When Van Jones took to the stage as the closing keynote speaker for the Netroots Nations conference Saturday afternoon, he began with the obvious. Yes, progressive activists are disheartened by losing the recall election of Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin. They are bitterly disappointed with President Obama for failing to govern as the progressive he projected himself as being in 2008. And they are angry with Democratic politicians who too often trade away the interests of working-class people to cater to the interests of corporate lobbyists and campaign contributors.
But the stakes are too high to allow dispiritedness and anger to take the progressive movement off course. If anything, it has become more clear amid the failed expectations of Washington Democrats and the potential of Tea-Party conservatives, fueled by a bottomless well of corporate cash, having no restraints on the wrecking ball they are using to destroy the pillars of economic security for working-class people.
Hence Jones’ call Saturday “to build a movement big enough to win in November and December”—a movement that can push back against right-wing efforts to expand their control of Washington, elect progressive champions to office and then serve as the independent force that pushes, rewards and punishes elected officials based on how well they serve the goal of rebuilding the American Dream for all people—especially in the epic battles that will immediately follow the election over tax and spending policy.
Jones’ “win-in-November-and-December” theme has become the central theme of the Take Back the American Dream conference on June 18-20. The conference will pick up where Netroots Nation left off, serving as the opportunity for progressive activists to focus on specific strategies for electing progressive candidates in November and then ensuring that progressives are no longer dissed and dismissed when elected officials are called to cut deals with moneyed interests that are against the interests of working people.
What hangs in the balance, Jones reminded the activists and bloggers who converged in Providence, R.I., for the conference was whether Congress is finally going to end the Bush tax cuts for people earning more than $250,000 a year or whether vital economic security programs—from Medicare to student loans—would be sacrificed to protect tax breaks for the 1 percent.
What we have to stand against, Jones said, is another incidence of “ham and egg justice,” in which the only thing the 1 percent has to sacrifice for the breakfast is an egg but the 99 percent gets slaughtered to provide the ham.
In order to do that, the progressive movement has to both elect progressive champions to office and have the unity, strength and independence to hold those elected officials accountable.
“If we just support the D.C. Democrats and the president, we won’t get what we want. And if we don’t support him, we won’t get what we want. That’s called a quandary,” Jones said. “So what’s the answer?”
At the end, he said, it’s simple. When it comes to President Obama, “We have to both reelect the president and reenergize the movement to hold the president accountable to progressive values.”
“That requires us to learn something from the past 12 years”, he said. “My analysis is this: It takes two kinds of power, not one, to get real change. You have to have a president who is willing to be moved, and you have to have a movement that is willing to do the moving, and we have not had both at the same time.”
A good portion of the talk at Netroots Nation was devoted to precisely how to build that kind of movement. At a plenary session featuring New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka also spoke of “the need to build a movement of the 99 percent” to push President Obama and Congress to reject the austerity agenda that has been imposed on much of Europe to devastating effect.
A panel of participants in the Occupy Wall Street movement discussed how to translate the energy of those winter street protests into a lasting force for change. The panelists agreed that there are valuable roles for progressive institutions and elected officials, but both need to be jolted by outside protest, and in turn the protest movement needs the support of institutions and politicians. All three, they agreed, need to be willing to experiment and to take risks.
“The only way to get real change is to scare the shit out of ourselves,” said Yotam Marom of the Organization for a Free Society. Added Max Berger, an Occupy Wall Street organizer, “If we’re not scaring ourselves, we’re probably not scaring the people in power.”
“What I’m getting more is resolve,” Markos Moulitsas said about the mood of Netroots Nation conference in the wake of the Wisconsin recall defeat. He said people at the conference “are determined to turn this around, they see the other side is 100 percent committed to their cause, and if we don’t match that intensity, if we don’t learn the tools of the trade, and if we don’t learn the tactics, we’re going to be left behind.”
David Dayen, a writer for FireDogLake who attended the conference, wrote Sunday that Jones gave a good speech, but he was also critical. “We weren’t told how what we’re trying to achieve in November, other than “beat the Tea Party,” will ensure that the Democrats and this White House don’t then turn around and throw granny off the “cliff” in December through some “grand” and immensely stupid “bargain” with the deficit frauds,” he said. “…[O]n Sunday morning, I’m struggling to make any sense of what we were told.”
It is true that Jones and the other presenters at Netroots Nation only laid some of the basic building blocks for action. There is still more design work to be done and a lot of assembly work is required. And we have to determine the best ways to recruit more people to the effort—even as we defend our cause against that Tea Party wrecking ball. That’s a lot of work that remains for the Take Back the American Dream conference (and thus a lot of reasons to register for the conference) and for progressives in the coming months.