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Jeff Cohen: The progressive movement must try to achieve power and
accept, for now, this is a two party system

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington.

The American spring has begun, and Occupy in cities across the country are on the move again. There’s a big debate takes place within the Occupy movement. One part of the debate is how to keep it independent and not just an adjunct or lever of a campaign to reelect the Democratic Party. But there’s also a debate going on just how to participate in the elections. And what about some of the candidates who are running, certainly in some of the primaries, who are progressive and share a lot of the values and ideas of the Occupy movement? To what extent will those people, activists in the movement, get involved in those primaries and in the campaign that follows?

Now joining us to talk about this debate is Jeff Cohen. Jeff is the author of Cable News Confidential. He’s the cofounder of the online activism group He also was the founder of the media watch dog group FAIR. And he’s also a supporter of the campaign of Norman Solomon, who is one of these progressive activists, running in a primary just north of San Francisco. Thanks for joining us, Jeff.


JAY: So the argument against getting involved in these primaries is from—I hear from people involved in the Occupy movement is that, you know, people just have so much time, they have so much energy, and it’s too difficult to get anything really accomplished within the Democratic Party, especially it’s very difficult to get elected, and if you do get elected, there’s not much you can do in Congress, and people really should just focus on building the Occupy movement or other forms of grassroots organizing. So what’s your answer to them?

COHEN: Well, I do think it’s crucial to have an independent social movement and movements out in the streets and in the communities, in the neighborhoods, in the unions, in the religious institutions, in the schools and colleges. There’s no doubt about it. It’s primary. When you look back at U.S. history, you know, the times we’ve had real serious substantive progressive reform, the 1930s and the 1960s, we had very strong independent social movements. So that’s a given.

But the next question—and you raised it—is, if you’re going to also—instead of—you know, you can’t forever be a protest movement. At a certain point, the whole idea is to take some power, to not just protest power, but take power. And when we look at the recent history of our country, like the last 35 years, we see that right-wing social movements, sometimes with corporate money behind them and sometimes not, have seized one of the major parties, the Republican Party. And when we look around us and we see that the military budget is through the roof, wealth disparities are through the roof, battles we thought we’d won years ago, like reproductive rights, separation of church and state, we’re having to refight all that. The reason that the progressives are on the defensive, whether they’re out in the streets protesting or they’re trying to figure out an electoral strategy, we’re on the defensive because right-wing social movements have seized one of the two major political parties and used that power, by controlling the Republican Party, to continually dominate the American debate and move the debate rightward. So while I agree the most important thing is to build independent social movements, I also believe one needs an electoral strategy, and in that electoral strategy I think the right wing has basically shown the way.

JAY: Well, there’s a big difference, though, between a right-wing populist strategy in the Republican Party and what might take place in the Democratic Party, which is the right-wing populism to a large extent is an extension of the interests and strategy of a whole section of the right-wing billionaires and elites. So there’s a tremendous amount of money behind it, and, in fact, there’s a mainstream television network behind it. It’s quite a different scenario if you’re—.

COHEN: I actually don’t think that’s correct. I mean, often the right-wing base is in alliance with and funded by the corporate elite. There’s no doubt about it. But there’ve been many issues. The motor for the right-wing transformation in our country at the base level is the religious right. And in campaign after campaign, election after election, the religious right, by pooling small-dollar donations—remember, the religious right pioneered in direct-mail, small-dollar big fundraising—in election after election, they beat the moneyed interests, the religious right often beat the old-line entrenched Republicans.

We have to understand that in the 1950s, the Republican Party was a moderate party headed by President Eisenhower. They completely accommodated to the New Deal. They had a 90 percent tax rate on the 1 percent. There wasn’t a lot of unionbusting emanating from the Republican Party. And there were a bunch of right-wingers that went in, especially in the ’70s, had this religious fervor, and they went in sometimes fighting against money, the moneyed Republicans, sometimes on their side, but they’ve transformed the party.

And I believe that, you know, on the Democratic side, if we had a liberal constituency leadership like the leaders of the unions, the leaders of the environmental groups, the leaders of the consumer rights groups, the leaders of the civil rights groups, if they had more of an attitude that the right-wing leadership had in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s—for example, Paul Weyrich was the guy who coined the term moral majority. He founded a bunch of right-wing groups. And Weirich famously said a couple of decades ago, we’re not like traditional conservatives, we’re not propping up the status quo; we’re radicals who want to upend the political power structure. That’s what you hear from the right wing.

