Listen: Labor Leader Paul Booth '64 on Pushing the Envelope in American Politics

In a talk on campus last week, labor activist Paul Booth '64 discussed the development of the American left and the state of the election. His talk was sponsored by the Department of Economics, the Department of Political Science, the Department of Sociology/Anthropology, and the Forum for Free Speech. Read more about his lecture in the Daily Gazette.

Booth graduated from Swarthmore with a B.A. in political science and international relations. In the 1960s, he founded the Swarthmore chapter of Students for a Democratic Society and served as national secretary of the organization. Booth joined the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in the 1970s, where he led organizing in Illinois, then nationally in the '80s and '90s, and currently serves as executive assistant to the president. Booth also served on the platform drafting committee of the 2016 Democratic Convention and spoke at the event.


Audio Transcript

Nate:  Paul is a Swarthmore alum, class of 1964, and he's joining us tonight from Florida, where he's actually been on the ground helping to organize for the election we have coming up in of couple weeks. You might have heard about it. You can stay after and ask him if you haven't [inaudible 00:00:16] on what's going on.

So, Paul is a Swarthmore graduate, class of 1964, which is really the root of Paul's work as an organizer. He began a chapter of Students for a Democratic Society at Swarthmore, serving as a national secretary and was involved in many other social movements along the way before he started his career and moved up to Michigan and eventually to Chicago, where he worked for a number of other notable social movements during that time, a laundry list of which I'm sure he will talk about tonight.

One of which, he actually met his wife Heather at, which, and there's a very cute story. I think date three of some protests, he asked her to marry him, which is a wonderful story, so look for your long-term partner at a protest, I guess. And he eventually joined the Illinois branch of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFSCME, which is one of the nation's largest unions.

After a successful stint in Illinois, Paul became AFSCME's national organizing director, and he now works in the president's office at AFSCME, which the position he's held for over a decade at this point. Most recently, Paul was one of a handful of Clinton appointees to the Democratic party's platform drafting committee, where he helped vote on amendments and draft one of the most progressive party platforms in party history. He's been working in Florida for the past couple months, and we're incredibly grateful to have him here tonight. Paul Booth.

Paul Booth:  Thank you, Nate. Thank you to all the sponsoring organizations, one of which was the Department of Sociology did not exist in my undergraduate days because it was too soon to have sociology at Swarthmore. It just hadn't found itself. It's very nostalgic to be here because this building wasn't here, but the campus was, and I love coming back, and I'm devoted to this college.

But I'm going to talk about the political revolution that so many people got involved in, millions of people got involved in this year that has made 2016 very unusual, not the only thing that's made 2016 unusual. It has not turned out the way it seemed likely to do. It should have been, and it could have been, the payoff to the strategy of attack and rejection and polarization against the Obama presidency that was concocted instantly upon his inauguration.

There was actually a dinner at the home of Frank Luntz the night of January 20th eight years ago, where Boehner and Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor and the whole Republican brain trust sat down and decided to go forward with a strategy of complete opposition and resistance to the Obama presidency. Winning November 8th as they had every reason to expect they could do and consolidating a complete hold on political power in the United States of America, a long-term lock on the courts, a filibuster proof Senate majority, all of the power needed to finalize everything that Nixon and Reagan and Bush had started was a likely prospect 12 months ago.

Rolling back the economics of The New Deal and the egalitarianism of the '60s, even reversing the rights to abortion and to marriage equality, putting climate change deniers in charge of environmental protection, this could have been our condition in January 20th. And the financial resources to do it were pledged well in advance. You all know that the Koch brothers committed almost $900 million to this effort.

The prospects were so good that 17 top Republicans, or maybe 16, really, threw their hats in the ring. 16 governors, ex-governors, senators and ex-senators and one reality TV star. And only three Democrats even bothered to get involved, to take the plunge. And it wasn't just the culmination of an eight-year strategy. It was the culmination of something that had been worked on for 30 or 40 or even 50 years.

When I was in college here way back when, and I'm going to talk a little bit more about that, and Bernie Sanders was at the University of Chicago, both of us plunging into the new civil rights movement, engaging in civil disobedience like we did down the road in Chester, following the example of our peers in the South, in Georgia and Tennessee and North Carolina.

Picture this. For Sanders and for myself and for many of us, we were confident that our righteous causes would prevail, and that wasn't just righteousness. That was actually strate ... There was strategy and political assessment involved in that. The forward movement of the United States toward greater equality, then, was a fact of political life. It was a powerful condition that was spurred by The New Deal, the administration of Franklin Roosevelt from 1932 onward.

