Take heart from these tales of regular folks battling the bastards–and beating them back
12 min read
[Corporate supremacy] will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling–their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitability. — Arundhati Roy
Several months ago, a subscriber to our populist digger of a newsletter expressed vexation that we’ve been wasting his time during the past two years on such topics as the Koch brothers’ conspiracy, the spreading Amazon monopoly, and the threat of a fast-emerging robot economy. His beef was that the terrifying tromp-tromp-tromp of Trump is THE story–the ONLY story–and The Lowdown is guilty of journalistic malpractice by not giving The Donald’s warped personality and presidency 100 percent of our attention.
The gentleman demanded that we jump all over all things Trump all the time, or he’d unsubscribe and seek his progressive news fix elsewhere.
Well, we hate losing anyone, but, adios. There’s no shortage of publications, broadcasts, podcasts, video feeds, and other media that slice, dice, report, and re-report every one of Donald’s garbled sentences, snarls, and sneezes, so why should we be just another one? More important, while Trump currently is “The Show,” he’s not the story.
From our debut issue in 1999, we’ve seen our role not as reporters of current events, but as providers of an independent populist voice to interpret the mishmash of economic, political, and cultural events swirling around us. We try to help people read between the lies (corporate, governmental, media, religious, academic, etc.) by rooting out the lowdown each month on a particular aspect of the overall oligarchic attempt to usurp our people’s democratic authority and ideals.
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Trump is presently in the center ring of the Washington circus, but he is not the only power player (and certainly not the most effective) at the center of what is an all-out push to impose corporate supremacy over us. Among others, Charles Koch sits at the strategic center; Amazonian monopolist Jeff Bezos is at the operational center; and consortiums of Wall Street and Silicon Valley billionaires are at the futuristic center, already deploying millions of “thinking” robots to establish an über-capitalist, workerless economy. Yes, Trump is a cluster bomb of danger: Terrorizing migrant toddlers! Putin’s puppet!! The Supreme Court!!! War on Iran!!!! Worse to come!!!!! But, with all due respect to our unsubscriber, it’s this larger, opaque web of oligarchists that is the most entrenched, most enduring, and most pernicious threat to the American people and to the very idea of America. So, we will keep our eye on the bloated brat in the White House, but also, especially, on the bigger cast of anti-democracy manipulators in the shadows.
We consider our newsletter a small link in a long continuum of movement media created by generations of democratic populists. They include the 18th century pamphleteers of the American Revolution; the hundreds of fiery 19th century weeklies (with names like The American Nonconformist and Toiler’s Friend) that nurtured the populist alliances spreading from coast to coast; such 20th century muckrakers as Ida Tarbell, Ida B. Wells, Upton Sinclair, and The Chicago Defender; and today’s 21st century maverick voices of the internet, unrestrained by corporate advertisers and the dogma of establishment owners.
Besides exposing horrors, another essential role of movement media is to sprinkle hope across the land, for movements cannot persevere, much less thrive, on outrage alone. Even the most committed activists need a sense of well, of movement: true stories of the grit, resilience, inventiveness, can-do spirit, and the success of common people battling the bastards.
In this Trumpian summer of our discontent, the people’s need for signs of progress is particularly acute–and luckily, such good news abounds. You wouldn’t know it from the morning headlines and 24/7 cable broadcasts that flock after Trump as he flits from one affront to another (often in the same news cycle), but our country is not all about him. For your summer reading pleasure, then, this month’s Lowdown offers just a few of America’s innumerable stories of democratic populism in action, ranging from personal steps to coalition efforts to produce broad, structural change.
We can’t do anything about the constant, senseless gun deaths and maiming in America, can we? Even the smallest, sanest proposals to restrict the constant carnage inflicted on our society by the mass proliferation of these killing machines are met with a fusillade of political outrage orchestrated by gun manufacturers and their mad-dog NRA front group. They gloat that we can’t stop them.
But wait–a new reform approach is coming from an unorthodox coalition, including Navajos and nuns! In May, New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin suggested that some beneficent investment outfit ought to buy a gun maker and, using “smart” technology and smart marketing strategy, “transform the company into a model for advanced and responsible gun manufacturing.”
And lo, a surprising investor promptly offered to do just that: the Navajo Nation. Its 350,000 members control a $3.3 billion investment trust, and its governing council offered up to $525 million in cash to purchase firearms-maker Remington, which was just emerging from bankruptcy. The Navajos would shift the company’s sales focus from consumer murder weapons to hunting gear and military contracts, using the profits to develop “smart guns” that can be fired only by their actual owners. While the Remington board rejected the bid, it left the door open to further discussion.
