The Forgotten War on Drugs and Election ’08
Posted on Jun 20, 2007
James Harris: This is Truthdig. James Harris here again with Josh Scheer and in-studio guest Dr. Troy Duster. We’ve been talking off-air about the relationship between the war on drugs and unemployment in poor and minority communities. Dr. Duster, for the record, why is it critical that we understand the war on drugs as it relates to social progress and perhaps social policy?
Troy Duster: People often get trapped into the immediacy of the drug war. They believe that the police are the bad guys; they’re profiling blacks and Latinos, and that’s the end of the story. So you don’t get a sense of big economic political context to the drug war. You know if you even go back to the Opium War in the middle of the 19th century you can see it was never about opium. It was about power, control, the British, and the Japanese. That’s what it was all about. But in a very similar way, the drug war that we’ve experienced in the last 30 years is to be set in some sort of larger historical context. And that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. As a sociologist, I don’t just talk about drugs. I talk about the context. About 30 years ago, a little bit longer, there was a book written by Sidney Willhelm. The title was provocative. It was called “Who Needs the Negro?” Now, it was a book that people thought was just outrageous. It was actually in the ’60s that I think it was published. They still called black people Negroes in those years, as you can tell from the title. And here was Willhelm’s thesis: He said, you’re going back to slavery, and you had great need for black labor. It was obvious, that’s what slavery was all about. And then he said, we move into an industrial world, blacks were leaving the South for Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago and New York. And that period, World War I breaks out, and you need black labor to either strike-break, for what’s happening with whites who were getting a little bit militant with the IWW [Industrial Workers of the World], or, when whites leave and go to WWI and WWII, you got this black labor supply. Then he says that what happens in the postwar era, when whites come back from the wars, you don’t need the Negro anymore for that kind of industrial labor. The work that’s being done in the South in the cotton fields is pretty much mechanized now. And he said “who needs the Negro?”
Harris: Well, I’m going to interrupt for a second. So you’ve got this well-documented case for the unneeded Negro. But how in the world does this tie back into the war on drugs?
Duster: When he said this he then implied that there would be a development in the next 10 to 20 years that would crystallize his idea. He didn’t say what it was going to be, but he said, you watch, there’s going to happen something in this country that going to sharpen this whole issue about the redundancy … of black employment. And sure enough, in 1954, in the age group 16 to 20, black unemployment is equal to white unemployment. …
Harris: This is 1954?
Duster: 1954. Thirty years later, black unemployment in this age group is three and a half to four times that of white unemployment. But here are the figures. [In]1954 it’s about 12 percent each unemployment figures. In 1984, in most urban jurisdictions, blacks are about 42 percent unemployed in this age group; whites about 16 percent. Now what happened? How would you explain that industrialization which was not so bad for black people in terms of the employment in the first part of the century? Suddenly with postindustrialization you get this extraordinary rate of black unemployment among youth. And what we learned is that in the tertiary sector of the economy, blacks are not necessarily needed, and this was Willhelm’s point. So what you’re getting when you’re getting into banking, restauranting, and all of those activities that are not either industrial or rural. Employers are making decisions about who they want to be in these shops, selling goods, or who they want in the restaurants, waiting on tables, who they want in hotels, in these service occupations. And there you have systematic discrimination. He said by 1984 what you’re seeing is extraordinarily high rates of black unemployment. Enter the drug war. What happens between 1980 and 2000 is the most massive building of prisons in all of U.S history. In California [in]1982, I was looking at some figures; we were spending more on higher education than on prisons. We had nine campuses on the University of California; we had about 16 state colleges. In the next period, the next 20 years, we built not a single campus, but we built, however … we went from 11 prisons to 27 prisons. And the incarceration rate skyrockets. Now here’s the part where we get into the issue of race and incarceration. You go back to 1925 and the black rate of incarceration is about twice that of whites. By 1990 it’s eight times the rate of whites. So what’s happening here is this extraordinary acceleration in the incarceration of black people and the single most important factor is the drug war.
Harris: Talking to Dr. Troy Duster, and we’re getting into this issue of the war on drugs as it relates directly to the black community. We’ll talk a bit about racial profiling, but I have a question for you—kind of open this thing up. The statistics are certainly there: Black males who don’t graduate from high school are unemployed almost to a rate to 72 percent. I tell them they have to beat these numbers. What responsibility falls on the actual man or woman who is not employed or who is breaking the law?
