Each day, millions of frustrated Americans engage in discussions about how our country has gone off course and how ultraconservatives have taken over our government. As we put our hearts and souls into figuring out how to change the direction America is headed, these conversations grow in volume. Yet, because we feel so much anxiety about all that’s happened to our country since 9/11, we don’t yet recognize our strength.
Some of us have been discouraged by the increasingly conservative tone of the corporate media, which tries to marginalize other voices in American life. We feel alarmed at the way our government ratchets up the fear quotient across America. At these moments, we can’t forget that the things we believe in — equality, fairness, justice, dignity, and ultimately kindness and love — inspired the greatest moral and political achievements of the 20th century: civil rights, women’s equality, workers’ right to organize, and the growth of the environmental movement. These are values that make our society strong and appealing to the rest of the world.
The millions of us who want to chart a different course for America must reclaim our power as citizens and overcome our doubts and fears — as well as the bad habits that have lessened our political effectiveness through the years. We need to come across as proud and joyful, not just angry and defensive. While honoring the diversity of our identities and ideas, all of us — liberals, radicals, moderates and even conscientious conservatives — must be united to fight for regime change at home. This is not just to prevent more bloodshed, empire building, and cruel policies, but to protect virtually all the progress we’ve made over the past 80 years in civil rights, civil liberties, environmentalism, women’s rights, workers’ rights, and much more. By focusing on what we have in common — the clear-cut goal of defeating the Bush administration and congressional right-wingers in 2004 — we can all succeed. How important is this? It feels more important than anything we will do for a very long time.
Don’t trust anyone who tells you it’s a cinch to win back Washington in the next elections. But, more importantly, don’t believe anyone who says it’s hopeless. It won’t be easy. It will take a lot of work, starting right now. But we can do it. Here are my thoughts on how we can make it happen.
#1: Recognize Our Strengths
Social critic Colin Greer reminds us that Martin Luther King Jr.’s work evolved from marching for civil rights to advocating for poor people of all colors and speaking out for peace in Vietnam. Greer adds that millions of Americans are already inspired by the progressive values articulated by environmentalists and social justice activists, health care and public education advocates, volunteers at food banks and women’s shelters, people working to improve their neighborhoods and towns. Getting involved with these causes, even in a small way, inevitably connects people with other social and progressive movements .
Progressives are potentially stronger now in American politics than at any time in the past 30 years. New Web-linked groups like the fast-growing True Majority (www.truemajority.com) and Move On (www.moveon.org), with its more than 2 million members, have proven significant capacity to motivate new people. And we must remember we are not alone. Millions of marchers filled streets all over the planet this year. Most of the world is with us — and it’s about more than the war in Iraq. It’s an unprecedented movement for sanity, human values, and the future. Doris “Granny D” Haddock, who a few years ago at age 90 walked across the country to promote campaign finance reform, recently reminded us of something profound. During last winter’s peace marches, despite the angry speeches and the impending bloodshed, she said, “The people in the marches were joyful. Did you notice that? Did you feel it yourself? The best smiles I’ve seen in years.” She went on to say, “Is it not indeed joyful to embark on a life of great meaning?”
#2: Acknowledge What We Are Powerless to Change
We can’t change the fact that September 11 happened and fundamentally transformed the nature of American politics. We need to face the reality that we never stood a chance of stopping the war in Iraq. The rules of politics have changed. Peace activists were playing by the old rules, advocating for inspections and global cooperation. But the Bush administration showed in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as its homeland security and economic policies, that politics is now about raw power, and we need to exercise our own power to defeat them in 2004.
If we want to succeed, we must recognize that facts and issues alone will not win elections. Forty percent of the U.S. population now accepts virtually anything that Bush and Co. say. They are the religious fundamentalists. They are the wealthy conservatives who will pump $500 million into the Bush reelection campaign and more into right-wing organizations and think tanks to aid the cause. They are the millions of fearful people who get most of their information from television and see the modern world as a perilous place that can be made safe only by brute force. It’s not easy to write off 100 million people. In our own idealistic way, we progressives think everyone can change.
Still, the things we can’t change don’t matter nearly as much as what we can change, by educating, mobilizing, motivating, sacrificing, sharing, and setting good examples. We can use plain old people power to rise up and restore balance to our country. We have the votes, we have the strategies, and we have the vision for a better world. We need the confidence, the discipline, and the smarts to pull it off.
#3: Communicate Our Vision
To make a difference in American society, we need to bring millions of undecided voters over to our side. We can do this if we articulate a positive vision of the future. Most Americans like to be on the winning team, so we need winning ideas and leaders who can carry our message forward. Merely attacking conservatives and their failed policies doesn’t help. This actually reinforces the image that we don’t stand for anything positive. We need to articulate our own clear, bold, optimistic message. Progressives can offer a vision that draws on the deep history and powerful stories of people working together to make this country strong, to protect ourselves and one another, to care about the health and safety of all Americans.
