fresh voices from the front lines of change







Mike Elk couldn't have been more right in his thinking about what Martin Luther King, Jr. would have thought of the Teabaggers, Birthers, etc. He would have seen that those faces that at first glance seem twisted in anger are really twisted in pain. He would recognize those faces as well as the source of the fear and anger distorting them.

It's not about adopting their politics, compromising our own, or even tolerating their tactics. It's about reclaiming "We" — The same "We" that Dr. King and civil rights workers sang about, and that I remember singing about myself in church, on the occasions when we sang "We Shall Overcome."


Mike wrote:

As Martin Luther King explained in his sermon "The Strength To Love":

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.

During the whole dialogue on the teabaggers, I never heard the narrative of why these poor people were turning up at the town halls. They were turning up because they were scared of change, because the only change they have known is their standard of living dramatically decreasing over the last 30 years. I never heard anyone talk about how most of the teabaggers are the people that need health care reform the most.

In fact, we got off message entirely. We stopped talking about health care reform altogether. We failed to articulate a progressive vision these people might adopt. We took an eye for an eye, leaving everyone blind.

Very few of us made any attempt to really reach out and embrace these teabaggers on the issues that we share with them. Many of their concerns about the bailout, NAFTA-style trade deals and the general loss of trust in government are core progressive issues. We could lock arms with the teabaggers and form a powerful alliance, but, instead, we attack our potential allies because we do not take the time to engage them.

Without a doubt, King understood that the civil rights movement and the efforts to end segregation were not just about African Americans. The brutality that segregation, lynching, Jim Crow, and slavery visited upon African Americans is well documented. But the man who said "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly," understood that systems of brutality are a two way street. He saw that the system of segregation brutalized the bodies, minds and spirits of both blacks and whites, and was therefore harmful to both.

As progressives, we are working to change -- to heal, actually -- the disastrous results of 30 years of conservative failure and its consequences for everything from our economy to infrastructure to health care. In doing so, we can't afford to ignore that these consequences have been particularly devastating for the very states which have come the strongest and most strident objections to health care reform, the stimulus and other progressive attempts to alleviate those consequences.

When it comes to health care reform, the states most likely to benefit -- because they have the highest percentages of uninsured citizens -- are the source of the loudest objections to reform.

Uninsured by state

Overall, about 15 percent of Americans are uninsured, according to the 2008 American Community Survey. But here is the state-by-state picture:

"Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia had uninsured rates that were lower than the national figure," an analysis written for the Census Bureau says. "All of the states in the Midwest and Northeast are included in this group. Nineteen states had uninsured rates higher than the national figure; 10 of these states were located in the South and the other nine were located in the West."

The state with the highest proportion of uninsured is Cornyn's Texas, where 24 percent of residents are without coverage. The other four states with uninsured rates of 20 percent or more are Alaska, Florida, Nevada and New Mexico.

States with uninsured rates between 17 percent and 20 percent also are in the Deep South and the West. They include Montana (Baucus), Arizona (Kyl) and Idaho, represented on the Finance Committee by Republican Mike Crapo.

If you superimposed the Census Bureau's color-coded map of the states' percentages of uninsured residents, it would bear quite a resemblance to those election-night maps of red and blue America. Yet blue-state America, through its mostly Democratic representatives, seems willing-for fiscal, political or moral reasons-to extend its hand and open its wallet so that red-state Americans can get health insurance.

"It's not a nationally uniform problem," says Steve Zuckerman, senior fellow at the Urban Institute and an expert on Medicaid. Because there has to be a greater improvement in coverage in the South and West, Zuckerman says, "there will be a geographic redistribution."

We know the numbers. We've read the reports, and used the statistics -- with a dash or two of snark -- to point out the paradox of people supporting policies against their own interests, and opposing policies that would improve their lot.

But the man who dreamed that "sons of slaves and sons of slaveowners" would someday sit down together dreamed it for both the sons of slaves and the sons of slaveowners -- even if the latter rejected that dream as passionately as the former desired it. He wanted to free both, when he said "If physical death is the price that I must pay to free my white brothers and sisters from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive."

