I can't expect to live in a democracy if I'm not prepared to do the work of being a citizen.
This was my signature line for much of last year. Some of you admired it, for which I give you thanks. Others wondered where I got it. In fact, the above is the one thing I thank George W. Bush for: teaching me that lesson. I thank George Bush, and I thank you in this community for teaching me what I know of how to be a citizen.
Now, however, it seems time to offer up some of my own thoughts in repayment. I see cynicism and a sense of betrayal in the air here about a Democratic administration which hasn't yet begun -- an administration in which many of us take a proprietary interest out of long work, sacrifice, and the vulnerability that comes from hope. I understand these feelings well, but fear they are born of long disappointment and cynicism which are the other gifts George Bush has given us.
I offer some thoughts on where we are and where we might go from here below the fold. Please share yours too. I hope the conversation we have will help move the community forward at least a little.
During the Bush years the extremist Republican party did its best to rob the nation of everything it could and trash the rest. Prying its grasping hands away from the levers of power was the one great imperative of the era which closes on Tuesday. Electing more and -- when we could, better -- Democrats was our overarching job. Beginning the dismantling of its power structure in the media was our other great project. Finally we can enjoy our successes in our primary goal, though the secondary one is still far from realized. The progressive movement is not alone in accomplishing the victories of the past two years, but without our hard work and our willingness to tell the truth, to each other and to everyone else in our lives, those victories might never have occurred.
With our primary goal achieved we must now set new goals. With Democrats in the majority it is time to learn how to better advocate our views in the new political world. We share our big tent party with Blue Dogs, Corporatists, Washington Insiders and even moderate Republicans exiled from their own party. In order to make the Democrats in Congress and the White House represent us we must learn to play party politics. We must in short become Progressives and Liberals rather than merely Democrats. The time is at hand to make the Progressive movement an effective, powerful grassroots political machine. The question, of course, is How? Answering that question, I submit, should be the main preoccupation of this community in 2009.
What does a Progressive Movement need?
The Progressive Movement already has the essential ingredient for success: the American people agree with us. Poll after poll show broad support for progressive issues such as universal health care, more progressive tax policy, emphasis on diplomatic rather than military approaches to foreign affairs, reproductive choice, and unionization. Yet the propagandists continue to insist without evidence that this is a "center-right nation." They can do this because progressives are not organized to enforce public will on our politicians. It is they who are center-right, not us.
The progressive movement needs several basic structural features we currently lack:
- A limited, discrete set of political goals.
- An infrastructure which can exert pressure on government to meet our demands.
- A common language, so that we may communicate clearly with each other and the public at large.
- Prominent scalps, to instill fear -- or at least respect -- in the Beltway Aristocracy.
The conservative movement that grew up after Goldwater's defeat can teach us many tactical lessons in how to build our infrastructure. The Obama campaign showed what can be done with such an infrastructure, though its aims were to elect a president, not to build an issues-based political movement. Progressives are beginning to learn and adapt those lessons for our purposes. Adam Green unveiled a promising new electoral tool just last week here at Daily Kos.
We are weak in the areas of prioritizing our goals and coordinating our messages. What do we stand for? In short, everything and thus nothing. We must build an agenda with strategic and tactical sophistication, paring our goals down to a manageable few. Basing those goals on a small number of easily communicable values is also essential to success.
Framing our values and goals in compelling ways is also part of the process of selling our movement. When I first came to Daily Kos, after the 2004 election loss, George Lakoff had just been discovered and "framing" was the rage. But framing without a coherent set of values and goals to frame is putting the ads before the product: a fool's errand.
What does the progressive movement stand for? How do we make our power felt in government? Why should our opponents fear us? These are the questions we must learn to answer.
What is it to be a citizen?
In his speech in Baltimore today Barack Obama again reminded us that America has always been built by the efforts of its citizens. He called upon us, today, to respect that tradition and continue the work of our ancestors. He was right. He is teaching the same lesson Bush did, though in a positive rather than a negative way. We, here and elsewhere around the country, are responsible for the government we elect. It is our task in our day to fight the battle for democracy by seizing power back from the entrenched interests long used to calling the shots in Washington and state capitals.
What can we do? I'm no expert, but here are some lessons I've learned and can pass on.
- Put your congressfolk on speed dial. Learn the committees and subcommittees they serve on, and watch Congress Matters, the House and Senate websites for action on important legislation. Pass the word so others in your area can call too. Phone calls matter more than emails or faxes, from what I've heard from most congressfolk. Watch their websites or call their offices to find out when they appear in your community, and go meet them to let them know of your support and your views.
- Join at least one progressive organization. MoveOn, Democracy for America, and Adam Green's new Progressive Change Campaign Committee are examples of progressive organizations that can meet this need. Issues-based organizations are also helpful in connecting us with progressive action.
- Pick a progressive candidate (or several) to support. Money, time, phonebanking ... any of these can be very helpful to a candidate. Early support means the most, so start watching for someone to help late this year or early next. Remember who you've supported, because those who win office should hear from you when when important issues come up. (Remember speed dial.)
- Talk to friends, family, coworkers, and conservative blowhards. Gentle persuasion, confrontation, no matter the style: changing people's minds is retail politics of the highest order. Most people have their opinions handed to them by the corporate media but think those opinions are their own. Challenging the usual lies and phony assumptions of the media is the first step in converting people to our side. This is perhaps the most important thing we can do.
It is not the job of Barack Obama, Jeff Merkley, or even Russ Feingold to make what we want happen. They are politicians: creatures of a system built to balance competing interests. They have large constituencies which extend far beyond our own views and interests. They exist in a comprehensively corrupt and corrupting environment, and hold onto their ethics only against the greatest odds. Barack Obama keeps pleading with us to remain active in the political process, because without pressure from the grassroots that put him in the White House he will be unable to meet the goals he shares with us. The politicians we supported need our continued support. They also need our questioning, our criticism, continued reminders of our views, and the sight of our faces and the sound of our voices.
These are all questions too big for a single diary. They deserve much more conversation, debate, argument and strategizing. I hope this modest effort helps redirect our preoccupation with outrages du jour, insoluble arguments, and inevitable feelings of disappointment and betrayal. In a democracy it's up to us. It's always been up to us.
UPDATE: Thanks to brjzn, Barack Obama announces "Organizing for America." It is his effort to harness grassroots support in his presidency. This is much like what I'm talking about, but as I hope is clear, I feel we need to build an independent infrastructure apart from Obama's. Not to compete with his, but to maintain our independence.
UPDATE 2: Thanks to all who have read, commented, and especially disagreed with my take on this. Without vigorous conversation and debate this process will not move forward. To those who say I don't want us to criticize Obama, I say read the diary again: criticism of Obama is a very important part of exerting pressure as a movement. What I do object to is fatalistic cynicism that paralyzes any effort to effect real change. The greatest reason to love America is that our system gives us a chance, with hard work and smart strategizing, to make our voices heard.