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How the Other Half Still Lives

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The Frontier of the Possible

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Jack Newfield
Jack Newfield is a veteran New York political reporter and a senior fellow at the Nation Institute. He is the author of...

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Bob Dylan probably had no idea how much the times really were a' changin'.

On the rise of the "New Left" movement represented by organizations like Students for a Democratic Society, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Northern Student Movement, organizations whose ideologies could not be pinned to liberal sects of the past.

Michael Harrington, the author of The Other America and my mentor, used to recommend "locating the frontier of the possible" when it came to devising a strategy to shrink poverty. A recent frontier-defining survey by the Community Service Society disclosed a broad common agenda shared by the poor and middle-income and even high-income voters. This included raising the minimum wage, national health insurance, a larger investment in public education and more affordable housing. (Affordable housing was the highest priority among low-income voters.)

The November 2002 local elections did offer some hopeful signs that can be duplicated. The intransigently progressive State Senator Liz Krueger was re-elected on Manhattan's Upper East Side, in a district that had been held by a Republican for thirty years. Krueger was outspent by her Republican opponent, Andrew Eristoff, by six to one but was elected by a margin of almost 60-40. In terms of advocating for the poor and creating coalitions, Krueger is the frontier of the possible in electoral politics. The new union-based Working Families Party received 90,000 votes statewide, winning a permanent position on the ballot and serious leverage in swing districts. David Paterson was elected New York's first black party leader in the state legislature, as rank-and-file Democrats in the State Senate revolted and threw out Martin Connor as their leader. Paterson then named maverick Eric Schneiderman as his deputy. Schneiderman had survived a Republican and Democratic deal to end his career by redistricting him into a Hispanic district, where it was hoped he would lose a primary. But Schneiderman prevailed, with the support of the heavily black and Latino healthcare workers' union Local 1199/SEIU.

There is also little doubt that the near-suburbs are trending Democratic. The black and Latino populations of Nassau and Westchester counties are growing. If the Democrats can gain six seats in the State Senate over the next six years, they can become the majority. Paterson, Krueger, the WFP and organizer Jonathan Rosen of the New York Unemployment Project are now planning exactly such a long-term strategy of grassroots membership organizing and registering of low-income voters in the suburbs.

I hear a lot of talk about how "all we need" is one good liberal talk-show host on network radio or cable television, or all we need is a liberal policy think tank to compete with the conservative Manhattan Institute with its easy access to op-ed pages. But I think the frontier of the possible is also community-based organizing, the grunt drudgery of real voter registration and a renewed union militancy on behalf of the nickel-and-dimed low-wage workers. We need phone banks and Spanish-speaking union organizers as much as we need a left-wing Limbaugh.

Change comes from the bottom up. Change comes from ordinary people in political motion. This has been true from the 1936-37 sit-down auto factory strike in Flint, Michigan, to the strike-filled rise of New York's garment, transit and healthcare unions, to the marchers from Selma to Montgomery, who wrote the 1965 Voting Rights Act with their mud-caked boots, to today's growing antiwar movement.

The message of history is that only a participatory democracy can challenge a predatory plutocracy.

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