The 2020 presidential election is not turning out how progressives imagined now that their favorite candidates, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Ma.), have left the race. Left with former Vice President Joe Biden as the de-facto Democratic nominee, progressive organizations like Mijente, a national grassroots hub for Latinx and Chicanx organizing, are pivoting their strategy for November’s general election.
Mijente is an organization that gives young Latinx and Chicanx people the opportunity to develop organizing skills, increase their political awareness and build relationships with others who are invested in justice that is pro-Black, pro-Indigenous, pro-worker, pro-woman, pro-LGBTQ+ and pro-migrant. Mijente decided not to endorse Biden, but it’s not staying on the sidelines—there’s too much at stake. Though the organization endorsed Sanders in February, its members resolved to put their weight behind whichever candidate went up against Trump in November. For them, getting voters to the polls in November isn’t about putting Biden into office; it’s about getting Trump out. That’s the basis for Mijente’s “Fuera Trump” campaign.
The idea behind a negative campaign strategy like Fuera Trump is to get voters to vote against something or someone, rather than for it. Leading up to the 2016 general election, this strategy worked for Republicans: 53% of Trump voters cast their ballots for him as a way to demonstrate opposition to Hillary Clinton. Negative campaigning was less effective in mobilizing Democrats, however, given that only 46% of Clinton’s voters were cast as an anti-Trump statement. By comparison, in 2008 a majority of both Democratic and Republican candidates were positively motivated to turn out for their candidate.
The decision to enter the 2020 election with an electorally-focused negative campaign strategy is new for Mijente, which, since its founding in 2015, has focused on mobilizing around issues rather than candidates. The organization’s issue-based work includes, for instance, protesting the Department of Homeland Security’s cooperation with local and state police and demanding an end to the criminalization of migration, an end to private detention centers and abolishing Immigrations and Customs Enforcement; its protests and public advocacy have helped demonstrate to lawmakers that xenophobic policies will not easily glide by without a fight from Mijente’s members. Its movement work involves the difficult business of building a diffuse apparatus on the ground that’s strong enough to force officials to hear and heed political demands.
Grassroots organizing and electoral organizing diverge in a number of ways, says Mayra Lopez, a Chicago-based Mijente member, organizer and political strategist. Grassroots work is about mobilizing people by building relationships around shared values, for starters. “Community organizing is centered around leadership development and the issue,” Lopez says. “We’re not there to elect somebody just because we want to play politics. There always has to be a larger agenda: Electing this person is part of a bigger plan as to how we’re gonna achieve our goal.”
Mijente’s larger goal is to realize policies like the Green New Deal, universal healthcare and ending family separation and other means of terrorizing immigrants. However, while Mijente has traditionally prioritized issue-based grassroots organizing, it now recognizes how deep a threat the Trump presidency poses—and the electoral organizing needed to oppose that threat. Mijente political director Tania Unzueta realized when Trump was elected in 2016 that the organization had “missed an opportunity” to fight against him and what his candidacy represented. The Trump presidency has made people of color, Latinx people and immigrants more vulnerable than ever before.
Mijente had decided to stay out of the 2016 presidential race for two reasons: the organization’s assessment that then-candidate Trump was not a credible threat, and that Hillary Clinton was not interested in their vision of justice because her platform promised a continuation of Obama-era anti-immigrant policies. After eight years of a Democratic administration that deported more people than any previous administration and expanded the use of detention centers, it didn’t seem to Mijente like things could get any worse with either Clinton or Trump in office.
But of course, things did get worse. “[We] misassessed the threat of Trump becoming president,” says Unzueta. In 2020, “We can’t make that same mistake,” she says. That means getting voters to turn out for Biden, by underscoring the harms of a continued Trump presidency. Even as Mijente is mobilizing members to vote as a way to create change, Mijente’s electoral strategy is still informed by its movement organizing background. Candidates aren’t heroes; they’re targets for organizers to push on their larger agenda. And voting isn’t just about showing up on November 3, but about taking action every day after—Mijente is working the long game. “We know that working within the institutions that oppress us is not going to save us,” Unzueta says. “We also know that ignoring these systems isn’t going to save us.”
Though Fuera Trump won’t break down American governing systems, Mijente is hoping the November election could usher in a candidate who has demonstrated his willingness to listen and move left on the issues at the top of Mijente’s priority list. In other words, Unzueta says, Fuera Trump is about pushing for change “within the state, outside the state and without the state.”
Though a presidential electoral strategy is new for Mijente, the organization has successfully used its issue-based organizing to mobilize voters against a county-level candidate in the past. In 2016, Mijente launched and won their first effort to boot someone out of office: Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a racist Republican who directed his department to racially profile and unconstitutionally detain Latinx people. Arpaio outspent his Democratic opponent by over $11 million and hadn’t lost a race in 24 years, but Mijente’s coalition-building and grassroots effort to engage voters by door-knocking and protesting in front of the sheriff’s office worked. The 2016 effort dubbed “Bazta Arpaio” succeeded even as Mijente was “fighting Republicans in a red state,” Unzueta says. Building a campaign strategy around demonstrating the harm of an elected official worked four years ago, and it could work in November.
In order to replicate its 2016 successes, Mijente will need to use similar organizing skills to rally its base. “It’s about math,” Lopez says. Luckily for them, the math is on their side. Hispanic voters will comprise 13% of the electorate this year—the single largest nonwhite demographic group of eligible voters, according to Pew Research.
This year, Mijente is organizing and registering Latinx and Chicanx voters in states where the Democratic Establishment previously hasn’t done much outreach, such as Georgia, North Carolina and Kentucky. Mijente has seen firsthand the power of such grassroots organizing: In 2018, Mijente turned out young voters for Georgia’s gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, claiming to increase the Latinx vote by 300% more than the previous gubernatorial race. Unzueta says that Latinx voters in the state hadn’t previously been reached out to by the Democratic Party, and credits Mijente with the turnout, revealing what they have always known: that the Latinx and Chicanx vote matters.
A vote against Trump is not just a demonstration of values, but a protective measure for Mijente members who can’t vote. Voting is not a tool that’s available to every organizer or activist, including Lopez herself. Lopez is a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, recipient. Her immigration status means she’s not able to cast a ballot in November, and yet, her safety is dependent on getting Trump out of office.
While Mijente believes that voting often fails to create the major systemic change people need and instead results in incremental changes, the Trump administration has proved to be a big enough obstacle to issue-based organizing that voting against him (by casting a ballot for Biden) shifts power away from explicitly white supremacist leaders and to a legislator Mijente believes can be persuaded to enact policy changes aligned with their long-term issue-based organizing.
“While I don’t think [Biden] has earned my support, I think we need to get Trump out,” Lopez says. “At this moment we need to be present. Sitting on the sidelines means that we’re letting this happen.”
In May 2020, a young Black woman kneels in front of riot police with nothing but a face mask. In August 2016, Ieshia Evans calmly approaches riot-armed police and is promptly taken into custody. Over 50 years ago, Gloria Richardson pushes a rifle away from her in apparent exasperation and outrage.
This type of photo—where the Black woman is unabashed and unafraid in her protest—emerges often. The murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police that sparked world-wide, almost daily protests for weeks was no exception. During these protests, I have seen these images circulating without any meaningful discussion of what they represent. These photos remind the public that Black women have always been on the front lines of anti-racism movements.
As a Black woman, these photos terrify me. They are powerful representations of our strength and tenacity, yet they contribute to the burden Black women carry everyday.
We rarely see convictions or indictments for Black men dying at the hands of police, but we do see massive movements dedicated to them. The Civil Rights Movement grew in response to, among other things, the death of Emmett Till in 1955. Black Lives Matter gained national attention in response to protests over Michael Brown’s death in 2014. The massive protests this year were sparked by George Floyd’s death.
Black women have been integral to these protests and to the Black Lives Matter movement in general, just as during the Civil Rights Movement.
People are right to protest the racist murder of any Black person. But, as noted in “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women,” the deaths of Black women are not getting similar attention, and “our silence around the killing of Black women and girls sends the message that their deaths are acceptable and do not merit repercussions.”
