Grassroots Activists Meet in D.C. In A “Battle For the Capitol”

Isaiah J. Poole

This weekend more than 1,000 grassroots activists are scheduled to converge in Washington to launch a new level of progressive populist movement-building, focused on “taking back the Capitol” from corporate interests and the right wing.

Chicago-based National People’s Action is working with the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Restaurant Opportunities Centers United on a Sunday conference and a Monday march to the Capitol to “kick corporate cash out of Congress.” The march, and visits to congressional offices that will immediately follow, will push for an increase in the minimum wage and an end to corporate tax loopholes. The march coincides with the annual lobby day of the National Restaurant Association, a leading opponent of the minimum wage increase.

George Goehl, director of National People’s Action, said that the conference and march is part of an effort to build a “pro-equality populism” that is “as serious about racial equality as it is about corporate accountability.”

That distinction is no small matter when it comes to building a new populist movement. It is not lost on conservatives that majorities of Americans are dissatisfied with the economic imbalances created when the top 1 percent get almost all of the economic gains, while working-class people fall behind their peers in other developed countries. Nor is it lost that most Americans believe that Congress in general, and Republicans in particular, is captured by moneyed interests. But the Republican Party is also increasingly reliant on white Southerners who flocked to the party in rebellion against the Democratic Party’s embrace of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and who are kept in the fold by plays to their resentment of “the other.”

What is beginning to emerge is the incoherent faux populism of Republican candidates airing ads that, for example, criticize Democratic officials that simultaneously bash Democratic candidates for cozying up to insurance companies (which are mostly cozy members of the Republican constituency) while vowing to repeal Obamacare (which constrains insurance company behavior at a level Republicans would never consider).

Goehl believes we can counter a faux populism based on fear and resentment, whipped up by an oligarchy out to exploit government for its own ends, with an inclusive populism borne out of the collective efforts of thousands of grassroots local, state and national organizations on behalf of working people, seniors, and the components of what is often called the “rising American electorate” of single women, people of color and millennials.

The weekend gathering is an effort, Goehl said, to get organizations that work on behalf of these various constituencies to “act as we want to become” – as an independent movement that can challenge the right and encourage Democrats to adopt bolder, more progressive policy positions on economic policy.

“We want to build a movement based on a set of principles, not based on party,” he said, one that will be taken as seriously by Democrats as the Tea Party movement was taken seriously by the Democratic Party establishment.

With traditional Democratic Party allies, he said, “that will mean putting some tension into the process at key moments.” But the result, he said, will be a coalition that can win elections and can put control of the levers of political power back in the hands of the people.

Goehl points to the success that faith-based and other grassroots organizations had in Minnesota in turning the tide of public opinion against what was initially an overwhelmingly popular voter-ID law. He also cites the recent election as Minneapolis mayor of Betsy Hodges, a progressive candidate who orchestrated a surprise defeat of the establishment Democratic candidate, Mark Andrew.

“That is the kind of thing we are trying to move around the country,” Goehl said.

Goehl says he envisions a movement powerful enough to stand against the moneyed interests that have hid behind the skirts of Ronald Reagan’s infamous “government is the problem” pronouncement and tell them, “Government isn’t the problem; it’s the prize … This is our house, and we want it back.”


“The Battle for the Capitol” starts at 11 a.m. Monday at the National Museum of American History, 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW and ends at the U.S. Capitol with speeches from progressive leaders and members of Congress. Participants will then be organized to visit congressional offices.

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