On November 14, I was the guest speaker at the first of a new series of conversations with journalists, policy-makers and activists sponsored by Democracy for NYC–a local coalition group of Democracy for America, the organization founded by Howard Dean after his presidential campaign to channel grassroots energy into vehicles for social change. It was a spirited evening. I spoke briefly, see below, and then a lively Q & A followed.
It’s terrific to be here with Democracy for NYC – a key part of the progressive grassroots infrastructure in this country. For me, this election was a “how sweet it is” moment. And I’ll never feel the same way about a “thumping.”
As Bill Greider wrote this week in The Nation, this was “a deliverance election…the great retribution.” It was that accountability moment we’ve been waiting – and working – for. Progressives all across this country – from old-fashioned precinct workers to bloggers – brought in hundreds of new activists and thousands of new voters. Many of them are disenchanted by machine politics and hungry for a radical break with status quo politics.
This election showed people got it. It showed that Americans are a far better people than this cynical White House took them for with its divide, distract and scare tactics. I’ve always believed that any politics – especially a progressive one – that takes a “blame the people” attitude as its starting point is, well, dead on arrival.
We celebrated on November 7th. But on November 8th, at The Nation, we understood it was time to get to work. Yes, the political space has been opened; we are back in a reality-based world. Brought back in through what was a revolt – a great “thumping” powered by voters’ opposition to open-ended and disastrous occupation in Iraq; rank corruption, metastasizing scandals and ethics problems; and an administration that was out of touch with how people are working harder than ever to keep up. And then there’s that trans-partisan issue: incompetence. Whatever trace of competence this White House had was buried in the sands of Iraq and drowned in the floodwaters of New Orleans.
We also know that we can’t leave the building of a more humane and progressive future to timid or wobbly politicians in Washington. After all, some of this nation’s finest moments, reforms and changes have come when political parties are pushed into action from outside –by independent reporting, by passionate people and popular movements driving their ideas and principles into the electoral arena.
In these next months, we will need a savvy and effective insider-outsider strategy that engages this new Democratic congress. And we’re going to need longterm strategies to build a more humane and progressive politics. After all, as Bill Greider points out, “turning around a political party – and certainly a politics – isn’t done in one or two election cycles.”
A week after the election, let me challenge some of the mainstream pundits, the conventional wisdom, political analysis or, rather, blather that’s been forming. Let me separate fact from spin.
Spin #1: “This election was a victory for centrists.”
That’s way too simplistic and overlooks the fact that 100 or more candidates ran aggressively on populist economic issues – against unregulated free trade, offshoring of US jobs, against special interests and corporate excesses. Sure, a few winning democrats offered conservative views on guns and abortion. But virtually all ran as “pocketbook populists.” The so-called Blue Dog Caucus may have expanded – but the progressive caucus did too. And it remains the larger – in fact, it will be the largest – and most diverse group in house – at 71 members. Also significant, at least ten progressive caucus members will chair house committees – including stalwarts like John Conyers and George Miller. And some 35 will become subcommittee chairs. New members like John Hall of New York, Bruce Braley in Iowa, Carol Shea-Porter and Paul Hodes in New Hampshire, Keith Ellison in Minnesota all ran on platforms to bring troops home, promote economic fairness, make elections more honest and government more ethical and promote energy independence.
Spin # 2: “Democrats have mandate – for bipartisanship – not change.”
Enough with bipartisanship! It’s too bad that partisanship has become associated with cable show food fights. These are times when principled partisanship is needed – as we confront some real and substantive differences–from economic vision (here we’re going to have to really challenge the Wall Street wing of Democratic Party too). But already we see the breakdown of bipartisanship on Bush’s renomination of six extremist judges for the federal appeals court; on Medicare reform; on the White House’s efforts to push John Bolton back into the United Nations; on attempts to push passage of illegal spying on Americans. Is Bush going to sign a federal minimum wage increase and an effective prescription drug benefit under Medicare? If so, as one commentator put it, “then we can all sing bipartisan kumbaya.”
Spin # 3: “Congressional hearings designed to restore oversight and accountability are obstructionist, petty, partisan and a waste of time.”
For six years, Congress’s oversight function has been corroded and atrophied in a one-party Republican Congress. A vigorous examination of the administration’s misconduct is not only necessary to restore checks and balances and our Constitutional system, but it is the politically necessary response to voters’ overwhelming rejection of the current Congress’s failure to assert itself in this area.
Hearings – whether into war profiteering, oil industry influence, excessive CEO compensation, expanding health coverage, the plight of Iraqi vets, or executive branch misconduct – are vital, not only for oversight, but to bring attention to ideas long missing in our national debate, and to lay the ground for more far-reaching legislation. If designed strategically, they will also help change our national conversation over the next two years. And oversight should not be a Republican or Democratic issue; it is for members of the Constitutionalist party – those true patriots who support the rule of law.
Spin # 4: “This was the end of Republican/Bush era – not the end of the conservative era.”
A lot of GOP pols and pundits are arguing that this election was a repudiation of the current Republican party – not of conservatives or their movement. But this election marked the end of a conservative era that began in 1980 . The question now is: What comes next? Democrats will need to be bolder, less risk-averse, and speak to people in ways that are relevant to their lives.
(Some of that may mean redefining centrism so that it is not the centrism of Beltway pollsters and pundits. Americans, after all, talk about wanting to be governed from the center – but it’s a different center – one that deals with issues that are at the center of their lives. One that seeks a politics that speaks to and includes affordable childcare and health care, quality public education, retirement security, a living wage, environmental protection, clean elections and a principled – not a messianic – foreign policy.)
Conservatism today stands for what? Certainly not the four pillars it used to stand on: less government; a strong defense; lower taxes and family values. Instead, we’ve had a crude and reckless foreign policy, an agenda of tax cutting for the richest among us, small government has sunk into an orgy of looting the Treasury by corporate cronies, and alliances with religious right have morphed into fanatical attacks on science and education and stem cell research.
Spin # 5: “Progressive bloggers are pushing the Democratic Party too far to the left.”
I don’t get it. If a large majority of country opposes war, isn’t it the centrist MSM types who are out of step with the mainstream of this country? And in more important ways, blogs are democratizing the public square – bringing in those who’ve been kept outside the political process for too long and challenging the old establishment matrix of pollsters and pundits.
Spin # 6: “The election system worked surprisingly well this time around.”
Much of the mainstream media in a semi-instant analysis proclaimed that the electoral system worked well this time. It’s true we didn’t see Florida 2000 or even Ohio 2004. But it’s just wrong to suggest the problems voters encountered on Election Day weren’t serious. There were problems that led to thousands of eligible Americans being denied the opportunity to cast votes. We need real, meaningful election reforms – from fixing flawed voting machines to districts that are rigged to be uncompetitive, to ending a system in which partisan secretaries of state decide who can vote and which votes will be counted to abolishing modern day Jim Crow laws and tactics that suppress the vote. Let’s do some democracy promotion at home!
This is a moment to celebrate. It’s the beginning of the beginning. A chance to reopen our political space and end the assault on our constitutional design. It’s a time to loosen the shackles on our political imagination – and work with determined idealism and grounded realism. It’s a time to build, or rebuild, a stronger and independent progressive movement in states and communities across this country. It’s a time to strengthen capacity, hone strategy and craft ideas.
I’m a great believer in what Studs Terkel said not long ago: “action engenders hope.” These are times for coordinated action and thinking – done with passion, moxie, savvy. And for an insider-outsider politics that supports political leaders at all levels who commit to a politics of principle and conviction – not one of contributions and connections.