But what you hear from the liberals, the unions, the environmentalists, the consumer rights, especially civil rights, is instead of this fervor to transform the country—and by the way, some of these groups I just named, labor unions, environment, they have a lot of money. But what you hear from them isn’t a fervor to radically transform the country. What you see often is a zeal to get a meeting and hobnob and lunch with the Democrats in Congress. And so you have a lot of these liberal constituency leaders who command lots of people, have a lot of followers and the potential of raising an awful lot of money. What they do is they take the money, especially unions, and they give it to whatever mediocrity the Democratic Party coughs up. But, you know, the right-wing in their 30 year strategy of taking over the Republican Party, they were investing money within the primaries, and within the primaries, that’s when they were deciding who would be the Republican person in the general election.

JAY: But while a lot of this was driven by small-dollar donor money, a lot of it was driven by big-dollar money, too, and the big dollar money on the liberal side, the, you know, liberal Democratic money, it tends just to want access to power and doesn’t really want to finance anything seriously oppositional.

COHEN: Yes. That’s—see, I think more than the money problem is the problem of the leadership of the liberal and progressive community, that they don’t—that they are too much party loyalists.

JAY: And if they get their meeting at the White House, they’re happy. Whether anything actually ever comes out of that meeting seems almost secondary.

COHEN: Yeah. Our friends on the Hill tell us—you know, I don’t think I’ve ever—I don’t think Paul Weyrich ever entered—you know, ever uttered those words. But you hear from the liberal establishment in Washington, you just—it’s a hobnobbing culture. It’s not an oppositional culture. We know that the base is ready for opposition. We know the Occupy upsurge. We know the people that get their news from The Real News Network and Democracy Now! and Common Dreams and Truthout and Truthdig, we know there’s millions of people every day that are ready to be oppositional, not just with right-wing religious extremists, but also the corporate Democrats. But what we don’t have is a strategy for when we are going to do electoral work. And I don’t want to seem to be pushing off, you know, the independent movement building work off into the margins. I’m not. But to the degree that we have an electoral strategy, it’s got to be oppositional; it’s got to be, we’re not going to take all this union money and just give it to whatever mediocrity the Democratic Party coughs up for the general election; we’re going to take our money and make sure that a seriously pro-working class, pro-99 percent Democrat comes out of the primary

JAY: Well, Jeff, what do you make of the argument from the Green Party, from the Justice Party, some of the other third parties that are being organized, that that’s where the effort should be, the electoral strategy really needs to be about building a third progressive party, and whether it’s one of those or some alliance of those, I guess, is still to be seen, but that that’s where the effort should be?

COHEN: I am a graduate of that. I’m a recovering that. You know, I worked in Barry Commoner’s third-party campaign in 1980, the best presidential candidate no one ever heard of. You know, you can decide that your progressive electoral activity is going to be getting protest candidates 1 or 2 or 3 percent of the votes. I prefer trying to work in primaries where we have a chance of actually winning, where you can bring that same full Green Party or independent progressive agenda into a much vaster audience and you can actually win a primary.

I mean, obviously, you introduced me as being a supporter of Norman Solomon for Congress. He’s in a tough primary battle. The election is June 5. He’s raised half a million dollars, more than that, from small donors. He did what the right-wing did in the ’70s and ’80s when they—before the internet, they only had direct mail. They pioneered in that on the right-wing. Well, the left is pioneering in small-donor—raising huge amounts of money from small donors through the internet. So I just—you know, you can stick in third parties and say that’s relevant activity and you get 1 or 2 percent and you say we’re raising issues. I prefer to support candidates like Norman Solomon, who’s running as a Democrat in Northern California for Congress. He’s raising all of those issues—single-payer, national health insurance, Medicare for all, bring the troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, stop nuclear power, tax Wall Street to fund green jobs. He’s got the full program of the independent left, and he’s taking it to huge numbers of people within a primary, and he’s running as a Democrat, and he’s got a chance of coming in first or second and getting in the general election in November.

I just—we have a system that’s rigged against third parties. We have a winner-take-all system. We don’t have a German Parliament or a Swedish Parliament where if the green parties get a few percent of the vote, they get into parliament. That’s not what we have, and to pretend that we do, I think, is faulty electoral strategy.

JAY: Okay. Well, thanks for joining us, and we’ll continue this debate. And maybe we will have a debate, Jeff. We’ll get someone who either supports one of the third parties or doesn’t see the Democratic Party as a vehicle, and maybe we’ll actually do that debate. So I’m sure you’ll be happy to join us for that.

COHEN: Sounds great. And again, some of my closest friends are in the Green Party or they’re supporting Rocky Anderson and the Justice Party. I just—I think it’s an important debate, Paul.

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


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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