Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.
Last week, the BBC re-broadcast a provocative documentary series which challenges the idea that Al Qaeda is the center of a uniquely powerful, unified and well-organized international terrorist conspiracy.
"The attacks on September 11th," according to the film's director Adam Curtis--one of Britain's leading documentary filmmakers--"were not the expression of a confident and growing movement. They were acts of desperation by a small group frustrated by their failure which they blamed on the power of America. It is also important," Curtis adds, "to realize that many within the Islamist movement were against this strategy." (This view accords with those held by terrorism experts--like Peter Bergen--who argue that Al Qaeda is largely a spent force that has changed from a tight-knit organization capable of carrying out 9/11 to more of an ideological threat with loose networks in many nations.)
The film also challenges other accepted articles of faith in the so-called war on terror, and documents that much of what we have been told about a centralized, international terrorist threat "is a fantasy that has been exaggerated and distorted by politicans. It is a dark illusion that has spread unquestioned through governments around the world, the security services and the international media."
The series does not claim that terrorism poses no threat, nor does it challenge the idea that radical Islamism has led to gruesome violence throughout the world. "The bombs in Madrid and Bali showed clearly the seriousness of the threat--but they are not evidence of a new and overwhelming threat unlike any we have experienced before. And above all they do not--in the words of the British government--'threaten the life of the nation.' "
First broadcast in Great Britain last November, The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear has yet to air on this side of the Atlantic. Why is it that no television outlet in the United States has yet to broadcast this critically-acclaimed film?
In a recent e-mail interview, Curtis told me he "is very keen" that the documentary be shown in the US, and that he is "talking to some people at the moment " However, he added, "I think the networks won't show it because they are frightened by possible reactions. I think this is very wrong. The reaction in Britain has been extraordinary with the overwhelming majority praising the BBC for its confidence in putting the series out.
Even the Archbishop of Canterbury, Curtis says, "quoted the films approvingly in his Christmas address to the nation. I think we were pushing at an already open door--and I suspect the same is true for America. There is a lurking feeling in many peoples' minds that this state of fear doesn't quite add up--and I have received hundreds of e-mails from people in the US asking to see the series since Robert Scheer published a column about the film in the Los Angeles Times on January 11. I am sure it will be shown somewhere."
I also asked Curtis what he thought Americans could learn from the film. His reply:
"The United States is the most powerful, confident and in many ways, the freest civilization ever in the history of the world. It is extraordinary that it has become so paralyzed by the fear of radical Islamist terrorism--it really is a lion quaking in the face of a mouse. Radical Islamists do represent a serious threat and will use terror against civilians, but when you look at them historically, as the series does, you come to see that they are not some new force with a unique power to bring the strongest nation in the world to its knees.
"Yet America has become trapped by that fear--riven by nightmare visions of 'sleeper cells' in its midst for which there is little or no evidence. The series attempts to explain why this strange state of affairs has come about and it argues that politicians have found in fear a way of restoring their power. In a populist consumerist age where their authority and legitimacy has declined dramatically politicians have simply discovered in the War on Terror a way of making themselves indispensable to their populations again by promising to protect us from something that only they can see."
Curtis has promised to send me a copy of the documentary. But millions of Americans deserve to see a film that offers a rigorously documented and credible counter to the conventional narrative of a "war on terror."
As we remember Johnny Carson's many gifts, perhaps his greatest was his ability to know when it was time to voluntarily step out of the spotlight and never look back. A talent that's all too rare in American life.
It's hard to know if Harvard President Larry Summer's foot-in-mouth disease is the result of nature or nurture, but his political tone deafness was once again on display at a diversity conference where he suggested that women were innately less skilled at math and science then men.
Despite continuing revelations that torture was endemic in Iraq and our efforts to stabilize the country are failing, Donald Rumsfeld not only holds on to his job but apparently is targeting sites in Iran. The septuagenarian should have retired after Afghanistan.
And if that weren't enough, Newt Gingrich, who was deposed by his own revolutionary comrades for being too much of a loose cannon, is floating the idea of running for President.
