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Politics Mondays: Fear Of A Black Independent


Not surprisingly, elitist members of the American Left are practically hysterical over Ralph Nader’s participation in Dr. Lenora Fulani’s Choosing An Independent President (ChIP) 2004 conference in New Hampshire. Mr. Nader’s “surprise” involvement appears to have caught some card-carrying and self-described radicals, liberals and progressives who rhetorically respect or support Independent politics off-guard. No less than four publications on the Left, or Left-Of-Center – The Nation magazine,The Boston Phoenix (below, see ChIP’s political strategist Jackie Salit dissection of these two articles), the Common Dreams website, and The Forward published articles containing sensitive replies or visceral attacks and accusations directed against either Ralph Nader’s attendance at the ChIPs conference; or Dr.Fulani and Dr. Fred Newman, her political mentor, in the wake of Mr. Nader's engagement with ChIPs. Never mind that Democratic presidential candidates Senator John Edwards, Governor Howard Dean, Rev. Al Sharpton, and Rep. Dennis Kucinich have all participated in the process (as has Libertarian Presidential candidate Gary Nolan). Evidently you have to be the “right kind” of Independent in order to warrant the support of some others. So much for embracing the freedom of thought and assembly championed by the Left, where Dr. Lenora Fulani is concerned.

Could it be that partly through the work of a Black political maverick and Independent, Dr. Lenora Fulani, that an elite, establishment element of the Left feels left out of the dynamic emerging mass of Independents – partisan, ideological, or anti-the two major-party system? According to major polls 35% of all Americans describe themselves as “independent,” and according to the Joint Center For Political and Economic Studies, near 35% of the younger members of the Black electorate describe themselves as “independent” of either a Republican or Democratic designation. Could it be that the strident and intense reaction that some members of the Left express toward Dr. Fulani in general, and more specifically, the idea of Dr. Fulani and Ralph Nader working together grows out of a fear that their dominance of liberal, progressive and radical thought from the top-down - through political parties, think-tanks and print publications - is being threatened by a bottom-up movement that utilizes activism legwork on the ground and communication and networking via the Internet to reach both active voters on the Left and self-described Independents and younger members of the American electorate? If so, Ralph Nader’s engagement of the ChIPs process over the wishes of some among his 'previous' elitist supporters could represent a seismic shift on the Left. Dr. Fulani described the implications of this for some within the Left's elite establishment in a conversation we had last Friday.

"The Nation magazine article continues a 20-year debate on independent politics and the Left. The American Left is uniquely tied to the Democratic Party. And the tension exists because even though we are progressives, we are independent and the emphasis on the ChIPs process is on organizing independents, not parties and candidates, as the Left and others focus on. ChIPs has reached out to all Independents. We are interested in the 35% of the electorate that is independent in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons. Ralph (Nader), is thinking along those lines and has changed course and is exploring an Independent run that is more movement than party-based. Ralph came to our conference as an independent and not as a candidate. And The Nation is freaked out that Ralph showed up because they relate to him as a legitimate progressive and feel that Fred (Dr. Fred Newman) and I are illegitimate. The other thing that they are concerned about is that Howard Dean has touched a group of young voters who are not really part of the Democratic Party. These 'Dean Democrats' are very similar to the 'McCain Republicans' who got involved in politics in the 2000 election. They are of the Democratic Party but they do not do the Party’s business. If the Dean voters, Ralph Nader, and the ChIPs process could connect this year we could have a real impact on politics."

