campaigners hold up cease-fire now banner at white house

Leaders from Friends Committee on National Legislation, MoveOn, Oxfam America, and Amnesty International USA hold up signs calling for a cease-fire in Gaza at the White House in Washington, D.C. on November 29, 2023.

(Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images for MoveOn)

A 2024 Blueprint for Radical Change in Foreign and Domestic US Policy

To overcome the twin disasters of the ongoing genocide in Gaza and the possible return of Trump to the White House requires a multi-tactic struggle for peace, social justice, and meeting working peoples’ needs.

What are the greatest needs of the moment? Progressives are most concerned about ending the genocide in Gaza and avoiding the threat that former President Donald Trump may return to the White House and shred democracy in the United States.

Since it is the Biden administration that has funded Israel’s genocide of the Palestinian people, some on the left see these two priorities pulling in opposite directions. However, while I agree with the sharp criticism of the Biden administration’s policy on Gaza, Trump offers no alternative. He showed no sympathy for the Palestinian plight while in office and none since the genocide began.

Activists raising their voices for an end to the genocide in Gaza have been putting pressure on the Biden administration. Many Jewish individuals and organizations joined in protest actions, including in acts of civil disobedience. Demonstrators, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, reject charges that criticism of Israel’s military assault of Gaza and the deaths of over 30,000 civilians is antisemitic.

Two historical examples hint at why centrism leads to failure while radical activism promotes basic change.

Adding weight to the demonstrators’ appeals, public opinion polls for the past few months show most people in the U.S. favor a permanent cease-fire in Gaza. Three months ago, the United Nations General Assembly voted by 153 to 10 for an “Immediate Humanitarian Cease-Fire in Gaza, Parties’ Compliance with International Law, Release of All Hostages.”

The campaign to end the genocide in Gaza has begun to affect electoral politics. I was among Massachusetts voters who entered the Democratic primary this month to vote for a slate of uncommitted delegates. In doing so, I joined about 9% of those voting in the state’s Democratic primary; we sought to send a message to President Joe Biden about the need for a cease-fire to end the ongoing genocide in Gaza.

The percentage of Democratic primary voters choosing uncommitted delegates was 10% in Washington state, 13% in Michigan, 19% in Minnesota, and 29% in Hawaii. In taking this course, we followed the lead of Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and of organizations like Massachusetts Peace Action (MPA), of which I’m a member, and Democratic Socialists of America.

Although Biden has clinched the nomination, Michigan campaign organizer Layla Elabed declared: “We aren’t backing down until we achieve a permanent cease-fire. Voting uncommitted in a democratic primary election is voters’ way to tell Biden to listen to us.”

In response to the demonstrations, the primary votes, and public opinion, the Biden administration and leading Democrats have begun to shift their approach. Peace advocates remain dissatisfied that the response is inadequate, but the steps take so far are not insignificant. They include a call by Biden for an immediate cease-fire, arrangement for the delivery of some necessities to the people of Gaza, a call by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) for elections in Israel to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the drafting of a U.N. Security Council cease-fire resolution last week, and the decision to abstain from rather than veto another U.N. Security Council cease-fire resolution that passed on Monday. Continued pressure is needed to end the genocide and to secure full Palestinian rights. As Israel’s chief arms supplier and political supporter, the U.S. has the power to compel Israel to end its genocidal assault on the people of Gaza.

Two other foreign and defense policy issues are high on the list of concerns of peace advocates. Most voters and peace groups want the Biden administration to negotiate an end to the Russia-Ukraine War; left-progressive activists favor a substantial cut in military spending. Not only peace groups like MPA, Code Pink, Peace Action, and Veterans for Peace, but organizations like the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft have emphasized the need for the U.S. to shift from conducting endless war to diplomacy and reducing the risk of nuclear war.

