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A few suggestions for reading in preparation for Denver meet-up

Tony Wikrent's picture

First I’ll point to a few books, but note that most people will not be able to obtain these, let alone read them, in the short period of time left. I therefore include a modest number of links to shorter, online material in the second half.

What I recommend for reading is based on my conclusion that the Obama administration, because of its inability to conceive of an alternative policy paradigm to replace economic neo-liberalism, is in the process of discrediting political liberalism for the next two or three presidential election cycles. This places us in a very uncomfortable and demanding position: we must continue our clamorous denunciation of President Obama’s policy failures and compromises, while at the same time defending him and the Democratic Party in general from an increasingly irrational and politically potent wrong-wing.

I deliberately throw in “Democratic Party” here, because there really is no tenable third-party alternative at this point. Indeed, alternative political parties in the United States have only come to power once, and that in a time of national crisis so severe that open civil war followed immediately upon its winning of the White House. The are many, quite disconcerting, similarities between conservative political groups of that time, and those we have to deal with today. I therefore recommend reading the first few chapters of James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. There’s no need to read the entire book – you won’t learn much of political practicality in the bulk of the book that is devoted to the actual war and its military operations. What you want to learn is how the conservatives in that era organized themselves around a mind-boggling mythology of lies and half-truths, and reflect on if there was ever a point where the process could have been stopped in order to avoid the war.

There is another point in American history where a progressive populist movement seized political power, and it did so by targeting both legacy parties at the state level. I am referring to the meteoric rise of the Non-Partisan League in North Dakota in the early 1910s. There is an outstanding history that may not be that easy to find: Political Prairie Fire: The Non-Partisan League, 1915-1922. This was a recommended reading for ACORN organizers, and I would assert that it is invaluable to anyone in our position today. I have about 20 pages of notes and scans of the book, which I can email to anyone interested. Contact me at

There is a 1979 film that is a fictional account of an NPL organizer, which I am told is as good as the book. The title is Northern Lights and the makers were John Hansen and Rob Nilsen. If anyone can get their hands on a copy of this film, you are duty-bound to somehow copy it and share it. My local librarian did a search and found one copy – in Australia.

Jon Walker at FireDogLake did a five part series on the book earlier this month. I was not very impressed with it, but it is a useful overview, and is probably as useful as my jumbled notes would be.

My own quick effort to tell the history of the NPL is here.

The central issue thus remains economics (and the Obama administration’s inability to create policies alternative to the reigning economic theories of the past four decades). I therefore continue to highly recommend Jonathon Larson’s 1992 book, Elegant Technology; economic prosperity from an environmental blueprint. It is available entirely on the internet; at the very least, read the chapter on money.

The best treatment I have so far read of the problem of alternative politics in the United States remains Lawrence Goodwyn's 1978 masterpiece, The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America. Goodwyn has made a life’s work of studying popular democratic uprisings and social movements, and his Introduction is decidedly pessimistic on the prospect of popular democratic uprisings in advanced industrial societies. Here, I posted a large excerpt from Goodwyn's Introduction.

I have returned repeatedly to Stirling Newberry’s The Drum Beat of a New Nation since he posted it a year ago this month. Also worth returning to is Newberry’s Three Polar Politics In Post-Petroleum America. Generally, going back and reading anything by Newberry is an excellent way to provoke some thinking.

Finally, two relatively quick reads for those who simply won’t have the time to read anything else. A week ago, Ian Welsh wrote Democrats Face 200 million Republican War Chest Without the Strong Allies They Should Have, which I think is an excellent slap-in-the-face that should wake anybody up. To show that Walsh is not just engaging in hyperbole, there’s a story on Huffington Post today which notes that Karl Rove’s new organization raised $5.1 million last month.

And back in January, a week after the evil and satanic Citizens United Supreme Court decision, Sara Robinson offered an excellent list of suggestions for what we can do. It’s also something of a slap-in-the-face

Notice I used the word “satanic.” The Supreme Court basically turned Christianity upside down with its decision, by elevating corporations to the same level as human beings. Since we are made in the image of the Creator, the decision is accurately described as satanic. I therefore reinforce gqmartinez’s recommendation of the Bible and the Koran. Whether you like it or not, we’re dealing with a society in which religious beliefs are extremely important. To change that society, we must engage in cultural warfare. By, for example, explaining to our fellow citizens how the recent Supreme Court decision is satanic. The decision – and I am not aware of a single conservative figure who has denounced it, or even expressed misgivings about it –usurps the fundamental truth that human beings have certain inalienable rights because they are made in the image of The Creator, and are endowed with reason and rationality. For those who are interested, a full explication of the concept, as it was understood by the Founders, see the 1787 sermon preached in Providence, RI by Congregational minister Nathaniel Emmons, “The Dignity of Man,”) No other entity can be given the same rights as human beings without doing damage to this great truth. The conservative movement, in general, is satanic, as I attempted to explain a few years ago: Conservatism, and Evil as the Absence of Good. Like I wrote before: whether you like it or not, we’re dealing with a society in which religious beliefs are extremely important. To change that society, we must engage in cultural warfare. Of course, I think of it as spiritual warfare, also.

