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A Politics of the Common Good | The Nation

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A Politics of the Common Good

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Let's celebrate this gathering--of people of moxie, passion and conviction. Progressives across the country are building a feisty, populist politics, an actual movement based on real conviction, serious about taking power: one committed to changing course--ending a disastrous war that is undermining our security; building a more perfect union, fighting for national health care, addressing the investment deficit, fueling that moon shot for energy independence, draining the swamp of corruption and incompetence that is the hallmark of this congress and administration, and driving Democrats toward a real and renewed politics of the common good.

Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The
Nation
, delivered this speech at the 2006 Take Back America Conference in Washington, DC, June 12. It
is published here as part of The Nation's Moral Compass
series, highlighting the spoken word.

About the Author

Katrina vanden Heuvel
Katrina vanden Heuvel
Katrina vanden Heuvel is Editor and Publisher of The Nation. She is a frequent commentator on American and...

Also by the Author

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman wants his office to be able to prosecute cases in which police officers kill unarmed citizens.

It's going to be tough. This is a long battle. Let's be real clear: the administration, the people in power are extremists, not conservatives, with little to no respect for truth in public debate. They will do anything to hold on to their power and say anything about those who disagree with them. But we must call them out--and in doing so, build a politics of decency, sanity which speaks to the generosity of the American people. That will require taking on other powerful forces: corporate power for one, and a Democratic leadership that is sometimes too fearful of its own shadow. But I believe progressives can make real and significant advances in American politics over the next years. My optimism is fueled by how this country has turned against this disastrous war, and done so with virtually no political leadership. It is fueled partly because not just we, but the general public, are fed up with the immorality and slash-and-burn economics of the corporate agenda. People are really concerned, even agitated, about job security, ravaged pensions, the deterioration of work and wages, the lack of affordable educational opportunity for their kids.

What we need to do is explain loud and clear, to a status quo beltway class, that we are the mainstream--that there is another center, one which relates to the way people actually live. After all, poll after poll shows that a majority of Americans support national health care, energy independence, an end to this unnecessary war, a principled foreign policy that will make them secure--not a messianic crusade that is championed by too many beltway types, one that may cost us $2 trillion, while neglecting our decaying infrastructure at home, and fair trade that counters unprecedented corporate power, and stabilizes not ravages the middle class...I could go on. But it's time to tell the beltway pundits and pollsters where the real center is.

Democratic activists, grassroots, netroots, the base, are part of this new mainstream--driving the debate. When The Nation, the country's largest progressive weekly, laid down a marker for measuring any candidate in '06 or beyond, stating that we would support only candidates who stood up on Iraq, we were inundated with thousands of positive e-mails, from readers and others in the broader progressive community--even scores of conservatives with a conscience and some common sense. On the war, on tax cuts, on oil's windfall profits, even on corruption, too many beltway Democrats have suffered less from an identity crisis than a spinal weakness.

These are times when we need to speak and act with confidence and clarity. Spend more time proposing, less time opposing. Inspire the base, motivate it, give it a reason to get out and work for progressive candidates and issues. Understand that a generation of economic decline and failed government response, and the relentless demonization of government, has left people deeply wary of government, but also quite open to a progressive agenda--if it is put before them. Of course, this is exactly what we need to do with focus and conviction. Because despite the self-evident collapse of the conservative project, Americans need to hear alternatives. Without vision, says the Bible, the people perish. Or at least lose hope. Perhaps the worst legacy of this era of "TINA" ("there is no alternative") and "YOYO" ("You're on your own") is the shackles it has put on our imagination.

But, after a long hiatus, we are loosening those shackles and replacing them with determined idealism, and grounded realism. We are building an independent movement--in states and communities across this country. We are building the capacity and skills and ideas. Could 2006 be the year the progressive movement became a movement? Take a look.

