[Remarks by Dan Livingston upon receiving the People's World Amistad Award at the December 4, 2016 event in memory of our brother Art Perry, held at Wexler-Grant Community School in New Haven, Connecticut. Livingston is a groundbreaking labor attorney and lifelong union and progressive activist. As a member of a firm of “troublemaking lawyers” (Livingston, Adler, Pulda, Meiklejohn and Kelly), he represents many public and private sector unions. He represents, works with, and serves on the boards of many coalitions, community and progressive organizations fighting for social justice in Connecticut.]]
Since 2 a.m. on November 9th, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what happened to our country.
This is one crazy time in our history. A sociopathic con man elected president with a Tea Party Congress. Our once deeply blue General Assembly now evenly divided, and a great danger of electing a Republican governor in 2 years. In the few moments I have, I want to stress 3 words to guide us through the insanity.
The first is Clarity: This is a moment in time when the two greatest contradictions in the so-called American experiment are made absolutely clear. The first is exemplified by the ringing words of Thomas Jefferson our founding hero:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
This is the contradiction of exclusion. The greatest call for universal democracy on its face excluding women, half the human race, and penned by a white slave owner who would shortly support the so-called great compromise which not only continued slavery, but gave southern states extra political power. Ironically it was to preserve the despicable 3/5’s rule that the electoral college was retained for presidential elections.
Over our history, this contradiction of exclusion has been applied to immigrants, the lgbtq community, and many others.
The second great contradiction is that our democracy is premised on “checks and balances,” three branches of government that check each other and in turn are checked every two years by the democratic vote of the people. Yet the most powerful force in our civil society has been elevated beyond almost all checking. One of the earliest phrasing of this contradiction comes from a quote often attributed to Abe Lincoln:
"It has indeed been a trying hour for the Republic; but I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed."
One can make a million arguments about exactly how we elected Donald Trump President of the United States, but all explanations must begin with the “money power of the country…”working upon the prejudices of the people” until “wealth is aggregated in a few hands.” The opposite of our “checks and balances” system, this is the contradiction of dominance, the contradiction of unchecked corporate power.
At the height of America’s broadest prosperity there were 5 powerful checks on what has now become the multinational corporate system. One of them was a rival system of state socialism, but the Soviet Union has fallen and sadly not towards democratic socialism but to corporate capitalism. It’s no check on multi-national corporate power. The other 4 checks have also been obliterated or weakened:
(1) Restrictions on the movement of capital; (2) Restrictions on unfair international trade; (3) the trade union movement; and (4) state and national regulation of core businesses.
The economic dislocation of ordinary people throughout our nation is the direct result of this nearly unchecked corporate power, their ability to do what they want, to whom they want, whenever they want to. And these two fundamental contradictions work together, the contradiction of exclusion being used to divide us and weaken our ability to address the contradiction of unchecked corporate power.
Which leads to the second word. Peril. The last phrase of the Lincoln quote is “and the Republic is destroyed.” In the midst of a civil war which almost ended this nation, he saw the greater risk to American democracy being unchecked corporate power, and its appeal to popular prejudice.
In the long run, there has never been a successful democracy in the history of the world which has withstood the levels of income inequality which unchecked corporate power has produced. Add that to the toxic mix of racism, sexism, homophobia, jingoism, not to mention the risks to our natural environment which Lincoln could not possibly have foreseen, and we are indeed in peril. Our democracy will not last unless the checks and balances on corporate domination can be rebuilt and new ones created. And unless and until the contradictions of exclusion are acknowledged and overcome.
Which leads to the third word that will guide me. Solidarity. It is a word that for those in this room and those of us who grew up in the labor and civil rights movements means everything. Ordinary people are not strongest when they stand up for themselves. We are strongest when we stand up for each other.
But it is in the combination of those three words that I find a guide for action over the next 4 years. Solidarity, energized and activated by the peril we face, informed and educated by the clarity with which we understand and articulate our nation’s problems and the solutions to them.
In the labor movement we say “the Boss is the best organizer.” When the employer is most oppressive and disdainful of our rights, this is our greatest opportunity to bring workers together, to overcome the prejudices that divide us, and demand structural change. With clarity, energized by our common peril, we can make Donald Trump our greatest organizer.
One other thing I think we need to be clear about as we move forward – who our enemies are. Defenders of unchecked corporate power are our enemies. Sociopaths like Donald Trump are our enemies. But most of Trump’s individual voters, and the voters for his fellows in Connecticut are neither billionaire defenders of corporate power nor sociopaths. Whatever percentage of those voters were motivated by intolerance and bigotry we must reach with tolerance and love. As Martin Luther King tells us, Darkness doesn’t drive out darkness, only light does that. Hate doesn’t drive out hate. Only love does that.
As for whatever percentage of Trump voters were motivated not by bigotry but by despair in the status quo -- touched more effectively by Trump’s magical promises than by the muddled message of too many of our Democratic leaders -- we need to reach them with real organizing, and with real answers. The contradictions of our American democracy would have existed regardless of the election results of 2016, as would the growing demand that we address them. Indeed, our fight is neither to “make American great again,” nor to claim it is great already, but to make America great in a way it has never yet been.
