American Politics Today: An Interview with Frances Fox Piven
Readers of New Political Science know Frances Fox Piven as the author or co-author of a series of path-breaking articles and books on the development of American social policies, political mobilization and voter turnout, and the attack on the welfare state. She is also a supporter of long standing of this journal and its sponsor, the Caucus for a New Political Science. In the last year Piven has come under attack by FOX News host Glenn Beck and other right-wing activists for ideas she developed in the 1960s with the late Richard Cloward. Beck and others have been keen to link Piven and Cloward's analysis in far-fetched ways to the economic policies of the Obama administration. In this interview Piven interprets the meaning of the right-wing attacks and discusses the state of contemporary American politics more broadly. She comments on the Obama administration's major policies and the prospects for political mobilization and offers advice for progressive scholars in the early stages of their careers.
JGP. What was your reaction when you learned that FOX News personality Glenn Beck had attacked you?
FFP. I was startled, of course, especially when I learned that the attack had been repeated many times. I also thought it was funny, really funny. After all, the claims that Richard Cloward and I were responsible for so much that had happened in the United States in the past decades, from ACORN to the election of Obama to the financial crisis, were so preposterous.1
JGP. What do you think is behind this and other right-wing attacks on your work and attempts to link it to the economic strategy of the Obama administration?
FFP. This is the aspect that isn't funny. Quite simply, they are telling a story that, riddled with wild errors though it may be, makes a kind of sense to many people. It makes sense because it creates a palpable villain and a narrative about what the villain did to cause changes in the US that discomfit many Americans.
JGP. You and Richard Cloward wrote an article for The Nation in 1966 titled “A Strategy to End Poverty”2 which has become, as Peter Dreier notes, the “centerpiece of a right-wing conspiracy theory.”3 Could you describe what you were trying to do in that article in the context of the struggles of the 1960s? How have the arguments and claims in that article been characterized and put to work in contemporary right-wing demonology?
FFP. The article proposed a campaign to enroll eligible people in the welfare program. We knew from our work with Mobilization for Youth on the Lower East Side in New York City that the welfare department was turning many eligible people away, sometimes giving them bus tickets to go back south. We also knew from our research that this was a widespread practice, with the consequence that less than half of those who were eligible for welfare benefits were receiving them. So we tried to think through the consequences of a campaign for full coverage, including the fiscal and political troubles it would cause in the cities, and the policy responses of a Democratic federal government that depended on its big city base, including the increasingly militant poor minorities in its urban base. We thought there was a good chance that such a welfare “crisis” would prompt a Democratic administration to federalize the program, and improve it. In fact some of the categorical assistance programs were federalized with the creation of the Supplemental Security Income program in 1974. Moreover, there was no downside to the strategy because along the way desperately poor people got welfare, food stamp and Medicaid benefits. But this was a considerably more modest strategy for reform than Glenn Beck and his ilk perceive.
JGP. You have long been involved with campaigns to mobilize voters and increase voter participation? How do you see the attack on ACORN (Association of Communities Organized for Reform NOW) in the context of the politics of voting? Of course McCain and Palin attacked ACORN during the 2008 campaign and the attacks continued after the campaign, with enormously damaging consequences for ACORN.
FFP. First, readers should know that the attack on ACORN succeeded. The organization as we knew it no longer exists. The loss is immense because ACORN was the largest and most effective representative of poor and minority people in this country, which is why it attracted the full fuselage of the organized right. One of the things ACORN did was voter registration, sometimes with remarkable success. In the 2004 campaign Florida ACORN launched a two-prong strategy, first helping to get a measure on the ballot raising the state's minimum wage, and then spreading out to do massive voter registration. John Kerry lost badly in Florida, but the minimum wage increase passed with 71 percent of the electorate. The victory came at a cost, because it spawned the attacks on ACORN as a conspiracy to fraudulently register voters. The attack was, not surprisingly considering the minimum wage victory, spearheaded by the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
JGP. Could you comment on the Tea Party “movement”? Is it a media concoction, an expression of white nationalism, or what? Is it simply a cry of resentment on the part of the traditional Republican right, or does the left have any possibility of redirecting some of the Tea Party energy?
FFP. I think it is all those things and more. It is a media concoction, an expression of white nationalism, a cry of resentment, and so on. But it also reflects a well-funded campaign by the right that singles out groups like ACORN, the SEIU (Service Employees International Union), the teachers' unions, and environmental projects, to disable not only the left, which after all is not at this point strong enough to be much of a threat, but the Democratic Party.