It is an ugly truth to say that this has burdened us. The movement, while glowing and active at the moment, has become complacent when it comes to Black women. Photos like these allow people to see us as the unshakeable face of the movement, which only plays into the oft-criticized trope of the Strong Black Woman, where Black women are portrayed as upfront, always in control, and never vulnerable.
The Strong Black Woman is more than just a media trope, though. It is a pervasive myth that will continuously harm Black women as long as the movement and society at large demands Black women’s attention and energy without giving anything back.
On the podcast “15 Minutes on the Couch, Ayanna Abrams, a licensed clinical psychologist, puts its origins at slavery and the different roles Black women played in their own families and the families they were owned by.
“They had to play this role in which they were always doing, always caring, always serving, always taking care of other,” she says. “That transitions through generations, through decades, quite literally through centuries. And now we are up against this myth and this trope that has taught us that we are on the bottom of the list... or that we’re not even actually on the list.”
These photos reinforce this harmful myth because they create the expectation that I, as a Black woman, put my body on the frontline. They reinforce the expectation that I must always be brave in the face of racism or violence.
I resist this idea because I am a Black woman who is afraid. I am a Black woman who cries over the pain our people have been subjected to, who becomes locked up with anxiety at the thought of an encounter with the police. On top of this, I often fear no one is fighting for me, but instead expecting me to fight for myself and everyone else.
I resist this idea because, despite these photos, we know of so many Black women who encounter the police and do not survive.
#SayHerName is a hashtag dedicated to Black cis- and trans- woman victims of police brutality. It grew out of the need to shed light on the fact that Black women are dying by police hands too, and that we are rarely getting justice or even media attention.
The need for this hashtag is exemplified by the death of Sandra Bland, who I think about daily. Bland likely knew she was about to have an uncomfortable—potentially dangerous—encounter, as it recently came to light that she filmed it on her phone. Then she got out of the car and reminded the officer that he was overreacting by actively threatening her.
“Yeah, let’s take this to court,” Bland said. She acted brave in the face of racism and violence, the way Black women are expected to.
Bland was dead 72 hours later. Suicide, the authorities said, and the grand jury deliberated for over eight hours before returning no indictments for her death and handing legitimacy to the iffy (at best) story where she hung herself with a trash bag.
Outcry over Bland’s death resulted in the “Sandra Bland Act” being passed in Texas in 2017. But Rep. Garnet Coleman, who wrote it in partnership, acknowledged that during negotiations it was stripped of important reform tenets focused on regulating the interactions of Texas police with the public, and it became “a mostly mental health bill.”
It was heartwarming to see many people remember her on the most recent anniversary of her death, and many did call for justice on that day. The African American Policy Forum (AAPF) that started #SayHerName in partnership with Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies (CISPS) mentions her in, “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women” under “Driving While Black.”
And there were protests in her name in the immediate aftermath of her death. Certainly, Bland lives on in our protests for justice for murdered Black women such as Breonna Taylor or Natasha McKenna. While we are demanding that Taylor’s murderers be arrested, charged and tried, calls to reopen Bland’s investigation are met with attitudes like that captured in the New York Times headline, “The Death of Sandra Bland: Is There Anything Left to Investigate?”
For the Times, David Montgomery writes, “Both her mental health background and the physical evidence in the autopsy report pointed to suicide,” despite the continuous demands from her family to reopen the case and the compelling argument that, as Matt Taibbi wrote for Rolling Stone, “Suicide or not, police are responsible for Sandra Bland’s death.”
To some, the circumstances around Bland’s death might make it harder to fight for her. While Breonna Taylor was rudely awakened and almost immediately shot, the fact that Bland was not kowtowing to Encinia’s demands was painted, for his defense, as reason enough to treat her the way he did.
“My safety was in jeopardy at more than one time,” Encinia said. His perjury indictment was thrown out in exchange for a promise to never work in law enforcement again, which I find blasphemous.
The whole investigation was a sham, and demanded far more outrage. If a yard sign or street mural is performative, trials that bring no justice, and laws such as “Breonna’s Law” and the “Sandra Bland Act” that do not address the systemic oppression which has resulted in such rampant police brutality, are as well. This is what “Defund The Police,” the call to dismantle police forces and redistribute resources to community health, is all about.
There’s more we can do, though.
The movement can only move forward. We can still honor Bland—and all Black women killed or terrorized by police—by supporting Black women when we are loud or quiet, when we are brave or scared, when we are fed-up or meek.
Because right now, there is nowhere for us to be vulnerable, and no one protecting us. Black women are quite literally on the frontlines of this fight and the least the rest of the movement can do is let us cry and yell and curse.
Abrams is also the founder of Not So Strong, a space made for Black women to express emotion and be vulnerable with each other. It is an example of how we can be active in creating space for Black women, but there is more we can do alongside this.
White people can choose to be active in the fight against racism and center the voices of Black women in their protests, and Black men can start listening to us and working on cultural issues with us.
At the very least, stop taking these pictures and plastering them over the internet. We do not need anymore of the sort, but we do need healing spaces for Black women. If we can hold vigils and protests, we can dedicate space to the voice and the pain of Black women. Not just people of color or Black people, but Black women.
Let us speak. Let us rage. Let us sigh. Let us be vulnerable in any way we see fit in the moment, and fight for us regardless.
On July 30, the Democratic National Convention’s Rules Committee voted unanimously to keep in place the small-d democratic reforms that grew out of the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Those changes in the rules govern this year’s convention, and now, as a result of the unanimous vote, they will govern the 2024 convention as well, once officially adopted by the full convention on August 17.
Those vital reforms were based on the work of the Unity Reform Commission, of which I was vice-chair, representing the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party.
I was also one of the sponsors on the Rules Committee of the proposal to continue the reforms through 2024, and yet, in late July, I feared it was a lost cause. But Sen. Sanders focused his own and his team’s efforts on passing the proposal, and 39 state party chairs endorsed it. Joe Biden’s campaign responded well to those efforts and what became the “Unity Resolution” was ultimately adopted by the Rules Committee 173-0.
This is significant because if the proposal had not been adopted, it would have been up to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to decide whether or not to adopt these rules in 2024. Since members of the DNC are superdelegates, this would have required them to again strip themselves of the right to impact the Democratic Party nomination for president in four years. In 2016, most of those superdelegates were lined up for Hillary Clinton long before the Iowa caucus, leading many to believe Sanders’ campaign was hopeless.
The reforms, however, go far beyond superdelegates. Most caucus states switched over to holding primaries, which drastically increased voter participation in Washington, Minnesota, Colorado and other states. The remaining caucus states were required to adopt a method for voters to participate if they were working, physically challenged or otherwise could not caucus.
Most importantly, these rules require that unaffiliated voters can join the Democratic Party and vote on the same day as a primary. In New York alone, there are 3 million unaffiliated voters, many of them young people, who could be critical to changing the outcome not only for the party’s nomination for president, but also in the numerous “one party districts” in the House of Representatives and state legislature where winning the party nomination virtually ensures election.
One party districts are almost certain to elect Democrats given the district’s party registration and voting history, so the primary is the election that counts. Corporate and other big money interests all focus on the Democratic candidates in these races, which often results in very moderate Democrats getting nominated. This year, New York moved the cut off date to join the party from six months to two months before the primary, which, while not in compliance with the reform rules from 2016 mandating same day party registration, is still a step forward.
Imagine a campaign like the recent U.S. House primary election in New York’s 16th District between Jamaal Bowman and incumbent Eliot Engel. With same day party registration, thousands of new Democrats could have helped elect Bowman, the progressive challenger. He won anyway, but there would be far more Bowmans and AOCs if New York complied with party rules. New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and other closed primary states have similar barriers and multiple one party districts. Changing to same day registration could also help progressives get elected in those states.
Other important reforms considered at the Rules Committee this year had mixed outcomes. Primarily these were charter amendments, and faced a higher bar since they are permanent provisions. All were issues sponsored by Sanders delegates and viewed by the Biden campaign as items that could be deferred. (Eighty percent of the committee members were Biden appointees.) These issues included mandating primaries instead of caucuses and keeping corporate lobbyists out of the DNC. While they did not succeed, reformers will continue to pursue such issues at the DNC and in state parties.
