on this, is who cares if they’re playing to their base? What we’re seeing right now, what Colin Kapernick started and athletes have taken up, is an incredibly powerful protest. Powerful protests have always provoked reactionary responses from the very people that they are protesting, the police unions, the politicians, et cetera. Fine. If the result of this is that at bunch of right wingers force themselves to stop watching football, boo hoo. I just think that we’re just seeing the beginning of the ramifications of the people who put all their energy and talent into playing the game finally demanding that their voices actually be heard on the issues that are going on. To me, the ramifications of black athletes in particular, and now beginning some of their white teammates, starting to take a stand and say we’re not going to have games going on as usual as long as the killers of Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, many others walk free, is far more important than whatever theatrics Mike Pence or Donald Trump stage. It’s like sometimes people have to take a bit of a longer-term view of the significance of these actions. JAISAL NOOR: I was at your talk yesterday at Red Emma’s in Baltimore, and you made this interesting point about the recent fight between Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson, where it came out that Tillerson had called him an idiot or a moron- DANNY KATCH: Moron. JAISAL NOOR: -moron, yeah. And so, you made the point that Trump, in response, Trump did something that the left sort of has been unable to do. He made Tillerson, the former CEO of this massive Exxon, this massive oil company, sort of bend a knee, sort of like apologize to him publicly, sort of humiliate himself. Something the left really hasn’t, we haven’t been able to reign in CEOs of these giant corporations. Talk a little bit about what you were saying. DANNY KATCH: Actually, I’ve got to give credit to a friend of mine who I saw first make that point probably on social media, but I’m not going to say his name because I want people to pay attention to me. But it was a point about all this chaos that Trump sows among- it’s Tillerson one day, it’s Jeff Sessions, it’s Bob Corker, all these. The take that we often get in the mainstream media is a Twitter, “Oh my God. Look at this chaos. This is- how unpresidential and maybe this means more chaos.” And I think we can get lost in the shuffle is that Trump ran, his appeal is a toxic blend of appeals to open white supremacy mixed with appeals to a wider layer of disaffected, downwardly mobile, middle class and working class people who are just saying, “Screw it. Just someone tear the whole thing down.” And when Trump both gets in feuds with politicians or is able to then … sure, Tillerson calls him a name. But at the end of the day, a former CEO of one of the largest corporations in the world saying “I’m going to work for this guy,” the message that that- the theater that that sends to Trump supporters that he is doing what he said. It’s pathetic that he’s not delivering anything tangible for people, but that’s how much I think our political system has been failing people. You have a whole swath of folks so disaffected that even the theater of watching Trump be a bull in a China shop bring some of these people down feels like he’s delivering. Our side, the left, of course we’re never going to be in a position to, one, we’re not interested in that kind of theater; two, we’re never going to be having Rex Tillerson work in our cabinets. But we do have tools that historically have been able to bring powerful CEOs to their knees. They’re called strikes, they’re called sit-ins, they’re called boycotts. We have a long history of that. And until we’re able to revive those movements – and there are beginnings of those – once we do that, that can actually offer some of the people in Trump’s base, not the committed white supremacist, but the people who have been driven to such cynicism and they’re saying, “I’ll just take anybody who is trying to tear this thing down” to show that there’s actually a more constructive way to tear something down and build something more powerful, I think that we’ll still see Trump’s approval ratings remain at that rock, at that low but steady level of the 30s that I think people are often very confused how can he still be getting support from people even with all that he’s done or not done. JAISAL NOOR: And so, if you- I want to end on a different sort of tangent. But if you were able to set policy or strategy for a working people’s movement over the next two and four years, what kind of strategies would you like to see you think that could help progressives gain in 2018 and 2020? DANNY KATCH: So, I’ll say two things. And both of the things I’m going to say are not that tied to 2018 and 2020. It’s not that I think we ignore the political system, but it’s that I think that the strengths- you look back in history, the strengths of the civil rights movement, the strengths of the abolition movement, of the suffragette movement, mattered more than whether or not which party was getting elected in the given year. Make a slight exception to Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860; made quite a big