Duster: That’s a great question, because as you know, listening to whether it’s Bill Cosby or Juan Williams or increasingly colleagues and friends of mind like Bob Herbert who are on the progressive side of the continuum. What they’re saying more and more is that we have to look at the values and the attitudes orientation of black youth. Yes and no. On the one hand, of course, if I’m speaking to a particular black kid in my office, and I often do, I will tell him that he needs to get his act together and be purposeful and do his homework and all those virtuous things. On a public stage, however, as a matter of public policy, this is not about individuals and their values. We as a nation have a policy. It was developed in 1987 by the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration]. It was called Operation Pipeline. And the pipeline was to train 27,500 law enforcement people to look on the streets of the United States to find and to profile particular “kinds of people who would be engaged in drug dealing.” Now that’s not individual decision, that’s not individual cop. That’s 27,000 people who are trained by the government; that’s a policy. And the goal from that level down to the individual saying “you need to get your act together” is to make this huge sociopolitical mistake which I think this nation is abundantly capable of—and we do it all the time. So, OK, let’s go back to your question. You get these individuals in your audience, and you’re telling them purposefully and correctly that if they work hard, persevere, stay in school, their chances as individuals of getting a good job are pretty good. On the other hand, if you are talking about the collective, talk about in fact that there are over 35 million black people and unemployment rates are extraordinarily high, now the question changes. What is the country as a whole going to do to increase the employment rate of this part of the population? And my answer is counterintuitive. People are always saying thing likes “you have to look at the market, you have to look at the market.” Well, it’s the market that got us here. Again, in ’54 you had unemployment rates among blacks are about equal to whites. The market, not individual black youth, spoke and we have a rate of unemployment by 1984 that’s about four times as great. So what we need to do is not look at individuals but at public policy. I think that we could have an extraordinarily successful program of reducing the unemployment rate among blacks and whites if we move to the public sector. Let’s take the example of all the billions of dollars spent into the Iraq black hole. Let’s take about 12 billion of that and revamp the New York and Boston subways. All of a sudden we’d have employment at about 98 percent. Why? Because lots of jobs flow. Let’s take another 12 to 15 billion. You could then put in the homes of most Americans a computer. And you could then have people who were trained, as a public policy issue, to fix computers. Computers break down. I mean, I could go on with this, but the point is you could have a fast rail system between New York, Washington and Boston. It’s a joke you get on the [inaudible]. First of all it breaks down often, but here are the French and here are the Japanese with bullet trains going between Kyoto and Tokyo at extraordinary speeds. Here we are in the United States and we can’t get a planned train from Boston to New York in less than about four and a half hours. And we’re spending all this money in Iraq and that’s a direct function of the political decision-making in Washington. And that’s not to be explained by individuals, in my office, talking about taking drugs.
Harris: And that’s a good question because I know Josh wants to talk more about this war on drugs. It’s easier to set a policy to initiate the seizure of drugs than it is to initiate a policy that talks about rebuilding and the installment of social programs. Our government has proven, time after time again, that they’re not interested in that kind of policy, because that kind of policy is rebuilding—it makes sense. But clearly we don’t like that kind of policy. I’m doing a little bit of devil’s advocate here, but it’s easier to be the DEA than it is to be a friend of someone who is trying to save and rescue Latinos, blacks and suffering minorities.
Josh Scheer: I agree that maybe you can talk about not wanting to spend money, but this war on drugs has been going on, officially, since 1969. It’s gone through every president and it’s failed. And that’s something that everyone talks about, lots of people have died, millions of people in jail, and there are billions of dollars spent. At some point it’s a failed policy. We can talk about Iraq all day, but Iraq is—how many years now?—[only] four years; this war on drugs has been going on for over 30.