Consider Dr. Fulani’s words in light of this, from Jabari Asim’s nationally published recent column, "Republicans And The African-American Vote." He writes, "There has been a measurable rightward shift in the black electorate. In 2002 the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a liberal think tank, asked black respondents in its national survey to identify themselves as either Democrats, independents or Republicans. Although 63 percent claimed to be Democrats, the number was down from 74 percent in 2000. The decrease occurred in nearly every age group, including among respondents 65 and older (where the drop was from 82 percent to 75 percent). There was a significant increase in those calling themselves independents, especially between the ages of 26 and 35. Respondents identifying themselves as Republicans also increased: Between ages 26 and 35, the share tripled, going from 5 percent in 2000 to 15 percent in 2002.” Perhaps Mr. Asim could have stated that this is evidence of a shift away from the Leftist establishment and mainstream. This is not necessarily the same dynamic as a rightward shift, as he interprets.

Much of the supposed, real, and feigned opposition to Dr. Fulani is said to be generated because of her relationship to Dr. Fred Newman. I think that there are some in the cultural and intellectual sphere who genuinely disagree with, oppose and fear Dr. Newman’s work. But in a political context, I believe that attacks on the Dr. Fulani-Dr. Fred Newman relationship are a red herring designed to distract and detract from the paradigm-shifting political realignment underway. Just over a year ago, Dr. Lenora Fulani arranged for me to meet with Mr. Newman. With ChIPs' political strategist Jackie Salit present, Dr. Newman and I talked for 2 hours. We had what I felt was an honest, stimulating and wide-ranging discussion that covered our passion for structural political reform in American politics; the dynamics affecting the Black vote; our mutually expressed love and respect for Minister Louis Farrakhan; our respective interpretations of Karl Marx; and comparing and contrasting our differing views of the concepts of “self” and “community” as it relates to Black people. Following that meeting I received and read through several books authored or co-authored by Dr. Newman and weeks later I participated on a panel discussion on radicalism at the New York City inaugural ChIPs conference (Interestingly, during that panel discussion I offered the view that one cannot be a true radical if they do not practice freedom of assembly, as a compliment of freedom of thought and speech. I pointed to the diverse "meeting" of views at BlackElectorate.com on a daily basis, and the freedom that I personally enjoy in my ability to meet with, discuss, and enjoy the company and diversity of thinking of Donna Brazile, Cynthia McKinney, Minister Farrakhan, Armstrong Williams and Dr. Fulani, for example, with integrity.) Nothing that I experienced in my discussions and interactions with Dr. Fulani, Dr. Newman, Jackie Salit and ChIPs participants matches the media reports.

The problem that the “professional Democrat,” “progressive partisan,” elite Leftist intellectual has with Dr. Fulani is compounded by the modern crisis of many Black intellectuals who claim nationalist or progressive ideologies but who often have a knee-jerk reaction to Ms. Fulani’s thesis and approach to coalition-building. I have known Dr. Lenora Fulani for nearly five years. We have discussed American and Black politics, in a running conversation that spans from last Friday to the very first time we talked – a conversation that revolved primarily around Pat Buchanan. Dr. Fulani is the national Black political independent, doing more to consistently advance political ideas, build institutions and networks and affect elections, as a political independent, than any other Black American of this generation. This places her in a unique position relative to American politics as well as the Black community. She is both admired and feared, as well as misunderstood. From my vantage point, she is also envied by many Black leaders, who desire her political influence and freedom; but simultaneously understand that it might expose the lack of their own. In the five years that I have known her and discussed her with my closest political friends, political professionals, interview subjects and in general conversation I have not once heard a cogent reason as to why some do not like Dr. Fulani. In that respect she is unique among all Black political leaders that I have encountered.

Because the most visibly politically-active Blacks are overwhelmingly Democrats or otherwise intellectually deferential to the Left, instead of getting to know Dr. Fulani as many local and National independents have, many will interpret Dr. Fulani and possibly ChIPs through the lens of the mainstream media and the elite members of the American Left’s alternative media sources and “think tanks” which have a blindspot on racial issues and an uneasiness in handling the nucleus and spirit of Independent politics – whether partisan, ideological, anti two-party system in nature in nature.

