October 2004

 

Hey, there’s good news at the grassroots

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Hey, come on, progressives— buck up! There’s been too much doom and gloom—especially among inside-the-beltway progressives—about John Kerry’s chances on Nov. 2. Maybe they inherited an extra dour gene, or maybe they’re spending too much time listening to pollsters and pundits. Of course there’s the occasional discouraging campaign news, but don’t wallow in it, for there’s also greatly encouraging news:

• Yes, I know that some polls have shown Bush running even with Kerry or ahead—but the pollsters are vastly undercounting anti-Bush votes.

• Yes, I know that Kerry’s charisma quotient ranks somewhere between that of Al Gore and Michael Dukakis—but John’s been perking up lately, showing a bit of populist passion, striking some solid blows, and winning all three debates.

"The issue isn't just jobs. Even slaves had jobs. The issue is wages." --Jim Hightower


• Yes, I know that the Bushites are creepy-scary thugs who’ve shown that they’ll lie, cheat, and steal to win, but they’ve been doing such things so often that their color-coded bag of tricks has lost credibility with the general public—the curtain has been pulled back, and the wizard has been revealed to be just a spoiled, insecure, petulant little son of a Bush.

Prediction: I believe George W. is a one-term president, just like his daddy was. I don’t say this glibly, nor is it wishful thinking. My prediction is based on what I’ve seen at the grassroots level all across the country. As many of you Lowdowners know, I’ve been traveling practically nonstop since mid-July, going to 50-some cities and towns as part of my “Show Bush the Door in ’04” tour. Using my new book (Let’s Stop Beating Around the Bush) as a focal point, I’ve been crisscrossing America, speaking with folks in salons and saloons, labor halls and cow barns, bookstores and art museums, churches and theaters, on country fairgrounds, in civic centers, on campuses, in parks, and even inside neon-lit dance halls.

I find that people are onto the Bushites—and why wouldn’t they be? Bush Inc. has spent nearly four years downsizing the middle-class, offshoring our best jobs, ignoring the growing cries for health care, gutting worker rights, unleashing corporate polluters and plunderers, defunding public education programs, bashing gays and lesbians, sending hundreds of thousands of our loved ones into a deadly war of lies, empowering federal agents to stomp on our liberties, making wholesale arrests of peaceful dissenters…(gosh, so much to list, so little space).

Bush’s policies are all big fat ugly hogs. The White House has tried to pretty them up with a coat of bright glossy lipstick—but who wants to kiss a hog? Even many of the people who voted for the “compassionate conservative” in 2000 have since found themselves up close and personal with the raw ugliness of the Bushite agenda, and they want no part of “Four More Years”— a partisan chant that most Americans now view as a direct threat.

It’s no idle threat, either, for various Bushites have talked ominously of “the next” agenda, including a push to privatize Social Security, a war with Iran (while continuing to maintain our current troop levels in occupied Iraq, thus raising the stark possibility of a draft), a national sales tax that’ll shift practically all federal taxation from the wealthy to the middle- class and poor people, an all-out drive for more NAFTAs, deep cuts in funding for education and other essential public needs, Patriot Act II, and much more federal debt piled on the backs of our children. There’s a growing awareness among regular folks that Bush and his crowd are not your normal Republican conservatives —they’re ultra-extremist, big-government corporatists, attempting to superimpose their Ayn Randian, Jerry Falwellian, Orwellian, Strangelovean ideology over our country’s historic democratic values of fairness, justice, and equal opportunity for all.

This is a BIG TIME for America. It’s not just another election—and I find in my travels that people not only are aware of this, but they’re preparing to spring an election surprise on George W.

The Polls

OK, I’m out on a limb here, but I daresay that this won’t be that close of an election: Kerry will win going away. This has little to do with our boy John—and everything to do with an electorate that is fired up and on the move.

Lest you think I’m juiced up on jimson weed, let me make three points about the conventional wisdom of the pollsters, who (as of mid-October) assert that it’s a nipand- tuck race. First, pollsters are like cats watching the wrong mousehole, for they’re only telephoning “likely voters”—those who’ve been voting consistently in past presidential elections. This leaves out half of America’s eligible voters. This time—surprise, George!—a substantial number of the other half, the “unlikely voters,” are going to show up at the polls, eager to punch out the Bushites who have been running roughshod over them.

