Michael Lighty of National Nurses United and one of the main organizers of The People Summit tells Paul Jay that the Summit has helped to spur the candidacy of many progressives that are challenging corporate Democrats at every level
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PAUL JAY: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m in Chicago at the People’s Summit. I’m now joined by one of the people who helped plan the People’s Summit, Michael Lighty, he’s the director of public policy for National Nurses United. Thanks for joining us. MICHAEL LIGHTY: Thank you, Paul. Great to see you. PAUL JAY: This was an extravaganza, and an enormous convention center. I assume a very big budget. Paid for by the nurses. It shows the power of what one union can do. This mass organization with a lot of members, and real resources. It would be incredible if the union movement ever put more resources against something like this, but why is this such an objective? Why such a commitment by the nurses to this kind of a venture? MICHAEL LIGHTY: Nurses really take the responsibility of social advocates seriously. They have built an organization that has resources and power that they don’t believe should just be limited to them–that they, in order to be patient advocates, they’ve got to broaden their advocacy so that we’re seeking to transform society based on the values of nurses: caring, compassion, and community. To do that, that means reaching beyond our own constituency, our own membership and branching out. And so the Bernie campaign for president was an entrée into that. The natural result isn’t gathering this, where we gather together, people who are fundamentally committed to a humanitarian vision of social and economic justice. If the nurses, they really feel a personal responsibility to support this effort. PAUL JAY: Of the roughly 4,000 people, here- MICHAEL LIGHTY: Yes. PAUL JAY: How many are nurses? MICHAEL LIGHTY: Probably about 600, this year. PAUL JAY: Generally, within the union, how do the nurses feel about the political activism of the union? MICHAEL LIGHTY: Political activism of the union, flows directly from their own experience, because these are not people who are necessarily ideologically left wing, as we might understand it. These are individuals who were educated and came to a profession believing that they’d be able to provide care, and heal people, improve their lives. What they found is, is that with the corporate control of healthcare, they cannot do that. It’s a natural extension of that experience to say, well, it’s not just in healthcare that there’s been this corporate consolidation, but it’s been system wide, so you can see that literally the kind of social devastation that became prominent through the great recession is a reflection of the same kind of devastation that’s happened in the healthcare industry. It’s transformed healthcare from a care giving profession to an industry based on revenue and profit. PAUL JAY: You must be doing some kind of education or something in the union. MICHAEL LIGHTY: Yes. PAUL JAY: There’s a lot of unions, I think, the members would say, don’t use my dues for your political agenda. MICHAEL LIGHTY: But, it’s not anybody’s political agenda [crosstalk 00:03:00]- PAUL JAY: I’m just saying, I think, people would say that. MICHAEL LIGHTY: No. They would. You’re right. We have an extensive political education program, and that’s one of the things we did this year, Paul, is we brought that education program to the summit. We conducted these political education workshops under a rigged economy. How to democratize society, how to build a broad social movement that can affect fundamental change, so those lessons that we have been learning through our education work with nurses we brought to bear here, joined with the Sanders Institute, that Jane Sanders started, and we’re able to then have our educators deliver that analysis to a new generation of activists. Remember these millennials for as active as they are, they did not grow up in ideological male youth that really challenged corporate capitalism. So, you take the experience of nurses, who know intimately the direct impact of corporate consolidation on their lives and the lives of their patients, and their practice, I can talk to young people who have limited opportunity, experience real injustice, and you then make those connections, and it’s natural. PAUL JAY: This cannot be, and I know it is just like a PR event for you. It’s not enough just people come, get excited, and go home, because you’re not selling the nurses. MICHAEL LIGHTY: No. PAUL JAY: And you’re not really just selling Sanders to 4,000 people. You’re trying to affect the movement, the practical politics. MICHAEL LIGHTY: That’s correct. PAUL JAY: What did you see from the last Summit, the first, come out of that, that affected practical politics, and what are your hopes how this thing takes things further, this one takes it further? MICHAEL LIGHTY: What came out of the last Summit, a large part was organizing around the Democratic National Convention, and the interventions there, including the direct action, because remember Democracy Spring did a whole nonviolent direct action training, here. We really set ourselves up for the Democratic Convention, next month, so we felt like the militancy around that convention, the expression of Bernie’s constituency, and his program was quite enhanced by what the organizing preparation we did, here. And that carried into the fall, and some of the down ballot races, and we’ve seen that carry out continually all through this year, too, where there’s been real progressives elected. What we found this year, was that, oh, Larry Krasner, Christine Pellegrino, Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, from Chicago, these are people who really come out of that same male youth, that we came out of last year, at the People’s