With 'One Nation,' Liberal Groups Aim to Match Tea Party's Energy, Influence
If imitation is the highest form of flattery, the "tea party" movement
must be honored.
In an effort to replicate the tea party's success, 170 liberal and civil
rights groups are forming a coalition that they hope will match the
movement's political energy and influence. They promise to "counter the
tea party narrative" and help the progressive movement find its voice
again after 18 months of floundering.
The large-scale attempt at liberal unity, dubbed "One Nation," will try
to revive themes that energized the progressive grassroots two years ago. In a repurposing of Barack
Obama's old campaign slogan, organizers are demanding "all the
change" they voted for -- a poke at the White House.
But the liberal groups have long had a kind of sibling rivalry, jostling
over competing agendas and seeking to influence some of the same
lawmakers. In forming the coalition, the groups struggled to settle on a
name. Even now, two of the major players disagree about who came up
with the idea of holding a march this fall.
In this respect, at least, the liberal effort already resembles the
fractious tea party movement. In February, some tea party groups skipped a long-planned gathering in Nashville in protest
of alleged profiteering by convention organizers. Tea partiers have also
argued about which candidates represent the movement.
Despite the friction among liberal groups, the effort behind "One
Nation" was born of a certain necessity: At one of the first meetings,
Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change,
said, "Raise your hand if you can push your part of the agenda all by
No hands shot up.
Indeed, a promised overhaul of immigration law is virtually dead this
year. Legislation that labor unions say would make it easier for them to
grow their membership are stalled in Congress. The jobless rate is 15.4
percent for blacks and 12.4 percent for Hispanics, compared with 8.6
percent for whites.
"Having been confronted with the specter of the tea party . . . we felt
it urgent to organize the majority of this country, which voted in 2008
and has gone back to the couch," said Benjamin Jealous, president of the
NAACP. "We've been split off in different directions."
The groups involved represent the core of the first-time voters who
backed President Obama -- including the National Council of La Raza,
NAACP, AFL-CIO, SEIU and the United States Student Association. (The
effort is separate from the Democratic Party's plan to spend $50 million trying to reach those same
Their aha moment happened after the
health-care overhaul passed this spring. Liberal groups, who
focused their collective strength to push the bill against heavy
resistance, felt relevant and effective for the first time in a long
while. That health-care coalition -- composed of civil rights groups,
student activists and labor leaders -- liked the winning feeling.
"In many ways, the bitter fight for health-care reform has painfully
highlighted that we must go back to the grassroots organizing that won
us the election in the first place," said George Gresham, president of
1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East. "We must reassert our strength
as the social movement that ushered Obama into office."
Liberal leaders see "much of the progressive agenda at risk in this
election," said Paul Starr, a professor of public affairs at Princeton
University and co-editor of the American Prospect, a liberal magazine.
"There is no choice but for these groups to get together. The historical
pattern is that voter turnout falls disproportionately among minorities
and young people at these midterm elections, so they are fighting a historical
Leaders of the groups have been meeting for about three months in a
planning process that some participants called arduous, debating
everything from the name of the coalition to what the branding and logo
should look like.
The coalition's first goal is to plan a march to "demonstrate to
Congress that these agenda items have support across multiple
demographics," Jealous said. The demonstration, to be held Oct. 2, will
center on pressing for more government spending on job creation.
"This is a way to create some intensity," said Eric Rodriguez, vice
president of NCLR. "Month after month, we spend time pointing to these
employment figures, and we're still not breaking through on the
disparities in a way that we think is important."
This week at their national conventions both NAACP and NCLR leaders will
begin talking to their members about "One Nation," and they are seeking
money from foundations for the effort. They hope it will be a show of
force that will remind both Congress and the White House that they are
Obama, who some activists say has not lived up to their expectations,
could also be pushed harder, said Michael McGerr, a professor of history
at Indiana University who has studied political campaigns.
The effort has a historical parallel in a story that Obama has told on
the campaign trail. According to the story, when labor organizer and
civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph met with President Franklin
Roosevelt to press his issues, Roosevelt told Randolph he agreed with
him but that Randolph should "go out and make me do it."
"They are calling the Democratic party back to what has been the pattern
of successful liberalism in the 20th century," McGerr said.