#4: Confront Our Weaknesses
Now, let’s be honest about ourselves. Many populist and progressive movements suffer from a compulsion to repeat the same strategies, no matter how many times they fail. Moving forward requires acknowledging what doesn’t serve us. Single-issue politics, particularly, has been the Achilles’ heel of progressive politics. Conservatives understand that individual issues need to be linked to an overall moral and ethical perspective. As University of California linguist George Lakoff explains in his groundbreaking book Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, “They fit the issues together, develop conservative value-based language, and then highjack American virtues like freedom and compassion and give them conservative definitions. . . . Progressives in contrast are hampered by the plethora of issues, rather than the overarching value perspective.”
The long-standing leftist approach of “letting a thousands flowers bloom” has not added up. Battles on hundreds of fronts, competing for attention and funding, will not bring us political power. Too many voices often cancel each other out, and the confusing cacophony drives many people away.
#5: Be Realistic
Diving into electoral politics, for many progressive activists, will be a big change. Many of us have viewed party politics as tainted, trivial, or hopelessly uncool. Single-issue campaigns offered a measure of purity, shielding us from the ambiguity, corruption, and tough compromises of real-world politics. But alas, despite its enormous flaws, the dirty arena of elections and legislation is where change, for better or worse, is made.
Jonathan Schell, author of the peace movement classic The Fate of the Earth, says, “Rejecting elections . . . is like an admission of defeat. It’s very bad to admit defeat when you’re in a movement.”
Finally, progressives need to take another look at how think tanks and foundations can influence the public’s thinking about politics. Pat Robertson and other right-wing organizations have engaged in outrageously partisan campaigns while maintaining their status as tax-exempt foundations. Still, many liberal foundations remain gun-shy about aggressive public education efforts.
#6: Stop Squabbling and Make Amends
You may have heard the joke: How do progressives form a firing squad? Answer: They gather in a circle.
Enough! Or, as longtime progressive leader and communications whiz Dan Carol says, “Kumbaya, dammit. There are ways to stand for principles without fighting over crumbs. Start with everyone sharing their vision of what they want and need . . . and check your passive aggressiveness at the door. Let’s not forget that the perfect is the enemy of the good.”
It is time to declare amnesty. Let’s stop worrying if someone doesn’t agree with us on every issue, or if we stood on opposite sides of a debate years ago. If the new black majority in South Africa can initiate a reconciliation process with former white supremacists, why not American progressives? Let’s bury the hatchet on squabbles, old and new, and join together to collaborate on a common vision for America.
#7: Think Strategically
Make no mistake; progressives are not yet a majority. Clinton won the 1992 presidential race with 43 percent of the vote (with Perot in the race against George Bush). Progressive-leaning Democrats and right-lurching Republicans both hover around 40 percent of the electorate. To win the next election, we need to reach the remaining 20 percent of swing voters. We now need to start thinking about how to win a couple of the red states Bush won in 2000 while hanging on to the blue states Gore won. If you live in a swing state, get to work; if you don’t live in a swing state, start talking to all your friends and relatives who do. If idealistic young people can travel to Iraq and Palestine, why not to St. Louis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, or Tampa?
The Blues: Al Gore won 10 states by less than 6 percent: Florida (which, of course, he really won); New Mexico, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Oregon (all by less than 1 percent); Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Maine, and Washington.
The Reds: George W. Bush won eight states by less than 6.5 percent (not counting Florida): New Hampshire (which he won by only 7,200 votes), Ohio, Nevada, Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas, Arizona, and West Virginia.
#8: Acknowledge People’s Fears
Fear is the subtext of American politics. The Republicans know that fearful people tend to vote conservative, so generating and exploiting fear is high on their agenda. Expect every kind of Republican surprise over the next 15 months: Code Reds, preemptive invasions of other “dangerous” countries, reports of violent crime waves or disease outbreaks.
Generating fear of “the other” is a staple of Republican politics. In counteracting this strategy we must be careful to acknowledge that fear is on people’s minds and not trivialize or deny it. The antidote to fear is joy and courage. It is mutual support and community protection and a clear, forthright policy on national security. Progressive values are about protecting our families and our communities, making our lives safe and fulfilling. But this does not have to mean, as the Bush administration insists, trading freedom for security.
#9: Embrace Diversity on Many Levels
Diversity is a fundamental progressive value, just like fairness and protection of families. The mix of our skills, talents, experiences, histories, and ethnic backgrounds makes us much more than the sum of our parts. It equips us with a powerful tool to understand the concerns and connect with the hopes of a majority of Americans, in contrast to rigid and homogenous characteristics of the political right.