Summit. Then, they come back here, and they provide those lessons, now. For example, Carlos from Chicago, we were at the action breakout for Illinois, 24 people identified running on a similar program in Illinois, next year. So that’s the relationship where we laid the foundation last year, we saw that expression in the DNC in July, and then electorally down ballet in November in some key places. Like, for the Fight for $15 initiatives, they were part of our People’s Summit last year, they made some victories in the ballet last fall, so those kinds of movement building issue work. For example, even in California what we’re seeing with single-payer, at the state level is coming out of the national emphasis on Medicare for all, in the Sanders campaign and the new activism that came out of that campaign on that issue. So, now we’re seeing it in California. PAUL JAY: There’s a word that one would have thought would have been uttered here over and over, and over again, and only was mentioned a few times, and that word is Trump. He actually wasn’t talked about all that much. MICHAEL LIGHTY: That’s right. PAUL JAY: I’m wondering how you see this relationship between building a front against the Trump administration with very draconian policies, and it seems to me for progressive people that it’s imperative to have such a broad front targeting the policies and the administration. On the other hand, the fight against the oligarchy as a system, and particularly how that represents itself in the Democratic Party. MICHAEL LIGHTY: Right. PAUL JAY: This fight in the Democratic Party is if real change in some ways is going to come from that fight. On the other hand, you need to front against these, whether it’s from the environment, or on economics, and militarism, and so on. Very serious stuff going on. MICHAEL LIGHTY: That’s why we chose the theme, “Beyond resistance,” and that’s why the stories that we told of activists, who we brought up in the general sessions, were stories of resistance, and power. That’s really the key, because we can be anti-Trump and you can then be a centrist corporate Democrat. Right? What, Senator Cory Booker, he’s anti-Trump. PAUL JAY: Chuck Schumer. MICHAEL LIGHTY: Chuck Schumer, anti-Trump. PAUL JAY: He’s only anti-Trump unless Trump drops bombs somewhere, if he bombs Syria- MICHAEL LIGHTY: Right. PAUL JAY: [crosstalk 00:07:49]. MICHAEL LIGHTY: Let’s not get carried away. Right. PAUL JAY: Chuck was up rah, rah, Trump- MICHAEL LIGHTY: Exactly. PAUL JAY: When he through the missiles in Syria. MICHAEL LIGHTY: There you go, but you got Senator Booker, pharma money, Wall Street money, Senator Schumer, Wall Street Senator, well, that’s different from what we’re about. It’s important to be resistant, but be resistant on whose terms, what is the term of resistance? What is the frame that you are talking about Trump in. I actually like the notion that we don’t necessarily have the same antipathy toward Trump voters, that’s implied by some of the mainstream critiques of that constituency, that you hear either in the media, or among democrats. PAUL JAY: Well, you heard from Clinton. MICHAEL LIGHTY: And, you heard from Clinton, certainly. Right? And, it cost her, quite a bit, I think. We don’t share that. We see these white working class folks, working class folks, in general, as sharing an interest, building across race alliance of working people is much more important, so that’s we’re talking about, here. You say, what’s the difference. We’re not obsessed with Russia. We’re not obsessed with Comey. Therefore, why should we talk about Trump, because that’s all people talk about, when you talk about Trump in the mainstream media it’s Comey/Russia. Well- PAUL JAY: We haven’t been upset. We’re not obsessed under Real News, either. MICHAEL LIGHTY: Right. PAUL JAY: Let me ask you, why aren’t you obsessed? Because anyone else involved with the Democratic Party, almost, is. MICHAEL LIGHTY: Right. It’s a Clinton narrative. It’s if you read this new book, Shattered, you find that what Hilary was saying about the election in November, after it, now, what the Democrats are saying in June about Comey and Russia, it’s the same narrative. That’s not what cost Hilary Clinton the election in our view. You have to go back to, as Senator Sander said last night, why have the Democrats lost a 1,000 seats since 2008? Because they have a failed political strategy, and a program that’s unattractive to masses of Americans, and that is the problem. PAUL JAY: Talk a bit about what practical stuff you think is being talked about, here- MICHAEL LIGHTY: Mm-hmm (affirmative). PAUL JAY: What will be implemented? What are your hopes for that? MICHAEL LIGHTY: Right. PAUL JAY: As we head towards 2018, and then 2020. MICHAEL LIGHTY: Right. I think the Illinois example I gave is a good one. 24 people dedicated to a Bernie program, a Bernie-type program, coming out of that campaign. And also local fights, either we got a union organizing drive in Holy Cross Medical Center in Maryland, solidarity around that. Solidarity around pushing back on the social service cuts in Delaware. SB-562 in California, the state’s single payer bill. The national effort to win Medicare for all and get more Democrats on board with that, comes directly out of this. Then, for example, the Iowa CCI, Iowa Citizen Action, what is it? I’m just going to say Iowa CCI Action Conference in July, July 15th, many of these folks are going to be together in Iowa, that’s obviously a critical bellwether state in ’18, and in 2020, so what we’re doing is, we’re building a base, and not just individual initiative to run for office, but an organizational base, based on the network and relationships, here at the Summit in part, that can then go forward with not first in a candidate program, but an issues program that candidates adopt and are held accountable to, and that relationship is very different between just the