For a nanosecond after November’s election defeat, the Democratic unity forged by the radical provocations of George W. Bush seemed intact. From the corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council to Howard Dean’s new Democracy for America, Democrats drew similar conclusions from the election about what needed to be done: Challenge the right in the so-called red states and develop a compelling narrative that speaks to working people–don’t simply offer a critique of Bush and a passel of “plans.” Champion values, not simply policy proposals. Don’t compromise with Bush’s reactionary agenda. Expose Republican corruption, while pushing electoral reform. Stand firm on long-held social values, from women’s rights to gay rights. Confront Bush’s disastrous priorities at home and follies abroad.
But this brief interlude of common sense and purpose quickly descended into rancor and division. Peter Beinart of The New Republic and Al From of the DLC rolled out the tumbrels once more, calling on Democrats to purge liberalism of the taint of MoveOn.org, Michael Moore and the antiwar movement. Apparently anyone who worries about the suppression of civil liberties at home, doubts that the reign of drug lords in Afghanistan represents the dawning of democracy, prematurely opposed the debacle in Iraq or isn’t prepared to turn the fight against Al Qaeda terrorists into the organizing principle of American politics is to be read out of their Democratic Party. Then, normally staunch Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi floated for chair of the party former Congressman Tim Roemer, a New Democrat distinguished mostly for his opposition to women’s right to choose, his vote to repeal the estate tax and his ignorance of grassroots politics. Consolidating its corporate backing, the DLC solemnly warned against “economic populism” or “turning up the volume on anti-business and class welfare schemes”–despite the corporate feeding frenzy that is about to take place in Washington and Bush’s slavish catering to the “haves and have-mores,” whom he calls “my base.”
After a year in which progressives drove the debate, roused and registered the voters, raised the dough and knocked on the doors, the corporate wing of the Democratic Party is trying to reassert control. Its assault on MoveOn.org and the Dean campaign–the center of new energy in the party–is reminiscent of 1973, when corporate lobbyist Bob Strauss became head of the party and tossed out the McGovern mailing list, insuring that the party would remain dependent on big-donor funding.
This time, however, the entrenched interests aren’t likely to succeed, no matter who becomes party chair. That’s because progressives have begun building an independent infrastructure to generate ideas, drive campaigns, persuade citizens, nurture movement progressives and challenge the right. It includes a range of new groups such as MoveOn.org, Wellstone Action, Progressive Majority, the Center for American Progress, Air America, Working America and America Coming Together, along with established groups that have displayed new reach and sophistication such as ACORN, the NAACP, the Campaign for America’s Future (which I help direct) and the League of Conservation Voters. These groups–and their state and local allies–came out of this election emboldened, not discouraged. Just as the infrastructure that the right built drove the Republican resurgence, these groups and their activists–not the party regulars or the corporate retainers–will stir the Democratic drink.
The challenge to the electoral malfeasance in Ohio provided an early example. Inside the Beltway, protesting the President’s electors was unimaginable. But progressive organizers, together with third-party activists, liberal lawyers, Internet muckrakers and civil rights groups, kept the heat on. Representative John Conyers responded with a report detailing the outrages in Ohio, where the Secretary of State–shades of Katherine Harris–was co-chair of the Bush campaign. The Rev. Jesse Jackson and others called on senators to support progressive House legislators who were demanding a debate. When Senator Barbara Boxer stood up, the public learned more about the shabby state of our democracy and the need for drastic electoral reform. The lesson is clear: When progressives move, Democrats will follow. “Don’t expect this place to lead,” says Representative George Miller. “Organize and force us to catch up.”