Progressives stop to ponder a movement

| June 23, 2004
Movement movers: From left, Bob Borosage  
    welcomes the Rev. Jesse Jackson, NOW President  
    Kim Gandy and labor leader Gerald McEntee to the  
    Take Back America conference.
Movement movers: From left, Bob Borosage welcomes the Rev. Jesse Jackson, NOW President Kim Gandy and labor leader Gerald McEntee to the Take Back America conference.
- Jenny Warburg
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WASHINGTON, D.C. --First, the good news. According to Stan Greenberg and Celinda Lake, two Democratic pollsters of excellent repute, the country agrees with the progressive view--and not with the Bush Administration's position--on every important issue. Iraq? We're 15 points ahead. The economy? When voters are read Bush's argument that the tax cuts are working and things are picking up, and the progressive counterargument that the tax cuts were for the rich and haven't helped working people, they agree with the latter almost 2-to-1. Is the country on the right track or the wrong track? Wrong, people say, by 57-38 percent.

Now, the bad news. Despite the "issues," President Bush and John Kerry are still neck-and-neck in the polls. Why isn't Kerry way ahead? Greenberg says people like Bush's "character." Lake says 15 percent more "likely voters" rate Bush as a strong leader than rate Kerry as strong.

How can you be a strong leader and still be wrong on all the issues? The answer, it seems clear, is that while a majority of the country, responding to one question at a time, will tell you they're for better education, better health care, stronger environmental protections, and so on, and realize now that Iraq was a screw-up, nonetheless when it comes to what really matters--the meta-issues, if you will--they're persuaded that conservatives, not progressives, will be stronger in defense of the country and on keeping wasteful government spending in check.

Which is why, says Bob Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, "it's not enough for progressives to fight off one lame-brained scheme after another" from the Bush side. Rather, he continues, "We must challenge the ideas of the conservative movement... go from opposition to proposition... and organize around what we're for."

In other words, the conservatives have a movement. We need a movement, too.

For many of the 2,000-plus people who gathered in Washington early this month for the CAF's "Take Back America" conference, politics is a vocation, hopefully a paid one. At least half, though, were like the Indiana schoolteacher I chatted with, who said that for her it was like going to church. "It reminds you what you believe in," she said.

And even for the professionals, like Abby Woodward, an organizer for Lillian's List in North Carolina, "sometimes the energies flag" and you crave the company of your fellow believers to buck you up.

I went for the bucking up, too, but more because I was curious to see whether there really is a progressive movement under way in the country or just the same old policies shined up with anti-Bush wax. Would there be--as in a movement church--the soaring themes and grand show calculated to inspire the masses? Or just the traditional readings from the book of what's wrong with Medicare drug cards?

DAY 1
What's a movement?

Progressives discern the makings of a movement in a collective of organized labor, African Americans, other ethnic groups (especially Hispanics), women, gays and lesbians, civil libertarians--have I left anybody out? "The Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," the late Paul Wellstone first called it. But come election times, the wing doesn't produce; meanwhile, moderate Democrats often shift to the Republican ticket in sufficient numbers to let the GOP win.

Is there a way to build a movement that would actually draw the moderates back?

Let's take a page from the conservatives, who managed the trick starting some 40 years ago, when progressive ideas (the New Deal, the New Frontier) were dominant and right-wingers were thought of as cranks and obstructionists. The right seized on circumstances (the Democrats' Vietnam debacle, the turmoil of the civil rights era, the perceived failures of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs), presented an alternative "big idea" to make things better, put money, pizzazz and star-power behind it, and sold it to the country like toilet paper. They lost the '64 election in a landslide. By the '80s, they controlled the White House, Congress and most state governments.

The conservatives' "big idea" was that markets were reliable and government was at best wasteful, at worst destructive. The military was an exception, but only when used defensively (for example, "Star Wars") and as a way of bankrupting any Evil Empire that tried to match us.