But, with the dire condition of the Black community and the "captured" status of the Black vote I think it is now a fair question to ask these Black radicals, progressives and liberals (and the elite American Left establishment that often guides them) a couple of questions: “Does your rejection of and uneasiness over Dr. Fulani come from critical thinking and indigenous sensibilities alone or is it partially influenced by the views of external benefactors, institutions and coalition partners who fear Dr. Fulani for their own reasons?” And, “How can you, with credibility, continue to ignore or otherwise seek to work around Dr. Fulani in the face of the growing minority of Black political independents, a group the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies measures, in some categories, is over 30% of the population?

Time will reveal, perhaps as early as this year, the relevance and quality of my questioning juxtaposed to the return on the investment the Black vote earns from the nature of its current relationship with the American two-party system. History may show that where Blacks are concerned, the most elite members of the American Left have been obstructionists as much as they have been benevolent or sympathetic.

Cedric Muhammad
February 2, 2004


****

Below is a release sent out to all participants in the recent ChIPs conference attended by Ralph Nader; from Jackie Salit, a leading independent political strategist:

NO BIG SHOTS, NO CANDIDATES, JUST BUILDING


To Conference Participants and Friends:

Many of you have been very forthcoming with your reactions to the recent Nation article, “Nader and the Newmanites” by Doug Ireland, for which I thank you. Jerry Everett, a leader of the Independence Party of New York, sent me a note with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi. He said “First, they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.” Very inspiring!

This week the Weekly Dig - http://www.weeklydig.com/dig/content/5599.aspx - published a very spirited article about the Choosing An Independent President 2004 conference by writer Erik Gehring. I urge all of you to take a look at this piece, which captures the out-of-the-box culture of the conference.

Some of you are familiar with the kinds of political attacks that appeared in The Nation magazine, while others are seeing them for the first time. They grow out of what has been a 20 year debate on independent politics within circles known, broadly speaking, as the American Left.

Many leftist activists link themselves to the Democratic Party and are antagonistic to independent political strategies and wary of independent voters. ChIP’s conveners – all of whom are progressives but none of whom agree with the “official” Left positions on these matters – have been the target of various forms of yellow journalism over the course of this debate. The New Hampshire ChIP conference provoked a new round (though some of the content is very old).

Following the publication of Ireland’s article, a moderately critical piece, “ChIP Off the Old Block,” was published in The Boston Phoenix, authored by Adam Reilly who, unlike Ireland, was at the conference. [To see the two-part Phoenix piece go to.]
http://www.bostonphoenix.com/boston/news%5Ffeatures/talking%5Fpolitics/documents/03521598.asp AND http://www.bostonphoenix.com/boston/news%5Ffeatures/talking%5Fpolitics/documents/03521597.asp

In “ChIP Off the Old Block,” Mr. Reilly raises an important political question about the independent movement and ChIP. He wants to know why independents are getting together without any of the recognized “big names” – Ross Perot, Jesse Ventura, John Anderson, Jim Jeffords – at the helm. For Mr. Reilly this makes the ChIP process illegitimate, even suspect.

When you read The Boston Phoenix article you will see that after the New Hampshire weekend he called with a follow-up question on this subject. I explained that Perot is no longer an independent and that Ventura is no longer in politics, and went on to emphasize that the ChIP process is about grassroots independents, it’s aim is to empower the independent voter, not to await the “big names.” You can read our exchange for yourselves.

I must admit, however, I wish I had answered the question more explicitly. The honest answer to the question about why Perot, Ventura, Anderson, etc. weren’t there is that they have abandoned the independent voter; they walked away from the independent movement. Consequently, they would have no business being at a national meeting of independents who have not.

Still, it appears, even according to Mr. Reilly, that our illegitimate enterprise might turn out to be significant after all. It seems to me that he (and The Nation’s Mr. Ireland) are upset because ChIP has put its finger on a critical fact of political life – that 35% of the country are independents and lack any kind of political representation – and we are trying to do something about that. Since the sympathies of The Nation and the Phoenix lie with the Democrats, they are none too happy with the idea that independents are getting together on their own terms to make moves that enhance the power of independents – not the Democratic Party.

