How the Left Can Win
From the August 2005 Issue
Byron York, the extravagantly coiffed White House correspondent for the National Review, haunted the Campaign for America’s Future “Take Back America” conference at the Washington Hilton in June. York specializes in keeping tabs on the left (or what he refers to, in arch quotation marks, as “progressives”). He has written a book chronicling “progressive” efforts to defeat Bush in 2004 entitled The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President—and Why They’ll Try Even Harder Next Time.
On the first day of the conference there was an awkward moment at a press briefing when a reporter from In These Times, not realizing that York was in the room, asked Campaign for America’s Future co-director Roger Hickey what he thought of York’s book. “If only it were true” that there’s a vast leftwing conspiracy, Hickey said.
York sat at the back of the room tapping away impassively on his laptop, as necks craned to get a glimpse of his reaction.
As it turned out, York’s view of the conference (posted on National Review online) was a characteristic mix of eye-rolling sarcasm and pretty solid analysis.
At least York takes his enemy—“progressives”—seriously enough to actually attend events like the Campaign for America’s Future conference, and even offers some useful criticism: that the left talks to itself too much, that we believe our own hype, as when many bought into the idea that the movie Fahrenheit 9/11 was convincing red-state voters to throw out George W. Bush. (The most impressive part of York’s book is his dissection of box-office receipts that showed the movie mostly played to the already persuaded.) And, of course, there’s the Right’s favorite analysis of the Left: that depending on billionaire donors and celebrities does not help the Democratic Party connect with the American people.
That last point does not belong to York, though.
For my money, the best speaker at the “Take Back America” conference was progressive political dynamo and whiz kid Eli Pariser of MoveOn.org, who talked about how the Democrats can and must break their cycle of dependence on big donors whose interests conflict with those of their base. Democratic candidates won’t please anyone so long as they preach populism in elections and then vote for atrocious legislation like the bankruptcy bill. The hypocrisy of trying to appeal to a base of workers, minorities, and the nonrich while serving the interests of corporate donors is killing the party. Fortunately, Pariser said, the small-donor fundraising revolution spearheaded by MoveOn and the Howard Dean campaign in the last election can help solve this fundamental conflict.
Thomas Frank, author of What’s the Matter with Kansas?, made the same argument to a standing-room audience in a Washington Hilton ballroom. The Democrats’ idea of political debate is one of cool, new-economy billionaires who smoke dope versus uncool, crusty old billionaires who are shocked by 1960s values, Frank said. There has to be more of a reason for working class voters to support the Democrats if they are going to stop losing elections: They have to get back to their old economic populist roots.
From a larger stage, DNC Chairman Howard Dean picked up on the populist theme, borrowing some sentences straight from Ralph Nader about election reform and fighting corporate crime. “There’s nothing wrong with Kansas that the Democrats can’t fix,” Dean added.
York may sneer at what he sees as a collection of “Deaniacs,” rich white liberals, and aging hippie activists, but his opening knock on the conference in his National Review piece—that too many people had too many different notions of what the left needs to do to win again—was incorrect.
In fact, there was a hopeful feeling at the conference. Too often at progressive events a cacophony of different voices compete and drown out any coherent, overarching message.
Not so at the “Take Back America” event in June.
There was much scolding of Democratic centrists from the stage. Arianna Huffington did a hilarious riff on Hillary Clinton’s waffling over whether it is appropriate to have an exit strategy from Iraq. Bob Borosage, co-director of Campaign for America’s Future, talked about how dumb it was for Dems to keep muddying the waters on issues like abortion, when the message of the elections was that people want moral clarity.
Speakers from Donna Brazile to Celinda Lake promoted a left takeover of the party. Local and statewide candidates working with Wellstone Action to develop their campaigns were talking excitedly about getting organized at the grassroots. Leftwing media types, progressive PR firms, and Democratic press secretaries talked about making a more coordinated effort to keep in touch and reach out to a nation that is hungry for a stronger opposition to Bush.
And the data back them up: Bush and the Republicans have seen their approval ratings going into the toilet in recent months. Bush reached new lows recently with only 34 percent of people polled saying that the country was going in the right direction, and a clear majority of the public now says that the war in Iraq has not been worth the cost in blood and money. A clear majority—62 percent in one recent poll—also think the economy is looking bad.
But here’s the most important fact: Despite all this bad news for the Republicans, the same pollsters found that the Democrats have made no gains with the public as a result. The Democratic Party has yet to offer a clear alternative.
And that’s where real progressives (not “progressives”) come in.
People whose interests are ill served by the current Administration—military families who are losing loved ones in a deceitful and poorly planned war, the elderly who are worried about losing their Social Security checks, working people who are fast losing the ability to pay for college or see their kids achieve a better standard of living—are desperate for an alternative to the lying, corrupt, crony-capitalist government of George W. Bush. At the “Take Back America” conference in the capital of sneering rightwing arrogance, you could see a blueprint for offering just such an alternative gaining form.
Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.