The rousing Take Back America Conference 2004, convened June 2-4 in Washington, DC by the Campaign for America's Future with 2,000 participants, clearly demonstrated that George W. Bush has energized and unified the progressive movement. After November 2, the trick will be to maintain that unity.
The most significant example of how progressives have overcome their historic fragmentation is America Votes -- a coalition of many of the largest and most influential grassroots organizations in the country, including ACORN, AFL-CIO, America Coming Together, Democracy for America, EMILY's List, Human Rights Campaign, League of Conservation Voters, MoveOn Voter Fund, NAACP National Voter Fund, Democracy for America, and the Sierra Club. Representing more than 20 million Americans, this new coalition is conducting coordinated canvassing to register voters, identify the issues that each voter cares about most strongly, and computerize that information in order to facilitate effective get-out-the-vote activities.
Whether America Votes or another similar coalition will engage in unified issue advocacy following the November election remains unclear, however.
The need for post-election unity was addressed repeatedly at the Take Back America Conference. At the opening plenary session, Robert Borosage, Campaign for America's Future Co-Director, argued, "We have to go from opposition to proposition, to what we're for and not just what we're against. We can't look to the Presidential candidate for this. We have to build an independent progressive capacity."
Maria Echaveste, Nueva Vista Group co-founder, said that we need to learn "how we can be not just for the people, but by the people. We too often just focused on getting people to vote. We need new coalitions that really include people in a true partnership with elected officials and provide accountability."
And Gloria Totten, Progressive Majority Executive Director, insisted that we need to "tighten our movement with independent institutional power based on cooperation and discipline."
On the last day of the Conference, George Lakoff, author of Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, provided many substantial proposals about how to talk most effectively with the mainstream. According to Lakoff, whose Rockridge Institute has recently begun to organize an activist network, progressives must communicate primarily on the moral level and promote basic American values, rather than focus on specific programs and policy proposals.
Lakoff argued that we need to articulate core American values such as progressive individualism, the rights of individuals over those of corporations, a reciprocal commitment between the nation and its citizens, maximizing political equality, responsible government, and moral leadership in the world.
Moreover, Lakoff recommended that we learn to understand how language can trigger unconscious responses by tapping into underlying moral systems. Rather than trying to logically negate "frames" that are tied into conservative moral systems, we should create and promote our own frames by asking different questions.
Lakoff posited that moving to the right as a way to appeal to the middle would be a mistake because doing so would activate their conservative model within. Since the middle is torn between conservative and progressive tendencies, we need to speak to their progressive side. Rev. Jesse Jackson made a similar point when he said, "There needs to be a gap between Kerry and Bush and the bigger the gap, the bigger the margin of victory."
In his presentation, MoveOn co-founder Wes Boyd proposed the same approach. "We are one America," stated Boyd. "So leaders should lead from the heart rather than slice and dice the electorate. Be bold and call out the best in the American people. We are not angels and devils. We are all mixed."
Julian Bond provided a Conference highlight with a passionate speech that included great humor and poetic language. Referring to the civil rights movement, he opened, "What could we have done if we'd had email?" Bond then eloquently criticized "the Taliban wing of American politics."
"We have a president who talks like a populist and governs for the privileged," Bond intoned to the delight of the audience. "We were promised compassionate conservatism; instead we got crony capitalism. We have an attorney general who's a cross between J. Edgar Hoover and Jerry Falwell. And we have a Senate majority leader who has voted consistently against labor rights, against civil rights, against women's rights, and he's the one who replaced the bad guy," referring to Mississippi Senator Trent Lott.
Bond then asked, "What about the opposition party?" He answered, "Too often they're not in opposition. With some notable exceptions, they've been absent without leave in this battle for America's soul. When one party is shameless, the other can't afford to be spineless."
A number of speakers agreed that a majority of Americans now favor progressive positions on most issues. "In creating a polarized politics, what the Republicans did not figure was that every action on their side would produce a reaction on the other side," Pollster Stanley Greenberg stated. "Consequently, we now have more energy."
As reported on the Campaign for America's Future website, which has published Conference transcripts, videos, and materials, Greenberg presented data supporting his conclusion that "our ideas, our vision, our values are ascendant and we need to give voice to them with confidence." A recent poll reveals, for example, that only 35% of the electorate believes that the economy is showing real signs of success. And Bush is even weak on what had been his strongest suit, foreign policy, for only 47% agree that his foreign policy has made the country more secure.
George Soros, drawing on arguments from his book The Bubble of American Supremacy made one of the more thoughtful presentations. Soros, who has made billions of dollars in the financial markets, disagrees with the prevailing theory that free markets are perfect, provide the optimal allocation of resources, and tend towards equilibrium. To the contrary, participants' beliefs about what is real change reality in ways that are not foreseen, and those beliefs can be wrong. Consequently, markets often go to one extreme or another with booms and busts.
The same analysis applies to politics, according to Soros. President Bush and his fellow American supremacists believe that politics is a crude form of Social Darwinism -- a fight for survival that depends on competition rather than cooperation. Therefore, America must use its power to impose itself on the world, especially with military power.
As with markets, this perspective has been tested in the court of public opinion. Initially, it survived the test and was reinforced because it looked like it was working. Consequently, the Bush Administration became over-confident, moved to the extreme, and invaded Iraq. As with a boom market, however, the Bush Doctrine has moved far away from reality.
"The picture of torture in Abu Ghraib, in Saddam's prison, was the moment of truth," Soros said. "The American public has now seen that they have been misled, and they've turned against the Bush administration for having embarked on a policy that cannot possibly succeed." The false prevailing misconception has become apparent and there has been a reversal, which has itself become self-reinforcing, leading to a bust.
The Bush Doctrine is false because we need to cooperate. Competition, by itself, is not enough. "Markets can only serve the allocation of resources among private needs," Soros stated. "But there are public needs which require cooperation and markets are not designed to provide public goods." Moreover, in politics, public opinion can overcome military power.
Soros cautioned, however, "The Bush administration does have a plan to disengage from Iraq and it is being implemented. The objective is to reduce the number of body bags. It's actually a very cleverly conceived plan, because by transferring sovereignty on June 30th, holding elections in January, and disengaging the troops, it is possible that the number of attacks will, in fact, diminish." Conceivably, this plan could enable Bush to declare victory in Iraq and win in November.
Another highlight of the Conference was Rev. Dr. James Alexander Forbes, Jr., the pastor of New York 's Riverside Church. He urged, "Don't allow the religious right to determine whether or not you are religious just because you don't go to church as frequently or use the same language as they do." He said that by working together, progressive religious and secular leaders could help America get back on its feet.
As worthwhile as the Conference was, it could have been even better -- with more substance and fewer pep rallies, more dialogue between speakers and the audience (even with written questions), more diversity (encouraged by scholarships financed by donations requested from registrants), more opportunity for small group discussions where participants could learn from one another, more evaluation of past and ongoing mistakes, and more consideration of the need for all people to deal with their own personal growth (including addressing elitism, racism, and sexism, spirituality, and how to be more compassionate with one another). The Take Back America Conference should provide a better model for how activists can conduct similar, though smaller events in their own communities.
The Conference was a great stepping-stone. Let's hope that next year it will be even larger and broader in its scope. We are at a turning point in American history. Julian Bond in his talk hit the mark with a quote from Langston Hughes, "America will be." As Borosage said at the outset of the Conference, "The Right has failed. Our time has come. We better grab this opportunity. It's time to take back America."
--Wade Hudson, Editor of Toward Peace, has been an activist, community organizer, and writer in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1962.