usual. PAUL JAY: How much of this is about primarying right-wing Democrats? MICHAEL LIGHTY: I think, that’s a part of it. I think, it’s a big part of it in the case of Democrats who don’t support those critical issues. Medicare for all. Taking on Wall Street. Ending police brutality, and criminality, when it comes to people of color, more broadly. Also, demands around affordable housing, sanctuary cities. Immigration rights. There’s a whole program, we used to call it the Bernie Ballot. It is about the issues. I thought Senator Sanders was right, last night, this is not about me, it’s about us, it’s our movement. Almost more important in the fact that there are these issues that individual organizations or activists work on, but the fact that we’re working on them together, even though each of us may be doing a different issue, that’s what’s actually important, and that’s what that campaign demonstrated and what the People’s Summit tries to do. You notice, Paul, there was no single issue workshop, here. They were all multi-issue, intersectional discussions of politics and strategy, so that’s what we’re trying to do, rooted in an ideological understanding of contemporary corporate capitalism. PAUL JAY: That being said, there was a missing, in terms of the narrative of the workshops, an emphasis or focus on foreign policy. MICHAEL LIGHTY: Right. PAUL JAY: We’re in very dangerous times in terms of foreign policy. Why not, why wasn’t that, if it’s all intersectional, why wasn’t that one of the threads of the intersectionality? MICHAEL LIGHTY: Yeah. I think that’s a fair criticism of the Summit, and we need to do a better job of that. I think the evolution of the Summit, in some ways, is the trajectory of this broader movement that Senator Sanders is leading, but also obviously much broader than him, too, and that has been very focused on domestic policy. If you look at Black Lives Matter, Occupy, Fight for 15, those are really animating movements that have gotten us, here, that really built a foundation for his candidacy, and laid the foundation for the upsurge and activism. Those are not [crosstalk 00:13:28]- PAUL JAY: Even his candidacy, I mean, it’s an obvious link that when there these massive cuts to social programs, because of 54 billion dollars going to the Pentagon. The link between the foreign policy, and the domestic is obvious. MICHAEL LIGHTY: Yes. PAUL JAY: But even, honestly, Senator Sanders doesn’t make that big of an issue out of it, and it wasn’t much of an issue, here. MICHAEL LIGHTY: Yeah. I think, that is reflective of the political context in which both his campaign and the Summit we’re built. I think, that political context is changing, because I think, again, this was the Obama administration’s drone program, and other militarizations, were a little bit under the radar, or they were not seen as primary to defining who he was politically. Whereas, Trump, on the other hand, you can see that the militarization, the interventionism, is a much more fundamental part, perhaps, of what his politics are. So, I think that’s shifting. Just like the left in the mid-2000s was about the Iraq war, and in reaction to George W. Bush’s foreign policy, that set the political context for the movements of that period. The great recession set the political context for the movement of our period, we may be shifting out of that, and that’s where I do think we have to be more responsive. PAUL JAY: I think that’s a longer conversation, but I want to go back to one other thing, there’s been a debate going on in various circles, that if the Trump administration is so draconian, that at this point, you have to elect as many Democrats as possible to try to retake the House, the Senate, and it really doesn’t matter, you gotta just elect Democrats. And there’s a pushback on this idea, that if your priming, what people are calling right-wing or corporate Democrats, you’re draining the resources, you may wind up just electing Republicans. What do you make of that debate? MICHAEL LIGHTY: I would definitely like to drain the resources of the corporate Democrats, so they no more. That sounds like a good idea, to me. Yeah. Really. I’d like the to spend all their money, and get out of the party. Now, the question is, can you beat Trumpism with what we would call neoliberalism, emphasis on the market-knows-best, privatize functions of government as much as possible, emphasize structural reforms that are essentially constituting austerity for working people, like free trade, so called. Right? If that’s the program that Democrats think they can get elected on, or let’s put a patina of social liberalism around that: yes, we’re for gay marriage, well, we weren’t when it was a real issue, but now that people support it, we’re for it. Okay. Fine. Or, yeah, we are all for equal opportunity, but we’re not actually going to tell cops to stop killing black kids, but we’re for equal opportunity. Right? Or, maybe we’re even now appalled by what police do in the black community, but a few years ago we called them super predators. Okay? Yeah. If that’s your frame, you can put this, essentially, let money and big donors control politics, but we’re all for, again, gay marriage. Yeah. That is not going to be a program that’s going to get the base of voters, who voted for President Obama, and then voted for, now, President Trump, we’re not going to get them back on that program. How do we get them back, how do we create a basis for real social and economic justice among the working class in this country? That should be the question. If we think we’re going to be a party of the professional class, based on social liberalism, and corporate economics, that’s not the Democratic Party we want to be in, and if those are the Democrats they want to elect, we don’t want to. PAUL JAY: Thanks for joining us. MICHAEL LIGHTY: Thank you. PAUL JAY: Thank you of joining us on the Real News Network.