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The Most Valuable Progressives | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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The Most Valuable Progressives

Let down by a dangerous Republican White House, a compromising Democratic Congress and a distracting and dysfunctional mainstream media, progressives persevered in 2007, laying the groundwork for what we can only hope will be the different and better politics of 2008. The list of heroes and champions is endless, but here are some of the MVPs -- Most Valuable Progressives -- from the activist, political, media and cultural spheres of the last full year before the last full year of the Bush-Cheney interregnum:

* Most Valuable Teaching Moment: When fundamentalist Republicans made a stink about the fact that newly-elected Minnesota Congressman KEITH ELLISON, the first Muslim elected to the House, would not be swearing his oath on their version of the scriptures, Ellison trumped them with history. He placed his hand on an edition of the Koran that had been donated to the Library of Congress by a student of Islam and all the world's great religions: Thomas Jefferson.

* Most Valuable Activist Group: At a time when Congress and the White House seem to have agreed that there will always be more than enough money for defense spending, the terrific Caucus4Priorities campaign of IOWANS FOR SENSIBLE PRIORITIES has kept alive the concept of a peace dividend. The group -- a grassroots project of Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, the national group founded in 1998 by BEN COHEN of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream, has used creative tactics and old-fashioned people power to make an issue of wasteful Pentagon spending. In doing so, they've succeeded where the media has failed in forcing presidential candidates to discuss budgeting in deeper and smarter terms. "We aim to redirect 15% of the Pentagon's discretionary budget away from obsolete Cold War weapons towards education, healthcare, job training, alternative energy development, world hunger, deficit reduction," the organizers explain. "This 15% cut, or $60 billion dollars, on obsolete weapons systems and the further proliferation of nuclear weapons does not include the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and in no way impacts homeland security or our defense. We have the money; let's spend it on sensible priorities!"

* Most Valuable Activist: TIM CARPENTER of PROGRESSIVE DEMOCRATS OF AMERICA did not just argue that progressives should stay and fight within a Democratic party that seemed to let them down at every turn in 2007. He showed them how to do it by leading PDA's aggressive and unblinking campaigns for rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, impeachment of Bush and Cheney, a single-payer national health care plan, media reform and a real response to climate change. PDA won the confidence of Congressional Progressive Caucus members, with House lefties such as Barbara Lee, Maxine Waters and Raul Grijalva joining its board. Much of the credit goes to the tireless, humble yet unyielding Carpenter.

* Most Valuable Think Tank: LIBERTY TREE: Foundation for the Democratic Revolution is staffed by young, smart thinkers with roots in green and student politics who push the limits of the debate about how to repair elections, reform education and renew the spirit of 1776. Fellows such as BEN MANSKI and KAITLIN SOPOCI-BELKNAP go beyond narrow interpretations of both the Constitution and what is possible in a republic to explore what real democracy would look like at the international, national, state, regional and local levels. Read their great journal and visit them at: www.libertytreefdr.org

* Most Valuable Crusade: When no one else seemed to be getting serious about challenging the Bush-Cheney administration's taste for torture, THE WORLD CAN'T WAIT movement developed an orange campaign – appropriating the color of the jump suits worn by detainees – to highlight popular opposition to violations of the Geneva Conventions and the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. As the torture issue came front and center, DEBRA SWEET and other World Can't Wait activists – most of them veterans of the pre-war Not In Our Name movement -- were already there with a smart, uncompromising challenge to untenable practices and an untenable status quo.

* Most Valuable Internet Site: When people ask about how and where to follow what is happening with the movements to end the war in Iraq, to prevent a war with Iran and to hold to account those who launched one mad war and now seek to initiate another, the answer is always www.AFTERDOWNINGSTREET.org site. Constantly updated by the indefatigable DAVID SWANSON, the site is fresh -- there were even six posts on Christmas Day -- and it features local actions (via YouTube) as well as national interventions. Because it is so thorough and so engaged with local and regional protests and events, the AfterDowningStreet site provides the best illustration of the extent to which mainstream media has neglected the most vital movements of the moment.

* Most Valuable Congressman: ROBERT WEXLER, D-Florida, was appropriately savage in his Judiciary Committee questioning of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Wexler almost single-handedly restored the separation of powers. Then, after Ohio Congressman DENNIS KUCINICH forced House consideration of his proposal to impeach Vice President Cheney, the Florida congressman grabbed the issue and organized a push by key members of the Judiciary Committee to open hearings on the veep's high crimes and misdemeanors. If he keeps this up in 2008, Wexler could yet force the House to be what the founders intended: a check and balance on executive lawlessness.

* Most Valuable Senator: Vermont Independent BERNIE SANDERS boldly battled the Bush administration on the international stage by traveling to Costa Rica before that country's fall referendum vote on whether to accept the Central American Free Trade Agreement. As the Bush administration was making all sorts of threats in order to scare Costa Ricans into capitulating to a neo-liberal agenda that serves Wall Street rather than workers in the U.S. or Latin America, Sanders arrived with the news that the U.S. government includes more than just a White House, and that the Constitution permits not just the president but the Congress to have a say regarding trade policies. Sanders put the White House on notice that its lies and bully tactics would no longer go unchallenged; hopefully, others in the House and Senate will join him in reasserting the strong legislative stance that is essential to transparent and democratic policy making with regard to a troubled economy.