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Submitted by lambert on

I want to say that I couldn't disagree more strongly.

That said, I want all readers to understand that the editorial policies enforced here relate to method, not content -- once the discourse is cleansed of manufactured conservative memes.* So posting here is not a matter of agree/disagree with moi, lambert -- though be prepared to defend your position in case of assault! Which is the only way good ideas, and talking points, adapt and survive anyhow (one of the missions of the site).

NOTE * And, at this point, there are very few that are not manufactured. So.

sisterkenney's picture
Submitted by sisterkenney on

There is no supposedly "tenable" third party because too many "serious", "progressive", etc etc ad nauseum, media veal calves have promulgated that "reality" (kind of like the "realistic" hype of a "public option"). I, for one, have totally rejected the idea of electing "more, and better, Democrats" as congruent with my politics, or ethics (but I'm sure that many people at the orange satan would disagree with me).

chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

it's "Welsh" not "Walsh." sorry to be a pedant but he's a friend of mine. :-)

and i'm with sisterK: the dems lost me a long time ago, and short of massive transformative change of a real kind, i'm not coming back. obama in particular has kicked gay people in the stones so many times now i'd be classified as an abused woman if i supported him.

coyotecreek's picture
Submitted by coyotecreek on

scriptures to frame things, too. It makes my skin crawl when I hear the wingers do it - although there is definite merit in tricking the slimy bastards. I'm sure you can find something somewhere in the Bible to support every position known to humanity.

So maybe I could hold my nose when I point to a chapter in the Bible to support my POV.

gqmartinez's picture
Submitted by gqmartinez on

...if you're not comfortable with the scripture. I can come up with a few quotes from the Koran, but I'm just not that comfortable with it. The Christian Bible, on the other hand...I grew up going to church two to three times a week and have read the Bible both as a source of spiritual development back in the day and as an academic endeavor (looking at the history of Christianity and comparing the various moral philosophies present to secular formulations) so I'm comfortable enough with it. I can tell you, its not always helpful to only be able to quote a handful of scriptures without proper context. It can do more harm than good, so be careful.

Karen Armstrong and John Shelby Spong are good sources of information on non-theist "christian" ideas and would recommend them about as much as I'd recommend the Bible. And, frankly, having a strong moral conviction you really believe in (even secular) goes a long way, more so than basing your views on something you don't agree with at all. Bart Ehrman is a good source for academic discussions of the Bible. For a more liberal reading of the Bible from a theistic christian point of view, "God's Politics" by Jim Wallis is a good source. Its interesting to point out that big changes in the big Abrahamic religions often take place during severe oppression. The Jewish prophetic writers (e.g. Amos) were strong advocates of social justice when social justice was lacking in their community. Christianity was an apocalyptic view (common at the time) started amongst the lower classes against the elitism. Islam also started as a reaction against oppressive societies.

Tony Wikrent's picture
Submitted by Tony Wikrent on

I knew, and actually rather hoped, my statement on the need to defend the Democratic Party would elicit some strong disagreement.

Of course, please note that I preceded that particular phrase with the statement that we should continue to criticize the President (and the Dems, which I probably should have explicitly stated).

I would probably come to the same position as Lambert and sisterkenney and others except for two experiences. First, reading the history of the Non-Partisan League. The NPL members were quite as unhappy with both the Democratic and Republican parties as we are. So, they simply took them over at the local and state level. The resulting freak-out of the establishment occurred all the way from Bismarck and Fargo, to Minneapolis-St. Paul and Chicago (the HQs of the grain traders, futures markets, and railroads that had "owned" North Dakota before the NPL took over), to New York and Washington. The book has a few examples of some of the vituperative "reporting" that disgraced the New York Times and other national newspapers.

Second, my own experience this past year as a precinct official of my local Dem. Party. What particularly struck me was the resolutions process, where each precinct can pass any resolution it desires, which are then passed up to the county meeting (which I attended). The county resolutions are them passed along to the state convention. Where they are passed, and then - they go off and die in limbo. There is a massive disconnect between local Dems -- who passed (at least in my county) some truly impressive and radical resolutions on the financial crisis, on climate change, prison reform, and other national issues -- and the state and national Dem leaders. About the only idea I've had so far in ending that disconnect, and forcing the state and national Dem leaders to actually act on the resolutions, is to make it illegal for any Congressional candidate, including incumbents, to take any contributions from outside the Congressional district. This would also, I believe, begin to address the problem of money in national politics. Of course, you could end up with a situation where one corporation or one oligarch controls each CD.