If progressives hope to achieve health care for all, an economy that works for all, a safe and secure world for all, decent jobs, livable wages -- or any of our other goals -- we have to want all of this for the red-faced man yelling about immigrants on the National Mall, and the woman standing up in a townhall meeting, waving a birth certificate in a ziplock bag and shouting "I want my country back!"


Likewise, many of the same states are at the epicenter of job loss.

America's worsening job woes come with a southern drawl. States in America's South, such as Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, have flipped during the recession from putting up robust employment numbers envied by other regions to posting many of America's most painful rates.

Seven southern states now have double-digit unemployment rates, an unusual concentration in a country with a national rate in June of 9.5 percent. The list includes Florida, which two years earlier had one of the lowest jobless rates, at 4 percent.

"This recession has walloped the Sun Belt in ways that previous recessions have not," said economist James Diffley, managing director for regional services at IHS Global Insight in Philadelphia.

And a good bit of the blame employment numbers going south down south, a lot of it can be laid at the door of gobalization, and the advent of "off-shoring" that sounded the death knell for the southern textile industry and the jobs it provided.

For years, these mills had eluded obsolescence with an iron-hard work ethic and investments in technology that kept production costs competitive. No more. Just as the textile industry left New England for the South 80 years ago, it's now shipping off for Mexico, Honduras, even Pakistan, thanks to looser trade laws.

Thousands of middle-aged, minimally educated American textile workers have been left behind in a landscape of shuttered plants and cool smokestacks.

The lintheads, as they were once called, have few prospects.

"Dreams? Ambitions? Goals?" Blankenship asked, as if she were talking about foreign lands. "It's funny, but I've never thought about them. I always figured I'd be sewing."

It's the same old story, one that many American steel workers or toy makers could tell.

But the last decade has been especially harsh on the textile industry, with 441,000 jobs disappearing, a loss of 44 percent. Last year, 110 mills shut (most of them in the South), 68,000 workers were laid off and several of the largest companies filed for bankruptcy.

Even Pat Buchanan seems to understand this much.

Some of the same workers have probably gone to work in some of the auto plants that sprung up in the south, thanks to very generous subsidies for foreign automakers -- $253 million in state and local tax breaks, worker training and land improvement for Mercedes- Benz; $158 million in similar perks for Honda, plus another $90 million later; $577 million in breaks for Volkswagon; another $197 million for Nissan; etc. -- voted in by the same lawmakers who fulminated against the Detroit bailout. It adds up to more than $3.8 billion, and not without painful cutbacks for some.

"It's exceedingly difficult to determine whether the returns warrant the original incentives," said Matthew N. Murray, executive director of the University of Tennessee's Center for Business and Economic Research. "It's just hard to show that it's going to produce enough tax revenue."

Others wonder if the incentive packages don't go too far to divert taxpayer dollars from vital state services. When Tennessee courted Nissan in 2005, for example, its $197 million gift came about the same time the state was cutting 170,000 low-income adults from its Medicaid rolls. A 1998 Time magazine report found that an Alabama elementary school adjacent to the Mercedes plant was home to 540 kids in a building designed to hold 290.

"The Mercedes-Benz plant illustrates a fundamental principle of corporate welfare," the article read. "Everyone else pays for economic incentives -- either with higher taxes, fewer services or both."

None of the results of these incentives have come close to replacing the jobs that were lost due to the same push for globalization that gave birth to these deals. The incentives, tax cuts and other deals to get BMW to build in South Carolina, for example, hasn't come close to replacing the 250,000 jobs lost there. The same lawmakers voted against thousands of their own constituents keeping their jobs, with U.S. auto manufacturers.

Clearly the allegiance of the 31 Republicans who opposed the loan to save GM and Chrysler is not with the United States of America, which would lose 900,000 jobs if just GM closed, and more than 2.1 million if the Big Three did. Those job losses would occur during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. In November, the 11th consecutive month of job losses, another 533,000 people were thrown out of work, swelling the pool of unemployed to 10.3 million. The Toyota Republicans were willing to increase that.