In service of this "idea," the conservatives recruited a show-biz performer named Ronald Reagan, then in the employ of General Electric, created well-funded think tanks (Heritage, American Enterprise) to apply it in myriad policy debates, and used commercial television--first with paid ads, later by buying their own networks (Fox, Sinclair, GE's NBC, Disney's ABC)--to broadcast it to the masses.

As "Take America Back" assembles, therefore, I'm looking for the same essential elements: A big, organizing idea; think tanks; star power; money; media; and the masses. Here's what I see:

On the plus side, we have plenty of very good research and advocacy organizations--the Economic Policy Institute, People for the American Way, the League of Conservation Voters, to name a few. We've got the NAACP, the ACLU, NOW, NARAL, the AFL-CIO, and I could on with abbreviations. In sum, we've got issues covered to beat the band.

What we don't have is that big idea, which I gather is why organized labor started putting money into the CAF, hoping it would emerge as the uber-group capable of networking all the others while it searches their many, many policy papers and pronouncements for our missing theme.

As for media, money and masses, thank goodness for MoveOn.org.

MoveOn philosophy
Do you know this story? Wes Boyd and Joan Blades, millionaires by virtue of their toaster screensaver, thought the Republicans were over the line trying to impeach President Clinton. So they sent a petition by e-mail to 100 friends calling for Congress to censure Clinton and "move on." Within a week, it was signed by 100,000 people; eventually, 500,000 signed it.

Today, MoveOn has 2 million online supporters, more than the Christian Coalition's membership in its heyday. (There's no official tally.) MoveOn's co-sponsorship of this conference is what brought a good half of the folks here, I'm guessing. Its $50 million ad campaign against Bush is the biggest story of the '04 campaign so far, emblematic of the online army of small contributors who helped Howard Dean raise $40 million in '03 and John Kerry $31 million in April '04 alone (to Bush's $15 million).

So it's worth listening to their take on our "movement." Here's Boyd's:

Heretofore, he tells us, the American political and social culture has been all about "broadcasting." Someone tells a story. The rest of us watch and listen, but don't participate--not really. (Listen to Rush Limbaugh if you doubt this.) And by the way, the stories ain't necessarily so.

Henceforth, however, the culture will be about participating, with people connecting and telling their stories--true stories--online. "Truth is the coin of the realm," Boyd says.

The job of leaders will be to listen, not broadcast, and to synthesize what they hear into something "actionable." (He must have been watching the 9-11 hearings.)

One thing the MoveOn experience has taught him, Boyd says, is that people can be self-centered and still, if asked, be capable of amazing altruism. "Ask," he urges our political leaders. "Call out to the best in us."

Who's missing?
Julian Bond, now chair of the NAACP, is one of our first featured speakers, and African-American panelists are sprinkled across all the conference panels. But in the pews, there are very few black faces, or brown ones, for that matter.

We talk a good game about diversity. But diverse folks aren't hearing it.

According to William McNary, who heads Citizen Action/Illinois and a voter-outreach group called USAction, just 58 percent of African Americans are "likely voters" for '04 (and the actual number that will vote is about 10 points less), while 78 percent of born-again Christians are. McNary, who is black, all but spits these numbers out as a "challenge to progressives." The non-voters are waiting to hear white Democrats offer real equality of opportunity and "full participation" in politics, he says.

When they hear it, they'll vote, too.

Ditto Maria Echeveste, former White House deputy chief of staff, whose Nueva Vista Group is running Immigant Vote 2004. Getting Hispanics and Latinos to vote is just as hard as knowing what to call them, she quips. ("As you know, we really can't decide what to call ourselves.") Remember, most come from countries where voting's a joke and government is by one-party rule. Also, our immigrant populations are relatively young and entrepreneurial, which means they're not attuned to government programs and aren't organized--or easily reached--via "name" political leaders.

Still, she says, if progressives will make the effort to reach them, "the payoff can be incredible" because Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of the population, and those who do vote support Democrats almost 2-to-1 over the GOP.