And though it's momentum had been slowed in the 1950s by McCarthyism, by the Cold War, it had not been reversed. New Dealers had plenty of political power in America. We knew that. It would continue to grow through the workings of the seniority system in Congress. It was enough in 1960 with the election of John F. Kennedy as president that it was possible to enact a progressive agenda. What it needed only to be stirred into action and into reality was the moral and political force of our movements that we commenced to launch.

That was the political world that I entered into. We had a strategic conception, which we called political realignment, and there is a connecting thread from political realignment then to the political revolution that Sanders talked about now, which I hope will be visible when I'm through tonight. By political realignment, we meant the enfranchisement and empowerment of black Americans in the Deep South, which would drive the Dixiecrats, the right wing Democrats, who were in political sway in the South out of the Democratic Party, reconstituting the Democratic Party without them.

You will find it in the Port Huron statement. There will be two assigned readings tonight. One of them is called the Port Huron Statement. It was the manifesto of SDS, the Students for a Democratic Society, as Nate has mentioned, an organization I was involved in creating. It is a document that has been fairly described, I think fairly, as the most ambitious, the most specific and the most eloquent manifesto in the history of the American left.

It's in there, and I was drawn back to attention to the Port Huron Statement today because last night, the principal author of that document, a great American named Tom Hayden, passed away at the age of 76. Tom was the lead when we wrote that document, but there were three Swatties. This is going to be shocking to you, not to Maurice, but we were not called Swatties. We were called Swarthmoreans. That was the simple phrase, so just swallow that.

Okay, I know that we're now called Swatties. Three Swatties were among the 50 young radicals who gathered at a union summer camp in Michigan in the middle of June in 1962 to create this document, the Port Huron Statement, the manifesto to which I've referred. And my little small contribution was in crafting those paragraphs about realignment, so this is the political world I entered as I matriculated in 1960, civil rights, lunch counter sit-ins, freedom rides, nuclear testing, I knew about these and was ready to commit myself, and so were many of my classmates. We quickly found each other, and the culture of the campus was remade by our commitment to social change.

And I also knew that I was a Democrat. Kennedy came to the Springfield mall, just about this time in October, a nice, beautiful, one of these gorgeous days that you have here in October. There was a rally in the parking lot of ... It's now Macy's, but it was Strawbridge & Clothier, Clothier, as in the building over there, Clothier. So we had a motley crew of Swarthmoreans there among the other people.

But this was two weeks. He had just given a speech and then, it was campaigning about creating a Peace Corps, and there were other things that made us enthusiastic. I've been in 14 presidential elections since then, and I think, like I said, there's a straight line through them, and it's a line that connects the civil rights revolution of the '60s to the political revolution that we talk about today, a revolution in which many of you enlisted if I have my guesses correct.

So I want to start with, what are we up against? And I start that way because of what I anticipate we will see in America, what we will be facing shortly with a new Hillary Clinton presidency and the opposition that she will face. At one point, she famously put the words around it. She called it, "A vast right wing conspiracy," and people have reminded her of that forever since, and she was wrong in one respect. Conspiracy suggests covert and clandestine, and what we face is transparent in many, many ways. It is definitely vast, that she was absolutely right about that, and it is as relentlessly determined as any conspiracy and well-coordinated as any conspiracy, but not secret.

On August 23, 1971, Lewis Powell, a prominent corporate lawyer at the time, sent a 12-page confidential memo to the chamber of commerce entitled The Attack on American Free Enterprise System. That's your other required reading for tonight. The rationale for his writing, he said, "No thoughtful person could question that the American economic system is under broad attack. There always have been some who opposed the American system and preferred socialism or some form of statism, communism or fascism, and also, there have always been critics of the system whose criticism has been wholesome and constructive so long as the objective was to improve or rather than subvert or destroy. But what now concerns us is quite new in the history of America." This is 1971.

"We are not dealing with sporadic or isolated attacks from a relatively few extremists or even from a minority socialist cadre. Rather, the assault on the enterprise system is broadly based and consistently pursued. It is gaining momentum and converts." And he detailed the sources of the attack on free enterprise, communists, new leftists, other revolutionaries, the college campus, Ralph Nader, Charles Reich. You probably don't know who that was. He was a pop sociologist. It doesn't matter.

The pulpit, the media, intellectual and literary journals, the arts, sciences and politicians. And the tone of the attacks, rich against poor, business against the people and the apathy and default of business quote/unquote "who respond," he said, "with appeasement, ineptitude and ignoring the problem." This was a call to action, and he said he was calling on the business community to get mobilized to fight off the Naderism and all these other forms of attack.

