Naomi Klein on the US Elections, the Democratic Party, and What the Movement Does Next
The Bernie Sanders campaign has shown that “a progressive majority in the United States is within grasp” and could play a major role in the next election cycle, said Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.
“What do we do with this energy that now reveals that actually, a progressive majority in the United States is within grasp?” said Klein. “I mean, this is a shattering of the neoliberal consensus. We’ve been told for so long that the left could never win in the United States, and here you have a candidate who’s a self-described democratic socialist, never walks that back. The more he spoke openly about seemingly radical ideas like free, free education and so on, free college education, the bigger the crowds became,” said Klein.
“On the other hand, what the Sanders campaign has shown is that a lot of what we told ourselves on the left is not true,” Klein said.
The Democratic Party is “more vulnerable than I think many people believe, just in the fact that Sanders was able to take his campaign as far as he was able to take it and get as close as he did get,” Klein said.
She cited the Leap Manifesto and 350.org White House protests as evidence that social movements play an instrumental role in shaping the politics and rhetoric of parties and elected officials.
“While I think it is really exciting that there’s so much talk of running progressive candidates, I think there is a real risk of just forgetting the importance of movements in all of this,” Klein warned.
PAUL JAY, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. I’m in Chicago at the People’s Summit, which is dealing with the question of what should the movement that’s emerged around the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, what should that movement do next?
Now joining me is someone who really doesn’t need a heck of a lot of introduction. And so I’m not going to give a heck of a lot of introduction, because it’s Naomi Klein, and everyone knows she’s an author and an activist, and a leading voice in the movement, I would say, right across North America. Thanks for joining us.
NAOMI KLEIN: Glad to be with you, Paul.
JAY: So it’s a very complicated political moment. An unprecedented mass movement has developed around the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. He’s not going to win, it’s pretty straightforward now. Unless something completely remarkable happens between now and the Democratic Party convention, he won’t be the nominee. And there’s a pretty furious debate going on about what does he do next, what does the movement do next, and they really are two separate questions, I think.
And this conference is, is shaping it, or framing this, what does the political revolution that Sanders’s been calling for do next? What’s your take?
KLEIN: Well, I think there are short-term questions and there are longer-term questions, or medium-term questions. Short term there are debates about what do we do about Trump, what do we do between now and November. That’s not the only important question, and I would argue that’s a less important question than what this remarkable energy and appetite for transformation, for really systemic change, what has been revealed in this election campaign with the incredible support for Bernie Sanders.
And you know, Sanders at this moment has been produced by social movements, some of which backed Bernie Sanders, some of which didn’t. So what do we do with this energy that now reveals that actually, a progressive majority in the United States is within grasp? Is not a crazy idea? I mean, this is a shattering of the neoliberal consensus. We’ve been told for so long that the left could never win in the United States, and here you have a candidate who’s a self-described democratic socialist, never walks that back. The more he spoke openly about seemingly radical ideas like free, free education and so on, free college education, the bigger the crowds became. He pushed Hillary significantly to the left in her rhetoric.
So she was also in some ways running a campaign breaking the rules of neoliberalism, backpedaling her previous support for free trade agreements and so on. And even Trump himself, you know, has built his base, obviously, with these horrible, racist appeals, misogyny, but also by appealing to a working-class audience by talking about bringing jobs back to the United States, opposing free trade agreements, promising to protect Social Security.
So I think the most pressing question is: what do we do now that we know that the left could actually win if it built a broad enough coalition? And I say that because–.
JAY: When you say that, you don’t mean, like, in this cycle?
KLEIN: Not in this cycle, no. But maybe in the next one. For the people who have really devoted their lives to this campaign, there’s a lot of sadness. And we’ve been brought together by the nurses who were so strong for Bernie, and so many people just turned their lives upside down campaigning for him. And there’s a lot of disappointment because they came so close, because there was some foul play during the election. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that the campaign went further than Bernie himself imagined it could go. So what do we do with this information now?
JAY: The next stage in the battle, if you listen to what Sanders said Thursday night, is going to be at the Democratic Party Convention. And it will be–I know it’s been described, the platform fight, as sort of symbolic. But it’s more than symbolic in the sense that it’s going to create, it’s going to force people to take a position. And if a significant number of even pro-Clinton delegates actually start voting for some of the policy objectives that the Sanders campaign is pushing, it’s going to create even more disarray within the Democratic Party.