In the United States, unlike any other democracy, we define our politics by our candidates. Even on the Left, we talk about movement building and organizing yet often are addicted to candidates and ignore the rules—especially when it comes to the rules inside the Democratic Party. Some on the Left have argued for building a new party without ever figuring out what the rules are in the Democratic Party that stand as the real barriers to change.
The unanimous vote should be a wake-up call about what’s possible in terms of building and changing the Democratic Party. The 39 state party chairs that supported the reform proposal recognize that democracy and change inside the party is just as important as democracy outside the party. Democrats can’t claim to be the voting rights party, and then restrict voting in primaries. State Party chairs Ken Martin (Minn.), Jane Kleeb (Neb.), Tina Podlodowski (Wash.) and Trav Robertson (S.C.) led the effort to mobilize state chairs to support the rules resolution that we ultimately passed. They are committed to party building at every level.
Party building starts with measuring party registration in every county and setting goals. It means measuring turnout and volunteers. It means opening up party elections at the precinct, county and state levels. It means organizing around issues, and using the primary process to elect candidates who are accountable on those issues to the party organization, whether at the local, state or national level.
The Democratic Party has operated as a top-down system for decades, but slowly there is a growing recognition that the national party is mostly the sum total of the 57 parties (including states, Washington, D.C., territories, Puerto Rico and Democrats abroad)—and that those parties must be member based.
Until 2017, it was rare to have microphones on the floor at DNC meetings, let alone discussion and roll call votes on motions. After the officer elections in 2017, that changed, and the internal functions of the DNC are increasingly democratic, in part because of the the Unity Reform Proposals. DNC Chair Tom Perez has encouraged participation even when it is contentious, such as last year’s discussion on holding presidential debates focused on topics like climate, rather than the general debate format that prevailed.
Focusing on “the rules not just the rulers” is also critical when it comes to Senate governance and the Democratic caucus. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the Republican caucus worked around the “cloture” rule that requires the support of 60 senators to end debate on a piece of legislation on the Senate floor.
McConnell eliminated this cloture vote on Supreme Court nominations because a cloture vote would have blocked Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh from confirmation. Similarly, McConnell passed his 2017 tax giveaways to corporate America with a simple majority. He also used a parliamentary motion to cut the floor time for judicial confirmation from 30 hours to two, and over 200 federal judges have been confirmed in President Trump’s first 3 years.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions will be spent on contested Senate races this year. Yet at this moment, at least 10 Democratic members of the Senate have not committed that they are willing to vote to get rid of the filibuster if they are the majority in 2021. Here again, it is rules inside the Democratic Party, not those imposed from outside, that hobble our democracy.
Our addiction to candidates means that we raise huge contributions and devote hours and hours of volunteer time to win a Senate Democratic majority. But because we tend to ignore the rules, very little time has been spent discussing how the Senate should govern with a Democratic majority. For example, senators like Joe Manchin (W.V.), Angus King (Maine), Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) have all indicated they would not move any legislation forward unless it had 60 votes, which in effect gives Republican senators the right to veto Democratic legislative initiatives. Imagine, a Democratic majority in the Senate next year that is unable to act because the Democrats are unwilling to wield their majority power the way that McConnell did repeatedly.
The hurdles facing us are not only Democratic Party rulemaking and Senate procedures. From the current electoral college system to the arcane U.S. voter registration process, the limits in all but five states on vote by mail, and, most importantly, no limits on campaign spending—the United States stands as the most constrained democracy in the world. This is true even without dealing with fundamental rules like the make up of the Senate itself, the role of the federal judiciary in reviewing legislative changes, or the ability of the president to commit the nation to endless wars.
But we can start with the rules that Democrats control. As we saw in the Rules Committee, we can organize and make a difference. We can demand that the rules on unaffiliated voters joining the party are enforced in New York and other states. We can put limits on corporate and other big money influence in the party structure. We can better focus on one-party districts, realizing that many of the rules are designed to protect incumbents who benefit greatly from corporate contributions. We can demand that Senate Democrats govern and not hide behind the filibuster. We can build state parties from the bottom up, controlled by county organizations that are truly precinct-based, with fair internal elections. We can organize for progressive state party platforms like those adopted in many states that support issues like Medicare for All and then build the progressive caucus in that state to hold candidates accountable on our issues.
What we can’t do is wait for the next Bernie Sanders and expect them to do it for us. We can’t ignore the rules and how we change them, and then say the party sucks and look for another new one to solve the problem. Running independent and third party candidates is fine where it works, but it doesn’t work in most places.
Our Revolution (where I chair the board) and other organizations are mobilizing not only on issues and for candidates, but around party building and rules reforms within the party. Voting for Democrats cannot be like rooting for a sports team and wearing their colors. We need to stay focused on issues, not just candidates. But just as importantly, we must focus on the rules that regulate, and often control, the outcome.
Joe Biden is running a campaign of restoration. The presumptive Democratic nominee never tires of saying he wants to “restore the soul of the nation,” or of invoking his time as vice-president under Barack Obama.
It’s comforting rhetoric for many Democrats, a way to dream about returning to a time before Donald Trump.
But for Palestinians and their allies, Biden’s plan to return America to the Obama era is a frightening prospect. With few questions asked, the Obama administration armed Israel and blocked efforts to hold Israel accountable in international forums. A Biden presidency promises to follow the same path on Palestine—and Palestinians will pay the price.
Amid his nostalgic campaign, Biden has managed to promise some change: He’s pledged to invest nearly $2 trillion to combat climate change, backed some criminal justice reforms and says he wants the minimum wage to be raised to $15 an hour.
But on U.S. policy towards Israel-Palestine, Biden has given no indication he would change a thing from his previous time in the executive branch.
Biden wants to reverse some of the Trump administration’s attacks on Palestinians by restoring humanitarian aid and security assistance to Palestinians.
He would also stick to the long-standing Washington consensus on Israel: back negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis to reach a two-state solution and rhetorically oppose Israeli settlement activity, but never sanction Israel for its theft of Palestinian land.
“Biden will continue to let Israel do what it wants and at the same time sugar-coat it—he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” said Huwaida Arraf, a Palestinian-American human rights attorney and Bernie Sanders delegate to the Democratic National Convention. “Under the guise of a peace process, he’ll blame the Palestinians while horrors are being committed by Israel.”
The Biden campaign’s throwback plan on Israel is most evident in how it approaches the over $3 billion in military aid the United States sends to Israel every year.
Throughout the 2020 campaign season, progressives have called on candidates to endorse conditioning U.S. military aid to Israel. Such a policy would bar Israel from using U.S. military funding to carry out demolitions of Palestinian homes and arrests of Palestinian children. Biden, however, called the idea of conditioning aid “bizarre.”
Instead, Biden has pledged to uphold the Obama administration’s commitment to giving Israel $38 billion in military aid over the next decade with no strings attached. The U.S. weapons Israel buys with that money go towards bombing Gaza, the coastal enclave under a devastating Israeli blockade, and maintaining Israel’s violent military rule over millions of Palestinians. During Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza, U.S.-made Hellfire missiles, artillery shells and Mark 84 bombs killed scores of Palestinian civilians in Gaza.
The Biden campaign has also pledged to block UN efforts to hold Israel accountable. This campaign plank, too, is nothing new: In 2009, the Obama administration stopped efforts to refer the findings of the UN Goldstone Report, which found Israel committed war crimes in its 2009 war in Gaza, to the International Criminal Court. In 2011, Susan Rice, Obama’s ambassador to the UN—and today a leading contender to be Biden’s vice-president—vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements built on Palestinian land.
But it’s not just Biden’s policy pledges that promise more of the same destructive policies on Israel. It’s also his advisers.
His chief foreign policy adviser is Tony Blinken, Biden’s former National Security Adviser and a former Deputy Secretary of State. Blinken was part of the State Department team that helped negotiate the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding that committed the United States to sending billions in military aid to Israel. The Biden campaign has dispatched Blinken as an emissary to explain Biden’s Israel positions. In a July call with Arab-American activists, Blinken said Biden “opposes any effort to delegitimize or unfairly single out Israel, whether it's at the United Nations or through the BDS movement.” During a May call with Democratic Majority for Israel, an AIPAC-linked lobby group committed to stopping progressives from changing Democratic Party policy on Israel, Blinken said Biden would never condition U.S. military aid to Israel.
