The Problem Is Empire

Tom Hayden delivered these remarks to a gathering
of activists at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. It
appears as part of the Moral Compass series, focusing on the spoken

Let me tell you some of my story and lessons I have learned over these
past five decades. I have always tried to improve my country, always
trying from the places around me.

I was smart and ambitious and athletic, but something never felt right
in my suburb, school and church. I felt more at home with the underdogs
and misfits than with the authorities. I was Holden Caulfield in
Catcher in the Rye against Alfred E. Newman at Mad

I editorialized against overcrowded classes in high school. I
editorialized against racist fraternity discrimination at the
university. I went to the Democratic Convention in 1960 and was moved by
Martin Luther King and John Kennedy, and a new student movement.

I moved to Georgia, became a Freedom Rider, got beaten up for civil
rights. I helped start a movement on campuses called Students for a
Democratic Society that believed in what we called participatory
democracy, the right of everyone to a voice in the decisions affecting
their lives. We wanted to bring the spirit of the Southern movement to
the North.

I left graduate school and became a community organizer in the slums of
Newark for four years. During that time the US government, led by the
Democratic Party, invaded Vietnam with hundreds of thousands of troops
after promising not to. The draft started up, and I was classified IY,
the category for potential troublemakers.

Watts blew up in 1965. My Newark neighborhood became an occupied war
zone in 1967, and that was it for the war on poverty. I wanted to know
who we were really fighting, so I went to North Vietnam in December
1965, my first trip outside America. I was shocked at the civilian
destruction, and the brave resistance of a small nation of peasants. I
came back and immediately lobbied for a negotiated withdrawal, and got

Now I was living in two worlds, still knocking on doors in Newark and
opposing a war that was ending the war on poverty I believed in. The
contradictions becoming too much, I helped organize antiwar protests at
the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. Nixon, the FBI
and even Lyndon Johnson said we were part of an internationally funded
communist conspiracy. I was still fighting against wrongdoing at home,
while my father's generation thought we were pawns of an enemy abroad.

I went back to Berkeley set on organizing youth and student communities.
I was yanked away to be indicted by the Nixon government for the street
riots in Chicago. I spent about five years, including five straight
months on trial, living under a cloud, until the courts threw out the
case of the Chicago 8. I really didn't know if we were descending into a
police state or not. During our trial, one defendant, Bobby Seale, was
chained and gagged, and two Panthers working on his legal defense were
shot with ninety police rounds while sleeping in their apartment.

I went back to mainstream antiwar work trying to defund the Indochina
war, from 1972 until 1976. I supported George McGovern as a peace
candidate, Vietnam veterans against the war like John Kerry, the
Berrigan brothers' civil disobedience, and those who went underground to
Canada. I didn't join them, but I thought the Weather Underground was
completely predictable and understandable.

After the long radicalizing interruption of the war, I tried to combine
community organizing and electoral politics. I served in the California
legislature for eighteen years, once again returning to local and state
issues. Based on the early vision of participatory democracy, and
building on the progress towards political rights like voting, I helped
build a statewide grass roots campaign for economic democracy,
pressuring the great corporations to become accountable.

Some of the issues we worked on were these:

* Protecting the right to local rent control, which saved Santa
Monica residents alone about $500 million over little more than a

* Stopping a nuclear power plant in Sacramento by a democratic vote
of the people.

* Stopping a Liquified Natural Gas terminal on Indian land in Santa

* Empowering neighborhoods to bargain effectively with big
developers. Saving the oldest building in LA from the wrecking ball.

* Saving salmon, stream beds, wetlands, deserts and redwood forests
from the power of developers and special interests.

* Trying to replace the war on gangs, mass incarceration and
unconstitutional police misconduct, with gang peace processes and
employment opportunities, from LA to El Salvador.

* Involvement in over fifty political campaigns at local levels,
including some of the earliest elections of feminists, gays and
lesbians, renters, Asian-Americans and former '60s radicals.

* Getting Hollywood celebrities engaged in supporting political
causes and candidates.

It was said by Washington consultants that we had the greatest
grassroots organization in the national Democratic Party. But it was
also the '80s, and Ronald Reagan was invading Honduras, El Salvador and
Nicaragua, and placing nuclear missiles in Europe. My world of domestic
issues became small and secondary again, like my days in Newark when
Vietnam was escalating. And I noticed that our foreign policy
interventions were creating a wave of new refugees who could be
exploited either as cheap labor or scapegoated as my Irish ancestors
were the century before.

And so it has gone. Even when the Soviet Union collapsed. Even when Bill
Clinton was elected on the strategy of "it's the economy, stupid," we
soon were bombing the Balkans, inventing new doctrines of humanitarian
war and expanding NATO. By carving Kosovo out of the former Yugoslavia,
we were creating an incentive for Georgia to invade South Ossetia--and
try to reignite the cold war.