Careful long-range planning, consistency of action ... "Over an indefinite number of years, the scale of financing available only through joint effort and the political power only available through united action and national organizations." And he called upon individual organizations and the chamber of commerce and their allies to organize on campuses, "the single-most dynamic source" amongst the public and including television, other media, scholarly journals, books, paperbacks, paid advertisements in the political realm and in the courts.

This Powell memo, which later became known as the Powell Manifesto was not by itself the only motivator of the emergence of the aligned, powerful right wing in America that has truly emerged now. Even before it was well known, a small group of conservative foundations, the Bradley Foundation, the Olin Foundation, The Coors Foundation and the Scaife Foundation had begun raising funds and establishing an inter-connected set of think thanks, media monitoring groups, legal organizations and advocacy networks designed to combat what they considered to be the assault on free enterprise and, more generally, to combat permissive liberalism and to integrate their capacities to promote the agenda of the right.

And they proceeded to do that. The intent was to use political power and cultural influence to advance the economic interests of the 1%. And the effect was gross inequality, prosperity for some, insecurity for most and with public opinion, accepting the conservative premises about government and the economy, precisely the condition so cogently diagnosed this year by Senator Bernie Sanders. Precisely, all proposed in 1971 by Lewis Powell, who later was on the U.S. Supreme Court.

And on the electoral front, it was matched perfectly with the Southern strategy launched by Nixon. His justice department did a 180-degree turn on enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. He appointed Powell and William Rehnquist to the Supreme Court. His COINTELPRO unleashed the FBI against the left.

We know all about the COINTELPRO because there's some brave people who broke into the FBI office in media and walked off with all of the paperwork in there and were never apprehended. The most incredible embarrassment for the FBI, but it described how under Hoover, the Federal Bureau of Investigation was devoted by means, mostly both legal and illegal, to disrupt and try to destroy all of the civil rights and other movements on the left.

Nixon had a slush fund of the Committee to Re-elect the President, which you could call CREEP, C-R-E-E-P, and he compiled an enemies list, and he had a Plumbers unit for dirty tricks, the ones who broke into the Watergate, and he ran a campaign to defund the left. This was all concerted activity, and remember, Nixon was elected in 1968, only four years after Goldwater went down in a landslide, a landslide, hopefully, this years, we're going to have a landslide like that one.

Nixon's election did not come with control of Congress. There were comfortable Democratic majorities in Congress, which continued to pass progressive legislation that Nixon signed, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, an increase of Social Security. It wasn't by legislation that Nixon shifted American politics to the right. Nor was it by his foreign policy, neither waging and ending the Vietnam War nor the recognition of Communist China. It was by deliberate uses of power to build power.

Now, 45 years later, after Citizens United, the right has gained the upper hand in American politics, wherein they now control 60% or more of the influential elective offices, state legislators, governors, members of Congress, senators in 30 states and promoting their agenda very effectively through state legislation, executive action and blocking a more progressive agenda at the federal level as they did for the last six years of Obama.

The right has become the most powerful force nationally, and with a sledge hammer for its agenda, far-reaching hegemony seemed within reach a year ago, but a long came Trump, who has spoiled their chances and now, maybe, something far different and far more progressive is possible. The deep partisan divide of today, the polarization that mainstream voices bemoan dates all the way back to this, and I have no regrets for having contributed to it.

We were advocates for realignment. To be frank about it, I only regret it when we lose, which unfortunately, we've done an awful lot of, but in the binary world of two-party system America, the ideological sorting out that we predicted and advocated in 1962 has come to pass.

Whatever you most value, equality, revoking Citizens United, clean energy, workers rights, peace in the world, gun safety, even the liberal arts, whatever it is that you value, there is an opposition with significant power existing in the other political party, which is not to say that all Republicans feel one way nor all Democrats the other. It is that when one party prevails, an agenda moves forward, limited primarily by the checks and balances that it hasn't overcome or has yet to overcome. Party control is the first step toward the political revolution.

For those who are for it, political revolution, and feel like you've been in it, it's worth an effort to get clear as to what it means and how it might be achieved, and the short answers are that it requires a majority building strategy even more robust than what is currently in play to win the presidency this year. There is a strategic path to the kind of win that annovates millions of us, animated millions of people to get involved this year.

A win not just to preserve the gains that we have made for equal rights and justice, as threatened as they might have been, but for real change for economic equality and opportunity for climate, for a positive role for government in our society, for unions. That's what a political revolution would yield, and credit goes to Bernie Sanders for popularizing it. I say that not having supported the man but having known him for most of these 50 years, but the credit belongs fairly to him.

