Progressives: Get Ready to Fight
What Is to Be Done?
In the wake of defeat, there will and should be reassessment inside the Democratic Party. But progressives drive this party now--we provide the energy, the organizers, the ground forces, the ideas and much of the money. We should organize the opposition. Here's a start:
§ Get Ready to Fight. Bush's agenda will ignite opposition. The current offensive in Iraq will galvanize antiwar sentiment across the world--including among the conservative realists in the Republican Party. The President's budget, featuring some $70 billion more for Iraq plus cuts across the board for education and other domestic programs, will highlight the financial costs of his folly. Progressives should continue to challenge this war and educate Americans on how it is making us less safe.
The President claims a mandate for a radical domestic agenda--privatization of Social Security, tax reform to reward wealth over work, drill-and-burn energy policy, tort "reform" to limit victims' rights to recover from negligent corporations, more testing in schools while cutting resources needed to fix the problems. He's likely to make an early Supreme Court appointment. These are all battles that progressives should fight, offering Americans a clear choice.
§ Take the Offensive. Progressives should mount a powerful assault on Republican boss Tom DeLay and the most corrupt Congress in memory, exposing the blatant giveaway of taxpayers' money to corporate contributors and spreading the word to Republican districts so voters learn about the crony corruption that is emblematic of this crowd.
§ Ideas and Local Invention. Progressives have to do more than oppose. We have to develop compelling arguments for moving the country in a different direction: What should America's role in the world be? How can we create a fairer economy? What kind of society do we want to be? This requires new big ideas--strategic initiatives for good jobs and energy independence like those of the Apollo Alliance. Progressives should turn states and localities into "laboratories of democracy." California voters just passed an initiative to borrow $3 billion to seed stem-cell research, insuring that that state will be a global center in this area. The Apollo Alliance is developing state initiatives on energy efficiency and renewable energy. In the Midwest, conservative Federal Reserve analysts are leading the argument for investing in preschool and early-childhood healthcare as an economic development policy.
In this election Progressive Majority recruited a team of progressive candidates for state and local office in three battleground states--Washington, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. In Washington, their victories helped shift the State Senate into Democratic hands. All told, their candidates won 57 percent of open seats. Now they are gearing up to expand to ten states in the next cycle, finding the next generation of Paul Wellstones who see themselves as part of a movement.
§ Argue Our Case. Progressives should be aggressively arguing our case--and learning how to argue our case more effectively. Politicians are now scrambling for ways to appeal to the "values" voter. Some of this is common sense: Religious observance is not a Republican monopoly. Democrats who are comfortable with religion, like Jimmy Carter, Jesse Jackson and Bill Clinton, fare better in this very religious country. And progressives should be making our case in moral terms, not simply in the language of policy seminars.
But that does not mean abandoning the party's principles on social issues like choice or equal rights. Democrats champion the values of the civilizing movements of recent decades--the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the environmental movement, the human rights movement. We should lead the forces of tolerance against the forces of intolerance. We win by being the party of progress, not by blurring differences with the new reactionaries.
§ Build Independent Capacity. Progressives should build on this year's extraordinary efforts to register, educate and mobilize voters. New focus should be on building volunteer networks from community organizations (as the right has done with evangelical churches). The competition over the growing Hispanic vote is a case in point. With Republicans in control of the leading Hispanic TV and radio networks, this project can't be left to the party, or to chance.
At the same time, progressives have to expand their capacity to generate ideas, develop a message, communicate issues and carry out campaigns that can compete with the right. This is a long-term project that requires significant investment. Major donors and national and grassroots groups are already discussing it. MoveOn.org and Dean's Democracy for America have demonstrated the potential for building powerful movements based upon citizen involvement and small-donor support. That will be key if the debate is to break out of the narrow constraints of the Clinton years.
Progressives did more this year than anyone could have anticipated--and we still got beat by a bad President espousing a politics of division and distraction. So we have to get smarter, work harder, learn how to make our case better and find ways to communicate it across America's increasingly separated nations. The task is daunting. But we can undertake it, confident that, as Dr. King taught, the arc of history is long but it bends toward justice.