The only bright spot this week: Michael Powell, having secured America from any future Super Bowl wardrobe malfunctions, is stepping down. One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.
As Bush begins his second term today, progressives must fight hard in DC against the dismantling and rollback of the twentieth century's hard-earned rights and liberties. But with legislative--and this week, literal--gridlock in our capitol city, it's time to recognize that the road to renewal may well run through the states.
As Justice Louis Brandeis argued in the 1930s, "It is one of the happy accidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory, and try novel social and economic experiments."
A savvy progressive state-based strategy (and some of the smartest minds in politics today are at work crafting this ) would seize on this "happy accident," and turn to the states to develop and promote the reforms and ideas that, eventually, will make their way onto the national agenda. Here's a quick guide to ten initiatives (in both red and blue states) that are already winning beyond the Beltway.
1) Raising the Minimum Wage: George W. won't even consider raising the federal minimum wage, but in November 2004, a whopping 71 percent of Florida's voters approved a referendum that raised the minimum wage above the miserly federal figure of $5.15 an hour. Nevada voters did the same. In New York, Rhode Island, Illinois and Vermont, the state legislatures have followed suit; fourteen states now have minimum wages that are higher than the federal government's.
2) Promoting Tax Fairness: In the November election, California voters approved by a three to one margin tax increases on those making more than $1 million a year--and earmarked the proceeds for mental health programs. In recent years, several states "both red and blue"--Nebraska and North Carolina among them--have adopted legislation "decoupling" state law from Bush's 2001 revisions to the tax code which ultimately "would prevent the total elimination of estate taxes in 2010," says the Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA). Thirty states have rejected a depreciation provision written into the tax code by Republicans for their corporate allies in March 2002. Last year, the Virginia state legislature voted to raise taxes by $1.6 billion to provide more resources for education and other state programs, and in November Maine voters rejected a cap on property taxes.
3) Promoting Clean Elections: The Maine state legislature approved the Clean Election Act, which provides public financing to those candidates who refuse to use private donations or their own money to finance their campaigns. Well over 50 percent of Maine's legislators have run "clean money" campaigns. Voters in Arizona and Vermont have recently approved "clean money" ballot initiatives, and Arizona became the first state to elect a governor under the clean money system.
4) Protecting the Environment: In 2002, California enacted the nation's toughest law to limit car and truck emissions--thus reducing greenhouse gases, antagonizing the automobile industry and dealing a blow to SUVs and other gas-guzzling vehicles. In the past two years, six other states including Rhode Island, New York and New Jersey have adopted California's tough new emissions standards--spearheading the fight for clean air and reducing the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. Other victories: In this past election, Colorado voted to promote renewable energy, and Washington State voted to ban nuclear waste dumping.
5) Promoting Stem Cell Research: More good news from the Golden State! In November, California voters rejected Bush's cynical policy on stem cell research when they approved, 59 to 41, the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative. The law will raise $350 million to support stem cell research in the hopes of ultimately finding cures for Alzheimer's and other diseases. One San Diego scientist predicted that the law would establish in California a "mini-NIH" that will give a much-needed shot in the arm to stem cell research.
6) Reinstating Overtime Pay: In August, the Bush Administration prevented millions of Americans from collecting overtime pay when it approved regulations narrowing the list of those eligible. Illinois rejected this anti-worker policy, however, passing a law reinstating overtime pay for workers in the state. Twenty states have created overtime rules that are more expansive than the ones that the Bush Administration has adopted.
7) Providing Access to Emergency Contraception Pills: In 2003, two FDA committees advised the FDA to make emergency contraception pills available to women over the counter. The pills were declared safe and they were declared efficacious. But the FDA rejected its committees' recommendations, so Maine, California and Hawaii, among others, have passed rules making this option available to women who go to their neighborhood pharmacy. And New York and New Mexico require that rape victims in emergency rooms must be offered emergency contraception.
8) Outlawing Racial Profiling: Montana, New Jersey, Arkansas, Illinois and other states have banned racial profiling, fighting off John Ashcroft's efforts to target and detain Muslims simply, in many instances, because of who they are.
