Wednesday, January 05, 2011

What US Progressives Dared to Dream Just Six Years Ago

American progressives, Democrat and Republican, really believed their country was on the brink of reformation prior to the 2004 elections.  They thought their nation could soon be put back on an even keel.  That was clear from an article published in the August, 2004 edition of Harper's, """  Liberalism Revived."

The article presented a forum discussion with progressives Ron D. Daniels, Eric Foner, Ralph Nader, Kevin Phillips, Frances Fox Piven and Harper's editor Lewis Lapham.   It's much too long to transcript in a blog entry but I thought you might appreciate a few excerpts from the progressive viewpoint of 2004.

Nader:  Robert Frost once defined a liberal as someone who has trouble arguing his own case.  If you look at the history of our country, the major justice movements have been colored liberal, and their opponents have been colored conservative.  Social Security, trade unions, slavery, and so on.  But the Democrats never talk about their victories.

Daniels:  Instead the word "  liberal' is a word that the Democrats distance themselves from.  They avoid it as if it were the plague.

Phillips:  ...Democrats have been anaesthetized by campain contributions.  And I should add that they have been anesthetized cheaply.  During the last twenty or twenty-five years, the Republicans have been able to take money for granted, but the democrats know they need to get it, and so they've become willing to soften their language and back away from their convictions.  Their neediness cripples them...The Republicans have so many weaknesses that the Democrats can't exploit, because they have taken a second, smaller helping from the same trough.  What hands you a political opportunity in the United States is when something goes very wrong for the people who have power.  Today the Republicans are in trouble, and the main thing they have to keep them from imploding is that the Democrats are not much better.

Piven:  ...We should talk about reclaiming democracy by reducing corporate power and reducing inequality, especially the inequalities that affect working people and poor people.

Nader:  The impassioned political argument in American society today should be the one over the sovereignty of corporations and their entrenchment into every institutional system.  The giant multinational corporations set the parpameters and the paradigms.  They get into kids' minds at age two, or three, or four.  Every day another frontier falls to commerical intrusion.  And when that happens, we begin to lose our sovereignty.  We slowly lose the structure we have developed to defend the people, which is our national government.

Daniels:  We need to talk to one another and put together a methodical, relentless message.  When we go on the various talk shows, the people from the right are always better prepared.  We're there trying to improvise in the moment, because our think tanks haven't prepared us to put the right message on the table.

Phillips (on building a progressive majority):  Obviously you would need a party standing for something that these people don't see either party as standing for anymore.  The non-voters who could be swayed are, I would venture to say, people who today would say - rightly - that there is no longer a party of Roosevelt or Truman.

Foner:  ...some of the progressive issues mentioned here wouldn't attract anywhere near a majority of Americans today.  But we have to put those issues out on the table.  To insist on a living wage or to demand international justice is not going to win an electoral majority yet, but that doesn't mean it's any less important to stage the protests.  If you can change the nature of the public discourse, then the politics will follow.   ...You don't start off as if you're running for office and say, we can't get elected on these issues and therefore we had better compromise immediately.

...Specific crises, whether the slavery issue in the 1850s or the economic crisis of the Great Depression, shatter the boundaries of political dialogue, but there is always a long period of ideological gestation.  The abolitionists were not a very large group, but they had a tremendous impact in changing northern opinion about slavery, long before that change was reflected in politics.  So one of the things that progressives need to concentrate on, I think, is the formulation of a new set of perspectives, rather than simply worrying about the next election.

There was a great deal of hope in these voices back in 2004 but I wonder how differently they would see America today.  Their message, however, even if no longer palatable to 21st century Democrats in a "bought and paid for" Congress, remains relevant to today's Liberals who are often losing the same battles for the very same reasons.  Progressivism is the beating heart of a strong democracy.  It's time the Liberals reminded themselves of that.

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