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The 'Unfashionable' Matt Damon, Mensch of the Year

Damon breaks out of Hollywood and into serious activism, earning the respect of hard-working activists and progressive leaders alike.

It's rare when a Hollywood superstar earns the respect of hard-working activists and progressives leaders alike. Usually stars dabble in activism for the publicity, and associate themselves with safe issues, so as not to rock the boat.

But not Matt Damon. Like many other progressives, Damon has grown weary of Democrats looking for phony centrism instead of standing up to a shockingly far-right Republican party. Against this backdrop, Damon’s principled and public stands do indeed make us sit up and pay attention.

Progressive star Michael Moore went so far as to suggest that Damon run for president in an online townhall with the blog, FireDogLake.  Moore wants Damon because Moore is unhappy that President Obama has continually tracked to the right with conservative narratives about taxes, spending and the role of government, saying that debt is the “greatest threat” facing the United States today. That's right, not military spending, the banks, corporate excess and corruption, poverty, and a few other pressing problems. Yes, Obama has a tough job dealing with the rigid, ransom-seeking right-wing. But seriously, Mr. President. Get on message. We need to be spending money, not cutting jobs.

So, it's an entertaining thought, Matt Damon for president. We've had Reagan, Schwarzenegger, et al. Why not a progressive star this time? This presidential trial balloon idea even caught attention across the Atlantic where an article in the (UK) Guardian had an interesting take on Damon and celebrity politics.

TheGuardian mentioned Damon as a defender of teachers and public education. As a misguided establishment consensus has emerged around standardized testing, privatization and charter schools, Damon has made a full-throated and deeply personal defense of public education, teachers and even the much-maligned teachers’ unions. He gave a real barnburner speech at a recent pro-public education “Save Our Schools” rally.

Then the  Guardian, perhaps showing its lack of savvy about progressives in the U.S., mentioned Damon's support of the Working Families Party (WFP), an independent grassroots party active in five or six states. WFP's goal is to hold both Democrats and Republicans accountable to the needs of working and middle-class families. I’ve been a fan of WFP for years, and couldn’t help but laugh out loud when the  Guardian writer, Paul Harris, cited Damon’s support for the “obscure” and “distinctly unfashionable” WFP.

On the first point, he was plainly wrong. WFP is well known in New York and Connecticut politics, and its work has captured the attention and the imagination of organizers and activists in other states who admire its strength and independence.

But on the second point, Harris gets it right. In American public discourse (or at least, what passes for public discourse on cable news and talk radio) it is “deeply unfashionable” to oppose the yawning income gap or wealth inequality; to question the wisdom of the markets; to defend a role for the public sector; or to try to reverse a race-to-the-bottom economy.

The Working Families Party is certainly guilty of all of those sins against fashion. Happily enough, so is Matt Damon. Last year, he stumped for WFP in New York in a web video, urging voters to make a proud progressive stand on Election Day 2010 by voting for Democrats on the Working Families Party line (that's called "fusion" voting). In the video he points to the need for jobs, environmental protection and affordable mass transit as reasons to support the Working Families Party. (Didn’t Jason Bourne spend some time at the train station outwitting the bad guys? Clearly a message on the importance of public goods!)

SInce the  Guardian mentioned it, and Damon has worked hard on its behalf, a few more words about WFP are deserved. Yes, the Working Families Party is not exactly a glamorous operation. WFP spends a lot of time knocking on doors in working-class and middle-class neighborhoods, talking at union halls and community forums, listening to and speaking with voters. Mostly, they hear things the character Damon created in Good Will Hunting surely would have understood, even if Fox News pundits do not. Families are worried about disappearing jobs and declining wages, about the cost of health care and higher education, about foreclosure and credit card debt.