Duster: It’s a failed policy only in the sense if you have the big picture. If you’re a politician and you want to get reelected, it’s a great policy. I have a colleague who has written a wonderful piece it’s called “World Prohibition,” Harry Levine, and what he says, no matter what the government is, left, right or center, a theocratic or secular, it doesn’t matter. Every government in the world has an anti-drug policy, and he says the reason is that an anti-drug policy is good to get reelected. It’s good for policy, it’s good or whoever you are in power. You can claim you’re against this thing about mind-altering substances, but he says, you know, when the left, right and center agree on something, be careful. But I want to go back to this question of public policy, because in the short term, it does look like the drug war is a failure. But, however, take a look at what you described earlier. It’s easier to be a law enforcement person; it’s easier to get reelected. Now that’s taking the short term. Let’s take a look at infrastructure, something as vital as our sewage system. Here we have San Diego, Calif. In the last decade there has been about 30 or 40 serious warnings that the sewage system, now many decades old, is in danger of breaking. I mean, literally, unless we move to the infrastructure to change this kind of issue, we’re going to have sewage spilling out into the ocean and into the streets, and so on. Now at the point, politicians, like corporate executives who think only in the next quarter, are going to be called up into account and they’re going to say, “Well, why didn’t you do anything?” And the answer is that it’s just easier to have a drug enforcement policy. It’s easier to get 25 kids off the streets for a drug bust than to convince people that you have to invest in the infrastructure with public policy. And the reason why I bring this up is that there is a direct link. It’s not as though over here we have a drug war, and over here we have public policy on sewage or fast trains. The fact is that, as Sidney Willhelm said 35 years ago, if you have a policy of public sector employment, you’re not going to have kids in the drug war. The drug war is all about survival. I think people really need to understand that if you talk to a lot of these kids, they’re [dealing] drugs just to survive. They’re not getting rich, I mean, the images that they’re driving these fancy cars, they’ve got all this jewelry. That’s like the super stars of the drug war, that’s like those who make it into the headlines. Most people are just getting by. A lot of high school kids who do the drug sales a few times a month to help Mama with the groceries. Now that’s not part of the story, because that’s not headlines. Now when you get someone with lots of rings and lots of gold driving a fancy car, now that’s a headline. But what we don’t see is that a lot of these kids are just selling drugs to help Mama get the groceries.
Scheer: And it’s probably also a good job, it’s not like there are other options.
Duster: I wouldn’t say it’s a good job. It’s a dangerous job.
Scheer: In terms of other employment, there are other employment options. They just don’t pay as well.
Duster: Yeah, but I think here, and I’m going to sound more like Juan Williams and Bob Herbert and maybe Cosby, because at the individual level, what I would say is no. It’s possible, if you really wanted to go and do things like wash people’s windows. A lot of windows need washing, brother, you know, and you could at the individual level make. … I don’t want to step into the notion that drugs are a good job for people, or rather it’s the best alternative on the streets. I don’t think it is. I think that the individual level you can still talk about people being responsible, and working hard, and washing windows. I mean, you can still do that. I think that what that does is allow us to step out of the larger picture of national and state policies, which I think really are the issue when it comes to the drug war.
Harris: How do you address these national policies? If you tell me that, if we can come up in this room today with the answer to how to get politicians on a larger scale to address the fact that the nation is falling apart. You gave the example of San Diego; we have the pretext of Katrina. They knew for years that the levees were going to break, but it always comes down to who’s behind those walls, who will suffer the dire consequences. It’s almost like we have to speculate, well, what would happen, and if those were black people, or if this was Beverly Hills, we heard that argument. But how do we get people. …
Duster: We do have to speculate. Look at the Berkeley Hills fire. 1989, somewhere in there, and people said that was a class fire. … Why, because the Berkeley Hills are peopled by those with resources, and within about two or three years, many of my colleagues found themselves in even larger houses. And the reason is because they come from a class position that had a lot of insurance, and the fire was devastating. Four thousand homes burned down, but within about three to five years … extraordinary rebuilding. Now contrast that with Katrina. Now the answer for me to your question is that we are a nation that needs a huge crisis before we act, so we are going to have to have those. Not just the levees break with Katrina and the displacement, the diaspora of [hundreds of thousands] of people of color, that we can apparently tolerate without much reaction. But when you start getting the sewage system breaking, and it’s going to affect a huge part of the middle-class population, at that point there’s going to be hell to pay. So my view is that we’re not going to convince anybody. We’re so much completely immersed in this language of the market economy. I hate to use the term because it sounds so sociological, but there is a domination, there is hegemonic control, around market economies. And if you don’t believe, try to convince someone, in the public sphere, that market fundamentalism is a mistake. And the first thing they’ll tell you is the government is the problem as opposed to the solution. Well, the private sector isn’t going to help our sewage system, it’s not going to build the subway system, it’s not going to do all the things we could do. Only the public sector is going to do that. And when we have a crisis, we’ll finally get there.
Scheer: I want to ask about an economic point. I don’t know if you want to talk about it, but the bailout of, say, the airlines, or things like that, where the government ends up having to support the private sector. I mean, couldn’t that money better serve by not doing that and going somewhere and building subways, or is it important that the government help out the private?
