by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
“For four years, half the country thought I was smart and half the country thought I was stupid,” Cindy Sheehan, anti-war activist turned socialist and vice-presidential candidate for the Peace and Freedom Party in the 2012 Presidential election, told a small but committed audience at a private reception in Ocean Beach August 19. “Now more than 99 percent think I’m stupid.”
Sheehan’s backstory is well known. On April 4, 2004 her son Casey, a U.S. Army mechanic, was killed in action in Sadr City, Iraq. Cindy joined other family members of deceased servicemembers in a group meeting with then-President George W. Bush in June 2004 but came away, according to an interview she gave soon afterwards, with the impression that “the President has changed his reasons for being over there every time a reason is proven false or an objective reached.” Over time, she became more militant in her opposition to the Iraq war and her conviction that her son had died in a meaningless conflict.
In August 2005, Cindy Sheehan became a national figure when she camped outside the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas, and demanded another meeting with the President to ask him just what was the “noble cause” for which her son had given his life. She became a hero to Bush’s political opponents — until 2008, when she moved from Dixon, California to San Francisco to run for Congress against Democratic Congressmember Nancy Pelosi. Though her original motive for taking on a major Democrat was disgust at how both major parties had voted funding for the war, Sheehan broadened her critique to domestic issues like health care and attacks on what she called the “robber class” of wealthy individuals and corporations that, she said, controlled the country.
“Nancy Pelosi is erroneously regarded as a far-Leftist,” Sheehan said at her Ocean Beach appearance. “She’s actually Right-wing and pro-corporate, like a lot of Democrats in the upper echelon.” Sheehan ran her Congressional campaign largely on issues the leaders of both major U.S. parties have regarded as beyond the pale and excluded from political debate, including free education and health care for all Americans. “I believe society means taking care of people from the day they’re born until the day they die,” Sheehan said. “It’s not making our elders work until they die. It’s not making mothers go back to work six months after their babies are born.”
Rather than affiliate herself with either of the Left parties on the California ballot — Peace and Freedom or the Green Party — Sheehan ran against Pelosi as an independent. The down side was that she had to collect a huge number of petition signatures just to get on the ballot, though the up side was that anyone — not just someone registered in an alternative party — could sign them. Sheehan said she got 50,000 votes against Pelosi — 17 percent, “more than anyone else against her, before or since” — and her campaign volunteers and supporters were Peace and Freedom and Green Party members, Libertarian Party members and “a lot of Republicans who said, ‘We don’t like you, but we don’t like her even worse.’”
Following her 2008 campaign, she decided to join the openly socialist Peace and Freedom Party because, as she explained, “My platform was very socialist and I didn’t know it.” She was particularly incensed “when the government gave $800 billion as a bailout to Wall Street. We thought they should have bailed out the people instead of Wall Street. People are still losing their homes, their retirement savings and their jobs. In a revolutionary social situation, the money would have been funneled to the homeowners so they could stay in their homes, the banks would have been nationalized and housing [would have been declared] a human right. We have between two and seven million homeless people in the U.S. and 18 million empty housing units.”
Though Sheehan didn’t — and usually still doesn’t — use the rhetoric of the Occupy movement, her views are clearly similar in their class analysis. What she calls the “robber class” Occupy calls “the 1 percent” — though she says it’s more like the 0.1 percent that have the real power in the U.S. She expressed these views in a book she published in 2009 called Myth America: The 20 Greatest Myths of the Robber Class and the Need for Revolution. In Ocean Beach, she summed up the book’s message: “It’s not about the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans, or about your religious affiliation or sexual preference. The robber class uses these as wedge issues.”
Sheehan knew her uncompromising anti-war and anti-1 percent position would cost her the support of Democrats who had backed her peace campaign against President Bush, but she didn’t care. “I never supported Obama,” she said. “I was not surprised that he ordered his first drone bombing just three days after his inauguration. I sent out an e-mail saying, ‘It didn’t take him long to become a war criminal.’ Even if you voted for him, you can’t say, ‘Just give him a chance.’ Thirty-six people died that day in that first drone bombing, and he’s increased the drone program 500 percent over the Bush administration.”
Like many American socialists, Sheehan points to the experience of other countries to counter the charge that the programs she favors — free access to education and health care, public ownership of the banking and energy industries, an end to the “war on drugs” and the “tough on crime” programs that have put a greater percentage of Americans in prison than any other country in the world — are unaffordable and unworthy of consideration. She pointed out that in Sweden, a new mother gets two years’ paid leave from her job; in the U.S., at best she gets six months, unpaid.