9) Financing Public Education:This past election, Nevada voted to require its legislators to fund K-12 education before anything else. Oklahoma created a lottery system to raise money for public education, and North Carolina chose to put money collected from fines into its public school system, as well as to require more equitable distribution of state money among the rich and poor school districts.
10) Protecting the Rights of Death Row Inmates: Georgia, Nevada, New Mexico and four other states have reformed their death penalty laws, giving those on death row the right to DNA testing. Illinois undertook a comprehensive re-examination of its death row system; after the Illinois Governor's Commission on Capital Punishment found widespread flaws and abuses, the Illinois state legislature adopted many of the eighty-five reforms that the Commission had recommended. In Wyoming and South Dakota, juvenile executions have been banned.
So, let's not hang our heads this Black Thursday but instead recognize that these are victories to build on in the next years. As Joel Rogers--director of The Center on Wisconsin Strategy, one of the savviest and most effective state policy groups around--wrote last year in these pages, progressives urgently need to develop and implement a more comprehensive and ambitious state strategy, building on the policy victories and organizing already underway.
Faced with four more years of Bush and DC gridlock,that's what I call a smart and winning agenda for a second term.
Social Security is in danger. We must take preventive action: Baathist dead-enders have targeted the Social Security lockbox with Saddam's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. Our only hope is to adopt private accounts so the trust fund can be spread to multiple locations, before the smoking gun turns out to be a mushroom cloud.
Sound silly? No sillier than the Administration's full-court press to scare the retirement checks out of seniors' hands. A propaganda push so vile, it's a wonder Armstrong Williams isn't part of it. (But Dick Cheney is.)
Americans need to take a deep breath and repeat: There is no crisis in Social Security. There is no crisis in Social Security. Feel better? If absolutely no reforms are made, Social Security will not start running out of money until 2042! That's four decades away, and that is the pessimistic scenario. According to the optimistic projections, the danger of doing nothing is...nothing.
We've been down this road before, and we all know the result. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
In February 1917, bread riots took place in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg), and spread quickly to working-class quarters where the violence increased. Women, many of them elderly, led the protests that led to the collapse of the czarist regime and eventually to the Bolshevik revolution.
In January 2005, few anticipate genuine revolution--or even a change in government. But, in one of the most interesting developments in Russia since 1998, when disgruntled coal miners went on strike and blocked railway tracks in protest of unpaid wages, thousands of pensioners are demonstrating across the country--protesting the abolition of a wide range of social benefits. (Unlike 1998, however, what makes these protests potentially more powerful is that every family in Russia has a pensioner--often a beloved babushka caring for the grandchildren.)
The source of the pensioners' anger is a law that came into force on January 1, replacing longstanding social benefits--free public transportation, and subsidies for medicine, rent, utilities and other basic services--with inadequate, monthly cash payments. The new legislation affects the most vulnerable in Russia--the country's 34 million pensioners, veterans and people with disabilities. (They make up just over one quarter of the population.)
The spreading protests, which are the largest, angriest and most passionate since Putin came to power in 2000, began quietly on January 9 and now stretch from Russia's Far East to Moscow itself. Most important, at times they've brought vital transport arteries to a halt.
Last Monday, a crowd of elderly pensioners blocked the highway from Moscow's city center to one of its main international airports. The newspaper Russki Kurier reported, "The angered old people had to be dispersed with the help of the paramilitary forces." This past weekend, an estimated 10,000 pensioners and veterans jammed the streets in Putin's hometown of St Petersburg. In a sign of the radicalization of these pensioneer-protesters, many are now linking political demands to their calls that benefits be restored. Thousands in St. Petersburg shouted, "Putin--resign!" they also called for the regional governor's resignation. Pensioners have also staged protests in Khimki, outside Moscow, and in towns such as Samara, Ufa, Izhevsk, Tula, Penza, Kursk, Barnaul and Podolsk. In the main square of Almetyevsk last week, 5,000 people massed with placards, shouting slogans, "Down With Putin."