Duster: I don’t think that it’s an either/or; I mean there’s so much money that’s available and we can see that from the Iraq war. We’re talking about 120 billion here, 80 billion there, 60 billion there. That kind of resources, that kind of money, could be used for both. I’m happy to bail out some corporations that are flying airplanes because we all fly, we want to have them support it. Look around the world; many airlines do have public support. I think we should applaud that. Alright, the French and the Dutch and other nations help their airlines. Even the auto industries in some countries are supported by the government. I’m not opposed to government support for the private sector; I just think that we have come to the point where we don’t think that the public sector could be the solution to these massive public problems that we’re having.
Scheer: The war on drugs obviously became a popular war. There were other things like going in and saying movies are terrible or any of that kind of thing. What is going to make these people change their mind, what’s going to make politicians, or are they ever going to change their mind, or are they always going to follow that market flow?
Duster: I think that being opposed to crime in favor of truth and beauty and justice is always going to sell, until it doesn’t. And that’s what I meant by the crisis. I think politicians are going to use the drug war ad infinitum; they’re going to use it over and over again. They’re going to become tough on crime. I mean, imagine someone coming out saying, well, the big issues that confront us in Oakland today have to do with what’s behind the crime rate as opposed to simply saying we’re going out on the streets to get these kids to stop killing each other.
Harris: I look at the shift of public to private school—privatization in a very different sense. My kid can’t get a quality education in a public school; I can afford it, I send him to private school. Problem solved. Meanwhile, the public sector is dying, it’s overcrowded, it’s overflowed. The public sector has no resources, no funding to rebuild this, meanwhile the private school, the private resources, are flourishing. Is it, on some level, our failure as a public to address public problems together that will end all of this? What do you think about that?
Duster: Well, you put your finger on the problem. It’s a massive failure of public imagination. People with resources can literally buy services they can privatize. And you’re quite right that education is the key example here. Whether it’s a college education, where if you have enough money you can send your kid off to one of these fancy private schools, and you can say why should I be supporting public education, but it happens at the public school level all over the country. In the last 30 to 40 years, once again this goes back to my opening remarks about Sidney Willhelm. Back in the 1960s, it’s only about 45 years, but in that period, most American cities were mainly white. And, if you’ve seen the graphics in the last 30 years, it’s stunning what’s happened in most American cities. That is, how much people of color have come to dominate the demographics. Well, in that same period, public support out of Washington for cities has declined. There’s some figures that I saw, something about 25 percent of the budget of our major cities was coming from federal support back in the ’60s. It’s down to about 2 and 3 percent. And that’s directly a function, I’m not going to say it’s caused by, but let’s say it’s related to the shifting demography of the cities. So as you see the increasing colorization of Los Angeles, you see the decreasing support from the public sector. Washington does not support Los Angeles as it did in 1960. I think 24 percent was Washington-based in the ’60s, and now it’s down to an infinitesimal amount, so yeah, I think this is all about the ways in which [Americans] robbed the public sector because people who are able to afford to send their kids to private school in Los Angeles do so. L.A. Unified School District, last time I looked, was something like 92 percent minority. What’s wrong with that frame? What’s wrong with that notion, minority?
Harris: When did public stop being cool, when did it stop being cool and OK to care about your public library, your public school, your public partnerships with friends?
Scheer: I think it also has to do with the public school. … There are public schools that do thrive. But a lot of it comes from the support of the neighborhood. If there is a rich neighborhood, they can put more money in the public school. You see that in Orange County [Calif.], you see that where money is flowing. That they will, a lot of the funds for the public schools are coming from private citizens who want the public schools to thrive, and when you don’t have any money in the community those public schools are going to fall apart because there is no one watching the store.
Duster: You know I like to keep the big picture, you guys are on to something big here. You take a look at what [Bill] Moyers has been saying. He has done some great stuff talking about what is happening in this country. Maybe what happened in FDR in the 1930s was the little blip on the screen, and if you look at the big picture from 1870 to 1930, it was really all about corporate society and how big money controlled things. And then we had a Great Depression, and great shock, and a war, and the combination provided the public sector with the capacity to move in and do something. Now, what Moyers is saying, and he has a lot of evidence to support it, that in the last 20 years is what you’ve got is people back in positions of authority and power in Washington who are saying “let’s roll back the New Deal; let’s roll back what happened with the 1930s, let’s cut back taxes.” And the assault upon the public sector is not simply a blip on the screen. It’s a huge issue. It’s programmatic assault which has been orchestrated in the last 30 years. So what we’re hearing over and over again, from the Milton Friedmans of the world, is that the issue is only about markets, and anything that is public is the problem. But that’s such a mindless formulation, but that’s the Nobel Prize of economics.
