The October 2nd rallies, sponsored by the OneNationStandingTogether Coalition, have received a curious response in both the mainstream and progressive media. Needless to say, one can assume a cynical approach by Fox News, but in the more mainstream media there were a range of views from tepid to curious to ignoring altogether. In some sections of the progressive and Left media there was a tendency to discount the rally as simply a pro-Democratic Party love fest.
The actual numbers of people at the DC rally were probably in the range of 200,000. It was massive. Whether it was the same size as Glen Beck's seems to be a point of contention, but there is no question but that people turned out. It was also one of the most diverse rallies I have attended in years. It was diverse racially, ethnically, gender, age, politically, as well as type of organization. It was also a very optimistic gathering, a point that is well worth making since there had been a high degree of skepticism as to whether this rally could be pulled off at all and whether the turnout would be pathetic.
Yet the optimism seemed to arise, not only based on the numbers, but in a certain level of audacity. Specifically, there was a sense in the crowd that we–whoever "we" happened to be–were fighting back and were not falling prey to despair. The speeches echoed this sentiment, to a great extent. They were also noteworthy for being relatively brief, and in some cases, quite impassioned.
OneNationStandingTogether is a somewhat curious coalition that may or may not last. Despite the rhetoric, it is not clear that the Coalition's leaders are thinking of this as a strategic alliance. Clearly this alliance is necessary as part of the Get Out The Vote effort as we face the mid-term elections in November. The Coalition sought to energize the base, and so it seems to have. But it also, implicitly, was saying to the Obama administration and to the Democratic Congressional representatives that the "change" for which people voted in 2008 has not appeared on the scale that is necessary.
This last point regarding the scale of change is of particular importance in light of several comments offered recently by the Obama administration, including by President Obama himself. There should be no question but that there have been significant reforms introduced during the first two years of this administration. These have been statutory, such as healthcare reform, as well as administrative. Yet what the President and many others seem to miss is the matter of scale. The Obama administration, through its initial efforts at so-called bi-partisanship and by various premature compromises (such as eliminating single payer/Medicare for all from the debate over healthcare reform), weakened the base. Additionally, Obama demobilized the base, quite literally, with the transformation of his campaign into Organizing for America, which basically became a one-way electronic communications mechanism. It was not just reforms that people were voting for, but a different means of governing, particularly in a time of crisis.
The OneNationStandingTogether coalition has a sense of this problem and believes that it is pushing the Obama administration and the Democrats while at the same time focusing on the danger from the political Right. What is missing, however, is a more comprehensive and audacious strategic vision as to what this Coalition could quite possibly inspire. In particular, what is necessary at this very moment is a progressive, populist initiative that is both decentralized as well as united through a common narrative or theme. In that sense, it would be a mirror of the Tea Party movement that has emerged on the Right. A progressive, populist initiative would need to be one that is not one national organization but, rather, something to which various organizations and social movements could affiliate. It would need a broad program–which the OneNationStandingTogether has–but also a story line about what has happened to the average person in the USA, including the fact that the living standard has been dropping and the rich are getting richer. To this I would add a punch-line: it needs to be prepared to go after both the political Right as well as the right-wing within the Democratic Party. To do the latter it must be prepared to find itself at odds with the administration, and unapologetically so.
Will the leaders of the OneNationStandingTogether coalition embark on this course? Time will only tell but most likely that will NOT be their tendency. In fact, a good guess is that they will have to be pushed because the stakes are quite high. To generate a political movement that pushes from the left side of the aisle means going against some elected leaders who have often paraded themselves as friends of the people. It means that the leaders of this coalition will not necessarily be invited to various political events to share coffee, tea and a bit of brandy. It may mean that they are excluded from meetings where in the past they were in attendance, though it was never clear that their views were taken into account. In other words, it means that the leaders may feel that they are being marginalized in mainstream circles.
It, then, becomes the job of forces on the Left to push the envelope. The unions, community-based organizations, student groups, etc., that were in attendance in the various rallies across the country have a base in 21st century USA. This stands in utter contrast to the Glen Beck white bread rally we saw in late August. We saw in the rallies a sparkle that needs to be enhanced, but it can only be enhanced if it is tied to a longer-term strategy that moves from the rhetoric of change to the practice of social transformation. In that sense, some of the commentaries that have written off the rally are not only premature but actually myopic in not seeing the possibilities. Of course, it is certainly easier to mourn the lack of rain than it is to develop an irrigation system.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is an editorial board member with BlackCommentator.com, Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the co-author of "Solidarity Divided."