Some thoughts for the new year.
Progressive Democrats need a five-year perspective to span an agenda for the Obama era, and because that is the likely time needed to get five rational votes on the Supreme Court.
Progressive Democrats for America (PDA), the organization and all who identify with it, should define itself as clearly as possible, for example, as building the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. That is different from being the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. It is also different from being a progressive forum, unless the forum is conceived as a conference and/or exchange only. Another vision might be that PDA is an advocacy and political arm of social movements. Maybe these possible identities can be blended; I am not the expert. But an organization’s effectiveness mostly depends on setting goals based on its true resource capacity. In a highly decentralized progressive culture, an organization can actually lose effectiveness if it becomes a debating society for every disaffected bearer of radical tidings.
Decide whether PDA wants to be an element, perhaps a radical element, of the rank-and-file movement that has elected Obama twice and will be central to pressuring for any progressive outcomes during the next five years. Or does PDA see itself as separate and somehow outside that rank-and-file movement? Note that I said “rank-and-file movement,” not any one organizational form that Obama people create.
The rank-and-file movement includes such mass organizations as the AFL-CIO, Immigrant Rights coalitions, NAACP, feminist groups, LGBT, DC-based Environmentalists, Brady/Giffords-type Gun Control, etc.
I have not listed the “peace movement” or “the Left” as core pillars of the rank-and-file. On the existing spectrum, these forces are underfunded, fragmented and tend to be ideologically skeptical toward Obama, the Democratic Party and electoral politics.
There has been a large peace movement, however, which grew outside the institutional channels against the Iraq War. While it was a pillar for the growth of PDA – and the Dean campaign and MoveOn – it has declined significantly in the past decade, though a model remains intact, one that PDA might want to sustain. Unlike the AFL-CIO or NAACP-type models, this was a distributed grass-roots network supporting the legislative objective of annual votes on funding cuts for Iraq and Afghanistan. Led on the inside by Reps Barbara Lee and/or Jim McGovern, sometimes by John Conyers or Dennis Kucinich, and lately by Jeff Merkeley, this network approach created both pressure and cover for the Obama administration’s withdrawals. In the background, of course, was the most critical factor of all, the existence of a “peace bloc” of voters who signaled their rising opposition to Iraq and Afghanistan in regularly measured surveys, to which politicians and their consultants paid attention.
The goal of ending US combat in these two wars was achieved, and PDA can be proud of having played a role. If public opinion had favored the wars, the US combat and occupations would have been continued.
Questions remain, however, about the model’s sustainability during the next five years, when the American casualties and costs of military occupation, and the public visibility of the US military profile, are sharply declining. The best opportunity may be for PDA to build opposition to the drone wars, the “Long War” policy, and the renewal of an imperial presidency may be by proposing a civilian and congressional voice in the war-making decisions now enclosed in an imperial presidency.
Unfortunately for the PDA electoral and congressional strategy, there has not been a single Congressional hearing on these issues during the past decade, not unless one includes the forum by Kucinich and Conyers as Kucinich was departing office. Nor has there been much interest in legislative strategies from the activists taking direct action on the ground. But the time is ripe. One sign of change is the January 13 op-ed on drones by Rep. Keith Ellison in the Washington Post. PDA might help rebuild the “peace bloc” by encouraging a focus on ending drone strikes and offering reforms to the 1973 War Powers Act.
The latent threat to this “turn toward peace” is the ever-present possibility of a war involving Israel and Iran, the broader Middle East, or in response to a “new 9/11” which could set our politics back another decade. In addition to whatever international solidarity work is going on (peace blocs in NATO countries, for example) PDA might play a useful role by engaging local Jewish federations and community groups in strategies to avoid of war with Iran and advance a Palestinian state through United Nations diplomacy.
Then there is the broader popular Left, from which many of us come, and we know there is always a hidden potential for thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of people to suddenly be mobilized into action when a particular crisis provokes them. We can only hope and push for another surge from these forces, such as with Occupy Wall Street or the 350.org movement.
We can and should belong to both camps. PDA, for example, is suited to promote or back Wall Street reform measures or anti-fracking legislation. PDA can encourage occasional campaigns by these outside forces such as the way CED helped to shut down Rancho Seco through a popular referendum back in the day. I have no simple answer, but PDA must find a way to locate itself in this Left spectrum where it will be most effective.
The most successful example of the hybrid (inside-outside) approach was the “healthcare, not warfare” campaign of the past several years, which involved a meaningful organizational alliance with National Nurses United (NNU), hundreds of “brown bag” vigils, organizer training in DC, and support for progressive candidates.
Whether the momentum on “Health Care/Not Warfare” can be sustained at the same level now that Obamacare has been upheld and the wars are winding down is a very important question. But the model is promising in other areas. It already has morphed into PDA support for the so-called Robin Hood Tax, a useful wedge into the political debates over Wall Street and the budget.
Further, local PDA networks might support “educate, not incarcerate” coalitions to shift funds away from repressive law-and-order programs to education, a debate that PDA thus far has not entered.
Another possibility for PDA is to take the lead in politically and legislatively demanding green jobs, energy efficiency, and alternatives to the climate crisis.
Yet another opportunity is for PDA to coalesce in state-level initiatives to regulate and tax marijuana as a revenue resource and an alternative to the costly, repressive global War on Drugs.
