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Progressives must stand on principle

Paul Jay speaks with Drummond Pike at the Tides Foundations’ Momentum conference in San
Francisco about his perspective on the progressive community.

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Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to San Francisco, The Real News Network at the Momentum Conference of Tides Foundation. And today joining us is the founder of Tides Foundation and the Tides group of entities, Drummond Pike. Thanks for joining us, Drummond.

DRUMMOND PIKE, FOUNDER AND CEO, TIDES: Thank you for having me.

JAY: So, really quickly, tell us what Tides is, and then let’s get into the politics.

PIKE: Tides is a group of about six different entities that provide infrastructure, self-financing infrastructure, that are in the service of advancing the progressive agenda, broadly speaking. We support philanthropists, we support social entrepreneurs, we help develop real estate, all of which support nonprofit organizations, primarily progressive groups, to find their voice, to advance their point of view into the political dialog.

JAY: Well, that’s a pretty good segue to where I want to go.

PIKE: Okay. Good.

JAY: Eight, nine months ago we had the inauguration of President Obama.

PIKE: Yes.

JAY: A moment of optimism for a lot of people who self-identify as progressive and liberal in much of the country. The right was in disarray. And now we’re at the end of the summer, a few months later, and over the last couple of months, the whole agenda of the national discourse has been kind of taken over by a combination of right-wing television, some town-hall noise, the Republican Party, and they’ve turned the tables on what seemed like one of the most formidable communication machines we’ve seen in a long time, the Obama campaign machine. What do you make of this? Because the culmination of all this is—Glenn Beck gets to tell us whether or not Van Jones is going to work in the White House or not is kind of what it amounted to.

PIKE: Wow. There are a lot of questions embedded in what you just said. So let me start with the first. I’m not sure that they’ve turned the tables on us. I think that they have caught us a little flat-footed, meaning the progressive community, broadly writ. And that really goes to this point that progressives, I think, made an understandable mistake, as the Obama people came into power, by believing they needed to be seen as an ally rather than as the principled holders of a point of view to which Obama and his people could either subscribe or not, and they needed to separate their support for this historical event, of his stepping into presidency as the first African American to do so, from their point of view about health care, workers rights, foreign policy, or any number of other issues that progressives care deeply about. So I think that we have been a little quiet when we needed to be more articulate about our requirements to support the legislative or policy proposals being put forward in Washington.

JAY: And has there also partly been a reluctance to be openly critical of things people disagreed with the Obama administration was doing, so it became a kind of constituency, and they said, "Okay, well, we kind of got them," and a bit of—and then such a preoccupation with deal-making with the leadership of the Republican Party?

PIKE: Right. A few points. I absolutely agree with that. Bob Reich wrote a brilliant piece in Salon not long ago about the health-care debate, saying he started out as an advocate of single-payer, was convinced by all of the people in the know—.

JAY: "He" being Obama?

PIKE: No, Bob Reich.

JAY: Talking about himself.

PIKE: Yeah. He said, "I entered this debate—." He’s an economist. He was head of the Labor Department under the Clinton administration. "I entered this debate," he said, "as an advocate of the single-payer system, but I was convinced by all of those in the know that we had to retreat from that position and take the public option as the compromise position." And so that’s where they started. And so for the last six months we’ve had this debate about the public option which has been the source of all of the attacks from the right and from the corporate interests that don’t like it. If they had started with a single-payer, or if progressives had said, no, we don’t care what you’re advancing in Washington, we care about the single-payer as an option to be considered very seriously in this debate because that is the fundamental change that many progressives believe in, then the compromise position might have been the public option. But instead they started there, and so we have ceded the middle ground to them, which then becomes something that is unacceptable to progressives. So we have to remember this example when we enter many other debates that are coming up very quickly—climate change, labor, etcetera.

JAY: I think what you say raises, like, the critical point, and it’s—actually comes out of the conference. The theme of this conference is "What’s possible?" And this understanding or estimation of what’s possible from the White House, it seems to be like a better management of the status quo, that’s all that’s possible, which requires a deal with pharmaceuticals, a deal with the insurance industry, a deal with Republicans. And it’s not that everything’s possible, but certainly more than that’s got to be possible.

PIKE: Exactly.

JAY: Otherwise, what was "change you can believe in"?

PIKE: But do you remember yesterday morning when Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins was speaking about the early legislation in the House dealing with green jobs, and she said that they made a conscious choice as an organization—she runs Green for All, the organization that Van Jones founded, and it’s a very vital voice in this particular debate. And she said they made a choice not to compromise on several key points that were embedded in the legislation. And they ultimately said, with the backing of the Hispanic Congressional Caucus and the Black Caucus, Congressional Black Caucus, to not support a bill that didn’t have these critical components as part of it. And they were invited to all sorts of insider dealmaking meetings. They said no, we’re not going; we care about these critical issues. And in the end, the legislation that did pass the House included those positions, with the support of those two key constituencies inside the House. And that needs to be the kind of strategy that progressives pursue more and more, I think, in the future, where they are simply saying we are principled, we believe in this, and we’re willing to oppose even the administration’s legislation that doesn’t include these key principles.