Scheer: I want to get back to the public schools a little bit. I’ve gone to both public and private and I think sometimes you see the teachers in the public schools—they need a little imagination too. I think that the whole system being reading, writing, arithmetic, the teachers need something to have imagination. There has to be an overall shift, do you think, where you’re teaching other things besides a standardized kind of way about it?
Duster: No doubt. Here’s the situation at least from one perspective on the schools. When you pay people a very minimal salary, and you keep them in those jobs for a long time, guess what happens? Now, despite that we have dedication on the part of many schoolteachers, but in terms of the whole system, what you’re going to see is people shifting away from that into other areas of the economy. And so, some of the best people are still in the schools but they aren’t challenged by this whole issue around how much money they can make. I’ve seen my students at Berkeley, and later at NYU, who start off idealistic about education. And they take a look around theme at what’s happening, and they wind up going to law school.
Scheer: I’ve seen young teachers, but sometimes it’s hard because there’s also that kind of systematic … the administrator might say you have to teach it my way. I don’t know about the rest of the country, but in California, you’re not automatically in the union. You have to keep getting your job. If that administrator is saying “I don’t like the way you’re teaching, you have to teach it this way,” and even if nobody in the class wants to learn that way, I think there needs to be a lot of imagination and changing.
Duster: Again, this is public policy and not individual teachers. And that’s why No Child Left Behind has gotten into a lot of trouble, because it’s getting school systems to get teachers to teach to the test, so what’s happening is that there’s now a revolt, people are saying maybe we should have a different kind of strategy than teaching to the test. And I was saying at this conference yesterday that there’s a movement in the country, called engaged learning, where you want to get students out of this kind of classroom boredom. Here’s a good example. In the last 30 years we’ve seen remarkable increases in the number of diagnoses of hyperactive disorder, ADHD. Now, we know that in the short space of 20 to 30 years you don’t get much change in the biochemistry of humans. What you’re getting is a different diagnostic. And so we’re giving these kids Ritalin, or they’ve got attention deficit disorder. Now the same kid that has been so diagnosed, you give him a Gameboy, and there he is riveted to attention for hours after hours. Now what is that all about? That’s not all about attention deficit. That’s about him being bored in the classroom. So engaged learning turns that around. It says “let’s find a way to get students out of this situation where they are totally bored of the curriculum, and get them into an engaged process. …” You take them out into the world, into the street, into the gardens, and you tell them the world is a much more complex place … than by someone giving a didactic top-down. And I think that’s where education has to go. But you’re going to have to have resources, and we’re back to where we began, which is public policy.
Harris: How do we change public policy?
Scheer: Well, we can get better people elected. That’s something to talk about, because the fact is I know we had Mike Gravel on the other day, and he was talking about presidential term limits … and even in Congress which has been struck down before, you get into these neighborhoods where, wherever I’ve lived has typically been the same congressman for the last 30 years. It’s almost you’re born into it and you die and you give it to someone you want to have that. Maybe we should take a closer look at who we’ve been electing. …
Duster: We should take a closer look. On the other hand, we have to be careful of term limits, because that has its own dynamic. What’s happened in Sacramento with term limits is people that come in, they’re only going to be in for a few years, and the governor becomes the one who sees this and gets more and more power. I think that there’s a trade-off here. I don’t think there’s any one political structure or system that’s better, but I think it’s a combination of checks and balances and if people have been around 18 to 20 years, like Willie Brown was. And yet he was able to get things done in a relatively progressive way. I’d prefer that then to have some of these six-year term limit people who are right wing, interested in only what they regard as Christian theology. It’s not just term limits. …
Scheer: What I’m saying is that there has to be a closer look, at least, because some people, the surface may be good, but if you keep on digging they may not be the perfect person for the district or they may not be doing enough fighting.
Harris: You are suggesting, perhaps, direct democracy. People helping politicians shape the laws. But here’s my take on it: People, day-to-day folks, have their own set of issues. They have to worry about whether or not they have enough money to pay for private schools, to pay for groceries. Are they really going to have enough time to make and shape their own laws? Do they really care at the end of the day; are people willing to do the homework? I think across the board, no.
