Progressive majority is leaving conservatism isolated

WASHINGTON — What two things do people who are part of the Obama administration, trade unionists, civil rights activists, environmentalists, womens’ rights leaders, youth leaders, community organizers, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, senators and representatives, and health care and peace activists have in common?

First, taken together, they represent a solid center-left majority in the United States.

Second, several thousand of them gathered under one roof here this week at the America’s Future Now conference, under the auspices of the Campaign for America’s Future, to serve notice that, together, they are a coalition that is here to stay.

One of the striking things about the gathering was the effort by representatives of each of the many interest groups there to show how the fate of its particular issue was tied to the success or failure of everyone else’s issues.

Wade Henderson, chair of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, devoted his entire speech to a call for passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill the major media has often characterized as almost the exclusive “pet” project of the nation’s unions.

“There is no civil or human rights issue more critical to minorities and to all workers,” Henderson declared, “than the right to organize so they can have a better life.” He condemned “those who would try to blame the demise of the auto industry on greedy UAW members.” The United Auto Workers, he said, “fought for the rights of all workers, Black and white, for a decent life. It was that same UAW that paid for the busses that brought people to the Washington Mall to hear the historic speech Martin Luther King gave there more than 40 years ago.”

When John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award at a dinner attended by more than 1,000 during the conference, he brought the house to its feet twice. First, when he stressed the “historic election in our country of its first African American president” and again when he pledged that “America’s unions will not rest until every man, woman and child in America has affordable health care.”

Another striking feature of the gathering was how happy participants were about the changed political landscape and the shifts in public opinion that made the change possible.

Ellen Lewis, a health care activist from Nebraska, said, “I always felt, during the Bush years, that we have to move very slowly and take great pains to minimize direct clashes with the conservatives because we were probably going to lose those fights. Now, after the way the banks have screwed up, people believe we need a strong government to protect the people. Essentially, they’ve taken the old Reagan idea about the best government being the least government and they’ve tossed that one out.”

She said she was “thrilled” that “now, after the election of Obama, we have 70 percent of the public saying that it’s the government’s responsibility to provide health care to everyone.”

Asked why she thought there has been such a big shift in attitude, Lewis said, “In part, as things get worse with the economy people want to fight harder, but in part I think the progressive movements should take a lot of credit. The struggles have gone on for years and years and they were bound to eventually pay off.”

Also notable at the conference was the breadth of what many participants were describing as their “center-left” coalition. Joining the activists at the gathering were numerous elected officials, some of whom started out as activists with the Campaign for America’s Future itself, when, during the Bush years, the annual conference was called the Take Back America conference.

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) is a member of both the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus. When she walked into the awards dinner the crowd rose with a prolonged ovation. “I just left a session of the House,” she said, “and some of my colleagues asked if I was going to ‘that progressive gathering’ and they wanted to know ‘How many people are there?’ I said, ‘Lots of people are there — all of my friends.’” The crowd rose to its feet again.

Edwards then introduced Cecilia Munoz, the White House Director of Intergovernmental Affairs. Munoz was also well known to the gathering, having attended past conferences as a leading activist in the movement for justice for Latinos suffering discrimination in employment and housing.

Munoz presented a leadership award to Deepak Bhargava, chair of the Center for Community Change, a grassroots community organizing group. Munoz noted that before she became part of the Obama administration she had fought alongside him for progressive change in the only way she knew how to bring it about — “from the ground up.”

Before the opening of the conference, commentator Joshua Holland wrote on the AlterNet web site that despite the evidence, right-wing activists continue to assert that America is a “center-right” rather than a “center-left” country. That idea is “like a zombie,” he wrote. “You can bludgeon it, burn it or get Dick Cheney to shoot it in the face, but it keeps coming, it will not die.”

During the conference, Robert Borosage, Campaign for America’s Future co-director, said that until 20 years ago, a coalition of conservatives and political moderates probably did represent a majority but, he emphasized, “the views of moderates and independents have grown much more closely aligned with those of more progressive voters, and the result is a center-left mandate for the new administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress.

Page Gardner, founder of Women’s Voices/Women Vote, said that young people, single women, African Americans and other minorities are a growing share of the electorate and that white workers voted for Obama in larger numbers than they had for any Democrat in a long time. “These are all incredibly progressive trends and suggest that America will continue to be a center-left country in coming decades.”

She said that even on social issues, the right wing is losing traction. “Most Americans remain pro-choice, and while a slim majority opposes full marriage equality for gays and lesbians, the general acceptance of gays and lesbians is growing ever greater,” she noted.

Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America, said, “The enormous shift in America’s political landscape is demonstrated by the results of the last election. The Republicans tried to frame the whole fight as one of ideology.They kept saying Barack Obama was too far to the left, that he was a socialist even. It didn’t work because the people were not where the Republicans thought they were.”

jwojcik @ pww.org

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