The Return of Economic Justice to the Progressive Agenda
I agree with Marcy Wheeler that Netroots Nation 2011 consisted in many ways of a “desperate conversation to save the middle class.” I don’t think anybody figured this out. But some members of the coalition kicked off some important test campaigns.
I went to the old Wesley Church in Minneapolis on Saturday, to the premiere of the “Speakout for Good Jobs Now” event put on by ProgressiveCongress.org and the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Essentially this was a field hearing, where members of Congress – in this case, Progressive Caucus co-chairs Raul Grijalva and Keith Ellison, along with Rep. Jared Polis and former members Mary Jo Kilroy and Alan Grayson – could listen to the stories of working people and the poor, and find out directly from them how they have had to navigate the real economy. It was a very productive event. The members of Congress heard from an hourly Wal-Mart worker who got two raises and still only makes $9.80 an hour. They heard from a woman who was told right before a second check on a mammogram that her insurance company wouldn’t pay for the service. “What the hell are they doing with my premiums,” she said, noting that they were just raised 40%. They heard from a woman who will “be homeless by July 1st if nothing changes.” They heard from people who would just be happy to have a job and a little help to get back on their feet.
As former Rep. Kilroy said, “the fight for good jobs is a fight to define our society.” It’s the only way to reverse the terrible, almost feudal stratification of society. The Speakout for Good Jobs event, which will be replicated in almost a dozen cities across the country, is a way to define the problem, and also provide a pledge for a solution. The Progressive Caucus came up with a three-part pledge that people can endorse.
1) In America, every worker deserves a good job.
2) America should work again for people who work for a living.
3) We will use our strength in numbers to counter corporate dollars.
The pledge will be turned into legislation later. Rep. Ellison explained that they need to “getting people to buy into some principles first.” These pledge items will then be passed on to politicians at all levels. “If Grover Norquist can do pledges than we can get people to sign pledges too,” Ellison told me. “We can create a new normal. A movement like the civil rights movement.”
This is basically the perspective of a new group led by MoveOn.org, something that Netroots Nation keynote speaker Van Jones described as the “American Dream movement.” Again, jobs and the middle class were at the forefront of the agenda. It’s about allowing those who work hard and play by the rules to have a living wage, to provide for their children, to get to college, to secure a retirement. There’s a kickoff event for this movement coming later this week in New York, and then house parties to connect people, and future actions.
You’ll notice that there’s not much difference between this and MoveOn’s work circa, say, 2005. The language of coming together and using the new tools at our disposal to progress our values is the same. The activities are largely the same. The difference is that economic justice sits at the center of the agenda, rather than other issue silos. Economic justice can indeed be a solution that fits for all the other problems felt by those individual issue silos. This is in many ways a reaction to the tea party assault on workers and the ravages of a never-ending recession.
It’s also a moment to create a movement based on principle. In a very telling moment in Jones’ PowerPoint presentation, he described how the issue groups filtered up to the Obama meta-brand in 2008, and in one move, he wiped out Obama from the picture in favor of the American Dream Movement. In other words, an icon or a symbol of progress won’t cut it anymore. The movement is sustained not based on an individual but on an idea. It’s a movement that says “I support Democrats when they support me.” It’s the only way for a movement to endure, rather than become subservient to a personality. And we’ve seen proof of this just this year in places like Wisconsin and Ohio.
Again, I don’t think there were any answers at the conference, and certainly there was a good deal of frustration. But I also saw a lot of organizing, built around how to specifically rebuild a middle class and an economy that works. It may or may not be successful, but it’s the only conversation worth having. Otherwise, these jobs, and this middle class, isn’t coming back.