Getting Our ACT Together
With a substantial chunk of money but a minimum of fanfare, environmentalists, labor leaders, feminist organizations, and other progressive groups convened last week to launch Americans Coming Together, a new PAC dedicated to defeating President Bush in 2004. The name of the alliance is terrible going on tawdry, but the acronym is apt: If we want ACT's dream to become reality, then precisely what we must do is act -- or, more bluntly, get our acts together.
It goes without saying that any environmentalist worth the name should support the ouster of Bush, whose record with respect to Planet Earth hovers somewhere between that of James Watt and the Martians in "War of the Worlds." ACT plans to spend $75 million (a bundle, but bear in mind that Bush alone will likely raise more than twice that) to bankroll media blitzes, register voters, and sponsor get-out-the-vote drives in key states.
It has already secured backing (and, in some cases, bucks) from, among others, gazillionaire George Soros, Carl Pope of the Sierra Club, Andrew Stern of the Service Employees International Union, and Ellen Malcolm of EMILY's List, the grassroots organization dedicated to mobilizing female voters and getting pro-choice women elected to office. All told, it's not a bad start; as the New York Times reported on Friday, political commentators are calling the formation of ACT one sign of the earliest, most intense, and most coordinated political organizing effort in decades.
If environmentalists want to avert another four years of deregulation and rollbacks, this anti-Bush push is a bandwagon we should all be on. That means green organizations have to start making the connections between local environmental issues and national environmental policy, and actively encouraging their members to vote accordingly. It also means environmentalists are going to have to start working with the many other movements interested in unseating Bush -- even if it means diverting some energy from business as usual, whether that's salmon recovery or urban sprawl. (One obvious patch of common ground: opposition to the corporate takeover of government, an issue that enviros, labor organizers, the poor and working class, and, for that matter, anyone who makes under $100,000 a year should be able to get behind.)
Meanwhile, Republican environmentalists (we know you're out there) are going to have to do some serious soul-searching about where to put their political energies for the next 15 months. For all its fustiness about family values, the Republican Party isn't picky about its bedfellows; it's comfortable making such decisions based on political expedience, rather than needing to see eye-to-eye on every issue. If there were ever a time for green-leaning and moderate GOPers to hold their noses and climb in bed with progressives, surely this is it.
And Republicans aren't the only ones with soul-searching to do. One hopes that after reading about themselves in the New York Times, the folks at ACT turned the page to an article about young African-Americans' disenchantment with the Democratic Party. That article contained two important lessons for anyone who wants Bush out of office in '04.
Lesson No. 1 is that complacency bites you in the butt. The Dems have long counted on getting the black vote without really working for it; meanwhile, the environmental movement, for the most part, has neither counted on nor courted people of color. Now both are suffering under a president who would never have taken office if the Democrats -- or anyone -- had managed to mobilize poor and minority voters (notably in Florida) in numbers even remotely resembling the turnout of the white and wealthy. The moral of the story: If you think outreach, education, and multi-issue advocacy aren't your bailiwick, think again.
Enviros could learn Lesson No. 2 from the Six Degrees Project, a program organized by young African-American Democrats in the majority black city of Trenton, N.J., to get out the vote in the 2002 campaign season. The project, a sort of political Friendster, targeted a group of 140 young black voters and asked them to get 20 friends each to the polls. Among the resulting 2,800 project participants, voter turnout was 78 percent -- compared to 14 percent in the rest of Trenton (and 51 percent nationally in the 2000 presidential election). Environmental organizations, take note: Collectively, you boast 8.5 million members. Multiply that times 20, and do the political math while you're at it.
The bottom line is this: We are facing, as SEIU's Stern put it, "An extraordinarily unique moment in history." Right now, that moment is characterized by genuine fear that Bush could remain in power for four more years, with devastating consequences for the environment, not to mention the economy, civil liberties, and virtually everything else we value about this country. But the moment is also characterized by possibility: Our collective fear and anger could create the necessary heat to forge the alliances that have so frustratingly eluded progressives in the past. Americans Coming Together might be a bad name, but it's a good goal -- and if we can walk the walk, it's a good plan. Otherwise it's just an act.
Kathryn Schulz is the managing editor of Grist Magazine.