A big indicator of this is the massive surge in voter registration. Election boards are swamped with new registrants, particularly in the so-called battleground states, where they’re having to add staff and work around the clock to absorb the influx. For example, Philadelphia has had the highest number of new registrations in 21 years, Cleveland has more than doubled the number of new voters it had in 2000, St. Louis says it’ll have the largest number of registered voters in its history…etc., etc. Even in supposedly Bush-safe “red states,” the surge is phenomenal— in my Democratic town of Austin, new voters are up 64 percent over 2000.

What’s going on? People are realizing that it matters. Bush’s loss of the popular vote and his enthronement by the Supreme Court last time around—combined with the extremist agenda he’s pushed since then—has motivated folks to believe that they can make a difference this time…and must. “I’ve been too lazy,” says Kurt Saukatis, a 43-year-old Pennsylvanian who did not go to the polls in 2000. He has two 16-year-old sons. “The thought of a draft is scary,” he says. Plus, he’s worried about his job and the middle-class possibilities for his family: “All that money spent on Iraq, then old people can’t buy medicine. Figure that out!”

Second, there’s not only a tsunami of new voters, but also an intensity of opposition to BushCheney AshcroftRumsfeld & Gang that the pollsters can’t measure. This intensity translates into real political action—people willing to volunteer, give money, argue with their dittohead brothers-in-law, talk to their family and friends, and otherwise reach out personally to others. Third—and this is a giant one— the pollsters are almost completely missing the coming youth vote. Since 1972, there’s been a precipitous decline in turnout by the under-26 voter. Only about a third of these young folks have been voting, with the result that presidential campaigns have ignored them on the grounds that kids “don’t do politics” anymore. Yoo-hoo…the kids are back, registering in record numbers! A March poll of college students found that 62 percent definitely plan to vote in November. “I am determined that my vote will be counted this year,” says 25-year-old Rachelle Reposa of Oakland, who didn’t vote in 2000. “I do not want to go into war with other countries and waste billions of dollars when we need it over here.”

There are 24 million of these 18- to-25-year-olds—yet few ever get a call from a pollster. This is because most of them don’t use regular phones, relying instead on their cell phones. It’s estimated that 21 million of them own cell phones.

Pollsters can’t reach them, so their voting preferences are simply not being counted. “The people who are using telephone surveys are in denial,” says noted pollster John Zogby. “They try not to mention cell phones. They go ahead with a method that is old and wrong.”

"Two wrongs don't make a right, but three left turns do." --Jim Hightower


DIY politics

Harrell’s hardware store, near my home in Austin, is a terrific place that’ll not only sell you the one hinge you need rather than making you buy a whole box, but also offers free howto advice and will even lend you a tool to do a particular job. Harrell’s slogan is “Together, we can do-it-yourself.” This could well be the motto of the scores of scrappy and savvy political organizations that have popped up like beautiful weeds in this electoral season.

Their impact will reach way beyond this election, for nearly all of them are committed to creating an independent, progressive, web-connected, democratic base that will change American politics over the long haul, transforming it from the ground up. Toward that end, these groups are determinedly independent, purposely organized outside the Kerry campaign and the Democratic Party—indeed, most understand clearly that once the inaugural cheering is over next January, they will have to be in the face of a Kerry-Edwards administration.

League of Pissed Off Voters. What a great group this is! Organized in 70 cities in 26 states, these are young folks committed to educating, organizing, and mobilizing 18-to-35- year-olds into a unified, progressive political bloc. Conceived, founded, and implemented by and for young people, LoPOV comes with an antiestablishment attitude and a strong sense of sass and fun—but also a very serious purpose.

They’ve registered thousands of young voters, but they’re going much deeper by training organizers, rallying young people to dig into the issues and candidates, teaching people how to hold the candidates they elect accountable, putting up their own members as candidates for local offices, and generally teaching the young how to take charge of their own democracy. National league leader Adrienne Maree Brown, 25, says: “Folks get cast as apathetic when they just don’t know the process for getting power in this country. We are the demystification league.”

The league is big on the concept of do-it-yourself democracy, offering all sorts of how-to guidance for local chapters on such matters as holding your own strategy sessions, writing your own voters’ guides (“You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to know who sucks,” they point out), throwing your own Politics ‘n’ Pizza fest (or ‘n’ Pina Coladas…’n’ Pierogies…’n’ Punk…’n’ whatever), hosting your own Slam Bush poetry slams, and organizing your own Party Squad. Declaring that their goal is nothing less than “to build a progressive governing majority in our lifetime,” LoPOV has already set Nov. 13-14 for local “Debrief and Next Steps” meetings nationwide, and it’s planning to organize itself as a bottomup national council controlled by representatives from each local chapter.

