Remembering Paul Wellstone

David Moberg

Everyone devoted to greater social justice suffered a deep loss when the plane carrying Sen. Paul Wellstone and members of his family and campaign staff crashed in northern Minnesota. Paul—to nearly everyone, he was Paul, not Senator Wellstone—was an energetic, joyful, good-humored crusader whose passions triggered hope and commitment in others. While he showed unwavering dedication to empowering average citizens and using government to improve their lives, he maintained an open-minded, respectful dialogue with both his constituents and the social movements with which he proudly identified. But he was also a doggedly tough fighter against his antagonists, whatever the odds.

It understates his virtue to say that he had a common touch. He had unmistakable empathy for “ordinary people,” especially those most in need of the compassion of others, but he also treated them with the dignity they deserved. He was a fundamentally decent, likeable and trustworthy individual with a great talent to communicate persuasively his arguments for justice, equality, democracy and solidarity. His loss is a reminder that individuals, with their distinct personal attributes, make a big difference in the struggle for a better world, despite the importance of movements, organizations, ideas and broader forces of social change.

But Paul would want his legacy to be not just an appreciation of his own contributions or personal merits, but a call to arms. He was above all an organizer. He worked with grassroots movements in Minnesota, while writing about them and encouraging his students at Carleton College to participate (to the consternation of administrators). But his distinctive accomplishment was linking the movements of workers, farmers, environmentalists, feminists and many others with each other and with electoral politics. Paul worked to frame issues and policies that would realize the aims of these movement constituencies and also create a basis for unity among them, forging not just a “blue-green” coalition, but a broader, more unified progressive movement.

At the same time, he transformed electoral politics with his reliance on a modernized version of the vanishing political tradition of person-to-person mobilization by an army of volunteers. While he used TV ads (often cleverly) and could raise money, his margin of victory—despite theoretical vulnerability for his progressive stands—came from the troops on the ground. By linking electoral and non-electoral politics, he strengthened both.

As an organizer, he was interested in changing people’s ideas, not in being a weathervane of public opinion. After his death, Paul was widely praised for his principled politics. He showed that most famously in his solitary vote against a harsh version of welfare reform and in opposition to new war powers for Bush, but he was also a lonely fighter against a draconian, bipartisan bankruptcy bill that he persistently delayed. Equally important, however, he demonstrated to the mass of timid and calculating politicians, whose ambition is mainly getting themselves elected, that it was possible to be principled and win.

People do respect leaders who have the courage of their convictions, but the great majority of people also respected Paul, even if they disagreed with some of his votes, because of what those principles were. Phil Gramm and Dick Armey might also be principled, as the Wall Street Journal editorialized in its perverse appreciation of Wellstone, but their devotion to free markets, private property and the rights of the rich doesn’t resonate with the great majority of citizens as deeply as Paul’s aspirations for fairness, compassion, equality and a peaceful world, where the well-being of both nature and humans, in all their variation, are nurtured and protected. Paul inspired not just because he was principled, but because of the nature of his principles, which appealed to the transcendent dimensions of human nature.

Paul could lash out fervently against corporate greed and political misdeeds, and he was one of the Senate’s harshest critics of the way corporate globalization has reshaped our lives. But he always brought a hopeful message, based on the belief that politics could be ennobling, that most people really cared about their neighbors (even those on the other side of the globe) and that a new world could be born out of this flawed but still vital nation. It will be hard to find messengers that will match him. It is imperative to keep his message alive.

David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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