KLEIN: It’s going to create disarray, and I think it–but it’s also going to create a tool, right. I mean, I think that this, that as we meet here, there are meetings going on in hotel rooms in Phoenix battling out what is in the Democratic Party platform. Now, this is not a binding document, right. It would not be binding on a President Clinton. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t powerful in the hands of a mobilized base, a mobilized social movement.
You know, during the Obama years–I’ve been part of the movement against the Keystone XL pipeline, right. I’m a board member of 350.org. There was a remarkable wave of civil disobedience. More than 1,000 people were arrested outside the White House. But they were arrested in this kind of very interesting protest where the words of Barack Obama during his presidential campaign promising to be the candidate that would stop the rising of the oceans, promising to act on climate change, were turned into banners and basically thrown in his face, right, on his front lawn, saying, you said this and we are going to hold you to your word.
So I think that taught an important lesson of how you can kind of flip campaign promises, and flip even non-binding documents like a party platform to become powerful tools. These documents are only as powerful as the movements make them, right. I mean, in the climate movement we use non-binding climate agreements as tools. The pledges that governments make that are not legally binding. It doesn’t mean they can’t be powerful. They are only pieces of paper in and of themselves, but moral pledges have weight when we say words matter.
JAY: The Clinton campaign, the media, they like to describe the differences between Hillary and Bernie as an ideological difference, a difference of opinion, some difference in policy. We all have the same objectives. This division’s a lot more profound than some difference of ideas. It’s a difference of interest. Hedge fund guys, the Silicon Valley guys, some of the big Hollywood billionaires, there’s a section of the elites, the billionaire class, that have been in control of the Democratic Party for quite some time. Of course, it’s a class alliance, with trade unions, workers, and ordinary people.
When Bernie talks about transforming the Democratic Party, if one follows the logic of it, you’re really talking about what becomes almost a civil war in the Democratic Party. Because the elites are not going to let go of this party without utter warfare. What do you make of this, what might be the opening act of this kind of a struggle?
KLEIN: It is a membership-based organization. And it’s more vulnerable than I think many people believe, just in the fact that Sanders was able to take his campaign as far as he was able to take it and get as close as he did get. And you know, there’s obviously a strong argument for just saying forget that party, it’s so corrupt. But if you look at what Sanders was able to accomplish versus what Nader was able to accomplish, just in terms of the megaphone of running within that party and how many people he was able to bring into that party, I think the record speaks for itself. It’s very powerful.
So I don’t know whether this is a winnable battle. You may be absolutely right, that money is too powerful within the Democratic Party, and they will ultimately win. On the other hand, what the Sanders campaign has shown is that a lot of what we told ourselves on the left is not true. That they had all the money, he could never win. He raised so much money. He’s brought in so many new people. I would say he has a right to see it through in the sense of seeing how far he can push this institution, how much it can be democratized, what are the key demands, right, to challenge the superdelegate structure. To challenge the super PAC structure. To challenge something as fundamental as taking money from fossil fuel companies, and maybe banks, too.
I mean, these can be demands of a movement that is changing the party. And if that movement hits a wall, and you know, it becomes impossible to change because of those forces that you’re referring to, then obviously people will leave the party and form another.
JAY: That’s maybe a good case scenario, because that’s maybe how you get to a third party that can maintain this kind of scale.
KLEIN: It’s a two-party system, right. I mean, this is–. Like I said, I think it will be interesting to see how far it can go. How far it can go. But I don’t–. But I think it would be a mistake to throw everything into the fight within the Democratic Party.
JAY: And that seems to be what Sanders is actually calling for, and what’s happening at this conference. They’re calling for pro-political revolution candidates. They’re not saying Democratic Party candidates. And I thought that was interesting even Thursday night when Sanders spoke, when he said, run even for school boards. Run for Congress. You know, run for state legislatures. He actually never said run as a Democrat. He never used those words.