Then came 9/11, and a legitimate security crisis was transformed into
the invasion of Iraq along with the war in Afghanistan, Pakistan and
perhaps soon Iran. The neocons and hawks applauded and funded Israel's
ill-considered war with Hezbollah and Lebanon, completing a new
battlefield of the war on terrorism to replace the cold war.

So there you are. We will have to go back to the lessons Roman and
British empires to learn the painful lessons of imperial overextension.
The lessons in blood bravely shed in lost or dubious causes. The lesson
of a weakened capacity to fund healthcare, education, our children's
futures. The lesson that democracy is diminished as the secrecy of the
warmaking state expands. The lesson of being hated in a world where
alliances are a necessity, not a choice.

For too long we have divided our movement labor between domestic and
foreign policy issues. Sometimes there are contradictions, for example,
when the cold war liberals--today's humanitarian hawks--believed we
could have both guns and butter, the world's most massive arsenal,
fueled by oil, combined with robust domestic initiatives on healthcare
or the environment or inner city jobs. It just hasn't worked out that
way. The richest country in the world still lacks a national healthcare
program, still is pockmarked by ghettos and barrios, still has massive
school drop out rates combined with the largest incarceration rate in
the whole world.

And despite any evidence of significant success, the wars go on, the war
on terror, the war on drugs and the war on gangs.

Despite the evidence, the organized peace movement is weaker than any
other social movement, or network of NGOs, in America. The peace
movement is a mainly voluntary expression of antiwar feeling that rises
and falls depending on the body counts and media coverage. The peace
movement is not institutionalized, not in comparison with the labor
movement, the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the
environmental movement. It is not funded by the great liberal
foundations nor by the wealthy liberals of Hollywood or other moneyed

The point I am making is that our progressive priorities are wrong. Any
hope for transformational domestic change depends on reversing the
entrenched interests driving the dual agenda of military and corporate
empire, including the Pentagon and the oil industry and the narrow
elitist thinking of most national security and economic experts.

The battle is between the empire, or whatever euphemism by which is
goes, and participatory democracy.

Our adversaries, who once favored monarchy and then white supremacy,
have done a successful makeover and attempted to steal the banner of
democracy. For example, they are exuberant about imposing democracy by
force across the Middle East and to the borders of Russia, but they show
no enthusiasm for the democratic process sweeping away the former
dictatorships that our government backed in Latin America. Our
government is opposed to democracy on our borders if those democracies
reject our military bases, our special forces and our corporate
dominance over their resources and services. Venezuela, Bolivia and, of
course, Cuba are being targeted for isolation and subversion, while
Colombia is the American spear in the Andes.

Latin America is the brightest democratic spot on the planet today. But
its democratic revolution is not enough; an enormous shift in global
finance, investment and trade policies is needed to address
underdevelopment and poverty. The resources to build a movement here
against military intervention in Latin or Central America are sorely
needed. An alternative to the Monroe Doctrine is sorely needed. An
alternative to the top-down secretive WTO, NAFTA, CAFTA and FTAA models
is sorely needed. The movement for immigrant rights and labor rights is
where domestic policy and Latin American policy should meet.

I am campaigning for and voting for Barack Obama not because I agree
with him on every foreign policy issue but because I think we need to
unleash the energy of those who fight for justice and housing and
healthcare and jobs and the environment here at home. The Obama movement
is registering and mobilizing millions of new voters, young people,
working class, people of color and poor. The mere fact of their being
mobilized will create a pressure for new priorities on the economic home
front against the present priorities of militarization abroad. The fact
that Obama rose to his present position on the tide of antiwar sentiment
forces Obama and the Congressional Democrats to pay greater attention to
our needs at home or pay a political price. If he expands the quagmires
in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we will have to oppose those wasteful wars
as well.

So I am saying that domestic groups--organized around issues from civil
rights to the environment--cannot afford to leave peace simply to the
peace movement. And the peace movement has to point every day to the
domestic costs, including energy costs, of the Iraq War and the larger
empire. And we must define an alternative vision to the undemocratic
structures of corporate and military power that promise security but
bring us war, that promise jobs but lower our standard of living. We
need a new model of political economy that is equitable and sustainable,
not one that expects every country in the world to meet our needs,
including our appetite for their resources. And finally, we must build a
progressive movement inside and outside the Democratic Party, one that
respects the autonomy of single-issue movements, that brings our
community organizing experiences to bear on this frustrating political
process, that can build and strengthen a progressive power base that can
fight everyday for our needs, not the empire's needs.

It is not enough to liberalize the empire; the task is to peacefully and
steadily bring it to an end, making democracy safe for the world as some
organizers said fifty years ago. In place of empire, we need to
understand the world as a multipolar one, and drive it towards
participatory democracy through social movements. Those social movements
will not only pressure their existing governments but energize a global
civic society that can achieve enforceable new norms on human rights, a
global living wage and corporate accountability, a healthy environment
instead of global warming, and the steady reduction of nuclear weapons.

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