Progressives: Don't Mourn, Organize
By Michael Winship
Tragic 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 choice..
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 TechPresident.com 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, toomany 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
Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program
Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS.
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