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Jeff Cohen: Most current net based organizing groups too connected to the Democratic Party which ties their hands

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. And across the United States, protests in support of Wisconsin unionized workers in a battle with their governor and Republican Party-controlled state assembly–. Now joining us to talk about what’s happening in Wisconsin and exactly who’s going to pay for this economic crisis and the fight that’s resulting therefrom is Jeff Cohen. Jeff is co-founder and board member of the new online action group, and he joins us from Ithaca, New York. Thanks for joining us, Jeff.

JEFF COHEN, MEDIA CRITIC: Great to be with you.

JAY: And I guess I should also mention [that] Jeff was also founder of FAIR, which a lot of our viewers must know. So, first of all, you’ve launched this new organization. Tell us a little bit why and about this campaign.

COHEN: Well, RootsAction was launched to be a totally independent force online for action, the idea being that the independent media have boomed–Democracy Now! Real News, Common Dreams, Truthout, Laura Flanders and GRITtv–yet people–there’s millions of people now getting their news every day, and they understand that the problem in this country isn’t just the fanatical, anti-science, anti-intellectual right wing, but another aspect of the problem is the corporatization of the Democratic Party. So for those millions of people that get their news that’s pretty complete, there’s not an action group online that is mobilizing those millions of people, because the existing liberal netroots, many of the groups are just too close to the Democratic Party and Democratic Party leadership. So the idea behind RootsAction was to mobilize millions of people online who get the news every day from independent media and would like an independent politics to match their independent media. And, like, the campaign that we just launched about taxing Wall Street, you don’t hear a lot of Democrats talking about it. You’re certainly not going to hear Obama talking about it. And therefore you don’t hear groups like MoveOn talking about it.

JAY: Alright. So talk a bit about it. This–you’ve released it as the fight in Wisconsin continues, and this is, I guess, a model of an alternative way to breach the budget gaps.

COHEN: Yeah. I mean, the idea is to flip the switch on Wisconsin, flip the script. You know, if we don’t go on the offensive, then what our conversation is about is which group of workers are going to cut themselves more or which group of workers should give up more. And so the idea behind this campaign is a financial transaction tax. It’s something that a number of progressive think tanks and economists support. A number of businessmen support it. A number of financiers support it. You put a little tax on every transaction, sales of stock, purchases of stock, and especially a little tax, tiny tax, on futures, on options, on the derivatives. By doing that, you can raise $100 billion a year, easy. And the group of people that have been partying the most, Wall Street, the people who are really culpable for sinking the global economy, they’re laughing all the way to the bank. This would be a popular tax. It would not only raise revenue, but a financial transaction tax also exercises a brake on the kind of speculation that tanked the international economy a couple of years ago.

JAY: So I guess this kind of links to your opening point about an independent netroots organization, in the sense that you don’t hear any of this kind of planning coming from, at least, the leadership of the Obama administration.

COHEN: Definitely not from the Obama administration. But you will be hearing more from RootsAction within a week, when a member of Congress introduces this again. So there will be–like, the idea behind RootsAction is to stretch the debate. In the mainstream media, it’s always a center-right debate. When it’s a discussion between the leadership of the Democrats and the Republicans, that’s a center-right debate. So you have all these workers in Wisconsin saying, look, we’re ready to give back on our pensions, we’re ready to give back on our health care, to pay more of it, and that kind of defensiveness happens when the progressive community and the progressive online community is not taking the offensive. So the idea behind RootsAction is let’s start trying to reframe debate, get thousands, and then hundreds of thousands, and then millions of people standing behind proposals that would actually appeal to the vast majority of the American people, serve the interests of the vast majority of the American people. And an obvious place to begin is with a tax on financial transactions. That’s what we’re doing this week. And week after week, RootsAction will be having–proposing solutions that actually solve the problems of the majority of the American people. How novel.

JAY: How are you getting, when you–when these proposals come to sort of what I would call consistent libertarian types, Ron Paul types? [sic] Because if you oppose the bailout to the banks, then why wouldn’t you support taxing some of it back?

COHEN: Well, I agree with you on that, and I agree with you on other things I’m sure RootsAction will take up, which is an estate tax. I mean, look, you can–a broad spectrum of the American public, including right-wing libertarians, don’t believe in a hereditary aristocracy. You know, no one more than a right-wing libertarian believes in self-made men and women. And if you have these–this hereditary–like, the Koch brothers, you know, their kids are not going to have to work. I think you appeal even to right-wing libertarians when you say, hey, let’s have a level playing field where people can achieve based on what they do and not the fact that granddaddy did. So I believe that a lot of these taxes on the super rich, especially a financial transaction tax, which actually will prevent some of these financial meltdowns that come from hyperspeculation–so not only does it raise revenue in a fairly harmless way, it actually is good for the economy to not let the speculators dominate the economy. I think there’s a lot of taxes on the super wealthy that are popular across the political spectrum.

JAY: Now, in terms of President Obama’s budget and a lot of the narrative coming from the Obama administration, it doesn’t seem to question the need for austerity measures. The debate seems to be how much. So when you do this kind of critique that you and your organization do, how do you–how are you finding–you know, people that were for Obama, for the other kinds of netroot organizations you’re critiquing, like MoveOn, for example, how do they respond to that?

COHEN: The Democratic leadership has got very little sway anymore with the millions and millions of people that put Obama in office. There’s so much disillusionment with the narrowing–ever-narrowing of the debate that when we broaden the debate–and if MoveOn and other groups are unwilling to do so and still pretending that Obama’s putting forward a progressive agenda–I mean, if I get one more email that tells me, hey, let’s defend the progressive agenda of Obama–. There is no progressive agenda. We’re going to have to create it from the ground up. And I think, Paul, what you’re saying is exactly right, that, like, in Washington, Obama, he doesn’t question the untouchability of military cuts. He’s got the biggest military budget in history. There’s not a lot of questioning of tax on corporations. The corporate tax has continually fallen. The amount of money that comes from big corporations, not only in Wisconsin but nationally, keeps shrinking as a percentage of our budget. And so if you just follow the Democratic Party lead, then you’re in a blind alley.

JAY: So what do you make of the leadership of the unions? Richard Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO, was on Meet the Press last week, and Gregory was trying to get him to be critical of President Obama vis-a-vis not doing more for the unionized workers of Wisconsin, and Trumka did not want to critique Obama.

COHEN: It’s a problem we have with all the liberal institutions. They can go to their graves defending Obama and defending whoever the next Democratic Party leader is, and they will have to look around one day and wonder why there’s not a labor union movement. The reality is we have to build from the ground up. That’s what RootsAction proposes. That’s why we call ourselves RootsAction. When we work with forces, political, elected forces in Washington, it’ll be only those that are actually proposing measures that help the working class in our country, the middle class in our country. Very soon there will be a reintroduction of a bill to have a financial transaction tax, and that’ll be tied to a more full-employment economy. You won’t hear that out of Obama. He was largely elected with money from Wall Street. He’s always believed he’s got to serve their interests. And it’s about time that leaders of the labor movement understand that and start orienting toward new groups of political officials that are not the Obama types.

JAY: Okay. Thanks very much for joining us, Jeff.

COHEN: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network. And don’t forget the donate buttons, ’cause if you don’t do that, we can’t do this.

End of Transcript

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Jeff Cohen was the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, and he was the founder of the media watchdog FAIR. He is the co-founder of