Foreign policies often play an important role in U.S. elections, but voters generally give more attention to domestic issues. How can progressives help mobilize a decisive vote for far-reaching change at home and abroad? Instead of pursuing the chimera of bipartisanship with a far-right and Trumpist Republican Party, advocates of change need to pursue a radical agenda to make significant improvements in the lives of working people.

Two historical examples hint at why centrism leads to failure while radical activism promotes basic change.

Centrism by the Democratic Party standard-bearer did not begin with former President Bill Clinton. Midway through his single term, former President Jimmy Carter saw that former President Ronald Reagan was his likely opponent and moved to the right to fend off the conservative challenge. Carter abandoned détente, cancelled U.S. participation in the Moscow Olympics, and renewed registration for the draft. Domestically, he shifted spending from social programs to the military, withdrew a proposal for national health insurance, and failed to conduct an effective campaign to support the Labor Law Reform bill.

The Iran hostage crisis and high unemployment and inflation certainly contributed to Carter’s defeat. The rightward policy shifts and low turnout were also factors. Low-income voters were less motivated to go to the polls than usual. Reagan prevailed in the popular vote by 51-41% (with 7% for John Anderson). Polling results showed that non-voters (almost half the eligible voters) preferred Carter over Reagan. In a post-election New York Times-CBS poll, certainly a conservative moment, 58% of non-voters and 51% of voters agreed “that the country needed more radical change than was possible through the ballot box.”

The second example is of former President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1936 reelection campaign. The incumbent responded aggressively to Republican attacks and argued for continuing the New Deal path. Although unemployment remained high, the New Deal had stimulated a significant degree of recovery from the low point of the depression, provided relief and government employment to millions of Americans, and instituted substantial social and regulatory reforms, most important the establishment of Social Security and a labor relations system designed to assist workers in establishing unions and winning collective bargaining rights.

Am I exaggerating when I associate Roosevelt with radical activism? The Democrat worked with independent left-of-center political parties and with the leaders of the labor movement. He campaigned as a champion of workers, farmers, and the unemployed and effectively communicated his caring philosophy in person and on the radio.

What was at stake in the 1932 presidential election, Roosevelt argued in his final 1936 campaign speech, was “the restoration of American democracy.” He made clear that his concept of democracy was about majority rule, or people’s power. He maintained that in 1932 “the American people were in a mood to win” and “did win.” The issue in 1936 is “the preservation of their victory,” not going back to rule by the economic royalists.

In the most famous sentences of that Madison Square Garden address, Roosevelt personalized the struggle. He said that the monopoly forces were “united against one candidate” as never before. “They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred.” The president declared, “I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match” and then, in the most controversial passage, “I should like to have it said of my second administration that in it these forces met their master.” The Madison Square Garden crowd was thrilled by that declaration while moderate advisers were worried by it and Republicans attacked him for wanting to be dictator.

Is wanting to limit the power of the upper 1% to control our government dictatorial? How else are we going to achieve the radical changes that we need?

Some on the left view voting for one of the two major parties as a trap that distracts from the need to change our social system. Howard Zinn once commented that voting takes “two minutes,” and thus for activists it’s only a small part of what one needs to do to fight for a more just society. “But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, as concerned citizens, should be spent in educating, agitating, and organizing in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools.”

For those on the left who think that voting in general, or in the 2024 election in particular, is important, I suggest our work for a fundamental change in foreign policy toward peace be combined with advocacy for sweeping economic and social policies in the domestic arena.

Among the priorities that the new Congress and the new administration should enact are two structural reforms:

  1. End the Senate filibuster. When the new Senate convenes in January 2025, a simple majority of members can do so. Right now, Republican senators represent about 155.5 million people while Democratic senators represent 201 million people. It would take a constitutional amendment to change the undemocratic character of the Senate, something difficult to achieve. We can, however, demand that the stranglehold that 41 senators have on legislation supported by the House of Representatives and the public be ended. Is there a risk that the Republicans may one day regain a majority of both houses and that the Democrats will regret ending the filibuster? The Democrats failure to eliminate the filibuster in 2025 will not ensure that Republicans will not do so later. Ending this obstacle to fundamental reform is the only way to move forward with needed legislation and to keep faith with the American people.
  2. Expansion of the Supreme Court so that basic rights are protected and the power of corporations and the rich to control the government is strictly regulated. The packing of the court with far-right conservatives can only be ended by adding more members to the court. Congress has the power to establish regulations for the courts, including changing the number of members of the Supreme Court.

