After another eminently avoidable Democratic presidential loss, those who coalesced around John Kerry must now redirect their energies for the long haul. Rather than fixate on voting machines in Ohio, or debating Howard Dean-versus-Hillary Clinton-versus-John Edwards, liberals and progressives ought to focus on the real issue underlying their perpetual electoral struggles -- the battleground of ideas.
Even if Kerry actually won -- or lost by a razor-thin margin rather than some PR-bloated "Bush mandate" -- there's no denying this country's continued slouching to the right. If liberal ideas had broad currency across the land, Senator Kerry, despite his lilting appeal to centrism, should have coasted to the presidency. The Democrats' fear of the Scarlet L-word, however cowardly or misguided, signals the party's own slippery slide to the center: even if they win, liberal ideas (such as genuine international peacemaking, tax justice and universal health care) fall by the wayside -- collateral damage from the party's widening identity crisis.
Instead of cribbing from the Right's ideological playbook in order to squeak out some hollow electoral victory, Democrats and progressives (not always one and the same) need a coherent long-term approach -- separate from electoral campaigns -- to shift the public consciousness toward basic progressive values. They need to undertake a patient grassroots national campaign to turn this country around, not so much in shade-of-difference leadership, but in the thought and priorities that underlie people's (and, to some extent, politicians') choices. This is, after all, what the Right has so successfully engineered over the past 40 years.
While operatives at the Democratic Leadership Council and Democratic National Committee will surely be devising a retooled centrist Southern or Western strategy (which proved successful for Bill Clinton yet disastrous for many progressive causes), the liberal/progressive clipped wing of the party should begin creating, along with Greens, labor unions, Naderites and others, nonpartisan unity around a set of core issues on which to educate and organize "Main Street" America.
This should be a minimalist list, possibly including: real economic and tax justice; serious investment in education and universal health care access; a foreign-policy based on non-preemptive multilateralism and reconstructing good will by combating global poverty; and religious pluralism and tolerance, separation of church and state. Whatever the exact list and phrasing -- the smaller and simpler the better -- such a progressive values campaign is urgently needed if liberal Democrats hope to ever get beyond today's dreary national elections cycle, in which Democrats either tilt rightward or lose.
Some may argue that Kerry's shortfall was due more to Karl Rove's Machiavellian high jinx, or the senator's own campaign trail missteps, than to any ideological disconnect. After all, he was hardly running a populist progressive campaign. Yet, that is the point -- at least since Dukakis' disastrous "competence" campaign in 1988, but really since George McGovern's plunge in 1972, Democrats have traded away liberal ideas for power -- even as Republicans have steadily reconstructed public ideology (chiefly around anti-government fervor, religious fundamentalism, and militarism) to galvanize control. Through media mastery, relentless message discipline, and massive financial commitments, the right has paved an increasingly smooth road to electoral and legislative success -- with such penetrating brainwashing that their campaigns are a triumph of belief and emotion over well-documented fact.
Progressives made great strides in 2004. The array of "527" groups backing Kerry, such as Move On and America Coming Together, portend excellent possibilities for real outreach and mobilization. But now they must go beyond candidates and elections, and speak directly -- and creatively -- about basic progressive values to people in communities across the US.
Armies of college volunteers, and experienced organizers and respected community members (not much-maligned "Hollywood liberals"), could be deployed to engage with citizens on simple core progressive values, backed up by an arsenal of fact. Town hall meetings, town mall meetings, door-to-door efforts, and real quality dialogue should be the venues of choice, as opposed to last-minute media Blitzkrieg, to slowly begin to turn this country's non-coastal Republican red tide, community by community.
Such an effort can be costly and time-consuming, but there is no getting around it if liberals are ever to recapture America's hearts and minds.
This battle is about much more than electing a politician with a D in front of his/her name. Those who mourn the perennial defeat of progressivism and liberalism at the polls (I count myself among these) need to campaign vigorously on ideas if they are to ever move beyond being a bi-coastal political and geographic parenthesis around a largely hardened heartland. Rather than worry about the top of the next Democratic ticket, progressives and liberals need to work from the bottom to make their ideas and values trickle up. Lay the proper groundwork, and progressive leaders will follow.
Christopher D. Cook is an award-winning journalist and author of Diet for a Dead Planet: How the Food Industry Is Killing Us, published by the New Press in November. He writes for Mother Jones, the Christian Science Monitor, Harper's and others. For more information, visit www.dietforadeadplanet.com.
© 2004 San Francisco Progressive