ACORN. This excellent organization of low-income folks, now organized in 35 states, has long been known for its grassroots ingenuity in mobilizing previously powerless people into potent players in local politics— and this year it has become the national champion of new voter registration. In a phenomenal organizing feat, ACORN has enlisted more than a million low-income working people onto America’s voter rolls.

Going door to door—as well as to working-class shopping centers, street festivals, hip-hop concerts, naturalization ceremonies, and other high-traffic areas—ACORN members have taken their clipboards into communities that have traditionally been left out of the process and ignored by both major parties. Its effort is particularly significant in the battleground states—for example, more than 187,000 new registrants in Florida, 158,000 in Ohio, and 120,000 in Pennsylvania.

Leave No Voter Behind. This is a dramatic electoral project by the MoveOn PAC, which has trained a skilled democratic army of 500 organizers to go into the key battleground states, working with 10,000 MoveOn precinct leaders to recruit tens of thousands of local volunteers. All of this to reach out—neighbor-to-neighbor, the most effective voter contact there is—to people in their communities who otherwise are not likely to vote.

Their goal is not merely registration and get-out-the-vote efforts, but specifically to produce 440,000 new voters for Kerry—votes he otherwise wouldn’t get!

MoveOn is also pioneering a revolution in phone banking: Instead of gathering callers into a room with banks of phones, anyone can play at any time. From your home phone or your cell phone, if you’ve got a free moment, you can call an 800 number, enter an ID, hear the message of the day, and be connected to a potential undecided voter in a given state within seconds. “There is a feeling you have to tie people’s shoes for them,” says MoveOn’s 24-year-old director, Eli Pariser. “But, in fact, politics does not require any special skill aside from those required in any social engagement.”

Music Row Democrats. George W. and the GOP have generally tried to make themselves look populist by surrounding themselves with country musicians, claiming that Nashville is red-white-and-blue Republican Land. But hold your sorry horse right there, says a rowdy group of Nashville stars, songwriters, managers, and others—the majority of musiczens industry people are Democrats. They founded MRD to promote Democratic values and candidates, and to defend the First Amendment rights of music-row progressives to criticize the president whenever they feel the need. They have more than 1,500 members and are holding a series of “Kerry-glee” fundraisers, focusing especially on musical events in rural areas.

Unions. There’s been a sea change in the union approach to presidential campaigns. Rather than simply sending money to the parties and accepting marching orders from the candidates, unions like AFSCME, SEIU, UNITE, HERE, the steelworkers and the AFL-CIO have been training their members and dispersing them into battleground states. They go with many specific goals and are held accountable for them. SEIU alone has 50,000 members volunteering a million hours to knock on 10 million doors and make 7 million phone calls. It has tapped more than 2,000 of its members from California and other “safe states” to work full-time in the swing states. More than a quarter of all voters in 2000 came from union households.

Grassroots galore

There are so many more efforts, nearly all of them unnoticed by the media powers. There’s the League of Rural Voters (especially active in Iowa and Minnesota, going farm-tofarm), Voter Virgin (targeting firsttime young voters with the slogan “Everybody’s Doing It in ’04” and advising them to practice safe voting), Wellstone Action (conducting a terrific series of trainings for grassroots organizers and candidates), Punkvoter, MustVote, Next Wave of Women in Power, and on and on. The grassroots are aflame with organizing, and the organizing is not merely about Kerry and ’04.

Various groups are recruiting, training, and backing strong progressives running for local, state, and national offices. Howard Dean’s new Democracy for America organization has more than 200 former Deaniacs running for office this year, and it’s also backing “Dean’s Dozens,” including U.S. House and Senate candidates who’ve been endorsed by DFA and are receiving financial and organizational support from Dean’s network. Many are expected to win this time, while many of the others are part of a long-term effort to develop grassroots political talent (both candidates and campaign organizers) and to build a progressive base. Two other groups are focused on creating a “farm team” of “movement progressives.” Progressive Majority is currently working with about 100 candidates that it has recruited and trained to run for state and local offices in ’04 and ’06. One of its primary goals is to build progressive majorities in 15 state legislatures by 2011, when those states will redraw the lines for congressional districts. “We’re investing in people as opposed to specific races for offices,” says one of PM’s state directors. Likewise, 21st Century Democrats is out there building the political infrastructure to elect true progressives. It has trained 2,200 campaign organizers this year. The director of 21st Century Dems says, “We are focused on what really wins elections—direct personal contact with voters, front-porch politicking.” Not only is there good reason to be optimistic about Nov. 2: Over the long haul it’s only going to get better, for people are on the move at America’s grassroots.

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