Scheer: I think the thing is, yeah, direct democracy may not work, and people have their own concerns, but at the same time if you give them a black and white, or a shade of gray of this is the way laws should be, or this is the way that should be …
Duster: Well, Joshua, I’m definitely on this side of the issue of lazy, it’s like attention deficit. I mean, yeah, people have attention deficit when they’re bored. The very same person can have attention focus when they’re animated, energized, engaged. So on the question of laziness. You know, you can say the population is lazy, until they get animated. So what happened in Chicago with Mayor Washington, the black community, which had been laying back and not engaged in the process for 25 to 30 years. All of a sudden when Harold Washington is there, they get engaged. And the turnout was the biggest in the history of the city, in the black community. So I do think, you’re right, if people are lazy under certain conditions, in other conditions that same population gets animated.
Harris: Barack Obama, on a national level, has done the same thing. And Barack Obama, what does he stand for, what are his politics? But I tell you what, you talk about getting engaged, 12,000 people just got engaged in Oakland and they’re doing it every day. He’s outfunding Hillary not based on corporate money, but on individual gifts. People are engaged in that guy, I’d just love to hear his thoughts, Dr. Duster, about Obama.
Duster: You put things in the right perspective. Hillary has the right money coming from corporate donors. People are donating $2,000 each, and having big fundraisers. That’s where most of her money is coming from. And Barack is able to get people to donate $25, $100, a lot of his money is coming from this huge base, and in the long run, if he keeps that up, he’ll win going away. Because her base, in some ways, has already been tapped. There’s more money there, but there’s more people to be tapped. And at a certain point, if it looks like Barack has an ascendancy, then that big money is going to shift. Big money has allegiances as long as a breath if they see things changing. So I think Barack really has an advantage at the moment, but we’ll see. The thing about YouTube and every breath you take, every move you make, they’re watching you. … I’m actually concerned that since all of us are human, any blip on the screen that happens in the next six months can take somebody down. Remember George Allen and ”macaca.” And think that everybody has a camera on Obama looking for something.
Scheer: George Allen, also, he kind of ruined his own self, though, because he kept on lying. Because he said, “I don’t know what that word meant,” but then you’re raised by an Algerian, and you speak Algerian, you speak this, you know exactly what you were saying. … James and I were talking about Obama, and I’m not as sold on him as, say, James is. But I certainly don’t want Hillary Clinton because I do think she’s tied into the corporate donors. I was just saying that all the candidates in the field; we don’t know where Obama is coming from. He’s a special guy; when he speaks you are engaged, but he’s not been there long enough to see if those relationships have formed. Is he going to be backed by credit card people in the next election? We don’t know yet.
Duster: Well, probably, anyone who gets selected is going to be backed by power—that’s what people do.
Scheer: It’s sad, but—.
Harris: We’ve seen a very wicked last 25 years, and I think the bright spot in those 25 years was Bill Clinton. Let people tell it, let the Green Party tell it, he was a lot like Reagan, or he was a lot like Bush. But I think the question Obama raises is he’s not saying the things that other people are saying, he’s a lot like those other guys. But I certainly get a lot more excited when he’s talking than when they’re talking. And maybe that’s what this comes down to, because what we’re talking about. You look at the issues, Oakland, Katrina, profiling, drugs, you look at the issues and these have all been run-of-the-mill issues. Maybe we need somebody who can get us excited, maybe the president’s job in the future shouldn’t be to tell us what to do but to get us excited and invigorated, i.e. or à la Harold Washington in Chicago.
Duster: Excitement around a particular kind of set of issues and a base, I mean, the Christian theology and theocracy, it gets people excited. Bush was able to mobilize that—Karl Rove. The thing that is interesting about Obama is that he’s exciting people who are more or less interested in progressive change and even if he’s not. If his base is mobilized, they can keep him honest. I think the hope here is if he keeps this up and he mobilizes a sufficient number of people around a set of issues they’ll keep him honest in the same way that the Christian right has kept Bush honest in those terms.
Scheer: Certainly, the Christian right at the end when David Kuo wrote his book, and others were backing away. … I think you are right, when you stop being honest, they stop supporting you. You followed Obama obviously more closely than I have, James. …
Harris: What is this obvious business? I think he’s a compelling guy.
Scheer: I mean, do you think there is a liberal base with Obama?
Harris: His constituency.
