Tuesday, July 13, 2010

One Nation into the breach

With three and a half months before the November election, it’s all about to get interesting. The nation’s political and cultural left has for months been a favored punching bag of conservatives in the media and on Capitol Hill. But two real broadsides were just fired from the left. In what may be the first real gearing up of the progressive America for the fall campaign, the vanguard of multiethnic progressivism has shown it recognizes the value of thinking collectively, and speaking truth to power.

Now, if they can just get people to the polls.

The Washington Post reported Monday that 170 liberal and progressive groups have joined forces under the One Nation name, in a grassroots initiative meant to be a counter and response to the tea party movement. Groups include the NAACP, the AFL-CIO, the National Council of La Raza, the United States Students Association, and the powerful Service Employees International Union.

A day later, the NAACP sharpened its message at its widely-watched annual conference, adopting a resolution that answered the apologists for the racist behavior that’s come to characterize the passions of the tea party’s truest believers.

“The tea party movement is a threat to the pursuit of human rights, justice and equality for all,” the resolution read in part, in language that calls the tea party crowd to account for much bad behavior over the preceding 16 months. The exclamation mark to the resolution can be expected in the fall, possibly October; that’s when the NAACP plans to underwrite an anti-tea party march ... on Washington.

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First blush, it might seem that the One Nation effort is reflexive, defensive, defined not by what it is but in reaction to what something else is. But this is the new realpolitik in the era of the tea party and the No machine that is the Republican Party. When your opponent brings a switchblade to the fight, you bring a machete. He puts your man in County General, you put his man in the county morgue.*

That distills the potential leverage of the number of groups allied against the tea party movement; from Latinos to African Americans to progressives of all races and persuasions, everyone’s represented. The One Nation venture has great potential because of its very demographic breadth and range of composition. In many ways, it throws marketable branding on the same kind of coalition — younger, minority, working-class — that swept President Obama to power in 2008.

In that potentially fractious assemblage, there is, you have to assume, a commitment to the Democratic party and its various legislative and social initiatives in the White House and in Congress. That’s one difference between One Nation and the tea party movement. While the tea party has no real hope of advancing its agenda as a freestanding entity — in the context of a fully realized third party — its more extreme followers (formerly Republicans and soon-to-be Republicans again) have helped publicly define the movement with a nasty streak of race-tinged intolerance that will be the tea party brand going into the fall.

That’s hardly attractive to independent voters, even independent voters disaffected by the Obama White House and the Democratic Congress. It’s utterly unattractive to millions more Americans.

The thrust of the One Nation movement is an embrace of how two-party politics is entrenched in the American life; there’s an understanding of the value of working within a party rather than outside it, and the value of including as many people as possible. Defining yourself by who’s in your party, not who’s left out.

For its part, the NAACP, lately rejuvenated under the leadership of Ben Jealous, knows its own role in the national life. In its anti-tea party resolution, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization unmistakably lays out what’s at stake, and does it with a sense of the historical moment. There’s as much possibility for the Democratic agenda in this announced coalition as there was in the more organic coalition that made the Obama White House possible.

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What’s key, of course, is turnout. Republican thought leaders have been loudly proclaiming the death of the Democratic majority in Congress for months now, implicitly expecting a reward for their own role in obstructing the programs of the Obama administration. Just as implicit in their doomsaying for Democrats is the expectation shared by them and others that, following history, most of the Democrats and independents who powered the 2008 vote won’t show up at the polls this year.

Some see the basis for a shotgun wedding. “There is no choice but for these groups to get together,” said Paul Starr, a professor of public affairs at Princeton University and co-editor of the American Prospect, speaking to The Post. “The historical pattern is that voter turnout falls disproportionately among minorities and young people at these midterm elections, so they are fighting a historical trend.”

That’s what makes the One Nation/NAACP throwdowns so potentially important. First, there’s no question that a broad coalition of 170 progressive groups with a multitude of agendas represent more of the United States’ population than the tea party crew. That gives One Nation a much broader reach into the American electorate from the start.

True enough, it’s possible that that same multitude could turn into a tower of Babel of clashing self-interests and fierce cliques. “[T]he liberal groups have long had a kind of sibling rivalry, jostling over competing agendas and seeking to influence some of the same lawmakers,” The Post reported. “In forming the coalition, the groups struggled to settle on a name.”

But the thinking that’s made such a broad-shouldered coalition possible in the first place suggests the One Nation movement could be, by its very demographic reach, exactly the galvanizing action the Democrats need to restore confidence, and maybe even swagger, to a disillusioned base.

That core of voters is pining for the good old days (the good old days of a year and a half ago). The formation of One Nation suggests they’re also training for a fight in the fall.

* Thank you David Mamet.

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