How? With "imagery" more than issues, Echeveste says. "They believe in the American dream, and they believe government should help with that--they're classic immigrant stories in that sense." But, she adds, "They have to feel they're engaged in a true partnership." Pandering won't do.

A little show biz
At our gala dinner, Ariana Huffington, recovering Republican and pundit, presides. Ariana on Bush energy policies: "Listen closely when the guys who own Ford F-150s are filling them up with gas," she says, "and you'll hear what the 'F' stands for."

Rim shot.

Our movement has some cool T-shirts ("ReDefeat Bush" is a favorite). We've also got some killer TV ads. My favorite: The professional woman (or is she a soccer mom?) is filling up her SUV, and while the one meter spins dizzily with her tab, two others are ringing up "Oil Industry Contributions to the Bush Campaign" ($$Millions) and "Taxes Spent Defending Middle East Oil" ($$Billions). She is, well, nonplussed.

It's not Rush Limbaugh, but it's a start.

Who are the progressive stars? Howard Dean is the biggest, judging from the joyous reception he got when he showed up here. Does he have Reagan's staying power? Who knows? But he's following a Reagan-like script: his Democracy for America organization is still pulling the online cash, only now it's for grass-roots progressives running in state and local elections. (Of 36 so far, none are in North Carolina.)

Others? House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was a big hit after calling Bush "incompetent" to command our troops. And U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., though not a particular favorite, got points for showing up, which is more than Kerry did, or for that matter North Carolina's own Sen. John Edwards, who canceled.

Stars in the making? Put New York State Attorney General Elliot Spitzer on the top of that list, along with U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Jon Corzine, D-N.J. Also: House members Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., and Jay Inslee, D-Wash.

There's also a new political action committee called Progressive Majority, spawned by the 54 members of the House Progressive Caucus (co-chairs, Barbara Lee and Dennis Kucinich). From North Carolina, only Rep. Mel Watt is a member.

DAY 2
Beloved George Soros

He's a billionaire many times over, and he's showered tens of millions of dollars on progressive groups this year. So when Soros speaks, progressives listen in hushed reverence--necessary, in his case, because he is very soft-spoken, slow and deliberate.

Soros made his money on the boom-and-bust cycles in the international currency markets (betting against people who think markets are rational and "tend to equilibrium," he says). He thinks the boom is over for the conservatives, at least in foreign policy. For the right, he argues, Iraq is a disaster on the same level as Vietnam was for the left, one that is opening America's eyes to the need for a change.

Bush and his fellow "American Supremacists," as Soros terms them, are like the fascists and communists who rose and fell in Europe in the last century (and drove the Soros family out of Hungary). They were "sure they had access to the ultimate truth," he says. Because they did, they ran "closed societies" that smashed dissent and enforced their truths at the point of a gun.

Soros' book, Open Society: Reforming Global Capitalism, is about the practice of democracy around the world. The United States is the most powerful nation on earth, he says, but that fact imposes an obligation on us to lead in a way that lifts up others, and makes them powerful, too.

"Power," says Soros, "is much more complex" than just guns. It's more akin to the children's game of "rock, paper, scissors," he says.

Now, the nitty gritty
After Soros, I head for the wonkiest policy sessions I can find, ignoring the uproarious laughter that comes shortly from another room, apparently at something the very funny Texas populist Jim Hightower said. (The guy next to me promptly left for the Hightower gig.)

I heard two things that I think can help animate our "big idea."

No. 1 is courtesy of Beth Shulman, author of The Betrayal of Work: How Low-Wage Jobs Fail 30 Million Americans and Their Families. Shulman makes a simple but elegant (to a wonk) point. Those manufacturing jobs we've loved so well but are losing by the day? They weren't always great jobs, and they weren't always highly paid. At first, they were dirty, dangerous and low-wage. A combination of unions and social legislation (workers comp, overtime, OSHA) turned them into desirable commodities.

But now, corporations can find cheaper labor abroad. And they do.