It’s not only Blinken who has Palestinian rights activists dissapointed. Two Obama administration figures, former U.S. ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro and former Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, played key roles in drafting the DNC platform language on Israel. The result was ugly: The platform did not mention the words “Israeli occupation” and endorsed the Obama administration’s military aid agreement with Israel. The DNC also rejected amendments to the platform language that called on the United States to condition aid to Israel so that US money doesn’t subsidize Israeli human rights abuses.
But while the Biden campaign isn’t giving Palestinian rights activists a reason to cheer, their outlook isn’t all grim. If Biden wins the White House, he will be confronting a slowly-growing progressive bloc of lawmakers who do want to condition U.S. military aid to Israel.
“That is where the hope is, if we continue to elect progressives into offices that are going to help change the debate,” said Arraf, the Palestinian-American human rights lawyer.
In June, as fears grew about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to formally annex West Bank settlements to Israel, 13 lawmakers, led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), signed a letter pledging to withhold some US military aid if Israel carries out annexation. It also warned that annexation would lead to Israel becoming an “apartheid state,” unusually strong language from Democratic members of Congress.
The letter was a sign of how emboldened progressives are becoming on Israel. If there’s one thing that’s clear about a Biden White House, it’s that he will do his best not to follow these progressives’ lead. But a clash over U.S. funding of Israeli human rights abuses may come anyway. The Biden White House will have to contend with a Democratic Party that doesn’t take its cues from Obama-aligned Democrats. Progressives will be looking to see if Biden can be forced to change.
Senate Republicans’ shameful priorities are on full display as the nation continues to grapple with an unprecedented health and economic crisis.
Mitch McConnell and the GOP refuse to take up the HEROES Act, passed by the House in early May to help Americans survive the pandemic and fortify the upcoming election.
Senate Republicans don’t want to extend the extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits, even though unemployment has soared to the highest levels since the Great Depression.
Even before the pandemic, nearly 80 percent of Americans lived paycheck to paycheck. Now many are desperate, as revealed by lengthening food lines and growing delinquencies in rent payments.
McConnell’s response? He urges lawmakers to be “cautious” about helping struggling Americans, warning that “the amount of debt that we’re adding up is a matter of genuine concern.”
McConnell seems to forget the $1.9 trillion tax cut he engineered in December 2017 for big corporations and the super-rich, which blew up the deficit.
That’s just the beginning of the GOP’s handouts for corporations and the wealthy. As soon as the pandemic hit, McConnell and Senate Republicans were quick to give mega-corporations a $500 billion blank check, while only sending Americans a paltry one-time $1,200 check.
The GOP seems to believe that the rich will work harder if they receive more money while people of modest means work harder if they receive less. In reality, the rich contribute more to Republican campaigns when they get bailed out.
That’s precisely why the GOP put into the last Covid relief bill a $170 billion windfall to Jared Kushner and other real estate moguls, who line the GOP’s campaign coffers. Another $454 billion of the package went to backing up a Federal Reserve program that benefits big business by buying up their debt.
And although the bill was also intended to help small businesses, lobbyists connected to Trump – including current donors and fundraisers for his reelection – helped their clients rake in over $10 billion of the aid, while an estimated 90 percent of small businesses owned by people of color and women got nothing.
The GOP’s shameful priorities have left countless small businesses with no choice but to close. They’ve also left 22 million Americans unemployed, and 28 million at risk of being evicted by September.
For the bulk of this crisis, McConnell called the Senate back into session only to confirm more of Trump’s extremist judges and advance a $740 billion defense spending bill.
Throughout it all, McConnell has insisted his priority is to shield businesses from Covid-related lawsuits by customers and employees who have contracted the virus.
The inept and overwhelmingly corrupt reign of Trump, McConnell, and Senate Republicans will come to an end next January if enough Americans vote this coming November.
But will enough people vote during a pandemic? The HEROES Act provides $3.6 billion for states to expand mail-in and early voting, but McConnell and his GOP lackeys aren’t interested. They’re well aware that more voters increase the likelihood Republicans will be booted out.
Time and again, they’ve shown that they only care about their wealthy donors and corporate backers. If they had an ounce of concern for the nation, their priority would be to shield Americans from the ravages of Covid and American democracy from the ravages of Trump. But we know where their priorities lie.
This post first appeared on robertreich.org
Few processes are given more importance, yet are as arcane and opaque, as the writing of the Democratic Party platform. Ostensibly the policy agenda of the next Democratic president (and the party as a whole), the platform is the result of hours of intense debate and negotiation between sometimes contentious factions of competing political interests. It is also, more often than not, written by the winners.
This year, those winners aren’t only former Vice President Joe Biden and the Democratic establishment—but the Obama wing of that establishment.
President Barack Obama installed his labor secretary, Tom Perez, as the Democratic National Committee (DNC) chair in February 2017. A close look at Perez’s nominees to the 2020 platform committees suggests the party will adhere to Obama’s incrementalist vision of politics, one that stands in stark contrast to the bold push for change advocated by runner-up Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and his supporters.
Now, with the Sanders-Biden unity task forces having wrapped up and issued their recommendations, what happens from here is in their hands. One Wall Street advisory firm is already declaring a victory for corporate America, calling the 110-page document “a very successful effort by Biden and his team to control the narrative and policy direction, while making just enough concessions to the progressive wing to avoid an open rift in the party.”
Yet it’s no guarantee even these half-measures will make it into the platform. That will depend on the men and women chosen by Perez to shape the final document.
Who's at the head
Many loyal democratic voters may be pleased that Obama’s vision will shape the platform. He is, after all, the party’s most beloved political figure.
But Obama’s actual policy agenda was often at odds with the stated values and priorities of his own supporters. Obama championed the corporate-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), for example, and sources involved in the drafting process say it was his direct appeal to Sanders that helped ensure the absence of an anti-TPP plank—which Sanders agreed to for the sake of party unity.
As president, Obama expanded President George W. Bush’s “war on terror,” pushed for an “all of the above” energy policy that did little to prevent climate change, deported record numbers of people, and spent years trying to cut Medicare and Social Security, an ambition that Sanders himself was instrumental in thwarting. Moreover, according to longtime Democratic Party insider and Obama transition official Reed Hundt, it was Obama and his team’s aversion to robust government action in the early days of the 2008 recession—for fear of being labeled “socialist” by the GOP—that ultimately weakened the U.S. economic recovery and helped elect President Donald Trump.
“The former president, going back at least to his 2004 Senate race, hasn’t really occupied the left side of the ideological spectrum,” the Washington Post’s David Swerdlick wrote of Obama in 2019. “To the dismay of many on the Left, and to the continuing disbelief of many on the Right, Obama never dramatically departed from the approach of presidents who came before him.”
Per DNC rules, Tom Perez, as party chair, has the fortune to appoint the co-chairs of the Rules, Credentials and Platform committees. Perez’s selections for the two co-chairs of the Platform Committee don’t show signs of receptivity to Sanders’ agenda. Both are fellow former Obama officials. The one likely to wield the most power is Denis McDonough, Obama’s final chief of staff.
Having cut his teeth as a foreign policy adviser for former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle—now a lobbyist for pharmaceutical companies and other corporate interests—McDonough sits safely in the narrow band of liberal orthodoxy in Washington, particularly on matters of national security. As Daschle’s aide, McDonough took the lead in drafting the war authorization Bush used to invade Iraq. He is a Russia hawk and believes law enforcement should be able to access a person’s encrypted messages, but had backed Obama’s 2008 campaign-era call to defy Washington’s warmongers and speak with U.S. adversaries like Iran and Cuba.
Perhaps most important is McDonough’s close relationship with Obama. The former president has described McDonough, who helped set up his Senate office upon his arrival in Washington and served as his top foreign policy adviser during his 2008 campaign, as “one of my closest friends.”
