- Interview by
- Meagan Day
A book called Radicals in Power was published in the 1980s. It featured one chapter on Bernie Sanders, then the mayor of Burlington, Vermont, and another chapter on Tom Gallagher, then a Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) member serving in the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
Now Bernie Sanders is a major contender for the Democratic presidential nomination for the second cycle in a row, DSA is bigger than ever before, and Tom Gallagher is primarying Nancy Pelosi in her home district of San Francisco. (Another sign of the times: Gallagher is not the only DSA member primarying Pelosi.)
Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke with Gallagher about US militarism, democratic socialists’ prospects inside and outside the Democratic Party, and Gallagher’s plan to rebuild Central America to address the crisis there and at the border.
Your campaign is explicitly antimilitarist. On your website, you state your opposition to obscene military funding and talk about both parties’ addiction to endless war. What needs to change about US foreign policy?
Everything. We’re in our eighteenth year of a destructive crusade in the Middle East. There are now eligible voters who have never been alive when there wasn’t a war in Afghanistan. We have made more enemies for ourselves than friends. There would be no ISIS were it not for the so-called War on Terror. It’s gotten so ridiculous that the United States has aligned itself with Al-Qaeda at points because ISIS, which the United States is responsible for creating, was worse.
It’s insane on that level, but then there are the expenditures. US military spending exceeds the next seven countries combined. That’s why my campaign literature features two photos side by side. The first is a picture of some of the finest fighter bombers money can buy. And it says, “Because we spend so much on this, we don’t have the money to fix this,” pointing to a second picture of a homeless encampment.
We’re active in sixty or seventy countries, I lose track. We have something like eight hundred military bases around the world. We bomb seven countries annually. We have the money for these preposterous military expenditures while our own people sleep on the streets. And we call this sanity. People who deny climate change are generally considered cranks these days. People who deny that we need to change our military foreign policy are called “defense intellectuals.”
This is certainly my core motivating issue. And socialist that I am, I think there’s been some loss of vision over the years. When the Socialist International started, the idea is that there would be no more war between the working class of one country and another. That idea, as we know, has been in the dust for a hundred years.
Where does your opponent Nancy Pelosi stand on questions of foreign policy?
She votes for military budget increases. It’s a cynical move, and I don’t mean cynical on a personal level. It’s not a character flaw. It’s cynical in the sense that she thinks if you park your truck next to the Republicans’ truck then they can’t argue that you’re soft on defense and unpatriotic. This dynamic has been going on within the Democratic Party since the Second World War.
In 2008, San Francisco decided that it was city policy that our congressional representatives will vote for no further funding for the Iraq War. I wrote that. I got the signatures from the Board of Supervisors and put it on the ballot. To my knowledge, we were the only city in the country to ever vote for an end to war funding. It had no impact. Pelosi voted for funding anyway.
Last year I went to the California Democratic Party State Convention and helped get the platform amended to demand no further funding for the Afghanistan War, except for removing troops. I think it’s the only state Democratic Party platform that has that as policy. And again, it had no impact.
Now, I’m not naïve, and I’m not surprised. I didn’t think we were going to stop a war. I didn’t even think we were going to affect Nancy Pelosi. But it does highlight the degree to which her decisions are not reflecting her constituency.
What do you make of Nancy Pelosi’s conflict with the younger left wing of the party in Congress? The Squad, as they’re called.
I will tell you that when the Sunrise Movement came and occupied Pelosi’s office and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez came and visited, Pelosi is never going to forget that. That was pretty remarkable. I think her conflict with them is partially that they annoy her personally and that their politics are challenging to her. It’s a mix of the two.
I think her staff is probably worried about Pelosi’s image. It’s their business to worry about these things. But Pelosi’s used to getting 70 percent of the vote, so I don’t know how threatened she feels. Pelosi gets a pass in San Francisco. Most voters here disagree with her on Medicare for All, on the Green New Deal, on military funding, and they still vote for her. She’s an institution.
I’ve thought about entering this race for a long time, and the idea was never necessarily that she’s ripe to be knocked off. But this is probably her last campaign, and it’s important to get left-wing ideas out there, especially in San Francisco. Here, political races often focus on local issues, who took Ron Conway’s money, and so on.
This race will not be about that. The person who makes it into the final with Pelosi will get to debate big issues with her on a very big stage. And it will become a showdown, if you will, between the Sanders wing of the party and the corporate establishment.
Right, and that’s an important thing because as we saw in 2016 with Bernie Sanders, that showdown created some political space that has been extraordinarily politically fertile ever since.
I wrote a book on this, actually, called The Primary Route. It’s a very well-unread book, making the argument that the only way to build an electoral left in this country is to run candidates in the Democratic presidential primary. If Bernie had gotten 15 percent in 2016, I would’ve considered it validation, as long as he did better than Dennis Kucinich. Imagine my reaction when he gave Clinton a run for her money, and then all of these people joined DSA.
In DSA, I work on the political education committee of the San Francisco chapter, and we held a panel on the need for a workers’ party and I opened up by asking, “why are we here, folks?” I don’t mean, “why did you come to this panel,” but why is this crowd so much larger than DSA was ever able to get over the years? It’s because Bernie Sanders ran in the Democratic primary.
