An abnormally large group of concerned citizens gathered for a community meeting with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse at the Warwick Public Library on Saturday morning. After Whitehouse began the meeting by acknowledging the size of the gathering and offering up the floor to those present, the meeting quickly became a platform for those concerned over the actions taken by the new president during his first week in office.
Whitehouse had some encouraging responses to a number of different issues. He pledged to defend the LGBTQ community, Muslims, immigrants, and others against incoming policies from the new administration. He also vowed to defend Planned Parenthood and fight the repeal of Obamacare.
For many present at the meeting, though, the senator’s responses to many other key issues left much to be desired. When asked why he voted to confirm, for head of the CIA, Tea Party activist Representative Mike Pompeo—who has made public statements in favor of water boarding, rectal feeding, and keeping open the prison at Guantanamo Bay—Whitehouse refused to admit that Pompeo has advocated for torture and said that he voted for him because he was confident Pompeo would defend the basic principles of the Constitution and keep the country safe.
Others pressed Senator Whitehouse on the divisions that exist within the Democratic Party, with many suggesting that in an era when Trump made it into the White House on an anti-establishment, populist platform, the Democratic Party should respond in kind with a platform that forefronts an economic populism like Senator Bernie Sanders’, whose campaign success came largely from a constituency of citizens who had grown weary of the influence of money in politics and convinced that in order to achieve true social and economic justice there must be sweeping reforms in the way the Democratic Party does business. Whitehouse—who voted for Hillary Clinton as a super delegate, despite the fact that Bernie Sanders won the state of Rhode Island by a resounding margin—refused to entertain this line of inquiry and said there was no need to rehash the primary or revisit divisions within the party.
When pushed to explain why he backs the construction of a natural gas powerplant in Burrillville, RI, Whitehouse said that while he believed the oil and gas industry lobbyists have a corrupt influence on legislators in Washington, D.C., he has trust in the process at the state and local level in Rhode Island. Those concerned pushed back on the senator by reminding him that federal lobbyists are directly involved in pushing forward the power plant in Burrillville, because it is part of a national plan to build up fracked gas infrastructure through National Grid.
It is the feeling of many Democrats, progressives, and leftists in the state of Rhode Island and throughout the country that the only way for Democrats to have a chance of succeeding is not simply to defend ourselves against the elements of oppression unleashed by the latest wave of right wing extremism, but also to allow a principled leftist framework that forefronts universal economic, social, and environmental justice to become an integral part of the Democratic Party platform. While it was encouraging to hear the senator speak out against the new presidential administration, it was discouraging to see that Whitehouse, as with many within the Democratic Party at large, continues to fail to listen to, collaborate with, and defend the positions of those who turn to the Democratic Party in hopes of building a viable alternative from the left.