The netroots, antiwar and community activists have Joe Lieberman on the run. And a challenger like Ned Lamont in Connecticut will send a message even if he loses--as did Marcy Winograd in California in her primary against Jane Harman--politics is often simplified into winning and losing--and we want to win--but politics is also a process of changing the balance of forces. Winograd revealed the depths of anti-war sentiment among Democrats and delivered a message for 2008. And in New York, labor activist Jonathan Tasini's candidacy helped lead the New York State Democratic Convention to pass a resolution urging a safe and orderly withdrawal of us forces. And forceful populists like Sherrod Brown, Jon Tester, Bernie Sanders will transform the debate if elected to the senate. What we all agree on is the need to get out there in the arenas where the mass public actually has some power politically--yes, at the voting booth, as well as through forging insider/outsider, political/movement alliances and coalitions--which also build electoral power.

One powerful example of building progressive electoral power is in my state of New York, where the Working Families Party allows progressives to be both independent and relevant, resolves the spoiler and wasted votes dilemma, while building a year-round infrastructure for training, educating, issue campaigns, candidate recruitment...because as all savvy progressives know, we need to elect candidates and then hold them accountable. And there's no better way to do than to revive fusion politics and build parties that ally with Democrats from a position of strength.

Progressives are also the champions of a new federalism--as gridlock, figurative and literal--reigns inside the beltway. States and communities are once again becoming what Justice Brandeis liked to call "the laboratories of democracy." At The Nation, we've been paying more attention to what's going on out there and the importance of building models, lots of scaled models, of new left/progressive policies that work. To some extent, we are already seeing small but sweet victories, whether it's in health care, living wage or minimum wage campaigns-- (highly popular with Americans --83 percent say they favor raising the federal minimum wage). There's progress on campaign finance reform, mass transit options, renewable energy and energy efficiency, even education funding. We have shown we can win. Living wage resolutions in more than 130 cities. Cities for Peace organizing 76 municipalities to pass resolutions calling for withdrawal. Governors allying to support Apollo Alliance, to fight climate crisis; a slew of new community-based organizations are working--in Miami among new immigrants, in Colorado and San Diego, even in Mississippi-- to build multi-racial coalitions. State-based, election-oriented networks like the Progressive States Network have formed to counter the right's powerhouse American Legislative Exchange Council. A network of progressive mayors has formed in the last year.

Rocky Anderson of Salt Lake City is part of that (and, by the way, is one of The Nation's most loyal readers). Two hundred and twenty-four mayors have created their own Kyoto compliance standards, promoting efficient and renewable energy projects. There are groups recruiting, training and electing progressive candidates at the state and local levels. Whether the impressive Progressive Majority, and its important Racial Justice Fund, or Wellstone Action, or Democracy for America (DFA), or Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) or a new group, Voters for Peace, which was inspired by The Nation's cover editorial on the war last November to mobilize voters to support only candidates who oppose the war and support a speedy exit. *We have a more lively, if divided, labor movement, with a greater willingness to experiment with new organizing strategies, different definitions of union members, use of pension monies and other once unconventional tools, in reviving its fortunes.

There is a new generation of student activists, journalist/muckrakers and thinkers. We're witnessing the emergence of scores of new progressive student groups --from the Roosevelt Institution, SNAP (Students for a New American Politics), to a 21st century Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Campus progress is supporting scores of left/progressive student campus publications -- a pluralistic network of journalists/muckrakers and editors poised to counter the right's messengers and publications.

And then there is the Internet and the blogosphere ---whose online activist campaigns bring energy and passion to the for change (and an alternative to big money donors). Moveon, DailyKos, MyDD, Working for Change, hundreds of others are mobilizing, coordinating, bringing the grassroots, outside the beltway to DC and democratizing the public square, challenging the old establishment iron triangle of pollsters and consultants. Yes, we still need to build social capital, an offline presence as well as an online political sphere--to counter what the Right has built in mega-churches, gun clubs and chambers of commerce. We need on-the-ground community organizing, movements, centers--while we rebuild a grounded progressive presence. And that work will require reviving labor's presence, and finding new community organizing projects, tapping into the energy we've seen in the immigrants' rights organizing and street rallies.

