Like an average warm, Spring day on the beach, it was kinda slow in Sacramento for the California State Democratic Convention this year. With no elections about to happen in the Fall, no candidates noisily trying to climb over their competition, and no propositions with confusing, quadruple negative language and deliberately byzantine subtleties to argue about, there was hardly enough campaigning going on to make sticker collecting worth the effort. It was the kind of convention where one of the more exciting moments came when a delegate took his turn at one of the mics on the floor to correct the grammar and typos in a platform amendment. The hardest thing to understand was what some of the not quite as hip as a cellphone that won’t text delegates were doing at the Ozomatli concert fundraiser.
In case you’ve never been to a political convention, one of the major features is usually demonstrations. That is, relatively not-unruly crowds of theoretically more or less spontaneous, unsolicited enthusiasts with uniform, glossy signs supporting candidates and issues who noisily rush the podium when their item assumes its command. To be fair, most of the demonstrators are fairly sincere, even if many seem a little out of place – not completely comfortable with the idea of getting up in front of everybody to make a ruckus.
In busy, contentious years some of the demonstrations can make you think there’s really some political life left in America. The front of the stage can almost turn into the kind of pit you’d expect at a show with an Englebert Humperdinck impersonator doing Metallica covers, except maybe with less black leather & tattoos and more cameras – big, expensive cameras run by people with actual press badges.
But not this year. This year the biggest demonstration was a short conga line of “Healthcare not Warfare” people snaking lazily up and down, back and forth, across aisles of politely seated delegates. Their display was limited to the usual professionally printed hand-held placards about the size of a big computer screen, and one large banner that frequently drug the floor. When it was pointed out to them that by blocking the view and distracting from the activity on stage they weren’t making any friends for their cause, with almost no resistance they found places to stand with their signs that didn’t block anyone’s view. They did the right thing, even if by doing it they demonstrated more than anything else the casual, non-confrontational atmosphere that dominated most of the convention.
Most, but not all of the convention. On Saturday, the big day for the whole event, Bernie Sanders, an Independent senator from Vermont who quite notably is not a Democrat, took the stage and captured the weekend. He might even have almost gotten a real demonstration if the ushers hadn’t been able to chase everyone back to their seats like would never happen in a real crush. (How would you like to be an usher standing between the crowd and the stage when Rammstein comes on?)
Bernie told the crowd what it meant to be a real progressive. He fired his first salvo right in the face of the enemy without flinching. He called out the class war in progress and chastised his listeners for being on the losing side of the conflict.
He was easy on the statistics, even though his cheering crowd would probably not have fallen asleep over them:
The official unemployment rate in our non-recovery is 8.9%, but the actual rate is probably over 15% if all those the government counts as “no longer looking for work” are included. It’s been asked before, but it’s worth another wonder to consider just what all those job search drop-outs are doing? Do you think they really started finding 24-karat golden eggs in their pajamas every morning?
Most people who have jobs are working harder than ever and making less. Real income in the average household has stagnated or declined since 1975, even though the number of workers in the average household has increased. America has the highest childhood poverty and incarceration rates of any major country, and under-investment in education has amplified the effect. Rather than graduating with hope and meaningful degrees, Americans graduate with huge debts of 25 to 50 thousand dollars and fewer chances at good jobs as American businesses invest in production overseas instead of at home.
The gap between the wealthiest and the rest is growing wider, while the aristocratic set becomes ever more exclusive. 22% of all income is soaked up by the economic top 1% of Americans who take in more between them than the bottom 50%. The wealthy pay fewer taxes than they have since the age of the Robber Barons, and the total wealth of only 400 of America’s elite is greater than that of the bottom 150 million. Many of their corporations not only don’t pay any taxes, they get rebates from the government, which is a kind of double tax for the rest of us taxpayers, since our wages provided those corporations with their record-setting earnings in the first place.
A couple of hours later Robert Reich, a new citizen of California, the world’s 8th largest economy, backed Senator Sanders up at a fund raising dinner in the auditorium on the other side of the main hall’s wall. Along with re-emphasizing a few of Senator Sanders’ same points for those too numbed by the class disaster happening around them to respond to a single poke with a pointed, burning stick, Reich did a little of his own trademark prodding.
Reich pointed out that by returning to the tax rates from 30 years ago when America had a thriving middle class, $350 billion would be contributed by the wealthy, easily enough to close quite a few holes in budgets around the country.
He told how a vicious circle exists where the lack of a thriving middle class undermines government tax base so that people lose confidence in their government to provide them with the services they need, like infrastructure, education, health care, and a safety net for the old, sick, and disadvantaged. Having lost confidence in the government, many people seek to starve it more, thereby placing more burden on themselves to privately fund services they can’t afford with the result that the middle class is eroded even further.
Perhaps most importantly, Reich explained how the policies being bought and paid for in Washington by America’s aristocracy create the impression among most Americans that America is poor. The elite would have us think we have to tighten our belts and compete ever more savagely with each other for a shrinking share of the economy – instead of uniting to take back what’s ours from those who have stolen it from us.
Bernie Sanders and Robert Reich want to make big changes. They point out a lot of problems and tell us that they want to turn knowledge of the problems into corrective action. It’s up to us to make the words of earnest people like Sanders and Reich into more than just rhetoric. We’ve got to make our president, maybe the greatest fountain of wonderful rhetoric in the country today, live up to his promises.
We’ve been had pretty badly so far, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. Vote every time you get a chance. Look for petitions to sign – online, in front of the grocery store, publicized on the radio. Write letters to the editor. Sign up for an Examiner column. Don’t be shy about talking things over with anyone who will have a conversation with you. Post your opinions on your Facebook wall. Tweet your “Change the World” inspirations. Put bumper stickers on your car and signs in your yard. Honest information and real knowledge are on our side. The competition is stuck with propaganda, unsupportable beliefs, and fanatic devotion to causes that they will one day realize aren’t in their best interests. The main thing they have going for them is energy. Instead of just laying on the dreamland beach that seemed to be soporizing the 2011 California Democratic Convention, we should find our own source of energy – go for a swim.