“We believe we’re better than anyone else,” she said, taking on the whole doctrine of “American exceptionalism” by which we’re propagandized to believe that we’re the greatest country in the world, we have a God-given right to export our system worldwide, and we have nothing to learn from other nations. “I’ve just written a book called Revolution: A Love Story, about socialist revolutions in Latin America, especially Cuba and Venezuela,” she said, expressing her view that the U.S. can learn from other countries’ experiences as well as from its own past.
“I grew up in Los Angeles in 1975, when education was still good and the university was still free for residents,” Sheehan recalled. “My grown daughter graduated from UC Davis and got her masters’ at San Francisco State, and she owes $50,000 in student loans. When I was going to school, corporations paid 35 percent in taxes. Now they pay at most 13 percent. And what does the establishment say? ‘If we raise their taxes, they’ll leave.’ What I would say is, ‘Goodbye. You may go, but your company and all of your assets belong to the people of the state of California. We’ll put your company under the democratic control of its workers, and we’ll use your assets and your profits to help the people of California.’”
Sheehan, who’s considering running for the Peace and Freedom nomination for governor of California in 2014, was particularly scathing against another Democrat who, like Pelosi, she feels is a Right-winger with an undeserved reputation as a Leftist: current governor Jerry Brown. “We had a $26 billion budget deficit last year,” Sheehan said, “and I heard Jerry Brown say, ‘We really don’t want to have to do this, but we’re going to have to balance the budget on the backs of the people who are already poor and vulnerable.’ Well, that’s bullshit. How much more are they going to take away? They’re cutting mental health care, education, aid for mothers and food stamps, when we have one of the largest economies in the world. There’s no reason why every Californian shouldn’t have a right to health care, education and a home.”
According to Sheehan, one of the reasons her ideas haven’t caught on with the American people is the sheer size of the United States. “We can’t get a groundswell, a movement, going because we live so far apart from each other,” she said. “The United States is over 3,000 miles wide, so here we are on the best side, but the government is on the other side. So it’s really hard for us to get anything going. But if we can get something going in California, California can lead the way, and not just in human rights. We believe [full employment, free education and free health care] are human rights, not just privileges for the robber class or the 1 percent. We believe in full employment, a 30-hour work week for 40-hour pay — and good pay, not minimum wage.”
Sheehan also spoke about the history of the Peace and Freedom Party — it was founded in 1967 after Los Angeles police violently suppressed a demonstration against then-President Lyndon Johnson over the Viet Nam war — and defended the party’s Presidential nominee, comedienne Roseanne Barr. They met when Barr came to San Francisco in 2008 to support Sheehan’s campaign for Congress, and Sheehan said she ended up on the ticket because “Roseanne just called me and asked me to be on the ticket.” While Barr’s Presidential candidacy has been ridiculed by many — including members of the Green Party, who rejected her bid for their nomination before she won Peace and Freedom’s — Sheehan argued that Barr’s successful 1990’s TV show Roseanne expressed progressive values because it showed working-class people in a sympathetic, non-judgmental way that avoided the usual classist stereotypes of the U.S. mainstream media.
For Sheehan, the big issue of this year’s campaign is the domination of American politics by wealthy individuals and corporations. As she pointed out, corporate control of American politics didn’t begin with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision but over a century earlier — in 1886, when, dismissing an attempt by a California county to regulate the Southern Pacific Railroad, the Supreme Court first ruled that corporations were “persons” and therefore, as Sheehan put it, “had all the rights of real people and none of the responsibilities.” As one might expect from a person whose latest book is called Revolution: A Love Story, her dream is that ordinary people will awaken to the power of their numbers and get the corporate beasts off their backs.
“We outnumber them, and they know it,” Sheehan said. “That’s why they’ve been building up their armies, police and hired goons. We’re in the end days of empire, and they’re trying to prop it up. We can organize now to be able to thrive after the collapse, or we can be scared and get crushed. We need to work on building both politically and socially before the collapse of the empire.”
Though Sheehan admitted her movement will “probably not” be able to win power before the collapse, she’s working to get the Peace and Freedom ticket on the ballot in as many states as possible. They’re already qualified in the so-called “swing states” of Colorado and Florida, and are currently targeting Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Jersey, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Michigan, Louisiana, Hawai’i, Utah and Mississippi. By 2016 Sheehan wants to see “a unified socialist party” with a presidential ticket on the ballot in all 50 states.