Meanwhile, Shulman points out, we have millions of new low-wage jobs that corporations can't move. Security guards. Retail workers. Child-care workers. Teacher assistants. They're like the manufacturing jobs of old--no benefits, no training, no upward mobility, and no one cares.

Her message: Start valuing these jobs, and the people who do them, because as manufacturing departs, they're what's going to be left for anyone without at least a four-year degree.

Meanwhile, lawmakers and labor (read: unions) in all the industrialized nations should cooperate to improve wages and working conditions around the world. "It is now time to say that it is not OK for corporations to compete by impoverishing workers," Shulman says.

No. 2 is energy independence. Under the umbrella of CAF's parent, the Institute for America's Future (it's a tax thing), labor and environmentalists are cooking up something called the Apollo project. It's about solar power and wind power and biomass (we could make electricity out of all our hog waste, e.g.), and mainly about the fact that while the United States dropped the ball on alternative energy sources during the Reagan-Bush years--a policy shift brought to you by the oil and nuclear industries--Europe has charged ahead.

"If we had followed through on the policies of the Carter years," says Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters, "we would not be dependent on oil from the Middle East now."

Here's what I love about this Apollo project. During the Democratic presidential campaign, they sent kids out in space suits to pester--nicely--all the candidates. When they went after Kerry, he quickly embraced them, and their cause, and he almost smiled. Movements should be fun, after all.

One more thing. The Apollo project gives North Dakota a reason for hope. Why? There's a lot of wind up there. As much, apparently, as in Denmark, where 20 percent of that nation's energy needs are filled by wind power. (Oh, all right. By windmills.)

We can drill up the Arctic and invade Middle Eastern countries looking for oil, or we can invest in sustainable energy sources that don't pollute and won't run out. Seems like an easy choice--especially in light of recent events.

What about Iraq?
The debate here is over whether our continuing presence in Iraq is required because of the mess we've made, or whether it is making the mess worse every day we don't leave.

David Coatright, president of the Fourth Freedom Forum and former head of SANE, the peace group, thinks the latter. He calls on progressives to demand a U.S. pullout, and yet, of Kerry, he says: "He has to campaign to the center. We all understand that."

Not Mel Goodman, formerly a high-ranking CIA analyst who's now at the Center for International Policy. Goodman, who thinks we're stuck in Iraq for awhile, nonetheless faults Kerry for speaking too much from his head, not his gut. "He knows about war," Goodman says. "Campaigns are visceral, emotional ... [Kerry] has gotten far too conservative in speaking out."

Goodman, who could be our progressive foreign-policy star, also urges attention to a military budget that is "out of control." Counting spending in Afghanistan and Iraq, it's now more than $500 billion a year, and that's far more than even our country can sustain going forward. "If you want 'smart bombs' and dumb kids, keep Bush in office," he says.

DAY 3
Summing up

So do I see a movement? Do I hear a theme? Yes, actually, I do.

Progressives need to say, directly, to the American people that a $500 billion a year military-industrial complex is not a productive use of our money nor something our economy can sustain.

We need to say that war is a last option, not one we choose simply because--with our enormous military--we can (and because we need the oil).

We need to argue that investing in the jobs people still have, and the people who have them, will strengthen our economy and save the taxpayers money, not cost more.

We need to argue for democracy.

Better, we need to be a democracy. That's how we can expand our progressive base to include more Hispanics, more blacks, more unmarried working moms and Gen-Y voters.

We can say that the place to start is by leading the world to a fairer, more democratic allocation of the world's resources, especially oil.

Repeat after me: An Apollo project that gives us energy independence will save the taxpayers money, not cost more.

A strong defense in concert with our allies. Building the economy so taxpayers save money. Progressive ideas. Something like that. EndBlock

Filmmaker John Sayles was at the conference. His  
    movie Silver City, due out in September, is about a  
    clueless governor not unlike George W. Bush back in  
    his Austin days.
Filmmaker John Sayles was at the conference. His movie Silver City, due out in September, is about a clueless governor not unlike George W. Bush back in his Austin days.
- Jenny Warburg

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