Voting & vision: ballots to build progressive movements


In the aftermath of the South Carolina Democratic Party’s primary, the February 5th primary/caucus could be summed up as a referendum that boils down to “Past or Future?” Full disclosure: I’m struggling about who to support on February 5th. Like so many on the left, it’s easier to know what one is against. But,thinking about the state of progressive movements (and the best context for moving them forward) ought to be part of the equation in Election 2008.

Opinion: Voting & vision: ballots to build progressive movements

I’ve never thought that elections are the primary determinate of politics. Social movements are, from labor in the 1930s to civil rights and other movements over the last 50+ years. But, who we elect can make it easier or harder for our movements to prevail. Certainly, the voting records and positions of the three contenders for the Democratic nomination must be carefully looked at. I recently discovered a terrific website that has all the candidates voting records, issue positions and various quotes—all organized by topics that also includes some biographical material. You just go to the website and type the candidate’s name into the search box:

John Edwards’ economic populism has down-to-earth appeal. Echoing Ralph Nader, he’s critiquing Corporate capitalism in a way that we hear few “viable” candidates do. Just the fact that the corporate media has largely dismissed Edwards makes him more credible to me! We should howl with laughter at the hypocrisy of those who sneer at Edwards’ as-a-wealthy-lawyer talking about poverty since 2004. Edwards’ success as a lawyer came from representing ordinary people CHALLENGING corporations. The Jack Abrahoff school of Republicans’ “greed is good” philosophy doesn’t have a leg to stand on; DLC Democrats seem to have forgotten FDR, who was wealthy, too, and arguably did more to carry out working people’s agenda than any president in U.S. history. If one wants to “think strategically”, the last three Democrats who’ve won the White House were all white Southern men. Unlike Bill Clinton, I actually believe that John Edwards remembers where he came from.

Minnesotans can hear John Edwards Tue., Jan. 29 at the Carpenters’ Union,
710 Olive Street, St. Paul,MN

While Edwards expresses collective outrage at the economic-gutting of the American Dream for more and more of us, he’s a bit light on inspirational vision. And it’s inspiration that is Barack Obama’s strength.

Some—both liberal and conservative—have remarked on the “lack of specifics” in Obama’s speeches. Trying to express an inclusive vision that all sorts of people can relate to, be part of and support with their votes might make a lack of details almost inevitable. Consider JFK’s “Ask not” or Reagan’s “Morning in America” or even the staying-power of Martin Luther King’s phrase “I have a dream”.
Can critique alone about “what’s wrong” propel people to get involved in making change? Increasingly, the answer seems to be “no”. There’s a longing for something positive to fight FOR that progressives so often lose sight of—and that Obama taps into.

CSPAN broadcast black conservative,Shelby Steele reading from “A Bound Man”, his new book about Obama exploring the “masks” that African-Americans wear in order to navigate a white-dominated culture: “bargainer” or “challenger”–with Steele calling Obama the former. “Bargainers” reassure white Americans that they are “given the benefit of the doubt” when it comes to racism (innocent until proven guilty), while, “challengers” assume whites’ racism and make direct demands, (often with little concern about whites’ feelings.) Steele names current “challengers” as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, but, also observed that King was one, too.

As a white, longtime anti-racist activist myself, I lean towards those “challengers”. But, the much-touted “national conversation on race” that Bill Clinton promised in the 1990s never happened. Broadcast of the Rodney King video, Hurricane Katrina and the Jena 6 haven’t been enough to make new breakthroughs on the racial divide either. I’m beginning to think America needs a “bridge” from the 1950s/60s civil rights movement and an equitable multi-racial 21st century. Barack Obama, who’s done on-the-ground community organizing, feels like that bridge to me. He’s drawing multi-racial support and bringing out young voters—something that progressives have too often failed to do in our movements. A leading light of progressive movements,Cornel West, is endorsing Obama–and that’s an endorsement that means something.

Hillary Clinton touts her “experience”–most of which has been working FOR Corporate law firms. Given her unrepentant vote for the invasion of Iraq, her judgment is at issue. She”s gotten the most campaign contributions from weapons contractors and may feel compelled to prove her military moxie by attacking Iran. Did Clinton ever oppose her husband’s 1990s sanctions that killed 500,000 Iraqi children? Known for secrecy almost as obsessive as Bush-Cheney’s, Hillary not-so-covertly promises another “co-presidency” with husband Bill. Do we want more 1990s-style “free trade” job-losses and more reversals of the New Deal social safety net? Senator Clinton’s willingness to play a mean-spirited “race card” with surrogates like BET founder Bob Johnson’s insinuations or Bill Clinton’s sleazy South Carolina performance, trying to smear Obama, is a Karl Rove instant replay. That’s the anathema of “change”—a message Clinton recently copied from Obama.

The Clintons’ campaign increasingly exemplifies a sense of ‘entitlement” to the White House that’s completely out of step with a country that’s endured seven years of the ultimate in leadership of, by and for the privileged. Much of what George W. Bush has done is simply an expansion of Clinton-era policies—which any honest assessment reveals. Hollywood blockbusters aside, you really CAN’T go “back to the future”–which is what “Billary” offers.

No matter who wins, it will be up to progressive movements to hold their feet to the fire to get us out of Iraq quickly, to re-think economic policies on trade, jobs, workers’ rights, to restore our Constitution’s civil liberties (destroyed not only by Bush’s “war on terrorism” but, also Bill Clinton’s “war on drugs”) and to (finally) address a range of pressing problems from health care to education inequities and global warming. So, my question about what candidate to support is: Who will be most open to listening to progressive movements? Who has the life experience that would give them REAL empathy for the real lives of all kinds of Americans? Who has a vision that could re-ignite widespread political engagement by ordinary Americans?

Edwards was the candidate I leaned most strongly towards but, I confess that I’m catching some Obama fever. Having spent my entire adult life fighting the backlash that aims to reverse all progressive victories, I’m as hungry for inspiration as anyone. I’m in that ‘in-between” generation—too young to be a Baby Boomer who participated in the 1960s, too old to be one of the Millennial Generation.

But, we’ve already had two Baby Boomer presidents representing: Bush I and Bill Clinton and I’ve voted Green since 1996. Looking to a new generation and a message of hope might be just the tonic our movements—and the nation—need to get closer to the future we want. As another African-American leader understood, holding on to a dream is half the battle for real change.

*Lydia Howell is a longtime progressive activist and Minneapolis independent journalist, winner of the 2007 Premack Award for Public Interest Journalism. She also hosts/produces CATALYST:politics & culture (Fri.11am)on KFAI Radio, 90.3fm Mpls 106.7fm St.Paul archived at