*Most Valuable Commissioner: MICHAEL COPPS may have been on the losing end of the FCC's December vote on whether to knock down barriers to media monopoly in cities across the country. But the dissident commissioner's brilliant detailing of the threats posed to minority ownership, cultural diversity, local news gathering and journalism laid the groundwork for legislative and legal challenges that will upset the 3-2 decision that saw Copps and Commissioner JONATHAN ADELSTEIN stand up to Rupert Murdoch and the Bush White House. Said Copps in his blistering dissent: "Today's decision would make George Orwell proud. We claim to be giving the news industry a shot in the arm--but the real effect is to reduce total newsgathering. We shed crocodile tears for the financial plight of newspapers--yet the truth is that newspaper profits are about double the S&P 500 average. We pat ourselves on the back for holding six field hearings across the United States--yet today's decision turns a deaf ear to the thousands of Americans who waited in long lines for an open mike to testify before us. We say we have closed loopholes--yet we have introduced new ones. We say we are guided by public comment--yet the majority's decision is overwhelmingly opposed by the public as demonstrated in our record and in public opinion surveys. We claim the mantle of scientific research--even as the experts say we've asked the wrong questions, used the wrong data, and reached the wrong conclusions."

* Most Valuable National Radio: RACHEL MADDOW has survived the changes at Air America and thrived. Why? Because she's smart enough to be serious when called for and hilarious when necessary. She's also got a spot-on sense of what it means to be a progressive in an era when the Democratic party often fails to uphold progressive values. She's anti-Bush, and even more scathingly anti-Cheney, but she does not skimp when it comes to holding Democrats to account. Added bonus: Maddow's got a taste for cultural stories that makes her early evening show far broader in scope than most talk radio.

* Most Valuable Local Radio: ARNIE ARNESEN is the New Hampshire radio host all the candidates want to talk to: sort of. Everyone knows Arnesen is smart and fair -- she's a lefty with a libertarian streak who once was the Democratic nominee for governor but who minces no words about the two parties. She's got equally smart and fair listeners. The "trouble" is that Arnesen pulls no punches. She expects her guests to scrap the soundbites and answer questions in full sentences with full ideas. It makes for great radio; indeed, listening to politicos struggle to keep up with her is part of what makes covering the New Hampshire primaries fun. When is some radio network going to be smart enough to take Arnie national?

* Most Valuable Television: MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann is essential viewing that provides a nightly dose of reality to a nation still kept in the dark by most media. But broadcast television remains the vast wasteland that does the most to deaden our discourse, and that is why BILL MOYERS JOURNAL remained the essential antidote to what ails the body politic. Interviews with JEREMY SCAHILL, MARTIN ESPADA, SCOTT RITTER, BARBARA EHRENREICH , LORI WALLACH AND JON STEWART – along with Olbermann and Stephen Colbert, a savior of cable – were among the highlights of 2007. He also devoted an hour to an impeachment discussion featuring Reagan administration lawyer Bruce Fein and this reporter, a commitment that other broadcast or cable program have yet to make.

* Most Valuable Political Book: NAOMI WOLF's THE END OF AMERICA: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot (Chelsea Green). When Wolf started writing about the drift of the United States toward fascism, she was dismissed by some as another casual commentator blowing off some anti-Bush steam. But her detailing of the parallels between steps taken by the current administration and moves made by the 20th century's most notorious dictators to transform democracies into authoritarian states is convincing as it is chilling. And Wolf is not just complaining; she's the "face" of the American Freedom Campaign's important drive to identify and confront assaults on basic liberties and the system of checks and balances.

* Most Valuable Political Album: "KALA" by M.I.A. The Sri Lankan singer -- daughter of a prominent Tamil militant -- speaks truth when she declares: "I put people on the map that never seen a map." This is way beyond world beat. Maya Arulpragasam stirs up a global gumbo of ragga, ganna, soca, dancehall, electro, punk, Bollywood and hip-hop, mixes in heaping helpings of attitude and insight and serves it raw. If there is such a thing as refugee rock, this is it – like the best of Rachid Taha and Tinariwen, only edgier and with a scorching case of "Bird Flu."

* Most Valuable Political Song: "GOD BLESS AMERICA" by JAMES McMURTRY. Written on the cusp of 2006/2007 and circulated on the internet (www.jamesmcmurtry.com) over the past year, no song caught the zeitgeist better than this one – except perhaps McMurtry's previous take on oil wars and the fundamentalisms of Bible-thumping Christians and Weekly Standard-thumping neo-cons. Every McMurtry song has a million-dollar stanzy; in this one it's: "You keep talking that shit like I never heard/ Hush, little President, don't say a word/ When the rapture comes and the angels sing/ God's gonna buy you a diamond ring…" Watch for McMurtry's upcoming album with "God Bless America." It'll be a great send-off for the little President who couldn't.

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