Duster: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Scheer: When I look at the liberal base, and the candidates who are running, I see Gravel, and [Rep. Dennis] Kucinich, and maybe people call [John] Edwards a liberal, and certainly not Hillary. But that’s what I was saying with Obama. You never know what you see with him: Is he a liberal, is he a centrist?
Duster: That’s a difficult category, because I would say Kucinich, you clearly have a progressive base there, but I don’t think Obama has mobilized the progressives in the same way, or anywhere close, as Kucinich. But the progressive base is a very small one in this country; we don’t have much. Getting back to the 1960s when we had a movement, but there’s no movement now. It’s kind of hard to talk about a progressive base; it can happen. …
Harris: Who is the progressive base now a days? Is it Kucinich, or is it Obama? Some would say Hillary is progressive.
Harris: Who are the progressives, and perhaps that is part of the problem. There’s no one guy. You look at the black community. There’s no one guy. I would never call Al Sharpton my guy. You look at the Latino community. There is no [Cesar] Chavez.
Scheer: The trick could be that if you take a political quiz, there’s no one you can relate to. I don’t relate to any candidate on every issue. The thing is you have to pick more than one issue, because I have friends who voted for George Bush based on one or two issues … you have to pick three or four and that’s your candidate.
Duster: I think it’s important to try to clarify what we mean by progressive. And in my view, it would be a candidate who’s committed to new understanding of the role of the public sector. That you can’t go back to 1820, you can’t go back even to 1950. You have to look at what has happened in the last 30 to 40 years and then talk about what it would mean to have an engaged public sector in all of these public policy issues that we’ve described. And I think here Edwards comes off relatively good in the last couple of years. So he’s been talking about poverty, and how to alleviate it. He’s got a healthcare plan. And as Paul Krugman said, he’s the only one who has come forward with a healthcare plan. Now it’s a flawed plan, unless you are asking for complete coverage and single payer, it’s kind of hard to get totally behind it. But at least Edwards has come forward with an interesting public sector issue around healthcare. I’d like to see a lot more on education from the candidates that would be much more progressive. But that would be where I would start. I’m not going to call someone progressive because I like their rhetoric. I’m interested in what their rhetoric is about the public sector and the best investment.
Scheer: I was going to say about healthcare that I trust Paul Krugman, and, in full disclosure, that I know Kucinich. He and [Rep. John] Conyers, they introduced a universal healthcare bill this last Congress and the Congress before, even though I don’t always defend him. …
Duster: My guess is—I haven’t seen that bill—my guess is what I know about Kucinich is that it’s probably a more progressive version of healthcare.
Scheer: Definitely [more] than Edwards.
Harris: Much more progressive. Here is a final thought. Here at Truthdig, Bob Scheer believes, I certainly believe, Josh is a doubter, that maybe if we make some headway in repairing some of the issues that are in Oakland. And if you don’t know, 148 homicides this last year, a dying public education sector … if you fix some of those problems, Oakland is an extremely diverse city: 30 percent black, 20 percent white … so Mayor [Ron] Dellums is trying to build this model city. I ask you, Dr. Duster, professor at NYU, probably one of the finest institutions in the country, how do you fix Oakland? If you fix Oakland, do you think you can fix Chicago?
Duster: Well, you’ve got to start somewhere, and this is the beauty of democracy. You don’t overnight turn things around, so you start in certain pockets a little insurgency here, a little group here, that’s doing something that’s progressive. And if it’s successful, it can actually take a hold, so I go back to an old idea for us, Saul Alinsky from the ’50s and the ’60s, if you get the potholes fixed in the streets, you get the lights turned back on that had been broken, you do certain kinds of things, and you start to give people some hope. And once you get hope going, the capacity for people to mobilize is extraordinary. I think all we need, it sounds like, you can often believe in small incremental measures, and what I’d like to see is the educational system, rather than this massive notion that we’re going to get people to all of a sudden increase scores, let’s go into the schools and have four to five examples, clear examples in Oakland, where you can mobilize teachers. Give them increased resources, turn the schools around, and then say, two or three years, you can have a model program for the country.
Harris: We just spoke with Dr. Troy Duster, professor, department of sociology at New York University. Give him a Google. For Josh Scheer, for Dr. Duster, this is James Harris and this has been Truthdig.
AP Photo / Leslie Mazoch
Venezuelan army helicopters fly over the Sierra de Perija national park, where poppy and marijuana plants are often discovered.