“Denis has played a key role in every major national security decision of my presidency,” Obama said in 2013. Other officials have described McDonough as something akin to an extension of the former president. He is “the keeper of the president’s flame,” according to Cheryl Mills, a staffer for President Bill Clinton. Obama trusted McDonough “more than anyone else in the White House,” according to Clinton ally and Obama transition head John Podesta, in 2013.
In August 2019, McDonough defended Obama against criticism from several Democratic candidates on his healthcare and immigration record, arguing that “attacking former President Obama’s record … doesn’t make any sense, politically or substantively.” Perez and McDonough are unlikely to get much pushback from the other Platform Committee co-chair, Julie Chávez Rodríguez, granddaughter of legendary activist César Chávez. Chávez Rodríguez served as Obama’s deputy director of public engagement, which in practice meant being dispatched to speak with disillusioned Latino and immigrant rights activists during the 2012 election (and beyond), defending Obama’s woeful record on immigration.
“My grandfather helped me to understand that change isn’t immediate,” Chávez Rodríguez said in 2014, defending Obama’s glacial progress on immigration and refusal to take executive action on the matter. “It doesn’t happen overnight. It does take a lot of time and sacrifice. It takes consistent, sustained organizing and pressure.”
Chávez Rodríguez is also a former state director and senior adviser for Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.). She is now working for the Biden campaign.
In many ways, the appointment of McDonough and Chávez Rodríguez caps off a multi-year effort by Obama to limit Sanders’ influence over the party and ensure Obama’s direction for the party prevails. As one official told Harper’s editor Andrew Cockburn, Obama recruited Perez in 2017 to run for DNC chair to “stop the Sanders wing of the party from taking over.” Perez ran against then-Rep. Keith Ellison (now Minnesota attorney general), a Sanders ally who had received overwhelming party support, including from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and other congressional Democratic leaders. Obama personally worked the phones to turn votes away from Ellison and toward Perez.
Ahead of the 2020 primaries, Obama privately threatened to step in and speak out if Sanders appeared poised to run away with the nomination. He also made several well-publicized—if obliquely critical—comments about Sanders’ candidacy and political vision; one even became a debate question suggesting Sanders should step aside because he was old and male. Obama helped convince Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Ind., to suspend his presidential campaign before Super Tuesday to consolidate the centrist vote against Sanders. Obama also reportedly pressured Sanders to suspend his campaign.
For a fuller picture of what Obama’s Democratic Party looks like, look beyond the chairs and at the four vice chairs and 25 voting members of the Platform Committee that Perez named January 25.
Thirteen are former Obama administration and campaign officials. Another, former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, was singled out by Obama during his final interview in office as the future of the party. Twelve more are Clinton allies (including four that overlap the Obama crowd). Many have expressed open hostility to Sanders. Some are connected to or have received political funding from interests expressly opposed to Sanders’ agenda. Many have business and political fundraising interests that run counter to the Vermont Senator’s anti-corporate vision. Seven work or have worked for the corporate sector, including Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina executive Danielle Gray and ecommerce executive Meghan Stabler.
In the United States, party platforms are non-binding and have, at times, even been ignored by the candidates themselves, leading many to wonder how much they really matter. And yet, as some have pointed out, platform changes often prefigure important ideological shifts within a party. One study found that, from 1980 to 2004, lawmakers voted in line with their respective platforms on average 82% of the time.
Intense battles over platform language in past decades suggest that, while the Democratic Party establishment may view its platform as symbolic (and convenient to ignore), the platform is far from insignificant—particularly given how it serves as a test of the nominee’s power within their party. Biden, for example, is currently resisting the demands of the party’s progressive and activist base, championed by Sanders.
Healthcare is one point of contention. Biden is steadfastly opposed to Medicare for All, a flagship Sanders policy that has soared in national popularity as millions lose their jobs and insurance during the pandemic.
Another is climate change. Biden put forward a $1.7 trillion climate plan during the primary (to Sanders’ $16.3 trillion plan) and has haltingly moved closer to the platforms of green groups like the Sunrise Movement but remains resistant to key elements, including a ban on fracking and a reinstatement of the oil export ban, rescinded by Obama in 2015 after spending 40 years on the books.
The actual writing of the party platform is a multistage process that continues through the party convention. In 2016, according to those involved, much of the platform had been written well before the Drafting Subcommittee met to vote on the details in June in St. Louis. Even as the drafters held hearings around the country in advance of the two-day debate, staffers for the DNC were already writing the platform’s first draft.
“We were the Drafting [Sub]committee, but the draft got done by staff people who put together the rock, which we tried to chip away at,” says James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute and one of the members of the 2016 Drafting Subcommittee (and a contributor to In These Times in the 1980s). Zogby’s involvement with the DNC goes back decades; he has been involved in platform fights since 1988.
In 2016, Drafting Subcommittee members like Zogby were picked as part of an agreement between the DNC and Sanders. The DNC selected four of the subcommittee members, Hillary Clinton six and Sanders five, all names he had personally chosen. The names were then approved by DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The only Sanders selection who was vetoed was RoseAnn DeMoro, then-executive director of National Nurses United, a union that fervently backed Sanders. DeMoro had a history of needling Clinton but, officially, was rejected on the grounds that labor was already represented on the Platform Committee.
At the same time as the very public wrangling over the platform in St. Louis, those involved say, a number of changes to the draft were hammered out in backroom negotiations between the Clinton and Sanders campaigns. The two sides met and drew up a list of overlapping campaign promises, such as a plan to import prescription drugs from Canada (which made it into the platform).
Other changes got their hearing at the next stage, at the full Platform Committee’s July preconvention meeting in Orlando. The 187 voting members were divided up in proportion to the number of delegates each campaign won in the primary. Here, the Sanders wing succeeded in inserting planks calling to legalize marijuana, increase the minimum wage to $15, break up the big banks and expand Social Security. After the (sometimes raucous) debate in Orlando, the platform’s final stop was the convention itself—the last chance for any platform changes.
But the essence of the final platform was created outside this formal process, by the DNC staffers who wrote the first draft and through those private talks between Sanders and Clinton officials.
“The [first] draft … is ultimately the document you work from,” Zogby says. “Once the draft is there, it’s very difficult to make changes to that draft.”
The 2020 process will follow a similar, equally convoluted path. The unity task forces, created by the two candidates in the wake of Sanders’ campaign suspension, were just one stop in this route, meant to influence the eventual platform while doubling as an attempt to push Biden in a more progressive direction.
This approach has another upshot: preventing a rancorous battle over policy planks at the party convention.
“[Battling] could be embarrassing and they want to avoid that, so they put together these committees outside of the process to try and agree on a program, and they’ll all go in there and both sides will vote for it,” says George Albro, cofounder and downstate co-chair of the Sanders aligned New York Progressive Action Network (NYPAN). “I think Bernie really wants to foster unity because, ironically, he’s more interested in defeating Trump than the establishment is.”
This push for unity wouldn’t be out of character for Sanders. According to In These Times’ sources, after anti-TPP planks brought by Sanders allies in 2016 were defeated at both St. Louis and Orlando, Sanders had enough delegates to force a vote on the issue in a much more public way at the party convention in Philadelphia. What stopped him was a phone call from Obama, who didn’t want a contentious floor fight at the event.
The Unity Menu
It remains to be seen whether Sanders’ 2020 campaign for party unity, even more intense than in 2016, will win him more favorable treatment from the Democratic establishment. The Unity Task Forces he set up with Biden may have allowed him to set the stage, but even there, Sanders appointees were outnumbered on each task force, three to five.
Even the most promising fell short of expectations. The climate change task force, co-chaired by Green New Deal proponent Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), included Sunrise Movement co-founder Varshini Prakash and former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy. Yet ultimately, it left out a fracking ban and made no mention of the Green New Deal.
The economy task force was compelling, too, co-chaired by Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants union. It included Stephanie Kelton, an adviser on Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 campaigns and an expert on modern monetary theory, which rejects the current economic orthodoxy that discourages deficit spending. It recommended that Biden explore setting up government savings accounts for children, for instance, but stopped short of a federal jobs guarantee, a sticking point for the Biden team. The recommendations instead call for “jobs programs like those effectively used during the New Deal.”