In Khimki, World War II veterans may face trial as a result of skirmishes during the protests.(In a sign of the government's hypocrisy, Putin used his televised New Year's greeting to the nation to mark the sixtieth anniversary of World War II this May, and honor its veterans--the very ones his "reforms" will now impoverish. As a 78-year old veteran told the New York Times, " The fascists took away my youth. And now these people are taking away my old age." )
There have also been outbreaks of violence. In Nizhnii Novgorod, two pensioners beat up a female trolley-bus conductor. According to Channel 3, dozens of trolley conductors across the country were assaulted last week. And the newspaper Moskovskii Komsomolets reported that, on January 11, a car trying to get through a cordon hit four elderly women during a demonstration in the Moscow suburb of Khimki.
Perhaps because large-scale protests in Moscow's center are difficult to hide, the usually tightly controlled Russian television has broadcast striking images of crowds of angry elderly women squaring off against policemen.
The conventional view is that these spontaneous and somewhat chaotic protests will not pose a serious challenge to the stability of Putin's regime--unless, through strategic leadership and ties to opposition parties, pensioners are able to mobilize and organize a nation-wide general strike.Yet, that view ignores the fact that few anticipated the ferocity of these protests. As late as a month ago, a respected Russian analyst argued that "the Russian masses, even the most destitute, have not sent any signal of their determination to confront the regime."
On the other hand, for months leading opposition commentators and politicians have talked about "the despair syndrome," suggesting that the situation in Russia is on the verge of an explosion. In December, rabid nationalist Alexander Prokhanov characterized the situation as "pre-revolutionary." Writing in Zavtra ("Tomorrow") , the newspaper he has edited for the last decade, Prokhanov declared that Putin's head will be "cut off," and asserted that everyone is against Putin in Russia, including "the humiliated governors, the oligarchs, his liberal intelligentsia, the nationalists, the West and the Russian people as a whole."
While Russia's newspapers are now filled with debates about the meaning of Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" for Russia, few believe that country will see a change in government. What is clear, however, is that the current political and economic crisis threatens Putin's personal standing. In a poll taken at the end of last week, 97 percent of people blamed Putin for the crisis. And a poll released Saturday shows that trust in Putin's leadership has plummeted. The wildfire demonstrations have also contributed to a decline in the public's mood about the country's direction.
The central question today is, Will pensioners be joined by younger protesters--students, unpaid school teachers, miners, doctors? Will there be a pensioners' general strike? Will demands escalate--as they already seem to be--and include widespread calls for the resignation of key ministers, the Parliament and Putin? If so, what will be the Kremlin's reaction? It's already clear that the regime--from the parliament to the ministries--is in a panic.
For now, however, the government is not backing down. Last week, the Putin -controlled parliament refused to approve a motion by the Communist and the Motherland parties to review and amend the benefits legislation.Instead, the Kremlin is blaming the regional authorities for poor implementation of the changes.
Several leading political opposition leaders are calling on the regime to use its budget surplus--or what is called the "stabilization fund"--of some $25 billion (largely a result of soaring oil prices) to increase pensions, restore benefits and subsidies and, more generally, develop a comprehensive economic development program. (Sergei Glaziev, a leading parliamentary deputy who challenged Putin in last year's presidential election, has also argued that these billions shouldn't be parked in Western banks, where the money does nothing for Russia's economy.)
What will the next days bring? A leading parliamentary deputy told a Moscow radio station last weekend, "The demonstrations will reach their peak in February when people will have to pay their utility bills for the very first time."
Babushkas of Russia--Unite!
While death benefits for troops in Iraq remain at $12,000, George W. Bush is throwing himself a $40 million party to celebrate the first time in his life he out-achieved his father. But the dynastic dysfunction continues into the next generation.