I have made that same argument myself, but one of the things that I’m always trying to do is make the case that we need to tactically use the Democratic Party ballot line in order to build the potential for an eventual independent electoral expression. Because there are enormous class contradictions within the Democratic Party that are always going to bite us in the ass.
Well, if you have a split and the right wing remains unified, the right wing wins. Let’s assume the Democrats and the Republicans remain competitive in terms of size. Where is the logic in our looking to break away and create two parties, each smaller than the Republicans?
What about in a potential future, decades down the line, where we’ve built a strong case for working-class politics and we’re actually able to take with us a substantial portion of the right wing’s undeserved working-class base into a new party formation?
If we can come up with a formation that is bigger than the rump Democratic Party and the Republican Party, sure. Absent that, nope.
How long have you been a socialist?
It came over me in high school. I grew up in the Bronx, and the high school was in Manhattan, a Jesuit high school. I had nothing like a red diaper baby background. My parents were working-class, liberal Catholic Democrats.
So one time we went on a religious retreat, and in my room there was a book featuring a questionnaire. One question was: what’s your political affiliation? The answers were Democrat, Republican, and Socialist. I thought, huh? And another question was: do you think a Catholic must be a pacifist? I thought about this for a few months and decided I was a socialist and a pacifist.
I moved to Boston and was involved in antiwar organizing. I did farm worker organizing and worked for a local left-wing community newspaper. I joined DSA, and I was an open socialist when I was in the Massachusetts House of Representatives from 1981 to 1986. After I left office, I was the chair of the Boston chapter of DSA and was on the staff of the Socialist Review.
In the decades since I’ve been active in the Bernal Heights Democratic Club here in San Francisco, a competitor for the most left-wing club in the city, and I was chair of Progressive Democrats of America for almost a decade. And I’ve done election observation in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kyrgyz Republic, Macedonia, Russia, and Ukraine, in addition to being a supervisor in Bosnia and UN election officer in East Timor.
What do you make of today’s DSA?
I cross my fingers all the time that it can hold together. It’s good that there are people in DSA who you never would have dreamed would be in the same organization in the past. They would’ve each had their much clearer, much smaller organizations. DSA changes that pattern, and this is a great thing. My main criticism of DSA is I don’t feel it’s doing enough on foreign policy. I don’t mean the positions are bad, just that DSA doesn’t do much.
You have an idea on foreign policy that’s central to your campaign, what you call your Marshall Plan for Central America. What is that?
First, I’ll say that as soon as I put it out there, people began objecting to the name because Marshall himself was anticommunist. So I think we may change the name to the Romero Plan, after Archbishop Óscar Romero of El Salvador.
In any case, the idea is that when you look at the situation at the border right now, we’re spending about $4 billion on border patrol and only $180 million in foreign aid to the three countries where everybody’s coming from. What if those figures were reversed?
The United States is very stingy on foreign aid. If you look at Sweden, Ireland, lots of countries give a much higher percentage of their GNP in foreign aid. We don’t like to do that. It goes back to “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute.” We kind of regard aid as a type of tribute, and tribute is bad. The thinking is, why should we be giving these people money?
The Marshall Plan temporarily broke that pattern because an unusual confluence of interests came together to agree on the need to rebuild the European continent after World War II. I think there is potential to build a new unique alliance to rebuild Central America, and that would go a long way to solving the crisis at the border.
There would be people focused on humanitarian issues in Central America who would be in favor of more aid. There would be some who would see it as a form of reparations. You know, we overthrew the government of Guatemala; we spent $4 billion on the wrong side of a civil war in El Salvador; we installed contras in Honduras — we owe it to them.
On the other hand, you have people who don’t care about any of that who could be convinced to join the coalition. For example, you have Panama joining up with China’s Silk Road project, and the Panamanian president telling the United States to get more involved. If countries want to compete on how constructive rather than destructive they can be, I can’t argue with that.
I’m wondering if you think there’s a strict causal relationship between capitalism and war. Does the United States wage war exclusively to protect and advance capitalist interests?
I don’t think it’s strict. We’ve been doing war since before there was capitalism, even though we’re raised to believe that anything that came before capitalism is not reality. War creates its own weather.
Of course, there is money to be made from it. It’s a nasty business, but it is people’s livelihood. Attempts to reduce the military budget have been going on forever and have sometimes run up against sectors of the labor movement that wanted no part of this because they had unionized jobs in military industries. And those jobs probably pay better than the average unionized factory jobs because you had the government backing up the cost for once.
And the War on Terror has everything to do with oil, no question. Why is the Middle East significant to the United States? Because we assume that our society doesn’t work without our oil under their sand. That’s the economic justification. But I don’t think the insanity of the War on Terror can be reduced to that. There’s also this crazy ideological thing where we went to war in Afghanistan, as far as I can see, because the feeling in Washington was that we have to bomb somebody.
Still, I think if the modern nations of the world did away with the idea of corporate profit being the driver of their economies, small ethnic disputes would still happen, but we could eliminate a lot of military spending and war.