KLEIN: Yeah. But I would say that it isn’t even only just about running candidates, right. I think that it is–social movements created the moment that we’re in. They created the political space, whether it was fossil fuel divestment, Black Lives Matter, immigrant rights, Fight for 15. There’s just been a wave of movement victories, like banning fracking in New York state. I think enough policy victories were won that the prospect of governing became thinkable, right.
So I think it would be, while I think it is really exciting that there’s so much talk of running progressive candidates, I think there is a real risk of just forgetting the importance of movements in all of this. And you know, I’ve been a part of a process in Canada where we came up with a people’s political platform that was outside of a party structure called the Leap Manifesto where we came together and said, you know, these are the policies we want. This is a document that’s been endorsed by 200 organization, a very broad range, from quite grassroots like No One Is Illegal, Coast Salish Territories, Black Lives Matter Toronto, and Oxfam, and Greenpeace, and tens of thousands of individuals. And we want this document to change all of the political parties, if we can.
So you know, I think getting those core principles codified is very, very important in a moment like this because it isn’t, I don’t think it can just be about running candidates.
JAY: While I got you here, I think this is an unusual moment, that two dual citizens–you are, right?
KLEIN: Yes, I’m a dual [inaud.].
JAY: Yes. So we have two dual Canadian-Americans going on here. Let’s talk a little bit about Canada. So it was quite a remarkable convention, the NDP convention. The leader falls. The influence of the Leap Manifesto was quite overt. It helped shape the whole nature of the convention. And now the NDP is kind of an open question mark, where it’s going to go. For a long time, I think a lot of the left had kind of written off the NDP as being–especially the NDP in government had turned out not to be a heck of a lot different than the Liberals, and many times in provincial government.
How do you see this unfolding, the Leap Manifesto work, and what happens in the fight within, for where the NDP goes? Can the NDP actually be a vehicle for the Leap Manifesto type of politics?
KLEIN: So, the order in which things happened was we drafted the Leap Manifesto, 60 movement organizers, intellectuals, whatever, got together, and we wrote this document during the election campaign, right, because we saw that there was not a major alternative to the Harper government that was taking climate change seriously, that was connecting responding to climate change in a science-based way, which means not picking a pipeline and cheering for it, which is what the NDP was doing and the Liberals were doing. And connecting that to fighting inequality, bringing meaningful justice to First Nations, really an alternative narrative, not just a list.
So we launched the Leap Manifesto as a people’s platform, saying this–no party is doing this, or no major national party is doing this. And we hope to change that, right. We also thought there was a chance that there would be a coalition government, that would be the Greens, the Liberals, and the NDP, that would be susceptible to pressure from a document that had been endorsed by hundreds of organizations and tens of thousands of Canadians.
Now, it turns out we have a majority Liberal government. And in a first-past-the-post system, that means they can basically ignore people, right. But at the same time, we’re having a discussion about electoral reform, which is very relevant to this. And one of the demands of the Leap Manifesto is moving to a system in which every vote counts, which we don’t have right now.
So–yeah. So what happened was is that after this sort of centrist campaign by the NDP under Mulcair led to electoral setbacks, there was a revolt within the NDP at the riding level, led primarily by young people, where they said, and this had nothing to do with us, on their own, we should have had a platform like the Leap Manifesto. And so they passed resolutions, more than a dozen riding associations, calling for a, some of them called for adopting the Leap Manifesto wholesale. Some of them called for debating the policies in the Leap Manifesto with a view towards possibly adopting them as party policy.
And so it was–. It’s been interesting for us, because we are a nonpartisan endeavor, right. I mean, there are people who drafted this who are part of the Green Party, people who are part of it who would never, you know, don’t participate in Canadian politics whatsoever. There are indigenous people who don’t, you know, believe that they should participate in Canadian politics because they have their own nation. So it’s complicated. We can’t just be like, okay, now we’re the NDP. And that’s not what we want to do, frankly.
But I actually think that what happened at the NDP convention, where a resolution was passed to support the spirit of the Leap Manifesto, and debate the specifics at the riding level–and that’s happening this summer. There are already discussions happening, and they’re going to be continuing through September, possibly longer, looking at every policy in the Leap Manifesto, with a view towards possibly changing NDP political policy, party platform. And that–. Yeah, so we’ll see what happens with that. But that’s not the only thing that the Leap is doing.