Fred Newman and Lenora Fulani, in particular, have been blacklisted by the Left Establishment – of which The Nation and the Phoenix are a part – thus anything they are associated with is automatically worthy of its contempt. This knee-jerk contempt from the official Left is somewhat ironic, since both Newman and Fulani are longtime progressives, while Perot, Ventura, and Anderson are not. In fact, during the years that ChIP’s conveners worked with Perot and Ventura, the official Left position was that Perot was a neo-fascist and Ventura a clown. Anderson, a Republican, was barely on the Left’s radar screen. But now Mr. Reilly finds it convenient to lionize them in an effort to diminish ChIP.

What is, perhaps, most striking to me about the Phoenix article is how little of the history of the independent movement the author actually knows. For example, Newman and Fulani (together with Jim Mangia and I) vigorously defended Perot and the Perot movement against malicious attacks from the Left. Fulani, in the midst of her second run for the presidency when Perot entered the race in 1992, reached out to Perot voters everywhere, sowing the seeds of the coalition that would later become the Patriot Party, the precursor to the national Reform Party.

Far from being interlopers or infiltrators, as Reilly and Ireland suggest, Fulani and Newman were “ground floor” instigators of many of the major initiatives in the independent movement. Reilly contends that “many participants were taken aback” when their supporters won the majority of seats on the Patriot Party Executive Committee. This is not accurate. The delegates weren’t “taken aback” by the coalitional slate. They voted for it.

(* Both publications like to rant about Newman and Fulani. This is not the first time (nor will it be the last). They have accused them of cultism, anti-Semitism, and con-jobbing. The charges are untrue and have been disproven many times over. Newman and Fulani’s financial and political dealings have been audited and investigated by everyone from the Federal Election Commission, to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to the New York State Attorney General, and in every instance, they’ve been given a clean bill of health. They are not anti-Semites – even their longtime critic Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League chose not to include them in his latest book Never Again? The Threat of the New Anti-Semitism. As far as the cult charges are concerned, I am somewhat at a loss to explain them other than to say that these critics go in for a kind of postmodern McCarthyism (a bizarre activity for so-called progressives). Alternatively, their cult obsession reveals that these critics believe it is illegitimate for people who practice psychotherapy to be involved in politics. I, for one, do not share that belief. Moreover, it’s clear to me that they have no understanding of Social Therapy, the psychological clinical approach developed by Newman, or of the issues being considered by postmodern psychology overall.)

When they were in the Reform Party together, Fulani and Ventura joined forces to oust an administration handpicked by Perot, when Perot’s loyalists tried to prevent the democratization of the party. The Fulani/Ventura coalition – which included many non-aligned delegates who followed her lead on democracy reform inside the Reform Party – won the chairmanship at a hotly contested convention in Dearborn in 1999. “Dallas” (the Perot clique) temporarily lost control of the party. Fulani herself won 42% of the vote in the race for Vice Chair.

Mr. Reilly (perhaps naively) describes Pat Buchanan’s participation in the Reform Party as “the antithesis of everything Perot stood for,” missing the key dynamic. The Perot forces invited Buchanan in to the Reform Party specifically to overturn the results of the Dearborn convention and upend the democracy movement inside the party.

Fulani’s alliance with Buchanan was motivated by several things, one of which was this very situation. She hoped to draw Buchanan into a coalition with herself and Ventura that could neutralize Dallas and unify a left/center/right axis inside the party. As it turned out, Ventura – believing the battle with Dallas to be lost – withdrew. He refused Fulani’s offer to broker a meeting with Buchanan and Perot’s 1996 running mate Pat Choate. Later, Buchanan would violate the terms of her agreement with him and she withdrew her support of him. In the meantime, Dallas and Buchanan partnered to railroad their way through the party’s infrastructure rooting out the democracy coalition and retaking control of the party.

