In the first week of June, I traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend a conference on taking back America from the radical Right. I went in search of signs that progressives are capable of mounting a serious challenge to the Republican gang that’s ravaging our country. One such sign, I’d become convinced, would be evidence of a concerted effort to move the Democratic Party to the left.
This thought was a new one for me. I’d always registered Democratic and almost always voted Democratic. I’d volunteered for many Democratic candidates. But for over 30 years, working within the Democratic Party proper had seemed to me like a waste of time—and worse: a betrayal of my left-liberal principles. It took the Republican seizure of the White House in 2000 and its chilling aftermath to change my mind. Polls show that Bush’s policies are far less popular than his persona, and that given the choice, many—perhaps even most—Americans would support a progressive alternative to those policies. But first they must have that alternative. I now believe that our only hope of offering it to them is a Democratic Party that’s returned to its democratic roots.
Early in May I was invited to the first meeting of the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club. Though the meeting had been publicized solely through personal e-mail lists, more than 70 people showed up at the North Berkeley Senior Center. The conveners told us that they were angry and scared, and that they wanted to stop moaning and start taking effective action. Their short-term goal was to beat Bush in 2004. But their larger purpose looked past 2004 and, for that matter, past all elections, toward the creation of a broad-based progressive movement with political clout. The message was right; the style was engaging; the meeting was well-run. I gladly paid the $25 membership fee, as did 40-odd others.
At the Wellstone Club meeting I also learned that the Campaign for America’s Future was sponsoring a June conference dedicated to the same goal as our club. Presenters would include John Sweeney, Barbara Ehrenreich, Carl Pope, Arianna Huffington, Bill Moyers and Berkeley’s own Wes Boyd. All the would-be Democratic presidential nominees had been invited. A few local Wellstoneites were planning to attend. I decided to go, too.
For somebody yearning for a progressive resurgence, the conference to Take Back America gave cause for cautious optimism. To begin, there was the fact that it happened at all. It had been a long time since representatives of the liberal left had come together in a gathering like this. Most of the 1,500-plus participants who thronged the Omni Sheraton represented one of the conference’s sponsors, who included Move.On.org, the Sierra Club, the NAACP, Working Assets, ACORN, the NEA and many unions—AFL-CIO, SEIU, United Steelworkers of America, among others.
Also encouraging was the tone: progressive and pragmatic. Fringey groups like the DraftGore folks had a table in the hallway and little more. Speaker after speaker joined familiar liberal demands to issues that have too long been ceded to the Right. The most striking and, for me, most reassuring example: We heard repeated calls for civil liberties and real security. I was thrilled by the Apollo Project, a bold plan advanced by a coalition of organized labor and environmental groups, aiming at energy independence by 2015 and stimulating the economy with the creation of 2 million new jobs in construction, technology and public infrastructure. Braun, Dean, Edwards, Kerry, Kucinich and Sharpton all gave speeches that drew standing ovations (some more ardent than others). And Kerry’s address demonstrated that a show of progressive strength could draw wayward Democrats to the left.
But the conference also had its frustrations. Missing was an overarching progressive agenda. The elements were certainly present, but they remained unassembled into a larger vision and strategy. More worrisome was the neglect of organizing. Many speakers closed with an exhortation to mobilize; only a few indicated what mobilization would involve on the ground. There was no chance to caucus with others from the same state. The program was so tightly scheduled there wasn’t even much opportunity to shmooze in the halls.
Maybe grass-roots organizing has to start at the grassroots. On the last morning, veteran community organizer Heather Booth warned that if we wanted profound political change, we would have to alter our own lives accordingly. That would mean a lot more than writing checks (or op-ed pieces). For people living in progressives bastions such as the East Bay, it might well mean working far from home.
I think I’m ready. I’m hoping others are, too.
For more information: Campaign for America's Future, www.ourfuture.org, (202)955-5665; the Apollo Project, www.apolloalliance.org, (202)955-5445; the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club, email@example.com, 733-0996. The next general meeting of the WRDC is Tuesday, June 17, from 7 to 9:30 p.m. at Berkeley Alternative High School.
Zelda Bronstein is chair of the Planning Commission and a Berkeley resident.