And we must be humble enough to admit the rationality of a belief that the Democrats will not address the fundamental contradictions which are disrupting people’s lives – for they won’t, unless we make them -- even if we cannot see the rationality of a belief that somehow Donald Trump will. Lincoln was right that all of us can be fooled some of the time and Donald Trump is a masterful con man.
In Connecticut this year, many Democrats ran on not raising taxes, defending a so-called “New Economic reality” and a record of heartless austerity. Republicans ran on a false pledge to turn things around for working families. The result – tremendous gains for Republicans.
If we learned anything from the state and national elections of 2016, it’s that we can’t make change on mushy appeals to the middle. As the great Jim Hightower tells us “Ain’t Nothing in the Middle of the Road but yellow lines and dead armadillos.” And even if we sometimes elect dead armadillo’s to office, we rarely see them change anything.
Another way to say that is that with lies and half truths, you may be able to stoop a movement that seeks to change the world -- but you can’t build one that way. That’s a big advantage that the defenders of the status quo have in any election, but we just have to deal with it. And take comfort from the fact that there clearly is a big demand for change in this country, even we have not yet found a way to capture it. An avowed socialist came damn close to winning a major party nomination, and perhaps then the general election. An impossible thought a decade ago. That means something. Not enough. But something. So here’s what I say we do:
We openly and proudly address the contradiction of exclusion by defending each other when we are attacked, and working with each other to move forward. In Connecticut we are building a coalition of labor, civil rights, faith, community group called DUE Justice. You can check out our Facebook page. DUE Justice All of us coming together and working towards our common interest in real change.
We all know the famous lament written by Martin Neimoller about the man who did not speak out while the Nazi’s came for group after group because he was not in that group, and then when the Nazi’s came for him, there was no one left to speak out. We have plenty of time to make that not a lament, but a pledge:
When they come for the Muslims, I will speak out, even if I am not a Muslim. When they come for the trade unionists, I will speak out, even if I am not a trade unionist. When they come for our lgbtq sisters and brothers I will speak out, even if I am straight. When they come to steal women’s reproductive freedoms, I will stand with women, even if I am a man. Whether they come for Jews or Gentiles or Atheists, Citizens or immigrants, communists, socialists, environmental activists, or Native Americans, I will stand with them. And when they come for me, I will not stand alone.
And let us openly and honestly address the contradiction of unchecked corporate power. As Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz explained so clearly:
"The rules of economic globalization are likewise designed to benefit the rich: they encourage competition among countries for business, which drives down taxes on corporations, weakens health and environmental protections, and undermines what used to be viewed as the “core” labor rights, which include the right to collective bargaining. Imagine what the world might look like if the rules were designed instead to encourage competition among countries for workers. Governments would compete in providing economic security, low taxes on ordinary wage earners, good education, and a clean environment—things workers care about. But the top 1 percent don’t need to care."
With this vision in mind we need not just to defend our unions, but to build them stronger. And we need to be in the streets and in the halls of government. They need to be our streets. Imagine what the 8 years of Barak Obama might have been like if the streets had belonged to us in 2009 and 2010 powered by the heady excitement of the 2008 victory, instead of by the reaction and bigotry of the Tea Partiers. Almost certainly no Tea Party Congress elected in 2010. Our energy, and demands pushing Obama and Congress left, just as progressives (and Eleanor) pushed Franklin Roosevelt left in the 30s. And almost certainly no President-elect Donald Trump.
We need to take the streets from Donald Trump just as the Tea Party took the streets from Barak Obama. If the new born Tea Party could own the streets after Obama beat McCain by nearly 10 million votes, certainly we can own them after Trump lost to Clinton by over 2 million.
It is going to be an ugly, ugly 4 years. While our greatest challenges existed long before the election of 2016 and would have continued no matter who won this year, they are magnified when our enemies control so much of our government’s power. There will be moments when it seems there is no way to go but back, nothing to do but suffer.
Indeed, in the short term, we will be dragged into many defensive battles, and we will lose some of those. We can’t control that. But what we can control is our response, our energy, our commitment, the organization and solidarity that we build, and the clarity with which we speak truth to power.
All of our brothers and sisters who came before us, whether they built the labor movement, or won the right to vote, or most recently the freedom to marry, all of them knew such moments. And found a way to move forward.
In the 30s they created unemployed counsels so that workers who had been victims of the Great Depression became instead warriors for the New Deal. Dr. King and the civil rights leaders of the 60s turned the segregationist fire hoses and police dogs from tools of oppression into rallying and recruitment devices for a growing non-violent movement. They built something bigger and stronger using what Dr. King called the “fierce urgency of the now” to rally from short-term defeat to longer term progress.
Sisters and Brothers, it will not be easy. But with clarity of vision, with recognition of the peril we face, and with true solidarity, we will come out stronger together.
 I learned recently that there is substantial controversy about whether this quote, around at least since the 1890’s, is in fact authentic; it could have been an effort to use the spirit of Lincoln’s definition of democracy -- government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” – to call out what was by the 1890’s already becoming a dangerous accumulation of power in corporate hands. Either way, it well expresses the peril of unchecked corporate power which we experience today.