At this bleak political moment, gaining congressional power for progressives might seem like pie in the sky. More and more desperate efforts are underway to stave off a Republican takeover of Congress. But the necessity of trying to prevent right-wing rule on Capitol Hill should not obscure the need to win more seats for genuine progressives.
Ever since early last year, the Obama administration has chipped away at the Democratic Party's base -- undermining its capacity to mobilize for the midterm election -- while sometimes courting Republican leaders to the point of absurdity. Consider this news account from the New York Times a few days ago: "Though liberal and labor groups have been agitating for public works spending, Mr. Obama and his advisers are emphasizing business tax cuts in hopes of drawing Republican support -- or, failing that, to show that Republicans are so determined to thwart Mr. Obama that they will oppose even ideas that they and most business groups, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, advocate."
Or consider the Washington Post report Thursday on "Obama's proposal for $180 billion in fresh infrastructure spending and business tax breaks." The newspaper explained that "his plan would make permanent a corporate tax credit for research and allow companies to deduct from their taxes this year and next the entire cost of whatever they spend in new investments -- ideas pulled directly from GOP playbooks."
Progressives need to fight back -- today, tomorrow and every day. The electoral struggle is just one part of what's needed to build effective social movements, but it's an important part. And that effort should include primary battles to elect real progressives to Congress.
One such election is coming up Tuesday in Rhode Island, where progressive populist David Segal is running against corporate Democratic insiders to fill the seat of retiring Congressman Patrick Kennedy. For many years, Segal has been organizing to challenge banks and other corporate behemoths on behalf of working people and the poor. Although he's been in the state legislature for four years and on the Providence City Council before that, Segal isn't a politician nearly so much as a committed activist whose work has won him wide support from labor unions and many other progressive organizations in the current campaign.
"It's a slap in the face to American workers that our current trade agreements give corporations incentives to lay off U.S. workers and move jobs abroad where they can pay their workers sub-poverty wages and wreak havoc on the environment," David Segal said on Labor Day. "These job losses aren't an accident or the result of a force of nature: they are the direct result of the obscene power that corporations wield over our government. Corporations and the extremely wealthy spend tens of millions of dollars each year to ensure that our trade agreements guarantee their profits, even if it's at the expense of millions of our working families."
Of course Segal is being heavily outspent by the corporate opposition. He's a distinct underdog, but -- whatever the Sept. 14 election results -- the work behind his campaign is an inspiring model for grassroots, volunteer-driven approaches to fighting for electoral power.
More broadly, progressive populism is essential in the quest for economic and social justice -- a vast worldview away from the "populism" flaunted by Tea Bag boosters and the like.
"It's necessary to restate the solid principles of populism and reassert its true spirit, because both are now being severely perverted by corporate manipulators and a careless media establishment," Jim Hightower wrote early this summer. "To these debasers of the language, any politicos or pundits who tap into any level of popular anger (toward Barack Obama, liberals, the IRS, poor people, unions, gays, immigrants, Hollywood, community organizers, environmentalists et al.) get a peel-off ‘populist' label slapped onto their lapels -- even when their populist pose is funded by and operates as a front for one or another corporate interest. That's not populism, it's rank hucksterism -- disguising plutocrats as champions of the people."
Hightower's assessment is true today, and it will be true the morning after Election Day: "Now is the time for progressives to reassert their populist beliefs and bona fides, for we're living in a teachable moment in which it's possible to reach most Americans with an aggressive and positive approach to achieving a higher level of economic and political democracy."
There's a viable -- and essential -- alternative to right-wing Republicans and corporate Democrats. Real progressive populism is grounded in humane values, solidarity, caring and organizing. We can put up a fight. And we can win.