JAY: So let’s then jump to what happened to Van Jones. So we’ve got this targeting of Jones. The accusations, I thought it was fascinating how it ended up, because they start with he once called himself a communist, and that became a McCarthyite bogeyman for a day, but then they jump to something I thought was fascinating: he signed a petition questioning 9/11. And whether he knew completely what he was signing or not signing, I think there’s many polls that show the majority of Americans have, at the very least, unanswered questions about 9/11. It’s not such a crazy thing to be doing. That becomes the thing they pillory him with, and then he doesn’t get defended. And, you know, we’ve had many conversations about this over the last few days. Isn’t this actually more a question of principle about the integrity of the administration in the White House that we pick this guy, we’ll stand behind this guy, and they didn’t?

PIKE: I think it’s a hard thing to say the White House lacks integrity because they didn’t defend him. I think they—.

JAY: But don’t they defend their own decision-making process by defending him?

PIKE: I believe they should have defended him. Don’t misunderstand me. I believe they should have defended him. I think that what we are all faced with is a tactic the right has used over and over and over again, which is basic character assassination. They go after people that are somehow emblematic of something that they want to bring out in the discussion. And the secret agenda about going after Van Jones was to remind everybody that Obama’s black. I don’t think it had anything to do with Van or his positions or anything. He was a convenient target. He had signed this petition which he and others later rejected because they didn’t fully understand it, and he said it was a mistake, he didn’t subscribe to those points of view [inaudible] But that of course matters not to the likes of Glenn Beck. But the whole McCarthyist atmosphere that Fox and other purveyors of propaganda of that kind participate in, I think, undermined the role of free dialog in a democratic state, that we don’t have that dialog. If you stand for something and you’re on the other side of the divide, if you will, their side will, as Charles Blow said in the Times the other day, they will speak in bumper-sticker in order to take you down, ’cause that’s what they want. They want you out, and they want to remind people of something that they’re afraid of rather than talking about issues. I mean, the right hasn’t put forward any alternative for health care, for the environment, for foreign policy. All they do is attack symbols, you know, whether it’s Acorn or Van Jones or Tides itself, which has been the object of some of their [inaudible] craziness. You know, you’re almost defenseless, because, you know, how do you speak back to that? There is no media response to it. And the media itself is so noncritical of its own members who engaged in this kind of, quote, "journalism", which in fact is character assassination.

JAY: And it’s done for ratings. It’s done for money.

PIKE: Exactly.

JAY: And both sides to some extent are playing in the shouting match. But in terms of the administration not defending Van Jones, doesn’t it say something about the fact that the extent to which they’re playing defense right now—and when do you switch to offense? And it may be the best offense is just to ignore it and let—you know, say this is—you know, not that many people watch this show. We hired this guy. Go back and do your job.

PIKE: Well, I think that the White House has been doing exactly what you said, which is saying nothing as their basic defense. And, I mean, even when the press secretary got up the other day and, you know, said something like, "Van Jones continues to work in the White House," I mean, it was like the clear message that he doesn’t have the support of those who had hired him. I think it was a terrible mistake. I don’t know that there’s any other way to talk about it. And I think that if they continue in that vein, in not standing up on principle and saying this is character assassination, this is a man that has humbly given of his energies—. Whether he was right all the time or not, he is not somebody that you can attack as not having made a contribution, not having cared about his community. And this is a Yale Law School graduate. He could have gone to Goldman Sachs and made a gazillion dollars, in which case Fox News would probably be saying, "Great guy." But he instead chose to work in communities where there was a problem with police brutality. He worked for green jobs. He’s been an articulate voice for social justice. And that makes him somehow subject to be cast—what’d they used to say? Left hanging, twisting in the wind. Isn’t that the term from the Nixon days?

JAY: And clearly that’s what happened.

PIKE: And that’s kind of what they did. And I think it’s a shame, and I think they will regret it, and I think they will at some point have to address that.

JAY: It says something about—it’s consistent, though, with an outlook and an approach on many issues in health care, as you said, you know, not coming out, even though when you talk off the record with almost everybody in the administration, or even on the record, yeah, single-payer really is the best plan. But—.

PIKE: It should be where we go. Yeah.

JAY: So it comes back to the definition of what’s possible. And if you run an election campaign about change you can believe in and people vote for, yeah, we’re voting that there’s more possible, then at some point people have to say, well, you’re not delivering what you said.

PIKE: I agree. And I go back to what Phaedra was talking about, from Green for All, when she says progressives have to stand on principles, and if the White House doesn’t come along and support those principles or those positions, then we need to politely say we can no longer support that piece of legislation or that policy you’re trying to advance, and be very clean about it. And I think that, you know, they’re only, what, eight months into this administration? You know, this is not the easiest thing, to step in and run the US government. So I have some compassion for them. But I do think that they need to learn that they cannot let their supporters and their allies be subject to the kind of attacks that Van was made object of and still garner universal support in the progressive community, and they are going to have to stand on principle on some issues. And I hope and pray that they will do so soon.

JAY: Thanks for joining us.

PIKE: Sure. Happy to be here.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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