Also in May, social justice activists, led by the Adrian Dominican Sisters, an order of nuns, submitted a proposal at the annual meeting of gun maker Sturm Ruger, directing it to monitor violence involving its weapons and to develop safer products. “No!” cried the corporate bosses. But, in the wake of rising public outrage at mass gun slaughters, the faith-based coalition put Ruger’s top Wall Street investors in a glaring moral spotlight, compelling them to join in passing a proposal to consider the financial and reputational risks of selling guns. “Shareholders have spoken,” said Ruger’s CEO, pledging to comply with the vote.
Maybe. He added that shareholders “cannot force us to change our business.” Well, we’ll see. As a leader of the faith activists pointed out, “a new momentum has emerged a majority of shareholders are asking their company to consider gun safety.”
DO SOMETHING: Adrian Dominican Sisters’ Portfolio Advisory Board: (low.do/nuns), Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (iccr.org), and the Northwest Coalition for Responsible Investment (ipjc.org/nwcri)
Battling banker scams
A decade ago, after Wall Street avarice crashed our economy and caused the Great Recession, some 8 million people lost their jobs; 2.5 million businesses were shuttered; and from 2007-2009, almost 4 million homes were foreclosed on each year. The people were out, but what happened to all those houses?
Millions went to the same sort of Wall Street vultures who caused the crash. They swooped across the country plucking whole blocks of houses out of distressed communities, and paying next to nothing. Among the pluckers was Trump’s fellow real estate profiteer, Tom Barrack (later tapped to collect $107 million from rich people and corporations to fund the peacocking president-elect’s inaugural extravaganza). Shortly after the Great Recession, Barrack’s company rushed across 10 states to grab 31,000 single-family homes, took them off the housing market, and turned most into overpriced rentals. Barrack called it “the greatest thing I’ve ever done.”
Mega-landlords took monopoly control of neighborhoods and jacked up rents, deepening America’s affordable housing crisis (see June 2018 Lowdown). Lately, they’ve been selling the houses at exorbitant profits, using rent-to-own and other scammy financing schemes that rip off working-class families yearning to own homes.
But, knock-knock, along came the scrappy community organizing group, ACORN, going door to door with its new Home Savers Campaign, talking with hundreds of people taken in by Wall Street’s latest predatory housing hustle. HSC’s door knockers find that families are (1) frequently lied to about the true interest rates they end up paying and their chances of ever actually owning the property they “bought”; (2) routinely deceived about the condition of the houses, forcing low- to modest-income families to scramble for extra money to fix such basics as roofs, mold infestations, foundations, and furnaces; (3) not told that their happy nest has code violations or unpaid taxes; and (4) in some cases, uninformed that their dream house has actually been slated for demolition.
A few years ago, Koch-trained tricksters of the plutocratic right wing tried to kill ACORN, but the savvy grassroots fighters of corporate greed are alive and kicking, because the public’s need for their creative advocacy and gutsiness is greater than ever. In less than a year, ACORN’s Home Savers have spread across Arkansas, Georgia, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee–exposing and shaming Wall Street’s greed, while organizing cheated families to renegotiate their raw deals. Last year, for example, the campaign confronted Vision Property Management, which owned about 5,700 properties in 40 states. The biggest outfit in this unsavory business, VPM convinced nearly 10,000 individuals and families to take its “opportunity” to rent-to-own “As-Is” houses that could turn out to be decrepit, uninhabitable, and tax-burdened. Pitching to people who can’t get approved for a traditional mortgage, VPM’s website promises to “not deny based on credit” and to seal the deal “typically” in 2 business days.
The lesson of ACORN’s pushback is that creative, ground-level organizing still works, even against powerhouse financiers and even with Trump sucking up most of the media’s attention.
A smug right-wing talking point has been popping up repeatedly in recent letters to the editor and talk show jabber. Apparently intended as a clever slap-down of people protesting Trump’s xenophobic, racist policy of denying US entry to refugees from war-ravaged, Muslim, and non-white nations, the crude punch line goes like this: If you snowflakes care so much about all those aliens, why don’t you take a bunch of ’em home with you?
In fact, Mr. Grump, all sorts of Americans are opening their doors to newcomers who’ve fled the relentless horrors of wars, violence, and repression in Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Myanmar, Syria, and elsewhere. Beginning with Thanksgiving dinner last year, an independent family-to-family effort called Hello Neighbor sprang up in Pittsburgh. Since then, it and similar organizations are spreading across the country. Recent arrivals are matched with locals, not just to share a welcome-to-America meal, but also to get to know each other through regular social interactions, develop-ing genuine neighborly relationships and long-term friendships.
While government resettlement agencies assist arriving families with their most basic needs–housing, doctors, schools, etc.–after 90 days, refugees are pretty much on their own in a culture that’s not just foreign to them, but somewhere between intimidating and terrifying. That’s when the friendly voices, helping hands, and cross-cultural exchanges of this neighborly effort become invaluable, mentoring those from afar and literally bringing them into the American community.
