To seize the initiative in the struggle to reverse the prominence and dominance of the conservatives, a liberal/progressive counter-offensive must capture and hold the attention of the nation. In an age where the media is the message, to gain national notice, liberals/progressives need a significant gathering, a happening, an event that will garner significant and sustained mainstream media coverage. Now that the 2012 election season is underway, I believe the time is ripe to inject a third political convention onto the political playing field as a focal point of national deliberation on the policy priorities and direction of the nation. Therefore, I am proposing the convening of a Progressive National Convention (PNC) prior to the Democratic and Republican National Conventions.
With the right cast of participants and proper marketing, PNC could be the event that commands media attention and conveys the liberal/progressive message to a mass audience nationwide. Accordingly, to be successful the who's who among liberals and progressives should sign-on to play various roles in PNC – luminaries like Paul Krugman, Arianna Huffington, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Congresswoman Donna Edwards, Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, Robert Reich, Katrina Vanden Heuval, Rev. Al Sharpton, Rachel Maddow, Ed Shultz, Congressman Bernie Sanders, Bakari Kitwana, Congressman John Conyers, Danny Glover, Harry Belafonte, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Bill Maher, Cornel West, Richard Trumka, Van Jones, Dr. Julianne Malveaux, Laura Flanders, Congressman Keith Ellison, Amy Goodman, Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, Tavis Smiley, Congressman Michael Honda, Congressman Louis Gutierrez, Randi Weingarten, Jon Stewart, Congressman Raul Grijalva, Keith Olbermann, Congresswoman Nydia Valazquez, Mark Lamont Hill, Mary Kay Hentry. PNC should be marketed as the most significant gathering of liberals/progressives of our time.
Liberals/progressives would utilize the stage of PNC to offer an assessment of the "state of the nation" as reflected by social indicators on the status of workers, the middle class, people of color minorities and the poor. The question to be addressed is how are the majority of Americans faring, "the many," in the wake of the "Great Recession" precipitated by the reckless and reprehensible behavior of "the few," the corporate and financial elites on Wall Street. PNC would afford an opportunity for liberals/progressives to advocate for an inclusive, expansive democracy which provides ready access to and encourages participation in the electoral political process by everyone in our society. And, of paramount importance, especially in this period, liberals/progressives could vigorously articulate the vision, values and broad contours of a "socially responsible economy" which ensures economic justice and security for all. PNC should adopt a three to five point "popular" platform of policy priorities for the 2012 election. Finally, liberals/progressives should unfold a plan and strategy to influence the proceedings of the Democratic National Convention (it is not likely that Republican/conservatives can be budged at this point), to impact the outcome of the 2012 election and create a mechanism to function as an independent force to advocate and advance policies for progressive change beyond the election.
In composite, the principal goal is to draw a sharp contrast to the vision, values, priorities, policies and history of the conservatives. The objective is to assist the majority, the many, within the American electorate to understand on whose side they should stand in the 2012 election and beyond in terms of extricating the nation from the current economic abyss and building a better future. This should involve a clear expose of efforts to limit voter participation in past elections and the anti-democratic nature of current schemes being advanced by conservatives to restrict the franchise, e.g., requiring specific forms of identification to vote and efforts to repeal voting by mail that has made casting a ballot easier in a number of states. Moreover, denying the franchise to formerly incarcerated persons who have completed their sentences is a form of double jeopardy, depriving them of their most basic right as Americans, the right to vote. This injustice must be corrected.
The U.S. has the lowest level of voter participation of any western democracy. The large number of non-voters is an embarrassment and national disgrace that one would think would be addressed by bipartisan initiatives to encourage rather than discourage voter participation. This is not the case. Taken collectively, the net effect of the restrictive voting measures initiated by conservatives is to constrict rather than expand participation in the electoral process. These measures are advanced out of fear that if properly motivated and mobilized the majority will side with liberals/progressives to the detriment of conservatives, thereby constraining their capacity to effectively advance and protect the interests of the few. Liberals/progressives must be on the offensive, not only exposing the reactionary, anti-democratic character of restrictive measures proposed by conservatives, but promoting reforms designed to dramatically expand voter participation, e.g., election holidays, same day on-site registration, cumulative voting, instant run-off voting, permanent registration, proportional representation, fusion. Liberals/progressives must demand that the voices of the people, the majority, be heard as a check/counter against the machinations of the few!
"I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a 'thing oriented' society to a 'person oriented' society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."
These words from Dr. Martin Luther King's 1968 speech at the Riverside Church in New York should serve as a framework for the vision and values of the liberal/progressive view of a socially responsible economy. At the core of the "revolution of values" that King so persuasively enunciated is the idea that we must be committed to a system which addresses the concerns, the interests and aspirations of people as the first and ultimate priority. While profit is obviously acceptable within America's capitalist political-economy, it cannot take precedent over the safety, health and well being of people. If King were alive today, most assuredly he would extend this proposition to the earth/environment. This people over profit/property proposition is in direct contrast and contradiction to the conservative mantra that market forces are the end all and be all for ensuring the well being of all. Conservatives don't believe there is a problem that profit-seekers in the private sector cannot solve. In reality, time and time again liberal/progressive forces have had to advocate for and enact legislation and regulations to restrain the greed driven, avaricious behavior of corporate/business and financial interests, willing to exploit the marketplace to maximize profits despite the adverse impact on people. Wall Street has always bristled at government regulations to restrain its behavior.