They voted against the interests of their own states as well. Consider what would happen in a few of those Southern States whose senators led the charge against preserving the Big Three. If just GM collapsed, Kentucky would lose 20,000 jobs; Alabama, 21,000; Georgia, 23,000, and Tennessee, 29,400, according to calculations by the Economic Policy Institute.

Sen. Cochran just didn't think it was right for the U.S. government to aid its auto industry. But apparently he's fine with foreign governments providing subsidies to the transplant automakers in his state. And, apparently, he's okay with spending state and federal money to help foreign automakers locate manufacturing plants in the U.S.

That conservatives have had so much success getting so many to vote against what progressives perceive to be their own self-interests (assuming that livable wages, job security, etc., are in their self-interest) is alternatly mystifying and exasperating to progressives, both of which become handy fodder for cathartic bursts of snark.


Sure, it's tempting -- and even gratifying -- to respond with a healthy dose of snark when someone like Pat Buchanan writes that working class whites are "losing their country." But while his claims of Christianity being "purged from schools their taxes paid for, and "illegal aliens" crossing the border to get "free health care in the U.S. are risible, he actually has a point when writing about shuttered factories and jobs being sent overseas -- though to get to it one has to wade through his blathering about affirmative action and undocumented immigrants coming to the U.S. to get "free health care." (One wonders what Buchanan thinks about the thousands of U.S. citizens going to Mexico in search of health care because they can't afford it back home.)

As Charles Lemos points out over at MyDD, Buchanan and others voted for the very policies that got us here, when they voted for Ronald Reagan and his policies.

The Christian faith purged charge is disingenuous because Pat knows that there is separation of Church and State in this country. What he is objecting to is the teaching of evolution, or the fact that we won't allow creationism disguised as science to be taught in public schools, and that apparently threatens their world. But most of Pat's complaints are economic in nature, though he does so effortlessly descend into a noxious xenophobia. He complains about "factories shuttered," "jobs outsourced," "bank bailouts," "unbalanced books" and "trillions to Fortune 500 companies."

Pity that Pat Buchanan doesn't realize that he voted for that agenda when he voted for Ronald Reagan. Because his litany of complaints, at least on the economic front, are all traceable to policies enacted by Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party.

But Pat's rant is actually quite a race card throwback to the 1970s. It was sinister then and it is sinister now. Historian Matthew Frye Jacobson back in 2006 published a seminal work entitled Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post-Civil Rights America. In it, Dr. Jacobson described how the then nascent conservative movement played on white fears through attacks on the social aspects of Great Society programs such as affirmative action. Pat plays that card and follows with the free healthcare and education for illegal aliens, the favorite term of the right for undocumented workers.

And funny how illegitimacy, drug use and dropout rates are all generally higher in red state America than they are in blue state America. The states with the highest born out-of-wedlock are the District of Columbia (technically not a state), New Mexico, Mississippi, Louisiana and South Carolina. Drug use is a mix bag and harder to measure but Rhode Island (closely followed by Alaska and Arizona) has the highest percentage of regular illicit drug users and Iowa the lowest. The highest high school drop out rates are in Louisiana, Alaska, Colorado, Nevada and Arizona, the lowest drop rates are in New Jersey, Connecticut, North Dakota, Iowa and Wisconsin. The problems Pat complains about while national are deeper in the red states.

But progressives should avoid taking that approach too far, lest we make the same mistake Republicans have made for decades and continue to make -- even at the risk of being limited to a southern regional party. The problems Buchanan cites are deeper in the red states, and so it the pain of those problems, and the conservative politics and policies Lemos cites don't alleviate the problems or the painful consequences visited upon the everyday people who grow increasingly angry about both.

Their leaders don't have answers. Faced with constituents dealing with economic hardship and worries about health care and their lack of insurance, they don't have answers; whether it's South Carolina governor Mark Sanford refusing stimulus funds while offering his prayers to a jobless South Carolinian, Sen. Tom Coburn telling a woman whose husband has traumatic brain injury to ask her neighbors for help, Sen. Chuck Grassley telling an underinsured man to get a government job if he wants coverage as good as Grassley's, Rep. Phil Gingrey laughing off 14,000 Americans losing their health care every day because they lost their jobs, or Rep. Eric Cantor telling a woman whose relative has two tumors and no health care to find a government program or get some charity.