It’s a simple, direct way for us as individuals or local groups to do more than protest Trump’s bigotry. Through Hello Neighbor, relatively small, personal actions make a big statement about our people’s authentic commitment to humanitarian values and egalitarianism. Moreover, this personal impact goes both ways, for the American participants also have their world expanded and their lives enriched by bringing the outsiders in. As one of the Pittsburg originators said, opening up our homes to refugees revives “this feeling of neighborhood, of community. We are social creatures, and we like to share, and we like to be there for each other.”
Memo to D. Trump: That is how to make America great again.
One way to enact public policies that benefit common people over moneyed interests is to bypass corporate-purchased lawmakers and write the laws ourselves. In 26 states plus Washington, DC, and numerous cities, We the People can put DIY statutes and/or constitutional amendments on the ballot–a citizens initiative process that in this era of plutocratic rule has become a major avenue for achieving progressive change. Here is a sampler of the scores of state and local measures voters will see on their ballots this fall.
ECONOMIC FAIRNESS In 2016, all four of the state initiatives to raise the minimum wage passed, and this year worker advocates in Massachusetts, Michigan, and Missouri will try to add their states to this win column. Also, Michiganders will vote on letting workers there earn paid sick time.
DEMOCRACY Voters in Albuquerque, Baltimore, and Denver will be offered new forms of small-dollar, public financing of elections to counter the crushing power of secret, unlimited donations by corporations. A South Dakota measure would ban corporate donations to candidates and political parties and bar “gifts” from lobbyists to elected officials. To stop incumbents from hand picking their voters by gerrymandering their districts, people in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, and Utah will have a chance to turn redistrict-ing over to independent, non-partisan commissions. Reforms to democratize voting are proposed in Florida (a “second chances” initiative to let non-violent felons vote after release); Michigan and Nevada (automatic voter registration); Maryland (same-day registration); South Dakota (vote by mail); and Massachusetts (ranked-choice voting, recently implemented in Maine).
HEALTH CARE Trump and his cadre of far-out ideologues in Congress remain obsessed with killing Obamacare, Medicaid, and other health programs that benefit workaday people, but several populist state initiatives are popping up to put some care back into healthcare: If proposals in Idaho and Utah pass, they would join 24 states in expanding Medicaid access. A ballot measure in California would limit the price of dialysis, and one in Massachusetts would require hospitals to maintain a safe level of nurses.
ALERT: CORPORATE BACKLASH! Ballot measures have proven so successful that corporate front groups have begun pro- posing deceptively worded initiatives that would forestall citizens from putting initiatives on the ballot. So far this year, initiatives to stop or restrict initiatives have been filed in Maine and South Dakota to curtail people’s access to this process of direct democracy. Also, ALEC, the secretive, Koch-funded anti-democracy group, has generated bills in six state legislatures essentially to keep citizen initiatives off the ballot.
DO SOMETHING: The Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (ballot.org)
Front porch politics
If you despair that a mysterious plague of incurable political knuckleheadism has swept our country, turning previously progressive white working-class people into mindless Trump worshippers, check out “The Promise of a Progressive Populist Movement.” This report is the work of People’s Action, a multiracial, grassroots coalition. This year, its volunteers knocked on more than 5,000 doors, had nearly 2,500 phone conversations, and visited scores of local events and churches in “Trump Country”–dozens of rural counties in 10 swing states including Iowa, North Carolina, and Wisconsin that went for the yellow-haired corporatist in 2016. The door knockers simply had open conversations asking folks in economically distressed rural communities what mattered to them politically. The most common initial response was, “No one’s ever asked me before.”
While Trump voters are predominantly white, the working-class families visited by People’s Action included Black, Latinx, Native American, and other residents living in these economically distressed rural communities. They were not impressed by the inflammatory bugaboos that idolatrous Trumpsters cite: hordes of invading aliens, mooching poor people, fake media, etc. Rather, what they most cared about was being told by word and deed that they–America’s hard-hit and hard-working families–don’t matter. Far from converting to the Narcissistic Church of The Donald, these voters saw Trump as merely a handy, blunt-force club to whack a two-party system that no longer speaks to–much less for–them.
And rather than embracing Trump’s elitist ideology and agenda, they told People’s Action that they want populist reforms like health care for all, fair wages, free access to education, clean water, and a government uncorrupted by big money. As a North Carolina door- knocker said of all the front-porch conversations she had: “No one ever asked me to deny [workers] a living wage; no one ever asked me to give tax breaks to billionaires and multinational corporations; no one ever asked me to transfer wealth off the backs of working people, or allow big money to influence an election.”
The true political spectrum in America is not right to left, it’s top to bottom. A bright progressive future awaits us if we join hands with the great progressive, racially inclusive majority of workaday people who’re no longer in shouting distance of the economic and political elites at the top.