We are on the offensive: Make the most of it!

December 31, 2006
Ben Manski

Manski responds to Independent Politics News' question, "How can progressives get off of the defensive in 2006?"

What a change from four years ago. We're finally off the defensive. Impeachment talk has moved from beer halls to the halls of Congress. Opposition to the war is widespread. Confidence in the federal government is at historic lows. And the diverse strands of the broad progressive movement have begun to come together toward common, not cross, purposes.

A step back from the grind of our day-to-day work reveals an impressive reality: Progressives don't need to get off the defensive. We are already off the defensive. Maybe it was in the settling of the dust over the ruins of Anybody But Bush, or under the rise of a new pole - the Latin American Left - in global politics, or out of the collapse of public support for the administration as the war dragged on and Katrina struck home, or through all of these things, but somewhere in 2005 the progressive movement went on the offensive. We are on the offensive right now.

It's about time. In the first year of the Bush presidency, progressives were on the move, riding the momentum of the victory in Seattle, the righteous outrage over Florida, and our newfound political independence. Then everything changed.

Let's remember the night of September 11th, 2001, to understand what has changed since then. Hundreds of Republican and Democratic members of Congress crowded onto the steps of the U.S. Capitol, their stony faces echoing the marble building looming behind them. After a series of subdued and obligatory statements from congressional leaders, several Republican congressmen began to sing, not the national anthem, nor America the Beautiful, but . . . "God bless America, land that I love. Stand beside her, and guide her, thru the night with a light from above." Haltingly, and in some cases with visible discomfort, the others followed suit. That moment defined U.S. political discourse for the next four years.

Foreign rightwing fundamentalists attacked the United States. Domestic rightwing fundamentalists took the spotlight. And everywhere, progressives, liberals, and moderates either fell in behind them, or retreated into the shadows. The fight against corporate capitalism was put on hold. The promising work on building a new voting rights movement was largely abandoned. The newfound political independence of the movement was surrendered. And we have seen the consequences.

Back in the Driver's Seat

It's in the light what was surrendered that we can see, and learn from, what has been regained:

In 2004, the national leadership of the peace movement effected a demobilization, taking the movement off the streets in an effort to avoid upsetting the donkey as it pulled the "Anybody But Bush" applecart. In 2005, military friends and families, vets, students, and youth stepped up the civil disobedience, bringing opposition to the war to the Bush ranch and military recruiting offices everywhere.

In 2004, the Kerry campaign took just six hours to pull the rug out from under the "No Stolen Elections!" movement. In 2005, a broad voting rights coalition emerged from the grassroots unity around the Cobb/Badnarik Ohio recount.

In 2004, the Democrats somehow allowed their presidential nominee's military honors to become a liability while the draft-dodging chickenhawk president got off scott-free. In 2005, progressives stopped waiting for permission from the established leadership, finding their own voices in building the case for impeachment, the outrage over Katrina, and the domestic support for the ballot-box revolutions sweeping South America.

In 2005, progressives began to regain our independence, and to set a truly progressive agenda, and we've already been rewarded for it. True, we lost battles last year, and we're losing some right now. But those losses reflect the limits of our ability to mobilize and exert pressure, not our failure to exercise power in the first place. We should begin 2006 by recognizing what is working, and by making sure that we keep on doing what's been working: Not let anybody turn us around or shut us down. We didn't take a back seat in 2005, we took the driver's seat, and we should stay there.

The Road Ahead

Where are we going? Signs point toward a democracy movement. In the face of the immediate issues looming over us, our resistance to the war, wiretapping, and corporate power rings with rhetoric of democracy betrayed. And our responses to these crises are infused with a democratic spirit, as exampled across the country by the use of the citizen initiative process to put the war on municipal and state ballots, by the impeachment hearings organized at the grassroots everywhere, and by the general assemblies of Katrina survivors occurring throughout the Gulf Coast region. In the face of adversity, there is a return to the practice of genuine democracy.

Beyond the current emergencies, there are also signs of a longer-term commitment to democratization. The voting rights movement kindled by Florida 2000, and interrupted by 9/11, was reignited by Ohio 2004; voting rights summits are planned for four states in 2006. Campus organizers are gearing up for a new wave of alternative, democratic, "Tent State Universities," and formations are emerging such as the Democratizing Education Network and the new Students for a Democratic Society. Local democratization campaigns are winning victories across the country as municipalities rewrite their election, development, health and labor laws to put corporations in their place, and to raise the status of working people. And the World Social Forum has arrived in the United States, with the Midwest Social Forum planned for this July and the U.S. Social Forum in the works for the Summer of 2007. (For details on all these democratization efforts, and more, please see http://www.LibertyTreeFDR.org).

Of course, if we look down the road, signs of a democracy movement are not all we see. Obstacles are visible ahead.

In some cases, we don't have to look far at all. Finding itself on the defensive on war and civil liberties, the Bush administration is doing what it does so well: Making a negative into a positive. Last month, a roundup of environmental activists accused of sabotage, and branded terrorists. Last week, a Pentagon report labeling a half-dozen campuses "threats to national security." Yesterday, revelations of a 3-year old aborted terrorist attack in Los Angeles. Today, an anthrax scare in Washington D.C.

The attempt to smear domestic direct action movements, in particular, should cause general concern in progressive communities. After all, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al, are the real criminals, not the college students sitting in at military recruiting stations, or young people locked-down in government offices. Non-violent direct action and civil disobedience are potent tools in the democracy toolbox. Our movements will suffer if we allow those tools to be taken away from us. The country will suffer if "eco-terrorism," not warrantless wiretapping, becomes the issue.

Look further down the road, and other obstacles become visible. For one, there will surely be a repeat attempt to get progressives to "close ranks" behind Democratic Party congressional efforts in 2006 (nevermind the Democratic leadership's efforts to sabotage their own anti-war candidates), and abandon street action until after the elections. For another, look for a repeat of Ohio 2004 in the 40% of U.S. precincts where electronic voting machines have replaced paper ballots. And finally, there are sure to be challenges partially of our own making, familiar obstacles like sectarianism and scapegoating, which rear their head time and again, and the ongoing struggles to build multiracial solidarities, facilitate cross-generational movements, and adopt more feminist approaches to our organizing.

There is one potential obstacle we might face this year that overshadows all the rest. The greatest potential obstacle to progress would arise if progressives were to stop doing what we're now doing. Abandon our struggle for democracy. Abandon progress, resume reaction. Give up the driver's seat and take a back seat. Lip sync the words to "God Bless America."

In 2006, finally, we are off the defensive. We're on the right road and headed the right direction. It's time to start picking up speed.

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Ben Manski is a Fellow with the Liberty Tree Foundation for the Democratic Revolution. He was coordinator of the No Stolen Elections! campaign, and is a former co-chair of the Green Party of the United States.

This article originally appeared in the Independent Politics News.