Democracy for Oregon held its first Progressive Leadership Summit at Portland State University on Saturday. By most measures, DFO''s inaugural event was clearly a success. Well attended and well organizated, the Summit featured stirring speeches and information-packed sessions. But while there was no shortage of inspiration or instruction, what was not on the conference agenda was perhaps a more telling yardstick of the health of progressive politics.
The morning and afternoon keynote sessions brought together some heavyweights of the progressive universe with an audience of 300-400 that was somewhat grayer and much, much whiter than I expected. Jim Dean, chairman of Democracy for America and brother of the DNC chairman, brought a crowd featuring many former Deaniacs to its feet with tales of "Dean's Dozen", fundraising success and electoral progress. His focus on "best practices" and reaching out to form effective coalitions across issue groups had many heads nodding.
Dean was followed by Congressman Earl Blumenauer, who received a warm and enthusiastic reception from the attendees. Blumenauer implored the audience to focus its message on the struggles of typical American families, today's "Ward and June Cleaver", whose incomes are not keeping pace with costs of education, health care, housing and transportation. "Remember the Cleavers" became a rallying cry of sorts, one given added voice (and humor) by The Bus Project leader Jefferson Smith.
KPOJ AM 620 and nationally syndicated talk show host Thom Hartmann was a major presence throughout the day. At lunch, Hartmann spoke eloquently about corporate power and the movement to undo the "corporate personhood" construct in place since the 1886 decision in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad. During the afternoon keynote, Hartmann made an impassioned plea to those on the further left to join and influence the Democratic Party from within. In a reprise of his comments at the May 10 Democratic Party event with Al Franken, Hartmann spoke of the fears of founding father James Madison about the dangers of faction and the inevitability of two parties in our winner-take-all system. And in an afternoon breakout session, Hartmann expressed great optimism for the future of liberal radio, if not for mainstream media and alas, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
The Summit's most stirring oratory came from Ashland Representative Peter Buckley (D-5). Buckley's described his path to political participation, influenced by the Second Bill of Rights of FDR's 1944 State of the Union and the tears of his distraught father with the news of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. But it was the letter of a supporter, describing the boundless optimism and confidence of the people in emerging world power China, Buckley said, that made him want to recapture that quintessentially American feeling at home. For Buckley, now is the time for that "Second Bill of Rights" and "a heightened sense of citizenship" among the people of Oregon.
More than soaring rhetoric, the Progressive Leadership Summit offered real world advice and instruction on best practices for grassroots organizing. DFO's Jenni Simonis was joined by BlueOregon's own Kari Chisholm and Onward Oregon's Lenny Dee in a helpful and upbeat overview of bringing technology to bear for progressive politics. Among the sessions I attended, Oregon DNC committtee person Jenny Greenleaf helped explain the labyrinth that is the national, state and county Democratic Party organization. And DFO's Moses Ross and the Rapid Response Network's Ruth Adkins joined Thom Hartmann is offering strategies and tactics for using press releases, letter to the editor campaigns, and positive reinforcement to drive progressive news and messages to print and broadcast media.
While the DFO's Summit offered plenty of "best practices", it offered little in terms of "best ideas." That is, the Summit was understandably and rightly focused on the "how" of progressive politics, not the "what." Rebuilding the grassroots of the Democratic Party and mastering 21st century technology and communications are the necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for a liberal return from the wilderness. That requires a program for change, with new ideas that can be quickly, easily and powerfully communicated in today's "infotainment" media environment. And a Lakoffian framing exercise alone is not the answer.
Consider the conservative ascendancy from the days of Goldwater to today's governing GOP majority. Over time, a very disciplined Republican Party perfected a 1-2-3 formula for success, one with no counterpart from Democrats. The GOP formula:
- The Worldview. For conservatives, there is no ambiguity: markets good, government bad, terrorism evil.
- The Program for Change. Like it or not, the Republicans have become the party of new ideas. Across the board and consistent with their simple (and, I would argue, blighted) worldview, conservatives offer a program for reform. From tax cuts, social security privatization and health care accounts to school vouchers, pollution/emissions credits, and more, President Bush and his amen corner have a positive, foward-looking program to implement their "Opt Out Society." That program would be disastrous for the United States, undermining any notions of national unity and an American social contract, but at least it's a program.
- The Messages. The final ingredient in the GOP formula consists of clear, concise and emotive messages, easily articulated and digested in today's media environment. Terms like "culture of life", "death tax", "school choice", "healthy forests" dominate political debate. That these unopposable utterances and opposites attacting terms are often deceptive sadly makes them more effective in branding the GOP.
This absence of this larger issue of the Democratic "what" from the DFO Summit is no fault of the organizers: it simply was not part of a day focused on tactics, tools and organizing. But for the wide array of groups represented at Portland State on Saturday, the questions of what we stand for, what positive program for reform we offer, and what messages we use to communicate it cannot wait until 2006. Terms like "justice and fairness" are no substitute for offering Americans a positive vision of economic, health, retirement and homeland security. Without that vision, we will be less than the sum of our parts.