There were rumblings that Thursday’s Netroots Nation keynote address by Eric Schneiderman, the New York attorney general and the head of an Obama administration task force on Wall Street fraud, was going to be disrupted by protestors. And indeed, as Schneiderman began to speak, several people stood up with signs, with slogans like “Prosecute the big banks,” and two or three people yelled something toward the podium.
Schneiderman responded with a “Thank you.” It turned out that the demonstrators were helping Schneiderman make one of the central point of his speech about movement-building. “Public leaders and officials do not create movements,” he said. “Movements create leaders.”
“Speaking candidly, our civic and political officials are inherently inclined towards caution. They move when movements push them,” he said. “Frankly, we get from public officials what we make them give us, and that is as true of our friends as it is our opponents.”
This has been a continuing theme of Schneiderman, reassuring progressives working on financial reform that he is their ally when it comes to holding Wall Street accountable for its role in the financial crisis and giving activists permission to be impatient with him and the political system in which he is working, with the rationale that as he is pushed from the outside, he will be able to accomplish more on the inside.
The fact that the disruption was mild and quickly fizzled masks the level of impatience and frustration that some activists feel toward Schneiderman, which reflected itself in an earlier Netroots Nation panel on efforts to fight the big banks on such issues as foreclosures and mortgage right-downs. One of the milder comments came from Max Berger, an Occupy movement organizer, who called Schneiderman “a good dude that doesn’t want to admit that he’s getting rolled.”
Schneiderman is likely to be asked to more directly address concerns like those at the Take Back the American Dream conference June 19, when he will be on a panel moderated by MSNBC host Alex Wagner that includes Heather McGhee of Demos and OurFuture.org’s Richard Eskow.
Schneiderman, meanwhile, has been working to beef up the prosecutorial firepower at his disposal. Earlier this week George Zornick of The Nation reported that Schneiderman added former assistant U.S. attorney Virginia Chavez Romano to his team. She is employed in the state attorney general’s office but is being detailed to assist Schneiderman’s task force work. “Romano participated in the criminal indictments of Credit Suisse employees earlier this year for falsifying prices tied to collateralized debt obligations,” Zornick reported.
During his keynote address, Schneiderman sad that progressives need to focus not just on the “transactional politics” of winning short-term political deals but also on the “transformational politics” that can change the national narrative that drives transactional politics. It is the latter that “requires us to reshape the assumptions about politics and economics and most essentially about human nature that prevent people from embracing policies that will make their lives better.
“Let us never lose sight of the fact that the greatest damage done by the contemporary conservative movement was not any law they passed. It was the transformation of the consciousness of millions of Americans that led them to embrace policies that hurt them.”
He added that the stage is set for a transformation in a different direction, paralleling the change in the country’s political direction after the 1929 financial crash. He credited the Occupy movement for helping to push the nation closer to that transformation by focusing national attention on income inequality and the conservative policies that led to the financial meltdown. And he credited the agitation from the progressive movement for empowering him and a small number of dissident attorneys general to object to a settlement with the nation’s largest banks that would have left the banks immune from any prosecution for criminal wrongdoing.
When President Obama struck a more populist tone on economic fairness and holding bankers accountable during the State of the Union address in January, that “didn’t happen because he got a new speechwriter. It happened because the agenda was changed,” Schneiderman said.
Schneiderman said that progressives have too often elected a leader and then gone home. “Conservatives never go home,” he said; they instead keep holding the people they elect to the fire. “Let’s learn from our mistakes,” he urged. “Keep pushing, keep fighting.”
“Thank you for pushing me. Thank you for pushing the president,” he said in closing.
The speech tapped into a recurring theme in other Netroots sessions—the need for progressives to become an independent force that must be reckoned with, one that commands respect because of its ability to both reward and punish. The Take Back the American Dream conference will pick up that theme, with strategy sessions that look beyond the November elections to building a movement that can continue a progressive transformation of our politics, elect candidates and move those candidates to govern from a progressive framework.