Contrary to the Tea Party and conservative pretense, the Great Recession was not caused by "big government" but big business and financial institutions run amok. Hence, there should have been huge "Tea Party" demonstrations on Wall Street instead of angry denunciations of President Obama and the government for adopting policies to halt the free fall of the economy. To a degree, the misguided perceptions and actions of Tea Party Patriots were the result of the failure of liberals/progressives to relentlessly remind the American people of the real culprits who caused the near catastrophic collapse of the economy. While conservatives are once again shamelessly attempting to loosen regulations on Wall Street and punish workers for the deficit crisis prompted by their behavior, liberals/progressives must courageously fight for a socially responsible economy which rests on people and earth centered values, principles and priorities that hold Wall Street accountable for its behavior. We must emphatically make the case that the fate of workers, the middle class, people of color minorities and the poor is more important than the crass fortunes of the few!
This notion of a socially responsible economy or something akin to it must form the foundation for a three to five point popular platform that liberals/progressives advance in the stretch drive of the 2012 election season. While a case can be made for a comprehensive platform that covers issues and concerns in a variety of areas, since "it's the economy stupid" which is legitimately causing great anxiety in the wake of the Great Recession, it would be wise to avoid presenting a long litany of progressive proposals to the electorate. The organizers/conveners of PNC should present a theme and platform focused on what matters most to the majority at this critical moment in history – jobs and economic security. And, this theme and platform should challenge head-on the conservative assertion that debt and deficit reduction and extending tax breaks for the wealthy is the formula for reviving a stalled economy. Liberals/progressives must articulate and explain proposals that mobilize public opinion in support of programs that put the unemployed back to work now.
It is not that liberals/progressives should dismiss the long term danger of out of control deficits and debt, rather it is that the first priority is to act boldly to alleviate the pain of the millions of unemployed. And, we must repeatedly make the case that people with jobs are consumers who pay taxes. Reducing unemployment/joblessness is a stimulant that will contribute to reducing the deficit and debt. In that regard, whatever other measures progressive economists put forth, it is my view that the idea of funding at least one million public sector jobs should be on the table. Liberals/progressives must re-introduce and defend the idea that government can act directly to alleviate joblessness in times of economic disaster like the Great Recession. The values, principles that formed the underpinnings of the New Deal are not dead. We must unapologetically revive and update them to be relevant and useful in our time.
We must make the case for an end to the obscene expenditures on wars and "nation-building" abroad and call for reductions in military/defense spending. At the end of the day there can be no "national security" without "economic security" for the majority of workers, the middle class and the poor. Therefore, a rational national defense must include defense against unemployment/joblessness, defense against poverty, defense against mortgage foreclosures and defense against crumbling infrastructure, decaying inner-cities and alarming climate change. Economic security for families and rebuilding America is a moral and political imperative! This is the message which the theme and platform of liberals/progressives who gather at PNC should convey to the American people – a message which will compel Republicans/conservatives and Democrats to act to create jobs, foster economic security and rebuild America as the first priority.
Finally, while being broad in scope, within the framework of jobs and economic security, the platform should include provisions that are of crucial importance to key constituencies within the progressive coalition: There is no more important equalizer in our society than organized labor. Study after study has shown (as well as comparative data from other western industrialized nations) that as labor goes so goes the quality of life for workers, the middle class and the poor. With labor under ferocious attack by conservative forces, educating the electorate on and mobilizing support for the Employee Free Choice Act is absolutely essential. The depression levels of unemployment and economic deterioration in urban-inner city Black communities should be viewed as a State of Emergency. But, the conservative assault on "race-based remedies" has been so effective that politicians lack the courage to consciously and directly address this horrific problem. The liberal/progressive platform should heed the urgent appeal of African American leaders and advocate for targeted jobs and economic initiatives to end the decades of neglect that has produced marginalized neighborhoods in a nation of plenty.
Liberals/progressives must also address the vital issue of immigration policy reform as a matter of economic security. While this is largely seen as a Hispanic issue, we must advance a formulation which provides an equitable opportunity for millions of undocumented workers of all races and ethnicities to come out of the shadows and secure their place as citizens in this country. With a jobs/economic security theme and platform broad enough to appeal to all sectors of the American electorate, and specific enough to motivate crucial constituencies, progressives will be well positioned to build an irresistible force for change!
At the PNC plans should be outlined for mass-based activities to carry the theme/platform/ message to the electorate as part of the counter-offensive to repulse the conservative tide which, if allowed to go unchecked, will sweep Republicans into the White House and control of both houses of Congress. For all their shortcomings, Obama and the Democrats are a far better choice than conservatives/reactionaries who are hell bent on decimating the culture of rights for the majority and placing the reins of power firmly in the hands of the elites on Wall Street. Though the vision and values of the America we seek to build will be beyond the defensive, incremental agenda offered by Obama and the Democrats, tactically we must mobilize to support the Democrats even as we commit to a more transformative politics for the future.
