Progressive Politics

Remarks to Kuleana Academy

Aloha, good morning and welcome to the Kuleana Academy. 

This is a tremendous time to seek public service. A time of transition with immense social problems, incredible technological change and environmental catastrophe. We're at a rare moment of flux and change, an opening where small actions can have big and lasting impact.

We need to remember our long history. We have entered into this history at different points but nonetheless this land is encoded with thousands of years of footsteps, of effort and activity, of love and abundance and development. 

When we seek public office, we're entering into that long history, in which a different, and I think clearer sense of leadership prevails. If the land and people are healthy and prosperous, than their leader is good and pono. A leader stands in front of his or her people in battle. And a bad leader can be removed by force.

It is tempting in our electron-frazzled, hyper stimulated world to forget these simple, and clear precepts. If you're going to pick up that Kuleana, remember that it is indeed heavy. The needs of the people and our land is the most weighty thing, and the most important.

We need to remember too that we're part of a broader movement, which should be strengthened and solidified. The revolutionaries in Cuba used to speak about building up a social movement such that the activist and guerilla can move like a fish in water. We need each district on our islands to feel like that. The metaphor that i prefer is the nae, the fiber netting of a chiefs cape. The feathers are beautiful but is the netting -- the organized social base of the movement that extends deep into the valleys of each island -- that will be the source of our strength.

Finally, I want us to remember our many successes. There were plans in the 60s and 70s to encircle this island with an iron lei of hotels and resorts. Our grassroots movement was able to stop much of these developments, and in places like Waiahole and Waikane, when the plantation laborers and the young UH ethnic studies kids got together with the taro farmers, they found support from the Governor and sympathetic legislators. When done right, a strong social base can encourage and grow which courageous political leaders to do the right thing.

Hawaii's legacy of progressivism

This new year brings with it a particularly ominous transition, with the exit of Barack Obama from the presidency, and the entrance to that office of a man whom I think many here would regard as far lesser. President Obama stood as a living example of the worlds’ best hopes for the United States: wisdom, class, and a generosity of spirit that will surely be missed come January 20.

We mustn’t allow his work to be undone on Capitol Hill or Pennsylvania Avenue.

And here on Beretania Street, we have a unique opportunity to take his ideas and give them new life. Let’s aim for universal health care.

After all, these are the islands whose values and culture set the framework for President Obama’s vision. Hawai‘i — for all of our problems and human failures — values justice and inclusion like few other places in the world.

This is the home of the Law of the Splintered Paddle, Kamehameha’s law which guarantees that the authorities cannot harm the aged and impoverished.

Just a few blocks from here, Kamehameha III began the process of creating universal literacy, making Hawai‘i the most literate country in the 19th century world.

We should remember Queen Lili‘uokalani, who in 1893 fought for universal suffrage, decades before its enactment in the United States as the 19th amendment.

Hawaii is the origin point of Baehr v. Miike, the Hawaii State Supreme Court opinion which launched the US marriage equality movement.

And this is the home of the Hawaii Prepaid Health Care Act, spearheaded by Yoshito Takamine, who brought the experience of laborers in Honokaa to ensure that all workers had minimum health care benefits provided by employers.

This is our legacy of progressivism. This is proof of our ability to create a new island model of economic and social justice, beginning with universal health care.

How to make our politics more like Scandinavia's

Clare Foran of The Atlantic interviewed George Lakey, author of Viking Economics: How the Scandinavians Got it Rightand How We Can, Too

Lakey: In the Nordic countries, people first created popular movements that used direct-action tactics like strikes, boycotts, and demonstrations. They also built movement infrastructure, like co-ops and study circles. As these movements gained momentum, they led to the creation of political parties that were controlled by the movements and represented the movements in parliament. In that way, politicians were accountable to the people.

That’s entirely different from what we have in the U.S. with the Democratic Party, for example, where the party is not really accountable to anyone except the economic elite. Today, the U.S. also has low voter participation compared with the Nordics. The path they took—building powerful grassroots movements that then control the politicians who represent them, might help us achieve the degree of democracy that they enjoy.

And Lakey on what Sanders supporters should do:

Lakey: The best thing for Sanders supporters to do would be to focus their energy on direct-action campaigns aimed at achieving specific policy goals. So, for example, if Sanders supporters took the goal of free higher education and turned that into a direct-action national campaign that protesters were willing to go to jail for, that would be a more effective way of achieving that goal than even getting Sanders elected to the presidency. Sanders in the Oval Office wouldn’t be able to get anything done with the current Congress, whereas with a direct-action pressure campaign, there is a better chance of actually getting something like free higher education or Medicare for all accomplished.