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The ITT List

Sunday, Jun 5, 2005, 8:58 am

Take my America, please!

By Jessica Clark
Day 2 of the Take Back America conference was a star-studded one, with cameos by Arianna Huffington, Howard Dean and John Edwards...who, up close, indeed resembled the star of a Prell commercial. His high polish mirrored that of many crowd members--as one visitor to the In These Times table commented "this doesn't look anything like the Boston Social Forum." Indeed...not a dreadlock in sight.

Dean's speech confirmed the underlying themes of the conference--that Democrats obviously can't afford to focus only on big donors or swing states, and that they need a positive and broad-based message.

“You have seen the last 18-state campaign for the presidency…the Democratic party is going to be the grassroots party,” he said, adding that “There’s nothing the matter with Kansas that the Democrats can’t fix.”

A few of the proactive campaigns he endorsed were the fights for pension portability and campaign finance reform. “The Republican definition of a ‘fine job’ is to be reprimanded 3 times in a row for ethics violation," he said. "That’s how Republicans do business. They think it’s fine; Americans do not think it’s fine."

He also strongly advocated election reform, including controversial propositions like instituting instant runoff voting, mandating the ability to conduct a hand-count of votes, and making election day a holiday. “The Republicans are all about suppressing votes," he said."I think every single American ought to be able to vote...I would rather have you go out and vote, even if you vote Republican”

You wouldn't know that from the rest of his speech, which hit Republicans with a variety of talking points which conservatives are now labelling "angry" but which the crowd seemed to appreciate: that Republicans are "eroding democracy," that "they’ve never made an honest living in their lives" (a bit of a low blow that set audience members atwitter), that they “borrow and spend, borrow and spend," and that they offer Americans a "dark, difficult and dishonest vision."

The Republicans' worst assumption, said Dean, has been "the idea that propaganda and deceit in America will succeed. I think it will not...What we will do is offer real optimism and real hope for real problems.”

While his speech hit the domestic notes that pollsters have been pushing since the "Kansas" analysis rose to the surface, Huffington followed on his heels with a strong call for Democrats to keep an eye on the country's responsibilities in Iraq.

She began by acknowledging that a variety of issues at home require Democrats to take principled stands. Now that Deep Throat has been revealed, Huffington said, “Progressives have an incredible responsibility that we answer the greatest mystery...what does the Democratic party stand for?” She scoffed at Democratic members of Congress who have not stood up to Republicans' corporate-driven agenda, allowing such laws as the bankruptcy and prescription drug bills to pass.“When is the party going to stop trying to please Wall Street and big Pharma?”

“Somehow we’ve lost the music," she said, encouraging conference attendees to help "put the soul back into the Democratic party.”

But, just as importantly, “We cannot continue to ignore the debacle going on in Iraq.”

“There is absolutely no way that Democratic leaders can stop talking about Iraq and think that they can win in 2006 and 2008 by talking about pensions and social security." Huffington said. "There is no way that in a time of war you can win without a clear foreign policy.”

She encouraged the crowd and Democratic Congress members to demand accountability for the money that has been misplaced in the war effort. "Even if you are passionately in favor of the war, you should want to know how the money is spent,” she said. “These are serious matters, and there is no oversight going on in this most corrupt, most immoral Congress that we have right now.”

She scolded "spineless" Democrats who are unable to speak clearly about an exit strategy, and said she had a "litmus test" for 2008: "I want a presidential candidate who can give a straight, unambiguous answer on Iraq.”

The tone at the competing sessions that followed was equally resolute and disgusted. “We are a militarized society…crazed with fantasies of military dominance,” said Jeffrey Sachs, Director of Columbia University's Earth Institute, at a panel on security issues.“The idea of America as Empire is the sheerest fantasy imaginable…people don’t want to be colonized…they will not be colonized. That happened 100 years ago, and it is the most significant force on our planet that people do not want to be occupied by America or anyone else.”

Sachs upbraided the Bush administration for their unwillingness to address pressing global issues such as poverty and the AIDS pandemic, and suggested that such conditions present the true threat to security. "If we made the slightest of efforts…we could do so much not only to relieve but to end this extraordary suffering, waste of human potential, and source of profound instability," Sachs said. But to do so, according to Bush, “doesn’t fit our budgetary processes.”

"Americans don’t want this," He said. "They’ve been hoodwinked into the most dangerous possible policies…let’s have real compassion in America.”

Another panel on Wal-Mart revealed the ways in which unions and activists, pressed to the wall, have begun to adopt the tools and practices of corporate America for their own ends.

Wade Rathke of SEIU and ACORN described how activists are using "business geography" to track where Wal-Marts are planned and to get into those communities ahead of time to organize locals against the big-box invasion. “They’re going to build 50 million stores in America if they have to build one up your butt," he said, and “right now, the way that people see Wal-Mart is actually very positive in most communities…they see it as a bargain.”

“We’re looking at a different way to engage communities on a more fundamental and holistic communities and to engage that workforce" Rathke continued, "to think about if this is the type of job they really want.”

Rathke's work is only one facet of a massive and well-coordinated anti-Wal-Mart campaign that will be conducted on a number of fronts over the next year, targeting the retailer's labor practices, treatment of female employees, assault on small businesses, pursuit of sweatshop labor, and more.

“Wal-Mart impacts all of labor, all of workers, not just in the United States but in all of the world…I believe that Wal-Mart is the battleground that’s going to decide if we’re going to have a middle class in this country,” said another panelist, UFCW president Joseph Hanson. One Wal-Mart official called the protestors "guppies"...“We ain’t gonna give up," Hanson said. Get enough guppies together, you can eat a hell of a big fish.”

Speaking of big fish, Edwards' lunchtime speech began with a touching description of his wife's decision to go public with her breast-cancer diagnosis because "If I could cause one woman to go to the doctor it would be worthwhile." He noted that she was doing well, in part because she had acccess to the best healthcare available, which "should be available to every American”

Edwards denounced the "yappers" on television who urged Democrats to reformulate their stances to appeal more to the center. "Those yappers have got it dead wrong," he said. “How about if we actually stand up and fight with passion for what we believe in...We know the difference between right and wrong, don’t we?”

He then launched into a litany similar to Dean's, focusing on the "kitchen table" issues that conference organizers had flagged as appealing to ordinary Americans: the widening income gap, mistreatment of veterans, concerns over healthcare costs, overburdened families, and the erosion of retirement security. He called the budget a "moral document" that expressed the values of "injustice and indifference."

"There's been a lot of talk about freedom," he added. "Freedom does not belong to one political party."

"We have to stand for freedom and democracy, and against tyranny, with other free nations around the world. But we ought to do it with more than muscle. We have to do it with moral clarity, which means not turning our backs on people here and people across the globe who are in need and who are struggling."

Edwards concluded with a statement of what he thinks Democrats do stand for:


We believe we should never look down on anybody. We ought to lift people up, right? (Applause.)

We don't believe in tearing people apart. We actually believe in bringing them together.

What we believe, what all of us believe is that the family you're born into and the color of your skin in our America will never control your destiny.


Fighting words, all around. But can we take the fight into the rest of the party, and on through 2008?




Jessica Clark is a writer, editor and researcher, with more than 15 years of experience spanning commercial, educational, independent and public media production. Currently she is the Research Director for American University’s Center for Social Media. She also writes a monthly column for PBS’ MediaShift on new directions in public media. She is the author, with Tracy Van Slyke, of Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media (2010, New Press).

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