A Matter of Conscience

Joel Bleifuss

When Paul Wellstone died, Americans lost a principled voice that never shied from speaking truth to power. Progressives lost one of their finest national leaders. And In These Times lost a friend, a charter subscriber and a faithful supporter.

One would be hard-pressed to name another national progressive figure whose leadership either commands or deserves such allegiance. In their eulogies, one senator after another remarked that Wellstone was a man of convictions. (“Unlike most of the rest of us,” they all but added.)

Wellstone also stood out on Capitol Hill as a person who put his convictions into practice with a political strategy that valued the potential of applied democracy. In light of a humiliating Election Day defeat, the Democratic Party leadership might learn from Wellstone. (So too could those progressives who pursue the chimera of third parties or who eschew the taint of electoral politics and the give-and-take it entails.)

Wellstone understood how a citizen-based movement should work. In The Conscience of a Liberal, his 2001 book, he delineated the three ingredients of effective political activism: Good ideas and policy, so that your activism has direction; grassroots organizing, so that there is a constituency to fight for the change; and electoral politics, since it is one of the ways people feel most comfortable deciding about power in our country.”

Good ideas and policy? The national Democratic leadership offered none. As Wellstone wrote in a 1998 In These Times essay, The question is not to be better at communicating, it’s to have an agenda that’s worth communicating.” Dick Gephardt, Tom Daschle, Joseph Lieberman, Terry McAuliffe, et al., acquiesced to Bush’s warmongering, refused to take on Bush over tax cuts, and failed to highlight the crimes of Enron and other corporate lawbreakers. Their folly is underscored by the fact that Wellstone, the only senator in a tight race to vote against Bush’s Iraq war plans, saw his lead over Norm Coleman increase after he defied conventional political wisdom and voted against the president’s war resolution.

Grassroots organizing and the Democratic National Committee are contradictory concepts. Those Democrats who did mount issue-based, grassroots campaigns were fatally handicapped by a national leadership that failed to put a people-oriented agenda on the media map. The national Democratic leadership was less intent on organizing the grassroots than catering fundraising events for the denizens of corporate America.

In fact, one of the only electoral bright spots was the decision by Coloradoans to take private money out of public elections and pass the Clean Money, Clean Elections” campaign finance measure championed by Public Campaign. Ditto for Arizonans who elected as governor Janet Napolitano, a Democrat identified with the Clean Elections effort. Where was the national Democratic leadership on this issue of corporate wealth buying elections? Nowhere to be seen. They were too busy finding ways to raise money before the McCain-Feingold reforms kick in.

In The Conscience of a Liberal, Wellstone discussed his 1990 race against incumbent Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, in which he was outspent 7-to-1. We didn’t win by matching pollster against pollster, ad against ad, image-maker against image-maker,” he wrote. We won by including citizens in an inspiring grassroots campaign.” (That campaign did include fundraisers, like the dinner put on by welfare mothers who made casseroles out of groceries bought with food stamps.)

Wellstone continued: 

Organizing people for power and direct action to make social change might have worked for the labor movement in the 30s and the civil rights movement in the 60s, but today with different historical circumstances electoral politics is the most effective way to make social change. … Those who eschew electoral politics marginalize themselves. … It is not that people don’t want to change this system. They do. The problem is that the majority of people are convinced it will never change, that big money will always run politics. This sense of powerlessness corrupts. What could be accomplished is never attempted. The challenge is to mobilize millions of Americans from all walks of life to participate actively in a historical movement to restore our democracy. 
That’s the challenge. Are we up to it? Gephardt, Daschle, Lieberman and McAuliffe have clearly shown they are not.

Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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