Want to Feel Progressives’ Collective Strength? Attend ‘Fighting Bob Fest’

Roger Bybee

The labor movement and progressives are supposedly facing their darkest hour in decades, as the Republican steamroller heads toward an inevitable victory on November 2, mobilizing voters against the Democrats in retribution for the ongoing Great Recession.

But this fatalism is rejected by many progressives, who believe that the stakes are simply too high to remain silent and alone as the Right builds up for a big offensive. So on Saturday, September 11, America’s biggest annual progressive gathering—Fighting Bob Fest—will be held in the small town of Baraboo, Wis.. It’s likely to draw about 10,000 people this year.

The event is named in honor of progressive populist Wisconsin Governor, and later Senator, Robert Fighting Bob’ LaFollette, who reshaped Wisconsin politics in the early 20th century. His nickname adorns Ed Garvey’s highly-popular and lively blog Fight​ing​Bob​.com. Garvey, a Madison, Wisc., labor attorney, has been the brains and the glue behind the festival since its start nine years ago.


It would be awfully easy to just listen to the pundits say that it’s all over, and that the Republicans are going to win in November, ” sighs Garvey. We don’t have a right to not try,” he says firmly. What do you say to your kids, you grandkids, we surrendered our rights without a fight, now get used to it?”

Garvey views Fighting Bob Fest as an important alternative to all the hopelessness gripping so many Democratic and progressive activists: a remarkably energizing coming together for a day-long gathering of speeches, workshops, and sharing of ideas.

This year’s lineup reflects the diversity of interests and perspectives that animate today’s progressive movement:

  • Rev. Jesse Jackson 
  • Texas populist Jim Hightower
  • Leading progressive talk-show host Thom Hartmann 
  • U.S. Reps. David Obey, Gwen Moore, and Tammy Baldwin (all from Wisconsin and all part of the progressive wing of House Democrats),
  • the BBC’s Greg Palast, who occasionally contributes to this magazine, author of the bestsellers Armed Madhouse and The Best Democracy Money Can Buy
  • Single-payer healthcare advocate Donna Smith, best known for her appearance in Michael Moore’s SiCKO.”
  • Chicago labor attorney and author Thomas Geoghegan, author of Which Side Are You On? and the new Were You Born on the Wrong Continent?
  • Nation magazine writer John Nichols, 
  • Voter-rights and campaign-reform advocate John Bonifaz, and many others. 


Garvey explains that Fighting Bob Fest is premised on the notion that progressives need more than formal organization with measurable outcomes. They also vitally need also a sense of collective strength and an ongoing education infusion and discussion about big ideas to nourish their movements, says Garvey.

People are inspired by the great speakers and from the knowledge that, as they look around, they are not alone in fighting the good fight,” which is especially crucial during this confusing political time. Paradoxically, the most visible activism has occurred on the Right, rather than among the most acute victims of plant closings, wage cuts, and home foreclosures, who have largely fought for survival in isolation from each other, as discussed here and here.

As Garvey sees it, activists coming to Fighting Bob will feel a new sense of hope and learn new ideas that they will their own find ways of translating into their activism. While some say we preach to the choir, we say the choir needs inspiration as well. And we have fun!” stresses Garvey.

We’ve been around nine years now, and we’ll go over 50,000 in combined attendance this year,” Garvey noted. The last two years it’s hovered around 10,000. … We’re bringing together thousands of people who are committed to social and economic justice – which is more than at either the GOP and Democratic conventions, or the two combined.”


In recent days, there were some additional important signs on the horizon that suggest that the picture for Nov. 2 is considerably more hazy.

First, the real Barack Obama seems to have escaped the dungeon where his Wall Street-bred wardens Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner had him locked up since the initial stimulus plan.

Obama bounced onto the stage in Milwaukee, electrifing the Labor Day crowd there. Obama was rocking and rolling to a populist beat, forcefully laying the blame for persistent economic misery on Republican trickle-down and deregulatory policies.


These were powerful ideas that the Obama and the Democrats had seemingly forgotten, and allowed much of the public to forget:

We didn’t become the most prosperous country in the world by rewarding greed and recklessness. We didn’t come this far by letting special interests run wild. We didn’t do it by just gambling and chasing paper profits on Wall Street.

Second, while the punditocracy more authoritatively pronounce every day that the Democrats are in danger of losing one or more houses, the fact remains that most Americans still believe that Bush — not Obama — is chiefly responsible for the nation’s economic condition. The latest CNN poll found

more Americans hold the Republicans responsible for the economic mess than the Democrats, with 44 percent blaming the GOP and 35 percent picking the Democrats. And when the name of former President George W. Bush is added to the conversation, the number who blame the Republicans rises to 53 percent, with just a third of respondents saying Obama and his party are at fault.

However, few pundits have drawn a connection between this critical finding and whether the public will actually embrace Republicans and their major policies, none of which – privatizing Social Security, gutting Medicare, and more tax cuts for the richest 1% – have more than a shred of popular support.

As I have noted, the major media have continually reinforced the notion that Americans will reflexively express their frustrations over the recession by electing Republicans.

But the public may very well recoil in horror when they fully realize what the Republicans plan to impose. Moreover, the energy generated by Obama’s Labor Day address — if he keeps it up as he barnstorms the country — and Fighting Bob Fest will be crucial in mobilizing the activists needed to turn the tide against the right-wing candidates in November.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education.Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus.More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
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