difference. That being said, to me I think for people’s movements moving forward, one key element is that we have got to break out of this very cynical game that I believe the Democratic party likes to play of pitting different constituencies against each other. “Oh, we’re either going to talk about quote-unquote “working class issues” – by which they mean white working class issues – or issues affecting people of color, LGBT folks, et cetera.” We need an agenda that is about equality and freedom, which both means things like taxing the rich to pay for universal healthcare and college education, and means getting the boot of the security state – police, immigration officials – off of people’s necks, people of color’s necks, and taking that money from the Pentagon. Those things are all completely tied together, and it’s only when we have independent movements that are fighting for that that we can do that. The other side of it in terms of a strategy I think is that, around issues like, take single-payer healthcare. One of the most promising possible issues we have. Certainly that’s something that the left needs to be fighting for, but I think we also need to be clear that that’s not a fight primarily that we should see as how many different Senators can we get to sign onto a bill. Not that that’s not important. But to transform healthcare, which is one sixth of our economy, into something that actually becomes a universal right and not something for profit, I think we to also shift gears and see that that is going to be a fight that has to be fought along the lines of every other historic fight that’s been won – from the bottom up, at emergency rooms, of coalitions of patients, disability rights groups, and nurses unions coming together, demanding that someone be getting treatment that they’re being denied because of our current healthcare system. It’s going to take strikes in hospitals. It’s going to take sit-ins. If it’s going to take direct actions combined with them putting pressure on politicians. That’s not yet what I see on people’s radar screens when they talk about the fight for something like single payer. So it’s about understanding- It’s not about ignoring the political system, but it’s about saying anything that we demand upon our political system has to be backed up by our power to try to actually disrupt this system and force change to happen because people get too worried that business can’t go on as usual if it doesn’t. That’s the kind of agenda I think we need to see going forward. JAISAL NOOR: We’ve got another question from social media. You’ve identified yourself as neither a Democrat or Republican- DANNY KATCH: Right. JAISAL NOOR: -from my understanding. So the question is, would a Sanders presidency be better than what we have today? What’s your take on that? DANNY KATCH: I think anything would be better than what we have today. I think a Hillary Clinton presidency would have been better than a Donald Trump presidency. And the fact that I didn’t vote for her, that I’m not a Democrat, doesn’t mean that I don’t think that that’s true. I think a Bernie Sanders presidency would be very interesting. I think it would open up a lot of the same questions that we were just talking about. So having Sanders in office, what does that mean in terms- what would have that meant in terms of his ability to deliver on raising taxes on the rich to fund single-payer healthcare and to fund college education? The political party that he belongs to right now, or that he semi-belongs to, is for the most part dead set against those things. Even as more of them – which is great, rhetorically – start coming on board. So it would still depend on the strength of grassroots movements to actually fight for those things. And I think that’s a lesson people need to go back to from 2008 when Obama got elected. Obama didn’t have the same progressive credentials as Bernie Sanders, but it’s easy to forget there were some things he was promising but because so many progressives took the attitude of ‘we’re just going to wait, give him a chance, wait and see’. Which, in fairness, is absolutely what Obama and his team were telling- They did not want people to be protesting them and pressuring them. But I think we can see what a tremendous mistake that turned out to be for an anti-war movement that was very vibrant under Bush to completely fold itself into the administration. And now we’ve had eight more years of endless war and drone. And it’s become accepted. You know what I mean? There’s no longer even a sense that that’s something strange. So maybe it sounds like I’m dodging the question about Bernie Sanders. I don’t, I wish he won the Democratic nomination and I wish he was elected president. But I don’t think it would have- it only would have raised the stakes on the same questions about democracy being something that really has to come from the people. But I would have welcomed the chance for those stakes to be raised. JAISAL NOOR: All right. Danny Katch, thank you so much for joining us. Author of the new book, “Why Bad Governments Happen to Good People.” Check it out today. DANNY KATCH: Thanks for having me. JAISAL NOOR: All right. Thank you so much. And thank you for joining us at The Real News.