The Bush twins wanted to book Kid Rock to headline the inauguration youth concert they are hosting. But the White House was forced to disinvite him after family values groups complained about his vulgar, sex-soaked lyrics, including these lines from "Pimp of the Nation":
Pimp of the Nation, I could be it
As a matter of a fact, I foresee it
But only pimpin' hoes with the big tush
While you be left pimpin' Barbara Bush
This leaves the Bush daughters with a problem: What star from the thin ranks of white male rappers can replace Kid Rock? It seems unlikely to be fellow Detroit native Eminem, who sang in his explosive pre-election release "Mosh":
Let the president answer our high anarchy
Strap him with an AK-47, let him go fight his own war
Let him impress daddy that way
As for the Beastie Boys, they rapped in "It Takes Time to Build":
Maybe it's time that we impeach Tex
And the military muscle that he wants to flex
By the time Bush is done, what will be left
Selling votes like E-pills at the discotheque
Environmental destruction and the national debt
But plenty of dollars left in the fat war chest
Of course, they can't invite any of the musicians from the pro-Kerry, Vote for Change concerts: Bruce Springsteen; Pearl Jam; R.E.M.; Jackson Brown; Bonnie Raitt; Ben Harper; Crosby, Stills, & Nash; Sheryl Crow; Dave Matthews; the Dixie Chicks; Foo Fighters; Tracy Chapman; or Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds.
Is anyone left?
There are always the Republican stalwarts Ted Nugent and Brooks & Dunn. But here's to hoping the Bush twins invite the Olsen Twins. It would be one wild and crazy after-party: "Double, double the trouble, double, double the fun."
On January 20, hundreds of Republicans will descend on Washington, DC, wearing furs, boots and Stetsons, and partying like the Hollywood stars (they love to loathe) at festivities that will cost some $40 million to host--or $25 million more than the first pledge of US assistance to victims of the tsunami. These high-end Bush donors will be paying to play in our nation's capital.
Their high-flying parties come after a holiday season of little sacrifice for those in the top one percent. At a time when growing numbers of Americans cannot afford essentials like rent, health care and retirement security, the Bentley car dealership in Bethesda, Maryland, registered a 700 percent increase in sales last year. (One popular seller this season is the new Continental GT, which goes for $165K.)
A few days before the release of a report showing that New Yorkers needed to make $18.18 an hour (three times more than the federal minimum wage) to afford a one- or two-bedroom apartment, the media titan Rupert Murdoch agreed to pay $44 million for a Manhattan penthouse on Fifth Avenue. (That's $29 million more than the first pledge the Bush Administration offered to tsunami victims.)
While Murdoch lives high, the working poor in the same city can't make ends meet. Playing by the rules hasn't done them much good. Thanks to a series of recent reports that I'd call required reading for journalists, policymakers and concerned citiizens, we now have more than enough evidence (even for the faith-based members of this Administration) showing that the working poor cannot afford basics for survival including, in some cases, food.
In late December, the National Low Income Housing Coalition concluded in a landmark report that full-time workers making the federal minimum wage (an appalling $5.15 an hour) can't pay rent or utilities on the vast majority of one-bedroom apartments.
Last November, the Community Service Society and United Way of New York City reported that about one in three low-wage, full-time workers in New York City used a food bank, or couldn't afford their utilities, or their rent, or to fill a prescription. A different report completed by the Women's Center for Education and Career Advancement reinforced the grim picture for families citywide: Almost half of the city's households can't pay the cost of food, housing, child care or other necessities.
Last October, the Economic Policy Institute issued a briefing paper driving home what US policymakers know is another new reality: Health care is increasingly unaffordable and out of reach for middle-income families. Between 2000 and 2003, married couples with children saw health care spending outpace income by a factor of three, EPI reported. About one-fifth of the full-time workforce now lacks health insurance and almost 50 percent of lower-income New Yorkers don't have health insurance.
Job security is also becoming a thing of the past. Those who lose their jobs in this economy, reports the Washington Post, need "some combination of specialized skills, higher education and professional status that can be constantly adapted [or they] will be in danger of sliding down the economic ladder to low-paying service jobs, usually without benefits." Anthony Carnevale, senior fellow at the National Center on Education and the Economy, warned that unless a comprehensive industrial policy is adopted soon, "we could have a permanent working poor. They don't live in America; they kind of live under it," he told the Post.
What's the Republican response? Give more tax breaks to corporate America and give billions to Wall Street by privatizing Social Security. Talk about distorted priorities.