It means an upheaval, pushing out those in power, and to Sanders, the strategic core of the revolution is the suppression of the influence of the rich and big business by limiting big money in politics. That's what would facilitate substantive change, he says. Substantive change about financial reform, banking, substantive change about healthcare, substantive change about the affordability of college, prescription drug pricing.

All kinds of other subjects require both an electoral victory and the limitation of big money in politics. And he underscores that any of this requires not just getting big money out but getting people in, and he describes the method of the political revolution as electoral victory followed by the pressure from the grass roots. Million must mobilize. He's said this in every speech, to make change achievable, and here's the rub. The electoral victory has to be big, like we had in 1932 and 1934, like we had in 1964, big and sustained in contrast to 2008 and 2012, which were quickly reversed in 2010 and 2014.

In our federal system with its checks and balances, that means a majority that's big enough to win the White House and Congress and governorships and state legislatures. In other words, to get to where Bernie pointed, we have to solve the problem majority politics. In a two-party system, majority support, however obtained is the Holy Grail. Some famous theories of achieving and sustaining majority include the Southern strategy associated with Nixon and Lee Atwater and FDR's New Deal coalition.

In our time, there is talk about the emerging American majority or the rising American electorate in the new American majority. These have been put forward as formulations of a promising path to majority rule. Creating a majority and delivering it on election day and then sustaining it over time. These are three aspects of the problem. They're similar, but they're not necessarily solved in the same fashion.

So I start by trying to illuminate the ways and means of majority building, as we have experienced them in American politics, and I would like to make the case that the left can win. The strategy I'm advocating is all about power. It's very partisan. I know we're in a non-partisan environment here, but it is what it is, and it recognizes that the right has exactly such a strategy and many advantages that we do not and cannot share but that I think we can overcome.

How to create a majority is a great challenge for the right because its core agenda benefits the top 1% and nobody else. To get to 51% from 1% is a challenge. Big business or the rich are its core constituency, and in any formulation, they are a small minority group, and it does this through strategic alliances to which it makes-long-term commitments, downplaying policy and consistencies and reinforcing the alliances with ideological glue. It uses, also, its powers to divide and undermine the opposition, and these alliances take the form of political alignment under the Republican Party banner, or at least they did until Donald Trump came along.

And they will again, and that's the other thing to keep in mind. Donald Trump will be gone soon, or not quite gone, but he will not be determining the future of the Republican Party. The Republican Party and the forces that are committed to it usually see clearly that they have long, broad interests usually better served by party success even where particular causes are deferred and even where it means abandoning Democrats who support their particular causes.

The widely shared repugnance to Democrats, to Obama and Obamacare, to Hillary Clinton, deep and wide and broad among all the elements of Republicanism, and all the Democrats and Hillary and Obama represent should have provided a sufficient, solid foundation for whoever became the nominee. And anybody other than Trump could have mobilized it without the splitting that he has caused. But through Trump, the far right fringes captured control of the party temporarily, ignoring the common interests that usually unify Republicans, pushing away women, pushing away Hispanics, and creating an opening for Democrats to win an election, which is going to set the stage for the next battles.

Trump's enthusiasts will go immediately into opposition or even revolt November 9th, and so in all likelihood will the Republicans in office, in Congress and in the states. They will oppose every bit of the progressive agenda that Sanders and Clinton agreed on and which we put into the Democratic platform. And the millions who support that agenda also must go into motion the very next day.

That requirement was always a premise of the Sanders movement, and as the new administration moves to deliver on its platform commitments, the jobs package, relief from deportation, action on student debt, strategy to undo Citizens United. It will need grass roots mobilization, united, broader, broader than, and know that's intensive, whenever is mounted by the right.

We will need to win and deepen the support of a majority of Americans over and over again and sustain it all the way until November 2018. The strategy for a political revolution has three parts. My wife insists that I never try to make more than three points. First, movements need wins. They need victories that are tangible and material. Symbolic ones will not suffice. Second, movements need to be the instrument of those wins. They need to taste them to feel the change that they make. Improvements handed down from above will not suffice.

And finally, movements must shift the balance of power. They need to make structural changes in the political system increasing their power. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will is what Frederick Douglass said. So commencing with this election, and as robust a win as it may produce, whatever that is, we have to make those demands.

We may to organize for them. We have to knock on doors for them. We have to march on Washington for them. We have to vote for them. We have to get others to vote for them. We have to lobby for them, and when they're legislated, we need to go to work implementing them, defending them and showing America by all of that, that together, Americans can solve problems, can share the wealth and opportunity and make a better future.

I think there is a path forward, and I'm happy to have had 50 years building up to getting there, and I see a lot of people in this room who will be the ones who will make that history happen. Thank you very much.