Conservatives are doing to their own constituents what they've done for decades where minorities are concerned. And just as their treatment of minorities has resulted in a noticeably more homogenous party, it will end up making the GOP and conservatives less and less relevant in the process of finding solutions to the problems and challenges Americans are facing now and will face in the future. They will become less and less relevant so long as they fail to address people's needs, and fail to see that they're not addressing people's needs.


Too often, predominantly white organizations -- as the Republican party seems to have become, and seems determined to be -- ponder their lack of diversity, only to end up asking the wrong questions.

It's the same basic rhetoric I've heard in just about every discussion I've been involved in over why there aren't more black republicans. My point has always been that Republicans - like other predominantly white organizations - spend more time asking why more black people aren't joining them than they do asking themselves why they aren't attracting more black supporters.

In other words, the avoid the reality that the reason they don't attract more black supporters is because they don't address - and aren't seen as addressing - the needs and concerns of many in black communities. The analysis never gets further than that because it would probably undermine their current base of power. So every discussion I've had ends up with the other side's argument boiling down to this: the reason more blacks don't support the Republican party is because they don't know what's good for them.

That's the nice way of putting it. The more blunt way of putting it would be much closer to the way the conservative blogger above put it. Because they are dumb. The blacks who don't vote Republican are dumb. The anti-Bush supporters in Latin America - or anyone else in Latin America who doesn't support the U.S. Agenda - is dumb. The folks marching against Bush and the U.S. agenda in Latin America just don't know what's good for them.

It's a tactic that becomes a message that ultimately insults and alienates the people they claim to want to win over. The more constructive question to ask would be "How can we address the concerns of (fill in the blank with just about any demographic group) more effectively?" It's also the harder question to ask and answer, because it means you also have to want to address their concerns and accept their concerns as just as valid and important as your own.
In other words, you won't really bring anyone into your coalition or movement, because you've already told them it isn't for them. Jobs, health care reform, etc. -- all the things that are partially fueling their fear and anger, and your plans to solve them -- are not for them.

Meanwhile, people like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are ready to tell them whose fault it is.

It's Rush's America, and the right wing media that keeps them Afraid about "blacks taking over" and "foreign nationals" changing the "White, male, Christian power structure," so they won't trace their fear to economy and how well conservative economic policies have served them.

There is no doubt that some of the anger is fueled by racial feeling, which is not the same as saying that all opposition to Obama is explained by racism. Most Obama opponents are simply conservative Republicans who disagree with him. But there are too many racist signs at rallies and too many overtly racial pronouncements in the fever swamps of the right-wing media to deny that racism is part of the anti-Obama mix.

Obama can't do much about those who are against him because of his race. Even a 1 percent unemployment rate wouldn't change the minds most scarred by prejudice. But there is a second level of angry opposition to which Obama needs to pay more attention. It involves the genuine rage of those who felt displaced in our economy even before the great recession and who are now hurting even more.

...In fact, many who now feel rage have legitimate reasons for it, even if neither Obama nor big government is the real culprit. September's unemployment numbers told the story in broad terms: Among men 20 and over, unemployment was 10.3 percent; among women, the rate was 7.8 percent.

Middle-income men, especially those who are not college graduates, have borne the brunt of economic change bred by globalization and technological transformation. Even before the recession, the decline in the number of well-paid jobs in manufacturing hit the incomes of this group of Americans hard. The trouble in the construction industry since the downturn began has compounded the problem.

Progressives need to figure out how to address those fears and concerns, and then reach out to whatever portion of Limbaugh's audience may be reachable.

Let me define "reachable." We're not talking "reachable" in the sense that they can be swayed by arguments. I mean reachable through economic and political changes that ultimately relieve their anxiety and improve their lives. In other words, they can best be reached by progressive success on issues like health care reform, jobs, and the economy -- because health care for all, and an economy that works for all means them too.