Reilly’s coverage of the ChIP conference was remarkably insensitive to all of this history and to the fact that in spite of it, thousands of independents have been working together to try to build something out of the ashes of a national movement that was virtually destroyed. What was so moving to me about our New Hampshire conference was that it showed that the independent movement – however diffuse at this time – has managed to keep itself alive, relevant and inclusive. Ralph Nader’s representative Jason Kafoury, who some of you met at the conference, pointed out in his reply to The Nation that there was a broad cross-section of independents present. I am proud that we created that inclusive environment – it is very rare.

ChIP’s emphasis on organizing independents without a party has not gone unnoticed. In considering an independent run for the presidency Ralph Nader has changed course and, rather than seeking the nomination of the Green Party, he is exploring a run that is more movement-based than party-based. That, presumably, is why he came to the ChIP conference, as we are the movement-based independents. Or, as I said in my introduction of him, the “independent independents.” The ChIP process offers Nader (and all the presidential candidates) a pivotal “hook-up” to the independent movement.

It was Nader’s appearance at ChIP’s conference that got The Nation (and to some extent the Phoenix) reporters’ noses so out of joint. I think this reaction has to do with the fact that they consider Nader a “legitimate” progressive (they’re prejudiced against political intermarriage), and with the “bigness” of what is on the table, politically speaking, in this election cycle. For example, if Democratic Party insurgencies like the Dean movement, Ralph Nader and the ChIP process were to connect this year in some form or fashion, American politics could be transformed. We could see a mass independent movement – on par with the Perot movement of 1992 – shaped by a progressive vision of uniting Americans across the ideological spectrum to demand structural political reform and a change in the partisan culture of politics.

Will anything even close to that happen? I do not know. I do know that the “official progressives” at The Nation and the Phoenix, and several of the “big shots” interviewed by Mr. Reilly would like to prevent it. Will such a coming together happen in spite of them? I don’t know that either. There are so many variables, so many events outside of our control. Will the Democratic nominee, whomever he is, (no more “she’s” – Carol Moseley Braun dropped out to endorse Dean) reach out to coalesce with independent voters through the ChIP process? If Dean is not the nominee, will the Dean movement stay entirely within the confines of the Democratic Party? Will Nader decide to run and if so, will he want to include “independent independents” in his campaign?

History (or, in the short run, the “Nightly News”) will give us those answers soon enough. I do know this much: through all of your hard work and our very successful New Hampshire conference, these questions are not just abstractions, they have been brought to life. That is a tremendous accomplishment.

This week the voting began in Iowa. The most striking thing to me about the Iowa results is that Howard Dean lost his footing and became too much a Democrat and too little an independent. He paid a price for that.

Meanwhile, we continue doing what got us this far. We are building a movement of independent voters in as many cities, towns, villages and states, and on as many campuses as we can, giving a voice to America’s 35%. We are training ourselves as spokespersons and leaders. We are keeping our eye – and the heat – on all the presidential candidates. And we’re getting some interesting political reactions to what we’ve done that range from the irate (The Nation) to the conflicted (The Boston Phoenix) to the thoughtful (Weekly Dig).

In thinking about how we, as independents, go forward from here, I find it useful to recall Fred Newman’s remarks from the Saturday night session of the conference. He passionately explained that our political power derives from the fact that we don’t need the candidates, that we don’t need the politicians to bring independents together. This is not just a philosophical point, it’s a hardball political point as well. Last week every political player in the country was obsessed with the Iowa voter. As soon as Iowans voted, they became yesterday’s news. The independents stand only to gain by holding off on choosing a candidate now. Our focus remains expanding our base. You could say our motto for now is Build, Don’t Choose. Let’s keep going.

Warmest regards,

Jackie Salit


Monday, February 2, 2004

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