Now is the time to enact a new industrial policy--and raising the minimum wage is an essential first step.
Progressives have already achieved living wage victories in Florida and New York (Floridians, for example, voted on November 2 to raise the minimum wage to $1 above the federal level, although the mainstream media has ignored the living wage momentum that's occurring in at least fourteen states and 123 cities and counties nationwide). Moreover, until we get to a universal health care system so desperately needed, policymakers should pass laws that will control rising health care costs and expand our employer-based health insurance system. The government should invest in worker retraining so people who get outsourced or downsized can find high paying jobs elsewhere.
Economist Jamie Galbraith, in his smart book Created Unequal: The Crisis in American Pay, argues that by encouraging full employment and taking other steps, the US can close the wage gap that threatens to undermine our social fabric. Another vital step is correcting the tax imbalance by raising corporate taxes, closing tax loopholes for corporations relocating overseas and increasing funding for low-income housing because the funding "hasn't kept up with demand," says the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Finally, progressive religious activists believe this is a moment to push poverty and economic justice into the "moral values" debate. As Kim Bobo, director of the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, a Chicago-based advocacy group, and other religious leaders say, "Shame on us--those of us who work with the religious community have not adequately made the connection between economic disparity and moral values."
These religious activists hope to move beyond issues of sexual morality and bring attention to the Administration's new efforts to increase inequality by privatizing Social Security and overhauling the tax code. Or, as Bob Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, said in a recent open letter, "Allowing 45 million Americans to go without health insurance, permitting 35 million Americans to live with incomes below the official poverty line and standing by while millions of children attend decrepit schools violates our faith, assaults our sense of justice and condemns us all to generations of poverty, violence and injustice."
With the Republicans in control of all three federal branches, building a new consensus for sane economic policies that give more opportunity to more Americans will take time, organizing and savvy political and policy skills. But, it's an urgent project, and it's never too late to begin setting out the alternatives. Americans should not be required to work eighty-hour weeks just to pay the rent, eat, and live in a decent neighborhood.
Honest economists will tell you that the financial solvency of Social Security can be guaranteed well into the next century. So why does the President insist on adding private retirement accounts into the reform mix? Because their purpose is not to save Social Security but, like a Trojan horse, to destroy it. Personal accounts are part and parcel of Bush's domestic policy agenda: an assault on the very concept of The Public--its goods, services and trust.
Social Security, which provides a public good: the minimum financial security of retirees, is only the latest example. Faith-based initiatives were the privatization of government social welfare programs to religious institutions. Vouchers were the privatization of public education to religious schools. Drilling in the Artic National Preserve is the privatization of public lands for corporate profit. Even national security, the ultimate public good, has been partially privatized: "Security contractors" (mercenaries in the old parlance) were interrogating prisoners at Abu Ghraib, before the scandal broke.
Privatization shouldn't be confused with free enterprise. It is not capitalism; it is crony capitalism--the diversion of tax-dollars from the government to private individuals and institutions. Faith-based initiatives divert tax revenues to private religious institutions. Personal retirement accounts will divert a significant portion of payroll taxes to Wall Street in the form of management fees.
It should be no surprise that Bush and Cheney are proponents of privatization, because they--just like the oligarchs of Russia--have been its beneficiaries. Cheney's fortune was made at Halliburton, which profits handsomely from the outsourcing of Defense Department functions. Bush's fortune was made from the sale of the Texas Rangers, whose value was significantly enhanced by Arlington city taxpayers.
In this light, the Armstrong Williams scandal is not an aberration: It represents the partial privatization of White House public relations. The victim in this case is the public's trust in the independence of the press. But the public shouldn't expect an apology from the Bush Administration. Hate means never having to say you're sorry.
Reverend David Dyson has been doing God's work for decades. Pastor of the landmark Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, Dyson worked with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, toiled as an organizer in the labor movement for years, and later co-founded the National Labor Committee in Support of Democracy and Human Rights in Central America, a group of 20 national unions working for peace and trade union rights in war-torn Central America.