But, again, wanting those things for all means wanting it for them too -- for the man standing on the national mall waving a copy of the U.S.S. Constitution, and the woman with her birth certificate in a ziplock bag; and to want it for them sincerely, not begrudgingly, but out of understanding that their anger -- misdirected though it may be -- stems at least in part from very real pain, suffering and need that their leaders have failed to acknowledge or act to relieve.


Those shouts and cries of "I want my country back" that echoed through town halls this summer, come from a visceral and and very real sense of loss. As E.J. Dionne notes above, the anger that has been on display lately certainly has some basis in racism that runs too deep and reaches too far for any one president -- even Obama -- to address. Indeed, some of that sense of loss stems from demographic realities -- the "end of white America" and the "browning of America," recently manifested in the the growing number counties in which whites are the minority --of which people like president Obama and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor are inevitable symbols.

But Dionne also notes, as I've tried to describe above, that some of that anger is rooted in the real loss of an America where these same people had a reasonable shot at finding work that earned them a decent wage, enabling them to improve their lot, take care of their families, and educate their children. In exchange, many Americans were sold a bill of goods by a smiling, seemingly friendly salesman who told them they had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

It sounded like the old American promise, but even better. What they got was something quite different.

Now for the truly shocking. I was reading Fighting Poverty in the US and Europe: A World of Difference by Alberto Alesina and Edward Ludwig Glaeser. In terms of social mobility, being born in the bottom half in the United States is a life sentence of poverty. You stand a better statistical chance of becoming wealthy if you are born poor in Italy than you do in the United States.

Now consider rates of entrepreneurship. A 2005 survey showed that 28 percent of Americans would like to own their businesses. That compares to just 15 percent of Europeans. Yet Americans, it seems, are deferring their dreams while Europeans are living theirs. 14.7 percent of Europeans are self-employed while just 7.3 percent of Americans are self-employed. What's more, the rate in the United States is actually declining. In 1994, 9.1 percent of Americans were self-employed.

This is to me all quite startling and befuddling because Ronald Reagan, who remains an adored figure by American conservatives, won the Presidency in part by claiming that the GOP was the party that wants to see an America in which people can still get rich. But the facts demonstrate quite the opposite. Reagan's policies were nothing more than a redistribution of wealth upwards away from the middle class. By allowing the minimum wage to fall below the poverty line, he single-handedly created the working poor. The percentage of Americans living below the poverty line in 1979 was 11.7 percent. It is now 13.2 percent. And yet there is a guy in the NY-23 running for Congress by name of Doug Hoffman on the Conservative Party ticket who is proudly going around calling himself a "Reagan Conservative." How is the failure of the last 28 years not more evident?

Progressives have to begin by understanding that the anger on the right has at least one cause that we're equipped to address, by organizing to elect progressive leaders and enacting progressive policies aimed at addressing the economic pain, jobs, health disparities, and other problems gripping the whole country -- but squeezing some regions more tightly than others.

Understanding, though, is different from pity -- something Dr. King clearly understood when he said, "Pity may represent little more than the impersonal concern which prompts the mailing of a check, but true sympathy is the personal concern which demands the giving of one's soul."

Robert Fuller, author of All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity and the founder of a dignitarian movement Dr. King would almost certainly have seen as an extension of the civil rights movement, expands upon the difference between pity and true concern.

Though its cause appears to lie outside ourselves, hate has a secret accomplice within. Its name is Fear. "Hate is the consequence of fear," Cyril Connolly notes. "We fear something before we hate it."

Anger congeals to hate when people fear domination and experience the indignity of being discounted. No one, conservative or progressive, likes being taken for a nobody. Hatred takes root when fears remain unaddressed and dignity is disregarded. Imagined indignities can feel as injurious as real ones, and suffice to incite people to commit mayhem and murder.

What's needed to initiate the winding down of enmity is for at least one party to the recriminations to stop returning indignity in kind and start allaying the fears of its opposite number. This means talking over the heads of media demagogues straight to those whose fears have left them vulnerable to hate-mongers. The epigram notwithstanding, it does not put one side at a disadvantage to "go first" in extending the olive branch. Then, it must be willing to meet indignity with dignity, for however long it takes, while not subtly compromising the process by taking pride in its own forbearance. Maintaining civility doesn't mean giving in to others' demands, but it does mean dealing with them respectfully.

