June 02, 2005,
What is the most urgent priority for today's "progressive" movement?
Walk around "Take Back America," the Washington conference put on by the liberal organizing group Campaign for America's Future, and you'll hear lots of answers.
We need media reform.
No, we need election reform.
No, we need a better way to frame our message.
No, we need to stop Wal-Mart.
No...well, the list goes on. But perhaps the number-one concern for progressives, according to one questioner at a press briefing after the conference's opening session, involves a much more basic problem. "We need to stop being so polite," she said. "Liberals are congenitally polite and reasonable and rational." The speaker went on to explain that those traits, while appealing, make it simply impossible for liberals to effectively counter the harshness of right-wing attacks.
To be fair, much of the self-criticism at "Take Back America" was a bit more searching than that. Eli Pariser, head of MoveOn.org's political-action committee, chided Democrats for relying too heavily on rich donors and growing out of touch with ordinary people. (MoveOn raised millions from small contributors on the Internet, to go with the millions donated by George Soros, Peter Lewis, and others.) Pariser became nearly indignant when discussing the votes of some moderate Democrats on Capitol Hill. "No Democrat should have voted for that bankruptcy bill," he said. "Not one!"
Former Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile got in her shots at the Bush administration she referred to it as "Dick Cheney and the rest of those creeps" but also aimed a number of diplomatic criticisms at the politicians in her own party who took part in the recent Senate filibuster compromise. At least a few Democrats, she said, no longer deserved to be in office. "Some of our progressive friends lose their way and forget why they're up on Capitol Hill," Brazile told the audience. "We may have to run you [for office]."
That's the difference a year makes. At the 2004 "Take Back America" conference, held in the midst of a passionately fought campaign, no one was taking public shots, veiled or otherwise, at Democrats. There was just too much at stake to wander off the reservation. But now that campaign is over, and the next one is not quite underway, so the people at the conference can afford to be a little less guarded when talking about their side's problems.
But not totally unguarded. While Pariser and Brazile made a few pointed comments, much of the criticism of Democrats, and of "progressives" in general, heard at the conference was of the "there's nothing wrong with our message, it's just that we haven't communicated it effectively" variety. Indeed, a significant part of the conference's schedule of speakers is devoted to that single seductive idea. Scheduled appearances by Democratic message guru George Lakoff, What's the Matter with Kansas? author Thomas Frank, and right-wing hit-man turned left-wing hit-man David Brock will all deal with the so-called message problem.
Lakoff's panel discussion, a primer for Democrats, is entitled "Talking American."
Another theme of the conference is the belief that the American people are desperately unhappy with George W. Bush and the state of the nation. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake presented the results of focus group studies in which participants were asked to describe their feelings about the condition of the country today. "They used words like 'disappointed,' 'doubtful,' 'concerned,' and 'shitty' in describing their sentiments," Lake said. Perhaps in keeping with that last description, Lake recommended seriously that Democrats adopt political slogans like "It's time to clean out the stables."
Lake also said that her research showed that Democrats should not be afraid to use the "Two Americas" rhetoric that failed to win even the Democratic nomination for former Sen. John Edwards. "Voters are not afraid of a class-based 'Two Americas' message," Lake said. She also recommended that Democrats use the focus-group-tested phrase "family stress relief" to describe their programs. Look for that soon from the Democratic caucus.
Finally, with the campaign pressures off, the organizers of the conference appear to be more willing to publicly address what might be called their diversity problem. As it has been in the past, most nearly all of "Take Back America" attendees are white. Last year, Robert Borosage, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, said that was simply the result of scheduling conflicts, that many potential minority attendees were busy at other events. But this year, after Los Angeles mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa told the crowd, "You look at this room today, and you don't see the kind of diversity we need to build a strong movement in America," Borosage openly discussed the conference's rather overwhelming whiteness.
"The obvious shortcoming in the conference is that the diversity of the panels is not reflected in the diversity of the audience," Borosage told a news conference after the opening speeches. Changing that situation will be "the lead project that we undertake next year," Borosage said, promising that the 2006 conference "will look very different" from today's.
Borosage might also have said that in addition to a lack of racial diversity, the conference also featured a large number of attendees who could be described as being of a certain age. In fact, one speaker at the dinner that capped off the conference's first day began his talk by saying, "This is quite a moment for me to see so many men in ties and women in dresses. We must be on some way station between SDS and AARP."
The joke got a brief and not-terribly-enthusiastic laugh; even activists proud of their radical past did not like being so pointedly reminded that they were getting on. But the past made another appearance just a few moments later, when a small wave of nostalgia washed over the room as an organizer for the radical group ACORN, at the dinner to accept the "Paul Wellstone Citizen Leadership Award," began to chant from the stage: THE PEOPLE UNITED WILL NEVER BE DEFEATED!
At first a few members of the crowd joined in. And then more. And more.
THE PEOPLE UNITED WILL NEVER BE DEFEATED!
THE PEOPLE UNITED WILL NEVER BE DEFEATED!
Talking American, indeed.
Byron York, NR's White House correspondent, is the author of the new book The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President and Why They'll Try Even Harder Next Time.