Tellingly, foreign policy was entirely left out of the purview of the task forces.
With the task forces having made their recommendations, the Drafting Subcommittee is now tasked with hammering out a draft platform. This time around, Sanders did not officially get any nominations to the 15-person committee.
The lineup, announced by Perez in late June, pulled from Obama loyalists. Four held posts in Obama’s administration, three worked on his campaigns, one served as an elector for his 2008 run and two received his coveted endorsement after he left office. Three are Sanders allies—Heather Gautney, former Our Revolution executive director; Josh Orton, former Sanders Senate senior adviser; and Analilia Mejia, political director for the 2020 Sanders campaign. Orton and Mejia also worked for the 2008 Obama campaign.
Obama’s centrist, business-friendly politics are well-represented, too. Four of the members have corporate backgrounds, including Tom Vilsack, who passed through the revolving door from the Department of Agriculture to the U.S. Dairy Export Council, and Tony Allen, a former Biden speechwriter and former executive at Delaware credit card company MBNA, a top Biden funder that pushed his disastrous bankruptcy bill in 2005.
Perhaps the most important selection is the committee chair. Perez chose Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. Though she has won progressive plaudits for undertaking bail reform and improving government transparency, the business-backed Bottoms has also been criticized for harsh treatment of homeless people in Atlanta and for not doing enough to stop gentrification. Married to a Home Depot executive, Bottoms also has a penchant for public-private partnerships. She has been one of Biden’s most loyal backers, endorsing him in 2019 a day after he took fire over his anti-busing past.
“The chair has tremendous power,” says Jay Bellanca, upstate co-chair of NYPAN, who has been on the front lines of efforts to reform the party since 2016. “It determines who can recognize, bring things forward.”
While Sanders allies view 2016 Drafting Subcommittee Chair Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) as a fair adjudicator, the person who sits in the position can make a crucial difference—for better or worse. In 1988, Chair James Blanchard, governor of Michigan, was crucial to inserting a provision about respecting the territorial sovereignty of Lebanon, Zogby recalls.
“He said, ‘I’m from Michigan, don’t screw with this. Give me this language on Lebanon,’ ” Zogby says. “And we got it put in.”
The platform's next gauntlet is the full Platform Committee Meeting. In addition to the 25 members selected by Perez, 162 delegates will be added, apportioned by the number of delegates each candidate receives in the primary contest. Whatever they agree on must then be ratified at the Democratic National Convention itself.
In 2016, Sanders’ allies were pleasantly surprised by their impact on the platform that came out of the committee, including the $15 minimum wage provision. All were products of an intense, sometimes testy process.
Hanging over this year’s negotiations, however, was the question of whether Sanders would have enough delegates to be apportioned the 46 members of the platform committee that are needed to have leverage. It’s likely that even if all of Sanders Platform Committee members agree, they won’t reach the threshold of 46 members needed to bring a minority report to a vote on the convention floor, a potentially embarrassing challenge that could force compromise from the majority in advance, in order to head it off. In 2016, Sanders cleared that threshold easily, giving teeth to his delegates’ demands in committee (and avoiding a fight at the convention).
Assuming Sanders is just short of the 46, his team would need support from Biden platform committee members to reach the threshold number. Had Sanders actively stayed in the post Wisconsin primaries, even while supporting Biden, there would have been enough Sanders delegates elected to reach 46 platform committee members required for minority resolutions.
Because Sanders failed to do so, his movement will have little sway on the 2020 convention committees this year.
Sanders—focused on beating Trump (and no doubt stung by years of spurious accusations that he and his supporters cost Clinton the 2016 election)—seems committed to avoiding not just the rancor of the previous election, but the all-out chaos of the infamous 1972 Democratic Party convention. A much more conciliatory approach seems likely, working closely with Biden and attempting to nip any hint of party disunity in the bud.
Rather than lean on the threat of a contentious floor fight, then, Sanders vested his hopes in the Unity Task Forces. With the release of the draft platform in late July, this approach seems to have yielded dividends, with a number of their final recommendations making it into the finished product. The draft platform incorporates recommendations including expanding Medicare to cover vision, dental, and hearing loss, ending private prisons, and drastically moving up Biden’s climate targets.
Yet even here, the wins are muted. Much of the recommended language that found its way into the platform was already part of Biden’s platform, including his plans for undoing Trump’s immigration policies, letting Medicare negotiate drug prices, allowing the federal government to pay the cost of continuing lapsed health insurance under COBRA, and ending cash bail and mandatory minimums. While the draft now more directly states the party “support[s] ending the use of private prisons,” Biden had already pledged to make eliminating private prisons a requirement of his federal grant program for crime prevention. Same with the pledge to lower Medicare’s requirement age to 60.
In other areas, the Sanders camp appears to have been completely rolled. The task forces’ less ambitious recommendation to decriminalize marijuana went into the platform, and a plank to legalize it was defeated 105-60. Every one of the planks put forward by Palestinian-American delegates, including one merely calling for supporting an Israel that isn’t an exclusively Jewish state, was left out with most of them not even considered—though the final draft did include language defending the right of Americans to boycott Israel, a significant inclusion. Meanwhile, the already whittled-down language on New Deal-style jobs programs was entirely left out.
But the most glaring, if unsurprising, absence surrounded Sanders’ flagship Medicare for All policy, which receives a scant single mention in the draft platform, with no endorsement. Party delegates also voted down planks to insert such an endorsement into the draft, as well as those calling for expanding Medicare to children and lowering the program’s eligibility age to 55. The platform’s next stop is the August party convention, where hundreds of Sanders delegates are defying the Vermont senator’s push for party unity, and have signed a pledge to vote against the platform if it continues to leave out Medicare for All, a tactic that will likely fail to change the party’s mind—but will make inconvenient headlines for Democrats.
Should Biden ascend to the presidency, the next step for progressives will be ensuring he follows through on the platform’s many promises. This won’t just involve overcoming the predictable Republican obstruction, but putting enough pressure on Biden himself to outweigh the corporate and right-wing influence that have historically cowed him into submission. Ultimately, Obama only moved left on issues like immigration, marriage equality and the Keystone XL pipeline because of years of activist pressure. Conciliation and unity may be the order of the day, but there’s only so far they will go toward achieving progressive priorities.
Janea Wilson, Indigo Oliver and Camille Williams contributed fact-checking.
In U.S. political discourse, the search for a Covid-19 vaccine is largely framed as an arms race, in which the aim of the United States is to beat out other countries in procuring a vaccine, which will presumably go first to its own people. This vaccine nationalism, as global infections surge past 18 million and deaths near 700,000, is playing out along well-worn geopolitical fault-lines: Russia, China and even Iran are trying to steal our vaccine research, U.S. intelligence agencies claim, their warnings dutifully circulated in major media outlets. Yet, the fact that U.S. companies and the government are being proprietary over research information and vaccine access is never questioned. In popular discourse, it’s unconscionable to try to obtain research information, but not to hoard it.
Major U.S. media publications have cast the quest for a vaccine as a zero-sum global competition, at times using the language of overt war. A July 7 article in Reuters is headlined, “'At war time speed', China leads COVID-19 vaccine race.” It states, “Many other countries, including the United States, are coordinating closely with the private sector to try to win the vaccine development race.” A July 16 article in Forbes warns, “As Coronavirus Vaccines Move Into The Testing Phase, China Begins At The Top.” This spin dates back to the earliest period of the crisis. On March 19, the New York Times ran a piece titled, “Search for Coronavirus Vaccine Becomes a Global Competition.” Its opening line declared, “A global arms race for a coronavirus vaccine is underway.” On May 4, Business Insider put competition in starkly nationalist terms. “U.S. national security officials and global health experts are increasingly concerned China will develop a coronavirus vaccine first,” its headline read.
Of course, there are other possible ways U.S. media outlets could be depicting the search for a vaccine. As Dean Baker, economist and co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), a left-leaning think tank, tells In These Times, “We have this common problem. Why on Earth wouldn’t we be working together to find solutions as quickly as possible? Somehow that got lost. We're making it proprietary rather than saying, ‘Here’s the knowledge.’”
