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Going Down the Road | The Nation

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Going Down the Road

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On election morning, I opened the front section of the New York Times and immediately got a bad feeling. Positioned prominently on page A3 was an eye-catching and ominous ad. It was not a political ad per se, but an offering from Tiffany & Co. for a jeweled brooch in the form of a waving American flag. In tasteful type just below the ruby, diamond and sapphire rendering of the red, white and blue was this message: "Vote! The privilege is precious."

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Jim Hightower
Jim Hightower has been called America's favorite populist. He's been editor of The Texas Observer, president of the...

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This old American democratic tradition already has deep support at the grassroots.

People are wriggling free of the fetters of corporate culture.

It was the perfect pitch to rally the privileged to the polls for their President--a fellow who, after all, had provided a generous tax cut that makes trifles like this $8,000 brooch so easily affordable for those at the top. The ad said to me that the comfortable set was feeling its oats and would be turning out in droves to support their precious W. And why wouldn't they turn out? Their flag-bearer had been energetically crisscrossing the country, proudly holding the conservative banner aloft, promising to make that tax cut permanent, and saying in no uncertain terms: "I'm on your side, and I'll deliver for you."

But where was the flag of the once proud and mightily progressive Democratic Party? For most Americans, it was nowhere to be seen. Instead, the party of Daschle, McAuliffe, the DLC and their clique of overpaid and clueless consultants was campaigning on the slogan: "We-back-tax-cuts-for-the-rich-too-and-we-support-Bush's-Iraq-
attack-and-his-Big-Honking-Homeland-Security-Act-though-
we're-not-quite-as-sure-about-it-all-as-the-Republicans-are." Some bumper sticker. It's hard to rally to a flag that's not waving.

Mandate? What Mandate?

What to do? First, don't despair, for our base is still there, still huge and still available for building a progressive future. Despite the pronouncements of the institutional pundits, America has not lurched to the right or turned Republican. Yes, BushCo gained five seats in the House and two in the Senate, but they're trying to throw a mighty big loop with that short rope, loudly proclaiming that they've won a mandate from "the people." Mandate? Hold your tiny pony right there, George. The great majority of the people either didn't vote or voted against your autocratic, plutocratic regime. Curtis Gans of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate reports that in the Congressional races, where Bush claims his mandate, only 33 percent of eligible voters could stomach casting a ballot. And 15 percent of the electorate voted for Democrats while 1.1 percent voted for candidates from Libertarian, Green, Working Families, Independent or other parties. So Bush's big "mandate" consists of a mere 17 percent of the people.

That's the Republican base, not a juggernaut. It's the same 17 percent that they won twenty years ago in the midterms following Reagan's election, and it's three points below what they got in the '94 midterms, which swept Newt Gingrich into power. Moreover, given the odiousness of the corporate, antidemocratic, right-wing agenda of the Bushites (now embodied in the House by the messianic madman, Tom DeLay, whom they've chosen as their majority leader), they're not going to expand beyond this 17-20 percent base. The question is, will Democrats expand beyond 15 percent? Only if the party gets a clue, gets a program and gets with the people.

CLUE: This year's lame campaign shows, yet again, that you can't beat Republicans with corporate money and political minimalism. The DLC game of positioning Democrats as the moderate wing of the GOP, hoping to siphon off a point or two of its 17 percent plurality, is a loser. Instead, here's a wacky idea: Let's go where the Democratic votes are--out among the 67 percent of folks who are not voting. That's 121 million people; if we add even 10 percent of them, we start winning.

PROGRAM: To get them, the party has to get a program, because (here's another wacky concept) people tend to vote when their self-interest is touched. So let's touch it, unabashedly and unequivocally, by offering a short to-do list that would include such measurable benefits as (1) a tax cut for working stiffs: remove the cap (now $85,000) on the grossly regressive payroll tax, reduce the percentage bite and spread the burden up to include the billionaires' club; (2) healthcare for all, provided by a single-payer system; (3) free education for everyone, preschool through higher ed, modeled after the enormously successful GI Bill; (4) energy independence for America through a ten-year moonshot project that'll put Americans to work building an oil-free future based on alternative technologies and systems; (5) public financing of all elections, so we can get our government back from the greedheads; and (6) [Add Your Favorite Here]. A six-pack is plenty. Stay focused.

PEOPLE: Get out of Washington, literally and figuratively. At present, progressive groups and funders direct probably 80 percent of our energy, talent and money toward DC, putting only 20 percent into the countryside. Yet our strength is not inside the Beltway but out here, where people are doing great things and wondering why the Democratic Party isn't with them. Reverse that ratio. Start by scrubbing McAuliffe's $28 million plan to upscale the party's headquarters, move the DNC's whole kit and caboodle into an abandoned, gone-to-China factory somewhere in the heartland and put the money into building a grassroots organization that communicates, organizes and mobilizes across America, block by block.

Politics can't be viewed as something that involves people only in the last thirty days of an election. Rather, to be a movement capable of governing, it has to be rooted in people's reality. In addition to high-tech outreach, we have to get back to a high-touch politics that physically, emo-tionally and soulfully connects with people's lives 365 days a year. Yes, talk issues. But through potluck suppers, block parties, festivals, salons and saloons. Fewer Meetings, More Fun. There's a bumper sticker.

Nothing's more fun than winning, and it's time to tell the Democratic jefes that winning in politics requires getting more people (not more money) than the other side gets. To get people, there has to be a long-term strategy of going to them with something of interest. As the fighting populist Fred Harris puts it: "You can't have a mass movement without the masses."

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