The adoption of these structural reforms will enable the Congress to break the gridlock in our polarized politics, enact fundamental legislation in the interest of working people, and prevent the Supreme Court from undoing these democratic achievements and continuing to undermine democratic rights.

Key legislative goals that the Congress should move ahead on include:

  1. A Medicare for All program. This is a long overdue expansion of the popular program, supported by the public.
  2. As part of basic healthcare, guaranteed access to reproductive services including contraception and abortion.
  3. Expanded federal protection of workers’ rights to join unions and bargain collectively. A majority of both the House and the Senate favored labor law reform at several times in the past. Ending the filibuster can lead to enactment of such legislation. Most workers would like to join a union, but employer threats and punishments have prevented workers from gaining the say in their work lives that they seek. A labor law reform bill should return the country to the promise of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act that the federal government encourages “the practice and procedure of collective bargaining” and protects “the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self-organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms and conditions of their employment or other mutual aid or protection.”
  4. A restored Voting Rights Act and Equal Marriage Rights Act.
  5. Expanded funding for public quality education from pre-kindergarten to university so that teachers are supported and students are funded and can reach their potential. President Biden has taken steps in this direction by reducing some of the burden of student debt.
  6. We need to tackle homelessness and the high cost of housing for working people, especially low-income families. We need at least 7 million new housing units, which the federal government can do by building public housing. In addition, the Congress should adopt a version of the New York state law, the Housing Our Neighbors with Dignity Act, so that the homeless and “housing providers, and cities... are able to convert distressed buildings into permanent homes for the homeless.”
  7. We need to fully restore the child tax credit enacted as part of the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan in 2021 and enact the high quality federally funded child care program adopted by Congress but vetoed by President Richard Nixon in 1971.
  8. The long-term interests of the people of the U.S. and the planet demand the U.S. take seriously commitments made under the Paris agreement and go further to get to net zero emissions. The United Nations points out that “getting to net zero requires all governments—first and foremost the biggest emitters—to significantly strengthen their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) and take bold, immediate steps towards reducing emissions now.”
  9. A dramatic increase in the tax rates on the rich and the corporations and a dramatic reduction in the military budget to fund social needs at home and humanitarian and economic aid to the needy of other countries through the United Nations.

Biden has proposed increasing the corporate tax rate to 28%, below the level of 35% it was before the Trump tax cuts reduced it to 21%. The highest corporate tax rate during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations was 52%. From 1987 to 1986 the rate dropped to 46%. It did not drop below 40% until 1988. Increasing the corporate tax rate to the level of the Eisenhower and Kennedy years would provide far greater funds for needed infrastructure projects and social programs and begin to reduce the huge gap between the richest 10% and the rest of the population.

The administration’s budget proposal calls for increasing the highest individual income tax rate from 37% to 39.6%. The latter rate was the one established in Clinton’s 1993 budget and allowed for expansion of the earned income tax credit. Given the need to reduce inequality and for infrastructure development, housing, health, education, and environmental protection, returning to the higher tax rates of the past can be justified. The highest individual tax rate was 50% from 1982 through 1986, 70% from 1971 through 1980, 91% from 1954 through 1963, and 94% in 1944 and 1945. There is far more wealth and high incomes at the top than ever before. We should think big and demand the same from our representatives.

To overcome the twin disasters of the ongoing genocide in Gaza and the possible return of Trump to the White House requires a multi-tactic struggle for peace, social justice, and meeting the needs of the working people of the U.S. and the planet. We have a world to win.

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