Dyson argues that if we are going to build a progressive religious base, we need to organize at the congregational (grassroots) level instead of adopting a top-heavy, celebrity clergy model. He knows, as he told me, that "this is hard old-fashioned work...But if the work continues the way it is going, we will once again cede the field to the right...Sorry to be so ornery about this but as a pastor, and a former organizer, I feel rather passionate" about the changes progressives need to make.
His words are worth heeding.
Playing Catch-Up With the Evangelicals
A speech by Rev. David Dyson: December 2, 2004
The evangelical movement so widely reported on after November 2nd is not the monolithic monster of the post-election reports. It is a broad and amorphous movement with a complex and often contradictory set of beliefs. A large number of evangelicals went for Carter in 1976 and for Clinton in 1992. They should no more be ceded to the Republicans than should the South.
Evangelicals are descended from the great outdoor revival movements of the 18th and 19th centuries. For reasons of either geography or lack of education, early evangelicals felt alienated from the mainline religious traditions of the day and crafted their own model in the nation's heartland. They were also influenced by the Puritan movement which placed a heavy emphasis on personal rather than social morality. This was brilliantly portrayed by Alex Haley in Roots in the character of the slave ship captain who trafficked in human lives for a living but would not let alcohol touch his lips.
Religious progressives, in the wake of the election, are scrambling to play catch-up with their better organized evangelical brethren. They have a long way to go. Several attempts to organize a progressive alternative to the religious right before the election either sputtered or failed. Most of these attempts were based on a leadership model which was both top heavy and ego driven. Religious progressives must now learn the lesson evangelicals learned long ago: the key to organizing people of faith is not through celebrity clergy but through congregations. Congregations are where the rubber hits the road. This is where the faithful meet, greet, eat and mobilize. E-mail lists are great and an important tool, but congregations are the long established historical and spiritual bases of operation. Congregations are the very definition of grassroots. The right knows this and the left does not.
Organized congregations provided much of the punch for the anti-sweatshop movement in the 1990's. Here was an issue which united Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, evangelical and progressive congregations. Regional lists of prospective congregations were compiled by painstaking and usually anecdotal work. Key contacts were established in each congregation, sometimes the clergy, sometimes a lay activist. Organizing packets were sent out including reliable research on the campaign target, written in congregation friendly language. Each packet contained background material, names of other friendly congregations in the area and a concise, doable action program. Many congregations are looking for something meaningful to do, but do not have time to research and develop their own campaigns. If and when the campaign clicks, people line up after services to write letters, sign postcards, or sign up for a delegation. Once a congregation member gets a surly response from an apparel company executive or is treated rudely at a retail store, they are hooked for life. They are now part of the struggle.
One problem for religious progressives today is a lack of trained organizers in their midst. The religious right has been training organizers for years. Religious progressives, with some heroic exceptions, have not. Progressives need to enlist the help of professional organizers from the likes of the labor movement and community organizations to fill in the gaps and train a new generation of activists. Otherwise there will be lots of message, lots of talk, lots of spin, but it will not filter down to the congregations with sufficient force to mobilize significant numbers.
Clearly there is much work to do around message, language and even vision. I have confidence that a new generation of energized religious progressives will create a compassionate, inclusive and intelligible call to faithfulness. What is not in place is the delivery system to inspire, activate, mobilize and deliver our base. Not yet.
Progressive people of faith in the US may never have the numbers or the money of the evangelical movement, but they nevertheless comprise thousands of mainline, middle-sized, middle class congregations who were not sufficiently engaged in 2004. Progressives possess the message if not the means to cut into the Republican stranglehold on the evangelical vote. When elections are as close as they were in 2000 and 2004, can we really afford to ignore any sizeable constituency?
In the Book of Proverbs it reads, "Without a vision the people perish." (Proverbs 28:19) True enough, but without a vehicle, the vision has no wheels. What is needed now is a campaign to identify, quantify, organize and mobilize congregations who are waiting for the call.
Rev. David Dyson is the pastor of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, NY. He is a former staffer with the United Farm Workers and the Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers Union.