But the framing goes beyond mere competition: We’ve seen widespread media coverage that stokes fear about geopolitical foes “stealing” vaccine research from the United States. This is best captured in a spate of articles published in mid-July breathlessly warning, as the New York Times put it, “Russia Is Trying to Steal Virus Vaccine Data, Western Nations Say.” The Times story was sourced by “American intelligence officials,” including the National Security Agency, which claimed Russian hackers were trying to steal vaccine information from U.S. universities and companies. “There was likely little immediate damage to global public health, cybersecurity experts said,” the Times article concedes, but this did not stop the story from dominating the headlines. Never questioned, of course, was why the United States and other western nations would be proprietary over high-stakes, potentially life-saving information. The news cycle, Nathan Robinson wrote for Current Affairs, is “one of the most egregious examples I have ever seen of nationalistic bias leading to moral imbecility.”
Russia is not the only country targeted by this kind of coverage. On May 10, the New York Times ran a story that was also sourced to the U.S. government. It states, “The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security are preparing to issue a warning that China’s most skilled hackers and spies are working to steal American research in the crash effort to develop vaccines and treatments for the coronavirus. The efforts are part of a surge in cybertheft and attacks by nations seeking advantage in the pandemic.” The piece warned, “Iran and other nations are also looking to steal data and exploit the pandemic with attacks on infrastructure, officials say.” That followed a May 8 article by Reuters warning, “Iran-linked hackers recently targeted coronavirus drugmaker Gilead.” At no point does the article provide any evidence that this alleged theft poses a threat to public health or the search for a vaccine.
According to Tobita Chow, the director of “Justice is Global” (and board member of In These Times), the message this sends is that, rather than a reorientation towards global cooperation and information sharing, we need an escalated law enforcement crackdown on anyone trying to steal vaccine information. “This is further inflaming nationalist politics and contributing to the increase of all of this infrastructure and intelligence agencies and federal law enforcement agencies devoted to protecting intellectual property rights, which should not exist,” says Chow, adding: “From the perspective of actually helping people, we want every researcher on the planet capable of contributing to this effort doing so and for them to work with and collaborate with each other as freely as possible.”
Ramping up punitive response
This media spin has been mirrored in political discourse, perhaps most belligerently by President Trump, who has sought to blame China for the Covid-19 outbreak, as he oversees a profound domestic crisis that has left the U.S. economy in free fall and led to U.S. infection rates surging out of control. In early July, Trump formally notified Congress and the UN of the withdrawal of the United States from the World Health Organization, after his April decision to halt funding to the WHO, which he accused of aiding China in covering up its role in spreading the virus.
Alongside this global isolation, we are seeing an escalation in efforts to aggressively punish countries allegedly trying to “steal” U.S. vaccine information. On May 21, Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.) introduced a bill to “Protect Covid-19 Vaccine Research from Communist China” which, in their words, “requires a thorough national security evaluation and clearance by the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation of all Chinese student visa holders taking part in activities related to COVID-19 vaccine research.” This bill, if passed, would put Chinese visa holders in the crosshairs of vaccine nationalism, part of a trend of racist scapegoating that attempts to blame Chinese people for the alleged wrongdoing of the Chinese government. The bill’s proponents have used over-the-top rhetoric to vilify China. "The same Chinese Communist Party that covered up the coronavirus outbreak also routinely engages in state sponsored theft of intellectual property," Cruz said in a press statement. Similar sentiments have been expressed by nearly all of the Senate Republicans cosponsoring the bill, which has yet to face a vote.
Meanwhile, intelligence agencies are making a public show of their efforts to crack down on alleged Chinese intellectual property theft. As recently as July 21, the Department of Justice announced it had indicted two people with ties to China who had allegedly tried to obtain information about Covid-19 vaccine research as part of a broader hacking effort. An FBI press release breathlessly declared, “China is determined to use every means at its disposal—including the theft of intellectual property from U.S. companies, labs, and universities—to degrade the United States’ economic, technological, and military advantages.” That spin was also reflected in widespread media coverage, sourced by the FBI, with headlines like, “Chinese Hackers Charged in Decade-Long Crime and Spying Spree.”
Interviewed by the New York Times, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) declared, “We need a comprehensive strategy to deter the serial theft of strategic U.S. secrets.” Van Hollen, along with Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), introduced a bill on June 11 to, in their words, “require sanctions on individuals and firms found to engage in, benefit from, or enable the significant and serial theft of U.S. intellectual property.” A similar bill has also been introduced in the House.
Chow notes that fear-mongering over intellectual property theft by China is escalating during the pandemic, but predates the Trump administration. “This has led to something that concerns me a lot, which is the development of this huge wing of the FBI, a whole economic espionage program, assuming everyone from China is a potential spy. That started under the Obama administration and has ramped up tremendously. Vaccine nationalism has contributed more to the growth of that program.”
This ethos is also reflected in efforts to devote even more funding to the crackdown. As expanded unemployment insurance dries up amid a ballooning crisis of poverty and evictions, Senate Republicans proposed in their July 27 Covid-19 relief package that $53 million go to the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) to protect against “increased attacks targeting Federal networks for agencies involved in coronavirus vaccine development.”
Hoarding a potential vaccine
Yet punishment is not the only mechanism by which vaccine nationalism is being enforced. The United States is also bowing out of global cooperation and trying to buy up vaccine reserves for itself, at the expense of poorer countries.
Baker of CEPR told In These Times that any vaccine search that is proprietary “almost certainly has to be slowing down research. If there are successes, you’d like to know as quickly as possible, as well as failures, so that others don’t waste time on that. If it’s proprietary, it’s up to companies whether they want to share information. There is no obligation to share.”
Ana Santos Rutschman, Assistant Professor at Saint Louis University School of Law, tells In These Times she is most concerned about how the lack of global cooperation will affect the distribution of a potential vaccine once it’s developed. According to the Covid-19 Vaccine Tracker created by FasterCures of the Milken Institute, a there are 199 vaccines in development and 20 are in clinical testing. China alone already has multiple vaccines in human trials. “Once you develop two to three candidates and decide who will get them first, that's when nationalism will occur,” she says. “It's going to affect the way we distribute the vaccine.”
The United States and other wealthy countries are maneuvering quickly to buy up potential vaccines. As part of the Trump administration’s “Operation Warp Speed,” which is supposed to deliver Americans 300 million doses of a vaccine by January 2021, the U.S. government has signed billions of dollars worth of deals with numerous companies seeking to create a vaccine. Similarly, governments across Europe are making heavy investments, and the United States and European countries are preemptively ordering hundreds of millions of potentially successful vaccine doses.
In this climate, there is concern that access will be shaped by a country’s ability to purchase, putting people in poorer nations at an extreme disadvantage. “It’s almost like children fighting over food at home and the oldest child who is the strongest taking all the food and saying, ‘Listen, I will keep all this food for myself and I don’t care if my brothers and sisters have eaten or not,’” Chikwe Ihekweazu, chief executive officer at Nigeria’s Centre for Disease Control told Politico.
There is reason for concern. During the 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak, wealthy countries advance-ordered nearly the entire global supply of vaccines, buying “virtually all the vaccine companies could manufacture,” according to a research paper published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information. The WHO entered into negotiations with manufacturers and appealed for donations, but this “still left the developing world with limited supplies compared to developed countries,” the paper notes.
The fact that the United States is recusing itself from pretty much all global cooperation does not bode well for equitable distribution of a potential vaccine. As of July 15, more than 150 countries had either joined, or expressed interest in joining, the Covid-19 vaccines global access (COVAX) facility, organized by the World Health Organization, Gavi (funded by the Gates Foundation, the U.S. government and other nations) and other international organizations. In the words of Science Magazine, COVAX Facility “seeks to entice rich countries to sign on by reducing their own risk that they’re betting on the wrong vaccine candidates.” The effort is a public-private partnership, and, according to Rutschman, is an “imperfect mechanism.” She explains, “I would be very happy if we could have a COVAX structure that's more equitable and fair towards countries that can't pay as much.” Yet, she underscores, it is “better than nothing,” because at least it is an “internationalized approach.”