One final point. What we have to defend from the irrational wrong-wing is not just specific policies, but also the ability to govern. At this point, I simply believe that the Democratic Party, however terribly flawed and corrupt, is essential to the ability to govern. The thing for the wrong wing, is that their central point is that governments are by nature unable to govern, so to the extent they can destroy the ability to govern, they win. And they cannot be allowed to win.

On some days, with enough bad news and /or enough libations, I would agree with sisterkenney. I think we should look carefully at Senator Sanders of Vermont, and think if we can't replicate that in two or three other small states. I got this idea last week, when I read some editorial about how terrible it is that small states are over-represented in the U.S. Senate, giving the wrong-wing an advantage. Well, that is not necessarily so. Can a Sanders be elected in a California or an Illinois? I don't know, but perhaps we should be discussing it. More likely, however, I think, is to get another Senator Sanders in someplace like Rhode Island, or Delaware, or Maine.

Submitted by lambert on

as I would expect. I just didn't want this thread to lose the focus on the literature, which you and only you can offer (and please send me the scans, I'll archive them here for all).

I understand about the local Ds. And our local D oligarchy is corrupt and handing over the land to large out of state corps, surprise surprise.

However, the Obama adulation also reaches down to the local level and corrupts the discourse. To this day I can't have a conversation about either Obama or election 2008 or about Obama's policies. I'm not sure what to do about that.

chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

There is a massive disconnect between local Dems -- who passed (at least in my county) some truly impressive and radical resolutions on the financial crisis, on climate change, prison reform, and other national issues -- and the state and national Dem leaders.

i live in the county in this state which is also home to the state capitol. it's been very interesting to work with the county and precinct parts of the party here, as i used to do (but no longer). otoh, the folks here who go to meetings are pretty in the know, when it comes to "what happens in Lansing (our capitol)." they understand all of the less discussed reasons why nothing gets done, why our state dems are cowards, and how the "most important thing" volunteers can do is support our dem gov and national senators. these are people who are not only members of the party, but often elected or appointed officials in our democratic government and leg. otoh, in frank discussions at meetings, it's clear to me that these folks have good ideas they very much want to implement, ideas like the ones your local group seems to have passed on up. but you're not wrong: what we were told over and over by our local leadership was that what the national leadership says and does, is what we will do, like it or not.

one of the most frustrating experiences i've had with our local group came during 06, when i was considering for whom i could work, and how. i thought at the time that a local, progressive candidate would be a good choice for my limited time. (and i wasn't wrong, he's great and i'm glad he got elected) anyway, here i am, silly blogger and all that chattering on about social networking and its power to attract new, young voters and how cheap it is, etc. and our local head told me to sit down and shut up and organize a "house party" in which i whore up my neighbors for money for the national party. it really pissed me off. what we call "social networking" today was dismissed, not because the local folks didn't think it was a good idea, but because their most important job, which came at the expense of any thing else, was to do what the consulting class in the Village sent down for all local groups to do.

i guess working within a party is hard, and i shouldn't complain. nothing worth doing is easy. still, i agree with Tony that the deathgrip the national leadership has on the party is what is killing it. i'm not sure what to do about that, other than work for the greens at the local level until the national dem folks realize they've driven away the very activist base that allows them to occasionally be a majority.

doomy: then again, if they're rigging the machines i guess all of this hardly matters.

Submitted by lambert on

And it does make you wonder why the national party doesn't make a trustworthy voting system a priority (or, rather, why neither legacy party chooses to make an issue of it).

Mile High Hellen's picture
Submitted by Mile High Hellen on

I'm finally here!

Lambert you said:
However, the Obama adulation also reaches down to the local level and corrupts the discourse. To this day I can't have a conversation about either Obama or election 2008 or about Obama's policies. I'm not sure what to do about that.

That was exactly my concern when suggestions were asked for. I'm constantly frustrated by conversations regarding Obama, and I, too, want to know what to do. I've stopped mentioning him entirely, which was hard at first, but then it got really easy as I lost interest in him. I don't take him seriously, so there's no point in detesting him. It's wasted fury.

People react in weird similar patterns that seem to have little resemblance to reality. Nothing, actually. All that emotional agony. I realize he's a vampire, so resisting him is good training, but still, I'd like to control myself when the subject comes up. I'd like to talk about society in an interesting way, but this infantile attachment is ridiculous. I think it's important beyond just the Obama dependency and could have something to do with this helpless infantile predicament this hapless society has created.

So that's why I come here to nourish the germ plasm.