To succeed in this tactical objective, liberals/progressives must not equivocate or waste time recounting what could have been or should have been, we must pursue the task of repulsing the conservative tide with conviction, passion and determination. Accordingly, as I suggested in an article last year, consideration might be given to launching a Rainbow Express, a caravan of high profile liberal/progressive leaders that would crisscross the nation following a designated route of targeted districts. Such a caravan would maintain the momentum generated by PNC and continue to attract local and national media as a means of getting the message to the people. In addition, what if liberal/progressive luminaries, media personalities, organizations, constituencies and activists could forge a united front to mobilize a million people to rally in Washington on the eve of the election to demand jobs for the unemployed and economic security for workers, the middle class, people of color minorities and the poor?
These demonstrations of strength are possible if we connect new and old school organizing strategies. Personally, I believe there is no substitute for door to door, person to person, face to face organizing to touch people and convince them of the righteousness of a cause. Now more than ever, when so many people seem dispirited, disillusioned and disinclined to become engaged, we must utilize social media to recruit an army of volunteers willing to pound the pavement to touch, motivate and mobilize/organize the unorganized to fill the streets and march on ballot boxes for what might be one of the most pivotal elections in the history of this nation. Irrespective of whether the ideas I have suggested are adopted, the key point is there should be a coordinated campaign that carries the message and mobilizes voters right up to election day.
Having achieved the intended outcome from the 2012 election, it would be unfortunate if liberals/progressives did not create an independent mechanism to be a force to be reckoned with on the left. This is the role the National Rainbow Coalition could have played had it not been demobilized. What is required is not new. Based on the notion of an inside/outside strategy, liberals/progressives need a mechanism on the left that will consistently advance and educate the American electorate about progressive policy proposals for shaping a better future; mobilize mass actions and advocacy campaigns to press for the adoption of policy proposals at the local, state and national level; and, support liberal/progressive candidates where circumstances dictate a probability of success.
The bottom line is that liberals/progressives must move beyond an almost infantile posture of merely criticizing the flaws and failings of the Democrats to creating a mechanism and force that can positively impact the national discourse and influence the outcome of elections. What the Tea Party Patriot Movement has illustrated is that effective messaging and organizing trumps critiques that are devoid of consequences. For example, it is ridiculous to rail against the "Blue Dog" Democrats for their conservative stance on some issues if liberals/progressives do not have the capacity to unseat them. Until such capacity is developed and demonstrated, frankly I would rather have a Blue Dog Democrat who is on my side some of the time than a Republican-conservative who is never on my side. The Tea Party has emerged as a force to be reckoned with on the right. What the liberal/progressive movement needs is a force to be reckoned with on the left. It remains to be seen whether liberals/progressives can rise above political tribalism and Balkanization to realize this crucial objective.
In this series of essays, I have attempted to present a strategy for forging a progressive force for change independent of Obama and the Democrats which includes support for the President's re-election in 2012. As a practical matter, the current political terrain dictates that such an independent force should have solid working relations with liberal/progressive Democrats. An independent mechanism continually articulating its vision to the American electorate and employing an inside/outside strategy in its relationship with the Democratic Party can be effective in moving the political discourse and content of public policy decisions to the left. To break out of the current defensive and defeatist malaise, however, the liberal/progressive forces need a bold, game changing strategy and event. I contend that a Progressive National Convention can be the linchpin for a much needed progressive counter-offensive to blunt the conservative tide and build a new majority for a progressive agenda for change.
In 1972 when Black America was at a critical political cross-road, a cadre of African American political leaders came together to call for the convening of a National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana. In less than six months the organizers mobilized one of the most significant gatherings of African Americans in the 20th century. Some 10,000 delegates and alternates converged on Gary in March of 1972 to adopt a National Black Political Agenda and create the National Black Political Assembly as the official continuations mechanism. The consensus among political observers is that the Gary Black Political Convention was a watershed event for Black politics, a game changer that inspired thousands of Black people to run for political office at all levels. As a result, by the end of the decade the number of Black elected officials had increased from hundreds to thousands across the nation.
Nearly forty years later, America and the liberal-progressive movement are at a critical crossroad. A National Progressive Convention could well have the effect of the Gary National Black Political Convention; it could be an extraordinary event, a historical happening that galvanizes liberal/progressive forces to check and defeat conservative extremism and advances a vision and program for progressive change beyond the 2012 election. Liberals/progressives have complained about conservative donors funding the Tea Party Patriot Movement and other rightwing initiatives. Now the question is whether labor unions and liberal/progressive donors will have the audacity to step forward to fund a counter-offensive to create a formidable force on the left, including a Progressive National Convention, a mass-based progressive voter education and mobilization campaign after the Convention and an independent political organization post-election. The moment of decision for all concerned is at hand. The fate of the liberal/progressive quest to build a "more perfection union" may hang in the balance!
To be continued … The Finale – Creating a Force for Progressive Change: African Americans at the Forefront of the Struggle
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Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website www.ibw21.org andwww.northstarnews.com . To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, Dr. Daniels can be reached via email at [email protected].