But we learned from last year’s elections that ignoring the vast diversity of the progressive base and catering to issues that chiefly interest the white middle-class will lose elections. Minority voters stayed home in droves in 2002 and progressive leaders lost heartbreaking defeats around the country. We may hope that was the aberration, and the powerful voter registering and organizing work that was done in Florida (which won that state for Gore, until the Supreme Court decided otherwise) will be a model for the whole country. African Americans were far ahead of other groups in opposing the invasion of Iraq, and the rapidly growing Latino population is very concerned about the impact of soaring military budgets and tax cuts on services their communities desperately need. Minority communities represent the strongest element in the quest for regime change. It is crucial that diversity issues be addressed at the start of all planning for 2004 efforts, and not as an afterthought.
#10: Create an Independent Political Force
All the Democratic candidates are superior to George W. Bush, even Joe Lieberman, the guy progressives love to hate. So to help us win in 2004, how about organizing a progressive electoral movement that becomes a force in the election by not backing one of the candidates in the Democratic primaries? Instead it will raise money, develop an army of campaign workers nationwide, and effectively target key swing states. This movement, let’s call it the Independent Force, could earn credibility by working hard while the primaries are under way, building an infrastructure that is ready to roll in August on behalf of whomever the Democrats nominate. Many of us, of course, will support candidates that most appeal to us. But this independent force can help prevent next spring’s primaries from turning into a bloodbath from which all the candidates emerge weakened. No matter who gets nominated, we need to get the Democrat ticket elected.
#11: Use and Promote Independent Media
The Republican-controlled FCC is pushing measures to make the American media more concentrated, more corporate, and, ultimately, more conservative. We’ll see the further emergence of power brokers like Clear Channel, which already owns more than 1,200 radio stations and is infamous for dumbing down radio, and organizing pro-war rallies.
But even before the recent FCC decision, the “Fox effect” pushed news coverage to the right. Rupert Murdoch’s pending purchase of Direct TV exponentially increases the power of conservative media moguls. You don’t have to be a confirmed cynic to see that the corporate media are likely to get worse in the immediate future.
And we don’t have time to wait for the mainstream media to turn around. Sure, we should vocally keep tabs on them as much as possible, realizing that media corporations must maintain a semblance of objectivity to be credible enough to make their profits. But more importantly, we need to use our own independent media system, which, with the help of the Internet, has grown tremendously, has risen in quality, and reaches many more people than ever before. Growing numbers of up-to-the-minute Web sites (including AlterNet.org, where I work), feisty magazines, alternative weeklies, activist newsletters, and all the rest of the independent media are powerful information sources. Added up, the independent media often do much more than the corporate media in presenting details and diversity of what’s happening in America and around the world.
Many of us have become “connectors,” zipping the best ideas, analysis, and personal voices around the Web so we all know what Robert Scheer, Arianna Huffington, Molly Ivins, Arundhati Roy, Amy Goodman, and numerous others are writing, thinking, and saying. Worldlink TV and Free Speech TV, our only progressive TV networks, are improving every day. When outspoken investigative reporter Greg Palast was asked how his current “alternative” book became a best-seller, he told the interviewer the alternative press needs to change its name: “It reaches more people than the mainstream.”
#12: Make a Commitment
Activist Harriet Barlow has started talking to friends about the “5 percent” solution. If you are really serious about defeating Bush, she says, commit 5 percent of your income and 5 percent of your time to the cause, more if you can afford it. And start now. Many others are in tune with Barlow. Dedicate a portion of your time to what will be the most important election of our lives.
One thing we need to do is get together and talk about what’s at stake and give each other encouragement. Regime Change house parties, salons, and picnics can become the rage. Progressive leaders travel all the time and are aching for invitations — give them a call, especially if you are in a swing state. Plan on launching an exchange of ideas and information, not just hosting a speech. We need more interaction and voices, fewer speeches.
Many organizations with people on the ground, such as ACORN (www.acorn.org), NAACP (www.naacp.org), Greenpeace (www.greenpeace.org), League of Conservation Voters (www.lcv.org), Rock the Vote (www.rockthevote.org), and Win Without War (www.winwithoutwarus.org) and their affiliates will have local efforts going across the country. Check out their Web sites, volunteer, send them money if you can. Tom Paine.com, True Majority, and Peace Action have organized a campaign to register voters for peace, and the Swing State Project is recruiting volunteers nationwide now. Working for Change (www.workingforchange.com) is one of the best places on the Web to read about and take part in political actions. Get on their list.
It is good to remember that social change often is not a linear progression. Dramatic events can short-circuit everything we think we know — 9/11 of course, but also the fall of the Berlin Wall, the victory over apartheid, the feminist and environmentalist revolutions all took the political world by surprise.
But nothing takes the place of political organizing. Without that, even a lucky break cannot be capitalized upon. Now is the time to dedicate ourselves to the task ahead fully, without ambivalence, minimizing squabbling, knowing we must prevail. The future of our families, our neighborhoods, and our globe is in our hands.
Don Hazen is executive director of the Independent Media Institute (IMI). This article was written independently of AlterNet.org. The opinions expressed in this article in no way reflect the positions of IMI or AlterNet.