How can so many opportunities be seized without over-extension and diminishing returns? It’s possible, as I tried to argue in Ending the War in Iraq, only by a commitment to starting local chapters committed to membership-building and local coalitions, a function once played by progressive democratic clubs in the days before the online Internet-drive organizations came along. An effective example is the experience of the Wellstone Democratic Club in the Bay Area, which has a lively membership, hosts speakers on a range of topics, and practices endorsement procedures that attract the attention of numerous candidates. Such clubs are relevant not only because their endorsements carry weight with local voters but because current Democratic Party rules still allow for the election of local activists to state and national conventions, platform committees, etc. Though they cannot “take over” the Democratic Party, these local reformist forces are a source of volunteers and new issues party leaders often feel compelled to take up.
It was the Democratic club movement which fired the anti-war movement against Johnson and in favor of McCarthy and Kennedy, and the McGovern campaign four years later, propelling forward legislators like Dellums and Abzug and so many more, providing at last the political pressure that ended Vietnam and brought down Richard Nixon. A similar insurgency against Iraq and Bush led to the Obama campaign, to the efforts of Maxine Waters, Barbara Lee, Jim McGovern and Paul Wellstone, and eventually forced the end of the Iraq War. Similar reformists energy was infused in the party by Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and, in California, by the Campaign for Economic Democracy (CED). PDA should aspire to carry on those traditions and functions.
The Significance of ‘Nation Building at Home’
Going forward, based on where PDA has capacity, I would like to make a general observation on vision and strategy:
- The most important of Obama’s promises is to “do some nation-building here at home.” Recently he added this hint of his post-Afghanistan direction: “Create new jobs and boost family incomes. We have to fix our infrastructure and our immigration system. We have to protect our planet from the destructive effects of climate change – and protect our children from the horrors of gun violence."
- The only way to achieve such goals is through a democracy movement that increases the rights, the scale and the opportunities for more voters to participate in elections and make their voices heard. The electorate that supported Obama has to be protected against the combined forces of voter suppression and big money in politics.
The neo-conservative historian Michael Mandelbaum, who favors America being an armed “Goliath” across the world, has written of his fear that “democracy will favor butter over guns,” and that it will become “increasingly difficult for the foreign-policy elite to persuade the wider public to support all kinds of policies that, collectively, make up the American role as the world government.” Indeed! The lobbyists for being the policeman of the world never go away, but now they are deeply worried. Last week, for example, David Brooks warned that strong public support for Medicare is a “vise” that will destroy the budget for our military empire. Brooks writes:
“As the federal government becomes a health care state, there will have to be a generation of defense cuts that overwhelm anything in recent history…These spending cuts will transform America’s stature in the world, making us look a lot more like Europe today…This is why Adm. Mike Mullen called the national debt the country’s greatest security threat.”
There you have it, America must suffer greater austerity at home to support militarism abroad.
The point is that “healthcare, not warfare” is a threat to the elite’s status quo probably beyond anything PDA ever intended! Congratulations. Obama’s pledge to do “some nation-building here at home” is a similar threat whether the president understands it that way or not. Some of us have believed this since 1962 in Port Huron when we called for an emphasis on civil rights, anti-poverty, education and health care instead of the Cold War and Vietnam. Hopefully we are older, wiser and know what we are up against, including divide-and-conquer methods and always-predictable efforts to generate a politics of fear – of terrorism, or anything rather than old age or suffering.
A new America is being born, not simply out of the lessons of the Sixties or from the objective threats of profound climate change, but from the demographic and cultural diversity of the American people.
A democracy movement is needed to open the doors to this new majority and resist the anti-democratic backlash that already is underway.
The new demographic majority is the progressive competitive advantage and the conservative nightmare. But demography is not destiny, which is made with strategy and organization.
PDA should aim at bolstering the progressive base and expanding a coalition with the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC). As organizers and advocates, PDA cannot expect to set the agenda of the CPC, nor is PDA the only progressive organization to try to shape that agenda. But neither should PDA see itself only as volunteers doing supporting “errands” for the CPC (rounding up co-author signatures and votes, sending letters, supporting bills without having inputs, etc). With due respect for the power differences, the PDA strategy should be one combining partnership and pressure.
With its roots in Arizona and Rep. Raul Grijalva’s base constituency, PDA can make a difference on the front lines of what many call “the Mississippi of the immigration rights movement.” With Ellison in Minnesota, PDA can be on the front lines of the defense against the scapegoating of Islamic communities and drone attacks on those communities abroad. Hopefully, with Rep. Judy Chu, PDA can oppose the new cold war with China without China-bashing. With the entire CPC and organized labor, PDA can support student anti-sweatshop organizing and workers rights movements.
If the Dream Act regulations are codified in law and immigrant labor rights expanded, as many as three million new voters can be enrolled by the 2016 election.
In Massachusetts and with Jim McGovern, PDA can play a role in reviving and moving the peace movement forward.
In California PDA is positioned to push for new climate change initiatives, reinforcing the rising leadership coming from New York.
Everywhere it is organized, PDA can start or join referenda campaigns against Citizen United, demand the end of secret campaign donations fight voter suppression, and remove barriers to voter access for young people and people of color. The fight to expand the franchise is the primary path toward a progressive governing majority in state and national elections. It also is the primary way for uniting a fragmented Left, and for PDA to fulfill its mission to merge community organizing with political campaigning.