As part of this work, the transpartisan campaign to keep the Net free is crucial. This is the next and crucial chapter in our vibrant media democracy movement--creating a kind of digital civil rights/social justice coalition to fight for universal wireless broadband, rules that bar digital "redlining"--which would create an information superhighway for the affluent and a dirt road for the poor.

In another vital area, I would argue that we have the intellectual upper hand, if not yet the political one. I think that its now commonly recognized that neoliberal internationalization was vastly oversold as a panacea for the world's poor, and an opportunity for workers in the North. I think most recognize now that for internationalization to proceed, workers in the richer north need much better insurance against the risks that it entails. And i think that a lot of good work in local organizing, to stop or reverse the worst effects of the "low road" that employers long thought they could pursue without resistance, is beginning to show us what the "high road" path of national reconstruction might look like--high wage, low waste, democratically accountable--and be compatible with sustainable development in the south.

And we have a public that has finally grown tired of George W. Bush, whose approval ratings are now in the toilet, and tired of the broader Republican message of the past 30 years of what Jared Bernstein has called 'yoyo politics'--"you're on your own, and anybody who tells you different is a liar!"--and the destructive policies needed to achieve the truth of that: division, inequality, ruined public goods, weakened popular organization, constraints on democracy itself. We need to counter that "Yoyo" message at its core. We need to say clearly to all that "whether you like it or not, we're in this together." ...if we don't hang together, we're going to hang separately. And that leads me to a final take on what a renewed and real politics of the common good might look like.

Some have argued, recently and rightly, that progressives and Democrats should return to their tradition of "civic republicanism." That we're all in this together and that together we can build a more perfect union. Who's against building a more perfect union? But I'd argue that some of these advocating this path are wrong to suggest the problem Democrats have had with putting a forth a clear governing philosophy is grounded in the success of movements of the 1960s--the antiwar, civil rights or women's movement, or of interest-group pluralism focused on rights. With less venom, our friends and allies are echoing arguments of the Democratic Leadership Council...and this misdiagnosis leads them to a 2006 Sister Souljah moment --that is, a kind of calculated, if symbolic, straight-arming of own own base to demonstrate independence. Wrong. These are times to tap into the passions and energy of our core constituencies, of movements on the ground. Times to learn from our base...the working poor, the disenfranchised, Latino community, African-Americans, single women, the young, labor, the religious left--and inspire them and be inspired by them.

I worry that this appeal to the common good will turn out to be a cover to disempower important groups. To ignore their legitimate issues. Furthermore, and in light of what has happened to the country under this administration, the notion of common good seems somewhat too innocent and not attentive enough to the scale of corruption, abuse of power, public disinvestment and inequality that now characterizes American society. Yes, common good but only if it means economic dignity and social justice and the ending of corruption and the special privileges that have allowed the very richest to amass great fortunes while the vast majority of Americans struggle to make ends meet without any of the security of affordable health care, good jobs and a quality education. Common good if it means making the government more responsive to the needs of the majority of Americans. Common good, if it means public investment in our people, in our infrastructure, in research and development that serves human needs. Common good, if it means political reform and making every person's vote count. Common good, if it means being a good neighbor to the world and a force for building common security and common prosperity.

And, common good if it means listening to and inspiring a base that is the heart and soul of a renewed and revived left progressive politics and movement. Because, after all, the Democratic Party's finest moments have come when it was pushed into action from outside by popular movements, from the labor movement to the civil rights and women's movement. So, let us work together to build a real and renewed politics of the common good..

*******

So, we gather here this week dedicated to taking back this country from those who would plunder its promise.

I'm a great believer in what Studs Terkel said not long ago--action engenders hope. Let's go forth from this gathering, out of Washington, DC--out into the country, to our cities and towns and communities, with ideas and strategies about how to rebuild this country. And don't ever listen to those who caution, "Don't rock the boat." This is a time for conviction, not caution. Rock the boat.

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