JGP. Turning to the broader political scene in the US, Obama was elected amidst a sharp decline in public support for the Bush administration and in the wake of an enormous financial/economic crisis. How do you view the 2008 Obama campaign in terms of a progressive alternative to neoliberalism and assaults on the welfare state, especially in comparison to the campaigns of Hillary Clinton and John Edwards?
FFP. I think the Obama presidential campaign was remarkable and a victory for the left. It succeeded in mobilizing young and minority voters, and it brought an African American to the presidency. The Obama administration in turn has done some things to restore a measure of intelligence and balance to American government, most of it under the radar screen. Obama's policies are not a “progressive alternative” to neoliberalism. Neither would a Clinton or an Edwards administration have launched a progressive alternative. That sort of bold change in direction is not going to be launched by a president alone. Whoever wins the presidency is necessarily a politician before he or she is a progressive. We are not likely to get policies that counter neoliberalism unless protest movements emerge that counter the influence on the administration and the congress of finance and business.
JGP. What is your view of the Obama administration so far on the domestic policy front, especially in the areas of economic recovery and job creation, financial reform, and health care reform? What seem to be the driving forces behind Obama's approach to these policy areas?
FFP. Obama's stimulus bill was remarkable for its tilt toward working and poor people. However, his approach to economic recovery and job creation since then has been far more timid, as was his role in health care reform. The struggle for financial reform has recently shown signs of more administration vigor. That aside, the driving forces have been the usual driving forces of accommodation to organized interest groups, especially business interest groups, both by the administration, and by the congress. We can moan and complain about these influences, but we can't wish them away. We can only try to support the emergence of convulsive protests from the bottom that might override them.
JGP. While the language of the “war on terrorism” has been modified under Obama, he has continued some of Bush's policies such as infinite detention and third country interrogation, and he has escalated US military involvement in Afghanistan. How do you think Obama's foreign policy affects the climate for progressive change inside the US, if it does?
FFP. I also am opposed to Obama's policies on terrorism and war. And yes, his foreign policy does affect the possibility of domestic progressive change, if only because it adds and will continue to add huge expenditures to federal deficits that then justify resistance to the programs that Americans need at home, to restore our infrastructure and to offset increasing inequality.
JGP. The passage of the Arizona immigration law has spurred widespread protest and mobilization. Is the immigration movement a significant new social movement in the US? How do you see its potential for coalition-building with the labor movement and other groups?
FFP. The important development is the emergence of a feisty immigration movement that contemporary unions have no choice but to support, especially unions with large numbers of immigrants in their ranks. This is an example of the mistake in hewing too closely to the experience of the 1930s. Everyone is looking for a revival of the movements of the 1930s. But popular protest in the 21st century is likely to look very different. Most workers now are service workers, not industrial workers, for example, and students and their universities loom much larger in our economic and political landscape than they did in the 1930s. Together with immigrants, these are the constituencies that will give birth to new protest movements.
JGP. Do you have any advice for younger scholars in the early stages of their career who might be New Political Science members as to how they might combine their scholarship with their commitments to activism and social change?
FFP. Obviously, an academic career brings with it a host of pressures from peers and the larger discipline that draw one away from activism and incline us toward specialization and scholasticism as we try to win promotion and tenure. There is no simple once-and-for-all solution. But we should try to limit the influence of the academy not just because activism is important for our society, but because political activism can mean a more fulfilling life, built on comradeship and the possibility of making an imprint on the world. One way to limit the influence of the academy is to be self-conscious and self-questioning about the political significance of the questions we ask as academics. Another is by paying close attention to our own role in choosing and creating the environment that comes to influence us. We should seek out institutions that are more open to activists and the real world problems that engage activists. And we should try to defend against the scholasticism of the discipline by seeking out and joining with those subcultures within the discipline that share our commitments. The Caucus for a New Political Science is a good example of such a subculture.
1 For an example of Beck's attacks on Piven and Cloward's “strategy,” see a transcript from an August 2009 Fox News program at: < http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,542521,00.html>. A response from Piven to Beck's allegations may be viewed at: < http://www.youtube.com/watch?v = J4hg8CmdKgA>.
2 Richard A. Cloward and Frances Fox Piven, “A Strategy to End Poverty,” The Nation, May 2, 1966, pp. 510-517, available at: < http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2010/03/24-4>.
3 Peter Dreier, “The Right's Conspiracy Theory Attack on Frances Fox Piven,” CommonDreams.org, March 24, 2010, available at: < http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2010/03/24-3>.
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