The Coastal Post - February 2000

Dissent In The Streets

By Steven Hill

As the clouds of tear gas dispersed over the streets of Seattle, one couldn't help but wonder where all this dissent over the World Trade Organization came from. Certainly in booming economic times we have not heard much vocal opposition in our state and federal legislatures.

In fact, no matter which political party has been at the helm, the U.S. government and corporations have been the world's primary boosters for globalization and the WTO. Unfortunately, the heat of debate usually has reduced the complexities of the issue to simplistic slogans and sound bites.

While the nostrums of free trade, consumer choice and technological innovation have become the mantra of the times, our politics seem to be running headlong in the opposite direction-toward less choice and less quality information. Campaigns have become increasingly negative, and legislative races increasingly non- competitive. Third party efforts have had little chance of success.

But what else should we expect from our Winner Take All system? Elections are contested in one-on-one races where 51% wins everything and 49% wins nothing. This guarantees a two-party system where each side campaigns and governs by blaming the other side.

In this carnivorous climate, positions that question the promised land of globalization get chewed up, even carefully nuanced positions expressing doubt or seeking compromise. So do third parties like a Labor, Reform or Green Party that might offer voters a different kind of choice.

Without the presence of a political party whose candidates are explicitly pro-worker, the American labor movement has had little choice but to support the Democrats. This has left the Democratic Party under the leadership of Bill Clinton free to drift as far to the right as they dare. The mantle of speaking for the little guy in recent years has mostly fallen to the likes of Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot, with Democrats Dick Gephardt and David Bonior occasionally voicing opposition to their party leader, President Clinton.

There has been some agitation for a Labor Party, but nascent efforts have not been promising. There have been over 1,000 third parties in our 200-year history, but nearly all have quickly fallen into the dust bin of history. Yet third parties are the laboratory for new ideas. Without them, controversial issues are mostly left on the political sidelines.

Instead, candidates feel compelled to campaign on safe issues, substituting simplistic slogans for complex issues that have been determined by polling and focus groups. The goal is to hone your campaign message to one that attracts swing voters, and then repeat that message like a mindless advertising jingle.

The major media, which is stuck on political coverage of the horse race aspect of campaigns, routinely ignore candidates who are judged unelectable, even if they are raising good ideas and issues. Consequently, when fervent opposition to the World Trade Organization erupts in the streets, it looks as if it's coming out of nowhere.

The story in Europe is quite different. There they use forms of proportional representation that allow points of view and political parties from across the political spectrum to win representation. The European labor and environmental movements have used this effectively to build strong Social Democrat and Green Parties that have articulated an agenda questioning globalization and related issues like genetically-modified foods and the secrecy of the WTO.

When President Clinton addressed the delegates of the WTO, he stated that the perspective espoused by the protesters should be listened to and included in their deliberations. If he is sincere, then he should consider a change of electoral rules in the U.S. that will allow that perspective to win representation in our legislatures.

Try to imagine what our politics would look like if our legislatures mirrored the full range of opinions that exist in our society, not only on globalization, but health care, Social Security, education and more. Willie & Tom: Class-Based Politics By Steven Hill

In an otherwise off-political year, San Francisco's mayoral race attracted national media attention in what was described as an only-in-San Francisco story: Willie Brown, the powerful, flamboyant and liberal African-American incumbent vs. Tom Ammiano, the openly gay former teacher and stand-up comedian, president of the Board of Supervisors.

But on the ground here in San Francisco, the real story was not about race, sexual orientation, or who can tell the best jokes, but about that other, seldom-mentioned political dividing line: class. In fact, with the election over and pundits sifting carefully through the political middens, it becomes clearer that Ammiano's surging candidacy, like the WTO protesters in Seattle, amounted to nothing less than a thinly-veiled challenge to neo-liberalism and the rampant process of globalization.

San Francisco, a busy commercial and Internet center riding the surging crest of nearby Silicon Valley, is the poster city for the globalized economy. Local startups, IPOs and surging stock prices are the latest embodiment of the American Dream, dangling the bait before a wide-eyed generation. Signs of hyper-affluence are everywhere, as San Francisco has become a playground for the very rich. Willie Brown, in his Armani suits and wide fedora, has had the flash and political craft to stride across this landscape like a giant.

You'd think San Franciscans would be grateful to Mayor Brown, and his re-election would be a shoo-in. But while some San Franciscans have done very, very well in the globalized milieu, others are treading water, and too many have been left in the dust of the rocket momentum.

Cost of housing, in a city that is two-thirds renters, has skyrocketed, driving some low- and moderate-income people out of the city. Public transit has been allowed to greatly deteriorate. Great numbers of homeless still wander the streets, and most people can't afford to attend a 49ers or Giants game. A glance at advertisements for New Year's Eve parties must make most San Franciscans wonder who the heck can afford these high-roller affairs.

In short, to significant numbers of San Franciscans, Brown and his brand of politics have come to represent the worst sides of neo-liberalism and globalization. He represents the perks of power, those who are on the inside track, and those who know how to make the new global system work for them. Most portentous, perhaps, he represents a trickle-down system where, for all too many, the connection between hard work and a decent standard of living is being severed.

Into this breach Tom Ammiano stepped elegantly and cleverly. Ammiano championed open, honest government, campaign finance reform, neighborhood-based politics, public transit, compassion for the homeless, and a successful voter initiative banning the big banks' ATM fees. He's that all too rare species in American politics-a progressive, left-leaning populist that actually wins elections.

To many San Franciscans, the Ammiano campaign gave hope, not only to those who have been left out of this economy, but also to those who have gotten a piece of it, but are troubled by the direction it's heading-secretive WTO proceedings at the international level, fast-track NAFTA deals at the national, and Silicon Valley-funded machine politics locally. There is a verticality to the system that can feel frightening, causing citizens from all partisan sides to feel surrounded by something akin to a high wall, where some are invited to the party on the inside while others are kept out.

How well does Ammiano's class-tinged, little guy vs. big guy brand of politics play with the powers that be? Consider this: Willie Brown, during his two-decade tenure as Speaker of the California State Assembly, was the vilified poster boy of the Republican Party. His deft maneuvering and backroom politics contributed to a backlash in California that produced eight years of Governor Pete Wilson's brand of politics, including the anti-affirmative action Proposition 209. When California voters passed term limits for state legislators, many labeled it the "Willie Brown Retirement Act."

Despite this bitter history between Republicans and Willie Brown, the San Francisco Republican Party held its nose and actually endorsed Brown! Not only that, leading Republicans like former Governor George Deukmejian and even Wilson himself doffed their cap in support of their old nemesis. Reagan's Secretary of State, George Shultz, endorsed Brown, as did the Democratic Party establishment, including President Clinton. The leadership of organized labor, after having its arm twisted by the Brown machine, caved in and endorsed Brown a year and a half before the election, despite heated opposition from the rank-and-file who supported the more labor-friendly Ammiano. Yes, organized labor-the bosses of labor, anyway-and the Republican Party were on the same page for a change.

These globalized times are funny indeed, making for strange bedfellows. Protests like that in Seattle and Tom Ammiano's insurgent campaign may be a harbinger of the coming backlash against globalization. Time will tell if this is the beginning of a new era of class-tinged politics in the United States.

Steven Hill is the western regional director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. He is co-author of Reflecting All of Us (Beacon Press, 1999). He lives in San Francisco. For more information, see www.fairvote.org or write to: PO Box 22411, San Francisco, CA 94122.

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