But it, you know, it’s relevant to what we’re doing here, because I think what happened in Canada is that people looked at the Sanders campaign, particularly young people, and said, what are we doing trying to crowd the middle? Why don’t we say what we actually believe? Why don’t we say what our dreams really are? Why don’t we go big?
And you know, I mentioned last night that when that vote was happening at the NDP convention, some of the young people who were arguing in favor of the Leap resolution were wearing Bernie t-shirts. So there’s this cross-pollination. And you know, it speaks to what this moment has revealed, which is really progressive ideas, really left ideas, can be popular. Even in, you know, a country like the United States, and certainly in Canada.
JAY: One final question. Why do you think that climate change, as we know the science, it could not be more urgent. Even in this campaign, and the U.S., and the Democratic Party primary. And Sanders certainly raises it more than others, but it’s still kind of on a grocery list of issues. I thought at least when the campaign hits California, where there’s such consciousness about environmental issues and climate change issues, it would be more, it would really come to prominence, and it still didn’t. It’s still just in the grocery list.
KLEIN: I think the problem is grocery lists as opposed to narratives, as opposed to a story. And that’s what we tried to do really differently with the Leap Manifesto, is okay, if we accept the science and the urgency, then how could we respond to climate change in an integrated way, so that we were fighting inequality and racism, and other forms of discrimination, and bringing justice to indigenous communities as we respond to climate change? So concretely, that means that as we move from fossil fuels to 100 percent renewable energy, we’re changing the ownership structure so that we’re creating a much more democratic economy. We have community and public ownership over renewable energy. And as we transition, we say as a core principle, the frontline communities that have received the worst impacts of the extractive economy, which means indigenous communities and other communities of color who have the refineries in their backyards and whose land is being poisoned must be first in line to owning control over their own renewable energy.
So now we’re talking about fighting inequality, creating huge numbers of jobs, lowering our emissions, justice for First Nations. Now, if you do it that way you don’t–it doesn’t drop off the list. Because it isn’t a list, it’s a holistic view of how you change your economy. And I think we’re still lacking that. We’re still lacking, we’re still seeing it as a sort of a checklist.
And so long as climate change is just one issue on a checklist it will always fall off that list, because there’s always issues that are more pressing. And that’s natural. Of course people are more focused on putting food on the table, taking care of their families and healthcare and education. The question is: given that we cannot forget about climate change, how–and given that it’s actually the best argument we’ve ever had for a transformation, a holistic transformation of our economy, how can we do it in a way that addresses those core bread-and-butter concerns, rather than trying to sort of compete and say, well you know, there’s no jobs on a dead planet, which is a slogan you hear a lot in the environmental movement.
Well, how about talking about how there are many more good jobs on a living planet? And I think we can do that. But it is a different discourse. And you know, human beings have a habit of, you know, reverting back to old ways of talking.
JAY: I said it was the final question, but I have another final question. It’s kind of–I’m backtracking now. There’s a kind of moment here that people are going to have to decide, unless Trump so self-destructs that Clinton is going to clearly win, and people involved in the Sanders movement don’t even have to do all that much about defeating Trump, and can do what is being talked about here to support political revolution, pro-political revolution candidates as they’re describing them, people that agree with this kind of economic equality agenda that Sanders has been pushing, and really focus on Congress and the downticket fights.
But if, in fact, Trump makes this more of a race, and it becomes much more of a question for people, what do you say to people who say, I cannot stomach a vote for Clinton?
KLEIN: I think people have to take leadership from the communities that are targeted by Trump. And if those communities are saying, this is our number one priority right now, we need to make sure this is not the next president, then we should take leadership from those communities, absolutely. There’s no question in my mind about that.
JAY: So you’re talking about Latinos, African-Americans, Muslims.
KLEIN: I’m talking about Latinos, I’m talking about Muslims, African-Americans. The communities that are being targeted day-in, day-out by Trump. So you know, one of the weaknesses of the Sanders campaign was, was a lack of diversity. Not among millenials, but certainly the failure to connect with large parts of the African-American community, Latino community. This is, I think, a moment to take real leadership and let those communities define what is the most pressing issue right now.
JAY: Okay, thanks for joining us.
KLEIN: Thank you.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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