Progressives: Don't Mourn, Organize

events continuing out of Haiti make all the bad news for progressives
this week wither in comparison. Nonetheless, over these last few days,
for liberals in particular, there has been no joy in Mudville -- aka
American politics.

Just for starters: Thursday's Supreme Court decision opening the
floodgates for corporate dollars dominating campaign advertising; the
election of Republican Scott Brown to the Senate, ending the Democrats
so-called supermajority of 60 votes; and the subsequent collapse of
health care reform as Democratic members of Congress scurried for the
fire exits.

For a moment at least President Obama must have felt like he was in one
of those animated cartoons where the hero tries to rally his troops
shouting, "What are we, men or mice?" and the response is a chorus of
rodent-like squeaks.

Add to this John Edwards confessing -- finally -- to paternity, and the
withdrawal of Erroll Southers' name as Obama's choice to run the
Transportation Security Administration after weeks of harassment by
conservative Senator Jim DeMint (and the revelation that Southers had
dissembled about incidents 20 years ago when he accessed a Federal
database to investigate his estranged wife's new boyfriend). Yikes.

Then, just to ice this cookie full of arsenic, comes news of the demise
of the progressive radio network Air America. It was a misbegotten
enterprise from the onset, intentions noble but its finances always in
a state of jangling uncertainty (in the interest of full disclosure, I
made regular appearances for a short while on their morning show,
"Unfiltered," hosted by Lizz Winstead, Chuck D and Rachel Maddow --
Rachel being the best and smartest on-air personage to have emerged
from the entire Air America enterprise).

Why progressive talk radio has been unable to counter the right-wing,
talk radio juggernaut seems no great mystery. The nuance and diffuse
nature of much liberal debate is unlike the bombast and accusation that
sells beverages and shock absorbers. "Yes, but on the other hand" works
great for NPR, God bless them, but not in the loud and confrontational
world of commercial talk radio, where gladiatorial skills are more
valued than dialectical ones.

More important, Air America was never able to attract the big corporate
dollars, its audience too small and, one presumes, because its politics
did not gibe with the free market agenda of many large sponsors and
their associates, the ones with the deepest pockets.

Just look, for example, at the wallet of the conservative United States
Chamber of Commerce, which describes itself as "the world's largest
business federation representing 3 million businesses of all sizes,
sectors, and regions."

The Chamber bragged about the cash they poured into TV ads supporting
Scott Brown in the Massachusetts Senate race -- more than half a
million dollars' worth by last count -- and said his victory "could pay
immediate dividends by throwing into question the future of health care
reform legislation pending in Congress." Check and double check.

It's the opening salvo in their campaign to block just about any kind
of reform by backing pro-business candidates in this fall's midterm
elections -- in all, the Chamber plans to spend a whopping $100 million
dollars. Not that they have to buy any more members of Congress -- as
we've seen this past year, and especially this week, the Democrats and
Republicans they've already helped pay for are perfectly capable of
bringing the House and Senate to a compete standstill -- witness health
care, the cap-and-trade climate bill and the disinclination to truly
step up to the plate on financial reform.

All thanks in part to the lobbying efforts and campaign cash of big
business, which, with this week's Supreme Court decision, will be all
the more able to deluge the airwaves and Internet with an unending
barrage of ads in favor or against the candidates and issues of their

But this is no time to run and hide. As the historian Simon Schama wrote in the January 19 edition of the Financial Times,
the President "may actually need to respond to the unrelenting pressure
from zombie conservatism, ravenously flesh-eating and never quite dead,
not by turning on more consensual charm, but by taking the gloves off.
With his bank levy -- 'We want our money back,' he said -- Mr. Obama
has belatedly begun to fight. Whether he can trade enough punches with
the right before the November mid-term elections remains to be seen,
but my hunch is that President Composure is up for a brawl."

To do so, he will have to speak out forcefully and counter the
bulldozing effect of megabucks with solid community support. A report
last week by David Corn on the Mother Jones
Web site was not encouraging, suggesting that the volunteer army of
more than 13 million activists and donors that sparkplugged Obama's
presidential campaign has been too often ignored or misused by the
White House.

An investigation commissioned by the crosspartisan group blog found that as far as advancing a progressive agenda
goes, the effort that arose from the Obama campaign, Organizing for
America (OFA), "focused more on supporting and thanking allied Members
than pressuring resistant Democrats or Republicans." In other words,
too many e-mail offers of OFA tee-shirts and wool hats and not enough
boots on the ground canvassing and lobbying.

This is no time to go wobbly, as Margaret Thatcher famously told George
Bush the First. But given the events of this week, perhaps even more
appropriate are the pre-firing squad words of that most famous Wobbly,
radical and labor activist Joe Hill: Don't mourn, organize.

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