Yet, so far, the United States has declined to join this COVAX Facility effort. And in May, when the European Union called for an international meeting to discuss the equitable distribution of a potential vaccine, the United States declined to attend the meeting, as did Russia, India, Brazil and Argentina. In addition, the United States—alongside India and Russia—declined to join the the “Access to Covid-19 Tools Accelerator,” which was “launched by the World Health Organization to promote collaboration among countries in the development and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines and treatments,” as Rutschman explained.
According to Baker, this isolationist, “America first” approach is a risky gamble—for the United States, as well as the rest of the world. After all, this failure to cooperate puts the United States at a disadvantage if the first successful vaccine is not under its control. “The implication,” he says, “is that we are going to have people in the United States die if it isn’t a U.S. vaccine. And the other way around, we are prepared to let people around the world die because it is a U.S. vaccine.”
As the coronavirus continues to batter the U.S., the horror stories still sound the same: basic medical supplies nowhere to be found, new patients keep showing up gasping for air, nurses with impossible workloads and back-to-back-to-back shifts, hospital staff with inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE) getting sick.
It might even sound like no one with any power in American healthcare has learned much since March, but that’s not true, according to Saum Sutaria, chief operating officer of Tenet Healthcare, a massive, for-profit hospital chain. “We’ve learned a tremendous amount,” Sutaria boasted to Wall Street analysts during a conference call in mid-June. The McKinsey alum and featured Aspen Ideas Festival speaker was talking about how to limit Covid-19 “costs on a unit basis of managing.”
Of course, hospitals can lower their costs in a lot of ways that make patient care worse. Tenet, for example, furloughed an astonishing 10% of its staff in March and April. It also stopped contributing to 401(k) retirement accounts, rationed PPE (and threatened to fire employees who brought their own), and slashed hours for its nurses. Some nurses were sent home mid-shift, leaving others to watch sections as big as 20 patients. At a Tenet hospital in Massachusetts, nurses filed more than 50 reports over two weeks in April, documenting specific instances of how the downsizing jeopardized patients. One declared she had “[never] been more ashamed to work” somewhere.
Tenet’s pandemic management style has been especially harrowing at Detroit Medical Center (DMC), Detroit’s major hospital group (with 2,000 beds) and the city’s biggest employer. Nearly 3,000 people have died from Covid-19 in Wayne County, where Detroit is. Meanwhile, a lawsuit filed by four former DMC nurses claims that, at one point, DMC was so short-staffed that a staggering number of the deceased were in rigor mortis before anyone noticed they weren’t breathing. The staffers allege hospital administrators actively increased the death toll by instructing nurses not to revive patients suspected of having Covid-19.
As bodies piled up, DMC ran out of space for body bags, then ran out of body bags. When a group of overnight nurses showed up early for their shift to plead with their bosses for reinforcements—either from outside the hospital or among the 1,500 staffers the system had laid off over the past few years—Tenet officials instead sent them home. The day staff, then, worked a 25-hour shift.
The lawsuit also claims the emergency room’s lack of PPE led to numerous unnecessary deaths, as nurses and others became infected after sharing hospital gowns and masks.
This radical austerity is not completely new at DMC, though the pandemic showcases its pitfalls. In 2011, DMC was purchased by Vanguard Health Systems, which was itself controlled by The Blackstone Group, a private equity firm. The deal was hyped with so much promise for the hospital that Mike Duggan, the former DMC chief executive who helped broker the deal, used the story to get himself elected mayor. Of course, like many private equity deals, the goal was never the long-term health of the company (or the patients) but to make money (fast) by cutting costs, extracting cash and flipping it to another buyer.
Taking over a giant company generally requires a giant pile of cash. Private equity firms are often able to finance those takeovers by using the very companies they’re buying as collateral for the loans to buy them—loans the newly purchased companies are on the hook to pay back. Rubbing salt in the wound, private equity firms often use some of that new cash to pay themselves a dividend, even when the company they bought isn’t making money.
So it went with Blackstone, Vanguard Health and DMC. Blackstone took on $1 billion in debt financing to acquire Vanguard Health in 2004, then took on $225 million in 2010 to acquire DMC as part of Vanguard Health, then took on another $750 million dollars a year later to finance (among other things) another dividend, then took on another $350 million in March 2012.
By 2013, the hospital chain was spending about $200 million a year on its loan payments. Meanwhile, Vanguard Health’s profits for the previous five years combined totaled just over $80 million. That’s when Tenet Healthcare stepped in, paying $1.8 billion to buy DMC in 2013, including $2.5 billion in high-interest debt.
By 2014, Tenet’s interest payments had ballooned to $754 million a year—88% of its cash flow. DMC then slashed spending, axing its highly regarded pediatric allergy and asthma care program and downsizing its residency program in 2019. It also cut a quarter of its sterile technician staffers between 2006 and 2016, to the point that DMC surgeons complained of blood and tissue left inside supposedly clean surgical instruments. Some surgical procedures were actually halted partway through for lack of clean instruments; the cardiologists who exposed the scandal were then barred from leadership roles and had their email credentials revoked. Meanwhile, DMC slashed its budget for administering care to poor, uninsured patients from $22.9 million in 2013 to $470,000 in 2016.
Corner-cutting in the U.S. healthcare system has affected even relatively upper-class institutions. A doctor with the largest private equity-backed dermatology chain, for example, told Bloomberg earlier this year that he started keeping toilet paper in his car (even before the pandemic) because “waiting for corporate approvals” left his office without essentials too many times. A doctor in middle-class Oxford, Miss., was fired after she started a Facebook fundraiser to buy masks for nurses because the private equity-owned staffing firm did not provide them. An emergency room doctor with Blackstone’s TeamHealth was fired after writing a Facebook post wondering why the Indian reservation hospital (where he volunteered) had a better equipped Covid-19 triage system than his hospital in the wealthier city of Bellingham, Wash., (at the time, a Covid-19 hotspot), where staffers were prohibited from purchasing anything without approval from a hard-to-reach corporate “expert doc.”
Meanwhile, poor people are increasingly likely to find themselves abandoned altogether, as doctors and nurses in Philadelphia and Chicago learned after Tenet sold off area safety net hospitals in 2017 and 2019 to a shadowy Southern California-based group of small-time investors (the hospitals were shut down under mysterious financial circumstances). Tenet is also planning to sell its Memphis hospitals to a chain notorious for suing destitute patients over medical debt. Leonard Green & Partners, the same Los Angeles-based private equity firm that sucked hundreds of millions of dollars out of the now bankrupt retailer J. Crew, shut down a safety net hospital system in San Antonio and sold its buildings to a hotel developer, extracting $658 million for itself in dividends and fees.
But as Tenet’s Saum Sutaria explained on his conference call, the pandemic is an exciting time to profit off the poor. Across the country, Tenet and other hospital chains have created a process called “cohorting,” setting up DIY Covid-19 wards in rec centers, basements, old hospice facilities and similar spaces. In concert with the billions of dollars Tenet received from CARES Act bailouts (not just the forgivable loans), this makeshift pandemic care has cleared hospital space for lucrative elective surgeries to continue, right on alongside the pandemic bloodbath.
The harrowing conditions inside one such makeshift Covid-19 unit—adjacent a relatively empty hospital in Edinburg, Texas, operated by the for-profit group Doctors Hospital at Renaissance—is the subject of a stomach-churning viral Twitter thread featuring claims of patients covered with ants, stories of dirty equipment and absentee doctors, and unnecessary deaths caused by a preposterous network of low-capacity oxygen tanks. The related Twitter stories were collected by a Florida nurse to whom a roughly half-dozen shell-shocked travel nurses turned—after their staffing agency threatened them with “demobilization” should they speak out. Observers quickly characterized the setup as a genocide. For Tenet and an executive team long beset by poor earnings numbers and ever rising litigation costs, however, this “innovation” in patient “consolidation” is a point of pride.
“We have simply learned how to care for these patients in a more consolidated manner,” Sutaria boasted.
The heady mix of CARES Act cash, austerity measures and public acceptance of mass death has enabled the pandemic to breathe temporary new life into the financial prospects of the so-called healthcare industry—ironic, given at least one company’s prohibition on reviving Covid-19 patients.