With even a modest diminution of fear, we re-conceive our enemiesas adversaries. With a hint of mutual value, adversaries become rivals -- a term acknowledging each party's role as a teacher of the other. Finally, by recognizing their mutual dependency, rivals begin to see themselves as partners. By this time, comity has replaced enmity, and incivility is out of fashion.

Conservative politicians and right-wing media have done an impressive job of making sure that the failure of the last 28 years is, if not less evident, at least blamed on culprits who are easy to blame, but far from responsible for electing the politicians and supporting the policies that resulted in todays crises and disparities. Progressives, depending on our response, can seal the deal on the right-wing's campaign to deceive their constituents and deflect their anger.

In an essay from October 2000, Fuller wrote:

To "nobody" individuals, or a people, is not only to do them an injustice, it is to plant a time bomb in our own midst.

The consequences range from school shootings to revanchism, even genocide. The 20th century has seen many demagogues who have promised to restore the pride and dignity of a people that felt "nobodied." Hitler enjoyed the support of Germans humiliated by punitive measures in the aftermath of World War I. President Milosevic of Yugoslavia has traded on the wounded pride of the Serbs. People will become apologists for crimes they would otherwise condemn to get even with those they believe have nobodied them.

The people that Elk, Dionne, and others including myself have been writing about, in states hardest it by joblessness, lack of access to health care, and economic disparity have already been "nobodied" -- perceived and treated as "less than nothing," having little value or significance -- by 30 years of conservatism and the economy it's created and seeks to sustain. They shouldn't be "nobodied" by progressives; not just because it's the wrong thing to to, but because it runs counter to progressive vision and goals.


Back in 1989, I picked up an copy of We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney, and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi. I grew up in a home where books about the history of the civil rights movement took up several shelves, and I read as many of them as I could. So the murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Scwherner in Neshoba County Mississippi (where Ronald Reagan is said to have launched his White House bid in 1980) wasn't new to me, but one detail of the story stood out to me: Schwerner's ability and willingnes even at the moment of death to see past the anger the man who was about to kill him, to see their shared humanity.

Another story, a year and a month later, June 21, 1964. It was the first night of Freedom Summer in Mississippi. College students from all over the United States, who had been training in nonviolence, went to Mississippi, where black people were not permitted to vote. That night, three of them were kidnapped by the Klan--Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman. A bunch of Klansmen took them on the side of the road and were preparing to kill them. A Klansman pulled out a gun and put a pistol to Schwerner's chest and said, "Are you the nigger-lovin' Jew?" And Schwerner said, "Sir, I know just how you feel." And those were his last words before the Klansman shot him.

The Klansmen couldn't forget those words. Almost a month later, two of them in widely separate incidents confessed to FBI agents the events of that night, and both of them said those were Schwerner's last words, and both times the agent said, "Are you sure? That's a very unlikely thing for somebody to say." And they both said, "Yes, I'll never forget that."

It had an enormous effect on the agents. And they asked people in the movement: Is this something that someone would say? And, of course, the people in the movement said, Yes, that's what nonviolent training is about. One is the discipline not to resist, not to strike back, and the other--"Sir, I know just how you feel"-- is the discipline to try to make a human connection with somebody, even the person that's about to kill you.

The heart of nonviolence is to discipline yourself and have faith in the other guy. Mickey Schwerner epitomized it. This was an evanescent moment because nonviolence began to dissolve even within the movement, but that's another story.

What progressives must do -- not yet at gunpoint, though firearms have been appearing a townhall meetings and right-wing protests -- is what Schwener exemplified: reclaim the "we" that King and civil rights workers embraced and sang about, the "we" in "We Shall Overcome." We must have the same audacity to doggedly include in that "we" the teabaggers, the birthers, and all the rest.

It's what progressivism has always been about: expanding "we" to ultimately include us all.

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