Registering the Peaceniks

Democrats and Greens meet in Washington to “Take Back America”

Eric Laursen

A satirical “Millionaire March” to Vice President Cheney’s house after a June 4-6 conference in Washington.
—Jesse Jackson closed out a well-attended conference of Democratic Party progressives on June 6 with a plea that probably would have got him hissed off the stage just a year ago. “We must open the Democratic door back up to Ralph Nader and the Greens,” Jackson said. “We need those 3 million votes. We can’t do it without them and win.” Jackson’s audience broke into cheers and applause. In the hallway outside the meeting room, conference participants could buy copies of The Ralph Nader Reader.

The three-day Take Back America conference brought together some 1,500 Democrats, including union members; advocates for education, seniors, and the disabled; activists with religious organizations; and peaceniks and poverty fighters. The conference was organized by the Campaign for America’s Future, a Washington-based political action group founded in 1996 as a counterweight to the conservative Democratic Leadership Council. CAF annual conferences have become a beacon for progressives concerned about the Democratic Party’s weakened commitment to social justice and about its ability to offer a distinct alternative to Republicans.

But party loyalty counts for a lot, and for the past two years, Nader-bashing had been something of a ritual at CAF events. That may be changing, as “the democratic wing of the Democratic Party” is making tentative steps to pull Greens, antiwar and global justice activists into its camp in hopes of beating back the party’s conservative wing and replacing George W. Bush with a progressive next year.

“The antiwar movement has brought a lot of people into politics who weren’t before,” said Tom Andrews, national director of the Win Without War coalition. He cites the hundreds of thousands who took to the streets before the Iraq invasion: “They could make the difference if we get them to vote Democratic.”

Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky described how she had advised a group of nuns on their way to serve time in prison for civil disobedience at the School of the Americas to “take voter registration forms to every rally and protest you go to, and get [protesters] to register!”

The strategy appeals to liberal lawmakers, whose clout in Washington has slipped even as causes that tend not to place high on their agenda—especially the struggles against corporate globalization and the Bush war on terror—generate grassroots enthusiasm and commitment. Some progressives are now accusing the Democratic leadership of having led them into disaster in the 2002 elections by letting Bush intimidate them rather than challenging his imperialistic foreign policy.

Many party loyalists who have typically supported candidates friendly to the CAF’s views have become swept up in the new causes themselves. Their passion has carried some of them a long way, and may have startled some CAF organizers, who included a panel on national security and a workshop on the future of the peace movement in this year’s conference agenda—but whose position paper for the event called for “a muscular internationalism” and an “unrelenting global campaign to isolate terrorist groups.”

Attendees applauded vigorously when Bernice Powell Jackson, executive minister of the United Church of Christ’s Justice and Witness Ministries, raised a sensitive subject: “Is it right to support Israel when it won’t end its illegal occupation of Palestinian territory?” Benjamin Barber, a principal of the Democracy Collaborative, an academic-activist alliance, also found receptive listeners when he charged the United States with creating “an empire of fear” that ignores the reality of global interdependence in the 21st century. And economist James Galbraith caught the wave when he concluded a survey of the Bush economy with a warning that “the price of empire, historically, is bankruptcy.”

A certain unease about this new public—both Democratic stalwarts who have recently become somewhat radicalized and nonvoters finding their voices through the antiwar and global justice movements—showed in the presidential candidates’ speeches to the conference. Seven of the nine Democratic presidential hopefuls spoke—including House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt on videotape—while the more conservative Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Sen. Bob Graham of Florida stayed away. All were happy to use Bush’s embarrassment over Iraq’s stubbornly missing weapons of mass destruction to score easy points. But most were careful not to comment on the occupation itself, and none bothered to explain what they would do about the U.S.-made mess in Iraq if they actually took office.

By contrast, attendees gave a warm reception to candidate Howard Dean, former governor of Vermont, who attracted media attention with his antiwar stance before the invasion. And they erupted in wild applause when Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio announced he had introduced a resolution in the House demanding that the administration produce evidence of WMDs—and promised that his first act as president would be to “cancel” NAFTA and the WTO. Former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, whose speech at first generated little enthusiasm, equally struck a nerve when she accused Bush of “pandering to fear to keep us at war until the elections are over.”

None of this is surprising, given how the war has changed many politically involved Democrats’ lives. In a random sample, almost two dozen attendees said they had devoted some time during the past year to organizing against U.S. aggression in the Middle East or to attending antiwar rallies. And they took a dim view of “progressive” Democratic candidates who voted to give Bush sweeping war powers last year, such as Gephardt and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. A straw poll of conference attendees gave Dean 65 percent of their votes for president, while Kucinich took most of the rest.

The hint of insurgency rippling through the crowd of delegates—it was the CAF’s largest gathering ever—carried over to other issues. Author Barbara Ehrenreich drew favorable comments when she challenged the labor movement to broaden its focus on wages and benefits. The AFL-CIO, she said, should devise a workers’ bill of rights to address the oppressive atmosphere in workplaces, where workers often are subject to video surveillance, forced to take random drug tests, and in some places are not even allowed to speak to each other. “How can we talk about having a democracy in the United States when people spend eight hours a day in a dictatorship?” Ehrenreich asked.

Whether the Take Back America conference will really help the CAF harness the new power animating its constituency—or merely demonstrated the distance many Democrats have traveled from their leaders—will become clearer in the next 17 months. Before the conference, the Democratic Leadership Council circulated an internal memo, leaked to the press, that warned, “The great myth of the current cycle is the misguided notion that the hopes and dreams of activists represent the heart and soul of the Democratic Party.”

CAF organizers weren’t buying it, but they conceded that the party’s most fiercely political members may not be completely satisfied with Democratic decisions over the next year. “Washington lobbyists and grassroots organizers both have to shift gears,” says CAF co-director Roger Hickey. “I personally think we probably will be stuck with a Democratic nominee who voted for the war, and it’s important that we be sophisticated enough to take our policy positions into the Democratic Party.”

Medea Benjamin, a Green and the co-founder of antiwar group Code Pink, helped lead the conference’s panel on the peace movement. Benjamin says there should have been a panel on reaching out beyond the party to Greens, independents, and alienated nonvoters. “It still needs to be understood by those trying to reinvent the Democratic Party that they have to take seriously the issues that have impassioned so many progressives in this country,” she argues.

After attending United For Peace and Justice’s national conference in Chicago, which took place the weekend after Take Back America and adopted a program of action for the next year that includes fighting abuse of civil liberties and opposing corporate globalization, Benjamin says she hopes UFPJ and the groups represented at the CAF conference can work together. “The CAF has an incredible role to play in helping us hook in a domestic agenda—health care, affordable housing, education,” she says. “The leaders of both movements need to put some effort into finding ways to come together.”

They aren’t there yet: UFPJ delegates also decided to hold mass protest actions next year, not just at the Republican National Convention in New York but also at the Democratic Convention in Boston.

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